Recently, I received an email from a good friend in reference to the Maine Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (MCLU). Here’s the gist of it:
The MCLU has a solid group of traditional, white-collar members over 30 who are active in the organization. They want to attract a younger crowd, blue collar workers, and people within the arts community. What are some ideas for outreach events that’ll help make some inroads into those communities, or at least educate those communities about the basics of civil liberties, why they’re important, why they’re taken for granted, why they’re violated more than people think, how the MCLU is working to protect them, etc?
I don’t think the MCLU’s situation is unique – they have their core group, but want to increase their breadth.
Here are the things I suggested. I hope they’ll be relevant beyond this particular case, so feel free to post your own ideas.
– Start by thinking about why your organization wants to engage a different demographic. Without a clear goal, it is difficult to be effective. Most organizations struggle with engaging the under 30 crowd, partially because young people aren’t really at a place in their lives where they can be committed to an organization. At the same time, there are many young people who are super-committed to service and engagement and would love to be involved – they just need to be asked/informed.
– Look at your current outreach. The MCLU happened to have no current events and no volunteer opportunities listed on their website (it’s in the works). You can’t expect people to read your mind, so tell them how they can be involved. Same thing with social networking sites – keep them relevant and up to date.
– Start with the easy things. Here in Maine, there are many outreach fairs offered by local businesses and events. A lot of non-profits and advocacy organizations have tables at the farmer’s market on a weekly basis to promote their cause. If you have an outreach table, make sure you give people the opportunity to take action right there – at minimum this would be signing up for an email list, but you could have a petition or postcards to send friends about a particular relevant issue or event.
– Look at what chapters are doing in other states. The Colorado Chapter of the ACLU provided a great model as they have a number of upcoming events that could easily be replicated by the chapter in Maine – things like a 5k run with a festival are easy to do because you can start small and grow every year. Colorado’s festival includes a GraFREEti wall, which is a great way to incorporate art into the event.
– Partner with existing organizations, but *use caution*. Partnering with other organizations for an event can be difficult – you don’t want to spend too much time collaborating only to present a diluted message of what your organization does. Try to find a partner that compliments rather than competes with your mission. If you bring in partners that aren’t directly related to your organization’s activities, you should have a good reason for the partnership other than sharing the costs of an event.
– Bring someone from your targeted audience into your core by making them a board or committee member. Obviously, you want them to have other credentials, but be willing to work with them even if they don’t have the traditional skills of your typical core member.
Sometimes organizations spend too much time thinking about how to attract the “hip” crowd. My most important suggestion is this: if you’ve got a good thing, don’t mess with it. If you bend over backwards to involve a more diverse group of supporters, you’re probably sacrificing something. Focus on your strengths – if you do them well (and put some effort into promotion), you’ll be attractive without a whole bunch of fanfare.