In 2002, a new method of organizing was used by 20 organizations in a rural area of southwest 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 collective 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 rolls of organizations were called 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 percent of all people called will agree to take action. – Some national organizations are more responsive than others.
- Overall about 10 percent of all people called will actually do something substantive, such as go to a meeting.
A rural Oregon coastal county decided to file a lawsuit to weaken the endangered species protection for the 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 an undeveloped state park; therefore weakening plover protections could open new miles of beaches to ATVs. The county sought to strengthen its case by persuading other rural counties, towns and organizations to join their suit as co-plaintiffs, indicating that many others opposed beach restrictions and the plover recovery plan.
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 dues-paying members. However, together the groups had almost 1,400 members in the area (about 3 percent of the total population).
Fortunately, although Oregon and other 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 gave any organization pre-authorized approval to oppose any local resolution with the authority of their own and dozens of other groups on the West Coast without the need for pre-clearance. 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. The meeting would finally decide to authorize the suit, and it was in organizing for that meeting that this “zone defense” tactic broke new ground. The campaign didn’t know when the meeting would be held, but it did have the contact information for the 1,400 members of its 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 1,400 members. They were asked to commit to stand by and to attend the crucial public meeting whenever it might be called. Two hundred of the 1,400 people agreed to do this. When the meeting was finally announced a week later, it was with only a 48-hour 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, covered 1,000 square miles, and the campaign only had 48 hours to get ready, there was a large turnout.
Turning out five times as many people as the opposing side changed the perception that motorized interests controlled and dominated the public process, which until 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 county-wide organization.
No organizational or turf issues surfaced during this effort. Each group paid for its own alerts and chipped in for common expenses. Only one grant for $1,000 was needed to pay phone bills. The rest of the expenses, including a full-page, $1,600 ad and all the mailings, were raised through contributions. The 20 local groups involved in calling included the Greens Party and the Democratic central committees of two counties. Ultimately, the Oregon state groups contributed people, while 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.
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 ATVs 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 website are discussed and illustrated in Organize to Win, Volume 1. Find this information in the chapter, “Developing the sign-on letter.”
General observations on calling through membership lists:
- Members of environmental organizations 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 percent or more will agree to do what you ask. Organizations with aggressive reputations attract more active members.
- Audubon members are less motivated than Sierra Club members, but even 15–25 percent of Audubon members will agree to be active—Sierra Club perhaps 40 percent.
- 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 percent 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 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 U.S. 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 20 calls. People who don’t get results should be taken off this duty and given other things to do —they won’t be enjoying it much. People who are good at making cold calls love doing it and vice-versa.
- If you are communicating via 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 the environmental groups 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 writing a letter has a success rate of a half percent (and probably less) but a phone call appeal might have a 10 to 15 percent success rate.
- Active people always know other active people. When somebody commits to take action, always ask them right then who else in their community might want to get involved too. Sometimes potentially active people belong to no group at all or belong to 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.
This essay is adapted from “Organize to Win” Vol 2, chapter 10, which can be downloaded for free at britell.com Subscribe to this blog here.