I’ve been a member and a leader of a group off and on for more than twenty years. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. Here are some more tips and things to look for in a well run Humanist group.
This is Part 2 of 2
As noted previously, consensus is used to develop most of the programing of a Humanist group. But here are some other things to consider.
Try to schedule a general meeting on the same day and time of the month and at the same location. It can be hard if you don’t have your own building or share space with other groups. The most important is to have it the same day and time each month. This helps with promotion and programing because you can set up speakers or activities months in advance. Longer lead times leave room for more promotion. It also helps the members remember if they know they go to X address on the 2nd Saturday at 1 PM for the Humanist meeting.
A bigger, more expensive event requires more prep work and promotion. As an event scales bigger the amount of time to get it together and promote it increases. If you want to have a Winter Solstice event in December and need 100 people to attend to pay for the $700 cost of the event then you need to have the event planned and promotion should start in September with promotion increasing as the event draws closer.
You don’t necessarily need to have speakers or guests who are Humanists. The only requirement is to have programs support your mission and message. That leaves a lot of room to have a variety of people speak to the group. One thing to look out for is if your group is tax exempt. There are rules about how you relate to political activities. You could have a panel of candidates speak about an upcoming election or you might have a program about voting but you can’t endorse a particular candidate for office.
Look to your group for speakers or event facilitators. They may have interesting jobs or special insight to an issue of interest to Humanists.
Don’t ignore panel discussions. An easy meeting to setup is to select a few members to have a panel discussion about some topic close to them – like voting rights or abortion. This also helps “teach” about consensus.
A stable long lasting Humanist group isn’t based on informality. Any group that plans on being around for years needs to have a formal structure and defined leadership roles. Most national groups require chapters and affiliates to have formal structures – such as drawing up a set of by-laws.
Don’t assume because you are all friends that you don’t need a formal structure. All it takes is someone to have hurt feelings and the group can fall apart.
Someone should be in charge – a President or Board Chair – and you should have a Board of Trustees to make the day to day decisions of the group. To follow the Humanist principles these should be elected from the membership of the group.
The important point is the Board has a fiduciary duty to the membership. A fiduciary is a person who holds a legal or ethical relationship of trust with one or more other parties (person or group of persons). Typically, a fiduciary prudently takes care of money or other asset for another person. That means the Board and officers must act in the interests of the membership. This is where your mission and message is important. Members join because you have a mission and/or message. All of your actions should follow back to that mission and message.
The group shouldn’t be directed by any personal agendas especially if it conflicts with the mission of the group. Also donations aren’t a personal bank account for the Board to spend on fancy parties or special Board only retreats. Funds need to be spent on programing and operating the group.
If you have a formal Board structure try to keep it as formal as possible. Not everyone is an expert on Robert’s Rules of Order but you will get more done and more decisions will be made if you use some form of meeting structure. It’s very important to actually take votes and not assume there are no objections because no one raised any during a discussion. Votes taken should be included in the minutes so members have proof that you are acting on their behalf.
Big or important decisions that might impact the overall structure or mission of the group must be voted on by the membership as a whole. The role of the Board and leadership is to “take out the trash…” NOT “move to a new town…”. Those big or important decisions are best for the whole group to consider.
Make Board meeting minutes available publicly. Make sure the public can attend Board meetings. Avoid executive sessions but if you have them make sure to give the gist of the session in the minutes to be transparent and save such sessions for something that actually needs more anonymity like personnel issues. Answer any member questions about a Board action quickly and thoroughly.
Follow-up is important in all aspects. The Board needs to make sure the agreed upon direction of the group is on track and that actions and programing compliment that consensus while also fulfilling the mission and message of the group.
The President or Chair should make sure the other officers and other facilitators are doing their “jobs”. If something isn’t getting accomplished then they need to find out why and try to help get it done. If membership numbers are falling, for example, then the President needs to find out why and try to reverse the trend.
Being the President or Chair is an important crowd-facing position in the group. This person will take the point in directing the group toward fulfilling its mission and getting the message out. Being in charge is generally an unpaid 24/7 “job”. If you don’t have the time or don’t want to take the time to address group business on a weekly basis (sometimes daily) then find something else to do. It really isn’t something you can just show up for only a few hours a month for Board meetings or the random event.
