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Creating Ethical Societies
Thinking of creating an Ethical Society in your area? Here is a growing collection of
articles that may be helpful in deciding whether to take this on, and in continuing with
the project after you begin.
If you'd like to start a group in your area with the aim of becoming an Ethical Society,
here are some basics:
- Be in touch with the AEU. Contact the AEU by email, telephone, or postal mail to let
them know of your interest. As your group develops, appoint a contact person to remain in
periodic contact with the AEU about questions and your progress. We may be able to put you
in touch with others in your area who have already inquired about forming a new group.
- Is an Ethical Society for you? Gather some friends and acquaintances and talk about what your
goals and purposes are, and explore the ideas and materials found on the AEU website and any
materials you may have and experience with Ethical Societies that any of you may have.
- Form an exploratory group. This is a somewhat less informal way to explore the possibility
of affiliation with the American Ethical Union, and requires some simple but clear organizational
- Become an Ethical Circle. This is a group which has decided to formally affiliate
with the AEU as a permanent organization, and usually to work to grow into an Ethical
Fellowship or Ethical Society.
- Become an Ethical Fellowship. At this stage, a group has more members, more programs,
more organizational structure, and becomes a member organization of the AEU with more rights
- Become an Ethical Society. An Ethical Society is a member organization of the AEU,
with rights and responsibilities of member Societies, and plays an active role in the
life of the Ethical movement.
The purpose of an exploratory group is for individuals to meet to explore affiliation
with the Ethical movement through the AEU, and to explore growth into an Ethical Circle,
Ethical Fellowship, and Ethical Society.
The group usually does this by exploring the history, ideas, and practice of Ethical
Culture in a group setting, by building a respectful, caring community among the individuals,
and by building organizational skills among group members.
An exploratory group uses an informal but intentional and informed process to explore
affiliation with the American Ethical Union.
- An exploratory group has a contact who reports to the AEU Executive Director and the
AEU Membership Committee at least twice a year on the group's status and progress.
The Membership Committee can be consulted for help in identifying resources that will
help in the exploratory phase.
- Members of an exploratory group are encouraged to join the AEU through the
(new in 2006) extension .
- Dues (currently $50/year) of the members of the exploratory group are paid to the AEU,
and members are also encouraged to pledge to the exploratory group so it may begin to
build its resources.
- The exploratory group has access to materials from the Growth and Development Library,
including some free materials and returning or replacing material which is available for loan.
- The exploratory group and the AEU may negotiate to have a Leader or other representative
of the AEU visit the exploratory group, although at this stage this is not necessary or
common. Expenses for such a trip are shared between the AEU and the exploratory group.
- Decisions of the exploratory group are democratic, with respectful treatment of one another
and with respectful listening to everyone's ideas.
- A goal of this phase is to develop a consensus about moving forward with further
steps towards affiliating with the AEU. Consensus doesn't necessarily mean total
agreement on every detail; consensus means gaining the support of the members of
the group in either moving ahead or not moving ahead. Consensus is equally important
for either decision.
- When the group cannot find consensus about AEU affiliation and growing the group
to a larger size -- when some members of the group have decided to move ahead, and some
have decided not to -- then the group needs to decide to support one of those directions,
or needs to choose to allow the sub-groups to move their separate ways organizationally.
- An exploratory group may use the names "Ethical Culture," "Ethical Humanist,"
"Ethical Society," "Ethical Fellowship," or "Ethical Circle" or any combination of these
terms only for so long as the AEU agrees to such use.
An Ethical Circle has as its purposes
- to offer additional programming to the larger community than can be addressed in a discussion group
- to portray itself to the general public as being affiliated with the Ethical Movement
- to decide whether it wishes to work toward Ethical Fellowship Status
The organizational structure of a Circle is thus more formal, and its organizational structure
needs to be more clear and more defined, than an exploratory group.
A Circle is also committed to offering additional programming (compared to an exploratory group)
including programs open to the larger community.
A Circle also explores the responsibilities and benefits of an Ethical Fellowship,
and decides whether to work towards that status.
A Circle has a steering committee (sometimes called a Board) with a chairperson or
primary AEU contact.
A Circle receives on-site consulting with AEU representatives and has a written covenant
with the AEU which covers any services it is to receive, contacts and reports it will make
with the AEU, and sharing of expenses for services. This covenant includes agreement on the
part of the Circle to:
- Build a self-sustaining ethical community where ethical standards of human relations are practiced, where everyone's contributions are considered important, and where responsibility and authority are shared. In such a responsible community, no one person or group is essential or necessary to the survival of the community.
