Margaret DeLacy, President, Northwest Independent Scholars Association
Copyright, National Coalition of Independent Scholars, 1998
[This article originally appeared in The Independent Scholar, X, no. 2, Spring, 1996]
Begin by Taking Inventory
Location of meetings
Tips on Mailing Lists
Scholarship is a lonely business. Long hours in the archives are followed by longer stretches before a blank piece of paper or screen, trying to think of something, anything, to say. When your neighbors learn about your project they start crossing the street to avoid you--after all, what do you say to an aspiring author? Even if you love your topic, it is difficult to keep working in isolation, without support or encouragement. And if, at long last, you finally finish your magnum opus, will anyone be interested in it? Will the phrases that seemed so nicely turned at four in the morning turn your readers off? Or did you forget some essential part of the argument?
Forming a group of scholars may be the simplest and most enjoyable way of confronting these problems. It will take a little of your precious working time, but in return it may greatly enhance the pleasure you obtain from pursuing your goal, help smooth out problems along the way, and ensure that there is someone to join in the celebration when you finally achieve it. Creating a scholars' group will expand the cultural life of your community, enable scholars in your field across the country to find you, enhance the lives of its members, and improve your standing with people whose assistance is important to your work, such as librarians, historical societies, humanities councils and faculty members. By forming a group you can share resources and information with each other, greatly increasing your command of the tools necessary to complete your work.
I am speaking from personal experience; about ten years ago I joined a small group of independent scholars in Portland. If I had not done so, I would probably have given up my own research long ago, my enthusiasm buffeted by the constant demands of three children and my energy sapped by the hundreds of other demands for my time. It was the scholars group that provided me with both information and encouragement necessary to apply for my first research grant; in turn, that grant led to a second one. With their aid, I actually managed to bring out several publications and, even more difficult, persuade my family that all those hours locked up with a computer were not simply spent playing video games!
But, if there is no scholars' group near you already, how do you go about the nebulous and daunting task of creating one? There is no single way of creating a new organization. Below, we have compiled some tips that have worked for us.
Begin by taking inventory.
What are your own needs? What would you like to see such an organization become? Where do you live and what resources are available in your area? What could you offer to a group and what would you like to take away? What sort of commitment are you willing to make to get it off the ground? Do you have special skills or resources you could contribute? Do you have other friends who are scholars or who share some particular project or interest with you? Are you a member of other groups that might share ideas/ resources/membership with you? Is there an institution or organization, such as a university, library, historical society, museum, book club or writers' group with whom you would like to build a relationship?
Recruitment. Most successful groups are built on a base of personal friendship. If you have a few friends, or know of a few scholars in your area already, you are well on the way. Call them up and invite them to a meeting. It need not, indeed should not be a formal meeting. Offer morning coffee, meet for lunch at a local cafe, have a tea or a drink at a local coffeehouse or bar. Discuss the "inventory" questions with them. Ask them to consider meeting on a regular basis, perhaps once a month or so. These meetings can be informal as well, just to discuss how your work is going or what new materials you have uncovered. You can continue like this indefinitely, and enjoy it!
Alternatively, if there are several of you and you live in an area that seems likely to contain a significant number of other scholars, you might want to consider meeting as a steering group and establishing the framework for a more organized and formal group: writing byelaws, setting rules for membership, establishing a set place to meet. The most successful large groups seem to have begun with a few individuals who soon arranged for a much larger organizational meeting. At that meeting, committees were established to create a final form for the group, write bye-laws, establish a mailing list, set dues and determine how officers would be chosen. No group will last for long unless there is someone who is committed to keeping it going and is willing to serve as president.
Suppose you do not know any independent scholars in your area? There are several ways you can find others who share your interests. First, you need to decide whether you are willing to form a group that is based solely on a shared field of interest regardless of the location of its members or whether you want to organize a regional or local group. The former is more difficult, but possible, particularly when there is some special feature of the discipline itself that makes such a choice logical. Perhaps it has an unusual number of free-lance workers who have particular organizational needs. Be sure to identify yourself as an independent scholar when you attend conferences and keepyour eyes open for other independent scholars who live near you or share your interests. See whether speakers or participants are listed as independent scholars. Ask your scholarly organizations if they will offer a roundtable or lunch meeting for independent scholars and pass around a sign-up list, or, if it is a relatively small society, ask the membership chair or another officer if they know of other independent scholars who are members and might be interested, or ask if they would be interested in helping you establish such a group within their society.
