Starting an Aquarium Club
By Tom Lisciandra
Past MASNA Secretary General
So, you’re thinking about starting your own local Marine Aquarium Club? There are so many benefits to having a club in your city—one of the many benefits, making friends with others who share common interests is the first that comes to mind. This article will provide a foundation and serve as a guide to assist in creating your own club. Throughout this article, I examine several scenarios to consider as well as questions which I’ve received from others along my journey with Marine Aquarium Clubs.
DISCLAIMER: Both the Marine Aquarium Society of North America (MASNA) and the author of the document are not part of the legal profession nor should this be considered legal advice. Readers should seek appropriate counsel for your own situations.
Let’s start with a question: what is your personal vision for your club? MASNA’s vision for any club is for two or more like-minded hobbyists coming together on a regular basis to share in the education and advancement of our hobby. From the start, your club should have a message. MASNA places education, ethical growth of marine aquarium hobby, and support captive breeding/propagation efforts at its forefront. Before jumping in with both feet, take some time to plan your club’s direction and message. Feel free to share this with other interested individuals and get their feedback. Clubs are meant to be responsive to their members and should not be viewed as static entities.
Club Types and Leadership
What will be the next steps of your journey? Will you be meeting up as friends/hobbyists for fun or will you go and spend money on establishing a Non-Profit 501(c)(3) with the IRS, incorporating with local state, county and city? Will you set-up a website and/or buy a forum? Either way, there is no single way to build a club; however a few common club types include:
- A small group of people meeting together
- One person or a group steps-up and spends their own money to start a club
- A group of individuals break away from an existing club to create and fund their own club
Let’s dive into these different group types. Gathering a small group of hobbyists can be more of a challenge than expected. For many, a small group starts with a few friends getting together and enjoying the hobby. Personally, I like when the group meets weekly—preferably at a local fish store (LFS). Pizza and drinks can be offered to entice people to come together and share in the fun. This option puts the group in a location where others can listen and join-in the discussions the group is having; the group grows and new friendships evolve. An added benefit to this is there is no real out of pocket cost and the LFS owner may even pick up the cost of the pizza and drinks. Warning: don’t be surprised if this small group grows and one of the two club types below are needed.
The second and third club types go hand in hand with efforts and cost. Starting an organized club will take time to plan and implement leadership and funding to cover the costs incurred by the required permits and documentation provided to government agencies. If the goal is to establish organizational leadership, it is best to decide how the hierarchy will operate. Some clubs choose to establish a Board of Directors. This serves as the club’s leadership and is responsible for managing the club’s daily operations and each director has an equal vote when making a club decision. Another option is to have a single-person to serve as leader. The division of leadership should not be taken lightly as the on-going operation of the organization depends on what is decided upon at this stage. A further analysis of this decision is critical.
In regards to establishing a Board of Directors, it is important to recognize the skills required for each position and the positions ability to uphold the group’s Bylaws. A Board of Directors would typically consist of the following directors or officers: President (the overseer), Vice President (backup to the President), Secretary (keeper of club paperwork, enforcer of the Bylaws and taker of meeting minutes), Treasurer (accounting). It’s always best to have an odd number of directors and other leadership positions in order to prevent ties in voting. Other Director positions to consider are: Membership Director, Sponsorship Director, Webmaster, and Master at Arms. Utilizing a Board of Directors’ leadership is a great way to organize a club that may someday transition to a for-profit or not-for-profit entity. However, there are mixed outcomes to utilizing this hierarchy. One positive allows for the club leadership to withstand leadership changes and continuing to operate unchanged. On the other hand, decision making may happen at a slow rate due to differences in opinions.
An alternate method of leadership is to delegate operational responsibilities to an individual or, as it has become known throughout the hobby, the benevolent dictatorship. Under this scenario, a single person is the sole decision maker. In most cases this person will have the support of other members to carry out daily operations, keeping in mind that decision-making responsibilities remain with the leader. A positive outcome of this process ensures that decisions and actions tend to get done faster when only one person is making the decisions. But, if this person leaves, it can devastate the club.
Bylaws and Articles of Incorporation
Once you have a leadership hierarchy established, the group must create the club’s Bylaws and the Articles of Incorporation. The differences between these two documents are outlined below.
