Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Way Forward?

There was an article published, a month or so ago, in CAMRA’s "What's Brewing" newspaper in which correspondent Neil Harvey from Tyneside branch, argues the case for scrapping CAMRA branch meetings, and conducting all business via Facebook or Twitter instead.  He claims that  "it's either evolution or extinction for the campaign", arguing that unless CAMRA fully embraces modern technology it will fail to attract younger members and, as the older ones pass into obscurity then so will CAMRA itself. 

Whilst not quite willing to go all the way down that route, after all you can’t beat a good get together in a decent pub over a few pints, Neil does have a point. Formal branch meetings tend to be long and boring; such meetings are bad enough at work, so why subject oneself to more of the outside the workplace? Fortunately I’m no longer on the committee of my local branch, so no longer feel pressurised into attending such events. The trouble is, many of my fellow branch members would agree, as evidenced by the fact that few, if any, non-committee members turn up to what are billed as "open branch business meetings". With stuffy, out-dated, formal proceedings: “Point of order Mr Chairman,”; “Put it to the vote”; “Minute that, please secretary”, it's small wonder  that most younger members, as well as quite a few older ones, are put off attending such meetings.

Socials though are different and are definitely something that local branches should be encouraging. Over more years than I care to remember, my local branch (West Kent) has struggled to attract members to our socials; to say nothing of the aforementioned formal branch meetings! We have tried mailing people who live locally before holding a social in their particular town or village; we have tried adverts in the local paper and advanced notices via the branch website, but all to no avail. It seems that barring a few exceptions, we are stuck with the same old faces week in week out. Meetings, of course, are advertised each month in “What’s Brewing”, but judging by the poor attendance do people bother to consult the “Branch Diary” section? Or is what we are currently offering just not appealing to the majority of our 450 odd members?

Over the course of the last few years we have changed tack and have been updating members by e-mail instead..  This approach seems slowly to be working, but current data protection/anti-spam legislation means that members have to actively “opt in” to the e-mail circulation list before we can contact them. Over the years the numbers on the list does seem to have grown steadily, meaning we can inform more and more of our members about up and coming events.

As mentioned above, branch socials, along with business meetings, are listed in “What’s Brewing”, but the ridiculously short deadlines for notifying events for listing in the paper, does mean that the branch diary often has to be arranged weeks in advance,  leaving little opportunity for change or alterations to take place nearer the time. In short, the system is inflexible and arguably outdated.

Recently the branch has found a way around this by holding “unofficial” socials. It was realised, quite a long time ago, that there was just a small hardcore of members turning up to socials, and trips out, on a regular basis. This was especially true of events held at weekends or to places further afield. A number of us decided to start organising additional trips, either by public transport, or as part of a walk in the country, on days that didn’t clash with official branch events, staying in touch with each other by e-mail, and circulating details about travel arrangements, best pubs to visit etc amongst ourselves. This arrangement seemed to work quite well, and to date we have conducted various walks to hard to get to country pubs, and have also had days out to towns such as Lewes, Canterbury and indeed London, together with visits to the Kent Beer Festival and GBBF. 
As these unofficial and informal socials seemed to be working well, we decided to publicise them to a wider audience, by circulating details, by e-mail, on the branch mail-out system. This has led to other activities taking place, such as historic pub tours, (one of our committee members is a qualified “Blue Badge” tourist guide, and is happy to organise such tours). These events are now being publicised on the West Kent CAMRA Facebook page as well, and in turn members prescribing to the page have been putting up their own suggestions for walks/trips out etc, along with suitable dates. The whole thing is starting to snowball and become self-perpetuating, which has to be a good thing.

Obviously because these practices by-pass “What’s Brewing”, they have to remain unofficial, but it does seem to be the way forward in encouraging people to support their local branch, and to actually get involved.

I wonder what the views of other branches are on this matter?


Barm said...

I don't think there is actually any rule that an event isn't official unless listed in What's Brewing, is there?

John Clarke said...

As I think I posted to Neil Harvey, I really don't recognise this description of branch meetings. We have a monthly committee meeting where the boring stuff gets done while the monthly branch meetings last about an hour or do (unless it's the GBG selection meeting) and then we try and have some sort of event - quize, met the brewer, cider tasting - that sort of thing. This started about 18 months ago wheer we sat down and decided an "attraction strategy" whereby eahc meeting would be kept short and have something added on to entice people along.

We also have a quarterly newsletter whch we send out to all our barnch members which has the diary on one page, and news about the GBG, our beer festival and stuff on the other.

