Sunday, June 14, 2009

 

Keep it Rocking

Keep your club rockin’. I frequently revisit this question, “What makes a club good and how do you keep one good?” because I think it is an important one for all amateurs. Yeah, even in this age of 24-hour-a-day amateur astronomy chit-chat on the dadgummed Internet, the good ol’ local astronomy club is still important. Even if you don’t belong to your local club (though I think it’s downright foolish not to) it may still be doing things like crusading for sensible lighting that benefit all area amateurs, members or not. The astronomy club is also what keeps amateur astronomy in the public eye. Outreach activities attract new members to our avocation, and that keeps amateur astronomy healthy, and that keeps the new gear all you twidgets crave flowing.

Yep, there is a virtual meeting going on all day and all night at places like Cloudy Nights and Astromart, so what good is a non-virtual astro-club when you can talk scopes and observing any time you want on the I-net? For some people, “no good at all.” Astronomy is one of those pursuits that can be practiced in solitary fashion, and that is what some people like about it and good on ‘em. I used to be surprised to meet enthusiastic and active local amateurs who, despite being in the astro game for years and years, were not members of my club, the PSAS. I’m not surprised anymore. I eventually wised up to the fact that some amateurs are not joiners.

That’s not the best path for most of us, though. A club brings enough tangibles and intangibles to the table to make it worth belonging even if you consider yourself an introvert. The greatest asset? Strength in numbers. You can pool your resources to, for example, acquire a dark observing site that because of cost or other reasons would be undoable for an individual. That there alone is enough reason for almost anybody to belong to a club. In most cases, you don’t even have to attend meetings. Keep your dues current, and usually you’ll be able to use the dark site like anybody else. Prob’ly no one will care even if you don’t say much, set up in a corner away from everybody else, and fly alone. For most of us, though, there are also the intangibles. Mainly the experience of observing and doing other things in a group of like-minded individuals, who, over the years, often become the closest of friends. My most cherished astronomy memories are almost exclusively built on the adventures and misadventures of our little club.

Those are a couple of reasons, and good ones I think, to jine-up with your friendly neighborhood astronomy society. Howsomeever, neither you nor anybody else will want to remain a member of that club if'n it is not done right. Every club can get into a rut; it’s easy to recognize the signs: meetings become progressively more boring affairs where everything but astronomy is discussed, the membership begins to dwindle, nobody goes out to the dark site anymore, and the last public star party was, when you think about it, during Hale-Bopp. What is important is to do something about club-entropy before it goes so far as to be irreversible. How? Glad you asked.

Meetings

Ah, yes, the dreaded business meeting. Every club has ‘em, and every club has trouble keeping them interesting. Oh, it used to be easy. Back in the pre-Interweb days of yore, the monthly club meeting was a huge treat for me. Over the course of a month, it was often the only time I got to shoot the breeze with my fellow amateurs. All that’s changed, but it is still possible to keep meetings fun. It don’t even take that much work.

Rule One is, take the word “business” out of “business meeting.” Sure, you’ll want to hear the Treasurer’s report, and have the Secretary read the minutes of the last meeting, and Robert’s Rules of Order can keep the proceedings rolling along smartly. B-U-T… I’ve seen clubs where “meeting” consisted of droning recitations about the bank account, interminable reviews of the report on same from last month, and soul-blistering expeditions into the land of “Point of Privilege,” “Floor Motion,” and “Adjournment Debate.” The most ironic thing? The folks running these dry-as-the-Sahara affairs were continually amazed the only people in attendance were their fellow officers and (fleetingly) new members.

How do you keep business meetings interesting? You focus on AMATEUR ASTRONOMY. There are plenty of ways to do that. My own club has a long-running style that suits us and may suit you as well. We open with a short report on the treasury and a short presentation of the minutes of the last meeting. That occupies maybe five minutes, which is almost too long. Following is the “what we gonna do.” Reminders about public outreach events, dark site expeditions, and other group activities. Maybe ten minutes. Max. Next is the heart of it, a presentation (now often a PowerPoint), usually about a constellation.

