Expanding Your Borders, or: How to Grow Your Organization's Membership

Last Updated: June 28, 2010

This article appeared in the June 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

Any grassroots group that wants to make a difference needs people. Obvious enough. But how do you get people involved, especially if your group is rural? After all, “rural” means a sparseness of people.

Earlier this year the Rural Community Alliance (the Alliance) tackled this challenge and in the course of just two months doubled their membership to over 1,000 members across the state of Arkansas. The Alliance, which works to help rural schools and communities survive and thrive, shared their strategies with RPM and we share them here with you.

Whether you and a few others are contemplating starting a group or you have an established organization, whether your group is concentrated in your local community or working across your state, there will be something to learn.

Growing Your Membership: In a Nutshell

The RPM summary of how to create a successful membership drive, based on a June 2010 presentation by the Rural Community Alliance.

  • Articulate a worthy cause that people care about. The Rural Community Alliance is committed to keeping schools and school governance in rural communities and to improving educational and life opportunities for all citizens.
  • Give new members something worthwhile to do and ways to shape and take ownership of the overall work. The local chapter structure of the Rural Community Alliance helps members begin work immediately in their own communities and it connects members to the statewide organization. Trainings, publications, and statewide meetings help members be successful. All members can help shape and implement the organization’s statewide agenda.
  • When conducting a drive, give everyone involved clear responsibilities. The Alliance made contact assignments and set individual membership goals.
  • Identify the strategies that will improve the likelihood of success. The Alliance decided to grow their membership from within by reaching out to people whom members already knew.
  • Make it fun. The Alliance created friendly competition to see who could enlist the most new members.
  • Provide support and accountability. Email bulletins and weekly check-in helped the Alliance support everyone involved in the drive.
  • Celebrate your success: you’ve got a great organization that people want to be part of. The Alliance provided a prize and recognition to the chapter leader who enlisted the most new members and shared their successes through their website and newsletters.

Why Grow a Group?

Most grassroots organizations start with the goal of influencing something — and that takes people working together to accomplish their goal and to convince other people of its worthiness.

The Rural Community Alliance began in 2003 as a grassroots movement to stop legislative proposals to eliminate most of the state’s rural school districts. These efforts achieved a large measure of success and in 2004 the informal group incorporated as the non-profit Advocates for Rural and Community Education with the goal of strengthening education across the state. Last year it changed its name to Rural Community Alliance to reflect its broad agenda of promoting strong and responsible schools, communities, and citizens.

The group’s recent membership drive was one effort to make this work even stronger. Lavina Grandon, Policy and Education Director for the Alliance, says candidly of the drive, “We did it to increase our influence over policy, to increase our competitiveness for grants, and to increase our geographical reach.”

Membership: Connect and Commit

The Alliance is a statewide group organized in local chapters. Members join as individuals with a lifetime membership fee of $10 for adults ($5 in communities where more than 70% of students are eligible for free/reduced-price lunch), and $2 for students. Individuals can also join the Alliance as a “Friend” if they are not associated with a local chapter.

The fee helps provide members a sense of ownership without being prohibitively expensive. Members also participate annually in setting the Alliance’s statewide agenda and in planning and implementing local work.

The chapter structure supports the Alliance’s focus on working with schools and communities to improve educational opportunities and outcomes and to make communities stronger, healthier places where all residents can thrive.

Chapters enable members to connect through something they already know and care about. And, the Alliance’s trainings, publications, and regional and statewide meetings provide tools and support for community-based work at the same time they connect people across the state with each other to share ideas and address common challenges.

Most new chapters get started with five to ten interested members who choose a chapter leader. Sometimes a new chapter will form when someone hears about the Alliance and wants to learn more. The Alliance also reaches out to schools and community groups through its members and networks. And, it makes special efforts to connect with schools and communities that are facing challenges such as declining enrollment or fiscal or academic problems.

“If there are schools that we know are having problems or heading in to difficulties that members have faced, we reach out to them,” explains Dorothy Singleton, Lead Organizer for the Alliance.

Set a Goal, Create a Time Frame, Get a Plan

Grandon says that when the Alliance started its membership drive in November, it had about 550 members in 35 chapters across the state. “We decided on a time frame of two months for the drive and set a membership goal of a thousand.”

Then the group made a strategic plan to target outreach to the people and groups most likely to become new members: family, friends, and acquaintances of current members. Each staff member was assigned chapters to work with and given new member goals. Board members and chapter leaders also helped.

While increasing membership is an ongoing part of the Alliance’s work, the two-month time frame helped to focus the campaign within a manageable period. The outreach strategy helped insure the person-to-person contact that is essential to drawing people in.

Support, Check-In, Have Fun, and Go “Where the Water is Warm”

The Alliance supported the membership drive with clear manageable assignments for each person. Weekly check-ins among staff and between staff and chapter leaders helped everyone stay on the same page, get help when needed, and share and revise strategies.

A friendly competition between chapter leaders encouraged each chapter to see which one could gain the most new members. And, a $50 cash prize plus a free hotel stay for the winning chapter leader sweetened the deal.

Finally, the decision to target the drive primarily to people whom current members already knew, what the Alliance calls “going where the water is warm,” expanded the organization in an organic way and helped ensure the success that breeds motivation.

“Easier Than We Anticipated”

By the end of the two-month drive, the Alliance had exceeded its 1,000-member goal and had added twelve new chapters. “The drive was a lot easier than we anticipated and very doable,” says Grandon. “A lot of people were glad to sign up family and friends.”

“And the drive gave people who had heard of the Alliance and opportunity to join,” adds Singleton.

“The drive was very worthwhile,” concludes Grandon. “We’ve decided to make it a yearly activity.”

You can read more about the Rural Community Alliance and its membership drive at www.thenewrural.org.

Read more from the June 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

Related Categories: Rural Policy Matters

Related Tags: Community Organizing