The Articles of Incorporation are the founding documents of the organization and define what the organization will do and who is responsible for the management of the organization. This document is made public at the State and Federal levels. This document is usually created when applying for incorporation, no matter whether it is a for-profit or not-for-profit application. This is usually registered with the state before completing other standard documents; however, some states may require this document to be attached to their application while other states will have you create it online via their website. Either way, the IRS will want a copy of this document when filing for Profit or Non-Profit 501(c)(3) incorporation. Verify this with your legal representative upon completion.
The Bylaws serve as the operating manual of an organization and therefore set the rules for daily operation of the club. Bylaws are public documents and are to be made available for all to see. The document is divided into sections which are individually referred to as articles. I suggest starting the process of drafting these by establishing the organization’s name, a description of the organization, the Board of Directors or single-leader’s job descriptions and responsibilities. Beyond these initial elements, the document should include membership rules, voting rules, meeting schedule, paid membership description, rules and dues and lastly where the monies go if the club fails. Many clubs will defer to Robert’s Rules of Order when the Bylaws fail to cover an issue and add this to their bylaws. When creating your own bylaws, first refer to other Marine Aquarium Organization’s Bylaws. These are usually found online or in forums. Of specific reference, MASNA’s Bylaws can be found here. The Bylaws are also required by the IRS when filing for a for profit company or Non-Profit 501(c)(3). Another consideration is that bylaws are ultimately flexible, providing for growth as needed over time.
To Incorporate or Not?
As previously discussed, incorporating as a for-profit or not-for-profit is an important decision. This choice has associated business risks and will be influenced by both local and federal guidelines. In general, the best way to protect your personal assets and those of the people working by your side is to incorporate. This action separates your “personal life” from the club financially. Again, this document does not convey legal advice; therefore, speaking to someone in the legal profession about this decision is recommended.
Now that the hierarchy, Bylaws and the Articles of Incorporation are complete, what is the next step? Plan meetings, gatherings and events! Get the word out as soon as possible!
A common question for new clubs is, “do clubs need to have meetings?” The simple answer is both yes and no. Depending on the club scenario above, membership meetings may not be necessary. If the club is incorporated, at least a yearly meeting of the officers is required along with meeting minutes. As for when to have meetings, I’ve seen successful clubs host monthly meetings while others are fine with every-other month and even bi-annually in some instances. In fact, some successful clubs do not have meetings at all and only host events. Trial and error may be the best way to come up with an effective schedule. Either way, consistency is key to determining a successful outcome and I would recommend adding meetings to the Bylaws and calling out the meeting frequency with an identified meeting time. A few members will complain about the scheduling of events relative to their personal schedule. Do not fall into the trap of moving meetings around to fix the “squeaky wheel”. As a reference, MASNA has two mandatory monthly meetings for the Board of Directors—a public on the second Wednesday of the month and a private meeting on the fourth Wednesday of the month (this can be found in MASNA’s Bylaws). MASNA also has several active committees throughout the year for different projects and these committees also host meetings. It is easy to see the level of commitment required to ensure a solid organization continues to serve its members.
In my experience, the local, state and federal authorities see your club as a business and you’re expected to treat it as such. Business meetings with meeting minutes will most likely need to be conducted. Most clubs will have both private and public meetings. In the private meetings, the Board of Directors can work on the club’s daily operation and projects. Private meetings manage the planning of projects for announcement to the membership during the public meetings. It is recommended for the Secretary to take meeting minutes during private meetings (many organizations will also record their meetings) for records. Public meetings will include both the membership and the Board of Directors; this is where the membership can learn about projects, club management and get to vote with a majority rule for an outcome. During public meetings, the Secretary should be keeping meeting minutes as well. Defer to your state’s regulations as many states require the public meeting minutes be posted publicly. Some clubs have their public meeting separate from their club activities and others include them at the same meeting; this will all depend on the membership and if they are interested in how the club functions or are just out for a fun time… don’t be surprised if the latter is the reality.
Regardless of how the intricacies are ultimately managed, it is important to keep the club “transparent” to a certain level. This word can cause many issues, can get thrown around, twisted and used to disrupt club business. When it comes to a club’s transparency, matters of bookkeeping/bank account totals, project management, Board of Director votes, decisions that did not require membership votes and anything the membership needs to know are all open to scrutiny. However, the Board of Directors are in place for daily management of the club and unfortunately not everything can meet different interpretations of “transparent”. MASNA recommends the Board of Directors have a statement in place to deal with situations where the word “transparency” is used incorrectly in order to provide accountability but maintain regulation.
