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Author: Suzie Brown
Contributor: Bronwen Machin

If you want to get a community-owned renewable energy project up and running, then you’ll need a group of committed people to help make it happen.

While you may have a core team of people ready to do the research, seek funding and find the land for your project, have you thought about how to engage other members of your community and other stakeholders?

Starting a community group focused on renewable energy or climate change is a great way to attract new people to your project, seek support from the community, and eventually attract investment from locals.

Main topics covered in this article include:

1. Assess the community

Before you do anything, perform an assessment of your community to identify any groups or individuals already out there who might be able to help you.

What environment groups are already active locally? If there’s already a Climate Action Group or a Sustainability Group, they might want to work with you. Perhaps your project can become a working party of an existing group.

Other groups such as Friends Groups, Transition Towns, Landcare groups and even local branches of political parties might be able to help you by promoting the project and acting as a source of new members. Organisations like the local Council, Rotary, Probis or Lions Clubs, the Scouts, sports clubs and schools may be able to provide a venue, sponsorship or help with promotion.

2. Define your purpose

At the outset, it’s very important to determine the mission of your group, and make this clear to others you attract to the group. If your mission is purely to set up a community-owned renewable energy project, then say this upfront. Or you might want to become an advocate to change government policies relating to clean energy or climate change. Or perhaps you intend to help your community take up sustainable energy, such as Green Power, solar hot water or solar panels, or other green technologies. Or it may be a combination of these things. Decide early on what your main purpose is.

At this point, you may wish to decide on a name for your group, if you haven’t already. Your name should embody your mission in a simple way, as well as the community you represent. Having said that, don’t get too worried if you can’t think of a catchy name or acronym — the West Richmond Sustainability Group says clearly what it is, for example.

Both the mission and name of your group will help determine the identity you project to potential members. But there may be other defining factors you'd like to determine upfront about your group — for example certain activities you don't want to get involved in, or restrictions on the location or types of members.

3. Launch your group

Once you’ve decided to set up a group, you’ll need to attract people to it, so hold a public launch to call for new members. Here are some ideas of how to do this:

Run a public forum

  • Invite a speaker or two who are experts on renewable energy or climate change.
  • Use flyers and posters, local papers and Council newsletters to promote your event.
  • Email an invitation to all local environmental or other community groups.
  • Invite your friends and family along.

Go to the local papers or other media

  • Contact a journalist at the local paper or radio station and tell them about your plans for the new group, and see if they'll do a story on it.
  • Failing that, write a letter to the local paper, inviting people to join the group.

Invite your friends and networks to join

  • Email or talk to your friends, workmates, neighbours and other acquaintances to invite them to join the new group.
  • Utilise electronic social networks such as facebook and twitter.

4. Hold meetings

Here are some tips to ensure your group meetings are effective:

Find a private, comfortable venue to hold your meetings

  • Your local Council may be able to provide a meeting room at low or no cost, or ask at your local school, library or community centre.
  • Some cafes also have a private room you can hire for free, provided you buy food or a drink.
  • Using a public venue rather than a private home can be safer and more comfortable when bringing a group of strangers together.

Set an agenda and times for the meeting

  • At the start of each meeting, agree how long it will run for and what the agenda will be. It can be handy to decide this before the meeting and communicate it using email.
  • It can help to set a time limit for each agenda item and then the chair or a separate timekeeper should monitor this to keep the meeting on track.

Designate a chair or facilitator for the meeting

  • One person should facilitate each meeting to ensure you cover the agenda, you keep to time, and everyone gets to have a say.
  • The facilitator also needs the skills to help the group reach agreement on difficult issues.
  • It’s a good idea to rotate the facilitator role among group members so no one dominates.

Designate a scribe to take minutes

  • Find one volunteer to take notes or minutes of the meeting.
  • The scribe needs to record all decisions and actions for future reference and for those who missed the meeting.
  • You'll then need to review any actions decided at each subsequent meeting to check they've been carried out.

5. Define the group structure and roles

In the early days of your group you will probably find that tasks are shared out depending on people's availability and talents, and that a defined structure is unnecessary. However, as you gain momentum and the volume of work increases roles and structure will become more important.

