I recently wrote about Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Church. Today, I wanted to share some of the ideas that I really identified with in the book, especially with those I can provide examples of here in Leeds. I imagine these ideas are mostly for faith & belief groups such as Humanism and Sunday Assembly, but can also have wider applications to all community groups.
Of course the central tenant of the book is that a group should do things with purpose. This can be seen to varying degrees in such groups. Leeds Atheist Society always had a clear threefold purpose – to provide education on, fellowship for and open debate about the non-religious. It’s the first thing on our about page.
West Yorkshire Humanists is perhaps less clear, and probably in need of a mission statement. Sunday Assembly is a bit of mixed bag. We have a great slogan: “Live better. Help Often. Wonder more.” However, because we’re not allowed to use the term Humanism, it does not really connect to anything. This has lead to some of our attends describing it as “like playing church without for no reason”, and others as a cult of Sanderson Jones.
Toastmasters is the organisation with the clearest mission of any organisation I am involved in.
We empower individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders.
With a quarter of a million members in 122 countries, I think it is fair to say we are doing pretty well.
Having a clear purpose is critical because then you can then measure everything you do based on that. Everything else is derived from your purpose. That is true of any organisation you will ever be involved in and is probably the most important thing you can learn when it comes to running organisations effectively.
However, I think these points are also interesting…
Do away with committees
Committees decide things, doers do things. Which does your group need? Doers! Sunday Assembly Leeds does not really have a formal committee. We have monthly organisers meetings that are open to all members. There is no election process, you can just turn up and start helping.
Give the power to people implementing the plan. Rather than having committee approval for something, empower people by giving them to decision for the area they are working on. That way you will get much more engaged volunteers.
Warren talks about having a pastor for decades. The best churches are the ones that have the same pastor for a long time.
I am not advocating having the same person lead the group permanently. As secular groups we like to bring in new ideas, new people, have an open democracy. Having a leader-for-life is incompatible with these views. However, we do need to build trust that the organisation people invest their time into, and the friendships that they make, are not suddenly going to disappear.
In my personal life, I often feel more included to people who are more likely to stick around. I would suggest that a community is the same. If you are trying to decide whether to invest a significant amount of time and money into a community, you do so because you think you will get a return out of it over the long term. Therefore are you going to be more predisposed to give to a stable community that looks like it has solid leadership and a strong future, or a community that is constantly scrambling to find new find new leadership?
Write to people
Warren wrote and hand-addressed 15,000 letters to people in the local area. Today, targeted mailings will only get you a response rate of around 1%, untargeted even less. But even if you only get a quarter of one percent, that is still 38 people turning up. Of course the stamps would now cost you nearly £8,000. This could be a good strategy if you happen to have a postman (we need a British-sounding gender neutral term for this) in your group.
When I was at GRAM a few years ago, a member of a local Humanist group spoke about how they gathered a group of volunteers and went round posting leaflets through peoples doors. They did thousands of them, and in the end got two members. That does not sound like a lot, but actually for a relatively low cost exercise, in a group of 20 people, is a 10% growth.
Ask people for a commitment
Saddleback allow people to attend their church every week. But they do not become a member of the church until they make a commitment. This involves taking a membership course, an initiation ceremony, and agreeing the support the church with your time and money. The more he asks them to commit, the more they are willing to do it.
Probably because it offers people real buy in. At Toastmasters, we charge £180 for the first year. There is a £30 sign-up fee and £12.50 per month dues, which by the end of the year adds up. I tend not to mention it when responding to emails about people coming for the first time. I am scared it will put them off. But once they see Toastmasters in action, most of them join. It doesn’t put them off. If anything, it inspires them to turn up to meetings and process through the educational programme.
Research your demographics
Who lives in your local area? Are you in a student town or a retirement community? Young and old, single and married, rich and poor, each of these groups will have different wants and needs and if you want to target your marketing and the content of your group effectively, you need to know who you are targeting.
These days such information is easier than ever before to get hold of. The Census data seems a good start but many local and national authorities, as well as NGOs publish information as well.
Play music as people enter
Warren noticed that the louder he played music when people entered, the more animated people were when talking to each other. People like to be anonymous, especially if they are a guest. Having music on allows them to talk without it being noticed.
In comparison, several times in Skeptics and Toastmasters I will stand at the front a little before we are scheduled to start and everything will go quiet. Getting the conversation restarted for the final two minutes is almost impossible after this. You just end up with two minutes of awkward silence.
Imagine through the eyes of a guest
In software development, you should have a developer and a tester. The developer should test their own code, but it is critical to have another eyes look at the software they have written. Why? Because the developer always uses it from a developer’s perspective! The tester looks at it from a user’s perspective. “It broke when I pushed this button?” “You’re not supposed to push that button.” But somebody might!
When doing anything with your group, you should always keep in mind that as an organiser you are probably a long-established member who knows what is going on. Always take the time to try and imagine how things might also look to a first-time guest who has come to the group to see what it is like. It is clear what is going on? Is it engaging? It is welcoming?
Always use plenty of lighting
Often I will go to a talk, and they will turn the lights off so that you can see the slides. This is the last thing you should be doing! Turn the lights on to as bright as they can be.
Firstly, a bright environment is more friendly and welcoming, and keeps people awake. A dimly lit room is intimidating to guests and encourages existing members to take a nap. Keep a buzz in the atmosphere by keeping it bright and upbeat.
Secondly, who cares if people can see the slides? It is not important! People who rely on slides are bad public speakers. I can see slides on the internet. I want to see the speaker actually speak! I want to see their face. Lowering the lights encourages me to look at the slides rather than at the speaker, which is the opposite of what you want to do if you want people to find the talk engaging.
People come for the events, but stay for the friends
Atheist Society runs all year round, including now in summer when the students have gone home and the talks have finished. Why? Because people want to see their friends every week. People come to the group, and stay with the group for different reasons. Or sometimes they come because they have a lack of friends. Either way, social connections are the true glue of a group.