The index to the NCIS directory can help you find members in your city or state, but there are many other places you can go for advice. Try your local universities, colleges, museums, historical societies etc. If there are one or two large and logical places to go to start, call them up. Ask to speak to someone in charge, introduce yourself and explain your project. Ask if they know anyone who would be willing to participate. Our single best recruiting source has been the chair of a department at a local university. If you decide to begin with an organizational meeting, choose a time and place, and distribute flyers to all these places. Local colleges, universities and community colleges seem like logical places to start, but there are many others. If your projected group is based on a single discipline, notifying the relevant departments in local colleges seems simple, but it can be surprisingly difficult to reach all the members of all the departments in a single university. Sometimes, it is possible to find a central office to which flyers can be sent, or to post an announcement in a local campus calendar or newspaper. Colleges may also be able to offer you a place to meet. Most areas have an assortment of educational establishments, so check your local directories to make sure you have located them all. Many states offer listings of all their higher education institutions.
However, independent scholars work in many different places, and can be found in many different ways. Our municipal library will post a flyer in every branch if it is delivered to the central office and approved. The library also maintains a computerized database of local organizations. If your public library offers a similar system, you can obtain a listing for your own group there, and also search the database for organizations that seem likely to contain scholars as members, such as a local historical society.
Other organizations to try include local publishers, the American Association of University Women and local organizations for high school teachers. Your state humanities council and the extension service of your local university exist to promote local scholarship and should be more than willing to help you. Keep your eyes open for local news items that refer to people who might become members: for example, book reviews in your local paper that discuss works on local history, archaeology, art, or culture.
Once you get started, by far your most effective recruiting tool is word of mouth. Encourage new members to recruit their friends. If you are a member of other local organizations, let their members know you are starting a group and ask them to help you by telling their friends who are scholars about it.
It is worth taking a little time, however, to think about just how large a group you are seeking. This will depend largely on your goals. However, this is a case where bigger is definitely not better. The larger a group is, the less its members are likely to have in common, the less well they will be able to get to know each other, and the more effort it will take to keep them all informed about meetings and activities. Members who never turn up at meetings, contribute nothing to the group, and do not engage in any work that deserves scholarly support, may syphon off time and energy that could be used to support more relevant activities.
NCIS does not require that all members of affiliate societies be active scholars, nor that they be independent scholars: some "mix" of members may be very valuable. If we wish to make it possible for individuals to cycle in and out of scholarly work as their lives change, or to cycle in and out of full-time tenured teaching, we may also wish to create societies that can offer continuing support and an opportunity to participate throughout these changes. However, some rules for members are important and they should be tailored carefully to the needs and goals of the group as a whole. If the group intends to offer some benefit for which it will take responsibility, whether it is a library card, access to a university telephone, or even free cookies at meetings, then it needs to take some steps to ensure that these will not be abused. Too many tenured faculty members or too many graduate students may overwhelm the people you hoped to encourage, or divert the activities of the group away from the specific needs of independent scholars.
Good officers do screen prospective members for an appropriate fit with the goals of the entire group: often you are doing a prospective members no favor to encourage them to join a group which is not appropriate for their needs and interests. For example, because nearly all our activities take place in the Portland metropolitan area and we do not publish a newsletter, I frequently discourage prospective members who live too far away to attend our meetings. Similarly, I often point out to people that if they are not themselves pursuing a research topic, they will not benefit from many of our discussions of the nuts and bolts of research. Moreover, you risk destroying your group entirely if you admit even one person who is so offensive that no one wishes to be in the same room with him or her, although this cannot always be avoided. Even if it is informal, therefore, some mutual agreement about who is a suitable member is very important.
Our group is a small one, and is limited to active scholars. If this greatly reduces our potential membership, it also helps to keep our activities focused and makes it much simpler to run. We have a rule, dreamed up by our first president, that all new members must present their current research to the group within a year of the time they join. This rule has several advantages. It automatically screens out those who are not doing research. Perhaps more important, it helps those who have always intended to do research but haven't quite gotten around to it to make a decision: either they get something together or they realize that they really don't wish to do research at all. Finally, and best from my point of view, it makes it very easy for the president to find speakers for our bi-monthly meetings! Real working scholars are usually very happy to be offered a small and friendly audience for their current projects.
The problems associated with this arrangement, however, are the loss of contacts and clout that would come with a larger group, and the fact that a small group that is open to scholars in all disciplines often can provide no one to share specialized work with. It can be difficult to collect an audience, much less an intelligent audience, for papers on mathematics or musicology, for example, and embarrassment or hurt feelings may result. If you decide to run such a group either find some other attraction for members on the more esoteric evenings, or find a core group that is willing to sit through nearly any presentation, however outre it may appear. I have attempted to attend every meeting of our group, and have found that it has greatly broadened my intellectual outlook and perspective on my own work. Often the worst-attended presentations have been truly outstanding, but I have also worked with aspiring presenters to broaden their topic to attract listeners outside their own field. It is important for specialist scholars to learn how to explain their work to a more general audience and make it interesting or appealing.
