Recruiting Outside your Social Circle

Activist groups can reach a point where they stop growing. Such groups often mistakenly believe they’ve tapped all the people who care about their issue. They think, for instance, that nobody else cares about the expansion of coal plants or is willing to take a stand against rising sea levels. The problem is often not that we have run out of people in our city or town: it’s how we are organizing and the way we think about growing our group.

When it comes to recruitment, many of us think of people just as individuals. We imagine there is a scattering of people out there from whom to recruit (left side of image).

Lots of dots spread everywhere on the left side. Bunches of dots on the right side.

The reality is different. Most people are not attracted to groups as individual entities. Ask around, and you’ll find that very few people get involved in a cause because they receive a flyer, get sent an e-mail, see a poster, or see a Facebook post. Most people join a group or get involved because someone they know personally invited them. That’s because society is better understood as clusters of “social circles” (right side of image).

Social circles may be organized as formal or informal groups: religious communities, tables at lunchtime, close neighbors, etc. If you happen to be on Facebook, you can see your social circle by the number of people who are friends of friends.

The quickest way to build a group is to ask people in your networks of friends or family. Those people are the most likely to say yes to you. But at some point a group reaches all those in its initial social circle and stops growing. Continuing to reach out within that circle may not bring in many more people.

Some groups then make the mistake of thinking they cannot get new support. They may start to become culturally insular and take on the social characteristics of that initial social group. That alienates others and makes it harder for new social groups, with different norms and cultures, to join.

The challenge is to jump out of your social circle and find people connected with other social circles.

Some ways to recruit outside of your social circle:

  • Show up at the events and meetings of people outside your circle—it’s a great chance to meet others, see how they work, and find out where their values overlap with your campaign
  • Stop doing the tactics you’ve been doing and try new ones that might appeal to different audiences—if your tactics are marches, vigils, or standing outside of prisons during executions and it’s not working, then it’s time to change tactics. Ritualizing our actions makes us predictable and boring. People want to join interesting groups with fresh ideas.
  • Notice when other groups reach out toward your movement, and follow up with them. For example, new groups spoke out on climate change following the Pope’s encyclical or reports from the health community about the devastating effects of climate change. We could follow up with Catholic churches and health advocates who are signaling they want to be involved.
  • Do lots of one-on-ones with leaders from other movements and groups. Meet with different people, not to recruit them, but to learn from them. What are their values? What interests them? What strategies work to recruit people like them? (Read more about one-on-ones.)
  • Design an online petition or action that speaks to broad values and gets a new set of people engaged. Then follow-up with some one-on-one outreach to people on that list (read more about creating online media).
  • Do direct service—Gandhi was a big fan of what he called the “constructive program,” which means not only campaigning against what we don’t want, but also building the alternative that we do want. Direct service and other community-based projects put us close others who want to make things better. Who better to hear about joining your campaign?

Growing outside of your social circle takes time, but when it comes to building successful groups, it’s worth the effort.


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