Mobilizing and activating members: recruitment and retention 101

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Grassroots groups often struggle with the challenge of mobilizing new members. Many also face challenges with retention, that is, members burn out and/or stop participating. Challenges to membership can make momentum building difficult, and may result in a reduced motivation of existing group members. Challenges to recruitment and retention can, in many cases, be mitigated and navigated by including some key structures and strategies in grassroots organizing spaces.

The following resource was compiled using existing organizer databases and resources by movement thinkers on mobilizing new members, and using thoughts from grassroots organizers who attended our learning circle on mobilizing new members. This guide was developed in response to request from grassroots groups asking for tips on growing their membership, that is, on effective recruitment and retention strategies.

Highlighted text is knowledge shared during our Learning Circle on this topic.

Beginning the planning process [1]

Before you begin building or defining your recruitment and retention plan, reflect as a team on the following:

1) Why are we here, and how did we get here?

Participants in the HUB's learning circle responded with the following upon reflection on why they joined their group...

To connect with others who care
  • A desire for shared spaces, connection and collectivity.
  • To be in the company of like-minded people who want to act on the climate crisis.
  • Coming from Alberta where it's scary to be a climate activist, I want to be surrounded by those who feel the same way to feel less alone.
  • To find those with the same worldview, shared concerns and a commitment to fighting for change to build solutions.
To combat climate grief and anxiety
  • I want to feel less alone with feelings of climate grief and anxiety.
  • I feel compelled to direct climate anxiety into action.

  • I'm searching for solidarity and hope amidst climate chaos.
  • To combat fear, grief and disillusionment with the lack of political will and action.
  • I'm deeply concerned about climate impacts. I want a better future for my grandchildren.
To take action
  • Because of my personal responsibility, passion and agency.
  • To use each of our skills and potential to do our part.
  • I want to advance; to learn, unlearn, and co-create the systems change needed to move us towards a just future.
  • I have the desire to create something from the ground up rather than just being involved in a campaign that tells you what to do.
  • For hope, power and optimism through collective action.
  • Localized changemaking helps make wins feel more tangible. I realized changing the scale of climate issues to my neighbourhood broke the paralysis I was in.
  • To hold those in power accountable.
Folks 'got there' by...
  • Attending a virtual event.
  • Founding their own group.
  • Being asked directly to join!

2) Who used to be around and why did they leave?

Participants in the HUB's learning circle responded with the following upon reflection on why group members leave...

Burnout and overwhelm
  • It is hard to delegate and get people to follow through without sacrificing wellbeing.

Burnout can feel like an inevitable part of organizing!

  • There's a lack of real care for each other under capitalism and a need to learn how we can turn to each other for support.
  • We don't have resources to do this work in a sustainable way, especially for marginalized folks.
  • Being passionate can make it hard to step back.
  • We are a small team, so everyone takes on a lot.
  • Many people have numerous other responsibilities and commitments such as caretaking, school, work etc.

People may be limited in the amount of free labour they can provide with bills to pay.

The onboarding process isn't strong

  • It can help to have someone whose done a task before pass on knowledge and support by training new recruits.

A buddy system has new members pair with older members doing work they were interested in. This also helps build team relationships.

  • There could be confusion around how to get involved with organizing because there's not a clear roadmap for what happens after onboarding.

For example, there's a lack of simpler/smaller tasks for those just starting our or being onboarded.

Spaces aren't accessible, caring or managing conflict
  • Spaces don't feel safe for BIPOC and youth.

The culture of climate organizations is still steeped in colonialism and white supremacy.

  • There's a lack of community care and opportunities for building strong relationships.
  • There can be interpersonal conflict with not enough skills for conflict management and repairing relationships.
  • 'Clubhouse culture' where new members don't feel comfortable engaging as they aren't invited to.
A lack of direction and openness to ideas
  • A lack of direction and focus. It can feel disorganized and ineffective.

A lack of clear goals leads to ineffective campaigns and meetings that don't go anywhere.

  • A lack of openness to ideas.
  • There can be rigidity about what the group will/will not engage in.

(E.g. It's difficult when founding members have pre-determined what the team will do, without leaving room for new member input).

Feeling a lack of change
  • The slow pace of change can be frustrating.