Where can you meet? If you have a small group and the meeting is informal, plan to meet either at a conveniently located residence or at a local cafe. If your group is too large to be accomodated there, or you want to hold a meeting in more formal and less noisy surroundings, you will have to do a little investigating. Try the various institutions listed above. The next place to start looking is at local institutions that are near you. Local libraries and banks often provide meeting rooms for community organizations, but they may have very limited hours. Daytime meetings may eliminate possible members. A place of worship or school is a good place to try, particularly if you already have connections with staff members there. Our local schools host dozens of community activities in the evenings. Senior centers and neighborhood centers also may have meeting rooms available. If you are stumped, find out what other small organizations in your area are doing. At some point you will have to decide whether it is better to meet consistently at a given place and time, such as the second Tuesday of the month, or to move your meeting times and places around to suit the convenience of members.
Tips on Mailing lists.
Whatever you do, begin to compile a mailing list. This list should have at least three categories: (1) actual members, those who have committed themselves to attending meetings, meet the criteria for membership and have paid dues. These will usually be the only names on your mailing labels each month, (2) potential members: those who have written or called to express an interest but never turned up, those who used to be members but did not renew, those whose names have been suggested but have not yet been contacted etc and (3) resources: people or institutions in your community that have proved helpful or may be helpful in the future, such as distinguished outside speakers, the manager of the building where you meet, the director of your local historical society or council on the humanities, archivists and librarians, scholars who live too far away to be members but still are useful to know about, NCIS officers or presidents of other NCIS societies near you. The third list is useful for incoming officers, for your own members looking for community resources, and also for answering inquiries from aspiring independent scholars.
For example, I have often been able to explain to correspondents from northern Washington state that they live too far away to attend our meetings, which are all held in the Portland metropolitan area, but I can also refer them to other independent scholars who live closer to them because I have kept their names from earlier inquiries. Needless to say, I also often refer people with questions to our own members who are working on similar topics. A list of current research for your members is very helpful for this purpose .This is also the sort of information that is often exchanged at our meetings, when one scholar advises another on where to go for information on a particular project. I wish I had kept a list or book at meetings where this could be written down at the time, and kept for later use. It is particularly valuable for people who are working on local history, but can cover all sorts of topics. Incidentally, another way to compile such information would be to ask your members to write up a short account of their favorite local resources for this book or for a newsletter (each account could then be saved for a later file).
I have to admit that I have never organized (2) and (3) into separate files myself, partly because our group is so small and partly because I am too scatterbrained, but it will really save a lot of time and effort in the long run if you are fairly orderly in the beginning, as I have learned the hard way. Information of this sort becomes an extremely valuable asset over time, and eventually, access to all this information can make your group very useful and attractive to potential members.
I hope that no one will be reduced to hand addressing hundreds of post cards before each meeting! A computerized data base is obviously the simplest way to keep track of your members, even if there are only three of them to start with, but there are also fairly easy ways to simplify the task without using a lot of equipment. You can make out a file card for each member and put it in a recipe box. Make sure to have telephone numbers, addresses, and research interests listed for each potential member. It is a good idea to note dues payments on these cards by writing in the date dues were received. One advantage of a file box over a computer is that it saves incoming presidents from having to reenter data into their own computers or trying to figure out how to download the information, and, of course, presidents may not have their own computers and end up having to make out file cards or lists anyway.
Even if you meet at a fixed date and time, be sure to send a notice to every member before every meeting. I have a theory that brightly colored paper is less likely to get lost on a cluttered desk, so all our notices are neon, but postcards or even little slips of paper will do. To simplify the addressing, go out and purchase a box of sheets of stick-on mailing labels. If it comes with a template, it is worth making a few photocopies of the template for experimental purposes. If you have a computer and printer, you can probably manage to find a way to print out address labels direct from a database, but I found this to be one of the most time-consuming and frustrating activities I have ever engaged in! However, it is possible to type out the list of addresses from your computer and then photocopy it onto a sheet of address stickers. If you can't get the spacing right, it may be simpler to cut and paste the names and addresses until you are satisfied than to try to fix it on your computer--at least until you have a lot of labels to do.
If you have neat handwriting, you can simply take a template, put it under a blank sheet of paper, and write out the labels on the blank sheet between the lines of the template. When it is time to send out a mailing, Xerox your master sheet(s) onto the sheet of labels.To make changes, paste a clean address label over the entry that needs to be changed, or simply "x" out the old address and add a new one at the end of the sheet. Keep these two pieces of paper, together with the box of labels, and as members move or new members come in, you can simply write out the additions on your master sheet. The labels don't need to be in any particular order, as long as you are sure that you have the right number of labels. Be sure to keep a separate set of cards or an updated alphabetical list of members somewhere else. Every so often, you will want to make a new master sheet.