- Be committed to freedom of thought concerning theological, social, political, and religious matters, and not discriminate on account of race, religious background, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation.
- A formal relationship with the AEU under the latest revision of the AEU Bylaws for affiliated groups.
- Adhere to the purposes of the Ethical movement as stated in the AEU "Statement of Purpose."
- Use the name "Ethical Culture," "Ethical Humanist," "Ethical Society," "Ethical Fellowship," "Ethical Circle," or any combination of these terms only for so long as the AEU agrees to such use.
- Identify a contact person to be the focus of AEU contacts, and keep the AEU informed of the postal address of the current contact person and, where possible, an email address and telephone number.
- Use any funds collected only for the purposes of the Ethical Culture movement, either locally or at large, or for some other legitimate charitable purpose, and not for the gain of any member of the Circle.
- Maintain a bank account, an annual budget, a statement of purpose, a membership list, and a list of officers for the Circle.
- Contract with the AEU to make reasonable payment for the Circle's share of services received.
- Provide the AEU Executive Director and Membership Committee with at least an annual report on its financial and organizational status, plans, officers, budget, and membership list with postal addresses and, where available, email addresses and telephone numbers.
- Consult with the AEU Executive Director before filing any legal application or participating in any legal action. The Executive Director may consult with the AEU Law Committee.
- Consult with the AEU religious education committee and AEU Executive Director prior to instituting any program of religious education, and remain in contact with the committee while maintaining such a program.
- Consult with the AEU leadership committee and AEU Executive Director before negotiating with any individual concerning appointment as a Leader, and not to use the title of Leader in any form unless such person has been appropriately certified or licensed by the AEU.
- Establish itself legally as a nonprofit institution in the state in which it primarily operates in order for contributions to be tax deductible.
The AEU, as part of the covenant, agrees:
- To list the group in its literature under the "Circle" category and encourages societies to send names of prospective members in the area.
- The Circle is eligible to attend representational Assemblies under the AEU bylaw provisions for affiliate organizations.
- The AEU will identify a primary contact person for arranging advice and assistance by volunteers or staff members of the AEU.
The form of advice and assistance would vary according to the needs of the Circle and availability
of resources of the AEU. Most Circles can expect to arrange with the AEU visits by persons who
will encourage their desire for ethical community development and personal ethical development,
advise them in basic organizational development, and advise and consult on what is needed for
the Circle to establish Sunday School, platforms, adult education, membership and community
development, social service and social action programs, financial development, pastoral
services, ceremonial services, and any other areas pertaining to the establishment of an
An Ethical Fellowship is a member organization of the American Ethical Union and plays an active
role in the governance of the AEU.
The organizational structure of a Fellowship is thus more structured than an exploratory group
or Circle, and both membership and participation in the group's leadership is larger than in
those smaller organizations.
A Fellowship may also explores the possibility of evolving into an Ethical Society.
To become a Fellowship, the Circle applies to the AEU via the Membership Committee and
Executive Director. In considering applications we regard these goals as minimum
requirements for the long-term viability of a Fellowship. The Membership Committee
and Executive Director recommend to the AEU Board those groups which have implement
or are developing programs in each of these areas.
- Twenty members or more*
- Six months or more of organizational existence
- A board or steering committee meeting that meets monthly
- Statement of Purpose
- Constitution and/or By-Laws
- Legal Incorporation
- Officers with specific job descriptions including an AEU liaison
- A regular place to meet
- Public platform meetings at least twice a month with a goal of increasing to weekly when consistent with the quality of programs and growth in membership
- Greeters at all public meetings
- Provision for weddings, memorials, and other ceremonies
- Seasonal celebrations
- Education classes for children and/or adults
- Childcare for platform meetings
- Guest book at meetings and a mailing list
- Monthly newsletter
- Brochure or flyer
- Telephone listing
- Public outreach/publicity program
- Regular newcomers meetings
- Membership application (i.e. in writing)
- Balanced budget for current and next year
- Pledge campaign
- Yearly pledged average of $350/household unit and a commitment to members that a full service congregation needs an average pledge of at least $600/member
*The bylaws permit 10 members to maintain fellowship status, but to be initially accepted,
a group should have 20. That allows the group to shrink a bit and still maintain its official
status with the AEU. The definition of "member" should be clear in the group's bylaws.