3) What keeps people sticking around?

Participants in the HUB's learning circle responded with the following upon reflection on why group members stay...

Joy and celebration
  • Holding space for joy and celebration.
  • Debriefs after actions are a great way to celebrate with the team.
  • Sharing food!
  • A pleasure person. We used to have someone on our team volunteer to bring something (activity, song, video) to lighten up the end of each meeting, so folks didn't leave feeling low.
Learning skills and using strengths to take action
  • Opportunities to learn, build skills, share interests, passions and talents.
  • Acquiring new leadership skills and feeling encouraged to take on more responsibility.
  • Using art and storytelling as vehicles for connection and communication.
Diversity of engagement

  • Having a diversity of tasks and projects.
  • Having a balance between short-term campaigns to make tangible wins, and longer campaigns for the long haul.
  • Taking action in a variety of ways!
Cultures of care and relationships
  • A sense of belonging, community, camaraderie and appreciation. (E.g. telling our group members when they've done a good job!)

  • Encouraging people to respect their capacities and support each other.

  • Being around like-minded people and building friendships.
  • Engaging with active listening and holding thoughtful discussions.

Feeling empowered

  • Being recognized as a group in the community.

  • Sharing responsibility as 'point person', facilitator, other directive-type roles.

Models to help guide recruitment and retention strategies

Each stage, depending on where folks fall in the following models, requires a targeted set of strategies.

Ladder of engagement [2]

The ladder of engagement can be a helpful tool for describing calls to action folks who are not involved in your group can take to become engaged, whilst also considering how people can increase their engagement towards becoming more active members. Someone who is a “1,” or at the bottom of the ladder in the model has no connection to your campaign or issue, and a “5” is someone who is ready to show up at an action.

Actions on the ladder escalate in intensity and/or demand or requirements of the individual as they move up and become more active. Consider what people might need to feel confident in moving up the ladder, and how you can support.

Of course, the ladder should serve as an outline only. Some people might be more willing to participate in an action that make phone calls. The idea, however, is to paint a picture of which actions have the fewest barriers to entry, that can encourage folks to get more involved as active members.

Image by:

Circles of commitment [3]

The circles of commitment helps to model the involvement of people engaging with or in your group, by acting as an outline for you plan to move people from the outer circles (low commitment) to the inner circles (high commitment).

Diagram from: Momentum Training Community

Levels of the circles of commitment

Community targets

Audiences you try to reach out to and engage; those not yet involved with your group in any capacity. See the section on community mapping for more on defining your targets.


Your mailing list and/or social media following.


Those who regularly participate; e.g. those who respond to calls to action.


High action takers and people who would consider themselves formal 'members' of a group.

Core Steers a lot of the group's direction; typically includes those who have been in the group the longest, or who have the most lived and/or organizing experience. (In smaller teams, the committed and core may be combined).

Engaging community members to join your base

The following describes strategies for moving people from community targets to the crowd/membership levels of the circles of commitment model.

Defining community targets using community mapping [4]

A helpful first step for moving community targets is to define who they are! Who are you trying to reach?

Community mapping aims to gather information about how a community operates to develop the right strategies to mobilize and involve them. Rather than taking a broad approach to recruitment, this longer-term process of listening develops more targeted messaging and approaches, and builds foundations of relationships that are more likely to lead to involvement.

Community mapping can help you identify:

  • organizing opportunities
  • campaign partners and opportunities for solidarity
  • potential threats
  • the political climate

This information can support you when developing outreach plans, as well as when building coalitions and deciding on messaging.

Steps of community mapping [5]

1. Define a community

This might include a community...

  • being impacted most heavily by an issue (e.g. people living near a construction zone)
  • where some level of protest or activity has already taken place (e.g. a local union) 
  • that your organization already has links to (e.g. local school)
  • that simply has people who are willing to work with you (e.g. parents or teachers at local schools)

Questions to ask that can help you define a community to work with include...

  • What are we currently doing locally?
  • Who are our current and potential allies and partners?
  • Who cares about this issue (consider demographics) and why? (e.g. high school/university students taken an environmental course)
  • What's in the area? (Resources or organizations, Institutions such as churches, schools, hospitals, universities, city hall, etc., unique or problematic features such as amusement parks, factories, etc.)

