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Want to start an activist group? Read the new guide

Want to start an activist group but don’t know where to start?

Are you responsible for starting and supporting groups across your region?

Do you want to build the grassroots power of your base?

This is the guide for you.

Organizations: please connect with me at [email protected] if you:

    • want the rights to share this guide with your activist groups in print format
    • want to be listed here as an organization that is able to support activists and local groups
    • are interested in trainings on this topic.


Want to change the world?  Start an activist group

Jessica Bell

If I had said to you in January 1989 that the Soviet Union wouldn’t exist at Christmas, you would have thought I’m mad.  But the Berlin Wall fell, and that’s what happened.

Those who tell you ‘nothing will ever change’ are wrong.  History is not inevitable.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  This quote by social scientist Margaret Mead is often cited to remind us we’re powerful.   But this quote is also telling us that to be powerful we cannot work alone.

That’s why building activist organizations is so important.   Activist groups are gateways for people to join our cause. When we work together we are stronger, and we are more likely to overcome the fear, doubt, and apathy that drags us down when we venture into the risky unknown to build the society we dream about.

So here’s some tips on how to create a great activist group.

  1. Be ready to do way more than you think

In 2006, I was working on an environmental campaign that I no longer thought was strategic. Our team was getting voluntary commitments from companies to stop logging in endangered forests but we weren’t enforcing these commitments or properly thinking through what institution or government would be able to do so.  It’s hard to convince people to take action when you no longer believe in your strategy.

I decided to start an activist organization because I wanted to be an effective activist. I also wanted more responsibility and a real challenge.  And I wanted the freedom to experiment.

I decided to launch a group that would challenge the laws that give corporations power, such as the right to free speech.  I hadn’t worked on this issue before but I was very enthusiastic.  I tested the idea with a friend who gently suggested that it was very ambitious and vague.  Undeterred, I organized a founding meeting.  I email-invited some friends and activists I knew who were interested in tackling corporate power.  I set the agenda, printed out handouts, and bought snacks and drinks.  At 6pm I sat in my lounge room, circled by empty chairs, and waited for my future members to arrive.  But the door bell never rang.  I gave up that night.  I didn’t yet have the humility and dedication to overcome this little obstacle, learn from my mistakes, and persevere.

Starting an activist group takes time and courage. Migrant Workers Alliance for Change organizer, Hussan Syed, recommends doing some serious thinking before you take action.  He suggests asking yourself questions like why do you want to do this, how is your liberation connected to this struggle, and what’s going to motivate you to stick around.   

You need to be ready to make a minimum two year commitment to building an activist group.  If you don’t have that time then volunteer for an established activist group instead. 

As this short and funny TEDx video reveals, followers are just as valuable as leaders.

The next time I launched an activist organization I was prepared.  It took me and my co-founders over three years of volunteering to build up the training organization, Tools for Change, to the point where the group had stable funding and staff.  And we were successful.

2. Choose a great idea

The best way to make sure your idea for an organization is a good one is to know the issue.  Ideally, you’ve worked on the issue before, you’ve studied it extensively, and you have relationships with those who are actively involved or impacted by the problem you seek to address.

I like to test my specific idea with people who are involved or impacted by the issue. I set up one-on-one meetings, and in the meeting I tell the person about my idea, and ask them questions like:

  • Do you see a need for this campaign or project?
  • What’s the history of this issue? Have folks won on this issue before? What did they win?
  • Is this the best way to bring about real, meaningful change?
  • How passionately do people care about this issue?
  • How would I improve this idea?
  • What opportunities and concerns should I consider?
  • Who else is working on this issue? 
  • Who else should I be talking to?
  • Who do you think should be involved in this group?
  • Are you interested in being involved?
  • Do you have any other feedback?

These conversations will help you decide whether your project is worth pursuing, how it can be improved, and who you should invite to join.

When my partner and I were considering launching Tools for Change we talked to a few folks and discovered that a student activist organization based at the University of Toronto, OPIRG Toronto, was considering starting a training program as well.  We met with the coordinator at OPIRG Toronto, Clare O’Connor, and decided to start the training program together. Thanks to our initial research we became collaborators, not competitors.

Our conversations with others also helped us assess and decide upon a good training model. We chose to organize about 20 or so public half-day workshops in Toronto because it was a very cheap way to deliver trainings (our expenses were about $4000 a year) and no other group was regularly offering activist training in the area.  We also set up the program as a training-coalition; organizations could join Tools for Change if they contributed money and helped organize a few workshops a year.  In return, their members and volunteers got to attend workshops for free.  We felt this was a sensible approach because we knew that many organizations didn’t have the time to manage their own internal training program but needed to build up the capacity of their volunteers.

3. Handpick your team

When building an organization, my preference is to start small and individually invite some key people to join a founding committee. This committee is responsible for building the group’s structure and making key decisions.

We started transit advocacy organization, TTCriders, with just four people.  We then quickly recruited five more people to join a caretaker steering committee.  I think 5-10 people is a good number to start with.   Expect to invite at least double the number of people you need because many will say no.

