Self-help groups offer people who face a common problems, conditions or life circumstances the opportunity to meet with others and share their experience, knowledge, strength and hope. Run by and for their members, self-help groups can better be described as “mutual help” groups. Hundreds of these groups are started each week across the nation by ordinary people with a little bit or courage, a fair sense of commitment and a good amount of caring. The following guidelines are based on our experience at the Clearinghouse helping hundreds of individuals and organizations to start groups. While there is no one recipe for developing a group (different national groups offer different model approaches), here is an overview of the basic steps and strategies. Call us for additional ideas and literature.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel: If you are interested in starting a group around a particular concern or problem, find out what groups already exist for it. Call or email the Clearinghouse to confirm that there are no existing local or online groups that may address your issue. Look on the internet to see if there exists a national organization and search their website for any how-to literature. Check local hospitals or libraries to see if they offer or know of any appropriate support group.

Think “Mutual Help” from the Start: Find a few others who share your interest in starting (not simply joining) a self-help support group. Starting a group should not be on one person’s shoulders alone. Put out flyers or letters that specifically cite your interest in hearing from those who would be interested in helping to start the group. Include your name, phone number and/or email address. Make copies and post them at places you feel most appropriate (e.g., library, community center, post office, bulletin boards in houses of worship). Email copies to key people you think would know others like yourself. Post it on social media groups or pages that deal with your issue.

When you receive calls, messages or emails, discuss with the caller what their interests are, share your vision of you would like to see the group do, and finally ask if they would be willing to work with you for a specific period of time to try to get the group off the ground. Discuss sharing the workload. Delegate responsibilities, such as greeting people at the door, bringing refreshments, making coffee, co-chairing the meeting, working with social media, etc. Once you find a couple of people willing to help, you have a “core” group or steering committee, you won’t have to do it alone. It’s much easier to start a group if the work is shared (but not impossible). If several people are involved in the initial work at that first meeting (refreshments, greeting new people, etc.) you will model for new attendees what your self-help groups is all about—not one person doing it all but the combined efforts and the active participation of all the members.

Find a Suitable Meeting Place and Time: Try to obtain free meeting space at a local church, synagogue, temple, mosque, library, community center, hospital or social service agency. If you anticipate a small group and feel comfortable with the idea, you could even consider meeting in such places as local restaurants. Many restaurants have small private rooms and welcome the business. Many groups start off by meetings in public spaces.

To decide on a meeting time, think about your membership. Would evening or day meetings be better for your members? Many prefer weeknights. It is also easier for people to remember the meeting date if it is a fixed day or the week or month (e.g. the second Tuesday of the month, etc.) Find a meeting location that feels both physically and emotionally “safe.” If your membership doesn’t drive or is in a city setting,  be sure to find a meeting place that is on the bus or train line. Consider holding your meetings online or “hybrid” (both online and in-person simultaneously).

Publicizing Your Meeting:  Reaching potential members is always a challenge. Depending upon the concern the group will be addressing, consider where potential members might go. Would they be seen by a particular doctor or agency? Contacting physicians, clergy or other professionals can be one approach to try. Posting flyers in post offices, community calendars, and libraries is another. Putting information about your interest in starting a group can be submitted to your small, local newspapers. Consider simply calling the paper and asking to speak with an editor to suggest an article on the group and the purpose of the group. Editors are often grateful for the idea. Post information on your group online in chatrooms, social service calendars, on various social media platforms, and places that allow personal postings.

Your First Meeting: The first meeting should be arranged to allow ample time for you to describe your interest and work while allowing others the opportunity to share their feelings and concerns. Do those attending agree that such a group is needed? Will they attend this meeting, helping out as needed? What common needs do those attending want the group to address? Based on group consensus, you can make plans for your next meeting.

If your group intends to have guest speakers, another idea for a first meeting is to arrange for a good speaker and topic that is of interest to potential members and publicize it well in advance. At the event, after the question and answer session with the speaker, allow for a discussion group so that attendees can talk about the topic in light of their own experiences. (If there is a large turnout break into smaller discussion groups then come together as a full group.) Present the idea of continuing discussion as an ongoing self-help group.

Identify and Respond to the Expressed Needs of Your Members:  If your group is new and doesn’t follow a set program for helping members help one another, always remember to plan your groups’ activities and goals based on the expressed needs of your members. Share your vision. At the very first meeting, go around the room, permitting each member an opportunity to say what they would like to see the group do. Then discuss these needs and come to a consensus as to which needs you will address first. Don’t assume that you know the members’ needs without ever asking them. Remember to regularly ask your new members about their needs, and what they think the group might do to meet those needs. Avoid the pitfall of the core group members possible becoming a clique. The welcoming of new people into the group is a process that continues well beyond welcoming them at the door.

Future Meetings: Considerations for future meetings may include the following:

  • Mission/ Vision – Define the purpose of the group in no more than two sentences. Is it clear? You may want to add it to any flyer or brochure that you develop for the group. Some groups also include any guidelines that they have for the meetings right on their flyer or brochure.
  • Membership – Who can attend meetings and who cannot? Do you want regular members limited to those that are or who have experienced the issue at hand? Does the group allow family members, visitors or children? 
  • Meeting format – What choice or combination of discussion time, education, business meeting, service planning, socializing, etc. best suits your group? What guidelines might you use to assure that discussions be non-judgmental, confidential and informative? Topics can be selected or guest speakers invited. A good discussion group size may be about 7 to 15. As your meeting grows larger, consider breaking down into smaller groups for discussion.
  • Ongoing use of professionals – Consider using professionals as speakers, advisors, sources of needed services, educators, helpful gatekeepers, advocates, possible trainers, researchers, consultants to your group or simply as a source of continued referrals. All you have to do is ask them.
  • Help between meetings – Many groups encourage the exchange of telephone numbers/ emails/ names. Many groups create a telephone list or provide members with help over the phone or via text/ email when it is needed between meetings. Some groups have a buddy system that pairs newcomers with veteran members (i.e. sponsors/ mentors).
  • Projects – Begin with small projects such as developing a flyer, getting the work out via social media, obtaining newspaper coverage, creating a newsletter, etc. Celebrate and pat yourselves on the back when you succeed with these first projects. Then if the group desires, work your way up to more difficult takes and projects, e.g., planning a conference, advocating the introduction of specific legislation, developing a visitation program, etc.
  • Sharing responsibilities and nurturing new leaders – You will want to look at the various roles, additional roles that people can play in helping other members feel welcome and making the group work (e.g. group librarian, arranging for speakers, group liaison with an agency, location etc.) Ask the group what specific tasks they think would be most helpful, then ask for volunteers. By sharing responsibilities you help create opportunities for others to become key members and leaders in the group and experience the good feelings of helping others.
  • Expect Your Group to Experience Regular “Ups and Downs – For example, in terms of attendance and enthusiasm, it’s natural and to be expected. You may want to consider joining or forming a coalition or state association of leaders from the same or similar types of self-help groups for your own periodic mutual support and for sharing program ideas and successes.