2. Hold initial meetings to identify what you need to learn and who will help you 

Invite a few members of the community to engage in some discussion. For example, if you want to engage teachers in your community, can you think of a couple teachers who would be willing enough to chat over coffee? Make this as inviting as possible, and ensure it meets their needs! (e.g. is online or over lunch best?)

  • Initial meetings are held to clarify information and discuss who might be contacted next and how.
  • Ideally, initial meetings will enthuse community members to engage in the next steps.
  • Further meetings can be held in informal and culturally appropriate settings

Questions to ask during these meetings include...

  • What's the best way of approaching people?
  • Where can people be reached?
  • How can the process be widened?
  • What language(s) are used?
  • What activities do people enjoy?
  • What do people care about?
  • What are the sources of tension? What are our threats?
  • Where can we meet?
3. Document and carry out the plan outlined through discussion with community members
  • Define your audience and outreach strategies to prepare for action. E.g. "our target audience is teachers, who care about the planet and the wellbeing of their students. There is tension to get everything in the curriculum done. They can be best reached over email, and enjoy when people from outside the classroom visit for presentations while they are on PREP time."
  • Draft the pitch you'll use for outreach, or a message if you're doing online outreach. 
  • Note that direct, one-on-one outreach or asks to join an action or group are often much more successful than general call outs. Get in touch with people directly as much as possible.
  • Carry out mobilization strategies tailored to target the audience you identified. Repeat the process again for another community target group!

The following were suggested in our learning circle as strategies/considerations when trying to engage with specific communities:

  • If possible, building a relationship of trust before asking anything from the targeted community.

(E.g. showing up at their community events if they host any. If it's a community group, attending their group's meetings to learn what's important to them, and eventually to share information about one another's groups and how you could work together)

  • Consider who is most appropriate to reach certain groups; do you have any connections that could help?
  • Developing social media pages so people can quickly learn more (i.e. facebook and instagram pages)
  • If you can get together with one individual from the community, do fun things while you chat and learn more! 
  • For politicians: We phoned our mayor and council asking for a one on one meeting….it worked, whereas they didn't respond to previous emails.

Choosing engagement strategies

Strategies used to mobilize community targets tend to fall on the lower end of the ladder of engagement (meaning engagement isn't a huge commitment, and these actions can be great for building relationships and the motivation to join). For example:

Social media/online

  • Posts should use messaging targeted to the particular audience you want to engage.
  • Use calls to action such as watching and sharing videos, signing online petitions, sending out pre-drafted emails or open letters
  • Virtual meetings or events can reduce barriers to participation for many (i.e. documentary screenings and discussion).

Showing up to an action

Ways to increase engagement at actions include:

  • Handing out info sheets.
  • Offering petitions to sign and/or collecting emails.
  • Offering numbers and scripts for phone banking.
  • Livestreaming the event.
  • Sharing the level of risk and being transparent about actions that may involve arrest.

Participants in our learning circle said the following actions were easy to engage in: 

  • Online actions (e.g. phone banking, webinars etc.)
  • Rallies/marches (held at accessible times)
  • Fun events held in public spaces (i.e. kid-friendly)

Local news coverage

  • Write opinion pieces or reaching out to the local media to amplify your group's message and/or actions. Smaller newspapers are often happy to share events from local groups.
  • Contact the editor through your local newspaper's website.
  • You could also ask to share a call for people to join your team.


  • Make sure to include information about meeting time/location (if available), and how to contact you. 

Direct, one-on-one recruitment conversations (canvassing, door-knocking)

(See the below section for more details)

Community gatherings
  • Community BBQ's/picnics
  • Gathering in public spaces that are physically, geographically and digitally accessible.
  • Poster making, letter writing, phone banking sessions
  • Item/donation collections (e.g. the Red Dress collection as a show of resistance against TMX and colonial violence)
Responding to what people want to do!
  • Engage in their different skills and abilities.
  • Move at the speed of trust.
Keeping barriers to engagement low/reducing barriers to engagement
  • Consider virtual and in-person accessibility of the actions you're telling your audience to take. See our page on making your activism accessible for more.
  • Provide things like food, childcare, transportation, virtual participation etc. to reduce barriers to participation.
Outdoor gathering spaces
  • The following was suggested from participants in our navigating turnover in student groups learning circle: In my group at university, we had the privilege of having a garden on campus. This was a big plus for students who wanted to come out and join us in the garden. An outdoor space helps with recruitment!

