Starting a Group
As you set up tables and distribute leaflets, you’ll meet people who feel the same way that you do about society’s abuse of animals. Although it’s not absolutely necessary, you can increase your effectiveness by joining forces and forming a group.
A group can have more clout than one person. The media, the government, and the public will usually give more serious consideration to the views of a group.
Choosing Your Issues
A group can start with just two people. The important thing is to decide from the beginning which issues you will work on. Then choose a name for your group that reflects that focus.
Do you want to work primarily on animal rights issues or animal welfare issues? Realistically, you won’t have the time, energy, or money to do both effectively. We recommend that you stick to animal rights education, organizing, and lobbying and refer individual cruelty cases to the agencies in your community that are equipped and trained to deal with them.
Before you get a group together, educate and organize yourself. The following suggestions will help:
- You’ll need to get a telephone number and an e-mail address for your group. Check for messages daily, and return calls and e-mails right away.
- Get a computer as soon as you can afford one, or ask businesses or members to donate one. This should be one of your first priorities, because using a computer makes it easy to get—and stay—organized.
- Use a computer contact file to keep important telephone numbers and e-mail addresses organized.
- Get a local Post Office box for paper mail.
- As soon as you have a Post Office box, telephone number, and e-mail address, have stationery printed. It will make you look more professional.
- Send out weekly or monthly e-mail alerts to keep people involved and up-to-date on events, opportunities, and issues that your group is working on.
- Prepare a welcome e-mail to send to new members. Save the text so that you can respond quickly to requests and sign-ups. Also print a thank-you letter to send out in response to donations that you receive, and make sure that you acknowledge them quickly. It is tempting to answer inquiries with a personal letter, but you can better spend that time reaching new people. You can add a handwritten, personalized postscript at the bottom of the page.
- Make a “phone tree”—a calling system organized so that one person doesn’t have to spend an entire evening on the telephone calling each member to let them know about events. For example, when you need to make a number of calls, you call three people, who then call three others, who each call three more people, and so on. Even with e-mail, it’s important to make phone calls.
- Prepare a media list of the phone numbers, e-mails, and deadlines of newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations in your community, or contact PETA to get one. This will save time when you need to publicize an event.
- Do some long-term planning. Set up a tabling schedule or leafleting plan for the next three to six months.
- As long as your budget is small and you’re not launching high-profile campaigns, you may want to postpone incorporating your group.
As a small, new group, you’ll need to take special care to prioritize your activities. Member newsletters, for example, should be a low priority. Remember that newsletters relate what a group has already done; they shouldn’t be used as a replacement for action. Your money will be more wisely spent on educational materials, leaflets, and campaigning.
The First Meeting
Decide how you want to operate. Should you meet once a month or call meetings as needed? If you have regular meetings, they should be held on the same day and at the same time each month to make them easier to remember and schedule.
Can you find a room to meet in at a library, school, or church? Avoid meeting in people’s homes; you’re better off in neutral territory.
Leading the Group
Expect to be the leader of your group and to do most of the work, even if you have hundreds of people on your mailing list.
As the leader, it’s your job to prepare an agenda for each meeting. Make sure that each person leaves the meeting with something to do. It may seem tedious to do this, but if people don’t feel needed and involved, they will drop out. Find out what kinds of things people are good at—who has a computer or access to a copy machine, who is good at designing posters, who enjoys tabling, etc. Don’t insist that people be vegans, vegetarians, or abolitionists before they join; as they learn, they will probably change. Just set a good example.
Don’t let meetings become strictly social affairs. Stay on target. Avoid the “potluck supper” trap. Many new activists will want to socialize frequently at events such as potluck suppers. But people have a limited amount of time and energy, and it’s more important to spend it on activism than on cooking. Make sure your meetings are friendly enough that people feel comfortable offering their feedback and ideas. Having a “work party” to prepare posters or write letters can do wonders to boost spirits.
Always be on the lookout for potential leaders who can share responsibilities with you. Most groups are held together by one or two strong people, with short-term volunteers who work only when convenient.
Let people move at their own pace, and accept the fact that people will leave the group. Be grateful for every contribution, no matter how small, and never publicly criticize or embarrass anyone. Never make people feel guilty for not doing enough. That won’t encourage them to do more, and they’ll be more likely to stop participating altogether. Activism thrives on encouragement and recognition, not criticism.
It’s very important to avoid fighting within the group. Avoid criticizing others, even if you’re speaking confidentially; your words may come back to haunt you. If it’s really necessary, criticize the act rather than the individual. Despite the differences in opinion that sometimes occur, the animal rights movement needs to present a unified front to the public and to our opposition.
Be open to new ideas, and encourage people to express themselves. Have regular brainstorming sessions. Ask each person to think of several ideas, and write down every one—no matter how offbeat. Discuss the ideas only after you’ve finished listing them all. Don’t allow people to disparage others’ input. Everyone is special in some way, and even outlandish suggestions can lead to creative planning. As the group’s leader, you’ll need to ask questions and listen attentively.
What Should the Group Do?
Your group’s activities will probably fall into three categories: public education, seasonal or “reaction” events, and long-term campaigns.
Every group should try to sustain a minimum schedule of public-education work. This includes tabling, leafleting, library displays, and letters to the editor.
Seasonal or “reaction” events are also valuable activities. These might include demonstrating at fur stores in response to advertised sales or leafleting when a circus or rodeo comes to town. In smaller towns where you are likely to get publicity, these one-time events can be especially effective.
The easiest way for local groups to work on long-term campaigns is to join a campaign that has been initiated by a national organization. You can bring important issues to your community and can benefit from the national group’s literature and resources.
You may eventually want to take on a purely local campaign to shut down a lab, puppy mill, or zoo. This kind of campaign will most directly involve the local community and can be one of the best ways to bring people into the movement. Be aware, however, that this requires much more time and money than the one-shot seasonal events.
Above all, your group should be visible. Get into the public eye often, and always try to get media coverage for your events.