Bringing new members into a forming group
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The first experiences of potential recruits can have a huge impact on whether they return for another experience. The more you can do to engage them with a community building experience, the more likely they will return. When community projects first form, after the initial first few meetings, there is a set of tasks and things to work on. There is also a inherent instability of the membership, as new people continue to show up. The needs of a new person for information and connection are very different than the needs of a person who has been involved for awhile. If these needs are not met, the new person may very well drop out.
A bad first impression
Joe and Lisa saw the community forming flier on the coop bulletin board. Joe had read something about community and with some convincing, he talked Lisa into checking it out. He called the number on the flier and was given a very brief message, that the next meeting was Sunday afternoon at a local community center. Unsure what to do about their 9 year old daughter, they found her a sitter for the morning and showed up at the meeting place.
People were busily setting up chairs and talking in low tones when they arrived. Someone noticed them and without any personal introduction handed them a stack of papers and told them to grab a seat the meeting starts in a couple minutes. They sat down in the chairs and began reading the documents. The meeting started, and they were immediately asked to introduce themselves, which made Lisa feel a bit uncomfortable, speaking in front of a circle of people she had never seen before, but she managed to get through it.
The meeting was not at all like the ones Lisa and Joe were used to, and seemed intense. The agenda on the board said legal agreement and there seemed to be some strong disagreements about some obtuse issues. The intensity level rose, and the person running the meeting called for a break. Lisa gave Joe, the look, he nodded, and they slipped out the door, never to return. On the drive home they both agreed, this community thing was not something they wanted to be part of.
A community building experience
Another group, another town. Marty and Tina saw the flier on the coop bulletin board and called the number. The person that answered was busy, but invited them to a dinner party a couple weekends hence. During the week they received a short personal note inviting them to dinner, and encouraging them to bring their whole family. There was also a background sheet of general community information. When they arrived at the church where the dinner was held, they were immediately greeted by an affable woman named Susan. She introduced them to several people as they wandered over to where the kids were playing. There was an energetic man named Bill engaging the kids in an art project, and Marty and Tina’s daughter Julie was introduced and joined the activity with the kids. Marty and Tina were invited to help set up the tables and chairs, and as they worked they chatted with another person. Dinner was served and for the next hour Marty and Tina ate and talked with the members of the group. In the warm afterglow of the event as they drove home, both Marty and Tina said this “community dinner”, which was part of what the community wanted to create, felt like Thanksgiving at home. They had listened to and had some great conversations with folks who were very interesting. Their daughter Julie had felt right at home and had lots of fun with the other kids.
Later that week, they got another personal note inviting them to follow-up if they were interested by calling Bill and getting the details about the next upcoming meeting. There was a also a sheet which had more details about the goals and visions of the group. They called immediately and Bill told them about how they ran meetings. He alerted them that sometimes they got intense but the goal of their process was to allow people to speak honestly and freely and to work it out. He warned them the meeting might go as long as three hours in order to fully hear all the issues and work on them. He also invited them to bring their daughter as childcare was provided.
On the meeting day, there was a brief sharing time at the beginning where people told a bit about their lives, and Tina surprised herself by comfortably sharing some stuff going on with her about being a working mom. These smiling people felt like family. The meeting did get intense at a couple of points just like Bill had said, but Tina and Marty were prepared and stayed around and saw how the group also worked out the issues and seemed really well focused, organized and caring. Bill sat next to them and quietly explained parts about the meeting that they did not understand. They stayed well after the meeting and talked with Bill for quite awhile with great interest and animation. Later that week they got a nice card from Bill which both welcomed them, and gave them info about the steps to join the group. The note also encouraged them to call him if they had any issues or questions. Tina and Marty could hardly wait until the third meeting was past, so they could write a commitment check and be a part of this group.
What was successful?
In the latter example, there were several things which helped the prospective members feel connected. They got a personal follow-up note, they were immediately engaged by a friendly person at their first event, and they experienced a fun, social event. They were asked to help with a small task. They got to meet several members and talk with them. They were prepared in advance for a difficult meeting and shepherded by a contact person who followed up with them.
Balancing the time new members need
It is a time and energy consuming activity to meet a prospects needs for information and social relationship. It is an investment which in some cases does not pay off. So there needs to be a balance of where and how time is spent to bring in new members. Many forming groups find that a increasing pyramid of time works well. For example, a first contact conversation can simply direct prospects to the next prospects gathering time. A followup mailing or email can give broad information about the group prior to the actual meeting. Since a large percentage of initial contacts do not result in new members, conserving energy spent on intial contacts can serve the group well. You probably will not be well served spending hours and hours of time talking with people who only have a minimal interest.
By setting up a regular first contact meeting time and place you save the group energy. Many forming groups set aside a regular day of the month as the new person contact event. For example, the third Sunday of the month is a community dinner where prospects are invited. If you couple this with a group social event, you can accomplish a good community time even if no new prospects show up. If a prospect turns up at the meeting, then a group member can be prepared to make a couple hours of investment in helping the prospect understand the group and its vision and goals. If this is done at a larger social event, then a tag team of members can supply contacts with new members as well as find time to socialize as well. This spreads out the time investment per individual member and also gives the prospect a variety of member perspectives.
If a prospect shows strong potential, assign them a buddy
How you evaluate prospects will be unique to your groups goals and visions. When you find someone who is a “keeper” you will want to make an investment in them. New people are likely to be unsure, and may have no experience in a group. Assign buddies to new people to send them personal notes and phone calls. Having a community buddy to sit with them at meetings, introduce them to people they have not yet met, etc. can really help build a new prospects relationships in the group. If a new person comes to a few meetings and then misses one, give them a call and tell them you missed them and ask if there is something they need. Reach out to them, show them you care. But don’t hound them either. One important thing to do is to involve them in the work of the group Ask them if they can take on a small task or two and if they are interested, give them a task they can succeed with. As they work for the group, encourage and support them as needed.
Create events for new members that build community
New peoples energy are often desperately needed but sometimes, new people only come to one meeting then they are never seen again. And of course, who can blame them? Put yourself in a new persons shoes and look at what they see. If a persons first community experience is some long meeting, where all they see is a bunch of people struggling with a bunch of work, and seem to be stressed out about it, why in the world would you want to be part of that? Remember, most new folks will have only vague intellectual ideas about what this community thing is all about. Their emotional commitment is very thin, based usually on a few pictures and some descriptions. Until the community actually physically exists, there is only a vision and the relationships to the other members to motivate people to commitment time and energy to community forming tasks.
If the first community experience is a warm community sharing, it can really grab people. People laughing, sharing hopes and dreams, eating food together like a big family, these are all wonderful things that community is all about. It is true that there is much work and struggle involved in creating a project and people need to know that too. But that is not necessarily what will commit them into your group.
It is a good idea to invite newcomers to a party before a meeting (unless you run your meetings like parties). Let them experience people sharing community first so they can have the opportunity to understand and even to feel a small part of the hopes and dreams of a cooperative social group. Many groups have found that regularly scheduled social events also help even established members maintain their bonds.
Hope, dreams and vision are what carry a forming group forward. You should create time and processes which invite newcomers to share their hopes and visions, and also to regenerate the hopes and visions of the continuing members, both to reinvigorate them and also so the new comers feel connected by the shared dreams. This will also help cement the connections of everybody and strengthen your communities foundations.
This started as an article by Rob Sandelin, distributed in various forms and published online by NICA. Rob gave permission to post it here, knowing that it may morph into something new as we "wiki" it...