As Americans Become Less Religious, a Plan to Help HMN Grow

By Harlan Garbell

This month marks the end of the two-year term of the current HumanistsMN (HMN) Board of Directors. We will elect new officers and four at-large members at our annual meeting on May 15. We are fortunate that all of the current directors whose terms are up have agreed to stay on. If elected they will bring continuity and experience to the new Board.

I suspect labeling the past two years as “challenging” for HMN would not be particularly informative. But it’s probably an appropriate term nonetheless. As individuals, we are familiar with all of the adjustments we have had to make to stay healthy during this pandemic while still navigating the stresses of work and family.

But organizations also undergo stress, which requires an appropriate response so they can continue functioning as normally as possible and meet its members’ expectations. For the most part, thankfully, I believe HMN has succeeded in this regard during these past two years. Many people in our organization have really stepped up to keep our operations steady. For this I am extremely grateful.

But that’s in the past. One of the most important responsibilities of a Board of Directors is to help ensure the health and growth of the organization beyond the terms of its individual members. All Board members will move on eventually. But it’s our duty to leave a flourishing organization for those who follow us. That will be the new challenge post-pandemic.

There are two current powerful trends in our country, and locally, that provide HMN both an opportunity and a challenge — and both are accelerating. The first is the disaffiliation of people from organized religion (the “nones”), especially young people. The second is demographic. The country (and our local community) is becoming much more diverse racially, ethnically, and culturally.  If HMN aspires to be a vital and relevant presence in our community going forward, we need to take advantage of these trends.

Marketing Plan

In April the HMN Board adopted a marketing plan for fiscal year 2021-22, a blueprint for reaching out to people in new ways. It will help the organization use our resources to promote humanism to a younger, less religious, and more diverse cohort.

One of the pandemic’s silver linings is that HMN has been able to reduce its operating expenses over the past year or so, largely by moving our Community Gatherings to Zoom and saving monthly rental costs at the First Unitarian Society. We also have been fortunate to see our assets grow,  the result of a slow but steady rise in membership and some generous donations from our members. HMN now has adequate resources  to invest in future growth.

As president, I am keenly aware of the need to prudently manage our existing resources. And as a Board we need to be mindful that members and donors expect us to allocate the dollars collected from dues and donations in a manner that best serves and promotes the interests of the organization. But managing assets also requires a certain degree of imagination and a willingness to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. In looking at our current environment, where the aforementioned trends are accelerating rapidly, the Board believes that putting our assets to work productively when there is an opportunity best serves the interest of the organization.

I believe the marketing plan strikes that balance and provides a reasonable, viable “roadmap” to help HMN increase its visibility and expand humanist values in our community. These are some elements of the plan:

  • Targeted advertising — for example, radio and billboards.
  • A membership drive.
  • Higher-profile speakers.
  • Special venues.
  • Enhanced website and social-media presence.


The Board agreed to invest resources on advertising after extensive deliberation. As prudent managers of the organization’s resources, we might normally expect an appropriate return on the ad dollars we spend — for example, through increased dues from new members.  However, that does not factor in the total value of such an investment.

HMN has a keen interest in enlarging our footprint in the local community so that we can have a stronger voice in shaping issues important to us. With advertising, we can inform the larger community about our work, and about humanistic and secular values, at a time when interest in organized religion is declining rapidly.

The marketing plan also offers the flexibility to spend more than we typically do to retain higher-profile speakers for our special events — for example, our annual Darwin Day celebration or our National Day of Reason event at the State Capitol. We believe that bringing in popular speakers could attract significantly more attendees and perhaps media attention. We also included a small amount to cover the expenses of new venues for our events, for example in other parts of the metro area. These efforts are consistent with our strategic goal of attracting a younger, more diverse audience for our gatherings.

We will also conduct a concentrated drive to attract new members, including by offering incentives to existing members to bring in new people. We will count on you for help!

All of the above activities will require people power. Engaging speakers, finding venues, placing ads, and publicizing our activities takes time. So the Board agreed to allocate money to hire someone on an as-needed basis to help implement the marketing plan and improve our communications tools.

With this plan, the Board hopes to promote our ”brand” in the local community so that HumanistsMN will thrive as a home for secularists looking for an ethical alternative to faith-based organizations. We are betting on trends that indicate that an organization that values critical thinking, life-long learning, and a passion for social justice can be an attractive destination for the ever-increasing population of “nones.”

Our strategy, simply put, is investing now to make it easier for people to find us, while letting them know who we are and what we stand for.

Harlan Garbell is president of HumanistsMN.



    • Christine on May 4, 2021 at 3:18 pm
    • Reply

    Nice summary of the Board’s plans – and explaining why this is needed.

    • Hiero Russell on September 8, 2021 at 11:48 am
    • Reply

    Many years ago we tried a billboard. It was right across the street from Macalester Collage. We got zero response. The bill board was all text and people , there fore, may just have ignored it for just that reason. If the organization decides to try it again I would suggest having a person or some people in it. I think it would attract more attention

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