First and foremost: Do not be discouraged if your group is very small. We’ve seen groups of just three or four well-organized and committed activists make a huge impact. You should try to make your group as big as possible, but know that you can fight even if your army is small. If you are low on numbers, some of the strategies detailed below will not be relevant to you.
Successful grassroots efforts happen because of effective organization. There are five keys to accomplish this:
- It is important that your organization has and maintains a clear mission. Write this down at the outset of your efforts and refer to it frequently. Different issues may arise over the course of your fight, but don’t be distracted. You will lose credibility and may forfeit your position as an expert on your issue if your group starts speaking out about different issues. Every divergent voice weakens the volume of your collective voice.
- Ongoing engagement is essential. Your core members should commit to attending group meetings and public hearings and be involved in recruitment efforts. This will take up time, but this fight is important, and you want to win on your terms the first time. You will also want to continually engage your broader base of support because ultimately, your fight may come down to numbers. The side that has the most supporters, shows the most commitment, speaks loudest and captures the terms of the debate wins. The more engaged supporters you have on your side, the louder your voice will be. But be mindful of the balance between engagement and burnout.
- As we will reiterate, staying on message is critical. You want your group to speak with one, powerful voice and stick to clear talking points.
- Show goodwill to all involved: your core members, your supporters, the powers-that-be and your opponents. Your opposition on city council or in the statehouse may think that what they’re doing is right for your city or state. Do your research and don’t be naïve, but don’t presume everyone is out to get you. With your own members, work together and appreciate the unique contributions each person is able to make. There will be some in your industry who may not have the time, resources or interest to fight. Some will allow or want you to do all the heavy lifting—then benefit from the result. You have to accept this and move on.
- Be dedicated and determined. You can fight, and you can win. Don’t be dismayed, and don’t be discouraged. Don’t let your opposition bully you into accepting their unacceptable solution. There will be setbacks along the way, but that is OK. Nothing worth fighting for comes easily.
Plan your first meeting
As soon as you hear that legislation is in the works or has been introduced, immediately schedule a meeting with your fellow entrepreneurs and organize. The legislative process can be agonizingly slow or surprisingly fast. You want to get your troops in order as soon as possible so you’re ready to go, no matter the tempo.
- Plan your first meeting in a convenient location, and hold it at a convenient time, so you can maximize attendance. Try to find a free location—a room at the library or house of worship, for instance. If necessary and if you expect a large attendance, you can rent out a meeting room at a hotel. But that can be cost-prohibitive. For this meeting, the Institute for Justice may be able to send out a representative to speak to your group and help you organize.
- Identify other affected entrepreneurs and potential issue champions, and track down their contact information. Perhaps you know these people already, or they have been outspoken in the news. Anyone you can identify who may be negatively affected by a bad policy should be invited to this first meeting. If the state is issuing cease-and-desist letters to entrepreneurs who are violating a law that interferes with their right to earn an honest living, they may be interested in attending. You can sometimes find that information online or through a Freedom of Information Act request. And don’t underestimate the power of word-of-mouth outreach. Ask entrepreneurs you’ve identified to invite others to join you. This will ultimately be your core team: those who are directly impacted by the policy.
- Create a flyer invitation with details about this first meeting, and distribute it to those you have identified and any members of the public and representatives from organizations who might be interested in attending. Distribute the flyer with enough time for people to make plans to attend your meeting but not so early that people forget about it. A little more than a week in advance usually does the trick, depending on the industry. Make phone calls and send e-mails; your invitation can be physical, electronic or both. Other entrepreneurs will be excited to hear from you. Don’t be shy.
- Put together an agenda for your meeting, and stick to it. Keep it short, sweet and to the point, so you don’t lose people’s interest. Often these meetings are the first time someone will see that there are other people in their situation and will want to spend your meeting airing their grievances. You can leave time at the end of your meeting for that.
- Offer snacks if possible, and advertise this on your flyer. Never underestimate the power of food!
- Have a sign-in sheet. Seize every opportunity to capture people’s contact information. Contact information is gold! Ask attendees to print their names, best contact information and, if possible, why they attended the meeting. Are they entrepreneurs, too? Do they represent a supportive community organization? Are they an interested member of the public? Do they have a special skill? Can they take notes, write well or build websites? It’s helpful to know who you have on your team.
- Be prepared to leave this first meeting with a strategy for moving forward and assigned tasks. You don’t want people to leave your meeting inspired but with nothing to do about it—they will disengage. At the very least, you can ask people to recruit for the group. At this meeting, you want to establish the next time you’re going to communicate, whether it’s in person, on the phone or over e-mail.
