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Group Event Planning Guide

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One of the biggest challenges for new secular student groups or new leadership is figuring out what to do during the year. This guide will provide step-by-step advice to make the task less daunting and help your group hold exciting events that attract a variety of members.

Step 1: How Often Are Meetings?

Before you start filling your calendar, you need to know how many dates you have to fill - how often you'll be having your meetings. Some standard options are monthly, every two weeks, and weekly. If your group has the resources, I recommended that you hold meetings weekly. This ensures members don't "forget" to come back, and provides a solid structure to build a consistent membership. However, this obviously means more work planning meetings - but it can be worth it when you see your group attract more members and more visibility.

Step 2: Which Day of the Week?

Obviously, meetings will be held in the evening (or late afternoon). People have class during the day. Less obvious is which evening to hold meetings on. Fridays are probably not a good day, as people may go home or want to do other things on the weekends. There are a few things to take into consideration here:

1. When your members have night classes. Send a Facebook message (your group does have a Facebook group, right?) or email to your members and ask what days they have night classes scheduled. You can also check your school's course offerings to see if certain days are more packed than others. It is probably a good idea to go with the day the fewest people have night classes.

2. When cooperating student groups have meetings. If you want to schedule co-sponsored events with other student groups (such as Campus Crusade for Christ or a Science Club), you may want to have your meetings on nights they do not have meetings. These groups are in the same boat you are in, and probably plan meetings well in advance. There have been many times when I've asked about joint events, only to be told "we already scheduled a meeting that night, sorry."

3. Sporting events or other clubs you think your members may be interested in. Similar to #2, if there are certain events that are held on a weekly basis you think freethinking students would be interested in, you may want to hold your meetings on a different night so there is no conflict. Don't just assume that people will choose your group over a competing event.

Note: if there is another secular student group on your campus, it is most productive to talk to the leaders of the other group and coordinate your schedules, rather than force interested students to choose one group over another.

Step 3: Make a Spreadsheet

Microsoft Excel and Open Office are both acceptable spreadsheet options. A better option, however, may be Google Docs, since it allows real-time sharing and editing of documents stored online and accessible from anywhere. Learn more at http://docs.google.com
Now that you've chosen a day of the week for your meetings, make a spreadsheet that contains columns for date, event name, attendance (to be used later), event type, what group (if any) you are co-sponsoring with, and what room the meeting is in. You can also add "to do" columns to remind you to put the event information on your website or facebook group. The rows of the spreadsheet will be the meetings. Go ahead and put all the dates of your meetings in the date column to get that out of the way.

The "attendance" column on the spreadsheet will be used after meetings to record how many people came. Do not assume you will be able to remember this later. The "event type" column can help you ensure you don't have too many similar meetings in a row. In my experience it is good to have a nice mix of educational (lecture, discussion, debate, etc) and social (movies, pizza parties, etc) events to keep interest. Also, if you enter the room number as soon as you have secured a reservation, you won't have to dig up the reservation to remind yourself what room it is in - you can just look at the spreadsheet!

Step 4: Date-Specific Meetings

You currently have a lot of empty space on your spreadsheet! Don't worry, it will fill up faster than you think. An easy first step is to fill in meetings that have to be at or around a certain date. A valuable resource for this step is the website www.secularseasons.org. Here are some examples:

  • The first meetings of a semester/quarter can be general "welcome" meetings. Serve pizza, play games, whatever. Be sure to explain what your group does and the big events you have planned that semester!
  • September 30th is Blasphemy Day International.
  • February 12th is Darwin Day.
  • The first Thursday in May is the National Day of Reason
  • During the spring semester, you'll want to have a meeting where you hold elections for the following year's leadership. If you wish, you can also have "candidacy declarations" be a meeting in itself, one or two weeks before elections. At this meeting members can announce what position they are running for, and maybe give a little speech.

Some more ways to knock days off are to not have meetings during finals week, winter break, or holidays. Thanksgiving kills a Thursday meeting in November, for example.

When you are planning these meetings, mark down the type (educational or social) to aid in the next step.

Step 5: The Rest of the Year

Hopefully your spreadsheet is a little more filled out. All that's left (and, to be honest, this is the hardest part) is to fill in the remaining gaps. Utilize the SSA's Activity Packets website (http://www.secularstudents.org/activitypackets ) for ideas. My only tip, again, is to make sure there is a good mix of educational and social events. Too many social events and your group may go off on a tangent, preventing any activist or educational programs from getting anywhere. Too many educational events and you may bore your members into leaving the group. Use the event type column on your spreadsheet to easily mix things up.

One exception to this rule might be the second meeting of each semester. It might be okay or even preferable to have a social event here after just having had one the previous week at the welcome meeting, for no other reason than to kindle a little more interest among your members before throwing something educational at them.

