Editors’ note: This article, first published in the Grassroots Fundraising Journal in Mar/Apr 2010, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

If you can imagine a really large prison crammed with livestock—chickens, pigs, or cattle—you’ve got some idea of what a factory farm is like. Thousands of animals stand in their own waste until the employees—often low-wage immigrant workers—hose it into large, foul holding ponds. These practices are not only hard on the animals and the workers, they’re also hard on the neighbors, the land, and the water they depend on.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) helps local communities fight back on social, economic, and environmental justice issues, including the impacts of factory farms. Iowa CCI members organized to counter intensive pressure from the Farm Bureau and other special interests as citizens sought to protect Iowa’s water quality. The resulting victory took their opponents by surprise—the new legislation was even stronger than the original rule that Iowa CCI had been working to pass. Without a large and active membership, it never would have happened—and without an aggressive “ask” program, the organization would never have built the membership base needed to win.

People Power Is the Key

Since 1995, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement has recruited and engaged more than 3,000 members (see Figure 1) on a wide range of issues. (The recent decline in membership is discussed below.) In addition to factory farming, these include excessive interest on payday loans, reducing corporate influence in politics, and non-payment and abuse of undocumented workers. As member Judy Lonning says, “I’m so impressed with the way we get things done. When we work together, we have tremendous power to advance the cause of justice, and CCI empowers us to stand together on critical issues.”

The group’s philosophy of membership development makes it particularly effective. As Katie Bryan, membership and communications co-coordinator, points out, “Our theory of social change is that the people most affected by issues should be in the driver’s seat. We believe in people power versus staff power.” Member Francisco Contreras adds, “The open line of communication between members and staff is key. Also key is having members be involved in the leadership and planning process.”

Member Growth and Engagement: It’s All About Organizing

Everyone at Iowa CCI understands that increasing their membership and engaging members in meaningful organizing are essentially the same work. Staff ask people to join at every opportunity. In addition to regular mass mailings, the group recruits new members in the following ways:

  • Organizers make it clear that membership is required for anyone wanting to work on an issue: a minimum of $25 per individual, $35 per family. Introductory letters and conversations make this precondition clear to prospective leaders.
  • At house meetings, organizers ask for membership, explaining that they’re building a movement beyond the particular issue in question. On average, 70 percent of house meeting participants join.
  • The initial organizing meetings are typically followed by larger community gatherings. Here organizers or seasoned leaders make another pitch for membership. As Kristin Schaaf, membership and communications co-coordinator notes, “They [long-time members] do direct asks better than staff.”
  • Once people who are not yet members have taken action, such as writing to legislators, staff members send them an invitation to join. People who do not respond initially are included in future mailings until return rates no longer justify the effort.
  • The organization has four staff teams that compete at recruiting new and lapsed members. Regular team check-ins and inexpensive prizes—“from the discount bin at Target,” Schaaf says—help everyone stay focused and make the friendly competition fun.
  • The group asks for membership at their annual convention attended by 200-300 people. Once people attend, they usually join.
  • Action alerts are distributed via email, social networking sites, and Iowa CCI’s website. After responding to an action alert, activists are offered the opportunity to join online and are added to the organization’s database. Because people are required to include their snail mail addresses when emailing their legislators, Iowa CCI receives all the contact information needed for acquisition mailings.
  • Membership invitations are sent to everyone who signs a petition or calls the office for information.

It All Adds Up to a Big Membership

Through steady growth, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement doubled its membership to 2,000 between 1997 and 2003. Then it shot up to more than 3,000 members between 2004 and 2007. The significant growth and retention of membership was the result of a very diversified acquisition and cultivation program as outlined in Figure 2, which shows a snapshot of 2008 membership acquisition. Note that organizing-related efforts bring in nearly the same percentage of members as traditional, mass member-acquisition mailings.

While about 44 percent of new members were acquired from mass direct mail, an equal percentage joined through the group’s organizing efforts. The remaining 12 percent came from a combination of events, organizational communication, and member efforts.

As a result, Iowa CCI is now far less dependent on grants than many comparable organiz