Association growth is more than just optics

As written for CSAE Trillium’s Forum newsletter — February 14, 2020.


If you kept your eyes on CSAE Trillium’s recent Winter Summit, you would have caught the 2020 Vision theme. That double entendre is not lost on association leaders. We are serious about looking to the future with absolutely perfect vision, especially at the dawn of a new decade by the same namesake.

Reflection on three power packed Winter Summit days requires the same eye prescription. Look back closely. Dovetailed neatly into the dynamic schedule of networking, keynotes and breakout sessions were the concepts that will skyrocket association success in the years ahead. Email marketing, member value propositions, pricing strategies, social media and video engagement, corporate storytelling, positive work environments and empathy about mental health. 2020 Winter Summit covered it all.

Ten years of CSAE Trillium Winter Summit workshops on topics like branding, recruitment, retention, market segmentation, etc. set the backdrop for my first ever CSAE presentation. Titled Gone Paperless Membership (read that in the enthusiasm of Gone Fishing), I proudly expressed how modernizing the traditional membership experience in a 92-year-old conservation organization is now achieving what I previously thought was the impossible. Get ready for it. We are finally selling memberships to the 30 and 40-something crowd!

We’ve all heard big business marketers and data analysts refer to age demographics with a wide variety of catchy handles. Gen Xers are latchkey kids. Gen Y are Millennials or trophy kids. Personally speaking, I am a Gen Xer, and I prefer to identify as a Dukes of Hazard kid. Meanwhile, Gen X parents, the baby boomers, remain the breadwinners of many membership-based organizations including the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters. Fail to crack the code on the Millennial mindset, then brace yourself for hits to your membership base. It’s just that simple.

In late 2017, my organization introduced Paperless Membership. In less than 30 months, we sold over 9,000 of these modernized memberships — ages range from 6-years-old to 90-years-old! Forty percent are in fact brand new members to our organization which is one of the best new member acquisition efforts we have experienced in years. New members are now in the proud company of thousands of long-time members and all enjoy the Federation experience delivered directly to their mobile devices or computer.

The average age of OFAH Paperless membership is 47, about two decades younger than the core membership base that we assumed would always insist on everything mailed and in hard copy. Not entirely so. Many fixed-income members are managing their emails and mobile apps just fine, and they need a price break too. OFAH Paperless options provide a 50 percent savings over traditional memberships at a time when more long-time members are pushing their Federation for a senior’s discount.

Popular membership advantages include outdoors insurance coverage and corporate member discounts but also tangible products like Ontario OUT of DOORS Magazine and membership cards. The biggest stack of paper and stamps comes from our renewal series and membership engagement campaigns. Going paperless immediately helped the OFAH decrease membership costs while improving membership retention, communications and overall engagement. I’m not trying to shamelessly promote the OFAH here, rather making the point that if we can modernize our basket of benefits and membership fees, your association can too!

Almost half of all OFAH Paperless memberships sign up for a long-term commitment like three-year memberships or online auto renewal. As a Gen Xer, I live by the set it and forget it approach. Renewal notices are a pain in the ass for everyone, and I’m glad organizations I care about have more dollars to put toward “the cause” thanks to impulse triggers for auto renewal and incentives for multi year membership commitments.

It’s an ironic contradiction when I confess the first thing the OFAH did to officially launch Paperless Membership – we went to the printer with a direct mail campaign! We have always stayed true to traditional marketing and it certainly helped present the concept of Paperless Membership to our traditional base. But nothing drives new generation member response better than email marketing and paid social media. Less is more. Success is in simplicity.

Modernizing membership experiences also means modernizing membership services. Never stop expanding your organization’s reach and relevancy; that includes keeping up with the changing ways that future members want to communicate with, and importantly, how they prefer to pay, your organization. PayPal, live chat, text messaging, online banking, e-transfers are standard expectations for the new audience your organization needs to attract.

The jump to digital put the OFAH in a position to reinvent itself, not just in terms of an attractive new price point but in terms of a bolder corporate statement and membership call to action. We are now presenting a straight forward membership pitch that puts the member value proposition on the organization’s significance, not the swag. Price point and millennial-focused marketing are the game changers. Technology was the enabler. Upon reflection, we were doing what many organizations may need to confess too – that is beating our head against a wall trying to sell a membership experience that a younger generation may never want, and if they did, they are not prepared to pay the price on the traditional membership menu.

Hindsight is 2020 and it’s just as valuable as the take home messages from the 2020 Vision theme of Winter Summit. Congratulations to all of the dedicated CSAE Trillium staff, volunteers and sponsors who had the vision for this outstanding event. The CSAE excitement was certainly clear to see.


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.

