Recruiting Activists and Volunteers

As activists, we need other change-makers to work alongside us on our campaigns, attend our protests, and support our movements. Chris Dixon (2014) has noted that progressive movements need both activism—mobilizing around particular issues—and organizing—building the capacity of individuals to mobilize. Activism and organizing work reinforce each other; both are needed to ensure social change.


Numerous scholars have investigated the factors that compel individuals to become activists, support progressive social movements, and engage in their communities.


The most effective strategies for recruiting activists include:

  • Consider individual factors and constraints
  • Ask people to join
  • Demonstrate effective activism
  • Use powerful communication strategies
  • Support community organizations


Consider individual factors and constraints


As you will see throughout this section, activists are not born, they are shaped by support from progressive individuals and organizations. Can you think of a time in your life when you were relatively uneducated about progressive politics and activism? How many people, resources, and situations did you encounter that helped you on your path to activism? Try to remember your own journey when you read this section.


Most activists believe that there is a certain type of person who engages in progressive activism. Indeed, research has shown that individuals who already share our political interests,[1] who are knowledgeable about the issues,[2] who have experienced oppression,[3] and who want to make a difference in the world[4] are more likely to become activists. Additionally, individuals who have more biographical availability, meaning they don’t work full-time and don’t have families to take care of, usually have more energy and time to devote to activism.[5]


However, while these factors can serve as constraints on who becomes an activist, they are not set in stone. Social movements can educate individuals about politics and spark their passions through frequent public mobilizations, a strong media presence, and through engagement with youth. We can also create systems to help working folks and families devote more time to activism. One scholar found that the Plowshares movement—which has organized against nuclear weapons for decades—has been able to survive for almost 40 years in part by assisting members with their family responsibilities.[6]


It’s important to understand that the number of potential sympathizers and supporters of our movements is very large. Even though some personal factors are set in stone for some people, personal factors are only one component of the choice to take up activism—we can have a significant impact on all the following factors to help encourage people to fight for progressive causes.


Ask people to join


We need not wait passively for supporters to join us; there are large numbers of potential activists who can benefit our movements. Research has shown that some progressive organizations have missed out on sympathetic allies simply because a large portion of their communities did not even know that their organization existed.[7] It is up to us to increase awareness and action by nurturing political and civic engagement in our communities and recruiting people to support our causes.


One of the biggest predictors of engaging in activism is simply being asked to join,[8] and being invited by friends or family may have a larger impact on social movement participation than being invited by a stranger.[9] Invite your friends to join you on your next protest and take an active role in recruitment.


Demonstrate effective activism


Many of the same factors that lead to movement success also help recruit new activists. One of the biggest determinants of whether someone will become an activist is whether or not they believe activism is effective.[10] This makes intuitive sense—why would you work to create social change if you didn’t believe your efforts would actually change anything? It is imperative to use effective tactics to gradually build up our successes and work step-by-step towards our goals in order to further recruit activists not only for our movement, but for progressive politics more broadly.


Similarly, individuals who are more optimistic,[11] who work with successful organizations,[12] and who are able to see the direct impact of their activist work[13] are more likely to engage in activism. We must not only emphasize our political cause, but show individuals that they can and will make a positive impact on the world by working with us.


Social movement activities and successes also loop back into recruitment. Government attention on activist issues can spark more political participation,[14] as can protests,[15] movement coalitions,[16] and local activist subcultures.[17]


Use powerful communication strategies


How you word your messaging on your website, protest flyers, and advertisements impacts the likelihood of individuals joining your group, supporting your cause, and donating to your organization.


Remember that detailed and specific messages almost always lead to more participation, support, and funding than vague and unclear messages.[18] One study found that individuals who were given detailed descriptions of the specific work done by a charity donated more money than individuals who were given very general descriptions.[19]


We previously mentioned that research on master frames—messaging strategies that emphasize broad, widely cherished values such as rights, democracy, and freedom—shows that deploying master frames can increase recruitment and help make your movement meaningful to broad populations.[20] Many studies have also confirmed that collective identities—identifying with a social movement, organization, community, or more broadly as an activist—lead to collective action.[21] People who identify as activists are more likely to join movements and engage in action.


