Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Starting a Secular Group Concept #1: Don't Reinvent the Wheel

Today's post is going to be a little different. I am the co-founder and current president of the Humanists of Rhode Island. We maintain a lively Facebook discussion page and an active Meet-Up site. Because of the success my group has had in both accomplishments and outreach, I have been recently asked for advice on how to form similar groups. Rather than write down a long series of steps, I thought I'd approach the idea with a series of posts that elaborate on some of the key concepts I relied upon when creating the group.

Concept #1: Don't Reinvent the Wheel

I don't live in a cave, and I am not a hermit. I have access to libraries and the Internet. When I want to cook food I use a cookbook, or find recipes online. This applies to everything I want to do. I read, study, reflect and then act. Sometimes I even go to the trouble of leaving my house, traveling somewhere, and observing other people doing things I want to try to do, that I might imitate them. So when I decided to try my hand at forming the Humanists of Rhode Island, I started by doing some research.

First, I took a careful look at the national secular groups such as the American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Center for Inquiry. In truth, my core philosophy is most in line with the AHA, but from a pragmatic point of view I wanted to make sure that the AHA could give my nascent group the kind of support I thought we would need. Ultimately I went with the AHA because the idea of being a non-profit group, covered under the national group's 501(c)3 was very appealing. It meant that we could avoid the onerous legal fees of establishing our own non-profit status. 

This is what I mean by not reinventing the wheel: Rather than going through the process of establishing our own legal nonprofit identity, I found a way to get what we needed without spending scarce cash resources and doing the boring paperwork. So going with the AHA was an easy decision.

But there's more. My group needed a set of bylaws in order to become a chartered group of the AHA. Writing a set of bylaws from scratch seemed like another time consuming task. So I contacted a friend I had made on one of my many excursions outside my house and away from the Internet to ask if my group could get a copy of their bylaws for our use. Happy to help (because we are, after all, one big secular family) I received the bylaws in my email the next day. I did a quick search and replace, added and subtracted some things our group wanted in and out of the document and voila! We had bylaws ready to be ratified. (And note that I've linked to our bylaws in this paragraph, so that anyone who would like to use them might help themselves.)

Like most groups, nearly all our members have full time jobs, obligations of friends and families and other past times they would like to engage in. The time and effort saved by not recreating a 501(c)3 and a set of usable bylaws allows my group to focus on important things, like our service and political work.
Habitat for Humanity build
Our service work is similarly modular in the way we approach it, at least so far. To anchor our group with a core value of service, I decided early on that interested members of our group should commit to a monthly Habitat for Humanity build. This means that every month we are out doing something good for the community, even if we can't generate the time to do anything else that month (which has never happened.)

Habitat is a large, international organization. They are well funded, well organized and have a low barrier to entry (many people use Habitat to satisfy the community service hours of a court sentence.) Establishing a monthly build is something Habitat wants you to do. They are always in need of volunteers. 

Imagine the difficulty of planning and maintaining a brand new service effort each and every month. Such an effort may well be worth it, and might be a great thing to do, but the time and effort put into it might be all the time and effort you've got. Again, why reinvent the wheel?
Posing with our Adopt-a-Highway sign
This modular approach to service work has been applied to our Adopt-A-Highway clean-up effort as well. The State of Rhode Island allowed us to pick our stretch of highway and put up signs for our group at either end once our group was approved. Because of the recent legal battle over the prayer banner in Cranston Rhode Island, we picked a stretch of road that brings us past the City Hall, the School Administration building, a high school and several churches. That's right: Cranston might not like atheists and humanists, but we're the ones making their city beautiful. In this way our service work does double duty: we make both social and political points with our work. And it's free.

Political work is the same way. The issues of marriage equality and the reproductive rights of women are just two issues that a humanist group would justifiably want to be involved in. Fortunately, there are groups out there already doing this kind of work. They don't necessarily know it yet, but they are in desperate need of some secular flavoring to their causes.

That's why it's important to not reinvent the wheel. Before going out and counter protesting the offensive pro-lifers outside your local abortion clinic, check with the local chapter of Planned Parenthood and find out if this is the best way you can help the cause. Find out which gay rights groups are having the biggest effect or need the most help, and partner with them. At the very least your group can be more bodies at a rally. At best your group can write letters to politicians and the media, flavoring the debate with some secular nuggets of wisdom.

In Rhode Island our group has joined with a large rally at the State House to take place on April 28th: Unite Against the War on Women. Because of our early involvement, we will have a speaker at the event. Imagine that: at the same rally that will allow elected officials, community leaders and clergy to speak, our group will have our own speaker delivering a uniquely secular message on the issue of reproductive rights for women.

Not reinventing the wheel has allowed the Humanists of Rhode Island to become, in a very short time, a small but increasingly influential voice in the political scene here. Our modular approach to building our group has allowed us to incorporate ideas we like into the fabric of our group even as we avoid the things we see in other groups that don't work. This makes our group fast and efficient, gives us plenty to do, gives our members a wide variety of events to join in on, and adds excitement to our mission.

Our future looks bright as well. We've joined forces with the Light the Night Leukemia and Lymphoma Walk co-sponsored by the Steifel Foundation (please donate), plan on having a table and presence at RI Pride, will participate in several park clean-ups and park builds, and many other efforts as the years go by. 

It's not necessary to build your group from the bottom up, reinventing everything as you go along. All the pieces you need to build a vibrant, active and engaging group are out there, you just have to pull the pieces together.

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