Starting Your Own
by Bill Kinney,
Bucks County Marine Aquarium Society
So you want to start a club for Marine Aquarists? You’re wondering where to start? Maybe you’re wondering if you’re nuts? Well, we’re here to help! You have to do the work and a lot of the thinking but we might be able to help you avoid the various potholes that others have fallen into, and maybe make the whole experience more fun.
Remember that there is no one way of doing something. If you don’t follow our advise you will not automatically fail. You may have found a better way of doing things, or we might not understand your local situation as well as you. Unless you’ve been a member of a club like this before some of the tasks will seem overwhelming, but charge on. Have Fun! But before you schedule your first meetings things may go smoother if you think about some questions first:
Are you going to set out to create the largest organization of fish hobbyists in your state? Or do you just want to meet a couple of people who share your interest in fish? Are you a take-charge organizer, or will you be looking for someone else to help with the logistics of running meetings and raising money? All of these kinds of questions would be best handled if you do a little soul searching and set your schedule and goals to match.
There are all kinds of aquarium keepers, from the struggling beginner with a couple of goldfish to the most advanced breeders and reef keepers. You have to decide who your audience is going to be and how you can best serve them. What are your interests? What kind of programs will the local merchants support? What’s popular in your area?
There are few clubs that have come up with the magic formula that keeps both fresh and salt water hobbyists equally interested and active. There are not many hobbyists who are very active in both fresh and salt water aquaria, not enough to maintain a club by themselves. One thing that you will learn is there are three kinds of members: The doers, who come to executive meetings and help with the organizing; The Regulars, who come to every meeting no matter the topic; and The Specialists who only come to meeting with agendas that interest them. No club can do well if a large part of its membership only shows up occasionally.
Finding a balance of programs that appeal to all is a great challenge. Keeping the interest of The Regulars is the most important thing that you can do since without them there is no club.
How many of you crazy organizers are there? If you are all by yourself we suggest finding at least one or two people who are as crazy as you are who can help with various chores, because no matter how small your club there is always something that needs doing.
If you live in a major metropolitan area, you will have many people and many more ways to reach them. If you are more rural, you will have a smaller pool of potential members and they may be much more spread out, something to consider when scheduling meetings (work/school nights might be a problem). Your pool of merchants who can help with costs of running a club will also be smaller, but on the bright side you are also not likely have any competition.
If you are going to start a club you need to begin somewhere. We would suggest that your local fish stores are your best bet for moral support and publicity. If there are no clubs currently active in your local area you may need to look around for that special merchant who understands how important hobbyist organizations are to keeping people active in the hobby (and buying more stuff!).
Finding a Meeting Place
For the small startup club, you’ll have to use your imagination. You don’t want to spend any money, but you want a nice place to meet that’s convenient and that people have heard of and can find. Well, unless you’re very lucky your first meeting will be in your living room (assuming your spouse agrees). Better hope you don’t get 60 people to that first meeting! Other places that you may consider are at a local pet shop. This can be a problem, because then it can make recruiting support from other local merchants difficult, you have to decide if this course is worth the cost.
Other places to look for space are your local park may have a nature center with facilities that they may be willing to let you use. Museums, public aquariums, schools, libraries, and local or county government buildings may also be sources of good meeting rooms.
Initially your meeting schedule may be dictated by the availability of meeting facilities. Don’t worry too much about the exact time, as long as it is regularly scheduled. Successful clubs have meetings scheduled on all nights of the week. Some clubs cancel meetings during the summer, others don’t. It’s up to you and what you think will go best in your area. Meeting sites can be a real challenge for many rapidly growing clubs–once you find a good meeting site be sure to take good care of it, follow all the rules and leave it cleaner than it was when you got there. Losing your facilities on short notice can be a real killer.
Avoid being a “discount club” don’t insist on a discount for your members. If a merchant offers it, great thank him profusely, but don’t ask! It will sour your relations more than it’s worth. Wait until you have 500 members and can really bargain!
Do everything you can to have your members announce themselves as members when they are in the local stores. This can be tough since most people do not have a first name relationship with the owners of the local stores and they may feel a little shy striking up a conversation. But this goes a long way to convincing your sponsors that your club is for real with real members, who buy things!
Many people love to talk about their fish. You can get some top speakers for little more than the cost of their airfare. If you don’t mind listening to a sales pitch, you can even get some for free. The best program is one run by Tetra who sponsors some of the best speakers on both salt and fresh water topics. The percentage of the travel cost that is paid depends on how many people you have at the meeting, and Tetra pays the full honorarium for the speaker. Be sure to write to Tetra for the latest details on this program.
But until you have some money you will surely be relying on “local talent”. Don’t worry, almost everybody has something useful to say. In fact visiting other people’s tanks can be one of the best ways to learn new ideas. By setting up connections with other hobbyists and clubs, through organizations like MASNA, you can get the straight scoop on who are the good speakers, when you would be better off spending you money on something else.