Beyond most decisions made by the Board, the general membership does not care about the daily operation of the club. In general, members will be looking forward to participating in activities for socializing, entertainment and education. Planning meetings can be fun and has always been my favorite part of club life. Activities can vary from aquarium related topics to a trip to a bowling alley—there are really no set rules to what activities should be considered. MASNA has prepared another article for activities for successful meetings. The article covers speakers, auctions and other Marine Aquarium Club Meeting ideas. MASNA is a big proponent for education and MASNA Sponsoring Clubs have access to the MASNA Speaker Registry and speaker assistance money via the MASNA Speaks program. These programs are intended to serve as a club resource and to help clubs spend less money for meetings while sharing marine education to members.
The most critical element in determining the success of a meeting is a schedule. It’s important to meet consistently on a specific day of the month and at the same time for each meeting. Establishing the schedule as soon as possible allows members to account for these events in relation to their own busy schedules. Consistency in these meeting times will make stronger participation possible no matter the location. Believe it or not, finding a place to meet can be a challenge. At the beginning of this article, I suggested a small group meeting at a local fish store which can serve as a great setting for your events while supporting local stores at the same time. Building such partnerships is important to the long-term success of our vision. Conversely, booking a larger venue has a different set of challenges and will require diligent planning. Finding a large venue that will donate the space, can guarantee the same time every month and does not have an issue with saltwater can be difficult to find.
Before reaching out to random venues, I suggest contacting a local aquarium (if you have one in your community). Many clubs work side-by-side with their local aquariums and are then ensured a meeting room is permanently reserved for the club. Another venue to consider is local restaurants. Restaurant owners like the associated business that can be guaranteed when a group brings members to their establishment. In consideration of this, many businesses have a public meeting room and will allow clubs to reserve it as long as this is negotiated in advance. Of course it would be recommended to poll the club membership for opinions on this matter as you may find that someone in the club may even donate their office for meeting space. No matter what, be sure to follow the rules of the host venue. Losing a meeting place unexpectedly can devastate a club’s future and will not reflect positively on the group in the larger community.
Another common question for clubs is “should we have a raffle?” This question should be considered carefully and could lead to many unexpected challenges. A note of caution: every state has rules for the management and oversight of raffles. Therefore, make sure you research these mandates, follow them and confirm compliance prior to hosting such events. I happen to live in a state with legalized gambling. As such, the rules for raffles are extensive and legally raffles are only available to local Non-Profit entities. I recommend contacting your legal counsel regarding this matter, especially since these laws can be difficult to understand.
Almost all Marine Aquarium Events have a raffle as it is a great way to help the club grow financially, but where do these raffle items come from? Many vendors are willing to trade their wares for advertising space and some will provide them for free in an effort to gain publicity of their products. The addition of a sponsorship position to the team management will be very helpful. A good Vendor Relations or Sponsorship Director can create relationships between the vendors and the club leading to a source for the donated items needed to provide a successful raffle. What about frags? There are frag companies and garage growers that are always happy to donate to clubs in exchange for opportunities to sell their wares to the membership. With a little work, raffles are an easy source of income and for some clubs, their only income.
“Does my club need paid memberships?” This is also a common question for newly created clubs; however, for the most part, paid memberships typically occur later in a clubs timeline. Determining whether membership dues are necessary ultimately depends on your club’s financial status. The reality of paid membership is that some people will pay for a membership willingly and others will not. The key to promoting paid membership is to offer something to your paid members that non-paid members will find themselves wanting. Early entry access into events, t-shirts, extra raffle tickets and member only sales events are a few things that offer value to their membership. Be sure not to overcharge for membership as most hobbyists will choose a frag over a membership when it comes down to it and pricing should be comparable. It would be wise not to expect paid memberships to support the club, plan your major cash flow elsewhere.
Website, Social Media or both?
