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Author: Suzie Brown

Once you've established a community group, it's important to keep the momentum going. Here are some suggestions for building your group and increasing its effectiveness over time.

Main topics covered in this article include:

1. Community organising

'Community organising' is a way to build the power and impact of a grass roots campaign or group. It involves expanding a group through strong organisation and recruitment, and has been used most successfully in the past — most notably in the US Presidential campaign of Barack Obama.

It involves group leaders building the group by identifying, recruiting and developing other leaders in their community. This means instead of a few core people taking all the responsibility, they empower other people to take on key roles and recruit more members.

Successful community organising involves:

  • recognising shared values and motivations, and learning to communicate these effectively (often through telling stories)
  • building strong relationships with people to get them involved
  • clarifying a shared group strategy
  • training people, so they have the skills they need to recruit more people.

2. Recruiting new members

To build your group, you need to continually recruit (as well as retain) new members and active volunteers.

Recruitment strategies

The most effective way to recruit new people is person-to-person. This means talking to people at stalls and events, or phoning people. Email and letters are other ways to keep in touch but they're far less effective than personal contact. This is because a potential member will connect more strongly with a someone who can communicate the group’s shared values. They will also feel a greater sense of commitment and responsibility to someone they've met. Face-to-face contact also allows you to ‘sign people up’ on the spot.

To help you spread the word about your project, and recruit more people consider:

  • stalls at shopping strips and centres, events or gatherings
  • your own events, with a team of volunteers on hand to talk to and recruit new people
  • door-knocking houses in your area
  • phoning people who have expressed an interest and given you their contact details.

Signing up new members

To sign people up as new members, you'll need:

  • membership forms — both paper and online
  • a database of members details — and someone who's responsible for updating it
  • a new members’ welcome pack — including information about the group and upcoming activities
  • follow-up communication for new members — ideally a phone call but could also be a letter or email
  • a newsletter that keeps all members in the loop.

3. Working with and retaining volunteers

When people join the group, you'll want some of them to become more actively involved. Not all members will want to do this, but it's important to ask.

The best way to get people involved is personal contact. Try to find time to meet and talk to them. This way you can find out what their skills and interests are, and you can match these to a role or task.

To help with this, write a list of jobs that need doing. For example, administrative tasks, running a stall or helping with the website. Alternatively, you may have specific roles you want to fill such as Database Manager, Web Editor or Event Manager. Once you have a sense of a person’s capacity, time and skills, you can match them to a task. It's a good idea to start a new volunteer off with a smaller task, so you can review their abilities and commitment.

It helps to have someone responsible for managing all volunteers i.e. Volunteers Coordinator. This person can prepare job descriptions, have volunteers reporting to them, and be a point of contact for any queries.

4. Group sustainability

A key challenge for volunteer groups (and in fact most non-profit organisations) is the sustainability of the group. 'Burn-out' is a common problem so it's important to be aware of this and take action to avoid it. Many volunteer groups are passionate about their cause, which leads many people to over-work and burn out. Remember, climate change and solutions like renewable energy are complex global issues — it will take some time to see improvements.

Here are some strategies to help you avoid individual and group burn-out:

  • Don’t take on too much work. Many groups want to do everything at once and quickly find they're overloaded and stressed. Choose a few actions that will help you achieve your goals.
  • Learn to say no and be selective about what you take on. Say no to the more ambitious members of the group if they suggest you do more than your group can handle. And learn to say no to other opportunities that arise, unless they're going to contribute to your goals.
  • Communicate with volunteers. Keep talking to people to check they're coping with the workload. Some people get disheartened when they don't see immediate results. Having open communication can help deal with this. Speak about your workloads and achievements at group meetings.
  • Break down the issues. Climate change and renewable energy are huge issues and finding solutions can be stressful. Many volunteers want to solve these problems and can feel deflated by a lack of visible progress. Celebrate the small achievements of your group and set realistic short and long term goals.
  • Make fun and relaxation part of your group's activities. Whether that's social get-togethers or fundraising events that people enjoy.
  • Plan 'down time'. Take time off as a group. Or if any volunteers are getting stressed or over-worked, ask them to take a break.

5. Networking

Networking is an important way to get allies involved such as the local Council, businesses, clubs, schools and individuals with key influence, skills or finances. Members of the group should meet with as many of these people as possible to tell them about the group’s mission and activities, and see if they will support you. They may be able to offer in-kind support like venues, equipment, labour or promotions. And some will have funding to offer. But this all takes time, so be patient.

6. Funding and grants

There are many grants you can apply for to help fund your group. It helps to get your group incorporated (refer to Starting and managing a community group) before you apply.

The main areas of funding are:

  • Local Government: your council will probably have a small grants program for community groups usually valued at a few thousand dollars each
  • State Government: there are a number of funding programs for renewable energy and sustainability-related projects. The Sustainability Fund in Victoria and the Environmental Trust in NSW are two examples. For more information, go to the websites of the departments of environment, heritage, community and energy and see Grants and government funding options
  • Federal Government: some community grant programs are available but these are often restricted to particular types of groups
  • Philanthropic trusts: these are an excellent source of funds as they often have more flexibility in the sorts of projects they give money to
  • Corporate funding: many large companies have philanthropic grants programs or will donate money to charities each year.

Once you've done your research, speak to the best prospects and start to build rapport with them. If they think you stand a good chance of securing some funds, then apply. Don't apply for grants for the sake of it, as it can take up a huge amount of time and energy.

More information

How to start a community group
Running a community group
Legal and financial responsibilities
Project governance
Grants and government funding options