The First Meeting

Expect to be leader of your group and to do most of the work, even if by now you have collected scores of names and loose commitments from a dozen people. In time, the work will shift, priorities surface, and volunteers will help you expand and shape the group. Until that time, it’s you and, at best, a small team.

Defining goals for your first meeting will help you set its agenda. Your first goal is to get basic contact information from each person present. A sign-in sheet works, but having a basic questionnaire handy for people expressing interest in volunteering is a good addition. Those “organizer’s tools” are available here and can be downloaded for printing. Get familiar with the timeline and checklist, too -- they can help you plan your first and subsequent meetings.

Another goal is to give a clear task to each attendee to get done after the meeting. Some people are highly motivated to make a difference and will be eager to volunteer -- but will lose interest and drop out if they're feeling not needed.

You should discover who in your group has access to a copy machine and a computer, and who doesn't. Does someone have experience contacting media? You'll soon know if you have an artistic person or someone who knows how to design a flyer or posters. Find out who may be willing to distribute information at events, public places or local businesses. Identify individuals with experience in public speaking. The volunteer questionnaire gets those questions answered.

Your next basic goal is to set the time and date of the next meeting. Decide how often your group would like to, or can, meet. Solicit their ideas for future meeting agendas. Your first meeting must lay down a solid plan for the future of the group -- a plan to be adjusted and one that grows clearer as members begin working together on planned projects.

Along with other desired personal characteristics, skilled leaders are observant, resilient and understanding.

Meetings should not be strictly social affairs. One of your main responsibilities is to keep people "on task." For instance, if you schedule a dessert potluck, for the purpose of making demonstration posters, plan informality into the meeting, but at an earlier, rather than later moment. It will be your job to move talkers into making posters. Remind people that by a designated time the business or activity portion of the meeting will begin.

Stay open and friendly to ensure that people feel comfortable offering feedback and ideas, but remember that you're not organizing a social club or tea party. You’re gathering activists dedicated to the hard work of changing bad public policy.
Cass County MI, Journey for Justice 2002
Journey for Justice: Cass County, MI 2002

Be on the lookout for potential leaders who'll share major responsibilities. The spirit and work of one or a few determined people is what binds most small groups, with short-term volunteers helping when they can. Watch for those people in your group who may shoulder some important loads you now carry.

Volunteers will move out of your community or move on to other interests. As you begin, assume that some people will leave the group. Be grateful for each contribution no matter how small, and never publicly criticize or embarrass anyone. Again, don't make volunteers feel guilty for not doing enough; motivating by guilt seldom encourages volunteers to do more. Gifts of time and talent thrive on encouragement and recognition.

Don't fight with the group. If correction is necessary, criticize the act rather than the individual, a necessary skill to develop and refine for anyone intent on leading. Build and foster unity with confidence and allegiance to mutual respect within the group. Feel free to share these sentiments at a first meeting.
Be open to new ideas and encourage people to express themselves. A first meeting may include time when you ask each person (perhaps not possible in a large group) to think of several ideas and write down each one.

You might want to hang a big piece of butcher paper, give out marking pens and let people write down their basic ideas - all at once. Discuss the ideas only after you've finished listing each one.

Omaha NE, Journey for Justice 2003
Journey for Justice: Omaha, NE 2003
It is your responsibility to foster mutual respect. You may be bringing together a diverse group. It's no cliché that everyone is special in some way, and even outlandish suggestions may lead to creative planning. Ask questions, and then listen actively and carefully to answers from individuals who have taken time to attend your first or following meeting.

Down to Details

To begin publicizing or inviting people to a meeting, first choose a date, time, and place. Write out defined goals for the meeting, allowing for at least three weeks advance notice by phone, email or by regular mail. Perhaps you’ll distribute flyers in your neighborhood with place, date, time, meeting purpose, and contact information.

Three weeks before the meeting you'll send out invitations, or hang posters to notify the neighborhood, and it will be helpful to rely on your checklist to prepare for small details. Unless it's a very small and informal first meeting, you’ll want to have on hand an informational table. There is enough material in the appendix to create a great informational table. It serves two purposes: you’ll distribute information and gather contact and other important details about prospective volunteers and team leaders. Internet users can review current projects, displays, and the recent issue of the Razor Wire newsmagazine. A wide array of supplies are available online and through November Coalition’s National Office.

By now you have found, printed, and made copies of the volunteer questionnaire, sign up sheets and at least a sampling of available educational materials. You may more easily convince people to volunteer by asking them to distribute, first, a few flyers to family, friends or colleagues.
Hillsbourough NC, Journey for Justice 2003
Journey for Justice: Hillsborough, NC 2003

One effective messaging technique to help set the tone of your meeting is easy to do. Drug war prisoner ‘posters’ pinned or taped on walls around the room are personal reminders why your volunteers have taken time out from busy lives to meet. Mixed with a few charts, people will learn not only facts, but you’ve probably taught them something they hadn’t known.

