When is There a There There? When is There Not?

Ok, you have a group of people who want to do something of political or social significance.  What do you need to do it?

You need a lot, and most of it will have to wait for later rants.  In this one, I’ll only try to cover the beginning.

The first things to settle are what to do, and how.  Many groups never get past this stage.  You wouldn’t believe how many meetings I’ve sat through that led to no action at all.  That’s fine, if all you’re interested in is a bitchfest.

If you want to actually do something, then you need to agree about:

(1)  A description of the general situation

(2)  What ought to be done

(3)  How it needs to be done

If you write this down, then (1) will probably be the “Whereases” in your resolution(s).  (2) might be the “Resolveds”.  (3) will probably be a number of different actions at different times, details to be settled in committee meetings and brought to some decision-making meeting for approval.

If you’re an affinity group that’s not interested in inviting the public to participate, all this might never be written down.  That’s great if you want to stay small and private.  It means operating in a way that few adults are used to:  recalling illiterate times when people composed songs and rhymes to remember important information:

“Thirty days have September,
April, June, and November…”

“Red and Yellow, kill a fellow.
Red and Black, friendly Jack.”
(telling a coral snake from a king snake)

“One: down to the road block, we’ve just begun;
Two: the guards are through;…”
(from The Dirty Dozen)

If you want your group’s reason for existence to be unwritten, it needs to be sung.

On the other hand….

If part of your mission is to communicate with the public, encourage their participation, and coordinate actions with others, there’s some basic infrastructure that you need to keep in place.


Requirements for defining the group and communicating with the public

●  some kind of writeup of who and what you are, and how to
…..contact you, probably published on both paper and the
…..web.  It’s likely to include a mission statement of some

●  web site

●  mailing list

●  email announcement/press list

●  phone line

●  snailmail address

●  “official” spokes

Notice that I’m not mentioning anything at all about what you need to actually DO something (meeting place, workshop, filthy lucre, paperweights, duct tape, runcible spoon).   Above is ONLY what you need in order to proclaim to the public that you exist, and that you’re doing something, and why.  It’s only the first step.

None of what I listed above can be done once and forgotten, unless your group is formed only for a very short-term project.  I’ll try to cover just how much work this all is likely to be, if you do it right.  You can always do it wrong, of course, and look like idiots.  That’s your choice.



This is likely to be the most difficult thing to put together, since the group must agree on all the contents and the exact wording.  It might take the form of one or more declarations of some kind posted on the web site, or a brochure that you print on paper and hand out whenever introducing your group to people.

Most likely, a small “committee” should be formed to draft it, since the “too many cooks” syndrome can easily take over, and not everyone can write or edit very well.

In paper form, it might be something thrown together in a word processor, or you might have someone with some real artistic skill to do it.  It might be a simple black & white thing from a good laser printer, or if you have some bucks, color and glossy.  The latter could prove very expensive at revision time.  Also, if the artist uses some software that not everyone uses, you might be dependent on that artist to go back and revise it every time.  Might or might not be a good idea.

It WILL need to be updated from time to time.  This is not something that the group can just approve once, keep using, and forget about.  Things change.  Your brochure can easily become dated in many respects:

– description of the current situation
– description of the group’s current activities or intent
– contact info:  phone, snailmail address, spokes contacts, whatever.



Years ago, it took some rather specialized knowledge to make a web site.  No more.  There are six-year-olds who have their own web sites.  The catch is that such a web site will LOOK like a six-year-old’s web site.  Sorta like the one you’re looking at now.  Any number of web hosting services offer a minimal site with very limited data storage and bandwidth for free or minimal cost, and a few templates to choose from that make it very easy to set up without knowing any HTML.

The trouble with such a service is that your web site will have a general appearance like a million others.  You’re likely to also have some limitations on what you can post and how you can lay it out.  If you have a volunteer who can do better, excellent.  If not, do what you must.

In any case, as with the brochure mentioned above, the most important thing is KEEPING IT CURRENT.