For Ethical Fellowships that want to provide more community for members and more services to
the larger community, portray themselves as providing the full range of services expected
from an Ethical community, and to take a leadership role in the governance of the AEU, an
AEU bylaws - including information on affiliating as a Fellowship or Society is availablel from the
Steps to Success in Growing Ethical Societies
Here are some steps that have proven successful in growing small groups to larger Ethical
Circles, Fellowships, and Societies:
Form a steering committee or board with several individuals taking on different responsibilities.
Delegate. Delegate. Delegate. Meet at least monthly from the start. Build a group tradition
from the beginning of shared responsibility and authority, lay leadership training, and
recruiting new leadership for the future.
What has destroyed many new groups was the fact that almost everything was done by one or
two people. When they moved away, the group folded. More on shared leadership...
Think about the kind of tasks that need to be done, and then find people with interests and
skills to do those tasks. Many tasks can be shared on a revolving basis. Typical kinds of
tasks essential in the early stages of building a group:
- publicity -- public notice -- about group meetings
- securing a space for meetings and acting as liaison with the management or landlord
- ordering materials for a literature table and staffing the table, and answering questions about the literature, the group, and the wider Ethical movement
- setting up before and cleaning up after the meeting; paying attention to aesthetics
- providing refreshments for meetings; arranging the refreshments aesthetically
- greeting people at the door, introducing people, answering questions about the group and the Ethical movement, inviting people to sign the guest book and be on a mailing list
- planning programs for group meetings -- opening and closing readings, music, core presentation or discussion. May involve inviting speakers, training and giving feedback to members who make presentations, etc.
- facilitating group meetings
Here is a sample of committees and their duties in the early life of one new group:
- Internal Affairs Committee (care and concern, membership, social events and culture, platforms, calendar, meeting space)
- External Affairs Committee (finances, fundraising, legal -- includes bylaws, incorporation, 501c3 status, state sales tax exemption, organizational issues)
- Growth Committee (newsletter, publicity, special events, mail, phone)
- Children's Religious Education -- planning and implementing a Sunday School program
Advertise your group. Let people in your area know that you are organizing. Send out news releases to local papers. Buy ads in your newspaper when you start having regular, public meetings. See sample ad.
Find a place to meet that is centrally located, accessible to public transportation and major highways or through roads, comfortable, conducive to a variety of group activities (platforms, potlucks, Sunday School, meetings, etc.). Possibilities include schools, libraries, community centers, senior centers, office buildings, storefronts, etc.
Provide child care or a children's program during adult meetings. This will determine whether younger couples and families will be drawn to your group. The reality is that most young people begin searching for a religious community when their children are of an age for some kind of ethical and religious education.
One way to draw young families is to have special parenting workshops or discussion groups. Some groups may actually be founded for for this purpose: a group of parents who want to build an ethical education program for their children, a supportive and caring community for ethical parenting, and a larger "family" in which to raise their children.
Help and resources are available through the AEU Religious Education Committee.
Invite participants in your programs to become members. Members are people who have voting rights on major decisions and are willing to take responsibility to help set directions for the group and to contribute volunteer time and financial support towards the organization. Keep a list of members with full contact information and consult them. Make it clear that it is their group, and not just the responsibility of the original organizers. People on the mailing list are invited to events, but only members get a vote.
Make it clear from the beginning that it takes money to run an organization that can fulfill the needs of the members and serve the community. Some members will be able to give a lot and some will only be able to afford a little, but aside from those with no income, all members should be expected to contribute financially in accord with their circumstances.
Develop a budget and discuss it openly. Let members know what it costs to rent a meeting space, to purchase advertising, to bring in outside consultants, etc. Let members know that the growth and quality of the group's programs depend on what the members contribute.
While some amounts will be gathered at collections at meetings and fundraising events, the majority of funds should come from an annual pledge drive. Members should be asked to commit to what they expect to be able to contribute during the coming year. This is not expected to be given all at once, and in fact monthly or weekly pledge amounts may be preferable. The pledge commitments provide the basis for developing a budget.
When you are beginning to organize your first pledge drive, you can obtain more detailed advice from the AEU office.
Have members create a vision together of what they would like the group to develop into, in five or ten years, and what it will require to get there. Help members to recognize that as they expand their programs, hire professional and administrative staff, build their own building, etc., the quality of what they get from the community will increase, but they will have to pay more for increased services.
The strongest groups are those with realistic and open attitudes about money and resources.
Money should not be a taboo topic. At the same time, the group should respect and recognize the difference in financial capabilities among the members.
More later ... this document is in development