A first meeting should include a hand-out that includes all your local, state and federal leaders with complete contact information. To find state and federal legislators online go to and enter your zip code. If you don’t have online access, a public library can assist you in determining your leaders. You can also write or call your City Hall or County Commissioners' office and request that they send you a list of local, state and federal lawmakers and their contact information. Your footwork can be easily shared with others. If you don’t have a business card, use this informational sheet to highlight your personal contact information that includes your name, phone number and email address. You might give them November Coalition’s national address and contact information, along with your phone and email address.

You are ready for your first meeting.

Meeting Guide

1. Introductions and first impressions are important

Designate some "greeters." If you are starting out alone and lots of people are entering the meeting room, ask an outgoing individual to help greet others. Greeting’s easy, and anyone can quickly follow along. You’ll easily identify people with a "pitch in" attitude.
Tampa FL, Journey for Justice 2003
Journey for Justice: Tampa, FL 2003

Start the meeting by appreciating attendance immediately. "Thank you for coming" and "It is good to meet you," are things you should say often and emphatically. Exchange names immediately, and if expecting five or more people, name-tags are a great idea. After exchanging introductions, attention can be directed to a name-tag and informational table. You don't have to have a full-blown display at first meetings, but it's a good group project to discuss, however.

Welcome your guests' literature as well. Set up an extra table for it if you expect a large meeting. You really don’t want your own table cluttered. This is a gracious and thoughtful gesture; so make it part of a "remember to do" list.

Begin the designated business meeting time by introducing yourself(s) to the group -- who you are, why you are working on behalf of the prisoners of the war on drugs, and some personal background. This should take no longer than 3 to 5 minutes. Remember that you can speak informally if you've called an informal first meeting. You don't even have to stand up when talking.

If there's about a dozen people in your group, and you have at least an hour to meet, go around the room for quick introductions. If you do that, you must set a firm time limit, and one minute for each of a dozen people will eat up almost a quarter of an hour. Chances are, most people will want to talk far longer.

Choosing this method of introductions may also require you to politely hurry at least a few to conclude. You may feel more comfortable letting people introduce themselves to each other later, but remember, as the organizer, introductions are very important to allow each person opportunity to foster and develop a sense of inclusion in the group, a necessary condition for unity.

At the very least, go around the table or room and let each person say their name, affiliation if applicable, and in one sentence state why they came to the meeting. That's the safest way to conduct introductions. If your gathering is large, break into smaller groups for personal interactions sometime during your meeting.
Dallas TX, Journey for Justice 2003
Journey for Justice: Dallas, TX 2003

Pass a sign-up sheet around the room and ask that everyone fill it out. It’s been at your informational table, but people might have missed the opportunity to sign in. Let them know that Volunteer Questionnaires are available and how grateful you would be to anyone interested in volunteering and working with your group. Ask people to complete the form before they leave, return it by mail or bring it to the next meeting. Have plenty of Questionnaires and extra pens available. Provide blank sheets of paper for those who want to take notes, but didn't bring writing materials.

2. Activate your group

The November Coalition offers ongoing projects and basic activities for drug law reform activists. These projects and activities fall into three general categories: public education, seasonal or "reaction" events, and long-term campaigns. After introductions you could talk about the mission of the November Coalition and then introduce current projects and basic activities most November groups are working on.

Sometimes a group forms because of a local situation. In those instances the local groups can plan events and campaigns that address immediate needs. For this, November Coalition’s volunteer's activities may spur new ideas for local campaigns on a particular situation.

One or more of the projects and activities should be agreeable to the group before the meeting is over. You may come to the meeting with ideas of your own, but remember that the group is going to decide what they want to do. If it's a project you're not comfortable leading, and more than one project or activity will be chosen, perhaps someone else will help lead. Share responsibilities early. Don't be afraid to let others be leaders, too.

If your group wants to do more than one project or activity, remind everyone why it's necessary to prioritize activities. Be realistic as you choose. First meetings will often surprise you. People have a lot of ideas.

You are likely to hear, "Let's publish a newsletter," but remember that newsletters should be a low priority for groups just starting out. Your money and time may be more wisely spent on collecting educational materials, passing out flyers and campaigning in public, all of which you can accomplish by using our published literature and project ideas. A newsletter relates what a group has already done -- they shouldn't be used as a replacement for action. Group reports, if you submit them, will be shared with all Coalition members through publication of the Razor Wire. Encourage your new members to formalize their membership with our Home Office so they'll begin receiving each issue.

