When thinking about “good housekeeping” we are usually referring to the upkeep and operation of a household, and thinking about it, a flying club must consider all of the same factors, as well as additional aspects that apply to member-run, socially based organizations.
Any well-run household would be wise to consider the following:
A flying club would likely add:
After several false starts drafting this article—when I started to detail each of the above points—it occurred to me that what we are really trying to determine is “What defines a healthy flying club?” If we can uncover what makes a club healthy, then we will have also discovered what must be done to ensure a healthy organization going forward…in other words:” What Does Good Housekeeping Mean to Flying Clubs?”
I asked myself the same question, way back in 2018: What are the components that, when taken together, ensure that a flying club is, and will remain, healthy? This led to a formal flying clubs health study during which twelve geographically separated clubs were interviewed. Like with a focus group, we carefully designed questions and moderated discussions. We then created an internal report of our findings (which were fascinating) and we used the results to design three of the modules we regularly present at the ever-popular Flying Clubs Workshops: “Flying Club Management”; “Growing Your Club”; “Engaging Your Members”.
So…given that this month we are talking about “good housekeeping”, it is the perfect time to present the findings of the health study to a wider audience, and to get this useful information out there as part of our ever-growing library of flying club resources.
The goal of the Flying Club Health study was to answer a fundamental question: what defines a healthy flying club? To answer this question, it became necessary to explore club experiences much deeper than had been performed in the past. By interviewing flying club members in person, it would be possible to determine the factors that are common amongst thriving clubs, and—similarly—to identify issues that had detrimental impacts on clubs that are in decline. The hope was that, after outlining the core factors that are common to healthy clubs, we would be able to develop some best practices to promote flying club sustainability and longevity.
Twelve flying clubs were selected and interviewed, with variety in the size of membership, number of aircraft, geographical location, club age, and aircraft type.
The Research Process:
Each club provided at least one officer and one non-officer for interview sessions; the intention was to gather more perspectives than just those of AOPA’s primary points of contact (often club president or secretary). We then led the interviews by posing a variety of questions to clubs—questions that centered on topics ranging from club history and social culture to financial practices and management tools.
Whilst we did draw on a single list of questions during the interviews, it was not used uniformly in each discussion. Specific questions were chosen based upon factors that included the natural course of conversation and perceived relevance to a particular club. At every interview, club members were encouraged to steer the conversation to address any topic they wished, and to not feel constrained by prepared questions.
Without going into too much detail, we took a great of time and effort when structuring the data for further analysis. We recorded every conversation (with permission, of course) and then wrote detailed “field notes” for each interaction. We then created detailed timelines for each club, so we could look for temporal patterns. For example, we found that clubs that had been in existence for around thirty years were destined for trouble unless strong, positive action was taken. We compared this effect with that of a neighborhood…people age out, properties get shabby…and then along comes the next batch of young families to rejuvenate it. A big difference, however, is that the old guard must actually want to see the club rebound and give enough space for new members to pull it off. I could—and will—write so much more about this!
We then constructed a SWOT analysis for each club. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats, and is a well-known method of analyzing an organization during the process of strategic planning. Basically, if you want to change something, you have to know where you are and where you want to be. More on strategic planning is in the January 2019 Question of the Month.
To illustrate, here is an example of a particular club’s SWOT:
Right then, now let’s move onto the guts of this article…the findings:
Common Threads and Themes
Given the small sample size involved in the study, it is important that no attempt was made to draw statistical conclusions from the gathered information. Clubs could not be directly compared, as they differed in many aspects, and were being acted upon by different forces both from without and within. This stated, we were able to identify a number of common themes.
Theme #1: The Importance of People
In speaking with members of very healthy clubs, and members of those clubs that had struggled in recent years, a common factor was frequently cited as being of paramount importance to both: people.
The majority of clubs were of the same opinion: “Our members are honest, they work hard for the club, and they take an immense interest in it. In general, it is our members that make this club great.”
On the other hand, several clubs shared the sentiment that “It is amazing what one or two people can do toward destroying any positivity in the club environment.”
Theme #2: Demands on Members’ Time and Change in Culture
A second theme frequent theme revolved around club culture—and indeed the broader culture of the airports at which clubs are located.
Several clubs attributed this change to the many competing demands that exist on members’ time. According to one club, members are often too busy to take on club duties.
