Interview with Gary McLelland – Chief Executive, Humanists International

by | December 17, 2019
Gary McLelland, Chief Executive, Humanists International (formerly International Humanist and Ethical Union)

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Gary McLelland has been the Chief Executive of Humanists International, formerly the International Humanist and Ethical Union, since February 2017. He has worked for the Humanist Society of Scotland as the Head of Communications and Public Affairs, the Board of the European Humanist Federation, and the Board of the Scottish Joint Committee on Religious and Moral Education. Also, after meeting in Iceland in person in May/June of this year, he is one of the funniest Scottish storytellers known to me, personally.

Here we talk about his background, and some updated work of Humanists International.

*Interview conducted in June, 2019.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: We have been in the midst of a brand change from the “International Humanist and Ethical Union” into “Humanists International.” You are the Chief Executive of Humanists International. What was the reasoning behind the rebranding of the international umbrella organization?

Gary McLelland: The reasoning behind the rebranding behind Humanists International, or what was then called the International Humanist and Ethical Union. Primarily, it is a long, a long and unwieldy, name. The name was a product of a committee decision in 1952. Most people will recognize, certainly, for the modern age; it is a long and complicated name. The consequence of having such a long and complicated name. It has been invariably shortened and abbreviated to IHEU. 

It is a noise that does not come readily to many people. The abbreviation sounds different in many different languages. Also, when it is shortened to IHEU, it creates a barrier to humanism. I remember first becoming involved in the international humanist scene many years ago. It took some explaining as to what IHEU was and how it differed from IHEYO, which is the International Humanist and Ethical Youth Organisation. It produced a barrier to what we do.

It also represents a missed opportunity to say the word “humanist” or “Humanism.” That is one of the reasons behind the change. Another reason, I think there is a new energy on professionalization, improving, and expanding the work of the organization in the past few years. I think it is really a strategy that we should change on the way up and not on the way down. We thought this was a good opportunity for the organization to re-focus itself, to take another opportunity to restrategize, and to figure out what it is that we are for and what we want to do.

Part of that, of course, was strategic in terms of thinking about what is Humanists International for and what do we want to do. It is represented in the new language of the brand. In that, Humanists International is part of a diverse, global humanist movement. It is important as the heart of the movement. In part, Humanists International is a leader of the movement. We try to lead on campaigns and policy areas. But we are also the network and the umbrella between the movement.

So, we are a democratic forum. The opportunity to debate and discuss policies and ideas to decide on the future of our coordinated humanist movement. It is quite a lot of things to be doing. So, we think that this new brand, Humanists International. Obviously, part of this is the new visual identity with the new lovely colour, which we have named “International Raspberry” along with the logo and styling. Hopefully, it will hold us in good stead for these tasks that we have ahead of us.

That is the main reason for wanting to think about a rebrand at this stage.

Jacobsen: Did the rebranding come with role tasks and responsibility changes for you? If so, what? If not, why not?

McLelland: So, yes, one of the main jobs for me, on the rebrand, is like most of my role in the organization. I am a facilitator. I facilitated the consultation happening a year before my appointment. I continued the facilitation with all of our members, individual supporters around the world, likeminded organizations, and organizations that share goals and aims, with our staff and board, and some others, including experts in PR (PR firms) and design (design agencies). 

It is taking all the information and boiling this down to something to implement. This process began way back in 2016 in the General Assembly in Malta. There was a discussion held about our name and whether or not people, our members, thought that it was appropriate and helpful, or whether they wanted to change it. Very clearly, from the members back then, they wanted to change it. Another more detailed period of the consultation came at the beginning of 2017.

We asked, ‘What are the words, feelings, and ideas that you think are related to the work that we do? What are the scope and purpose our work? This, again, was all synthesized down. We used various tools to analyze what the feedback was. This was around about the time that I was appointed in February 2017. One of the very useful tools was the Word Cloud. We fed back all the data from several hundred responses and tried to highlight what the most commonly used words and phrases were, handily enough, that emerged from the data were “Humanists” and “International.” 

