A common question we hear from existing clubs is: “How can we increase member engagement in non-flying activities in our club? This is probably an age-old question for any membership-based organization, but perhaps even more relevant today after several years of forced social-distancing and the ease and lazy convenience of remote meetings has made in-person gatherings something from the past. It is just plain easier to join club meetings using ZOOM or some other online platform. This ticks one box (members meeting together and discussing club business) but it leaves many other boxes blank—such as the pre-and-post meeting chats and stories, enjoying a barbeque together, and just hanging out at the hangar on a Saturday afternoon after the plane wash-and-wax…that is, if you can get enough people to help with the wash-and-wax.
Regular readers of Club Connector will recall that we have written about involvement and engagement on a fairly regular basis…simply because we get lots of requests for help. Rather than regurgitate the earlier articles, please refer to the reference list at end of this article.
So, here we’ll look at a some slightly different angles of the engagement question, all of which have occurred recently in conversations with flying clubs. Now, it is generally true that these conversations are with clubs that have been around for a while, as we usually find that new clubs (say, less than 3-year’s old) are still in their novel phase and members tend to be more naturally engaged.
As with anything, things drift over time and the board of directors may suddenly look around and realize that their club is functioning more like a rental operation than a socially based, active and interactive flying club. You may care the revisit the encyclopedic article “Is Our Club Still Viable” to learn about the ways that clubs drift towards extinction, such that you can take early action!
We’ve been around long enough to realize that there are many ways to shear a sheep, and that different people have different views on essentially the same problem. It is probably no surprise that one of the top reasons why clubs slide down the slippery slope is that members don’t take an active interest in its running—at least that is what club management tells us. Club members have a slightly different perspective and tell us that the board of directors can’t let go and, whether intentionally or not, they essentially block regular members from getting involved and the status quo continues with members getting less and less interested in the running and doings of the club. A third (and certainly not the last) perspective is that member expectations inevitably change as new people join and replace the old guard, but the club stays with its “back-in-the-day” policies, procedures and operations…let alone that gaudy 1960’s gold paint job on the club’s round-gauge C172!
A membership organization without member engagement (for whatever the reason) becomes self-perpetuating, and it takes a lot more effort to make a major shift, rather than taking incremental adjustments over time. This is one reason why we recommend that clubs undertake strategic planning on (at least) a two-year cycle, and that all club members are involved. This should also include reviews of the bylaws, operational rules and other policies that determine the club’s tenor and culture.
We also recommend that the board of directors and (some) officer positions come with term limits, to force new blood into the leadership. We realize that this may not be possible, wholesale, in smaller clubs, but at least exchange positions every now and then. This may sound scary, and some club leaders are genuinely worried that no one will step up and the club will fail, but we have never seen this happen, especially if elections are staggered to ensure continuity. If members truly want the club to succeed, then people will step up…especially if they have not previously been given the opportunity. This gets to the “letting-go” mentioned earlier. Those who have been heavily involved in the club’s management for years may not trust that others can do a good job, or that they bemoan that 20-percent of the people do 80-percent of the work but don’t actually give others the opportunity—along with the training and mentoring—to succeed. As we have written about before, the best thing that club leaders can do is to ensure the longevity of the club–to leave a legacy–even if it means letting others steer the ship, and to match the times and expectations of its ever-replenishing membership
There are some similarities here, with companies. It is well known that the corporate team required to get a start-up underway has to be focused, single-minded and highly disciplined, but that this same team will likely stifle the company as it grows. History also shows that familiarity breeds complacency, and so it is healthy to change leadership every now-and-then to keep things sharp and a little “edgy”. So too with flying clubs!
Anyway…let’s shift gears a bit and look at specific ways in which flying clubs can get members more involved and engaged. We’re not going to talk about types of events or activities as this is well covered in previous Questions of the Month. In fact, it can be poor member participation at club events that often prompts the initial email to us about lack of engagement. The club leadership arrange events, but they’re not well attended. There are some obvious questions to ask here, but we’ll leave them for another time…apart from just a personal perspective, that there are only a limited number of cold-pancake and limp-sausage breakfasts that I can manage in a month. Get creative! See the references at the end of this article for more information and ideas for club events…and go gourmet!
Instead, we are going to look at attitudes and cultural behaviors that very likely impact member interest and engagement.
When we get calls from clubs about member engagement, it is usually framed in a way that strongly implies that the members themselves are at fault for not being engaged. Whilst there will always be some members who just don’t respond (and see later for suggestions on changing this…either step-up or get out…), we actually think that lack of member engagement may be a causal indication of issues with the club itself, and by extension, with club management. Don’t get (too) upset with me here! Believe me, I fully know the dedication and time it takes to be part of the leadership team of a flying club, but perhaps we can do things a bit differently to stimulate engagement as a natural consequence of being a club member, rather than trying to coerce engagement. We’ll also look at the pro and cons of an interesting option that for now I’ll call “mandatory engagement” …keep reading!
