Citizen Action Monitor

So you want to fight city hall. Here’s how: Pt 1/3: Build a citizen advocacy organization

No 68 Posted by fw, September 24, 2010


A double thanks to Liz Benneian, President of the Oakvillegreen Conservation Association (OCA): first, for her inspiring Organize to Win presentation in Windsor on September 12, 2010; second, for granting me permission to use her speaking notes in preparing this three-part series of posts. And a tip of the hat to Doug Hayes, head of Windsor’s chapter of the Council of Canadians, for arranging to bring Liz to Windsor.

The content of this three-part series is an adaptation of Liz’s speaking notes. While some of the wording is different or augmented, I have tried to remain generally true to Liz’s concepts and main ideas.


Every now and then citizens get really angry at city hall. It’s inevitable: perhaps a developer wants to plop down a golf course in the middle of a favourite woodland; maybe a company wants to build an incinerator on an industrial waterfront property, or city council, in its infinite wisdom, approves expansion of the city airport, threatening to dump even more air and noise pollution on nearby residential neighbourhoods and release harmful CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.

Whatever the issue, once aroused, angry citizens will fight city hall, especially over pocketbook, health and safety, environmental, and quality of life issues. But never having fought these kinds of battles before, citizens probably won’t know how best to take on an intimidating, municipal bureaucratic Goliath.

This is where Liz Benneian of the Oakvillegreen Conservation Association (OCA) comes in. Following a stunning victory to stop Halton Region from spending $800 million to build a polluting incinerator, Liz decided to share OCA’s hard-won advocacy expertise by creating and delivering, for free, Organize to Win sessions to teach citizens of other Ontario municipalities how to build effective citizen advocacy groups.

In composing her Organize to Win presentation, Liz drew on two resources: great mentoring from other community organizers and justice campaigners; and “do / don’t-do” lessons learned from an analysis of OCA’s own advocacy battles.

We are indeed fortunate to be able to benefit from Liz’s teachings, which follow.

Two primary purposes of citizen advocacy organizations

Citizen advocacy organizations serve two primary purposes: they can give citizens a powerful dissenting voice in city hall’s decision-making process; and they can advocate for initiatives that advance their own goals.

Too often, city hall decisions, which may potentially have a profound impact on the lives of ordinary citizens, are made out of sight, in the backrooms of power, where politicians, bureaucrats and powerful lobbyists consult.

For instance, the municipal planning/development process determines what growth/development will occur, where it will occur, how it will occur, and when it will occur. Typically, elected officials and bureaucrats will meet frequently with developers and business lobbyists but seldom, if ever, with citizens.

Resident participation in this planning process occurs – if it occurs at all – after the fact, at so-called “open public meetings”.  At these events, finalized plans are presented, opportunities for resident feedback are micromanaged, any dissenting viewpoints are ignored, and the mayor and city councillors spin a story of “broad public support” for the media.

An experienced and powerful citizen advocacy organization can match city hall power with citizen power, either to block a proposed city hall project or to advance a proposed project of its own.

Getting organized: creating a citizen advocacy group from the ground up

For starters, note the following:

Citizen advocacy groups should not seek registration as charities. Charitable status is hard to get, costs money and limits a group’s ability to advocate to 10% of its activities. Advocacy groups must be self-funding from membership fees and fundraisers. Taking money from funders also compromises a group’s ability to advocate freely and effectively. The good news is advocacy work doesn’t cost much money — just time and commitment.

What OCA has come to understand is that to successfully mount a campaign against city hall, no matter what you are fighting for or against, you must do certain things to be effective. And topping this must-do, never-to-be-forgotten list, are these two imperatives: 1) Organizing is the key to success, and 2) Decisions are almost always made on the basis of self-interest.