It became clear that this could be the way forward. The next stage was to consult the General Assembly or our AGM. It is the worldwide forum of the humanist movement about these stages. We put forward a motion in 2017 to say, “Okay, this is the result of the consultation. That we change our name to Humanists International.” That was approved by the General Assembly in 2017. One thing I did say to the General Assembly in 2017 [Laughing]. In retrospect, I am very glad I did. I said, “We don’t want to be bound to a specific timeline.” Many people know that we have only 5 members of staff at Humanists International, which is very few people to try and run an organization with a global scope and reach.

I knew that it was going to take us some time to implement these changes to the high standard that I expect and I know that our members expect of the organization. At the end of 2017, and the beginning of 2018, it was really the time to recruit an external consultant to manage the redesign and rebrand. We ended up getting two agencies. We got one design agency to lead on the development of the brand. We got one agency to lead on the development of the website, written materials, and so on. 

This was in 2018, in May. We got a sign-off from the Board about the new brand. We had a presentation on what the new brand could be. On May, 2018, we settled on the “International Raspberry” colour and design. Then from May to the end of 2018, the next big job was to redesign the website This was a much bigger job than most people realize. Although, we don’t have a members database or a members forum on our site. We have a lot of information. 

There is a lot of content on the history of the organization. One thing that I was keen to see is that we upload and make available a searchable database with all of our policies. I would recommend anyone interested in the organization to look at the policy database. This shows you all of the statements, positions, and campaigns that we have taken on since 1952. I think anyone who is involved in the movement will feel incredibly proud of themselves if they read the ideas and campaigns that we are challenging, which is long before it became popular by other communities and organizations.

It is something that I am really proud of. All of this hard work, which was mainly led on by Bob Churchill, the Director of Communications and Campaigns, culminated in the launch of our new brand in February, 2019. This went incredibly well. I think partly because we had a very long lead time. We tried to make sure that our members were consulted on in quite a lot of detail, so we had a seamless change. Before the launch, a week before, we had a soft launch. We had a video on Facebook, which was a preview of the new brand to come.

This was an idea that we borrowed from Humanists Guatemala. We have a ‘glitcher.’ We have a video showing the old brand fading out with the hint of the new brand coming in behind it. This was to soften people up to the idea that we were changing brands. Of course, changing an organization with such a long history, of Humanists International, it has been a brand held in very high esteem. We are an organization that speaks about human rights abuses at the United Nations.

We are consulted by governments and their policies. We are asked to speak at expert panels. So, this is something that we had to do with a certain amount of dignity and care to make sure that we didn’t lose that respect and dignity that the organization has. So, that was my role, basically. It was to try and oversee, and to act as the web, to connect all of the different groups and audiences together, which is to bring them on board with these changes. I think, although, people will agree the rebrands went very well.

I am very grateful to our staff and Board for the work that went on behind the scenes.

Jacobsen: What were the important changes as the organization transitioned into Humanists International?

McLelland: As I said, one of the important changes was to make sure that we respected the dignity and status of the organization. The rebrand was to have this fit for the 21st century, which was engaging, catchy and could inspire people. But also, we wanted to remain faithful and respectful to the past of the organization, and the dignity, and the history of it. That was, certainly, something that needed preparation. Of course, there are many technical, legal details needing to get right. We are an unusual legal setup.

I am speaking to you from London, where the organization’s administration is based. Most of our staff are based here. But we are an American organization incorporated in New York State as a not-for-profit or a 501©3. We are a foreign company. Although, we, legally, operate in the United Kingdom. We are not formally registered there. Of course, the organization was born in the Netherlands. So, we had tom do technical and legal changes to make this possible, as well as updating different contact records, and so on.

Also, there was a massive amount of IT challenges, as there are. Once again, Bob Churchill took charge of it. It required the creation of an entirely new emailing system, cloud system, and all different IT functions. We decided to go with a fairly, potentially, controversial domain name, which is Humanists.International with “.International” in place of “.com” or “”. It will take people time to get used to it. However, we wanted to be the vanguard of this. There were a lot of things behind the scenes to get the organization ready for that, include getting Member Organizations on board with it.