Build your organization
- At your first meeting, it’s time to pick a name for your group. The name should reflect your mission and be immediately recognizable—but you don’t want it to be cute or obscure. Naming your group gives your efforts legitimacy because it shows a unified, organized front and demonstrates to the public, media and government that you are serious about tackling your issue. It also allows your group to easily serve as a point of contact for any media who are interested in your story. Do not underestimate the importance of this simple act.
- Create your mission statement. Clearly outline what you want to accomplish. Do you want to defeat a legislative proposal or change a current law? What provisions of the law need to be changed, and how do they need to be changed, so they respect your right to earn an honest living? Your opposition may want to work with you to come up with a solution that they claim will benefit everyone involved. Establish what compromises you can tolerate (“concessions”) and what you are unwilling or unable to live with. You then will know what your “walk-away” point is—the point at which you can no longer compromise with the opposition.
As you are developing your mission statement and establishing what you are willing to compromise, be principled. Do not settle for “special exemptions” that leave out others in your industry. Do not allow your opposition to pit you against your peers. And while you don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good, concessions should not be offered up front or celebrated. No matter how big or small, protectionism is protectionism, and it undermines your argument to accept any anti-competitive regulations. You cannot concede that protectionism is a legitimate government interest. And anti-competitive regulations will only grow, as more special interests and industry insiders see that they are able to bully you into accepting their terms.
For example, you may own a food truck, and you are advocating for your city to pass its first food-truck laws. The restaurant association may approach you to come up with a solution together. However, their solution may include restrictions that protect them from competition, like a proximity restriction, in addition to other potentially reasonable public health and safety regulations. While developing your mission statement, you should decide to reject any anti-competitive restrictions—whether it’s 50 feet or 500 feet—and determine what public health and safety regulations you’re willing to compromise on in order to get legislation passed. Perhaps you disagree on the proximity restriction, but you’re willing to support the restaurant association’s recommendation that you be required to have permission to use a restroom within 200 feet of your truck. If a proposed public health and safety regulation isn’t too burdensome, you may need to compromise and agree to it in order to defeat other proposals that severely limit where and when you can operate.
At this time, you may also want to decide what the long-term mission of your group is. Maybe you braid hair for a living, and your state requires you to take 600 hours of cosmetology classes that have nothing to do with hairbraiding. Your immediate goal may be to strike down this anti-competitive requirement. But long term, you may decide that your group will continue to exist as both an advocacy organization for your craft and a watchdog group to ensure a bad law isn’t passed in the future.
- If your group is large, you may want to establish a leadership structure. Let people opt into roles they feel they will thrive in. They will be more likely to remain engaged if they are doing something they enjoy and excel at. This will also help take some of the pressure off of your shoulders, so you’re not bearing the burden of all of the group’s activities. Officers can include a president, vice president, treasurer and secretary, but may include others depending on the specifics of your campaign.
- You may also decide to establish committees. This is a great way to divide up work, so everything gets done in a timely, orderly way, and again enables people to do things that they are good at and participate in a way that they are able to. Whether or not you decide to set up committees, each of these areas should be kept in mind as you move forward:
- A membership committee is in charge of increasing your core group’s members: impacted entrepreneurs.
- An outreach committee reaches out to other organizations and the general public to join your coalition. This committee should focus on increasing your number of public supporters.
- A media committee should be led by your main spokesperson. This committee is in charge of pitching reporters, coordinating op-eds, making sure articles are responded to with letters to the editor, organizing talk radio show appearances, writing and issuing press releases and media advisories, monitoring the news and making sure the group stays on message. If possible, this committee should also develop relationships with reporters who are covering your issue.
- The events committee is in charge of organizing events that recruit the public and raise awareness about your cause.
- You might create a legal committee if you are contemplating or have decided to challenge a law in court. If the law is complicated—and many of them are—you might consider consulting with a local attorney. Ideally, you can recruit an attorney to work on your behalf pro bono—free of charge—because legal fees can pile up.
- A fundraising committee is in charge of raising money for the group. Depending on what strategies you utilize, costs can add up, and at the end of the day, you don’t want to be held solely responsible for all of the expenses.
- The legislative committee is on point for all lobbying efforts and executing your campaign strategy. They should get to know the elected officials, attempt to develop relationships with key staff and ensure the group is on track to accomplish your legislative goals.
- Create a logo—a visual representation of your new organization, which can be used on a variety of promotional materials like t-shirts, brochures, flyers, stickers and decals, and it will serve as your letterhead. Your logo should have your organization’s name on it and be immediately recognizable and easy to read. It’s also important that it is in high-resolution. If possible, ask someone who has a background in graphic design to make it. If you don’t know anyone, keep it simple. You don’t want your logo to look unprofessional or homemade. You can simply use a strong font that reflects the character of your organization and your city.