I look for people who know the issue and have experience with campaigning, governance, financial management, or fundraising.  I like choosing people who are fairly easy to work with and understand how to make decisions with others.   Lone wolf activists are not the type of person you need at this stage.

I look for people who have time to give.  I once was part of all-volunteer activist group of very experienced activists in the San Francisco Area; we had so much potential.  The problem was only one or two of us were willing to dedicate time to this particular group.   Not surprisingly, the group quickly fell apart. 

I look for people who are directly impacted by the issue so the organization can be accountable to those who most seek to gain from our work.  In the case of TTCriders, we recruited people who used public transit, as well as people who lived in areas that had bad public transit, specifically Scarborough and Etobicoke, and who were low income, including students and seniors. Think through who is most impacted by your issue and how you can bring them in at this early stage.

4. Make a few good decisions

Now that you have identified your founding team members, it’s time to have a few meetings to make some key decisions so your organization’s structure and purpose can be established. Then you can bring in more people.

Here’s why this is important.  In 2011, I attended the founding public meeting of Occupy Toronto. The meeting took place in a park, and over 200 people came.  The enthusiasm was so inspiring. I was asked by an organizer to facilitate the meeting. I said no.  I knew the meeting would be very difficult, and it was.  The facilitator lost control of the meeting.  People did not stay on topic, spoke out of turn, and shouted over each other.  The meeting went for hours, and many left in frustration, including myself. 

Issues of decision making and governance plagued Occupy Toronto throughout the movement’s month long occupation of a downtown park. While the occupation brought the problem of inequality and unfettered capitalism to the limelight I wasn’t surprised to see the movement fail to create the sustainable organizations that were need to take this momentum to the next level.

You cannot make great decisions if you don’t have a decision making process or a clear understanding of who is part of your group and who isn’t.  And you cannot make a plan if you do not have a shared vision.   In the case of TTCriders we made the following decisions before recruiting more members.

 We decided on our vision. Your vision should be one sentence long and should explain the purpose of the organization.  TTCriders mission is to build a democratic membership group of riders that campaigns for an affordable world class public transit system for Toronto.

Second, we set up our group structure.  We set up two committees.  Our board was responsible for upholding our vision, budgeting, finances, and fundraising. Our campaigns committee was responsible for our programs.  We also agreed to make decisions using a 66% vote.  I think a consensus decision making process, which is where everyone must agree, is too difficult to achieve in big groups because you process could be stymied if one member opposes a proposal.  That said, I like 66% more than securing a 51% simple majority vote because it’s way easier to implement a decision if it’s supported by most people in the group. 

We also decided how people could join or leave our organization and each committee.  For example, board members must apply, be approved by our board, agree to our board agreements and vision, stick around for at least a year, and pay membership dues, which start at $35 a year.   Folks that don’t come to enough meetings, violate our vision, or who are extremely difficult to work with can be voted out by the board.

Having a clear ‘who is in, and who is out’ policy is super important.  Problems arise when people are allowed to come to a meeting, vote on topics they know little about, and then can walk away from the responsibility of living with the decision.

TTCriders’ structure has evolved and expanded since our founding. But we needed some kind of foundation at the beginning to build upon.

If you’re establishing a chapter group the national group probably have bylaws and procedures that you can take and adapt.

If you need to convince members about the importance of setting up a structure get them to read Joanna Freeman’s article called the “Tyranny of Structurelessness”.

If you’re responsible for developing your group’s structure then I strongly encourage you to read George Lakey’s book called “Grassroots and Nonprofit Leadership: A Guide for Organizations in Changing Times”.

For information on facilitating meetings read my guide called “Seven tips to facilitating an effective meeting”.

5.  Decide what you’re going to work on

Now that you’ve got your people, your vision, and your structure you need to decide what you’re actually going to do.

Now choosing a campaign is not clearcut: it’s an iterative process that requires developing an idea, gathering information, getting feedback, and then repeating the process. 

This is how TTCriders choose its campaign.  Our campaigns committee brainstormed a list of campaigns we each wanted TTCriders to work on. We then broke out into small teams, with each team being responsible for writing a one-page report on one campaign. The report outlined the campaign’s goals, why it was important, and the campaign’s strengths and weaknesses. Each team then presented their findings to the entire group, and then we debated and voted on which campaign we should prioritize over others. 

Once we’d chosen a priority campaign we then fleshed out our demands and our strategy.  We had already agreed we wanted to lower fares, but now we needed to decide how much fares should be reduced (20 cents for all, free for people on social assistance, and $50 a month for low income workers) and how much this would cost governments to introduce (at least $240 million).  We also needed to decide who was going to be our target and what tactics and strategies we wanted to employ.  We decided to target the province and the city using grassroots organizing and media work. 

Throughout this process we continually gathered information from allies, city staff, elected officials and their staff, and transit riders.  Once we had a draft plan and demands, we hosted an hour long meeting so transit riders and our allies could give very specific feedback and ask questions.