One thing, I wanted to make sure the American Ethical Union was happy with these changes. Many people think that the use of the term “Ethical” in our previous name was a reference to “general ethics,” or that we wanted to be an ethical organization. While that is partly true, of course, it is truer to say that this refers to a very specific secular movement. It was, to my knowledge, in the United Kingdom and, more recently, in the U.S.A. of the “Ethical Culture” movement. One of the biggest ones remaining is the American Ethical Union.

They, of course, were one of the founding members of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, which was one of the reasons why our name was what it was. I talked to several members of the organization (American Ethical Union) and made the reasoning explicitly clear that they were still valuable members of the movement, but that we needed to shorten the name of it. I am very happy to say that the American Ethical Union accepted the proposals and are very much involved in the organization and the movement.

That was something that we needed to be very much prepared for.

Jacobsen: What were the specific alterations important to the Canadian secular communities?

McLelland: I wouldn’t say there is anything specifically important to the secular communities in Canada. Of course, we have continued to have a good engagement with the members in Canada. We should note Humanist Canada is one of the organizations, which led the way in terms of the naming convention that we see taking hold across humanist organizations across the world. In the last few years, at some point (and I don’t know when), the Humanist Association of Canada changed its name to Humanist Canada.

This has also happened in Guatemala, in Sweden, in the United Kingdom, and in very many other humanist organizations around the world with the name “Humanist” or “Humanists” followed by the name of the country. We noticed Canada did this sometime before us. That was part of the inspiration and reassurance for the changing of the name the way that we did. We still needed to change the name. Specifically, we continue to coordinate with the organizations in Canada with the impressive, important, and the vital leadership role that they have taken with regard to asylum seekers and refugees fleeing persecution for their religion or belief.

Jacobsen: As always, what are the plans for 2019/2020? How can people become involved and donate to Humanists International?

McLelland: The big plans for 2019/2020. Internally, we have a lot of big changes happening in the organization. I have just come back from the General Assembly in Reykjavik, where we made changes to the internal membership rules, democratic participation rules, and the fee structure rules. This is to simplify and make more fair and transparent for the Member Organizations (national humanist organizations) and Associates. For Members, they will have a 1% membership fee. For Associates, they will have a 0.5% membership fee.

This has really been brought in to make it much simpler for people to understand what it means to be a Member of Humanists International in terms of membership financial contribution. Also, we want to make it easier for MOs to participate in the democratic process. Before, in the past rules, it only allowed for a small selection of full members to vote. This was overwhelmingly wealthy, European large members. The changes that we have now brought int will mean more members from the Global South can attend the General Assembly and vote on the future of the organization.

With these new rules that we have brought in, it means that we will have voting members from Latin America. Something that the organization is very proud of, including me. These are some changes happening internally. It will take time to flesh them out – several years – and see the benefits. In terms of the work that we are doing, we continue to expand our growth and development work. Every year, we continue to give out more money than the year before to humanist organizations around the world, including developing countries in the Global South.

This year, for the first time, we are working on European organizations to try and improve and build capacity within the professional network of humanist organizations around Europe. The hope is that this will bring about a virtuous cycle, whereby they can contribute to the international effort by recruiting more members, by stepping up their campaigns and public relations work, and by providing more ceremonies and services to their members. This is a really important thing that we will be doing in the future. Another thing to expect in 2019/2020 is the relaunch of the blasphemy campaign.

This is something that humanists in Canada have been very active and supportive in backing us on the campaign, back in 2015. We’re currently working on a new, exciting strategy to re-energize and relaunch the End Blasphemy Laws campaign. It has become the key campaign for humanists around the world. You can expect a rebranded and relaunched version of the campaign through 2019/2020. Finally, I would say that people can get involved by going to Humanists.International or searching for us on Google.

Go to the website, make a donation, it goes a very long way to help us do the work that we do. Next week, on the 21st of June, it will be World Humanist Day. We will be launching the annual fundraising campaign called the Humanists At Risk campaign. This goes a long way to highlight and help individuals at risk, help those people who are persecuted because of their religion or belief and, hopefully, look forward to a time when we have to reduce the number of people that we need to help in this way.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Gary.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: Gary McLelland.

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