It’s particularly dangerous with a web site, in that there’s so much that can be posted, and people are always tempted to add more & more.  Just about anything you post can be outdated any time.  If you have a web site, there must be one person who accepts the following as a regular duty:

AT LEAST ONCE A MONTH, go to the web site and look at every page, click on every link, and look for things that might need changing to avoid looking like idiots.  Nothing says “dead” like a web site that hasn’t been updated for a few months.



This is a separate thing from the “email announcement/press list” mentioned elsewhere, in that it contains full address, phone, and other info, aside from just email addresses.  Even if you never send snailmail, it will be a repository of information for the group.  Whoever maintains it is likely to be bugged by some members for the phone numbers and email addresses of other members from time to time.  That goes with the territory.

The mailing list is usually built up from the signup sheets at meetings and public events, and could eventually become quite valuable if it contains donors.  It could become the most precious piece of property the group has, and must be guarded accordingly.  If you have an infiltrator, it’s the first thing he wants.

Whoever becomes your listmaster/mistress is taking on almost a daily duty.  If the group is active, there will be something to change nearly every time your people do anything at all, since new people will sign onto the mailing list every time the group presents itself to the public.  There will also be changes coming from the phone messages, email activity, and snailmail.  All this new info needs to go to the mailing list, along with explanation of how the info originated, in what context.



This is likely to take the form of a one-way listserve for occasional announcements, supplemented by a short list of press contacts who might be known to have an interest in your subject matter.  (The latter might or might not have ever actually signed onto your list, but advertised their email addresses as part of the news staff, and thus are asking for announcements from the public.)

Whoever maintains the list might or might not be the same person who sends the announcements, but it’s probably convenient to be so.  When people can’t figure out how to remove themselves from the listserve or change their addresses on it, they generally reply to the person who sends the announcements.

Likewise, the owner of the listserve might or might not be the keeper of the mailing list, but they need to see much of the same information that comes in through signup sheets, phone calls, web contacts, etc.

Updates on the email list are less common than with the mailing list, but the job of maintaining it involves, at the very least, checking one’s email every day to see whether anyone is having a problem with the listserve.



If you presume to be open and unashamed of what you’re doing, giving the public and the press a way to speak to a live person is pretty important.

Whatever phone number you give out in your literature, it needs to be checked daily for messages, and the person doing the checking must be able to call back and refer the caller to the right person for the subject matter within a day or two.

Nothing says “flakes” like phone messages unreturned.



If what you do is controversial, and likely to raise some… er… “passions”, you’ll probably want to get a PO box, rather than give out someone’s home address.  Again, this must be checked pretty regularly — at least once or twice a week — and the mail dealt with by someone who has a clue.  Like the phone line, but a little less urgent.



A difficult one.  If you care about what the press says about you, you’ll need one or two people who can talk, whom the group trusts to represent the sentiments of the group accurately.  Either you have it or you don’t.  If you don’t, don’t try to talk to the press.



Because there comes a time in the life of every organization, coalition, whatever, when people lose interest.  It might be hours or centuries.  If you’re lucky, it’s years, but it will happen.  How do you know when it’s time to hang it up?

ANSWER:  When large parts of what I’ve described above are no longer happening.  You no longer have the tools for proclaiming that you exist, what you are, or what you do, if you’re doing anything.

If you ARE doing something, but don’t want to bother with this infrastructure, then you’ve decided to be small and private.  And that’s ok.  Just don’t pretend to be something you’re not.

TAKE DOWN YOUR WEB SITE, DISCONNECT THE PHONE LINE, CANCEL THE PO BOX, STOP HANDING OUT THE OLD OUTDATED LITERATURE, AND STOP USING THE NAME THAT THEY ONCE ADVERTISED.  Pick another name, if only to release you from any promises made by old literature that might still be floating around…

…and start composing rhymes.

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4 Responses to When is There a There There? When is There Not?

  1. 2trang says:

    I enjoyed reading this. I think it should be required reading for all community organizers and EVERYONE in a little coalition we sometimes call home on one or two Saturdays a month…

  2. Pingback: WHY DON’T THE GREENS…..? | kitchenmudge

  3. Pingback: MY HOLIDAY POST | kitchenmudge

  4. Pingback: WHY DON’T THE GREENS…..? | kitchenmudge

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