NAACP launches door-to-door U.S. membership drive

Campaign, new consultant aim to re-energize group

August 12, 1999|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

The NAACP is going door-to-door this month in a bid to boost its national membership by reminding Americans of all races what the organization is doing and how new members can get involved.

Although the NAACP's leadership is strong and its finances stable, organization officials have struggled to boost national membership in recent years. To address the problem, it hired its first membership consultant this summer.

The Knock Across America campaign asks each member of the Baltimore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to knock on at least 10 doors to tell friends and neighbors about the organization.

"A lot of people want to be involved, but they're caught up with their jobs and can't come to meetings. But if you knock on their door, they'll sign up everyone in their house," said Sylvia Williams, the membership consultant. "This is a reminder. It's a wake-up call."

But why does the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization need to recruit members? The reasons are complex.

Partly because of disorganized tracking and nurturing of membership and partly because fewer Americans are actively engaged in civil rights, dues-paying members have hovered around 500,000 for nearly two years, said NAACP spokesman John C. White.

It's largely a "bookkeeping problem," White said. In the cash-strapped nonprofit group, many branches are not wired for the Internet, and many members rely on faxes and standard mail to disseminate information. Membership data often are difficult to track, White said.

In addition, the NAACP has long been forced to counter charges that it is no longer relevant in an age when many see civil rights as a subject for history books.

But, said Herb Lindsay, president of the Maryland NAACP, "it's all a function of marketing."

Indeed, in recent months, long-dormant chapters such as one in Carroll County have been revived, and youth and college chapters also have surged in membership. But other memberships have lapsed, White said.

The way Williams sees it, just about all Americans interested in civil rights would join the NAACP if they realized how much good they could do.

"We're selling this organization because it can be of benefit to everyone," she said. "People are really peculiar -- they love attention. When you tell people, `You are very special and we need you to help us grow,' they listen."

Williams started the campaign last month focusing on active members at the 90th annual NAACP convention in New York. There and in recent weeks, she handed out or mailed more than 4,000 membership packages. They include membership rates ($30 a year for adults and up to $15 for youth), sample letters inviting people to NAACP meetings and proposed scripts for approaching prospective members.

Last weekend, NAACP members in West Virginia and Alabama began knocking on doors. Over the next three months, members across the country will participate to share NAACP history and tout the current importance of the organization. In Maryland, the canvassing is scheduled for the middle of next month.

Although most state and local branches appoint at least one person to handle membership, such tasks have not typically been coordinated through the national office.

National officials felt it was time, White said.

"Everyone is theoretically a recruiter," he said, "but, in order to do it right, you need someone focused on it."

Williams was hired in June. This week, she is compiling a proposed budget for other membership projects and hopes to arrange television advertisements and billboards. By year's end, she says, membership statistics will be tabulated and distributed.

As a result of Knock Across America, the NAACP also is actively expanding its view of possible members beyond African-Americans. In particular, many are talking about partnerships with Latinos.

"Every race belongs to this organization," Williams said.

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