Rather than lament over times when club members would just hang out at the airport all day putting the world to rights, it became clear that successful clubs realize that they live in a changing world and change with it. Healthy clubs know that they are just one aspect of members’ busy lives and so club business, as well as socializing, needs to be efficient, effective and sensitive of everyone’s time.
It is not necessarily that a social club’s culture should radically change, but it must be cognizant of the pace of modern life and adapt accordingly. This is one reason why the Pipes and Slippers Flying Club is unlikely to be attractive to younger pilots! (See the November 2022, December 2021, October 2021 Question of the Month articles, and Flying Clubs Radio editions 33, 24 and 21, for more on this topic).
Theme #3: Clubs Do Not Mature in a Straightforward Manner
Another theme that became crystal clear is that clubs do not grow or change in a linear manner. We might think more established clubs would be more likely to have vibrant social cultures or established safety programs when compared with than newer clubs, but this is often not the case. Instead, clubs seem to grow and decline in a series of cycles, often going through cultural shifts as they do. These nonlinear patterns make sense - after all, regardless the age of the club itself, the membership continues to ebb and flow.
Beyond the Analysis: Inductive Ideas
After we analyzed the results of the health study, we thought hard about how to present our findings. After a bit of deliberation, we hit on the idea of a “hierarchy of needs”, where success is based on a solid foundation with increasing levels of sophistication and refinement. Let’s poke at this a bit more…
Maslow’s Hierarchy and Club Health
In 1943 developmental psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced a theory that depicted human needs as hierarchical levels. Whilst lower levels in the hierarchy represented essential needs that must be met to avoid growing discomfort (for example, biological and physiological needs), higher levels—such as esteem—can follow over time, but only after lower-level needs have been met. Maslow termed the essential needs that are low on the hierarchy, as deficiency needs, and he labeled higher-level needs as growth needs. Growth needs are those that do not stem from a lack of something, but instead from a desire to grow, and they require that the lower levels have been met in order to “open-up” the opportunity for growth. Interesting!
A framework like Maslow’s can be used to examine some of the different factors that constitute a healthy flying club—that is, a club that is functioning well and shows promise of continuing to do so into the future. So, from the results of the health study, we created a hierarchy of needs for flying clubs.
Like in Maslow’s hierarchy, lower tier needs—such as leadership and basic structure—must be satisfied before a club can focus on higher tier needs, like a formalized safety or social culture. This is due largely to the idea that the hierarchy is based upon contingency, with higher tier needs being contingent upon lower tier needs having been met. If lower-level needs are a bit flakey, then it is more likely that ideas for upper-level needs will quickly wither and fade - "flash in the pan" ideas.
Now, our hierarchy is probably just one of many, and different clubs may well have different levels. Fair enough, but this will give you a starting point. The purpose of the framework is not to precisely present any one need in relation to another, but rather to broadly illustrate how different needs (and their dependencies) can be approached over time. As Maslow stressed, the exact order of the needs should be flexible due to varying circumstances. It should also be made really clear that elements higher-up the hierarchy—such as a formalized safety culture—should in no way be considered less important. They only appear higher because they are less foundational; a club without safety meetings could (perhaps) go on for years, whilst a club without adequate financial management will very quickly find itself in an unsustainable position.
Again, borrowing from Maslow, we labeled those needs lower in the hierarchy, such as leadership, as deficiency needs. If there are problems with any of these, a club’s very survival could be in peril. Higher level needs, or growth needs, are those that should be met in order for a club to grow and flourish in the future.
Here is our Hierarchy:
The Hierarchy Examined
As was mentioned previously, a common theme from many of the interviews was that people play an essential role in club health. Clubs that are thriving attribute their success to the people involved, and those that are struggling tend to attribute their troubles to the same factor. For this reason, people form the first level on the nine-element flying club health hierarchy scale. Simply put, if a club does not contain a group of members who are interested in making the club work, then it will not—people are the foundation. Sort-of obvious, really!
After people, the next level is leadership. Simply put, good people are necessary in a club to ensure that good leaders are available and chosen, and this leadership is essential to every other element in the hierarchy. There are several fine lines here. Leadership is different from management, and it doesn’t diminish the fact that flying clubs should have strong socially based governance with democratically elected officers. Whilst clubs and companies share many similar operating requirements, a major difference is “position hierarchy”. In a company, there are employers and employees; in a flying club there are equal members. Good luck imposing the wisdom of the latest wunderkind management expert on a socially based flying club!
