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Help Sheet

Does your CDI want to become more formal?

There are real advantages to a group becoming more formal.

For groups that are involved with advocacy or fundraising, for example, it may be essential to work towards achieving a higher profile and more structure.

Even for non-advocacy and non-fundraising groups there can be advantages in becoming more formal. These include the probability of attracting new members to keep the group viable, being able to better share the organisational workload, and advertising the group more efficiently to get a higher community profile.

Ways of becoming more formalised

Formalisation can involve steps such as developing rules to govern your group's conduct and operations, making your meetings more structured, keeping records about your group and its members, or you might go even further than that and become incorporated or take on some other form of legal identity.

How formalised your group becomes will depend very much on things like:

For some groups, the idea of keeping any records, or pursuing external funding, would be completely out of the question and might contravene basic principles established by the group, such as complete privacy, so it's important that you consider the implications before you start down that road. Consider the following points:

How do we know if we are ready?

Groups often undergo 'moods'. A group of people is more than the sum of its individual members, it is an entity unto itself.

Groups can go through periods of exhilaration, of frustration, of boredom or drift, of strenuous activity, or hopelessness - this is all absolutely normal.

Each of these 'moods', though, might be a marker that a new phase is needed. If the commitment of the group is not in question, it may be that you just need to consider new structures, and ways of allowing for new growth.

You might be at a stage where you want to keep more formal records - so that you can keep track of how much it is costing to run the group, for example, or to keep better track of and in touch with your members.

If your group has a very specific purpose, you will probably already have thought about how to continue your work into the future and whether this will require any additional funding. It is worth considering that the things your group is already doing might well be things that people want to fund. This is often an incentive for people to consider incorporation. You might want to start applying for grants to finance some of your projects, for example - grants which may only be available to incorporated groups.

It might just be that becoming more formalised suits where your group is heading. For example, you might want to start letting the wider community know about your activities - something that is easier if you have a legally recognised structure behind you.

Your group might not necessarily want to go through the incorporation process, but if you are considering incorporation it is worth remembering that you don't have to be a huge group, and incorporation does not mean having to become stiff or stuffy or overly ceremonial, or something that you're not.

Consider the following scenarios and how they apply (or don't apply) to your group before taking the next step towards formalisation.

We don't have enough members

A sudden or gradual drop in membership can happen in groups from time to time.

Sometimes the downturn in membership leads to a group dissolving, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. It might be an indication that the purpose that the group was formed to serve is no longer required.

What is a shame is when a group dissolves when it is still useful but lacks the structure that would otherwise have maintained people's interest. When things are too unreliable or too unpredictable - if meetings drag on for too long and achieve nothing, if no-one is ever sure who's responsible for what, and so on - you can lose people who might otherwise have stayed committed.

The capacity to use a basic database and membership system can also help your group to maintain the interest of members. It will help you keep track of who has been involved in the group in the past, who is still involved, and who has expressed interest in your activities. This information is very useful, if it is kept up to date and if you keep in touch with people.

In fact, such formalised record-keeping is essential if you are to maintain links with interested people that you can involve in the future activities of your group, or who may be doing things that your group is interested in.

We are not communicating well with each other

When groups are meeting informally, with no clear purpose, there is the capacity for 'drift'.

In some instances, this is desirable, as the purpose of the group is whatever it is that people want to do on the day/at the time.

In other instances it can be a drawback. You might find that over time, different people in the group have radically different ideas about what your group does and what it stands for, which in turn affects how other people get recruited into the group, and can lead to conflict.

Having some structure, written documents, and a record of decisions can help to relieve some of these issues.

If your group finds it is often trying to remember what it decided last time, who was present, and who said what, or is going over the same ground too often, this might also be an indication that some formal rules and records are needed.

This is particularly true for groups trying to organise an event of some kind.

Let's say you're trying to organise a protest rally. You will want to be sure that your aims and messages are united, that organisers and participants know clearly how to contact each other; you may even want to attract media attention. Who will write the media release, where will you send it? Who is responsible for what, where, when and how?

If the group is not clear about its main purposes, some good opportunities may be lost, and worse, the group might be damaged.

Some of our members are burning out

This can happen in a group where one or two people have all of the responsibility for organisational issues, or for bearing the costs of group meetings.

Sometimes when the administrative aspects are taken care of by one or two people, it leaves everyone else free to continue the group's purpose. However, the person(s) who are in this role might not be able to sustain it for too long, even if they were quite happy to do so in the beginning. Our life commitments can rapidly change, and with them our capacities at any given time.

Logically, when too few people are responsible for ensuring that things 'happen', there is the potential for burn out, dissatisfaction, and feelings of being too responsible for too much, or 'missing out' on the pleasure of simply being one member out of a group of many.

The need for more structure or more sharing around of responsibilities usually emerges quite naturally (and hopefully before anyone really does burn out).

Sharing tasks around in itself will require good communication between members so that nothing is left undone, or done by two people at once.

We need more funds

When groups are new, often they can survive with little or no financial input, meeting in members' loungerooms or coffee shops and undertaking activities that don't require payments of any kind.

But as your group gets larger or more organised, you may need to start thinking about bringing in funds - to cover the costs of hiring a meeting room, for example, or to pay for the costs of producing and printing a newsletter.

Once you add the issue of money to a group, whatever its size, you are going to have to start adding some more formal structures. Who will be responsible for receiving and accounting for the money, for example? How will members know that the groups funds are being looked after appropriately?

Groups may even wish to source funding through grants and other forms of contributions such as donations. To do this, you are probably going to need to be incorporated so you have some legal status behind you.

How do you decide whether or not to incorporate?

If your group has a very specific project or idea in mind, or wants to give itself some legal status, you may want to discuss matters like incorporation or some other form of legal status very early on.

One of the main reasons for this is that many forms of external funding, such as grants, are usually given only to organisations that are a legal entity.

Funders want to know that the fundee can receive and acquit funds, that it can manage a project to a timeline, and that it can report its progress. To do this, a group has to be able to organise itself.

Incorporation also acts to give some legal protection to the group and its members - see the help sheet on legal structures for more information on the types of structures you can pursue for your CDI.



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