The trail to my association roots

I can take you to the exact spot on the partridge hunting trail where my Dad told me about his membership in the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters.

“You see this crest,” my Dad said pointing to the OFAH emblem sewn to his hunting jacket. “This is what protects hunting.”

I felt my Dad’s heart when he talked about his OFAH membership. My Dad called hunting and fishing his “birthright” and he told me that he proudly belonged to the OFAH because, “if anglers and hunters don’t stick together, we are going to lose it.”

That simple truth ignited my own passion for the OFAH. It also shaped my respect for anyone with the initiative to get involved in an association. Even as a young hunter, I understood the basic purpose of membership organizations. An association (or Federation) is a group of regular people, like my Dad, who pull together to take charge of their shared values and interests. I got it!

I joined the OFAH when I was 12. I was offered a professional position with this organization when I was 23 and have proudly been with the OFAH ever since.

These days I spend a lot of time wondering if membership has lost its meaning for the next generation ready to make a difference, but perhaps not ready to ever join an association. Do most people even consider why associations exist?

I reach back to 35-year old memories, including that day on the partridge hunting trail, to help retrace my earliest steps in awareness about the importance of associations.

Every summer my friends and I played baseball. Our families never paid for uniforms, equipment or sports registration fees because, behind the scenes, were my neighbours who belonged to our little village’s sports association. They made baseball participation possible thanks to their volunteer time and year-round fundraising. I was also actively involved in public speaking, travelling across the province and throughout the United States for prepared speech competitions. Every dollar of my travel costs was sponsored by volunteers of our local Lions Club, Rotary International and the Royal Canadian Legion. My first-year college tuition fees were subsidized with scholarships I received from more great community leaders and their respective associations. In many ways, I am the product of caring people who are the pillars of community service. Looking back, I guess I’ve known for years that volunteer-based associations drive civic achievements.

Bridging generations

Today, most membership associations are run almost entirely by the same generation of volunteers that have been working tirelessly since my childhood days at the ball diamond. That generation (baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964) urgently need new volunteers to fly the plane. However, associations are struggling with recruitment, particularly from my generation (Generation X born between 1965 and 1981) and the Millennials (Generation Y born between 1982 to 1995). The struggle is real and the reasons for it can be found in the great demographic divide.

I have a humble confession. Several years ago, I had to back out of a promise (a promise that I made to myself) to “someday” join a local service club. After being officially welcomed to the club, I admitted that the time and money involved in attending regular business meetings, committee meetings, and weekend club events, fundraisers and all of the other great opportunities “to give back” was not possible for this new Dad. My wife and I were balancing family life and our careers while managing a new mortgage, childcare costs and all the other pressures on the 30 and 40-something crowd.

According to association experts such as Sarah Sladek, author of “The End of Membership As we Know It,” my confession accurately reflects the realities of today’s middle-age interests, habits and expectations. This year, I joined fellow association managers in a Future of Membership workshop, hosted by Redstone Agency in Toronto, to learn more about Sarah’s insight into generational differences.

Beyond membership

Sons and daughters of Boomers are not considered “joiners” but they may be prepared to contribute on other levels for associations that see beyond membership. For instance, my family supports our local associations with event participation, donations and raffle ticket purchases. No, we don’t make time for membership meetings, but we enjoy being part of association’s online communities that keep us informed of when and how we can help. Through our personal family and friends on Facebook and email we have raised hundreds of dollars in pledges (aka “peer-to-peer” fundraising) as part of our involvement in campaigns like Movember, Relay for Life and the Kids Help Line’s Walk So Kids Can Talk. Personally addressed information and news we receive to recognize our donations to Ducks Unlimited Canada and the OFAH also motivate my family to give more to conservation.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters is presenting new ways to get all ages involved in our organization. Some members belong to one or more clubs and others make a commitment to join and renew as individual OFAH members. The new $25 OFAH Paperless Membership has brought in thousands of new supporters from ages 8 to 82, and the average age is 47 (Generation X).

But there is more to the OFAH menu than just membership. Anyone who purchases OFAH branded merchandise, donates to OFAH programs through monthly giving, planned giving or buys our conservation lottery tickets is supporting the outdoors in ways just as meaningful as membership. The OFAH is also grateful to anyone who reads Ontario OUT of DOORS Magazine, watches Angler & Hunter TV, and engages in OFAH topics and discussion through our e-news and social media. These communications vehicles help people consider the outdoor opportunities that simply wouldn’t exist without OFAH supporters.

This spring, I was asked to give a presentation to Grade 9 science students about the role of the OFAH as a non-government and not-for-profit conservation association. I started my talk in the same way I started this article. I told them that the OFAH was about people like my Dad, just everyday citizens who join together because they care about our natural resources and outdoor traditions. The students clearly understood the definition of an association when I rhetorically asked, “what is stronger, the united voice of 78,000-members or a single cry of an individual?”

My presentation included an overview of a long list of environmental achievements that were spearheaded by OFAH volunteer passion. The reintroduction of native species like elk and wild turkey, and tens of thousands of hands-on volunteer hours (invested annually) in local stream restoration, tree planting as well as salmon, trout and walleye stocking. I stressed how the majority always benefit from the minority that take the initiative to create change.

The new hope

The OFAH presentation inspired my audience of cyber-agers (Generation Z born between 1996 and 2009), and hopefully they will be inspired to support associations that represent their way of life. Generation Z also includes my two boys who have inherited their grandpa’s fascination for spring mornings on the trout stream and autumn evenings in the duck blind. There are now three generations of Pye boys putting their support behind outdoor associations that stand up for family traditions and the environment.

I believe the future is bright for associations. Today’s generation is raised to think globally about a planet that needs urgent care, and now more than ever, young people are empowered to lead movements to influence change for social and environmental causes. Every high school student takes on 40-hours of community service work so there is a stronger base of understanding about local associations and the satisfaction of giving something back. In my opinion, Generation Z is the new association hope and they have the promise to become the largest and most accomplished revolution of volunteer leaders.

Regardless of age, no one can afford to be silent. Support for an association doesn’t start with a donation or a membership, it starts with a deeply personal commitment to choose action over apathy. Right now, it’s time for all generations to get back to their association roots. It’s time to return to the trail where down-to-earth advice to get involved is passed along, and where promises to give back will keep associations strong.

My son and my Dad talking about our family hunting traditions.

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