by Jim Britell

Print Version

In 2002 a new method of organizing was used by 20 organizations in a rural area of SW Oregon to successfully confront an ATV threat in an area where no national, regional or local group had enough members to do much by itself. The nature of the campaign required numbers of people to turn out on short notice to meetings in sparsely populated areas for which little advance notice could be expected.

The groups developed a uniform campaign strategy then adopted a new organizational strategy, similar to the Zone Defense in basketball where a defender guards an area against any offensive player who comes into their zone. The groups called through all their membership lists to identify enough collective local people to conduct a campaign, then combined those people into a new ad–hoc organization.

  • In this and other occasions in four different parts of the country where the entire membership roll of organizations was called through to identify activist volunteers, the results have been fairly consistent.

  • Members respond positively to phone calls from members of their organizations, few mind being called.

  • 20-40% of all people called will agree to take action.

  • Some national organizations are more responsive than others.

  • Overall about 10% of all people called will actually do something substantive like go to a meeting.


A rural Oregon coastal county decided to file a lawsuit to weaken the endangered species protection for Western Snowy Plover, an endangered seabird that nests on beaches along the Pacific Ocean. The habitat protection strategy for this bird involves closing many miles of beaches to motorized vehicles from Canada to Mexico so the nests and the birds are not disturbed. In Oregon virtually the entire coastline is undeveloped state park so weakening Plover protections could open new miles of beaches to ATV's. The county sought to persuade other rural counties, towns and organizations to join their suit as co–plaintiffs to show that many rural communities opposed beach restrictions and the Plover recovery plan and thus strengthen their case.

By the time environmentalists realized that resolutions to join the suit were appearing on agendas of public bodies in a four county area, some municipalities had already signed on. The challenge to the campaign was to mobilize local citizens in widely separated places to stop their local elected officials from joining the suit and to persuade organizations that had already passed resolutions to rescind them. None of the 20 or so environmental groups with members in the county had more than a few hundred local people as paid members although together the groups had almost 1400 members in the area (about 3% of the total population).

Fortunately, although Oregon and West Coast groups in general have strong individual identities, they have a history of working closely together on ancient forest campaigns. In particular, Audubon, Sierra Club and statewide umbrella groups have often worked closely together. So the leaders of the groups developed a new strategy to deal with this problem that was beyond the ability of any one group to solve.

Oregon conservation groups, with and without local chapters, joined forces to collectively identify their members in the area and to treat them as a single entity for the purpose of the campaign. The groups merged their mailing lists and sent a joint alert to all their members in the region under a masthead, which listed all the groups. Each group paid for their own postage. This alert informed everyone about the issue, kicked off the campaign and solicited volunteers. Having a pre-approved, off-the-shelf alert with many groups on the masthead, meant any organization had pre-authorized approval to oppose any local resolution with the authority of their own and all the other major groups in the state and later dozens of major groups on the whole west coast without pre-clearing it with anyone. As a result of just this initial joint alert, several legislative bodies voted to either not join the lawsuit or rescind previously adopted resolutions.

The campaign was faced with one big final important public meeting in the county that instigated the suit to finally decide to authorize the suit and it is in organizing for that meeting that this campaign broke some new ground. The campaign didn't know when the meeting would be scheduled but it did have the contact information for the 1400 members of those 20 organizations. To prepare for the meeting, the campaign used the 15 people who came forward in response to the request for volunteers in the first mailing to phone all the 1400 people and ask them to commit to stand by to attend a public meeting whenever it might be called. 200 of the 1400 people agreed to do this. When the meeting was finally announced a week later, it was with only a 48 hours notice. The 200 people on standby were then called, and 125 of them showed up for the meeting. The meeting went on all day because so many wanted to testify. Although the County only had 60,000 residents and covered a thousand square miles and the campaign only had 48 hours to get ready, there was a large turnout.

