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How to Broaden Your Constituency and Build Memberships

There are a lot of proven techniques that will help you further your organization in support of trails and greenways.

By Skye Ridley, Executive Director emeritus of American Trails

"Build alliances-
Build a constituency-
Build a membership-
Publicize! Publicize!

The most important step: Before seeking any members or beginning to build a constituency, define your mission.
  • Be completely clear about what you want to accomplish.
  • Be able to articulate it to others in simple words.
  • Memorize and internalize your mission statement, goals, and strategies before approaching others.
Educate yourself on the issues, the personalities, the politics, the realities, and the vision.
  • Read, read, read.
  • Prioritize your reading.
  • Keep in touch with the people with the information. Call them during non-busy times and chat. Have lunch. Go for rides.
While conducting membership campaign, constituency building, consider what's best for your mission over the long run.
  • What's best in the short run often isn't what's best in the long run. Bullying an agency rep into doing your bidding on a small issue could cost you later.
  • The bicycle community is notorious for passionate, outspoken members who alienate. Flaming hurts bicycling in the long run. Unnecessarily argumentative people cannot build a large, effective organization; they should not be picked as board members, delegates, or spokespeople.
  • Don't waste time on small issues. Pick the few most important ones and refuse to be sidetracked, even by zealots who accuse you of disloyalty. The most important issues are those which are most important to bicycling in the long run and affect the highest number of people.
Understand that government support is a two-way street.
  • The government people who support bicycling need political support for their actions. Help them out by supporting their actions and campaigns. Be supportive and positive whenever possible.
  • Go on the offensive only when absolutely necessary. (Going on the offensive: criticizing public a person, policy, or action; in public or face-to-face.) It's a last resort. It burns bridges. Ignore the small mistakes and non-essential issues. Remember:concentrate on the big issues only.
  • Make it easy for government contacts to keep well informed. Send copies of press releases and newsletters. Contact them often, not only to ask for favors and information, but to provide favors and information.
  • However, don't bug them too often; consolidate calls; assign one person as the info conduit.
  • Take your government contacts on rides.
  • Publicize! Publicize! Publicize!
  • Keep the news releases flowing for every significant positive event: meetings, rides, policy issues.
  • Build up a media mailing list data base. Don't start from scratch; ask other organizations for copies of their mailing lists. Make it easy to send news releases quickly by setting up your data base in advance to print labels, and by setting up an assembly line operation for stuffing envelopes.
  • Follow the news releases with phone calls to confirm receipt. Media people "lose" news releases often. But you can't get angry at them, ever; that would be cutting your own throat.
  • Send brief, well-written copy. Build a reputation as a reliable information resource; soon the media people will be calling you. Write good articles for local publications so they don't have to do the work; they're more likely to publish your announcement if you do that.
  • Invite your media contacts to go riding with you to see the place or route of interest.
  • Tout the economic, environmental, and social benefits of bicycling. Especially the economic benefits. Businesspeople and elected officials love economic benefits, and they are the people with the power.
  • Send a newsletter to your members, contacts, government contacts, and key people in your community. It doesn't have to be big or fancy; just get the facts straight.
  • Compose a good brochure and a 15- minute slide show. Arrange to talk to bicycle clubs, service clubs, homeowners associations, and -- especially important -- business organizations. Ask the groups to join as organizational members of your organization (if appropriate). As the members to join your organization as members. Ask the members to become volunteers.
  • Build your membership
    • Ask yourself:does your organization really need to be a membership organization? Memberships take a lot of time and effort to track and maintain. Could you accomplish your mission without individual memberships? Research what other, successful organizations are doing.
    • If you decide you must have memberships, realize that it's a bootstrapping, exponential effort. The more members you have, the easier it is to get members.
    • Consider having several types of memberships, including business memberships. Businesses can be your best supporters.
    • It takes constant effort. You must repeat your spiel over and over and over. You must talk about your mission again and again. You must forever seek out those who haven't heard about your mission and tell them about it. You must speak out whenever possible. You must always seek new and more entertaining ways to talk about your cause.
    • Charge whatever the market will bear. The difference between $10 and $15 is not $5; its zero to prospective members. But it equals $2,500 a year to your organization ($5 * 500 members). That's enough to pay for your newsletter and all your mailings for a year!
    Build a constituency
    • A constituency is not the same as memberships. Your members are only a small portion of your potential constituency. Your constituency = the people who can help make your mission come true. Your constituency =
      • all bicyclists in your area of influence
      • people who support bicycling
      • elected officials
      • government employees
      • the bicycle business community
      • the non-bicycle business community
      • other bicycle nonprofit or volunteer groups
      • other, non-bicycle nonprofit or volunteer groups
      • anyone who can help you.
      • Get it?

    Build alliances

    • The public isn't aware of the time, money, and effort needed for behind-the- scenes work such as land acquisition, planning, engineering studies, coordination among agencies, etc. Government and volunteer groups are pressed for time and find it difficult to popularize their work. Help them publicize their efforts and projects; you'll win allies and support bicycling.
    • For example, find out one good thing an agency has done lately for bicycling. Write a jazzy news article about it and send it out as a news release to local papers. Repeat this every few months and you'll have them eating out of your hand.
    • Plan projects with other community organizations; involve as many people, organizations, and agencies as you can manage well.
    • Remember to take pride and pleasure in your work. It's a good cause.

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