The Limits of Bricks and Mortar

Yesterday morning at Skepticon, James Croft gave a pitch for creating Humanist communities with their own buildings. The (main) point of the buildings is to facilitate regular meetings. The point of regular, or at least somewhat frequent, meetings is to promote civic engagement, something for which James has at least very subjective data.

It was a good talk, but as usual, I tend to play devils’s advocate on James’s ideas along these lines simply because our perspectives are so different. I don’t do it intentionally. He just starts talking, and I hear myself saying, “Yes but…”.

I think James does something similar with certain strains of what I have to say, which provides for entertaining arguments that I think lead to a broader understanding for both of us.

This time, what got me thinking was the pictures of various Humanist and Ethical Society buildings around the country. Specifically, it was a picture of (if I recall correctly) a California building with colorful flags draped next to a set of stairs leading to a second-floor entrance.

Visually, it was quite nice. I understand why James included the slide. The stairs, however, made my knees hurt. I thought, “How many people will those keep out?”

Now, that was just my initial reaction. I’m sure the building has a more accessible entrance than that. But it did start me thinking about how a community that owns a building tends to limit itself. James is right that there are advantages, but they don’t exist in a vacuum.

As a point of reference, the Minnesota Atheists have been attempting to raise money for a building for several years. I don’t think the fact that we’re not there yet is just due to a relatively small number of active, paid members (relative compared to the number of people who benefit from what we do). I don’t think it’s because members don’t understand the value of a building.

I think it’s because the way we operate now serves more people than would be served by a building.

If you look at the list of events MNA puts out each week (sign up here), you’ll see events all over the Twin Cities. There are events in Minneapolis, in the northern suburbs, in the southern suburbs, occasionally to the east. If you look at the MeetUp group, you’ll find more events in more places. Even our monthly meetings, held in the larger public libraries, travel.

Is there no bus line leading to one of our events? There is to the next. Is the drive to one prohibitively long from your work or your house? There will be one closer. Does this space present physical challenges to you? Try this one instead. We’re everywhere.

We have active members who live all over our metro area, which covers seven counties. I don’t know that we would be able to say that if we just had a little place near downtown with scant parking or a grander, more spacious building out in a suburb. That happens for a very few churches in the area, and they’ve all worked (or spent) hard to be “desination” churches.

Being all over the place also reduces certain barriers to new participants. A building that is home to a community becomes a home in another way as well. There is a small but real psychological barrier to newcomers inviting themselves in to someone else’s space. This barrier exists without a building, of course, for any established community, but the walls of a building become metaphorical walls as well. When events are held in more public spaces, this isn’t an issue.

I do understand the appeals of a building. James wants spaces for music, which is harder to accommodate in public. Minnesota Atheists have a library of atheist books that are currently very hard to access and impossible to browse. Child-friendly spaces have their own needs.

I do understand the appeals of a building. I just think that a building is not necessary for many of the kinds of community participation that James envisions, and that unless we look clearly at the downsides of buildings, we aren’t going to be able to make conscious decisions about whom we include in our communities.


Arguing fine points with James is something of a hobby. You can see the prior posts in our discussions below.

The Limits of Bricks and Mortar
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6 thoughts on “The Limits of Bricks and Mortar

  1. 1

    Interesting article, I can see how it applies to many aspects of community outreach. I was recently thinking of something similar with regards to a couple friends who started a restaurant after running a food truck for a couple years. While running the food truck, they were active in promoting many local events, setting up at local farmers’ markets and festivals. While they worked on setting up and opening the restaurant, they cut back on truck events. The restaurant certainly retains their personality, and will likely serve as a base for their own events, but it sacrificed some of their mobility and ability to highlight others’ events.

    In the end, I think that most community service organizations can manage both mobility and the benefits of having a more permanent physical presence such as an official building.

  2. 2

    My experience in St Louis is that a building frequently is a concern. I am a member of various organizations, one of which (The Ethical Society) has a building. The others (Skeptical Society, Atheist Meetup, etc) end up using that building several times a year.

    The reason being that building is very accessible, contains plenty of space and equipment, including A/V and a kitchen, and is maintained by a body of people with overlapping interests to the other groups.

    The Skepticamp which the Skeptical Society held at the Ethical Society’s building drew in 125 people (a nation-wide Skepticamp record) from the St Louis area, many of whom I had never seen before at either ES or SS events.

    The outreach and accommodation benefits are definitely worth the monthly membership fee I pay toward maintaining the facility.