Structure and processes include not only the club’s legal structure, but also the strength of its bylaws and the procedures for day-to-day operations. As with people and leadership, a club’s structure and processes are vital to its health. As with leadership, the structures and processes must change over time in order to stay relevant, fresh and viable.
Strong financial management practices are important for any club. While some aspects of club life—such as social culture—can decline without posing an immediate existential danger to the club, this is not the case with finances. This is why I unambiguously state that the treasurer is the most important board/officer position in any club. I’ve written elsewhere that it is good practice to rotate board and officer positions on a regular basis to avoid becoming complacent and stale but be very careful with the position of treasurer! More on this can be found in the July 2023, October 2022, May 2021, and February 2020 Question of the Month articles.
The quality, quantity, and types of aircraft that a club has a major impact on the vitality of that club. Naturally, different types of aircraft will attract different prospective members. Whilst aircraft such as Cessna 172s and Piper Archers check the “do-many-things-reasonably-well” box, high performance aircraft are likely to attract more experienced aviators. A club with a Cessna 172, a Cessna 182, a Piper Lance and a Cirrus SR20 will appeal to diverse types of pilots, which can greatly increase the educational and social culture of a club.
Changes in aircraft also have strong and measurable impacts on a club’s membership and culture. Yes, it may sound like a good idea to bring in a Bonanza to supplement the club’s existing Cessna 152, but you’ll need to think well beyond just the good things, as there will be members who don’t want to go down that path and may well leave the club. On the other hand, the club may become more attractive to a wider range of pilots, so perhaps it will recover and flourish. Much more on this here, here and here.
One major factor of club health that emerged during the interviews involves the airport’s geographical location. This was made especially clear during discussions with clubs that encountered problems due to their location—for example, on increasingly busy airports, or very rural locations with low pilot density. This can have big impacts on a club’s social culture, but also on its basic ability to function if members stop attending meetings, only fly occasionally, and so on.
It may well be that over time, and for varied reasons, a club’s location may become a major factor in its future viability. In addition to the above, a club may suffer threats from creeping urban development with the associated noise and other environmental complaints, or a new GA-unfriendly airport manager, or a flight school that doesn’t understand the difference between a club and a school. Talking of which…
The “airport ecosystem” refers to all of the different participants in the airport environment and the manner in which they relate to one another. These might include other flying clubs, FBOs, commercial operators, flight schools, ATC, the airport authority, and other parties. During the interviews, clubs reported mixed experiences with airport ecosystems. Some spoke of good relationships with others on their airports. Others reported being treated as “second class citizens” and had relationships with airport management that ranged from strained to hostile. This topic is higher on the hierarchy of club needs because there does not seem to be a significant correlation between the health of an airport ecosystem and the health of a club. Some very healthy clubs reported that conditions at their airports were not ideal. By contrast, some struggling clubs reported that their airport ecosystems were excellent.
Looking at the results of the interviews, the quality of an airport ecosystem can be regarded as something of a “luxury good.” When an airport ecosystem is healthy, it serves as a positive influence on a club, and might even foster club growth. A healthy ecosystem does not imply that a club will be healthy, however. The ecosystem is external to a club and, as such, can have only limited influence on its success. On the other hand, whilst an unhealthy environment at an airport can be detrimental to a club’s activities, it will necessarily not lead to the demise of an otherwise healthy club.
Formalized Safety Culture
While all the clubs interviewed addressed safety in some manner—even if it is in the course of informal member conversations—fewer than half reported having any kind of formal safety programs in place. While some clubs have never had a formal safety regimen, others had programs that dissolved over time. Sometimes this was the result of members becoming busier or of a key member leaving and no one else stepped in to take over the program.
The reason that a formal safety culture is high on the hierarchy of club needs is that other key needs must be met for it to be successful. For example, one particular club struggled to implement a safety program because prior attempts consistently met with resistance from club members and officers. Without buy-in, it is unlikely that such a program will succeed. This being stated, it is vital that clubs adopt a safety program, as doing so will likely make members more safety conscious and, importantly, help control the spiraling costs of insurance—take a listen to Flying Clubs Radio Edition 49 “Insurance Revisited”.
Instead of correcting a flagging safety culture after an accident has occurred, it is important that clubs be positively active in building safety programs by electing qualified safety officers and holding regular (mandatory?) safety meetings. I highly encourage all safety officers to become FAASTeam Safety Representatives—call your local FSDO and ask to speak with the FAASTeam Program Manager or give me a call (301-695-2356) and I’ll help you get started.
