To help people who are starting a group, COSHG has produced a book called In The Same Boat (currently under revision.) This resource kit also contains information on maintaining and closing a group. COSHG also runs small workshops on starting a group. These workshops are held from time to time according to need.

Have you been thinking about starting a self help/support group? Here are some tips to consider, based on decades of COSHG experience working with groups.

Have you checked to see if there is an existing group on the same issue?
Contact COSHG to see if we have a similar group in our database. If there is a group operating in another area we may be able to link you up to a network. This will offer an opportunity to get information as to how they do things and what problems may have occurred along the way.

Have a very clear, shared vision of what the group is for
If there is more than one person setting up the new group, it is essential you all have a shared vision. Having that conversation will help to dispel any assumptions. If there is not a shared vision then there may be confusion amongst the founders that will not attract or encourage others to become part of the group.

What is the purpose of the group?
Will the group exist for instance, as a means for; social interaction, raising community awareness, advocating for change, having experts as guest speakers or a mix of activities.

Legal Structures and requirements
When the group is up and running consider if the group wishes to become an incorporated group.  If that is the case there are certain requirements such as: creating a Constitution (Rules), holding an Annual General Meeting (AGM) and reporting to the Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) and/or the Australian Charities National Commission (ACNC) every year. There are 23 mandatory rules for an incorporated group’s Constitution (Rules) that must be complied with. A group may choose to create their own rules (inclusive of the mandatory rules) or use the Model Rules. See:

Will the group meet online or gather together in person?
In the case of online groups it is important that there is good mediation when it comes to posting inappropriate information and how the inappropriateness is identified and handled. Will the group allow advertising on the site and how will privacy and confidentiality issues be maintained? Importantly how will you manage the prevention of anyone accessing the group site without permission. Establish guidelines as to what will be acceptable/appropriate in participating in your online group. This should be available online to all potential participants to ensure a common understanding.

For groups who meet in person
Be aware of group dynamics and the issues that may arise when differences of opinions occur. Member’s economic status, lifestyles, political leanings, skills and experience may be vastly different. Personalities may clash e.g. someone always dominating. Establish ground rules that address potential situations and how to address them. Make sure all members have a copy. (see Ground rules below.) When something erupts in the group then there is a guide as to how to handle the situation. Groups can run happily for years and then find themselves in a situation that they don’t know how to address.

Welcome new members
Whether you are meeting together in person or online make sure new members are welcomed. Engage with them and find out why they wish to be part of the group and what their expectations are. New members may have experience, networks etc to offer the group. However if they do not feel part of a group because it does not have an inclusive welcoming approach then opportunities to enhance the group may be lost.

What is the expectation of how the group will run?
Will the group focus on sharing responsibility, ideas and skills, making decisions by consensus or establish a hierarchal structure where decisions are made by a few? All members should have the opportunity to have input into decision making. Members are equals in a self help group as they all face a common experience or condition. Their economic status, lifestyles, political leanings, skills and experience may be vastly different. Groups are a great opportunity to share both skills and knowledge while working to achieve the purpose of the group.

Sometimes the founder(s) of the group may consider themselves as the ‘owner’ of the group (their baby) and become reluctant to share responsibility and leadership. This does not necessarily produce a successful or sustainable group, as members may feel sidelined, unable to voice opinions or contribute their skills and experience. This can lead to members no longer attending meetings and then leaving the group altogether because they are discouraged and can’t see that things will change. Read more about Founder’s syndome

Burnout can easily occur in groups when individuals take on too much of the workload. This can be particularly applicable to those who started the group who feel ownership of the group. Some may see themselves as ‘having to do everything’. Further down the track this can cause problems as stress sets in–manifesting in lack of motivation, loss of energy and affecting general health and feelings of not being supported, and that the group will no longer exist if they aren’t the one(s) to keep running it. Sharing the workload needs to be considered from the start, others may do things differently but that can be OK.

How can COSHG assist?
Call or email us for any assistance in setting up or maintaining a group, writing a constitution, problems in the group, ground rules, running workshops and so much more. We will do our best to assist.

Note: COSHG is currently rewriting its resource book ‘In the Same Boat.’ The above are a small sample of the topics that are being included and covered more extensively in this resource for self help groups.


Groups and ground rules

Our experience has shown over many decades the importance for groups to establish ground rules. These are essential to the shared understanding of members as to what the group sees as acceptable behaviour within the group.  At COSHG, we have had experience of groups who may have been operating quite happily for long periods of time and suddenly find themselves with a problem they don’t know how to resolve. Whatever the problem, it may have been resolved early in the piece by identifying the issue and looking at their ground rules for the resolution. The issue may have grown out of all proportion simply because members are not in the position to point out that what is occurring does not meet with their rules.

Ground rules are basically about respect and understanding for what the group is about and how it carries out its activities and the way it operates. They also set the basis for any expectations or misunderstandings of what the nature of the group is.  A group’s rules should be compiled in the early stages of the group. Initially one or more members may draft the rules to be taken to the rest of the group for consideration, suggestions and additions etc.  It is important that group members are involved in creating ground rules. It is also a good idea to review those rules from time to time to ensure they cover what the group requires as it evolves.                                                   

Here are some examples of topics for ground rules. They are suggestions only and presented with the understanding that each group may have other issues they would like their group to include in their own particular ground rules:

  • Can carers or family members attend meetings?
  • What is the process for welcoming new members to the group?
  • How does the group make decisions?
  • How do we address someone who is trying to control the group eg by pushing own agenda? 
  • What is and what is not acceptable behaviour within your group?
  • Discriminatory comments or behaviour and how the group deals with that?
  • How long people get to speak?
  • How to encourage everyone to have a say?
  • What happens when someone is constantly dominating the conversation?
  • The matter of confidentiality and privacy – what is said in the group – stays in the group?
  • What is the process for asking a member to leave the group?

Read more:
Extract from Spencer Brennan’s Keynote Speech – COSHG Forum 2007