Citizen Action Monitor

Building effective grassroots organizations through good planning: A modest proposal

No 13 Posted by fw, May 4, 2010

Fail to plan, plan to fail, as the old adage goes.

This old maxim may be a cliché, but it’s true.

Fail to plan, plan to fail

I don’t know about you, but in my limited experience as an intermittent member of small citizen action groups, I have found them to be highly action-oriented. Impatient to get out there and “just do it,” they are inclined to pay less attention to nitty-gritty planning details. Regrettably, activist groups that “just do it” may wind up “doing it” not very well, or for very long.

If there were ever a case to be made for the value of planning in building effective grassroots organizations, the Transition Network movement has made it – impressively and repeatedly. The results speak for themselves. What began in the UK in 2005-2006 with just two communities, has, in a mere four years, experienced phenomenal growth — worldwide. Currently there are over 275 official Transition Towns, as they are popularly known, flourishing in more than a dozen countries, and thousands more groups are in the initial stages of forming a Transition initiative. Canada has sixteen official Transition Towns.

How can we account for the phenomenal success that the Transition movement has had in building highly effective grassroots organizations? In a couple of words – great planning. There’s nothing particularly outstanding about the folks engaged in a Transition initiative. No superstars here. Just ordinary folks, like you and me.

The difference can be found in superb planning tools. Not to demean the Transition Network image, but the movement reminds me of a typical franchise operation. Think Tim Hortons or Starbucks without an eye focused laser-like on the bottom line. Instead, the Transition Network is driven by a not-for-profit vision to save the world. It is the creator and distributor of proven planning tools to enable ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results in building resilience and sustainability into their communities.

To accomplish this goal, Transition Towns follow the Transition Network’s planning model as laid out in The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience. The Handbook provides users with a comprehensive and detailed blueprint – a plan, if you will — for creating a richer, more vibrant community through the re-localization of all the services and resources the community will need to survive and thrive in a world of depleting fossil fuels, global warming, and increasing instability in the world economy.

The worldwide adaption and successful implementation of the Transition planning model are a testament to its proven planning process.

But this is not a plug for Transition Network’s model per se. Not at all. Rather, it’s a clarion call for activist grassroots organizations to get their own planning processes in order.

Don’t get me wrong. Generally speaking, activists are hard-working, well-meaning, community-spirited citizens. What’s not to like about them? I like them. I just don’t always like their planning practices. My thumbs-down judgment of their methods is informed by my many years of experience as a project planning and management team leader.

Among the major planning flaws that I have witnessed, include, for example:

  • no clearly defined organization mission statement;
  • no designated facilitator to control the meeting;
  • meeting agenda topics that are ambiguous at best or missing altogether;
  • agenda topics without accompanying statements of expected outcomes;
  • free-wheeling unfocused and undisciplined discussions;
  • absence of decision-making guidelines that would prevent one person from having an undue influence on discussion outcomes;
  • failure to record decision or action points on a flipchart for all to see and follow, which would prevent the recorder from jotting down points on a notepad, from which s/he unilaterally and arbitrarily announces at the end of the meeting – “Okay, here’s what we’ve decided.”;
  • no clear and concise statement of action goals;
  • an abbreviated recorder’s report that conveys little of significance beyond “We discussed this and this and this.”;
  • no measurable performance criteria by which to evaluate the effectiveness of action-event results;
  • no statement of first principles to guide group functions.

One reason these grassroots groups are not as good at planning as they could be is that there are major gaps in their planning knowledge and skills base. And if you don’t know what you don’t know, then you won’t know what you’re missing.

A six-step proposal for improving your team’s planning knowledge and skills

Here’s a modest proposal for improving an activist team’s planning knowledge and skills base.

Step 1 – Do some reading and research. Read two or three of the excellent manuals targeted at the citizen activist audience. (See my short Recommended Reading list below).

