How to Start a Humanist Group in Your Area
- Starting a Local Group
- Connecting with the American Humanist Association
- Appendices: Sample Flyers and First Meeting Agenda
The American Humanist Association is the nation's oldest and largest Humanist organization. Founded in 1941, the AHA - publisher of the Humanist magazine - currently has over 150 Membership Chapters and Affiliates in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Based in Washington D.C., the AHA serves as a powerful voice for Humanism. One of the primary focuses of the AHA is to form and sustain local Humanist groups.
In order to further spread the Humanist lifestance, the AHA realizes that a presence in the nation's capital is only part of the solution. Much of the responsibility for explaining Humanism to the majority of Americans - who have either never heard of Humanism or have misinformed impressions about it - lies with Humanists on a local level.
In communities across the nation, Humanists sometimes are forced to bear the burden of explaining and defending our lifestance to an antagonistic public. In addition to speaking out as individuals, one of the best ways to create change in a community is to join an existing Humanist group, or help create a new one. A grassroots community that can work as activists, think as intellectuals and live as friends has real potential to move us toward a humanistic future.
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Initiating the Future
It is important to first check with the AHA's national office to see if there is already a group in your area. You can do this either by calling the AHA at (800) 837-3792, emailing us at email@example.com, or visiting the section of our website dealing with existing local groups. If a group does not exist, be sure to ask if there are people in your area who have expressed interest in forming a group.
For local groups to be successful, it usually involves a core of committed volunteers. So the first step is to locate them. There are several ways this can be achieved.
- Attend meetings of groups and organizations that hold beliefs similar to ones held by Humanists. This would include, but not be limited to Unitarian Universalist congregations, Ethical Culture societies, meetings of atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and other types of freethinkers. Find out through the leadership of these organizations, or in interaction with members, if there is or has been interest in forming a Humanist group. See if it is possible to post a flier (See Appendix A) or leave one on a literature table.
o Note: You can locate local Unitarian Universalist congregations here. Ethical Culture societies can be found here. Atheist groups can be found here and here
- Also post/leave fliers (with permission) in bookstores, community centers, libraries, coffee houses, other cultural locales and nearby college campuses.
- Attend meetings of atheist, Humanist and freethought groups that are a distance away from your home. Not only will you begin to gain an understanding of how local groups work, you may find that there are Humanists in these groups that live close to you, but only have the option to attend more distant meetings.
- In a similar vein, you should go to the "AHA Chapters" link on our website, and look up Chapter leaders from your state or region. They are usually more than willing to help a fledging new group get off the ground, and you can gain many insights into the mechanics of starting a new group by talking with them. Since face-to-face conversations produce a far greater yield, consider driving to meet with a Chapter leader.
- Place a small ad in the religion section of the local newspaper. Or place ads in your city's alternative paper. Both of these require that you call your local newspaper, and inquire about cost and dimensions to place a small ad. Some newspapers, once you provide the text, may even create the ad for you. Newspapers and magazines have varying resources available, so be sure to utilize them. The AHA also has sample ads that can be used (Appendix B).
- Be sure to ask those who are interested, if they know of others who may be interested. Be sure to get the contact information - name, address, phone and email - for these prospects. Follow up on this information with a friendly invitation - via email, letter, phone, or meeting. When choosing a method of contact, remember, the more personal the contact, the better the results.
Understandably, it can be intimidating to go to a meeting of strangers for the first time, and work up the nerve to introduce yourself and explain that you are looking for people to help form a Humanist group. However, most of the groups that you approach will more than likely be sympathetic. So even if they're not personally interested in working to form a Humanist group, they may provide leads for others who are, which is also valuable.
Personal contact is also one of the best ways to approach people. In order to reach large numbers of people at one time, it is of course necessary to leave fliers and place ads. However, a personal touch is always the optimal choice. Going to meetings of like-minded groups and putting a name, face and story behind your efforts to start a Humanist group will more likely get people involved.
Finding and Organizing
In all of the above situations, people who want to know more about your plans will approach you, or you will need to approach others about your desire to start a local Humanist group. Not only must you maintain a basic level of organization to keep all of your contacts straight, you need spark the interest of potential members.
If you go to a UU congregation and want to approach people about staring a group, or are getting responses to your fliers, are you prepared? Do you know what you want to say? Can you quickly explain what you envision the purpose of a group to be? Can you list off the help you need from volunteers? It is important to take some prep time before going to meetings or have a quick "spiel" ready for the phone. As an example, in response to "Why do you want to form a Humanist group in the area?" you could say:
"I have lots of reasons I want to get a group going. First, I want to be able to give Humanists a place to meet and interact with each other. There are so few of us that I think it's healthy for us to meet and be able to talk. We need to opportunity to share our concerns with each other and whatnot. Another reason is that I've noticed the religious right is becoming stronger in the area. We need lots of types of people to respond to it, and I think it's a good idea if there is a specific Humanist response to what they're trying to do."
Preparing yourself to answer these types of question will show that you are prepared, and have given serious thought to these matters. Being able to articulate your reasons will go a long way to securing interest in your group.
If you have a list of suggested people to contact, you may also want to think up a short blurb for when you meet, talk with them on the phone, or correspond with them via email. The basics of this would be the same as the above example, but you might need to preface it a bit.