I have also found it simpler to buy stamps in sheets of 50 or 100 at a time, and charge the cost to the group at the time of purchase. Once purchased, this sheet belongs to the organization, and I keep it separate from my own stamps, together with the rest of the group's mailing materials. That way, no one has to count envelopes for each mailing! It is also possible to run ordinary file cards through many Xerox machines and printers. You can print addresses and messages directly on each card, and save on the cost of postage, if you can figure out how to format your equipment properly and if you can manage to get them through the printer/copy machine without jamming. Sometimes copy shops can help with some of the technical problems.
It is also possible to print flyers with an address on one side and the information on the other, or to stick a mailing label on the blank side of the sheet. The flyer is then folded in thirds and taped or stapled for posting. I myself do not like to do this, because it is no less expensive than sending a sheet in an envelope and it is more likely to get damaged in transit, to be tossed out without being opened, or to tear when it is opened.
If the notice is simple, you can save on the cost of photocopying by typing it out twice, or even more, on a single sheet of paper. Each sheet that is copied then contains several copies of the message. Run them through a paper cutter and send them off. However, I strongly recommend that scholars try to purchase a private copier: it will easily pay for itself in the long run.
Sending notices by e-mail is MUCH cheaper and faster than doing it by snail-mail, even if some of your members do not have e-mail and have to be send separate mailings. Most mail software now provides a utility that will enable you to construct a simple list of names and to e-mail everyone on the list simultaneously. If your list is long, you should ask your internet service providers for assistance. Many providers offer free list service. It is a good idea to find a utility that will suppress the long list of names and addresses in the header of a mass-mailed notice. Now that about two-thirds of our local group receives notices by e-mail, I have also found that it is an easy way to share notices and announcements that I used to bring to our meetings. I also post the most important of these to our website.
If you agree to continue to get together, even at a first meeting, you should take up a small collection for expenses such as postage, so that the person who does the work doesn't feel doubly burdened. Our dues are only $5.00 a year, but so far that has covered our costs for postage for five annual meetings, NCIS membership at a dollar per member, registration with the state, and small incidental expenses. The organization is getting a bit of a bargain because I have a complete home office and don't pass on the expenses of paper or envelopes, which I buy by the case for my own use, or for copying. However, if you are planning a large public meeting, or a local conference or exhibit, you will at least need seed money in reserve. If you need to rent a room for meetings, or to provide refreshements at each meeting, expenses will also be greater. Our members take turns providing homes and refreshments for meetings. You should also discuss whether you want to try to collect money to help with the expenses of sending someone to NCIS board meetings or the natioanl conference.
To present even the minimal appearance of being businesslike, you need a treasurer from the outset, although ours has few duties.We have found that at least one local bank offers free checking accounts to associations such as ours, which is very useful since we maintain a small balance. The treasurer and the president sign the account cards, and these should be changed when the officers change.Because our dues are so small, we used to collect $10.00 every two years or whenever we ran out of money. I do not recommend this, however, because the annual collection of dues, however small, helps weed out people who are not really interested in staying on your mailing list. It makes a big difference in your return rate if you send out a self-addressed envelope with your dues notice. Be sure to include the amount due, the address to which it should go, and the way the check should be addressed on the dues notice. It is worth keeping track of ex-members and asking them periodically if they are interested in re-joining.
The collective advice of those who have set up a federal tax-exempt organization is that it is not worth the effort for a small organization, since it usually involves hiring a lawyer or persuading one to help with the application on a pro-bono basis. Tax-exempt status with the I.R.S. means being certified as a "501(c)(3)" organization, and is not easy to achieve. If you are interested in pursuing this, get a copy of Anthony Mancuso's book The California Non-Profit Corporation Handbook, (Berkeley, CA: Nolo Press, 1979, 4th. ed. rpt., 1986, new ed. 1994).
It is not too difficult for societies serving independent scholars to show that they qualify as a public benefit corporation as a literary or educational association, provided they offer activities that are open to the public. However, the paperwork is quite burdensome, there are continuing restrictions governing the way the association operates (for example, minutes must be taken at meetings) and the actual benefits are limited. Moreover, NCIS is registered, and in some cases may be able to assist members of affiliates to pursue activities that require such registration. Probably the most important of these is administering certain grants. Although small groups are unlikely to benefit from seeking the federal tax exemption, it is worth looking into registration as a non-profit association in your state. The paperwork is often much less involved and the costs are small. Moreover, this will help outsiders see you as a stable, recognized, and "respectable" group, and may help people to find you.
Whatever you do, have fun! If everyone enjoys the experience, even a very small group will be successful for a long time.