One important thing to note is that, while several clubs interviewed had not reached this point on the hierarchy, all of them expressed the desire to improve their safety culture. Some of them expressed a desire for more guidance—please see the May 2020 Question of the Month for more on this topic. We also present an in-depth module on club proficiency programs during our flying clubs workshop series. The other consequence of this discovery is the Club Connector newsletter Safety section, where I provide slides and notes based loosely around the FAASTeam Topic of the Month. This month’s topic is Normalization of Deviance…please check it out and lean on your safety officer to present it at the next club meeting. Whilst you are at it, take a long look at other FAASTeam activities, courses and seminars, as well as the amazing array of safety resources on AOPA’s Air Safety Institute webpages.
An additional benefit of such a program is that, by having regular safety meetings, clubs will be setting themselves up for success for the last remaining element on the hierarchy: a formalized social culture.
Formalized Social Culture
The social cultures of the clubs interviewed varied greatly. Some clubs had very little social interaction at all. In some cases, members had stopped attending even regular club meetings, so relegating the club to a rental organization.
The idea that a formalized social culture is at the top of the club needs hierarchy is not intended to diminish this aspect’s importance; indeed, one of the core characteristics of a flying club is that it is a social organization, but it is “hard” to maintain a vibrant, interesting (and interested) social culture…but this is indeed the top issue that differentiates the good from the great.
This is tightly coupled with the notion of member engagement. Have a flick though the Club Connector Question of the Month articles for ideas on this topic…but board members be warned… the general membership may not be the cause of the problem!
Takeaways: Best Practices for Flying Clubs
From this body of work, we created the following “best practices” for club leaders to ponder when considering the health of their organizations.
We also published a white paper document entitled “Standards, Values and Best Practices for Flying Clubs”—you can find it, and other gems, in the Downloadable Resources section of our website.
Best Practices to Ensure Good People: Onboarding Process and Bylaw Provisions
Standardize the onboarding process for new/prospective members, involving interviews between prospective members and officers, and/or other members. While not foolproof, this definitely helps to ensure a solid “fit” between club members. Just like companies strive for the best people with the right fit, so too should flying clubs. There is no rule that says you have to accommodate a prospective member just because they have a check in their hand. See Be Careful What You Wish For.
It is also important that flying clubs structure their bylaws in a way that make it possible to remove members if/when they become problems. Just as it is important that clubs have procedures in place to onboard quality members, it is also important that they possess the ability to vote out members who don’t behave.
Best Practice to Ensure Strong Leadership: Staggered Elections and Electing the Right People
A best practice for maintaining strong and effective leadership is to stagger elections for club directors and officers. This ensures at least some of the leadership team have experience, rather than risk a whole new team learning the ropes from scratch.
Another fundamental best practice is to elect people to the right positions based upon their illustrated skills and strengths. A clear example is the position of treasurer, who must, simply must have some expertise with budgeting, tax filings and so on. Many a club has suffered the ire of the IRS for getting this wrong!
Of course, especially in small clubs, there may not always be an ideal candidate for each position—fair enough, but then provide some training, for example, a basic accounting class. Companies hiring new staff (should) always provide training, such that the new hires can be successful…so too in flying clubs!
Best Practices for Maintaining Good Structure and Processes: Bylaw Review and Strategic Planning
it is important that a club’s bylaws be well-written and also that they are reviewed on a regular basis—we have found that every two years is a good cadence for existing clubs, and 2-3 times in the first year for new clubs. This regular review allows clubs to hone wisdom over time, and to continuously improve.
Another best practice is to schedule regular strategic planning sessions. Examining where the club is now and where would like to be, is the best way to understand gaps, hurdles and threats. This will not only help a club maintain strong processes and procedures but will also force a critical examination of its hierarchy of needs.
Best Practices for Financial Management: Knowledgeable People and Sustainable Funds
One factor that is consistently brought up by clubs who are experiencing financial ill-health is the importance of knowledgeable people and strong fiscal management practices. While not every club will have a financial expert available as a member, it is recommended that all clubs seek the advice of someone knowledgeable when putting together a plan and budget. Financial (mis)management is one of several topics explored in the May 2022 Question of the month: “Is Our Club Still Viable”. I wrote that “tough-love” article after working with several clubs in 2022 who were on the brink of disaster and yet didn’t want to take any action that might upset members—a lump of unobtanium, I’m afraid.