  3. 3

    The Oklahoma Atheists have a private Facebook forum where members (active in meatspace on those that aren’t) post mostly frivolous memes and annoying Facebook statuses (don’t ask me why our members care about their friend’s statuses) but today a member posted a deeply distressing “vent”. Recently, this member’s friend attempted suicide and is currently on life support about to die. Our member is going through this alone. After all, the rest of the grieving filling the hospital are uniting with prayers and consoling themselves with the idea that this is all part of some cosmic plan. Our member is attempting to unite with our electronic community (I don’t know her outside of the forum) and sure this is a fine place to vent her frustrations but the attempts to console feel completely empty. I can’t help but wonder if we had a weekly gathering (we have many many meetups but they’re mostly centered around bowling, presentations, eating and drinking) organized much like a church service that maybe we could offer a grander gesture than an “e-hug”.

  4. 6

    Buildings are usually just too expensive—and more expensive than they seem—for most groups, unless they have rich donors who’ll fund them with serious money.

    Doing the math can be pretty discouraging, especially when you take into account taxes, insurance, and maintenance. You probably want a large pot of money just to fund taxes, insurance, and maintenance with income from interest or conservative investments—and that pot of money is going to be comparable to the money required to buy the building outright.

    If you don’t do it that way, with a whole lot of money up front, you stand a good chance of losing your building in lean times, when you don’t get enough dues and donations to pay the taxes and upkeep. (Much less the mortgage, if you don’t have the money for the building in hand.)

    Lacking that kind of cash on hand, you might want to look into leasing and time-sharing commercial space, shared with some other organization(s) that mostly use the space at different times. (Being wary about organizations that may go under and leave you holding the bag for the whole lease.)

    Once you look at what that costs, you may decide it’s too much too, if it’s not going to get you a permanent building, and you may decide to save the money for your own building some day, but likely not anytime soon, because you need to scrounge up a lot more money first.

    And when you save up enough money for a building, but likely not the one you wanted—you have to decide what’s really important. Do you want a small building you can afford that just houses an office, a small media production room, and a small meeting room for committee meetings, or do you want a much bigger and more expensive building that you can have general meetings at, and use as a clubhouse for everybody? The latter costs a whole lot, and you might decide to settle for the former, to house administrationm, production, and active committees and small interest groups’ meetings. Or maybe you just decide to keep scrounging and saving for your bigger dream building.

    Typically, you’re not going to get a building like you really want unless you have generous well-to-do donors, and likely not until they die and leave you hunks of their estate.

    That is how churches and synagogues get a lot of the money for those nice buildings they have.

    That means you need to cultivate rich donors, and hit them up to be written into their wills, and you likely need to wait a long time, or kill them yourself. (Joke.)

    Hitting the rich folks up for big bucks can also make you vulnerable to their preferences. Be aware that if you spend the money differently than you said you would, because the original plan didn’t pan out, they may sue you, even if there were no firm promises or written conditions. Be careful how the money you take in major donations is earmarked, and what verbal assurances you give about how donations will be spent.

    You generally want donors to contribute to named funds with clear descriptions that are not too constraining. When possible, you want to get them to put money into a less-constrained fund, so that you can use it for upkeep if you need to, rather than applying it to the purchase price.

    Also be aware that more people are willing to donate to buy a building than donate to a taxes, insurance, and maintenance fund for that building. You may be able to raise the money for the building itself, but not for the other things that make it safe to actually go ahead and buy the building. So you have to keep waiting and scrounging and hitting rich people up and promising them things.

    Be prepared for politics with the donors, and between members of your own group with different visions, and with alliances between some of the members and some of the donors trying to get their way. Serious money is serious stuff.

    If you’re at all serious about getting a building, get a lawyer who knows about this kind of stuff, early in the process. You don’t want to be collecting a bunch of money and then finding out you did it wrong.

    Also consult an appropriate lawyer when setting up your organization in the first place, or if you’ve already done that without a lawyer, consult one ASAP. How you write the charter for your organization can have weird effects years later, e.g., with donors claiming you’re spending their money for stuff that’s beyond the scope or stated goals of the organization, and suing your for malfeasance.

    That can happen, for example, if you wrote your charter as an atheist/skeptic group, and want it to be an Atheism Plus or Humanist group too—somebody may decide that devoting any of the the group’s money or other resources to, say, promoting marriage rights or feminism is malfeasance, and you could be sued over it. (Even if the people objecting did not donate the money—if it’s the group’s money, and they’re members, they may have standing to sue over how it’s “misused.”) Whether they have a leg to stand on may depend on how they resolve ambiguities in your original language. It’s best to resolve such potential legal gotchas with a charter rewrite (appropriately approved by the group and made legal), if necessary, before accumulating any serious money that people could sue over the misuse of.

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