Maybe you have rescued a few (many) animals in your community. Maybe you have contacted local legislators to change animal cruelty laws. Possibly you have volunteered at a local animal shelter, or you teach at a local school and have offered lessons in humane treatment of animals to your students. But you are acting alone. You feel there must be others in your community who feel as you feel and may be doing some of the same things you are doing. You want to find them; but where do you start?
While there are many formal articles on the “how to” of starting any group, you have to start, so pick a date, book a meeting space, and send out emails. Do not wait for someone else. Put a notice in the newspaper, on Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media source you know of. Post notices in animal-related businesses—veterinary hospitals, pet supply stores, groomers, boarding kennels—and in public places—libraries, bulletin boards in grocery stores, health clubs, colleges, etc.
Others will respond to you quickly and want to help. Find a couple people who can become the core of your group, meet with them either in person or by email/phone. Come up with an agenda for that first meeting. Be clear that this first meeting is a “meet and greet” and the time to discuss the vision and mission of this new group. Take time to be clear on your mission especially—what are your boundaries. Are you going to rescue animals? Are you going to educate others? Are you going to promote legislation to protect animals? A clear, succinct mission statement will direct all other steps in creating your organization.
Do you want to be an informal group—one without bylaws and incorporation? Understand the freedom and limitations such a group offers. If you want a formal, structured group, know what is involved in creating one. Best Friends Animal Society offers a “how to” create such an organization, especially one designed for hands-on rescue of animals. In Defense of Animals also has some information on forming an animal advocacy group.
Communication is key—communication among volunteers in the newly formed organization and communication to the general public. Within the group, the communication may be informal but must be clearly designed so all volunteers understand the mission, scope, and limitations that volunteering with your organization entails. Communication to the general public will be of another nature altogether. You have to “sell” them on what is in it for them to contact your organization, to take you seriously, to look to your organization for answers. Websites, both for the general public and for internal organizational information, are helpful tools for keeping everyone informed. Make sure the public one is inviting, kept up to date, and is easy to navigate. Your internal website should be password protected so only those individuals who are part of your organization have access to the information.
Whether formal or informal, each organization should have specific people who can speak for the entire group. You must control who has the right to use the name of the group in public forums, such as the press, radio and television, and the Internet. Also, your database of volunteer names should be maintained by a few individuals in the group and all communication to the entire group be done under “blind” copies to prevent your email list from being co-opted.
Have regular meetings to give everyone a chance to voice his or her opinion and to further refine the group’s activities. Have speakers on topics relevant to the group’s mission, specific animal issues in the community, during elections to find out candidates’ positions on animal issues, etc. The list is endless. Make sure you have a clear agenda for each meeting and send that agenda to participants a few days prior. Set time limits for each item on the agenda so the meeting does not run away with itself. Whoever runs the meetings should be strong enough to interrupt when necessary if meeting attendees go off track. Following the meeting, there should be a write up of what went on to send to all volunteers in the group. Action items should be clearly labeled so those who have made commitments remember them and are ready to report to the group through interim announcements or at the next meeting.
As the group grows, make sure volunteers have a feeling of ownership. If one person is doing it all, the group will eventually fail. Share the responsibilities among the volunteers. If someone is comfortable doing radio/television spots, hook that person up with your local stations and get some publicity for your organization. If another is a good writer, have that person craft press releases, informational brochures, material for your website, etc. Find each person’s talent and let them use it. Or, if someone is interested in learning new skills, support that person in his or her interest.
But most of all start. Just start. “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.” (Helen Keller)