When we adopted this format a decade ago, I thought we’d soon run out of stuff to say about the 88, but that never did happen. Each person tends to focus on a different aspect of their chosen constellation: deep sky observing, imaging opportunities, variable stars, etc, etc. And each year when a constellation comes back around, we are all usually ready to hear about it again. Who gives the presentation? Whoever volunteers for that duty. It used to take a little wheedling, but before long, the membership found out giving a presentation is often more fun even than listening to one. This is your chance, after all, to show off your astrophotos to a captive audience, go on and on about double stars if that is your thing, or dwell on the mythological background of the star pattern if that is what floats your boat.

After that? “Anybody got anything else?” In other words, Open Mike time. If somebody has a presentation on some other subject, like a new piece of equipment they’ve acquired, or a report on a visit to a star party, or a talk about Solar eclipses or QUASARS, this is the time. That done, it’s punch and cookies. You’d be amazed at how much fun it is to gobble munchies from the Wally-World down the road and drink plastic cups of Purple Passion Punch in the company of your fellow amateurs. Sometimes Cookie and Punch Time after the “main” meeting is more fun and illuminating than anything that has gone before. Cookies reduced to crumbs, a look at the watch says an hour, sometimes even two, has gone by in what seems like fifteen minutes and another successful PSAS meetin’ draws to a close.

The takeaway? We keep it simple, we keep it short, we keep it interesting with talks by members, not endless droning by officers, and we allow everybody to have their say month after month. “But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod, my club is way too big for your simpleminded ideas.” Nonsense. I’ve seen similarly informal and fun meeting formats work for the largest organizations. Which might be even larger if they took some of the starch out. Pass the cookies.

Recruiting

You are FREAKING OUT because your numbers have dropped from fifty to forty to twenty and ten is approaching. Don’t be overly concerned about occasional membership doldrums. Every club waxes and wanes. A long-term, constant bleeding away of members? Get worried, but don’t freak out. Do something. First, take a look at your meetings. If they are hidebound parliamentary parties, change that, do it right away, and strive to get the word out that there’s a new game being played down to the club. How do you get the word out? Whether you have a newsletter or not, you should have a mailing list of all members. I know it is low tech, but the simple postcard can work wonders: “We miss you at the club. We are trying some new things we know you are gonna like. Why not give us a try this Thursday evening?”

How do you get the word about your group out to prospective new members? The most efficient way is at public outreach sessions. Got a prospect (you’ll quickly develop a sixth sense as to who is and who is not an amateur aborning)? Give her/him a flier about the club, which includes a few words about what you are and what you do along with contact info and a (current) meeting schedule. How else? The same old things that have always worked. If your local newspaper (assuming you still have one) has a community events listing, make sure your meetings are included there every single month. Most cable TV systems have a “community bulletin board” scroll and will be happy to add your meeting announcement to that. Even the lowest of the low tech can still be very productive: fliers posted at the local library and the university student union building. In my experience? The problem is not getting members, but keeping ‘em, and if you are doing your meetings the right way, you are well on the way to doing that.

Despite my snide comments about that new-fangled Internet, there is no doubt in my formerly military mind that a good website—hell, a website of any kind—attracts new members. These days, when somebody wants to know something they hit the Google. It is vital that when they type in “Mayberry Astronomical Society” they get a hit for your MAS. I would guess that if you don’t already have a site, there is someone in the membership with the talent (and server space) to put one up for y’all—and will prob’ly enjoy doing it. This is mucho important. The last several new members we’ve garnered have found us on the web. Oh, and when you have that site up, don’t forget about it. Make danged sure that the date, time, and place of the meeting is listed in bold letters on the home page, and that, come hell or high water, it is updated every month.

Who do you recruit, by the way? While I think the Great American Astronomy Club is in fairly good health, a snapshot of the membership of all too many groups will show not all is rosy. That snapshot will often reveal a bunch of faces that are white, male, and older. There is nothing wrong with any of those things, your Unk being a member in good standing of that demographic, but if you, like most of us, want to see your club prosper and thrive and survive after your time on this Pebble in the Sky is done, you have to move beyond that group.