First rule is : Don’t be shy! If you read an article that you liked or heard about someone’s research that you thought would be interesting, find their phone number, call them up and ask them to speak! They will be flattered that you think that much of their work! Some people can take a couple of calls to convince that you really want them and will make them feel at home. There is a fine line between being persistent and being annoying.
A good agenda for the general meetings of the club is to have a brief welcome and announcements, then the main speaker or presentation, a short break for coffee and refreshments, then back with raffles, auctions, and any remaining business. Try to keep the organizational discussions to a separate “Executive Meeting” held a week or so before the main meeting, most of the members are not interested in the debates about future pro-grams, status of the treasury, etc. Always invite everyone who is interested to the executive meetings, you’ll need all the help you can get! In fact one of the best ways to encourage detailed involvement is to issue personal invitations to members, along with a phone call inviting them and reminding them of the time and place.
The toughest part! Here are some things that various clubs have done, you will have to judge for yourself what will work for you and your members:
Collect donations from local merchants and sell raffle tickets at your meetings. This requires a good relationship with the local stores. Be sure to give your most reliable and diplomatic member the job of collecting the donations!
Similar to a raffle, but the prize is cash. Tickets are sold and half the money is given to the holder of the winning ticket, half to the club’s treasury. Kind of like your state lottery, but with better odds!
These can be real money makers for larger clubs. With all the members given a chance to clean their fish rooms and bring in the stuff they have accumulated along with whatever donations you can scrounge up you can really clean up. A warning–a poor auctioneer will KILL your auction! A good auctioneer with a quick wit can get people to bid on things that they would never pay “real” money for, and go home having enjoyed themselves. Another warning: don’t go out and buy things to auction. Having to make a “minimum” price for the club to come out ahead leads to begging on the part of the auctioneer if things are slow, and that makes for a very unpleasant auction for all concerned!
Don’t charge admission for your members, it will only give them a reason to skip a meeting. One plan is to charge only non-members who want to come and see a popular speaker. (One club charges non-members admission only when they have speakers like Julian Sprung or Martin Moe).
Remember why you have the money: To spend it! It doesn’t do any good to have a huge treasury unless you spend it on things that interest the members. Some of the best clubs rarely have more than a couple of months expenses in the bank, they spend money, which attracts members, which makes more money, and so on.
Finally, don’t get your personal money mixed up with the club! Don’t loan money to the club and expect it back. If the organization is having trouble with money to the extent that it needs your help to bail it out, it is unlikely to be able to pay you back any time soon. So if you have to spot the club some cash, consider it a gift, anything that comes back is found money. Finally, it should be obvious, but never, never, NEVER “borrow” money from the club, that’s theft and you can go to jail, even if you really mean to pay it back!
You need to show up in your members mailboxes before the meeting, even if only with a postcard. If your membership is small, phone calls to everyone reminding them that the meeting is coming up can be the best way to ensure reliable attendance. We don’t all have good social secretaries reminding us that tomorrow is the third Thursday of the month and time for the fish meeting!
One strategy that can save on postage costs is to have a newsletter that is available for distribution at the meetings and send postcard reminders before each meeting. This can save a good deal of effort and money. Remember, if you’re going to publish a regular newsletter that the editor has the hardest job in the club!
Posters regularly distributed to your local merchants are one of your best sources of new members. But don’t neglect the more traditional media. Most local papers have some kind of free community bulletin board where they will print your meeting announcements. Cable TV and radio stations have similar arrangements. The best arrangement is to have a short press release that you mail or fax to your local media every month.
Call the editors of your local newspapers. Your aquarium makes a great human interest story–with great pictures! Just let them know that you represent the local aquarium society and several members have tanks that might be of general interest. They get these kinds of calls all the time, and love to have the material. Just be sure that you can quickly line up several people with good looking tanks who will interview well before you call.
No matter where you live there is probably something within day-trip distance that would be of interest to local aquarists. Even if its only a trip to that great store in the next city special events and trips play an important part in keeping a club active and interesting. Other ideas include a behind the scenes tour at your local public aquarium (if your lucky enough to live near one). Some public aquaria are more tuned in to the hobbyist than others, but all of them can be a good source of speakers.
The best way to arrange these kinds of things is to give the assignment to someone to organize it, give them a budget and turn them loose. It doesn’t need to be a fancy deal, a car caravan works as well for the smaller groups as the expensive bus trip for the larger clubs. Charge enough that the cost of the trip is covered if your treasury is small, but don’t try to make much money on these kinds of events. They are the reason that you do all of the dirty work of fundraising!
One person is peace and quiet, two make a relationship, three or more make politics: like it or not. When you get a group of people together, they will not agree on everything, that’s human nature. The way that they solve their disputes is what will make your organizational meetings enjoyable give and take sessions, or real drudgery. Only one rule needs to be applied to solve 90% of all problems that may come up during your club’s life: Have Fun! That is the reason you started a club and that is the reason for the club’s existence. If there are conflicts that arise, remind everyone why they are there, and get on with it!