The Outdoors Journey

The White Otter Inn was in my rear view mirror and the rising sun was on my windshield.  I was up unreasonably early to drive home from a late-November OFAH membership meeting in northwestern Ontario. Slowly,  the break of dawn unveiled the full view of an empty Trans-Canada Highway… empty except for the OFAH company Jeep I was driving and a half-ton truck up ahead.  That truck was also flying my organization’s emblem.

Back bumper or top windshield corner, I can spot an OFAH membership decal a mile away. Our bright blue membership sticker is the highly recognizable “I’m proud to fish and hunt” statement affixed to boats, ATV’s, trucks and cars all throughout Ontario, especially in the north.

With a full travel mug of coffee and an extra hour on my side, I had no inclination to pass my fellow OFAH members.  After all, a weekend full of fish hatchery tours, club meetings and conservation topics couldn’t replace this anonymous OFAH membership success story being told, from the shoulders up, with backs against a truck cab window.

With every mile I paid closer attention to the OFAH members sitting side-by-side in the cab of that truck. Their blaze orange hats and jackets made it easy to tell how they were spending the morning.  A father and his son, I predicted. Going deer hunting, I assumed.

I recognized their body language from my own childhood hunting trips, sitting beside my Dad on the bench seat of his old two-toned-brown GMC Sierra. The constant bobbing of two hunting hats to the beat of their discussion made me wish I could hear it. The steady nodding of the driver’s head told me that he enjoyed listening and learning from his son. The enthusiastic expressions from the young passenger told me that today’s hunt was already successful – successful if only from the perspective of quality time between two lifelong hunting buddies.

Simple moments like these that remind us why a passion for hunting comes from the heart. Hunting is about the fulfillment of the journey not the squeeze of the trigger. Hunting builds character and a deeply rooted respect for nature.  Hunting connects us to the family and friends who cared enough to pass down the hunting heritage. Hunting is our identity. It is a core value for millions of Canadians.

National Fishing, Hunting, Trapping Heritage Day

20170720_120625The need to express the importance of our outdoor heritage has always been the OFAH motivation to push for federal and provincial recognition of those who fish, hunt and trap and serve fish and wildlife conservation.

In Canada, on the third Saturday of September, our great traditions are saluted with an official “Day.”  That Day is the new National Fishing, Hunting, Trapping Heritage Day, presented by the Government of Canada.

Even when the occasion has come and gone, our pride in Canada’s outdoor heritage, and the great conservation story of anglers, hunters and trappers, deserves to be told every day.

National Fishing, Hunting, Trapping Heritage Day gives the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters and its conservation allies another opportunity to put long overdue public attention on how our members and supporters contribute to our natural resources.

Conservation leadership

Yes, we love to fish and hunt but anglers, hunters and trappers have done more than that.

When wetlands were considered wastelands, it was duck hunters who were the first to demand the protection of wetlands and the international Migratory Birds Treaty.

When some people didn’t care about cold water streams and its value to fish and wildlife, it was trout fisherman who volunteered to plant trees, prevent erosion, built spawning beds and fish ladders.

When an entire industry was built on the decimation of wildlife for commerce, it was hunters who demanded seasons and limits and the prohibition on selling wild meat.

When catch and release wasn’t even a concept, it was fishing club members who built hatcheries and stocked lakes with fish and locally promoted conservation and responsible angling.

When our delicate waterways and forest ecosystems faced the threat of invasive species, it was the OFAH that built partnerships, programs and awareness to stop the spread.

Improving local streams and wetlands, stocking lakes, planting trees, building nesting boxes, picking up litter from rivers and forests, volunteering for habitat restoration programs, promoting hunter education and teaching kids about responsible fishing and conservation are all examples of how the outdoors community makes a difference.

Right now, somewhere in down-to-earth-rural-Canada, there’s a valuable conversation happening between two life-long hunting buddies. Perhaps they are sitting side-by-side on the bench seat of truck as they’re heading into deer camp. Perhaps they’re reminiscing about past hunts, legendary bucks and all the special family memories that the great outdoors provides. Respect for nature and quality time with family and friends is never taken for granted, and National Fishing, Hunting, Trapping Heritage Day helps express our passion for the outdoors journey.

Once Upon A Time

This speech was presented at the 2015 OFAH Fish & Wildlife Conference.

This speech was presented at the 2015 OFAH Fish & Wildlife Conference.

Once upon a time are the four little words that start a special story.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters certainly has a special story. But today, it doesn’t need to start with once upon a time. After all, we are an organization for the future, not the past.

Let us not think about once upon a time as in yesterday. Think about once upon a time as in right now… because this business development and corporate messaging report takes us into the conceivable future… at an OFAH Conference… far, far away.