If you're a university-based group, check out this resource by Divest Ed for more strategies!

One-on-one recruitment [6]

Canvassing means "talking to someone on the street, inviting them into your shared purpose or campaign goal and trying to get their signature and contact information." -The Future Ground Network. Stay tuned for more from our 'deep canvassing' offering. In the meantime, you can learn more about how to engage with people directly to join your group through this resource.

Your recruitment pitch

A recruitment pitch, which shouldn't be longer than about 30 seconds, should include [7]  :

a) An explanation of the purpose of your team in general. 
  • Who are the people being called to action? What challenge do you hope to inspire others to take action on? What is your vision of successful action? How can we act together to achieve this? And how can they begin now, at this moment? Describe this in two or three sentences.

b) An explanation of why you chose to be a part of the team and why you care about the issue.

  • To what values, experiences, or aspirations of your community, will you appeal when you call on them to join you in action? What stories do you share that can express these values? Describe this in two or three sentences.
c) Your hard ask
  • Explain what’s happening at the next meeting and directly ask them if they'd like to attend. Specify the time, place and location of the meeting. Make them feel that you want them to be there, but not like they are doing you a favour.
  • Make sure your ask is not just a suggestion or statement, but a clear and direct question that elicits a specific commitment. i.e. Will you come out on Tuesday evening at 7pm to our meeting? 

Responding to 'no' [8]

Your response will depend on the type of no communicated. 

Not now
  • "Sorry, those times don’t work. Can you email me later?"
  • Make an explicit follow-up plan. i.e. "Can I set up a time with you to check in again in a couple of weeks?"

Not that

  • "I don’t really feel comfortable doing xyz."
  • Listen to your person’s concerns, and try to find a solution that will work for them. i.e. "Is there a way I can support you, such as if we meet early to go over the script together? Or would you prefer to come for data entry this Friday at 5 p.m.?"
Not ever
  • "I’m not interested."
  • If appropriate, asking why may yield helpful feedback. i.e. "Sure, that's no problem. Do you mind if I ask why?"

Engaging your base to increase involvement

Choosing engagement strategies

The following describes strategies for moving people from the crowd into membership/committed circles of the circles of commitment model.

Strategies used to activate current members of your crowd should fall primarily on the mid to upper end of the ladder of engagement (they take and encourage commitment) For example:

Taking action!

Participants in our learning circle said the following actions required more effort to engage in (and that they increased their commitment):

  • Sit ins
  • Marches, rallies and sit-ins (because it feels invigorating to visibly see support)
  • Community outreach (i.e. door knocking, hosting a booth etc).
  • Creating a social media campaign
  • Meeting with or lobbying local politicians
  • Art builds
  • Banner drops
  • Road blockages/shutdowns
  • Representing the group at a coalition meeting or event
  • A garage sale to raise funds for the group's work
  • Fun actions such as dressing up in costumes (the opportunity to be silly) and having food and music
  • A sign making event

Opportunities for providing support

  • Promote positions or tasks that need filling on social media.
  • Put an open call out for folks to help organize an upcoming event.
  • Being invited to take on more responsibility and tasks.
  • Ask people what they're good at and how they want to contribute.
  • It helps to be encouraged to step out of one's comfort zone with support from the team and mentorship of trusted peers.

Opportunities for discussion and spreading the word.

  • Develop a teach-in presentation for folks to deliver, for example.
  • Engaging in discussion to exchange knowledge that empowers further action.
Training sessions 
  • E.g. FREESKOOL is a convening of many groups for a day of teachings/trainings.
  • Opportunity to learn from each other, establish community and solidarity.
  • The following was suggested from participants in our navigating turnover in student groups learning circle: In some schools, a bootcamp (3 day online intensive) to get people up to speed on information, and bring the information to new people, is helpful. The important thing is to keep the relationships.
Coalition gatherings
  • E.g. Climate Justice Toronto hosted a convening of groups coming from many issue spaces to converge on how they could work together and support one another. 

