Time and again I’ve listened to frustrated event organizers. “Our membership list has 200 people, but we only get 10 people to show up on a good day!” I have also seen them hack at this issue, demanding people commit to attendance, pay admission fees (not in itself a bad practice) or even limit membership in order to force attendance. When I first started the Minneapolis Doctor Who meetup, in my early years I had a then co-organizer ask me to drop people that didn’t show up, and I followed this advice and ended up building a lot of ill-will in the local science fiction community that I had no real reason or reward for breeding. When I shifted attention to cultivating those who did show up my experience improved.
His advice came from a common mistake we make: we always have the equipment to fight the last war we were in. In his case, he spent a lot of time organizing local science fiction cons. In conventions, it matters who shows up to make things happen. In meetups, as long as someone shows up, the rest barely matters at all. This is especially true if you have already established a simple, easy to repeat meeting format.
If you run a Pagan meetup, especially a social one, you need to make peace with the disparity between member numbers, RSVPs, and who actually shows up. Why people do and don’t show up after saying yes can have a lot of factors – and none of those factors are something that meetup organizers can control. What organizers can control, however, is showing up themselves, communicating well with those that want to show up, and making sure you get the right people for your group rather than the most people.
I currently run the Emperor Norton Pagan Social in San Francisco. There are dozens of Pagan, shamanic, and witch meetups in the Bay Area. What makes mine possibly unique is that, as far as I know, it is the only one at this time north of Palo Alto that is strictly a social event. While individual members of the group sometimes host rituals, Sabbat, or feast day parties (including myself) no meetup sponsored under the Emperor Norton name ever has a specific religion behind it. In theory this should create the largest demographic swathe: literally anyone, right hand, left hand, crooked, or swinging from a vine, has a place in this group.
Some nights twenty people crowd around the back table at the cafe where we meet. Other times, maybe three or four people show up. Even though the attendance numbers didn’t merit it, I agreed to schedule a morning meetup (I see it as an opportunity for other members to learn about group ownership and organization growth and so sometimes I just skip it). The extra meetup on the calendar costs me nothing, and when it becomes a source of stress in my life, I just don’t go to the second one. While we had one incident last year when someone running a different local Pagan meetup spread rumors we had closed, for the most part the group has grown and shrunken naturally. Spreading the word on social media has done little – people find us on Meetup or they don’t. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram postings gain no attention whatsoever. We are listed on Witchvox out of a wistful affection for the days of printed calendars and linear ways to find Pagan groups…but who the hell uses Witchvox anymore? Ultimately Meetup serves our purposes because we are listed where people are looking for groups to join.
In the process, the core group has changed and shifted over the last four years. People have to move away, change jobs and we no longer fit their schedule, students graduate – and new people show up. While a core group inevitably forms, as long as you can avoid unnecessary in-grouping/excess cliquing, the group will continue to grow. The less you take attendance to heart, the less stress you experience over it.
This does raise the question: how do you know what’s a normal ebb and what’s a sudden loss of membership?
In my twenty years of Pagan and community organizing, sudden large attendance fall-off is much more concerning than slow growth and annual ebbs and contractions. If twenty percent of your regulars abruptly stop coming, you need to look for the metaphorical drainage hole. This can be a lot of things: an automated email that stopped working, a similar event happening at the same time, even a change in traffic patterns. Even after decades, these moments can still catch me off-guard. One happened to my current group recently when someone looking to run a similar group spread rumors that the one I run shut down. I only found out about this because someone sent me a message asking if what they had heard was true. It is particularly puzzling since our online presence has continued undisrupted since the group’s inception. As quick as we are to check our phones, no one was quick to Google and verify this.
Before I talk about how I handled this latest situation, I want to point out that most sudden membership drops are easy to predict because drama precedes them. In a university group I once volunteered with, a sudden dust-up of personal drama between the president and former group runners led to more than half the group quitting. A leadership dust-up in front of group members in the first Pagan group I ever worked with led to the group not just being halved in membership, but quartered. The majority of people actually don’t like drama, aren’t trained to handle conflict, and only want to go to a meeting on their own time if it’s fun. Having big scenes is always fun for the drama makers even as they are robbing every one else present of their joy.
Usually, however, minimizing the drama while still identifying the behavior is the best way to go.
In the recent rumor-spreading, the signs were so subtle at first I thought it was a natural ebb until multiple friends mentioned surprise when I told them I had an Emperor Norton event scheduled. The “news” we had closed was easy to trace – someone had opened a meetup with verbiage very similar to ours, but that had a much more restrictive format. A few of our newer regulars had gone with them, believing it to be the same group. Rather than creating a community brouhaha I simply posted to a few social media channels that rumors of our death were greatly exaggerated.
When you first begin groups like this, it is hard not to feel like the kid in the fifth grade who threw a birthday party that nobody came to. Way too many Pagans are that kid. It’s important to talk to that inner child and give it some parenting as you run these groups, because you will sometimes get the people looking for the metaphorical cool kids’ table. If you genuinely want a group that runs long-term, you need it to be low-drama, and to be low-drama, you have to let go of measuring success in terms of turnout. The only success that matters when you are organizing these groups are how you feel after a good night with those that do show up.
Don’t sweat the turnout, and don’t sweat the growth. Over the next few weeks I’ll talk about why small and sustainable is especially important when dealing with focused interest groups.