Sunday, 9 July 2017

It's more than just a numbers' game.

It’s back to the "numbers theme" for this second short post about the maxim “More is not necessarily better.” This time I want to talk about the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), and what appears increasingly to be a numbers game for an organisation once described as “Europe’s most successful consumer movement”.

In the previous article I referred to  “Channel Draught”, the magazine published by Dover, Deal and Sandwich CAMRA Branch. I picked up a copy of this excellent and informative publication, whilst in Dover last week, and in the “National News” there was a snippet about CAMRA and its growing membership.

West Kent CAMRA members - anyone under 50?
Apparently membership of the organisation continues to increase, and has now passed the 185,000 mark. CAMRA now has more members than any of the UK’s political parties; with the exception of the Labour Party. With an annual increase in members of just under 10,000 the Campaign now ranks amongst the country’s top membership organisations.

But is this fixation on numbers necessarily a good thing? Is CAMRA concentrating so much on increasing its membership that it has taken its eye off the ball in other areas? Most importantly, are the people who are rushing to join CAMRA in their droves, the type(s) of people CAMRA wants or indeed needs? Are they the people who will take the organisation forward, and will take up the mantle, and the burden, currently carried by an increasingly aging, and sadly dwindling, group of active members?

I had a conversation along these lines a couple of weeks ago, whilst attending a function in London. I was in a pub, with a group of beer writers, and I was leaning  against the bar talking to a person who, like me was a former activist within his local CAMRA branch. Unfortunately I can’t remember his name, but with a similar background we had much in common when it came to discussing the Campaign for Real Ale.

The new and the old. Tim Page (L), Michael Hardman (R)
CAMRA’s obsession with numbers cropped up on a number of occasions, but neither of us could quite pin-point whether this has arisen following the appointment, in November 2015, of Tim Page as CAMRA’s new Chief Executive, or whether the Campaign had embarked on its membership crusade beforehand. Tim, who has a background of working for various charities, does seem to be concentrating very much on increasing CAMRA membership, and his appointment does seems to have raise a few eyebrows and ruffled a few feathers. This may just be due to people not liking change, but there has been some criticism recently of a lack of direction within the organisation.

The much vaunted “Revitalisation Campaign” seems to have run out of steam, and kicked into touch. It’s findings, which were not exactly revolutionary, will be debated, and presumably voted on, at the 2018 Member’s Weekend & AGM, which will take place in Derby.
In the meantime, CAMRA seems to be struggling at grass-roots level, despite the large increase in membership. If proof were needed of this, the very same issue of “Channel Draught” contained an advertisement for a new Branch Pubs  Officer, to replace the current incumbent who will be standing down at the branch AGM. The ad also advised of a number of other vacant positions on the Branch Committee, including those if Treasurer and Social Secretary. It went on to warn that if these vacancies were not filled, the branch would struggle to operate and the branch might even “become defunct and close.”

Pensioner's outing? West Kent CAMRA  on a day out
Unfortunately my own local West Kent Branch are in exactly the same predicament. Our former long-standing chairman stood down at last November’s AGM, due to ill health, and his replacement has also advised, that because of business and family commitments, he will not continue as Chairman beyond this year’s meeting. We have also not had a functioning Social Secretary for the past six months; as again the former incumbent, who did an excellent job carrying out this vital, but often thankless task, also stood down last November.

With no-one to fill these key roles, the branch will be rudderless, and the danger is that West Kent CAMRA Branch could also struggle and ultimately fold. We have over 600 members on our books, but we are lucky to see half dozen of then at branch meetings and socials.

Where are all these other members who CAMRA have recruited recently? Are they just prepared to pay their subs, get their Spoons Vouchers and then flick occasionally through the pages of “What’s Brewing”? We could certainly do with some of them coming forward, although to be fair, we do get all sorts of people turning up to help at our annual beer festival, run in conjunction with the Spa Valley Heritage Railway each October.

So in the end, the Campaign for Real Ale is much more than just a game of numbers, and to draw this piece to an end, I wish to pose a couple of questions:

  1. “Will the findings of the Revitalisation Exercise offset the alarming decline in active members, due largely to increasing age, by inspiring the large numbers of younger people who have joined in recent years, to become more involved?” 
  2. “If this doesn’t happen, can CAMRA continue purely as an “armchair” organisation?”

I don’t want to pre-empt anything, but I’m fairly certain I already know the answers.


Cooking Lager said...

Why don't you get of your own arse and do it if it's that's important to you?

Ian Worden said...

Another thought-provoking piece. I don't expect the Revitalisation Project to have any impact at all given that CAMRA has changed from an organisation that really did campaign (members turning up for marches to try to save breweries, for example) to something more like the National Trust where filling in a direct debit for membership gives a warm glow of having 'done something' for the cause without moving from your armchair but also, importantly, opens up a world of discounts. NT members get cheap access to historic buildings and gardens and CAMRA members to beer festivals as well as money off pints in some pubs - I've even seen the odd letter in local newsletters where a member was aghast at not being given 50p off in a GBG pub. Perhaps it's time to replace 'Campaign' with a more appropriate title?