Every group should prioritize public education work. This includes tabling, leafleting, putting up posters, creating displays for public places, writing letters to the editor, participating in local online issue forums. Seasonal or "reaction" events are another valuable activity. Plan for leafleting or demonstrating when new prisons are proposed or when a "drug war hawk" politician is visiting your area -- or when a particularly bad bill has been introduced or supported by one of your representatives. If something good happens, you’ll be in place to plan the celebration.

Federal lawmakers have an office near or in your city or town. If they're promoting harsher penalties for drug law violations, consider meeting with them. If you are not able to garner support, consider ways your group can respond. Responding publicly may get you publicity, and these one-time "reactionary" or short-term campaigns or events can be especially effective. They may create more hostility with a legislator than garners support for reform. You’ll want to consider this with your active supporters. Let your group know that the formation and development of the group includes these decisions about tactics.

An easy and uncomplicated way local groups can work on long-term campaigns is to join one that's been initiated by a national organization. You can bring important issues to your community and have the benefit of the national group's literature and resources. The November Coalition manages such campaigns. Be sure to have a list of current projects at your first meeting. A project can include literature, a petition, or other special element. Seeing is believing; you can order project samples to share with group.

Above all, encourage your group to be visible. Get into the public eye often, and always try to get media coverage for public events. Have at least one slogan T-shirt at the meeting, or other visible symbols of our discontent with the nation's drug laws. Let people pick them up, dream of the possibilities, and talk about ways they want to be involved.

3. Plan for the future

By now your group knows you mean business. Now is a good time to discuss how the group will want to operate: how often you should meet, where and what your future focus and priorities will be. Enthusiasm may be high, and perhaps yours has risen to new heights.

After your initial meeting, you should always include time for a "work party" to prepare posters, write letters, or fill informational packets. This will ensure that people leave with a feeling that they have already accomplished a task. This might be possible with a first meeting, but not practical. That's why leaving with a task will be very important for your first meeting. Let people know you'll have a project to work on at next meeting. By now, you should have a good idea what it will be. Perhaps the second meeting will be the presentation of materials to include in local informational packets. Together you can build press informational packets or targeted information to local religious leaders. People can bring their ideas to the second meeting, and compilation can begin.

Durham NC 2006
Community Forum, Durham, NC 2006
You must make some choices about how you want to operate for at least a few months in advance. Should you meet once a month, or call meetings as you need them? Decide where you want to meet, be it a library, a local school or church. Avoid meeting in people's homes if you're better off in neutral territory. There may be liability risks that people assume when they have meetings in their homes. They can be great places to meet, too and some homeowners are willing to accept the responsibility. Your group can decide. If you hold regular meetings, they should be scheduled for the same day and time each month.

It's not necessary to talk about bulk mailing permits, bank accounts and large fundraising projects. That, too, can be a trap that may doom your group to mediocre results, even failure. Administrative details such as bookkeeping, maintaining product inventories, and planning large demonstrations or benefits are seldom easy to organize, manage and improve. Tactfully remind people that formality will develop in time if, or as, needed. Skill develops best in stages of learning and re-learning. Entire books are written on these separate subjects and a few noted in the “Reading Room” section.

Many groups operate more efficiently with less bureaucracy. The operation of the November Coalition's formal organization, by providing projects and helping to develop ideas and the means to implement them, serves and saves local groups from the grueling responsibilities of administrative detail. Volunteers can then work unaffected by periodic pressures to raise large amounts of money. The crucial job of educating people in one's own community doesn’t have to be expensive.

4. Summarize the meeting

Bronx NY, Journey for Justice 2002
Journey for Justice: Bronx, NY 2002
Quickly review the projects that your group has decided to pursue. Assign tasks to volunteers expressing interest in doing more. Give out the date, place and time of the next meeting. Concise, well planned meetings become a time for group invigoration and inspiration, and meeting regularly is the best way to ensure that you'll meet defined objectives. Collect the Volunteer Questionnaires, the meeting sign up sheets, and then call everyone together for a historical photograph. You just held your first November Coalition meeting!

Remember, again, to thank everyone for coming.

5. After your meeting

Some leaders will want to send a 'thank you' to those who attended the meeting. This can be done by mail and email. If your group is small, you may want to phone everyone. Now it is time to begin working on the projects and activities agreed upon, and begin thinking about the agenda you want to set for the next meeting. Remember to ask yourself what should be accomplished at the next meeting. With some concrete goals listed, based on what transpired during your first meeting, the next agenda should be easy to make, and hopefully you have found new volunteers to help prepare for the second meeting.

From this point, your group's collective experience should power and follow a momentum that you were able to shape and inspire. In time you may be the person who facilitates growth, while others lead in different and multiple ways.

Meetings need not be formatted exactly the same each time. We thrive on variety and expectancy and encourage you to be a creative, dynamic leader.