- Create an e-mail list of your current members and future supporters. You can set up your own e-mail address—e.g., [email protected]—and maintain the sign-up list yourself, using a spreadsheet to keep track of people’s contact information. Alternatively, you can set up a listserv that prevents people from replying all, which members can opt-in to; for example, a Google group.
- Remember: It is critical to keep all sign-up information—whether collected online, in person, at events, etc.—in one place, in one spreadsheet. You will want to keep the list divided between core members and public supporters, since they will be receiving different communications.
- Some groups incorporate under state law. This structure can provide potential protection against certain personal liability for actions taken on behalf of the group. You might also consider registering with the Internal Revenue Service as a non-profit charitable organization. Registering as a non-profit may make donations tax-deductible under federal law and can provide other advantages, but this type of registration may place certain limits on the organization’s ability to lobby for legislative reform. It would be wise to speak with someone knowledgeable on the issue. Each of these introduces another layer of formality that you should be aware of before either incorporating or registering.
Retain your members
It can be difficult to retain your members and keep them engaged, especially over the long haul. Everyone leads busy lives, and the members of your group—and you—have businesses to run, so sometimes your campaign will take a backseat to busy, everyday life.
- It’s important to welcome newcomers and socialize. You don’t want this campaign to be daunting—you want it to be fun and as light as possible. It’s much more fun to fight alongside friends.
- Always remember to match talents with tasks. People want to do something that they’re good at and excel at—then they will embrace their responsibility.
- Make it easy for people to participate. Only hold meetings when necessary, and keep them short. Only mobilize when there’s a need to do so. Take notes at your meetings and circulate them to the group, if possible, so people who are unable to attend can stay engaged.
- Remember to stay in touch. At your first meeting, establish the best way to stay in regular contact with your core group of activists. This may be through e-mail, phone or regular meetings. If you’re online, e-mail is the best way to stay in touch. But remember to only communicate with the group when you have something to say—you don’t want to become a spammer.If all of your members are not online, a phone tree can work wonders. Be sure to get everyone’s phone number at your first meeting, and every time you recruit a new member. Create a phone tree that has each member calling two people to let them know about upcoming events, urgent action that needs to be taken, etc. If your group is smaller, someone from the group can volunteer to make all the phone calls. Print the phone tree out for your members at each meeting and keep it regularly updated.
- If possible, and if it won’t wear out your group, regular meetings can be very effective. You can publicize them more broadly and people know that there is a standing invitation to participate in a regularly scheduled meeting. You should try to have these in the same place, at the same time on a biweekly or monthly basis.
- To re-emphasize: Follow the Mr. Ed rule. Only talk when you have something to say, or else you run the risk of exhausting or annoying your supporters.
Remember: You will undoubtedly encounter some problems throughout your campaign. “Free loaders” will expect you to do all the work, while they reap the benefits; accept this and move on. Others may burn out from the high level of activity; give them time to recharge and talk with them about how to keep them engaged in a way that doesn’t conflict with their schedule.
Raising money for your fight can be one of the most challenging tasks you’ll face. Those trying to keep you from earning an honest living are often well organized and have lots of money and resources. You may need funds for literature, events, signs, billboards, t-shirts and other costs associated with spreading your message. But understand that many of your members may not be able to contribute to the group financially. Perhaps a bad policy threatens to put them out of work, and they’re preparing for the future. Look to outside sources to supplement your group’s income.
You should start fundraising as early as possible and do so while the issue is hot. Take advantage of appropriate opportunities to ask for support from people who sympathize with your position and are able to contribute to the cause.
- You can open a bank account under your group’s name and link it to a PayPal account, and solicit donations on your website.
- Ask supporters for in-kind contributions—things like office supplies, photocopies, use of computers and printers. You can ask local printers for discounts. Think creatively!
- Events can be successful fundraisers and will also help you raise awareness about your cause and recruit the public. Solicit financial support by charging a nominal fee to enter, requesting donations to auction or raffle (if your state law allows), or asking participating entrepreneurs to donate a portion of their proceeds to your organization’s fund.
- Design and sell t-shirts with your logo on them. This will not only generate revenue but also get the word out about your cause. See the online compendium for instructions on how to design and sell t-shirts and other branded items online.
- You can also sell advertising on your website and flyers.
- Activists have held bake sales, car washes, dinners and other social events. While these help to bring attention to your campaign, they are not usually big sources of funds. Some activists have “passed the hat” at community affairs, places of worship (with permission, of course) and town halls.
You might be considering soliciting dues from your members. This is tricky territory because some of your members might not be in a position to contribute financially. That doesn’t mean you should exclude them. They may be able to find other ways to contribute. If you do plan to require dues, keep them as low as possible and keep a strict record of what you spend the money on.