Did I just hear a loud groan out there?  Why do otherwise well-educated adults balk at reading self-help manuals? I’ve heard the main objections to reading manuals countless times:

    • “We don’t have time to read bloody manuals”;
    • “Besides, there are no manuals for grassroots activists”;
    • “It’s better to learn by doing”;
    • “We learn from our mistakes and make adjustments as we go”
    • “What’s to learn about planning – it’s just a matter of common sense?”
    • “We’re not bean-counting bureaucrats”;
    • “We’ve been doing things this way for years. Why should we change now?”;
    • “Who are you to tell us how to plan?”

And on, and on. And the more deeply ingrained the bad habits are, the harder it is to nudge the team in a new direction.

The good news is that not everyone has to read the manuals. Since time is an activist team’s most precious resource, the way to save everyone’s time is to delegate the reading task to one or two team-members, well-educated people with good critical analytical reading and note-taking skills. (Alternatively, teams might consider recruiting or hiring a skilled facilitator/trainer to help core team members develop their planning knowledge and skills base).

Step 2 – Build a checklist of general planning fundamentals. The readers’ task is to read for a purpose, the purpose being to build a checklist of the basic elements of the planning process. Construct the checklist from the sources listed below, or from any other authoritative source(s). Compile separate lists for each book or combine components from two or more sources into one original hybrid checklist.

Step 3 – Using the checklist of the planning fundamentals prepared in Step 2, the team as a whole should review and rate the group’s awareness of and use of these best planning practices. The purpose here is to discover the gaps in the team’s planning knowledge and skills base.

Step 4 – Modify the checklist to arrive at a draft of a checklist that is specifically tailored to your team’s personnel strengths and mission requirements. Steps 3 and 4 may be best done in a 2- or 3-hour special session devoted entirely to this team-building exercise.

Step 5 — Plug the gaps in your team’s approach to planning through training and hands-on application in your subsequent action planning exercises. Be prepared to further modify the checklist as you go, on an as-needed basis.

Step 6 – Following the adoption and application of your enhanced planning process, evaluate the effectiveness of your team’s subsequent planned action events. Has the introduction of best practices into your team’s planning processes translated into noticeably improved organizational effectiveness?

The goal of this six-step proposal is to nudge your team to the point where it begins to habitually act as if planning makes a difference to its performance effectiveness. Believe me, it does. Think again of the amazing accomplishments of the Transition Network. So, don’t fail to plan. Plan to succeed.


Building Powerful Community Organizations: A Personal Guide to Creating Groups That Can Solve Problems and Change the World by Michael Jacoby Brown (Paperback, 2007). A practical and personal guide to creating groups that can solve community and workplace problems. Using lessons learned, exercises and stories from the experience of the author and others, this book brings alive the process of community organizing and community building. It is for anyone who wants to start or strengthen a community group, a congregation, a neighborhood association, a civic group, or any other group that deals with the many problems and concerns we all face in our everyday lives. The author has over 30 years’ experience building community organizations. He has trained thousands of people in health, labour, government, political, housing and other organizations.

The Troublemaker’s Teaparty: A Manual for Effective Citizen Action by Charles Dobson (Paperback, 2003). Unlike similar books that are aimed at non – profits with paid staff, The Troublemaker’s Teaparty is specifically designed to help small, volunteer citizen groups. An invaluable resource, it answers the basic questions of citizen action: How to get others involved? How to respect different views, but work cooperatively? How to make progress when decision-makers refuse to listen? How to find the time and resources? Charles Dobson has spent 15 years involved in community organising, and authored one of the best on-line organising manuals available. An advisor to The Media Foundation, he is an Associate Professor at Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design, principal of a public interest communications firm, and lives in Vancouver BC.

How to Save the World in Your Spare Time by Elizabeth May (Paperback, 2007). If you’ve ever tried to save a local hospital, keep a neighborhood school open, or stop logging in a nearby forest, you will immediately recognize the benefits of this accessible handbook. Topics include: How to get your issue in the news; How to organize; How to lobby; and How to mount a successful campaign. Elizabeth May is the current leader of Green Party of Canada, the former Executive Director of Sierra Club of Canada and an internationally renowned activist.


FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog, Citizen Action Monitor, may contain copyrighted material that may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Such material, published without profit, is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues. It is published in accordance with the provisions of the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling and its six principle criteria for evaluating fair dealing.

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