Note: It is okay to not have unfilled spots in your spreadsheet. Just try to fill in most of it, and you can fill in more meetings as you think of them. It also allows you some flexibility for short-notice opportunities. But the more work you put in now, the more smoothly your meetings will go, and the less work you'll have to put in later during school when you have homework.

Here are some events that have worked well for CASH in the past:

  • The Garrison-Martineau Project (http://www.garrison-martineau.com/)
  • Atheist Coming Out Day (everyone tells their "story)
  • Pizza + Dogma or Pizza + South Park (how can you go wrong?)
  • Interview with a Creationist (Have a creationist come in and try to sway everyone. Laugh.)

Step 5 Tip: Booking Big-Name Speakers

Alright, we're pretty sure you know how to set up your average meeting. But you may be wondering how to book those big speakers that make your entire year. Unfortunately, there probably isn't a sure-fire system for getting them to come to your school. A lot of it depends on luck, and what connections you have. (Sounds like getting a nice job.) That being said, here are a few things you can try:

1. Make a rough plan ahead of time with some other people in your group. Do you want a lecture? A debate? If a debate, who do you want your freethinking speaker to debate? What semester will it be in?

2. Go to local or national conventions (such as the SSA conference during the summer) for chances to network with famous freethinkers.

3. Contact the SSA to see if they have any connections to the speaker or available discounts. The SSA isn't in touch with everyone, but they do have a lot of inroads with larger-name speakers and can often help you make arrangements.

4. Send a professional sounding email to the email located on the person's blog or website. Say who you are, your group, your school. If it's a debate, mention who you want them to debate. Suggest a topic your group would like to hear about, but leave it open for the speaker to decide. Mention whether or not you can pay the speaker, including flight costs. Mention what dates you have available. Include your contact information. Be positive, and be friendly!

5. If a speaker is interested, but you don't have the funds to pay them, contact relevant departments at your school and request funding from them. For example, if you were trying to pay for Steven Pinker, you could talk to your school's psychology department. Schools are about learning, and do have money - and they might be just as interested in bringing in your speaker as you are. It can't hurt to ask!

Step 6: Reserving Rooms

Now that you've decided what you want to do, you have to figure out where and when to do it. You can either choose a time first (for example, if you aren't a new group and want to keep the time the same as last year) or a location first (if you are a new group and don't care what time it is, so long as you get a good location).

Whenever possible, have your meetings at the same time and at the same location every week. This will be very good for maintaining members, and helps you avoid having to post people or signs at multiple locations saying "sorry you walked all the way here, the meeting is actually way over there."

Hopefully your school has a way to reserve multiple rooms at a time, like every week of a semester. If this is possible, do it. Do not worry about large venues for speakers or debates yet. We are focusing on the "weekly meeting room," and we can cancel these reservations later if we need to.

Reserving rooms for larger events (debates, big speakers, etc) can be a tricky business. If you reserve the room first, you are at risk of the speaker being unavailable. If you book a speaker first, you are at risk of not being able to find a room. However, depending on the size of your school, it will probably be easier to find a room than to book a big speaker. As such, wait until you have gotten a speaker to agree to a date before trying to reserve a large venue. In any case, planning ahead is key; communicate with both your speaker and your reservations office and you should be able to work things out.

Once you get that date and reserve the large venue, shoot an email to the people who handle regular room reservations and tell them you want to cancel the reservation you had previously made for your normal meeting that week. You shouldn't have to give up any other rooms, and they will more than likely appreciate you freeing up a room in advance.

Step 7: Put the Event Information Online

Now that you've reserved the rooms, you can put your event information online. You want people to know about your meetings, don't you? If you have a website with a calendar feature, go ahead and put all your meetings on the website. However, do not make all your meetings into Facebook events yet. If you invite people to events too far in advance, they will forget about them and be less likely to come. Make Facebook events for your meetings about a week prior to the meeting.

Step 8: Miscellaneous

There are a few more things you should take into consideration regarding your meetings.

  • Are you ordering pizza or serving food? Check with your school/building policy and make sure you have filed the necessary permits, if any, before the due date. You should be all right ordering pizza the night before a meeting. Have it delivered when your event starts or slightly before. It will be a huge drag if your guests have to wait!
  • Do you need a visual projector for PowerPoint presentations? Don't forget to reserve it! Information can probably be found at the AV department or your student activities office. Confirm how far in advance you need to reserve such things.
  • Selling things at your events? There may be a permit required for that. At your small weekly meetings it may not be a problem to sell T-shirts or something in your meeting room, but selling a speaker's books at a large venue might require a permit!

That's it! You've planned all your meetings! Now all that's left is to have them and have fun :-)

Our thanks go to Nick Wallin, 2009-2010 Activities Director for the Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists (CASH)at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities for writing this guide and sharing it with us.

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