July 14, 2015

Secular Activism: Doing a Better Job With Action Alerts

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I have repeatedly encouraged people to join national secular organizations as a way of supporting their work and becoming more involved in secular activism. And yet, I have had more than a few complaints with the national secular organizations and how they operate over the years. One in particular rises to the top, and I'd like to address it here before offering some suggestions about how to fix it. My chief complaint concerns the manner in which most of the secular organizations disseminate secular action alerts. Since this information is vital to secular activism, I believe this is an area where we should demand improvement.

Current Practices

I'd like to start by taking a look at how most of the national secular organizations currently operate when it comes to informing the public of opportunities to engage in secular activism. First, some organizations actually require you to join and pay their membership fee before they will even send you action alerts. This makes sense if their primary goal is fundraising; it does not make sense if they genuinely care about promoting secular activism. And to be frank, I find myself feeling much less inclined to support any organization that operates this way.

Second, note that virtually all of the national secular organizations, including the rare few who are willing to distribute action alerts to non-members, insist on distributing these alerts via email (and sometimes via their social media accounts). I don't know about you, but I this to be among the least effective ways to spread the word about opportunities for secular activism. Spam and email overload are common problems, and many of us just don't have the time to wade through the volume of email we receive every day.

I do understand why the organizations do this. They are trying to capture your email address so they can send you more than just action alerts. Specifically, they want to solicit funds from you, persuade you to attend their conferences, etc. This is what any marketer will tell you to do: harvest email addresses, build lists, and use the lists to market your products and services. And yet, this sort of thing is quite annoying when we want to be treated as collaborators in secular activism rather than consumers.

Finally, note how little overlap there is between the action alerts distributed by the national secular groups. It is almost as if they treat their action alerts in a proprietary manner. One group rarely promotes another group's calls to action. Again, this makes sense if these groups are operating as marketers of their respective organizations, but it makes little sense if they are striving to encourage meaningful secular activism.

Suggestions for Improvement

It is easy to complain and much more challenging to offer constructive suggestions for improvement. Fortunately, I think this is a case where there are some fairly obvious areas for improvement. I also think that they would add up to have a measurable impact on the number of people participating in secular activism.

The most important and clearly the most difficult thing that must change here requires a new vision of collaboration. The goal needs to be one of encouraging secular activism. And if the goal is one of encouraging secular activism, then it seems quite obvious that the various secular organizations cannot continue to operate as rival businesses competing for customers. This is so important, I'll say it again. Organizations that are genuinely interested in promoting secular activism are undermining this goal by operating on a traditional business model.

One alternative would involve the development of an umbrella organization which all the national secular groups would join and which would be responsible to distributing all the action alerts from all the various member groups to as wide an audience as possible. At one point, I was optimistic that this might be a task taken on by the Secular Coalition for America, but that was not to be. At the time I'm writing this post, the Secular Coalition for America's page of current action alerts lists nothing more current than July of 2013. To be fair, the Secular Coalition never pretended that this was their primary mission. They are more of a lobbying organization, and that is certainly needed too.

A much easier alternative to setting up an umbrella organization would involve convincing all the secular organizations to distribute their action alerts via freely accessible RSS feeds. This would make the information available to a much larger audience and would require almost no effort on the part of the organizations. The rest of us could then subscribe to the feeds of several groups, do much of their promotion for them, and be less likely to miss opportunities to help. Of course, this would likely mean that there would be a drop in the number of people subscribing to their email lists. They would have to be willing to live with that.

Here are just a few specific suggestions for improving the manner in which secular action alerts are distributed:
  1. Distribute timely secular action alerts freely and to as wide an audience as possible. No reputable secular organization should make the receipt of secular action alerts contingent on membership.
  2. Distribute secular action alerts via RSS as well as the current email subscription formats. RSS makes it far easier for the rest of us to promote the content, expanding the audience exponentially.
  3. Take advantage of opportunities for cross-promotion (i.e., one group promoting another group's action alerts) when the goal of the alert fits with the organization's mission.
  4. Make sure that all secular action alerts make it as easy as possible on the recipients to take appropriate action. Many organizations already do this well; those that do not could learn a great deal from them.
  5. When relevant, include expiration dates on all action alerts in order to help the audience know when the window of time in which to take helpful action has closed.
Recognize that secular activists are going to want to join and support organizations that are actively working to facilitate secular activism in productive ways. Moving forward, I am not planning to continue to support any group that makes dissemination of secular action alerts contingent on membership. Instead, I will be shifting my support to organizations that demonstrate a real commitment to promoting effective secular activism. How they make secular action alerts available to the public is one important indicator of this commitment.
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