The best approach is to decide what roles your group needs to achieve its goals and main activities. This may evolve over time and necessary roles will become more obvious. Here are some functional roles your group may need:

  • President or Convenor — media spokesperson, networks with other groups, recruits new members
  • Membership and/or recruitment officer — keeps member records, communicates with new members
  • Media officer — deals with the media and organises media events for editorial coverage
  • Web and communications officer — creates and updates the website, newsletter, flyers etc
  • Meeting co-ordinator — organises meeting logistics and ensures records are maintained
  • Events manager(s) — organises events, venues, promotion
  • Treasurer — manages the bank account, paying  bills
  • Project manager(s) of discrete projects
  • Technical advisor

It's important to prepare a basic position description, and ensure anyone taking on a role knows what they're committing to. The group should also hold the person accountable to this. If someone is unable to fulfill the role, the group needs to recognise this and find someone else to take on the job. It's better to be upfront about this, as the under-performing person is probably not enjoying the situation anyway.

When you get to the stage where your group is spending or receiving money, you will need to consider a formal structure. An incorporated group will require a specific set of roles so it might be easier to begin working with these roles even before you incorporate. The model rules provided for groups becoming incorporated suggest the following roles:

  • President
  • Vice-president
  • Treasurer — responsible for bank accounts and all finances
  • Secretary — usually responsible for minute taking and membership records
  • General members

6. Incorporation and legal structure

It can be useful for your group to clarify its legal status, and incorporating can be a useful step. The main reason for setting up an association (or a company) is to create a separate legal entity so that individual members are not liable for any costs or liability incurred by the group. Importantly, it also allows the group to accept donations or apply for grants.

There are a number of different legal structures a group can choose depending on its needs:

  • Incorporated association
  • Company limited by guarantee
  • Co-operative society

Generally, a community group will choose to become an incorporated association because this is cheap and involves the least administration. Becoming a company involves more cost and administration.

A community group can consider obtaining charity status which allows you to accept tax deductible donations, be exempt from paying income tax, and enjoy other tax concessions. This is a much more onerous process than becoming incorporated.

There are more technical requirements and compliance for a co-operative society. It may be more beneficial to further define and develop the project prior to taking the steps to become a co-operative.

Another way to allow donations to be tax deductible is to apply to the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts to be placed on the Register of Environmental Organisations. To be accepted to be on this Register, the group's statement of purpose has to include a clear reference to the protection of the environment, and the group has to set up a special bank account. You can find details of how to apply at the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts's website: Environmental taxation concessions

For an overview of the options, see the related articles below or visit Our Community. BREAZE also has a good article on incorporation and gaining charity status.

7. Website and communications

When you first set up your group, it’s important to consider how you'll communicate to your members and to the public and media. The use of internet and technology can be of great benefit and the earlier it is considered the more effective it can be not only for communication but for group document management.

Website

A website is generally the easiest way to disseminate information about your group or project to the outside world. You can set up a website for free — you generally only need to pay for the web hosting and domain name. The website can hold all the information about your group and how to join or donate. 

Newsletter

It’s a good idea to communicate with your members and networks regularly about what you’re up to — monthly or fortnightly is enough — too often and you'll clog up people’s inboxes. You can also send a simple newsletter by email. An e-newsletter should:

  • not be sent as an attachment to an email
  • use pictures
  • have short copy — people can click through to your website for more information
  • have a similar look and feel to your website
  • allow readers to update their details
  • allow readers to unsubscribe,
  • have 'send to a friend' functionality.

Mailchimp is one of the software packages you can use to develop and send a professional e-newsletter. It also allows you to track who clicks on your e-newsletter.

Internal group communications

Think about how your core group of leaders or active members can communicate between each other outside your regular meetings. An email discussion group like a Google group and Google Documents can be an efficient way to share information and documents. Or you can set up an internal communications website like Groupsite.

Flyers and brochures

You may want to create a flyer, brochure or poster about your group and display it in cafes, community centres and shops. If there's a graphic designer in your group or anyone knows one, ask them to help put a simple flyer together — it will look much more professional.

More information

Running a community group
Building the group and gaining momentum
Review of legal structures
Legal and financial responsibilities
Project governance