Phrasing that evokes collective identities can also help people feel encouraged to join in. One study looked at this concept in the context of voting. They found that messaging strategies that emphasized a personal identity by asking people to “be a voter” were more effective at increasing turnout than phrasing that evoked a behavior by asking people to vote.[22] Similarly, asking people if “we can count on you,” or to “please help” can boost donations and participation.[23]


On the whole, messaging that preemptively makes the reader or listener feel included and impactful is more likely to be effective in recruiting. Remember that successful movements use a variety of tactics strategically to ensure success. Your organization will probably need to use different messaging strategies to recruit participants than when you’re talking to policymakers, negotiating with corporations, or testifying at city council.


Support community organizations


One of the most powerful actions activists can take is nurturing civic and political education—especially for youth—by supporting community organizations.


Cooperatives are one type of community organization that provide opportunities to learn and practice skills like collaborative problem-solving,  collective decision-making, and community-building. Cooperatives can take many diverse forms. There are worker co-ops, businesses that sidestep the more common hierarchical owner-employee model and instead position workers themselves as the business’ collective owners, benefiting directly from their labor by sharing in profits. There are food co-ops which cater to community food needs and include the members who shop there in either dividend sharing or opportunities to participate in aspects of the business’ decision-making. There are also agricultural co-ops, electrical co-ops, retail co-ops, credit unions, and many other types, all aimed at meeting some shared need of the people involved.


Finally, there are housing cooperatives, communities working together to meet their shared need for housing without involving profit-minded landlords. Housing co-ops offer powerfully transformative experiences sharing day-to-day life in community with others, with members deciding for themselves which rules, norms, and cultural practices best allow them to live out their values.


Forthcoming research on housing cooperatives for the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) shows that because co-ops are run democratically by their members, co-ops greatly enhance members’ leadership skills, capacity for engaging in community action, and civic and political participation. Cooperatives also provide direct services to members in the form of affordable housing, access to healthy food, and rich social support. To learn more about cooperatives and receive the forthcoming report on the impact of co-ops on individuals and communities, visit NASCO’s website at the following link:


Youth organizing groups, which help youth develop leadership skills to take action in their communities, are another important tool for empowering communities to create positive social change. Youth organizations are critical for building future generations of progressive leaders and activists, as the young people currently being mentored by youth organizing groups will help lead the nation in the decades to come.


Research on youth organizing groups by Dr. Veronica Terriquez and the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) shows that youth organizing groups enhance their members’ well-being, teach critical civic skills, and bolster political participation.[24] Youth organizing groups can also help young people of color and low-income youth overcome the structural barriers that normally prevent them from engaging in politics, leading them to participate at similar or even higher rates than their more privileged peers. To see publicly available research on youth organizing groups, visit PERE’s website at the following link:


Co-ops and youth organizing groups are a couple of examples of community institutions worth supporting, but many studies have also shown that experience in various types of political organizations (such as activist groups), non-political organizations (such as debate teams), and volunteering leads to increased political, civic, and community participation.[25] These findings are especially pronounced for young people, as youth who join organizations, volunteer, take civic education classes, and even who grow up around adults who volunteer are more likely to be civically and politically involved—both when they are young and when they grow older.[26] Additionally, people who have prior experience with activism are more likely to participate in activism later in life.[27]


For those who mistakenly believe that activism only springs out of political ideology, it may be surprising that one of the biggest predictors of activism is involvement with community volunteer efforts, political organizations, and even non-political organizations. However, it is important to remember that people need knowledge, skills, and experience in order to be effective activists.[28] Group participation, volunteering, and cooperatives teach people how to speak in public, make group decisions, understand community issues, and influence decisionmakers.


Overall, we should not expect people to join our movements on their own—we need to actively encourage, support, and train individuals to become activists. Cooperatives, youth organizing groups, and other community organizations are excellent tools to build supportive and integrated communities that provide direct services to members while nurturing activism and civic engagement.