Turning out 5 times as many people as the opposing side changed the perception that motorized interests controlled and dominated the public process, which till then they had. The 125 people in that meeting were drawn from a dozen different national and regional environmental groups, but collectively they were the activist base of the county. Those who attended the meeting were astounded to find their county had so many environmentally active people and immediately after the public hearing formed a new countywide organization.

No organizational or turf issues surfaced during this effort. Each group paid for their own alerts and chipped in for common expenses. Only one grant for $1000 was needed to pay phone bills. The rest of the expenses including a full page $1600 ad and all the mailings were raised through contributions. The 20 groups involved in alerts and calling included the Greens party and the Democratic Central committees of two Counties. Ultimately 20 Oregon groups contributed people and 14 other California and Washington state groups contributed other support. Organizations in San Diego and Seattle furnished two attorneys for legal advice as the county had an aggressive conservative legal foundation that had agreed to finance the lawsuit.

A note on confidentiality: Each group's membership list was called only by one of its own members; lists were not retained or reproduced and the originals were returned. No caller saw any names other than the segment for their own organization.

2015 update: Despite the great turnout, the county proceeded 3–0 to file the lawsuit, but it was not successful and the county lost. The three county commissioners who voted to proceed with the lawsuit left office, two defeated in subsequent elections, in part because this group stayed together to work against them in subsequent campaigns. The ocean beaches in this county and Oregon are as closed to ATV's today as they were in 2002 and the population of Snowy Plovers has increased from 100 to 300. The sign on letter and ad for this campaign and web site are discussed and illustrated in the chapter on sign-on letters in handbook “Organize to Win” in the chapter “Developing the sign in letter” page 15 downloadable at Britell.com

General observations on calling through membership lists:

  • Members of environmental organization don't mind being called and won't hang up as long as you initially identify yourself as a member of and calling on behalf of their own organization. Only an organization's members should call the members of an organization.

  • Members of organizations with a name like Save or Protect or some plainly pro-environmental name are the most motivated and usually 40-50% or more will agree to do what you ask. Organizations with aggressive reputations attract more active members.

  • Audubon members are less motivated than the Sierra Club but even 15–25% of their members will agree to be active – Sierra Club perhaps 40%.

  • The biggest problem in any contact effort is accurate phone numbers and getting through answering machines. But you may have better luck getting people to return messages than you think.

  • About 5% of the people you call will be exceedingly grateful for the call and volunteer to not just come to a meeting but also be telephone tree captains or become really active. These people have apparently decided already to become active and were just waiting for someone to ask.

  • Most people belong to only one or two organizations, and there is not a lot of overlap between local memberships of environmental organizations. Most of the members of Audubon are not members of the Sierra club and vice versa. But even the most extremely conservative counties in the US have lots of potential activists.

  • Never "cold call" people without a script.

  • Some people are far better making calls than others so check on success after a dozen or twenty calls – people who don't get results should be taken off this duty – they won't be enjoying it much. People who are good at making cold calls love doing it and vice versa.

  • If you are doing email have the potential volunteer add you to their address book so your future emails won't be rejected as spam.

  • Members of environmental groups don't distinguish among and between them and don't much care who prepared an alert – people are interested in issues not organizations and are just grateful that someone got busy.

  • When groups work together it will generally increase the membership of both groups. When people become more active they increase the number of groups they join. The most likely potential Audubon member is a currently inactive member of the Sierra Club (and vice versa).

  • For non–fundraising matters, a written appeal to take an action like write a letter has a success rate of a half percent – or probably less – but a phone call appeal might have 10 to 15%.

  • Active people always know other active people so when somebody commits to take action, right then, always ask them who else in their community might want to get involved too. Sometimes potentially active people belong to no group at all or just civic groups like the League of Women Voters.

  • For broad–based community campaigns many of your best activists will always end up being conservative and Republican. Broad based ecumenical campaigns function best when they confine discussions to campaign issues.

©2008 Jim Britell
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