The year is 2038, and the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters is celebrating its 110th Anniversary.  A lot has changed since the 2015 OFAH Annual General Meeting. But still, 23-years-later, isn’t it remarkable that retired Mississauga Mayor, Hazel McCallum was here this morning to bring greetings to the OFAH. {Joke}

If you think that’s ridiculous, what if I also told you that, nearly quarter of century later, the Leafs actually made it to the playoffs?

You’re laughing because you’re optimistic; and perhaps even a little bit crazy.

What isn’t crazy, however, is your 2015 prediction about the crazy technological world that we live in.

As you envisioned, Generation X lit the match on the fuse of digital technology that brought skyrocketing advancements in media and communications, transportation and global commerce.

In 2015, you were also right in your observation about the relentless progress of woman and man.  Urban sprawl sprung to urban speed. The cityscape devoured more landscape when most were too busy texting and tweeting.  Some families sold the farm… others sold the family farm values.

Yes, welcome to 2038; yet another era when environmental priorities and social change still can’t come fast enough.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” And when it comes to Ontario’s fish and wildlife and outdoor opportunities, creating the future is something that OFAH members have always done best.

Back when Model T-Fords rattled down the dirt roads of Toronto, it was our founding members who predicted that, without a fishing season, Ontario would see the demise of its bass populations.  So, in 1928, our Federation was born following a grassroots victory in the creation of conservation laws.

In the 1950’s, OFAH members predicted that our great hunting legacy would be crippled by the bad reputation caused from hunting accidents. So, we took charge of our destiny by spearheading one of North America’s finest hunter education programs.

Throughout much of the 1980’s and 1990’s, OFAH members predicted that Ontario could, once again, be home to wild turkey and elk. Forward-thinking prevailed.P1030614

“Nothing worth having was ever achieved without effort.” It’s a sentiment once shared by Theodore Roosevelt… and, to this day, it accurately explains why so many anglers and hunters need to belong to the OFAH.

Membership is the lifeblood of the OFAH. In year 2038, the OFAH can be very proud of its strength in OFAH membership and support. However, the journey to membership prosperity is never a smooth road. It is a reality that the OFAH has experienced years with spikes and dips in membership.

During the 2015 OFAH AGM, it was reported that OFAH strength was holding solid at 84,432 members. Remarkable retention deserves a pat on the back, but trickling growth causes a scratch to the head.

In 2015, OFAH members and staff were asking important questions.

Why didn’t critical OFAH success leverage critical OFAH membership growth — particularly during a time in OFAH history when our organization landed its longest line-up of wins: Sunday gun hunting, record highs in hunter education, the demise of the long gun registry and a returned spring bear hunt… to name only a few.

Sadly, wins that were absolutely unimaginable in the past are apathetically taken for granted in the future.

Every day the OFAH is going to work for the members we have; meanwhile, our successes benefit the members we don’t. It’s a classic case where the majority count on the minority to make one hundred percent of the progress.

When gun owners and hunters’ backs are against the wall, OFAH membership works for the entire outdoors community. But when the walls come down, we can’t afford to wait for another crisis to get the outdoors community back.

It’s a classic case where the majority count on the minority to make one hundred percent of the progress.

It’s a classic case where the majority count on the minority to make one hundred percent of the progress.

This winter, another crisis, another hunter. He said:

“My town council is trying to ban hunting, and I really need the OFAH’s help.”

We said:

“The OFAH will be there!

Oh, and by the way, your OFAH membership is expired.

We need your help, too.”

The future of OFAH membership is shaped by many symptoms including economics and demographics. Apathy, however, is our greatest threat.

In the words of Martin Luther King, “Our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that matter.”

In year 2038, the good old days of hunting and fishing are still being invented by a next generation of OFAH members – members who followed in the footsteps of those who fought for the outdoor opportunities they enjoy today. They chose the front line over the free ride. They trumped apathy with passion and they joined the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters for all the right reasons. And the hat and knife were just a bonus.

Indeed, the future of hunting and fishing are alive and well today because the OFAH membership never stopped making a difference. Hunting and fishing are in our DNA, and no matter how much society will change, the majority will always count OFAH’s united approach to make gains for individual pursuits.IMG_20140930_075556_edit

Once upon a time, a father and son stopped suddenly on a trail. A partridge flushed and the .410 went off. Big smiles; pats on the back; and a quick photo to mark the spot on the trail of the boy’s first bird.

The father said, “Promise that you will always protect hunting.”

The boy said, “I promise, Dad.”

The trail to OFAH membership success is told with thousands of these important stories. After all, the OFAH is about people and passion. We are an organization for the future not the past.  Once upon a time is written today.

Welcome to the future.