Direct, one-on-one recruitment conversations

(See the above section for more details)

Taking over space!
  • The following was suggested from participants in our navigating turnover in student groups learning circle: "we took over space on campus for 3 days, so lots of community building and recruitment was achieved."

How to welcome new members

Have a welcome plan prepared for new joiners to welcome them and provide the information they need about the group they're joining! The following are some suggestions for welcoming new members using a presentation, meeting and follow up   [9] ':

Scheduled in advance with few people
  • Keep it to no more than 30-40 minutes in length if possible.
  • Keep it small so participants can gain personal connections.
  • The following were suggested from participants in our navigating turnover in student groups learning circle: Do not organize a meeting too soon after sending a message (allow people to free up their time). Mention an understanding for the lack of time of those who commit.

A loose agenda could look like...

  • Sharing stories. i.e. why you care and why you want to be involved now, more about the group
  • Share goals, strategy, project plans and/or emerging directions. 
  • The following were suggested from participants in our navigating turnover in student groups learning circle: Divest McGill made a document to inform incoming members of who the board of directors (the targets) for their campaign were, complete with their names, photos and info on each. This helps new members plug in.
  • Explain the different roles available on the team, and discuss the skills or interests they have that might fit. Come up with creative ideas for how they can use their unique skills and passions to further the purpose of the team. 
  • Give them a specific task to do, based on the role they want to take on and what tasks the project needs.
  • Sharing the notes and a summary of what happened in the last team meeting.
  • Share the next meeting date!
Assign a buddy or contact person
  • Assign a buddy or new contact support person. This person can help answer questions and create a sense of community and confidence in the group.

For more on welcoming new members see this resource by Beautiful Trouble.

Question: How can we merge new members in the group while balancing prior group dynamic (e.g. inside jokes, team culture etc.)?

Hub team members had the following suggestions:

  • Create more opportunities for regular group bonding. You could embed it in meetings (via check-ins/check-outs, gathering around food, having social time after the meeting).
  • Set up a buddy system for new people by pairing them up with someone who has been with the group for a long time. It helps build a sense of inclusion, they can explain dynamics etc.

Further suggestions include:

  • Document as much of this 'insider knowledge' as you can for new joiners, and go through it together!
  • Part of the onboarding process for 'the Hum' is to fill out a page in the team's 'user manual', which they use to describe how each individuals works best. See the template and an example here. This can be a great way to support the merge process for new members.

Retention suggestions

Take action!

  • Actions are not only a great opportunity to hand out flyers to people passing by. They also give existing members the feeling of having an impact, which keeps everyone motivated (rather than sitting through endless meetings). 

Don't neglect the value of joy and connection

  • These are the elements that both draw people in and help them to stay.
  • Invest intentional time into getting to now one another, and having fun together! Examples might include going out for coffee together, having a potluck, attending a local music event etc.

Ask people for their accessibility needs

  • What is keeping them from attending meetings or actions? How can you make engagement more accessible to them?
  • See our wiki on making your activism accessible for more.

Include various forms of participation and meet people where they're at

  • People should take on roles and tasks that suit their availability, and recognize that capacities fluctuate.
  • Check in with one another often. Is anyone overextended or willing to take on more?
  • Track the amount of time members can commit early on, or develop a system to share capacity on an ongoing basis, to prevent burnout. (I.e. ask group members to share a number 1-5 estimating their capacity to contribute to action planning until the next meeting).

Articulate purpose often

  • Include a quick mention of the purpose of each meeting in your agenda.
  • Every so often it can be helpful to remind of the group's mission, so folks are refreshed on why they've come together.

Plan for breaks

  • Group-wide breaks are great because you can easily commit to a date that you'll return to working together.
  • Rotating breaks for members can also be helpful for maintaining capacity and avoiding burnout. You can set an approximate date of return, and/or have a group member reach out to check on the teammate about their return.
Show appreciation and care
  • Engage in expressions of gratitude and happiness about team members' presence.
  • Have a care team that actively checks in with people throughout the duration of actions.

See this tree of engagement tool by the Movement Hub, which can be used to guide your discussions and outline your retainment strategies.

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