Here, then, are the 18 essential steps in establishing a citizen advocacy organization that is “Organized to Win”

  1. Form a group. The first step of successful organizing is to form a group. The group doesn’t have to be large, but it must be a cohesive and committed unit.
  2. Develop a mission statement. The best mission statements define the fundamental purpose of an organization, succinctly describing why it exists and what it does to achieve its vision. They answer the question: “What do we do?” Here is Oakvillegreen’s mission statement:  “Oakvillegreen is a non-profit, non-partisan environmental organization advocating for policies and initiatives to make our community healthy and resilient.” Mission statements can be changed on an as-needed basis. Time spent wordsmithing mission statements is time wasted and risks driving good people away.
  3. Appoint a spokesperson. One designated spokesperson ensures a polished delivery of a concise, consistent, complete and factually accurate message.
  4. Decide how group decisions will be made. In general there are 3 options: 1) simple show of hands to see how members feel about an issue; 2) secret ballot voting, best suited for very large groups — the drawback is that voting will not promote group harmony if losers continue to actively resist winners; and 3) consensus, a preferred approach because group cohesion and stability is paramount as all points of view are welcomed and members strive to arrive at a point where no “legitimate concerns” remain on the table. An open vote may be preferable to consensus if “paralysis from analysis” sets in, or if the group is new and the level of inter-personal trust is too low to support a consensual outcome. On a related note, any board or steering committee member who cannot live with the group’s decision must follow the rule of “Two Feet” and walk away. There must be zero tolerance for any attempt to undermine a group decision. (For an excellent explanation of consensual decision-making, click on Basics of Consensus provided by Northwest International Communities Association).
  5. Decide how board members or steering committee members are chosen. You may want to assign board members the sole responsibility to elect other board members. This effectively prevents outside bodies from “loading” or “contaminating” the board with its own supporters.
  6. Choose a chair. The chair must be firm and fair, with the self-confidence and tact to skillfully manage and resolve conflicts. A firm but fair chair sees to it that core members trust and support one another and advance the group’s goals. The chair has sole responsibility for removing anyone who cannot abide by group norms of acceptable behaviour.
  7. Announce the group to the public, organize an event and take advantage of the event to recruit new members.
  8. Charge a nominal membership fee. Both city hall and the public at large will tend to take your organization more seriously if you can state that you have a “paid membership”. As well, members themselves tend to associate fees with value, hence taking more seriously their membership “in the group”, as well as the importance of their own contribution to the group and their community.
  9. Communicate regularly with members and non-member supporters. Start an email list to keep people informed. Record names and email addresses of potential new members at every event. Don’t let time pass between personal or email contact with members. Keep people up-to-date on what’s happening with an issue, and let them know what you want them to do next. Use the email list to get people out to critical municipal committee and council meetings – just having many people in the audience can change politicians’ minds on an issue. Send people information about how to contact their politicians. Highlight the things you think are essential for them to repeat. Keeping people informed and ready to take action is your most critical job.
  10. Everything you do must move you closer to your goals AND build your organization. Doing this will keep your group growing and successful.
  11. Borrow constitutions and bylaws and revise as necessary. (Oakvillegreen’s are free to borrow and have been by many groups who have adapted them for their own use.)
  12. Incorporate. The act of incorporation limits the liability of a corporation’s members.
  13. Hold effective meetings. Be dynamic. Keep meetings as short as possible. Appoint a no-nonsense chair/facilitator who won’t let anybody grandstand (especially any politicians who show up) and who will keep the meeting on track. Make sure you include time to listen to the people who are contributing their valuable time to attend meetings. Don’t just talk at them. Invite them to air their views, share their concerns and give their ideas for action. You can learn a lot by listening, and people will be loyal to a group they feel is truly hearing them. Ending meetings before the people want them to end is an effective motivational technique; but encourage folks to stay around and chat informally. Refreshments enhance sociability and pleasure.
  14. Identify your leaders. Your leaders and representatives can learn a lot from politicians about how to reach out and engage people. Don’t forget the basics like identifying yourself, stating your goals, and asking people to take on specific tasks.
  15. Hold meetings of your key executives as often as you need to and host public events as often as you can.
  16. Web presence. Build and maintain a content-rich, user-friendly, up-to-date web presence – a website if your content seldom changes, a blog if it changes frequently, or a blog as an integral part of a website.
  17. Reach out to other citizens by contacting affiliate groups and other local groups who might share your group’s concerns  (e.g., Horticultural Societies, Naturalist groups, Residents’ Associations etc.). Win their support. Don’t just email them. Call them. Meet with them.
  18. Create coalitions. Bring all the little groups together. Consider having an overarching environmental/sustainability group and making all the separate little groups committees of the big group. You need to build the strength of your organization so it’s there for the long haul. You need to hang on to people who have experience fighting battles and not risk losing their expertise when their particular battle ends.

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