Now that you have an operational hierarchy, club documentation, meeting ideas, meeting place, raffles and memberships, let’s talk about an internet presence. Almost all clubs have some sort of Internet presence ranging from a website, a forum, Facebook page, Facebook Group page, Instagram or Twitter account. Honestly, in this era, if your club doesn’t, how will hobbyists find you? Let’s review each platform individually.
Websites are a great way to share your club’s message and provide an easy way for people to find and contact the club. Websites are also great for posting your sponsors banners. Finally, it can be used as an location to host to your web forum, should you choose to utilize one. Websites require a place to serve them out and this usually costs money.
Forums are a place for Hobbyists to post questions, have conversation threads, create blogs and share their opinions. Forums are also wonderful for getting club information to the membership. Most forums are scalable and searchable, making information easy to find. There are different types of forum softwares available. The pricing depends on what features you want and some forums softwares are even free. As always, you usually get what you pay for. For the last twenty-plus years, forums were the most utilized form of communication amongst clubs and hobbyists…that is, until Facebook came into play.
Facebook is becoming a popular form of communication for Aquarists. Reef and Marine Aquarium groups are popping-up daily and with apps for smartphones, Facebook is an easy way to talk to even the most famous of aquarists. The best thing about Facebook Groups, it’s free. However, Facebook groups are not easily searched and repetitive questions are the most complained about issue. Unfortunately, new groups are created online so fast, it’s maddening. It is also difficult to post sponsorship logos within the small space Facebook allows for graphics.
Facebook Pages are good for making a webpage-like environment and sharing the club’s mission and happenings publicly. The big plus here again is that it’s free.
Instagram and Twitter are good for getting info and sharing thoughts to people interested in your organization. They are not going to take the place of a Facebook Group or forum but that was not what they were meant for.
So, what medium should your club utilize? My suggestion, if possible, is a combination of all of them. Everyone has their preference in the digital age and it doesn’t hurt to cater to everyone. An online presence will be a bit to manage and may take many hours to maintain. With this in mind, the next position on the board can come into play: The Webmaster. Be sure the person tasked with this job is capable of working with each of these platforms or is at least willing to learn how to best work with them.
It’s always good to divide the work up and not burden the Board of Directors or single-owner with all the tasks and projects. There will be people in the membership that will step up and help, all you need to do is ask! Dividing-up the work and supervising the results will help to not burn out your volunteers. Be sure to remember to call out these volunteers and give them public credit for their accomplishments.
Membership issues are a constant problem for clubs no matter how long the group has been in operation. Quite simply, some people do not mesh due to egos, difference of opinions, something posted upsets another and occasionally a buying and selling deal goes wrong. No matter the issue, there really is nothing a club can do to stop this from happening, but it can be resolved. When an issue arises between members, it’s almost always done from behind a keyboard—people are brave when sitting behind a computer (I refer to them as Keyboard Ninjas). Trying the following may help to resolve issues once they happen:
- A lack of acknowledgement may stop an issue in its tracks, first try sitting on your hands and see if it escalates.
- If ignoring the issue does not work, try moving the discussion to a private place. All too often other members will help escalate an issue for entertainment.
- If the parties cannot come to terms on their own, try to mediate the issues as a last resort. Rarely does the club come out as a hero in these situations.
- Another thing to try is deleting the argument post. This creates other issues when people feel deleting their words is against their civil rights. Ultimately, the mediums used belong to the club and removing an issue maybe best for the club.
- Banning a problem member is another option and it also comes with its own set of problems. Usually people become upset when someone is banned. Be sure to have a statement ready to release if things escalate.
These are stressful situations and it is best to work as a team to deal with them.
This is a lot to review and may seem overwhelming. With this in mind, honestly, managing a club is very rewarding and fun. A well-planned club will come together better than if you are jumping in and throwing caution to the wind. No matter how you decide to proceed, a small group meeting, Board of Directors managing a club or a single-owner, what is put into a club will determine its outcome.
Keep in mind that most of MASNA’s Board of Directors were and still are in management positions within their local clubs and have experience with all aspects of club life. Collectively, we are here to help. If a question comes to mind, use the “contact us” icon on the MASNA website and one of us will do our best to help answer your question. Lastly, the MASNA Club President’s meeting at the yearly Marine Aquarium Conference of North America (MACNA) is a great place to sit down with other club managers from all over the country and talk shop. The overall success of our hobby depends on the positive community which we develop.