We’ve made fairly good strides in gaining women converts, but need to do more in that regard. Youth? In addition to actively recruiting them, what will stand us in best stead there is figuring out how to keep them. If you’ve got a youngster who’s all fired up about computers and Internet telescopes, encourage her to give a presentation or chair a committee. Don’t relegate the kids to the back row. Make sure they are in on the action even to the extent of serving as officers. When it comes to minority representation in clubs and amateur astronomy, we are really hurting, brothers and sisters, hurting bad. What will change that? Getting the word out on amateur astronomy to EVERYBODY. Do you provide astronomy outreach services to inner city schools? On a regular basis? Do you hold general public events in areas accessible to the minority community? Do you announce your meetings in media targeted at these folks? If not, get to it and right now.

Newsletter

Every club needs a newsletter, correct? Well, maybe. Oh, that used to be true, but these days, when even the PSAS has a dadgummed website, not so much. The website (or a Yahoogroup) performs most of the functions that used to be done by the newsletter: meeting and other event reminders, listings of upcoming star parties, pictures and general news items about the club. Still, if you want to do a newsletter, there is no reason not to. If you have a person in your club who’s become afflicted with the astronomy-writing bug, a newsletter can be a beautiful thing. I got my start by writing stories for club papers, and I’m still as proud of those articles as I am of anything else I have written. If you do decide to do a newsletter, I strongly recommend you keep it simple; otherwise, it will become an albatross around somebody’s neck before all is said and done.

The way to keep it simple is to forget hardcopies and stamps and mailing. Those things are incredibly expensive and time consuming, and today are a drag on club resources for no good reason. If you want to do a newsletter, do it however you want on the computer: with a fancy desktop publisher or just with Microsoft Word. Make it as pretty or as utilitarian as you want, but DO NOT PRINT IT. Save it as an Adobe Acrobat file (Word 2007 will do that, and so will many free/cheap utilities). When you are ready to “publish,” post it on the club website if you have one, or email it as an attachment to your membership if you don’t. Yes, almost every club has a few members who don’t do email or Internet for various reasons. These people are easy to accommodate. Print out a few copies and have them on hand at meetings. I’ve easily weaned all but two or three of our folks off the printed newsletters.

Keeping in Touch

How do you email all them club members? At one time I maintained an extensive mailing list in Microsoft Outlook. Till one day I said to myself, “Self, it’s a lot of work to keep this mailing list current. There has gotta be a better way.” ‘Deed there was, and it was right in front of my nose: Yahoogroups. Most of y’all are well acquainted with these mailing lists. You join one and thenceforth receive all the messages everybody in the group posts. You can elect to get these via email, or just read them on the World Wide Web. It’s free, too, a big drawing card for Unk.

As quickly as I could, I transitioned everybody from the old mailing list to the PSAS Yahoogroup. What a work-load reduction! The most beautiful thing? I don’t have to manage the list, the members do that themselves. Individuals subscribe or unsubscribe as they see fit. Many of the folks who don’t like email are happy with reading the group messages on the web. There are also a lot of frills that are even more useful for clubs than they are to the usual discussion groups. Your “Eyepiece Caps Uncensored” Yahoogroup prob’ly don’t have much use for upcoming event reminders, but being able to set up a reminder message about the monthly meeting that is sent to everybody automatically a few days prior is sweet, real sweet, muchachos.

Dark Site

Business meetings can be fun, but amateur astronomy is about observing, and that’s what your club should be about too. Every astronomical society needs a dark site where members can observe as a group every single month. Even moreso than good meetings, a good dark site can keep a club alive through thick and thin. What’s a good dark site? That is for y’all to decide, but my opinion is what’s more important than “super dark” is “accessible” and “safe.” If you’ve got a decently dark site within an hour’s drive for most members, a site that is comfortable and secure, that’s highly preferable in my opinion to a location that is distant and prone to “trouble.” Unfortunately, the countryside is not as peaceful as it used to be, with out of the way dark spots sometimes frequented by the bottom feeders of the meth trade. The dark site subject cries out for an entire article, and I’ll do that sometime soon.

Public Outreach

Most clubs do public outreach programs. They do them for a couple of reasons. The average amateur just likes showing off sky and scopes to the public, and most of us believe we are providing a vital public service in the bargain. It is no secret the United States is troubled by significant math/science illiteracy (which also deserves an entire article), and introducing Mom and Pop and Bud and Sis to astronomy is our little contribution to the fight against the encroaching darkness of superstition and ignorance. The added benefit, as I’ve already said, is that public outreach is an excellent scouting opportunity if you’re looking for new members. It’s also a bonding experience for your existing members: us out there together with a few scopes facing a few thousand eager kids and adults.