You can’t really force people to attend events or meetings but the officers or Board members have a higher standard so they should plan to attend as many events as their schedule permits. If you are the President and a big event is scheduled to happen in six months make sure not to schedule anything personal during that time. The President is like a Celebrity Chef – they are expected to make an appearance at every event. If your group has a regular monthly meeting there is no excuse for the Board and officers not to attend most of them. They should be there to answer questions or promote the group. What message does it send to the members or potential members when the leadership can’t be bothered to show up at meetings and events it planned?
Rarely does a group have paid staff to take care of the daily business like returning emails, answering phones, or compiling data. Really only very large or national size groups with thousands of dollars in donations coming in and a workload that matches the volume should have paid staff. Local Humanist groups do much of it’s work with volunteers. A well run group will have at least a dozen or more volunteers facilitating events, promoting the group, answering questions over the social media platforms, or programing upcoming meetings. Try not to lump all the “work” of the group on the President or Chair. This can lead to “burn-out” and the person leaves the group. Try to avoid the reverse where a President or Chair is so dynamic that they have to do everything themselves. What happens is that larger than life individual leaves and the group has a leadership and volunteer vacuum to fill. It takes some time to recover if it even happens.
The Board’s job is to find and cultivate the volunteers. They should also be recognized for their work often. Successors to members of the Board or the officers come from the more motivated volunteers. If your group is having a hard time getting volunteers to help then check to make sure you aren’t driving them away.
One quick way to drive volunteers away is to not support their efforts to execute whatever task they are doing for you. Treating volunteers like employees and micro-managing their work is not good. Don’t start out any conversation with a volunteer with “You need to do this….” you should start with “How can we….” or “What is the best way…”. This way the leadership and the volunteer are working together as partners which is the whole point of having volunteers.
Diversity And Conflict Resolution
There will be differences of opinions. There will be conflict and drama in your group at some point. There will be hurt feelings. People will storm out of meetings. Names will be called. Accusations will fly. How these issues are dealt with will go a long way in supporting or tearing apart a Humanist group.
You never want to avoid confrontation but you also don’t want to go in “guns blazing”. Humanists subscribe to compassion and reason when dealing with the world and it should be no different in a Humanist group. Never start out thinking the conflict is an attempt to destroy the group. I’ve known many members over the years who’s passion for the work we were doing led them to be very interested in the mechanics of the group. They asked a lot of questions and “complained” a lot. They wanted to see our group improve and become a better group.
Never dismiss the complaints of a member and especially never do it in public. Don’t assume things are great because only one person is complaining. You must act in the best interest of the membership even if they don’t know you do. When I was a President of a group, I had a member call me at home at 7 AM, just about everyday, asking me questions about the group. I started screening my calls BUT I still answered his questions later in the day – even if the answer hadn’t changed from the day before.
There are diplomatic ways of dealing with “noisy” members that satisfy their need for answers and your need not to be confrontational all the time. Start by acknowledging there is a concern, even if you don’t agree or you think it’s trivial. Explain to the member you appreciate them bringing the concern to you and you will get back to them with a solution or a resolution. Then make sure to follow-up with them as soon as possible either with a phone call (best), email, or written letter. Also remember your solution or resolution might not satisfy the member and they may be angrier or complain more often. Also note a limitation to email or texting: body language and tone of voice can’t be translated in text so if you do use email or text be very specific and try to be as clear in your words as you can be. Don’t take any shortcuts. Make sure to carbon copy the Board on any written response given to members.
If it looks like nothing you do will satisfy the member you may need to close the issue and let them know it is closed. You can say, “I’m sorry you feel that way but I did look into the issue (restate the results) and I feel that the issue is now closed. If you have any other concerns feel free to let me know…”. If they threaten to leave the group you can add “I hope that doesn’t happen as we appreciate your membership but we understand you need to decide for yourself if you think the group is right for you…”. You put the ball in their court and if they leave then they made the choice, you didn’t make them leave.
Never say “I’m not dealing with this…” at anytime in regard to group business. You may feel that way but never say it out loud. If you feel you can’t deal with it then resign from the leadership of the group. Expressing “I’m not dealing with this…” is a sign that you no longer care about leading the group and that is when conflicts tend to rage out of control.
Never ignore a problem. Letting it fester is a sure way to end up with a cancer in the group. Treat all members with utmost respect and dignity even if they don’t show any toward you or the leadership.
Deal with any personal conflicts in a professional and caring environment without animosity or malice and without assuming the same from the other person(s).
These are just some of the tips I’ve collected from my years involved with my local Humanist group. Feel free to add any I might have missed in the comments.