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Building Momentum & Growing Your Group

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If attendance at meetings or events is a particular struggle for your group, check out our Getting People To Meetings document at www.secularstudents.org/GP2M.

So you've started your campus group, and you have a small core of dedicated members… but you'd like to grow beyond that. What comes next?

Here are some strategies for building momentum and growing your group. While these are some "best practices," remember that every campus is different. We definitely encourage you to experiment and try new ideas! If you find something that works, let us know so we can share it with other groups!

For more tips on strategy and leadership, see this video from Greg Lager presented at the 2010 West Coast Leadership Summit. 

Highlights:

  • People see things differently, so it's important to consider an issue from varied angles
  • Communicating openly is important to leaders
  • Have a mission statement to clarify the goals of your group
  • Use concepts from the business world, such as visions and values
1. Find out what the members of your group want.

It's completely normal for people to have a gut reaction to reject some ideas - the best reaction to this is often to think twice and, if necessary, ask the suggester to explain why they've offered the idea. This strategy both sends the message that all suggestions will be considered fairly, and helps you understand where members of your group are coming from.

Students involved in your group likely have different reasons for being there. Some members might be enthusiastic about raising awareness of the evils of organized religion, while other members of your group might want to improve the public image of nonbelievers. Some members may love weekly intellectual discussions, while others might be looking for more active projects. You might have members who are very interested in community service opportunities or political activism. By learning your members' interests and reasons for joining the group, you'll find ways to meet their needs and keep them coming back.

There are several ways you can get this information. One way is to have occasional sessions as part of your regular meetings where you ask people for direct feedback and input. Or you could start a discussion thread on your discussion listserv or your Facebook discussion group. Another way to get input is to have anonymous surveys: either paper surveys handed out during meetings or an online survey (surveymonkey.com is a great free tool for this!) can allow members to share their ideas and opinions. It could be especially valuable to ask new members to fill out a (short!) survey asking them why they came and what they hope to get out of the group.

No matter the format, it is important that the leadership of the group is receptive to this feedback. Listen to every suggestion and consider it fairly. Bounce ideas and suggestions off other members of the group, and implement popular or novel suggestions or ideas. If an idea is going to be rejected, be sure that it's being rejected for a good reason, and be willing to explain your decision if asked - you shouldn't have any problem explaining that your group can't take week-long service trip projects this year because you don't have enough people or funding (as opposed to having to say that you rejected the idea because you think the person who suggested it is a pansy).

2. Provide a variety of activities.

Don't expect that all members will come to all events. People will come to the events they're interested in, and that's why you want to have a variety of activities. You may only have 15 people at any given event, but chances are they're not the same 15 at every event.

We like to break down the span of potential SSA affiliate activities into four areas: education, service, activism and community. Many new groups, daunted by their size and resources, tend to hunker down and focus on discussion meetings with the occasional speaker. But having a variety of activities is essential to attracting a wide variety of members.

It's easy to start small. A fledgling group at De Anza College in California took part in community service by having group knitting projects that members can work on during meetings. Political activism can be an easy-to-organize event where interested students come together to write letters to a political figure or governing body.

Last but not least, remember that one of the most important aspects of your group is the community it provides. There's absolutely nothing wrong with having social events that have nothing to do with your nontheism. SSA affiliates have had video game gatherings, weekend brunches, pub or coffeehouse nights, and more.

3. Reach out to the campus.

Ask yourself how a student on campus could find out about your next meeting, and then see what you can do to help that hypothetical student become aware of your group and its meetings. We're often very good at publicizing large events, and we can use those same techniques to help raise awareness (and participation) across campus.

Some basic ideas for promoting your meetings (and thereby your group) include hanging flyers, creating Facebook events, emailing your announcement listserv, and encouraging your members to bring their friends. You might also talk to professors or departments that might have similar interests (for example, the Philosophy or Religious Studies departments might be willing to tell their students about your group or a particular meeting). Consider talking to other clubs, as well - a philosophy club might be home to students who would also be interested in your group; a Hilllel group might be interested in your group's discussion of Humanistic Judaism. If the weather is nice, or you have a good indoor space, tabling can also help raise awareness of your group and its meetings.

Every campus has its own methods of communicating information to students. Find out what resources are available to you - a campus radio or television station, paintable signboards, areas to hang banners for your group, a campus events calendar - and then make sure your group's events are getting posted there.

4. Be Positive.

Starting and growing a group can be a lot of work, and sometimes it can be frustrating and/or discouraging. But no matter how frustrated or disappointed you're feeling, don't take it out on the members of your group who do show up. Stay positive and do what you can to help those members who did show up to have a good time.

Encourage the rest of your group to be positive as well. It's easy to be angry (it only takes a look at the conservative evangelicals' efforts to get all kinds of riled up), but it's only one more step to turn the conversation in a positive, "what we can do about it" direction. You can keep a discussion meeting from becoming an argument with some careful moderation, and having ground rules of respect for other views will help foster a stronger community where everyone feels welcome.

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