In my opinion, every single club should be doing at least a couple of major public star parties a year, if not more. And most do. However, let us not lose sight of the fact that just because you and me and Little Sister like to work with the public, that doesn't mean all amateurs do. Some just do not like dealing with the public for one reason or another, and should not be pushed into participating. Certainly I think it is a mistake in most instances for a club to be focused entirely or almost entirely on public outreach. Do not lose sight of the fact that astronomy is not one pursuit, but many pursuits, and a good club should try to serve them all.

Working

All these things, public outreach, and meetings, and dark site star parties have one thing in common: they require a lot of work on somebody’s part. That “somebody” is the club’s officers. The astronomy club is ‘bout the only organization I know of where there’s a constant competition to see who can avoid holding the reins of power. All too many clubs leave the same people in charge year after year after year. These officers are often highly motivated, and will tell you they enjoy the work. Eventually, though, the time comes when they burn out. Sometimes that happens with several officers at the same time—that happened to our club once. A few of the movers and shakers got tired of doing all the work, a few moved away, and a few dropped out. We’d gotten so used to their guidance that the club foundered and nearly died as a result.

What to do? Do your darndest to change most of your officers each year. Hold elections regularly and encourage the nomination of new faces. Yes, I know it’s sometimes impossible to get someone to sign on for a thankless job like Treasurer, but, at the very least, you can set up committees. If you can’t get Joe Amateur to agree to be Secretary, it might be possible to sign him up to be Dark Site Committee Chair, which will lessen the work load for another officer. Also good is that changing officers yearly will help break the “us and them” pattern: “us” club members come to the meeting to be entertained by “them” officers. Everyone needs to be involved in running the club, and the line between the “us” and the “them” needs to be blurry at all times.

Having Fun
All work and no play makes Jill a dull girl. The main reason we are club members in the first place is to have fun as a group. One way to do that in addition to meetings, public star parties, and dark site observing runs is to do stuff like organize group expeditions. Is there a major star party somewhere nearby? Why not caravan there and set up together? Is the club in the neighboring city having an especially good speaker this month? Why not get together as a group and go? You don’t have to limit yourselves to astronomy events, either.

One thing we down here and have done for years and have had great success with is our annual Holiday Dinner. In lieu of the normal January bidness meeting (who’s in the mood for that after New Year’s?), we meet at a local restaurant. We keep it simple, with everybody paying for their own food and drinks, but arrange a backroom or at least a table for the club beforehand. Not only is it fun to enjoy the waning of the holiday season and ring in another year with your good buddies, it’s surprising what you can learn about/from your fellow observers after they get a little whiskey in ‘em.

Every club is different, just like every amateur astronomer is different. I am not saying I have all the answers when it comes to keeping your club healty; I don’t, but I will say the broad brush strokes of what I have been yakking about will work for you too, no doubt about it. If I had to boil my club philosophy all the way down? Informal is better than formal. Inclusive is better than exclusive. Short is better than long. Active is better than inactive, and a little fun is better than a lot of seriousness.

Comments:
Good advice for clubs. A good example of a healthy club is the Orange County Astronomers out in California. They have over 800 members, monthly meetings with guest speakers, a vibrant outreach program, several special interest groups, a highly developed observing site with housing as well as a club observatory, and several Yahoo message groups.

www.ocastronomers.org

I was a member from 2000 to 2008, til I moved to New England.

Matthew Ota
 
I am a member of Ventura County Astrononmical Society (www.VCAS.org). One advantage of the So. Cal. groups is the wealth of superb speakers. With JPL, Universities, and a number of (to use your term) astrogoody manufactures in the area almost all of the speakers are excellent.

We have a very short business beginning mainly about upcoming events, a short cookie and coffee break then our speaker. During the break we buy tickets for a raffle which is held last.

Membership is cheap, only $33 a year. No dark site, we head to Mt. Pinos with the masses. We also have a kids sub-club, but since I'm not a kid any longer, I'm not sure what/how it is done.

Best thing about the club is finding an observing buddy. Although he/they don't like going to the group's event. We go to a different site. But it is always good to go with others.

Good article (as usual).
Darren Dassinger
 
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