A vital tool for flying clubs is a quality management tool that not only allows for scheduling, dispatch and check-in, but also includes automatic invoicing. This helps long-suffering treasurers with collections, but also helps ensure timely payments, which is vital for cashflow. I strongly suggest that clubs go the extra mile and purchase a point-of-sale option, where charges are immediately made on members’ credit cards when the plane is checked-in. This option is literally worth its weight in gold and will go a long way towards keeping your treasurer happy. A related topic is the collection of monthly dues. Please, please for the sanity of your treasurer (from personal experience) change the bylaws to clearly state that dues shall be paid on the first of every month directly from members’ bank accounts…no messing about with cheques.
Best Practices for Aircraft: A Strategic Fit
There is no one-size-fits-all best practice in regard to the number or type of aircraft that a club should have. In general, the number of aircraft should allow for good accessibility, and the aircraft type(s) should be closely aligned with the mission of the club. During strategic planning, which healthy clubs undergo regularly, the club’s fleet should a major point of focus. Re-read the Viability article to get more ideas on this topic, but as an example, consider the club that for more than thirty years operated a Citabria, but after membership started dropping, they decided to sell it and purchase a Grumman Tiger…and membership quickly rebounded. They adjusted the aircraft to the requirements of its current membership.
Best Practice for Airport Location: Consider Your Membership
Given the idea that it is easier for club members to fly or attend social gatherings when they live close to the airport at which the club aircraft is based, it is important to thoroughly consider a club’s location prior to starting it, and to reconsider it later during strategic planning sessions. If a club is in an emerging state and plans to grow in the future, it would be wise to choose an airport that is easily accessible to a large population of pilots—and that is friendly to recreational GA-types of flying.
Best Practices for Airport Ecosystem: Affecting Your Surroundings
Maintaining a healthy airport ecosystem should be a priority for every club; sustainability and growth will likely be much easier to achieve in an environment where everyone gets along—or better, is striving toward the same goal. While the airport ecosystem is largely external, a club can—and should—influence its surroundings.
One best practice is to establish positive relationships with other tenants on the airports. See Flying Clubs Radio edition 37 or more ideas on this important topic
Another best practice is to actively communicate/socialize with other parties located at the airport on a regular basis—inviting the airport manager, other airport tenants, ATC and FSDO staff, to your club meetings goes a long way to ensuring you club has a voice on the airport. Flying Clubs Radio edition 41 develops this in much more detail. By taking the initiative and reaching out to the broader airport community, clubs will have a direct effect on the broader airport ecosystem.
Best Practices for a Formalized Safety Culture: Building a Program
The first step in starting a safety program for a club should be creating a safety officer or director position. Once a safety officer has been put in place, they should work to create a program that includes regular safety meetings. A variety of safety topics relevant to the club should be addressed at these meetings. One important observation: hold the safety program at the start of the meeting, not at the end when everyone is getting twitchy to go home. Safety is primary, so make it so!
Best Practices for a Formalized Social Culture: Engaging Members
To create a formal social culture, clubs should first create the position of social officer. This person is responsible for scheduling regular club activities and events. The activities themselves can vary widely and will depend entirely upon club member interests and engagement. Ideas might include fly-outs, holiday parties, lunches and club dinners. We also highly encourage clubs to celebrate member accomplishments, such as the earning of a new certificate or rating.
In addition to physical gatherings, a club’s social culture can be enhanced through social media platforms such as InstaFaceTok…but keep it up to date and relevant. Stale content is the killer of interest in such sites. Also, keep it positive…it is called social, not anti-social, media!
So, there you have it. The 2018 Flying Clubs Health Study formed the basis of AOPA’s formidable expertise and knowledge on all-things flying clubs and was the very foundation for the extensive library of resources and expertise that is clearly evident on our website.
I hope this article will help you answer two related questions:
Finally, I’d like to recognize the contribution of my team mate of the time, Michael Hangartner. Michael’s background in operations, finance and research helped structure the health study itself, as well as the analysis and conclusions. His innovative association of club health with a hierarchy of needs was brilliant and groundbreaking. Michael is currently Senior Manager of the AOPA Foundation’s You Can Fly High School Curriculum program, where he is responsible for program and curriculum development. He continues to provide unique and highly creative solutions to complex and multi-dimensional problems.
As always, fly lots, and fly safely!