What we don't have at meetings is all this "point of order" malarkey - we have the occasional vote on policy issues but everything is kept as informal as possible. As I said to Neil, don't scrap meetings (that's the easy and defeatist way out) but work hard to make them something people want to come along to.

I think additional informal evenrs are a good idea - do you have abranch email newsgroup as this can be a good vehicle for arranging things like this.

By the way, I wouldn't worry too much about not appealing to the majority of your members - most organisations are lucky if they get 10% active - and you wouldn't want 250 people turning up to a branch meetings would you?

Tyson said...

John, of course, naturally runs a fine-tuned branch:) A meeting lasting only an hour? Heaven! Sadly the desciption of points of order etc rings all too true for many branches. Whilst personally being comfortable with that type of structured meeeting, it has to be said it is a massive turn-off for younger members.

I think meetings need to be streamlined and more formal business done off-grid if we hope to encourage younger members to take up the mantle.

jesusjohn said...

As a CAMRA member still in his 20s, I must say I'm not put off by the "anyone object to this amendment?" style of meeting at all (fond memories of my time at the university Labour Club...) but nevertheless the few CAMRA meetings I've been to have - and I tread carefully here - been populated almost exclusively with 50-something men and a smattering of similarly aged women.

For better or worse, to the average young whipper-snapper, that just feels a bit odd.

I realise saying this might unleash an avalanche of "but at my branch, we have a very nice young 20-something woman who always feels welcome". I'm sure this is true, but it is clearly the exception (hence the constant refrain that we need to get "to get young people involved").

But I wonder whether this is really a cause for concern. Like Radio 4 listenership, I suspect this is something people fall into as they get older. We worry that CAMRA volunteering will fall off a cliff, but do a steady stream of 50-somethings come in and offer their time? If so, I'm not really worried.

But as a CAMRA member, my big bugbear is the necessity to be present at the AGM to vote. Nationwide Building Society send out AGM voting forms and the Labour Party votes for its NEC by electronic and postal ballot. I know the "if they really care, they would turn up" argument holds sawy with some CAMRA stalwarts, but I'm sorry - with that level of membership (and the revenues that stem from it), CAMRA's executive itself has a responsibility to maintain its legitimacy by seeking legitimacy from the whole membership.

Paul Bailey said...

Some interesting points raised here, particularly with regard to John Clarke's sugestion of holding an event after the main meeting to entice people along. Our own branch business meetings only take place every two months, which is probably too long an interval. It tends to make for lengthy meetings with little room for a "fun" event afterwards. Part of the problem is finding a pub that is quiet enough for the proper conduct of a meeting. I have lost count of the number of times people have had to shout in order to make themselves heard above the racket emmenating from the pub's sound system. Asking some pub staff to turn the volume down, either brings a blank look of sheer disbelief or, worse, outright hostility!

In answer to John's question about a branch e-mail newsgroup, we don't have one as such, but instead have found that the branch Facebook page works well in this respect.

I know the problem of "sleeping" non-active members is prevalent in most organisations and not just confined to CAMRA, but because of the totally laudable requirement to be "inclusive", and try and involve all branch members, we have to notify them via "What's Brewing". As I mentioned in my post, this can often be a very inflexible arrangement, which is why we have tried the "unofficial" approach.

Jesusjohn, I think you may well be correct with your Radio Four analogy, although having said that it would still be nice to see some younger faces at our meetings.

I wholeheartedly agree with you over the thorny issue of voting at the National AGM. However, I feel this is a separate issue to that of appealing to a younher audience, but it still definitely is one that CAMRA needs to address.

John Clarke said...

I think it is important that CAMRA branch meetings are held in a separate room with a door rather than being just wedged into the corner of a pub. Even if this restricts your number of venues it's still worthwhile.

My branch holds virtually all of its meetings in central Stockport but the monthly committee meetings travel around the branch area to "show the flag" as it were.

Steve Lamond said...

yes, nothing wrong with advertising event sin branch newsletter or branch website if the deadline for WB has been missed. If those who read WB bothered to turn up to branch meetings they'd no doubt hear about the socials in any case.

Meetings are generally too long, people have a tendency to get bogged down into semantics or anecdotes about who might be moving where or why somewhere serves a pint better than the next place, if all voting on branch issues was moved online, these kinds of things could be chatted about in socials.

Paul Bailey said...

John, pubs with separate rooms have more or less vanished in this part of the country, and the only two I know that still have such a facility, are not the sort of pubs that would appeal to our current attendees, let alone new faces! A pity really, as it would make business meetings a lot easier.

Steve, you are right in what you say about people who bother to turn up hearing about other branch activities; the problem is getting them to turn up in the first place!