Community matters: Planning for success

The community matters series uses my experience with a range of atheist, humanist, secularist and other community groups, to consider the challenges and opportunities facing AHS+ groups in a post-pandemic world.

What does success look like for your atheist, humanist, secularist or similar group? Do your group’s organisers and community have a shared idea of success? Is your atheist meetup happy to fill up your favourite table in the pub, or does your secular congregation need 100 bums on seats to justify its room hire? Does your skeptic group need to campaign to keep members engaged, or does your humanist meetup judge its success by how much fun people have? Do you want to convert the world to rationalism, or build a local secular community?

Whatever success looks like for your group, there are some simple tools and strategies you can use to help plan for it.

1. Plan your reach using local data

Using local data, can help you appreciate your groups’ potential reach – and how much bigger it could be than you think. When looking at demographic data, we often need to use “nonreligious” as a proxy, through it doesn’t over overlap perfectly with atheist, humanist, secularist and similar groups.

I touched on this in my article How many AHS+ groups do we need?, where using sources such as the British Social Attitudes Survey, I estimated that about one in 400 people could be in the core audience of an AHS+ group. The point there was to take extremely conservative figures to demonstrate how many more groups would be sustainable.

For local data, I recommend using the Census. I discuss the problems with this in Why does the Census undercount the nonreligious?, and the data is not as regularly updated as other sources, but it extremely comprehensive. If someone tells the Census that they are nonreligious, despite its biased question, then it more likely that their nonreligion is an at least somewhat important or active part of their identity.

In England and Wales you can easily drill down into the Census data. If you select the data for QS208EW (the question on religion) you can progressively drill down into extremely small areas. Add up the areas where your group will be covering, and see how many nonreligious people you could be reaching. Look at the stats for religions and how many Churches and other religious institutions they have to serve their needs.

If you want to have fun, try checking out QS210EW (the detailed religious breakdown) to see how many Jedi Knight’s or witches live in your area.

Another local data tool is Facebook advertising. Go through the process of setting up a local advert (you don’t actually need to publish a real one), set your local area and target people by interest. See how big it suggests your audience could be.

Facebook for example can give you an estimate of how many people within 5 miles of your postcode have interests including secular humanism, atheism or skepticism.

2. Plan for attendance using your key and base numbers

Your base number is a single and simple number you can keep track of. It isn’t the be all and end all, but keeping an eye on it will give you a broad indicator of how you are doing.

Potential base numbers could be: email subscribers, paid up members, people who open a typical email etc.

Key numbers are those you want to attend a group event (in addition to the core organisers) on a low, typical or brilliant turnout. For your group to be sustainable, how many people do you need to attract on a rainy January evening, a standard monthly meetup, or your biggest event of the year? What proportion of your base number does this represent, and does that sound reasonable?

If you’re group is only going to survive if 100% of the people who like your Facebook page come to every meeting, you are not going to do well. But if your group can do well with 1% of your subscribers turning up, then you want to make that 1% of as big a base number as possible.

The relationship between your base and key numbers will change over time. A new group is likely to have more engaged members so a higher proportion of your base number will attend events. Overtime, your base number will grow but that will include people less engaged. Try to use a base number that indicates more commitment than just liking a Facebook page or passing interest.

A number with some automatic self-correction would also be good. Alternatively, you might want to adjust your base number, for example if using an email list reduce the total by 20% each year to give a more accurate picture of your active subscribers.

Try setting up a simple spreadsheet and keep track of both your base number and attendance. This should not be an onerous task. If you set it up correctly, it should be a two minute job to check and update every month.

In the below example, I have imagined a small local group and used email subscribers as the base number. I imagine that the group has 200 subscribers:


In this second example, I have imagined the same group, but taken membership as a base number. I imagine that the group has 50 people who have been paid members in the last three years.


3. Adopt a growth mindset

There is nothing wrong with being a small group, and growth can be difficult. But time and again I have met atheist, humanist and secularist groups who make a virtue out of their small or insular nature. Some people get a sense of superiority or feel they are a part of an elite. These groups don’t help the stereotype of atheist and humanist groups being a bunch of grey haired people sitting around talking about how smart they are for not believing in a god.

This can lead to conservative attitudes and unwillingness to try and attract new members. Meaning those who could be part of the community if invited remain underserved. Growth doesn’t just mean numbers, it could mean personal growth. Try challenging your community to consider new ideas and ways of doing things.

4. Act on feedback genuinely and proportionally

Don’t just provide regular opportunities for your group’s community to feedback on how things are going, actively invite it. More importantly, give all feedback genuine consideration and make clear when you act on it. That should be tempered by proportionality, remember that atheists, humanists and secularists can be have strong opinions, but those most willing to share them may not be the most representative. Everyone can have great ideas, but avoid major changes based on small opinion samples. The better you are at inviting feedback, the more representative that feedback will be of your full community.

When you can’t act on feedback, also try to let people know why and encourage them to continue sharing their views. For example, if you can’t move the meetings earlier due to a room’s availability, let people unhappy with the time know this, and invite alternative suggestions for their concerns.

5. Give yourself a grade

School inspections in England use a four-point grading scale: outstanding, good, requires improvement and inadequate. Try giving yourself such a grade. If you’d prefer, why not give the four grades labels more tailored to your group, e.g. flourishing, succeeding, struggling and sinking.

The grading process should be simple. Agree a sentence or two to describe what each grade represents to your group. For example if your group was flourishing/outstanding what would that look like? If it was struggling/requires improvement, how would you know? A few times a year, discuss with your organising team, what you think your current grade is. If you visit another group or event (always a good idea) discuss what grade you would give them and why.

Your ambitions for what represents success may change over time, so feel free to review the statements. If you switch from a smaller to a bigger venue, or from fortnightly to monthly meetings, or decide to focus on different activities.

Thanks for reading

This is the 39th weekly article since the blog launched in 2021. Due to some personal changes this year, I’ve decided to take a break from weekly blogging following article #40. I’ve bought my planned break forward a little because of other circumstances, but will be taking the time to reflect on what’s worked well and to come back strong, with new articles in May 2022.

Photo information: Group Of People Studying Together, Ivan Samkov

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