An activist’s enthusiasm is always greater than their ability to take action. Many of us wanted to launch two or maybe three of our most popular campaign choices, instead of limiting ourselves to just one campaign. Don’t do this!

The toughest issue we faced throughout this process was deciding how many campaigns to launch.   If you’re an all volunteer group do not choose to launch more than one campaign, at least for the first year.  Campaigning requires focus and persistence in the face of apathy, indifference, and attacks from your opponents. Every time you launch a campaign you’re dividing your energy and therefore increasing your chances of losing both campaigns.  Stay united. 

In fact, many of you will not have the people-power to even launch one campaign.  The reality is successful advocacy campaigns can easily take two or more years of dedicated campaigning to yield results. You’re wasting your time if you launch and then ditch a campaign before you win some improvements. 

If you’re not sure you have the capacity to launch your own campaign then support an existing campaign run by another organization.   They will be grateful for your help.

Supporting established campaigns can be an extremely useful effort for a local group.  For instance, your group could organize local actions for a national or international day of action, such as those hosted by climate advocacy organization,  Or you could organize a local talk for a national speaking tour.   National groups like 350, Sierra Club, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Oxfam, Council of Canadians, Lead Now, are some groups that have the capacity to support local chapters or affiliates. 

Want to deepen your campaigning skills?   I recommend Minieri and Getsos’s book called “Tools for Radical Democracy”.    

TTCriders’ research process was inspired by the work of union organizer, Jane McAlevey; her research methods are documented in her book “Raising Expectations”.

6. Money matters

“Groups that have gotten big quickly understand the value of money and the need to grow,” says Anna Keenan.   Anna was responsible for sharing best practices and helping Greenpeace International build its volunteer base.  Anna believes that it’s partly our attitude that’s stopping us from seeing the value of money in building activist organizations.  “There’s a real fear of money, especially for people who have strong social justice values and a strong critique of capitalism,” she says.  “There’s also this perception that groups do not need money but they do, and they’d save time if they committed to a good fundraising plan instead of scrounging for resources,” she says.

I agree with Anna. I like to raise enough money to hire a staff person because staff can coordinate the team, raise more funds, do finances and all those other tasks that volunteers often don’t want to do.  Even if your goal is to stay a volunteer group you’ll still need money for expenses like printing, website and email list hosting, travel costs, and more.  $2000 is a decent yearly budget for a local grassroots group.

There’s tonnes of resources out there on how grassroots groups can raise money, and one of the best is the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training.   In my experience, raising money from foundations is a waste of time for small grassroots organizations.  Foundations usually give to groups that have charitable status and a long track record of success.  Try more grassroots-people based strategies, like asking your members to pay dues. TTCriders members must pay $50 a year to be a voting members.  Other practical grassroots strategies include passing the hat at events you organize, organizing a house party, and making fundraising pitches for specific costs via email and social media.   It’s wise to set up a fundraising committee; but make sure that committee engages everyone in the work of fundraising.

7. Grow well

The most brilliant people have volunteered with TTCriders, and then they’ve left to have kids, take great jobs in another province, start a masters degree and more.  This is common. 

In order to survive, almost all advocacy groups should be constantly recruiting and empowering new members.   

Consider launching an outreach team of a few people who can prioritize making friends with and mentoring new members.  Set an outreach goal, such as inviting two new potential members to every meeting.  Individually select and encourage people to take on specific leadership positions, such as being a committee chair or joining the board.  People like titles.  Our members really took more ownership over TTCriders once we set up committee chairs.  Being a chair involves setting the agenda, reminding people to do tasks, and keeping track of who is in the committee. 

It helps to make your organization welcoming by having food and drink at your meetings, and encouraging folks to come early and stay late so they can chat and catch up with fellow members. People are way more likely to stay in a group if they’re friends with their colleagues.

Provide training.  At its most basic, you can provide mentorship where a more experienced person teams up with a less experienced person to complete a task together.  You can also organize little workshops on topics on an as-needed basis, such doing a lecture on austerity and government budgeting during the budget process, for example, or hosting a training on how to write a press release just prior to a press conference.

Recruit and empower members in an anti-oppressive way. Hussan Syed says NOII has developed many practices to recruit and empower their women of colour and migrant worker members.  These practices include giving their women of colour and migrant worker members important roles, such as committee chairs, and spokespeople. NOII also gives extra weight to opinions brought up by these members at meetings, and schedules meetings and trainings to best suit the schedule of these members as well.

My absolute favourite book on building leadership in an anti-oppressive way is Rinku Sen’s book “Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy”. 

Once day you’ll be leaving the group too, and you don’t want your departure to be the start of the group’s decline, but rather a celebration of all that you’ve accomplished.

Jessica Bell is the executive director of public transit advocacy group, TTCriders, co-founder of training group, Tools for Change, and an instructor in advocacy and government relations at Ryerson University.   Want some help starting your own group?  You can contact her at [email protected].