This is a guest post by Conrad Hudson. Conrad is a Senior at the University of Kansas and a member of the Society of Open-Minded Atheists & Agnostics (SOMA)
The number of secular student groups has been increasing at a fantastic rate in recent years on college campuses, with high school groups poised to experience a similar swelling. However, when it comes to effective platforms for social work and local community building, size can be just as important to local goals as the spread of student activism is to national goals. I believe strongly in both the ability and the necessity for secular groups to grow, and if you have such a group there is a key method by which to do so: expand your events list.
Expand Beyond Your Core
If you’ve already found enough people to start a student group, you’ve probably got a core group of members that make up the majority of your audience. They are the heart of your operations, but if both they and your entire target audience looks almost exactly like you in every way, in terms of interests and demographic, then you have a problem. The non-religious community is full of diversity in interests and personality and you should want to serve as many of them as possible, for both selfish and altruistic reasons. First of all expanding the scope of your events will increase the size and prestige of your group. But more importantly those non-religious students deserve a welcoming community and a safe place to land, and providing activities that engage is an act of good will.
One of the best tools for serving that variety of needs is to have a well written mission statement. If you’re mission statement is done correctly then it should allow for a wide range of activities while still protecting you from scope creep. Refer to it often as you plan your activities.
This has always been the most important goal for me and is often an area ripe for expansion.People often have a need for refuge from a hostile and judgmental society. This gives us both an opprotunity to expand and a responsibility serve.
While ad hoc meet-ups are fantastic, try to have some scheduled social meet-ups, especially following meetings, where members can relax, continue discussions started by your events, and stay connected with members that have schedule conflicts with regular meetings.
Don’t underestimate the value of get-togethers and celebrations. While learning together is great, life-long bonds are usually made at the after-party not the lecture. Those bonds will strengthen your group, and encourage members to bring their friends in turn.
At the same time, exercise appropriate caution in both following the law and school regulations regarding underage drinking, and should you choose to include pub nights make sure that 18-20 year olds can attend.
A key strategy to expanding your group’s events list is to decide ahead of time how dense you would like your schedule to be. Use a resource like the Secular Student Alliance’s secular holidays list to give you the springboard to come up with your own amazing ideas and compare your ideas with your calendar to see where you need to expand and where you need to be realistic, then publish your plans! Your group will be able to start getting excited and ramp up recruiting to match the eventual scope of your events list.
Service and Charity
There’s no argument needed for why your group should do charity work. Helping the community is its own reward. However, it’s even better than you think. If you don’t engage your members with opportunities to serve, you risk gaining the reputation of a group that’s satisfied with “sitting around, being right.” That’s pretty fun to do, I’ll admit, but by getting students involved, then those who need the fulfillment community service provides will be added to the growing number of students engaged by your events. (It’s not bad PR either!)
A connected point is that surveys in my own group have shown that women in the group are disproportionately interested in leading and participating in service work, so if there is a sex imbalance in your group, this is a great first step. You can even start small, how easy is it to stuff envelopes for a local charity before the start of a meeting? Adding charity events to the beginning or ends of events is a great way to both engage this group of people and create a better narrative for the non-religious’ function in society.
Engaging Religious Groups
There are many gains to be had interacting directly with religious groups. Engaging religious groups generates press & drives up attendance. Any time you go after a religious group for harmful activities you will generate press. Be ready for it and put out a deliberate message that not only communicates the information you want but makes people want to join you in your efforts.
Again, my own group’s surveys provided some insight. They showed the audience at a recent debate to consist of nearly 50% religious believers, with a majority of them hearing about the event from the religious group we invited to co-sponsor the event. The added attendance is a two-fold bonus: the increased headcount adds prestige, which creates momentum, and will in turn make your group more attractive to potential members. Let’s not forget that bringing in the religious crowd puts secular reasoning and positive examples of secular individuals in front the eyes that need them the most. Lastly, working together with good intentions and mutual goals allows you to delegate and share responsibility–which is always worth doing whether its internally or externally in order to multiply your efforts.
If there’s not already a free or low-cost student run conference in your area, consider starting one. Perhaps few things have the potential to raise the profile and attractiveness of your group better than a big event. Whether it’s hosting a debate or putting off a multi-speaker celebration of skepticism, atheism, or humanism–groups all over the country are proving that students can run first rate events.
Having run just such a successful large event which attracted more than 700 people, and at writing being in the midst of planning for Reasonfest ’12, February 11th & 12th [shameless plug, it’s free, come see us this year!], I know there are many challenges associated with such a complicated endeavor. But I also know first hand just how doable it is with the support of national groups like the Secular Student Alliance and CFI on Campus, a passionate group, and a willingness to work.
Category defining events like MSU Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s Skepticon, or the breath-taking scope of UNIFI’s Darwin Week, and the tireless enthusiasm of Air Capital Skeptics’ Rapture Day continue to inspire me to push for expansion and plan for sustainability. Each of the aforementioned student groups put on smashingly successful events, and they did it while being busy students and not charging their attendees a dime. Whatever your capacity to expand, they should inspire you as well, because they started or were at one time exactly where you are now, and trust me they’re not standing still even now.
Start Right Now
The time to start expanding your events list is right now. The fall semester is just around the corner, along with your chance to present the picture of an active, diverse, friendly secular group that has chances for all kinds of people to get involved.
PS If you’re looking for ideas on what to do, a great place to start is the Secular Student Alliance’s group resources.