"Hello. This is Corliss Lamont and I'm getting in touch with you because I'm interested in starting a Humanist group in the area and so-and-so suggested that I get in touch with you about it. Do you think that you might be interested in doing something with a group that focuses on furthering Humanism at the local level?"
So now, you finally have a small group of people who are interested. It is important to keep a master list of these people. A list would include names, contact information (mailing address, phone number, email address) and what the person might be willing to do for the group. The strongest assets of any Humanist group are its members and it's no different for a fledging Humanist group. A list helps maintain order during the formative phases of group development. It can also ensure that all the basic information about the group isn't in the head of only one person.
Preparing and Planning
Once you have that core group of volunteers, it is a good idea to hold small meetings to hash out some of the details about the group. For the initial meetings, it might be better to use a bookstore, coffee shop, or other public venue. This is a time to get your bearings and work with others to flush out some of the ideas and reasons for the existence of the group. Though you probably have some reasons for why you want to start a Humanist group, it is also vital to hear the views of others. They may be able to provide alternative views that will help strengthen the group in the long term. It is also a time to ask some questions that will be vital to the group's success. These include:
- What is the reason for forming a new group?
- What do people want to see the group do? Activism, social events, support network, educational opportunities, service opportunities and philosophical discussion are just a few of the activities a Humanist group can engage in.
- What sort of leadership structure should there be? Countless examples have shown that democratically orientated leadership structures are usually the most successful.
Once the core group of volunteers decides on these issues - and in order to maintain the momentum that has been created - this is a good time to hold a first official meeting that is open to the public. Even though your core group may already have met on numerous occasions, a "coming out" meeting is a great way to attract new participants, as well as the media.
- It might also be a good idea to go back to the places in which you had previous placed fliers, and to leave a new flier, announcing the first meeting of the group (See Appendix C). Be sure to contact the AHA national office when you decide to have your first public meeting. We might be able to provide speakers, publicity, and other support.
In the Beginning
This first meeting is important. In addition to getting to know your fellow Humanists and freethinkers, it is a time to have an open discussion about what participants want to get out of the group. Some basic questions include:
- Why are people interested in joining?
- What do people want to get out of it?
- How often does the group want to meet?
These are questions that should be discussed by everybody. However, it is important to remember that, even though it is an open discussion, someone should still remain in charge to facilitate and make sure the conversation flows forward. It is helpful for the first meeting, to have one person with an agenda (See Appendix D) leads the meeting and makes sure that all the important points are covered.
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Another vitally important issue to discuss is what sort of relationship the group wants to have with the AHA. A working relationship between the AHA and local groups is beneficial for both parties. The AHA is always excited about helping to start local Humanist groups, and works hard to support and sustain them. Our combined years of experience with local groups, along with many of our resources that we can usually provide for free, or at cost, can help our groups flourish. We hope that the relationship that is built between local group leaders and AHA field staff is one that will also translate into a willingness to establish a formal relationship between the two organizations.
There are two types of relationships a local group can engage in with the AHA. A local group can become an Affiliate or a Chapter. A brief overview follows. Let us know at the national office which type of relationship you are interested in pursuing, and we will provide you with more information on it.
Affiliates, many of whom are primarily associated with other national organizations, are local groups who agree with the mission of the AHA while maintaining a clear and separate identity. Affiliates receive benefits from the AHA with a minimal amount of commitment. Affiliating with the AHA is a good first step for some local groups to gain exposure to the wider Humanist community. Click here to see affiliate benefits (PDF 18.5KB).
Being a Chapter of the AHA involves a close level of relationship. Chapters are in substantial agreement with the AHA's policies, goals and mission. Being a part of the structure of the AHA, Chapters receive preference when it comes to the allocation of resources. The AHA and its Chapters work together, which allows for a clear sense of identification and a chance for unity of action, all toward the goal of advancing Humanism. Chapters receive all the benefits of Affiliates and may receive priority in the allocation of those resources. Click here to see chapter benefits (PDF 22KB).
To learn more about any or all of these exciting relationships that your group can form with the AHA, the largest democratic organization in the nation that is promoting the Humanist lifestance, contact Grassroots Coordinator Rachael Berman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on our toll-free line at (800) 837-3792.
We welcome you into the exciting and ever changing Humanist movement. It is through the dedication and hard work of people such as yourself that we are where we are today. With your drive and ingenuity, the potential exists to further advance humanistic ideals into society. The AHA is excited about that possibility, and wants to work with you to make it happen.
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Appendix A: Flier to Start a Local Group (Word Document)
Appendix B: Ad for Newspaper Announcement (Word Document)
Appendix C: Flier to Announce First Meeting (Word Document)
Appendix D: The First Meeting Agenda (Below)
1. PREMEETING: Set out the food I brought.
2. START MEETING
3. My introduction to the group.
4. Explain how format of this meeting will go, so to prevent chaos.
5. Introductions around the room.
6. Offer general comments about mission/focus of the group, going off of previous discussions with core volunteers.
7. Open up to general discussion. Be sure to focus on why people are interested in joining and what they want to get out of it. Be sure to stay in charge of discussion, and don't let it dissolve into a free for all.
8. Logistics: Good meeting time, place? Get comments from people, change if necessary.
9. Summarize all that we have agreed upon.
10. End meeting, remind people about the food.
**The above sample agenda is intended to serve as a general outline. We recommend using this as a framework and developing more specific sub points to go with each agenda item.