NEXT SECTION: Preventing Burnout


[1] Downton and Wehr 1998; Schussman and Soule 2005

[2] Andolina, Jenkins, Zukin, and Keeter 2003; Duhigg, Rostosky, Gray, and Wimsatt 2010; Galston 2001; Roser-Renouf, Maibach, Leiserowitz, and Zhao 2014

[3] Szymaski and Lewis 2015

[4] Case and Zeglen 2018; Cherry 2015; Downton and Wehr 1998; Granzin and Olsen 1991; Klein, Smith, and John 2004; Kovan and Dirx 2003; Swim and Hyers 1999

[5] Brym, Godbout, Hoffbauer, Menard, and Zhang 2014; Downton and Wehr 1998; Wiltfang and McAdam 1991

[6] Nepstad 2004

[7] Klandermans 1993

[8] McAdam and Paulson 1993; Oegema and Klandermans 1994; Schussman and Soule 2005; Somma 2009

[9] Opp and Gern 1993; Somma 2009

[10] Andolina, Jenkins, Zukin, and Keeter 2003; Case and Zeglen 2018; Downton and Wehr 1998; Granzin and Olsen 1991; Morgan and Chan 2016; Roser-Renouf, Maibach, Leiserowitz, and Zhao 2014; Stewart, Latu, Branscombe, and Denny 2010; Zuo and Benford 1995

[11] Kaiser and Miller 2004; Wellman, Czopp, and Geers 2009

[12] Bunnage 2014; Mannarini and Talò 2011

[13] Grant, Campbell, Chen, Cottone, Lapedis, and Lee 2007

[14] Platt 2007

[15] Minkoff 1997

[16] Baumgartner and Mahoney 2005; Minkoff 1997

[17] Fernandez and McAdam 1988; Viterna 2006

[18] Cryder, Lowenstein, and Scheines 2013; Genevsky, Västfjäll, Slovic, and Knutson 2013; Grant, Campbell, Chen, Cottone, Lapedis, and Lee 2007

[19] Cryder, Lowenstein, and Scheines 2013, p. 18

[20] Noonan 1995; Zuo and Benford 1995

[21] Berman and Wittig 2004; Bryan, Walton, Rogers, and Dweck 2011; Case and Zeglen 2018; Downton and Wehr 1998; Granzin and Olsen 1991; Klandermans 2003; McAdam and Paulson 1993; Morgan and Chan 2016; Nepstad 2004; Pfaff 1996; Rogers, Goldstein, and Fox 2018; Szymanski and Lewis 2015; Scott and Chan 2016; Simon, Loewy, Stürmer, Weber, Fretag, Habig, Kampmeier, and Spahlinger 1998;

[22] Bryan, Walton, Rogers, and Dweck 2011

[23] Andreoni, Rao, and Trachtman 2017; Lipsitz, Kallmeye, Ferguson, and Abas 1989

[24] Bloemraad and Terriquez 2016; Terriquez 2015; Terriquez 2017; Terriquez and Kwon 2014

[25] Andolina, Jenkins, Zukin, and Keeter 2003; Ayala 2000; Bloemraad and Terriquez 2016; Brym, Godbout, Hoffbauer, Menard, and Zhang 2014; Ginwright 2007; Janoski, Musick, and Wilson 1998; Lee and Soonhee 2014; Lim 2008; McAdam 1986; McFarland and Thomas 2006; Terriquez 2015; Terriquez 2017; Terriquez and Kwon 2014; Viterna 2006; Zeldin, Gaulet, Krauss, Kornbluh, and Collura 2017

[26] Andolina, Jenkins, Zukin, and Keeter 2003; Bloemraad and Terriquez 2016; Ginwright 2007; Janoski, Musick, and Wilson 1998; McFarland and Thomas 2006; O’Donoghue and Strobel 2007;  Terriquez 2015; Terriquez 2017; Terriquez and Kwon 2014; Zeldin, Gaulet, Krauss, Kornbluh, and Collura 2017

[27] Klandermans 2003; McAdam 1986; Scott 1977; Wiltfang and McAdam 1991

[28] Dixon 2014


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