Here we go then. (Some of these we’ve touched on earlier in this article, but we’ll include them here for completeness—and don’t forget to check the other references at the end of this article):
- Allow people room to get involved. Human nature is to sit back and complain if others do all the work—who also complain because no one is helping. Give members the chance and the space to step up.
- On this topic, think about keeping a “skills and talents” spreadsheet. Ask members to record their talents such that they can be called on to help when the need arises. Even in flying club, where people are generally “likeminded”, it is truly amazing that members have are so many other interests, hobbies and skills, and we all like to share (and show-off) our skills if asked…so ask!
- Horses for courses. Encourage people with particular experience and skills to stand for specific board and officer positions. At the end of the day, the elections should of course be fair and unbiased, but at least try to fill the ballot with credible candidates.
- No club dictators or royalty, comrades! Impose term limits or at least some sort of required rotation schedule for all positions of influence. Provide training and mentoring as necessary so people are not just “dropped-in” to a position of leadership.
- Hold regular (at least every 2-years) strategic planning sessions. We talk more about this in our popular Flying Clubs Workshop series and in the January 2019 Question of the Month, but the concept is straightforward—ask the membership what they expect from the club and how they will help to achieve it. The “viability” article mentioned earlier looks deeply at this and considers four areas of possible discontent: Financial, Equipment, Membership, Procedures. Reviewing these topics with members on a regular basis will help maintain alignment of the club with its member’s expectations and requirements. Include a serious, line-by-line review of the bylaws and operational rules and strike out anything that is not absolutely necessary. Such documents tend to get bloated over the years to capture every nuance and violation, but rather than trying to cover every eventuality, think about “less is more” by using statements such as “…at the discretion of the board of directors”. This not only makes the rules less prescriptive, but also, hopefully, encourages members to step up to be one of those board members that exercise the said discretion.
- In my club, the bylaws explicitly state that: “Members must be present to vote. Proxy votes are not permitted. Absentee votes are not permitted”. The reasoning is to encourage members to attend club meetings in order to have a direct say, rather than fob-off their vote to a proxy. This also gets around the common issue of not having a required quorum for business to be conducted and voted upon—in which case important issues get pushed back…sometime for extended periods. In fact, our bylaws also state: “The quorum for membership meetings shall be the number of members present”, so further encouraging members to attend meetings.
- Make it easy for members to be more informed and less annoyed, which tend to go hand-in-hand. We’re not talking about newsletters, here, as it could be argued that the more you spoon-feed information by email or other remote methods, the more people will just wait for it to arrive—and then be annoyed when it doesn’t. Newsletters take a lot of time to prepare and are useful for the dissemination of general information, but don’t make the mistake of trying to lobby the membership or try to get to resolution of a complex issue by asking people to respond to a posting in a newsletter.
I recall some years back when the ADS-B mandate hit my very rural club-of-the-time. This was contentious as it involved considerable amounts of money and downtime…and the club was spilt in thirds. A third wanted ADS-B for their flying, a third didn’t see the need for it for their flying, and a third didn’t understand the issue. The only way we resolved this was by face-to-face education, discussion and, well, engagement—and by explaining that this wasn’t so much a matter for us, the exiting members, but for our legacy of doing the right thing to keep the club viable for future members.
- Cater to the current membership but focus on prospective members. What we mean by this is that the leadership team must, of course, be fully aware of what existing members want and expect, but inevitably times, members and expectation will change, and over a relatively small epoch. Our advice is to keep a focused weather-eye on how the club appears to prospective members. Take a deep look at all aspects of the club…planes, attitudes, safety record, grumpy members, outreach…and ask yourself the question…what do we look like to future members? We'll include links to articles that address this at the end of this article.
- A flying club (actually by FAA definition) is a non-profit social/hobby club—it just so happens that we own and fly airplanes rather than, say, play badminton. Furthermore, to keep a club’s aircraft accessible to its members, most will have a membership limit. So, what happens when some members just don’t fly anymore…for whatever reason? Well, if they are not flying, they may well not be otherwise engaged in the club…so they are effectively hogging a coveted slot that someone on the waiting list would love to take…and new members are generally the most engaged. Our advice is to move such members off the flying member list and onto the social member list. More on this, here.
