A newbie guide to organizing your first demonstration

01 Aug 2017

In Spring of 2017, I was one of a seven person executive committee that led the organization of the March for Science–Hawaii. Without any prior experience and over the course of ten weeks, we developed an organizing committee of over 70 people, verified the attendence of over 2700 people on the day of the march, and ended the day with a budget surplus of $4,000 which we will use to provide grants to science educators. Because we were learning while we were doing, we made a variety of mistakes along the way, even though the march was ultimately a success and exceeded our expectations.

I decided to help organize the March for Science not because I knew anything about organizing, but because the mission was personally compelling. For those of you who find yourself in a similar situation, I would like to offer the following four tips to help you get started.

1. Grow yourself a large organizing committee

The first organizational meeting for the March for Science Hawaii was held in February in a conference room with six people. We didn’t know much about what we needed to do, but one need was clear: more volunteers.

So, each of us started contacting friends and colleagues to ask them if they wanted to be involved. For each of those people who agreed, we told them that the most important thing they could do right away was find just one additional person among their friends and colleagues who was sincerely interested in helping organize the March.

And then, when each of those friends-of-friends contacted us to join, we told them that the most important thing they could do right away was find just one additional person.

Using this viral expansion approach, the organizing committee grew to over 100 people over the course of the following four weeks. Eventually we realized we needed to determine who was actually doing something (attending meetings, taking on tasks) versus “lurking”, which resulted in a pruning of the committee to around 70 active volunteers.

Having 70 active volunteers was an amazing workforce that made everything else possible: we could create subcommittees with 10 people rather than 1 or 2, we could often find personal connections within our organizing committee to other organizations or resources, and our t-shirt fundraising campaign was guaranteed to be a success (see below).

2. Use Slack (or something similar)

It is tempting to use a “lowest common denominator” for communication, such as email or a Facebook group. In retrospect, another early good decision was to use a slightly more complicated communication tool called Slack.

The downside of Slack was that many people on the organizing committee had never used it before, and so it created a small technical barrier to participation. I am sure we lost a few volunteers because they couldn’t get the hang of it.

The upside of Slack was that we could not have effectively managed communication amongst all of the volunteers working on subtasks without it. We eventually created over 20 Slack “channels” to discuss tasks and issues including: music, media, a “Why I March” video, operations, outreach, endorsements, graphic art, outer-islands, program activities, course marshals, signs, speakers, volunteers, strategic planning, website, social media, resources, executive-committee, post-march, youth-voters, and meet-a-scientist.

Slack enabled any volunteer with a specific goal for participation (say, working on the website) to subscribe only to the associated channel and thus receive only messages related to that task. This was really, really important, because organizing committee members sent over 10,000 Slack messages during the 10 weeks prior to the March. A thousand messages a week would burn out almost any volunteer, but in reality most folks received only a fraction of those messages, since they were subscribed to only a few of the 20 channels.

In retrospect, I think that Tips 1 and 2 are intimately related: you simply cannot grow and sustain a large organizing committee without a communication tool that allows committee members to filter communications.

3. Raise funds the easy way

Our collective cluelessness really manifested itself during early discussions about fund raising. We knew we needed money for (among other things): liability insurance; tents and staging; posters, signs, and other promotional material, and other things that might come up depending upon the location (porta potties?). But we didn’t know exactly how much, and we didn’t know how to get it, or even what to do with it once we got it. We discussed a kickstarter campaign, bake sales (yes, I’m serious), selling buttons, and other innocently suggested but ultimately naive ideas.

After a really significant amount of time spent on non-starters, here’s what worked amazingly well:

  1. We found a “fiscal sponsor” (Kanu Hawaii), a non-profit 503c(b) organization who agreed to handle the money for us.

  2. One of our volunteers (Brooks Bays) is a professional graphic artist who contributed a super awesome t-shirt design.

  3. We sold our t-shirt via Bonfire.

First, you have to find a fiscal sponsor, a non-profit organization who can accept and disburse funds for you, for the simple reason that if you do not, then the person in your group who takes in the money is going to owe taxes on it as unearned income. In addition, having a fiscal sponsor creates transparency; it is clear how money is coming in and going out. Finally, you have enough work to do without worrying about opening a bank account and dealing with funds. Kanu worked out great and I recommend them without hesitation.

Second, find someone in your committee with serious design chops. We found Brooks, who took the official March for Science logo and made it Island Style by replacing one of the orbitals with a lei and replacing the interior globe with the Hawaiian island chain. If you check out the 610 satellite march logos, you will probably agree with many people who told us ours was the best logo of all!

Third, don’t even think (like we did) of self-funding the printing of t-shirts and setting up tables to sell them. There’s a much better approach. Instead, create a Bonfire campaign, which means uploading your design to Bonfire, specifying how much you want to sell each t-shirt for, how many need to be sold in order for them to be printed, what colors/styles you want, and the closing date for the campaign. Bonfire then displays the t-shirt on their site, accepts the money, prints the shirts, sends them out, and PayPals money into your fiscal sponsor’s account. We ended up doing three separate Bonfire campaigns, sold over 800 t-shirts world-side, and raised over $12,000.

I want to point out that Tip 1 and Tip 3 are related. Just before the start of our first Bonfire campaign, we had the pleasant realization that if each of the people on the organizing committee bought just two t-shirts, we would raise enough money to cover the minimum expenses for the March. Think about that: if you have a large enough committee, and a good enough t-shirt design, you can basically fund your demonstration yourself.

4. Get an accurate count of participation

Do not rely on police or news reporters to correctly estimate the size of attendance; one news article reported that “nearly 1,000” people showed up for the March for Science, an estimate which was approximately a third of the actual attendance.

Why do we know this estimate was wildly off? Science! Ryan Ozawa stationed himself at the start of the route and made a video showing all of the marchers as they walked by.

Three students then counted the number of marchers shown in the video four times. The average of these 12 counts was 2564 (+/- 48). We estimate about 200 people remained on the lawn and never marched, which yields a much more reliable estimate of 2700.


Helping organize the March for Science turned out to be a wonderful experience for me. I met lots of nice people and went to a lot of meetings that were interesting, fun, and productive. Most of all, I helped provide an opportunity for 2700 people on Oahu to physically demonstrate their support for the scientific process as a critical way to provide evidence-based decision making.

If you’ve got a cause that’s really important to you, don’t hold back from taking a leadership role because you don’t know what you’re doing. Just throw yourself into it, do your best, and hope for the best. Sometimes the results will totally surprise you.

Many, many thanks to the other members of the March for Science Executive Committee: Emily Gaskin, Grant Yamashita, Stephanie Wilson, Elisha Wood-Charlson, Dylan Davis, Brooks Bays, and especially our fearless leader, Helen Spafford. Thanks also to the other 70+ members of the March for Science organizing committee without whom this event would not have been successful.

For more information about March for Science Hawaii, please see our website.