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Community Engagement - It's all about relationships

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

Re-think Green recently hosted an interactive discussion on innovative ways to engage the public for advocacy, fundraising and finding new volunteers. The event was led by Graham Saul, who has more than 15 years experience working on global justice and environmental issues including work with Oxfam, as Executive Director of Climate Change Action Network Canada, and currently as Executive Director of Ecology Ottawa. Graham shared his organization’s challenges and successes. He also demonstrated powerful software tools designed to help build the relationships between a community group and its supporters. The event was attended by about 40 people, including representatives from a number of local community groups.

Graham described the environmental community in Canada as lacking “deep roots”. We are not good at mobilizing large numbers of people to respond to issues. We know we have friends out there, probably hundreds of thousands of people who share our basic values. We represent a clear majority of Canadians who value clean air and water, who want liveable communities where we all have enough to eat and a safe place to sleep. We are good at ideas, but not so good at action, which makes us quite ignorable.

As activists, we need to get past our “enlightenment assumptions”. We tend to believe if we are right, if our cause is just and admirable, we simply need to show everyone else, they will believe too and they will help us. For most people, just knowing about an issue does not mean they will act on it.

Graham used the analogy of “air campaigns” versus “ground campaigns”, saying that while our groups are often very good at ideas, we are not so good at action. We can debate, lobby, and do research but this “air campaign” does not necessarily create action. If all we are is an idea, we will continue to be at a disadvantage.

Community groups can learn from the way political campaigns are run. A political campaign is 80% “ground” – knocking on doors, face-to-face conversations, developing personal relationships with other people. Political parties work hard to create a large base of supporters who can be counted on, to varying degrees, to help build their momentum. It is great to have hundreds of people who “like” us on Facebook or who click on our petitions or forward our emails but unless we further develop our relationships with these people, we will never grow our core of active members.

While there are many ways for us to reach like-minded people; hosting an event, setting up a website, pamphlets and media coverage must be only the beginning of the relationship. Graham used a pyramid to demonstrate a group’s relationships with its members. The majority, at the base are simply friends who agree with us and have some connection to our group. As we go up the pyramid, we have decreasing numbers of people who are more and more involved. We need to develop our relationships with the larger number of people who have been touched by our group in some way, who already believe in our cause but who have never taken action.
80% of Canadians live in cities, so if we are going to build a better world, we need to build a better city. In our cities, activism tends to be a “downtown” phenomenon. Community groups often start in the core and have the strongest support there. If we are going to call ourselves “community” groups, we need to reach all those people who live in the outlying areas. This is particularly challenging for a geographically huge city like Sudbury. Since the small group that organizes any community group can only have relationships with a limited number of people, finding and developing a single volunteer in every neighbourhood or town, who can mobilize neighbours is the key to city wide growth.

Graham talked about the success his group has had with petition drives and fundraising drives. Ecology Ottawa experimented with going door-to-door in suburban areas of Ottawa to try to broaden their reach in those outlying areas. The resulting increased support in these areas was staggering.

A petition is an easy way to start a conversation and get contact information from potential supporters. Petitions can be used at event tables, demonstrations, community outreach and improvement initiatives and online. Some very simple ideas for getting the most out of a petition include: sign it yourself first, write neatly, fill in all the blanks. Others who sign will follow suit. The information a petition gathers is extremely valuable. While many of the people who sign a petition are not willing to go further and perhaps attend a rally, write a letter or donate, some might. We must follow up and use this contact information to try to develop the relationship these potential supporters have with our group.

Graham demonstrated some very powerful software that has helped Ecology Ottawa to increase its base and organize supporter information. Re-think Green is investigating different types of supporter-management software to potentially purchase in collaboration with community groups here in Sudbury.

If we are to mobilize a substantial portion of a population for action to demand change, we must move from being simply an opinion, to being a constituency. Graham asked that if only one message was taken away from his presentation, it was this: nothing is stronger than one person talking face-to-face with another person and building a relationship.


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Karen Bringleson (Karen Bringleson)
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The Sudbury working-group of The Media Co-op was formed to create independent media in the North, to speak to our issues and outlooks on our communities as well as the world around us. Independent media provides an avenue for people who are wishing to gain critical perspective on the issues that matter most to us, and to give a voice to those people and stories that you won't find in the mainstream media.

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