- Similar—but different—is the case of members who only fly the planes. They take no interest in the running or operations of the club, in leadership positions, and they don’t turn up to help with maintenance or plane washes or hangar clean-up days. In a word, they are renters, and a flying club is not a rental outfit. This may sound harsh but get rid of them. A club is a club, and clubs should demand at least a modicum of interest rather than just taking advantage of cheaper rates. You may well have to make a revision of your bylaws to give this power to the board but do it. If members are not involved in the wider aspects of the club, terminate their membership, and replace them with people who will take an active interest.
- Finally, let’s go back to something we mentioned earlier— “mandatory fun”. Many workplaces impose this on their employees. You know, the dreaded “all-hands communications meeting”, where attendance is purely voluntary, but it will be noticed—and noted—if you don’t attend. Should flying clubs demand that members turn up to meetings and events and impose penalties if they don’t? Well, no…forced fun will never result in increased engagement. It’s a bit like “the beatings will stop when moral increases”.
Nevertheless, we know of clubs that build-in some sort of required “service time” as a way to ensure that everyone participates in the activities and tasks that keeps a club humming.
Here’s how it works:
- As part of the terms of membership, club members are required to contribute a certain number of service hours, per quarter. A list is kept of tasks and activities and members are expected to sign-up. This covers things such as scheduled maintenance, wash-and-wax, hangar clean up and so on. Board members and officers fulfill their service obligations by virtue of their leadership positions. This might also encourage more people to stand for elections as they will not have to do some of the more menial tasks.
- Okay, this is great—and most people will take their responsibilities seriously and will fulfill their obligations without complaint or coercion. But—and there is always a but—we just know that other people will not be so diligent and will either forget or will just play the system. We’ve heard of members paying their kids to do their tasks…not really in the spirit of getting members together to increase engagement and mingling!
- So, it appears that there has to be some degree of carrot and/or stick to make this work.On the stick side, we’ve heard of clubs that include service time as an absolute requirement and if members don’t do their hours—just like if they don’t pay their dues—they become “not in good standing”, and access to the club’s planes will be withheld until they catch up. Interesting!On the carrot side, we know of at least one club that provides discounted per-hour usage rates to those members that fulfill their service obligations. Interesting, again!
Let’s now start to bring this to a close. We challenge the perception that lack of member engagement is purely a matter of members not being bothered, and we believe there are key changes that clubs can implement to inspire engagement as a natural occurrence of membership. Now, we usually measure engagement simply by participation, but there are other factors which, if addressed will create a more engaged and interested membership, so driving participation…we have addressed some of these factors above.
Now for your homework. Take a hard look at your club and ask yourself some tough questions…then act on the answers!
- Do we have a flying club or a rental operation?
- What are the objectives of the club? Are they written down?
- Is there a common purpose beyond just lower-cost access to nice aircraft?
- Is the club providing what members want…and how do you know?
- Is the club operating equipment that all members actually want to fly?
- Are members happy with the current leadership team?
- Do you have the right members and how do you select new members?
- Is there an onboarding process with a probationary period to weed-out renters?
- Do you include service hours as a requirement of membership—and how do you enforce it?
One final thing. When going through this exercise, think not about what your club can do for you, but what you can do for your club. Think about the legacy you would like to leave:
- Make the club attractive and accessible for all members—present and future.
- The most important job for board members and club officers is training your replacements. Run a tight ship but be ready to let go.
- Members—enjoy your club and support it. Respect the club’s equipment. Aim to give more than you take.
As always, fly lots and fly safely!
Getting members involved:
HOW CAN WE GET MORE MEMBERS MORE INVOLVED WITH THE CLUB?
HOW CAN WE GET MORE MEMBERS MORE INVOLVED WITH THE CLUB? (EVENTS AND ACTIVITIES)
HOW CAN MY CLUB GO ABOUT STRATEGIC PLANNING?
Club events and activities:
BEYOND THE HONEYMOON: HOW DO WE KEEP THINGS INTERESTING?
HOW CAN MY CLUB HOST A YOUNG EAGLE EVENT?
HOW MAY FLYING CLUBS INVOLVE THE LOCAL COMMUNITY?
HOW CAN MY CLUB HOST AN EVENT?
HOW CAN WE IDENTIFY SOME GOOD GUEST SPEAKERS FOR OUR CLUB MEETINGS?
How does the club present to non-members?
HOW CAN OUR CLUB PRESENT WELL TO NEW MEMBERS?
WHAT SHOULD PROSPECTIVE MEMBERS LOOK FOR IN A FLYING CLUB, AND WHAT SHOULD A CLUB LOOK FOR IN A NEW MEMBER?
WHAT CAN CLUBS DO TO ATTRACT YOUNGER PILOTS? (YOUNGER PILOTS SPEAK OUT EDITION)