I was active in CAMRA in the 80s and early 90s until work commitments (at the time I was spending 25% of my nights in hotels) made me cut back but I think the situation was very much the same as you say today - a core of active members with few new faces at meetings even though the membership recruitment teams at our festivals did a good job. When I first joined in about 1981 I lived in North London and the local branch relentlessly insisted on holding all meetings on a Tuesday, so I never went as I always met a group of friends on a Tuesday. Non-activism can be as simple as that. I then moved to SW London, where the branch varied the days of meetings, so I started going.

My main initial motivation for joining was that I travelled a bit and used the GBG and also local guides, but it was hard to find where to buy the latter. WB listed them and I was eventually able to get a collection covering the whole country, which proved invaluable. Nowadays you can look on the internet and very few branches seem to produce local guides anymore.

Curmudgeon said...

Not a problem unique to CAMRA, of course.

It seems, for whatever reason, that younger people no longer have an appetite for that kind of "committee work" - but, of course, the current active members did have when they were in their twenties.

I think a different and less formal way of operating at a local level, making more use of the Internet and social media, needs to evolve.

The 2018 AGM is at Warwick University on the outskirts of Coventry, btw, not Derby. A location that makes it more difficult for day visitors to attend because it's a long way from the railway station.

Dave said...

Interesting topic and I think it is common to a lot of mature organizations. As a user of CAMRA publications and information I hate to see the organization run out of steam. I do think there is a lot of value in it. So two personal thoughts:

1) I do see a lot of openings to lead local groups. Are the local groups defined too small? Would creating bigger areas where you need one secretary rather than two make more sense now? I believe two of the Norfolk regions merged to work more efficiently.

2) Finally, I think that to an extent the focus of CAMRA is really changing. Defending real ale is a part of the task, but from a distance it seems that getting people into pubs is the real focus of conversation. I believe one of the largest benefits from CAMRA is the travel side of the writing. I think an even greater focus on beer travel would encourage people to visit areas for their pubs. I read one blog that asked "where is England's Bamberg?" I would argue all over.

Not exactly inline with your passive membership focus, but I do think a lot of passive members use CAMRA for the second item. More focus on creative uses of the organization may pull more people into the active membership.

Dave said...

One follow up question. You mention this: "we are lucky to see half dozen of them at branch meetings and socials." Yet it appears that beer festivals are fairly well attended. (I assume some of the absent members are the people who attend beer festivals.) Right now, from a distance, it looks like rating the pubs\beer is a bit of job. Have branches tried creative ways to get people to rate the pubs\beer? I am thinking of ticker books. If you complete X number of pubs, you get two free pints at the local beer fest. Not an earth shaking idea, but you get the idea. Playing off the fact that people like to tick... Make it a game.

Paul Bailey said...

Cooking Lager - You've completely missed the point; but not for the first time, I'm sure. Any fool with access to a keyboard, and hiding behind a nome de plume can make cheap jibes.

As for getting off my arse, I've been doing it for the last 30+ years, and it's someone else's turn now!

Mudge, thanks for the correction about next year's AGM. I'm not sure why I thought it was in Derby; teach me to check before publishing!

Your suggestion about using social media, is something a few of us have tried; and with some success. We have set up a WhatsApp group, which we use to arrange impromptu get-togethers and informal activities, such as pub walks and rambles.

Ian and Dave, there are some interesting points you have raised between you. Thank-you. I will get back to you both shortly, once I've had a chance to give proper consideration to your suggestions.

John Buckley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Bailey said...

Ian and John, it’s interesting that you have similar experiences to both myself and my local branch. I was going to say it’s “heartening”, but that’s not really the right way to be viewing these shared problems.

It does seem that people are joining CAMRA for what they can get out of the organisation, in terms of membership benefits, rather than what they can actually contribute. This rather defeats the object of recruiting more members, if they’re just going to pay their subs, and sit on their backsides – akin to National Trust membership, as you point out Ian.

As for this 50p discount off a pint, which some members seem to expect; well in my 40 years as a member, I’ve never once asked for money off a pint, and wouldn’t dream of doing so. Pubs are struggling, and that 50p probably represents the measly profit a landlord might expect on a pint, so why try and impoverish the poor licensee?

Dave, merging branches might work, but it does depend on communication links - especially public transport ones. You mention Norfolk as an example, but the county is quite sparsely populated; certainly when compared to Kent. There is mileage in what you say though, as for historic reasons, Kent almost certainly has too many branches.

With regards to monitoring beer quality and availability, WhatPub is proving an invaluable tool in this respect, but when it comes to actually inputting GBG entries onto the central GBG database, this is a very time-consuming task, which requires much attention to detail. WhatPub, of course, also needs a person to act as administrator at branch level, otherwise much of the information inputted, will be wasted.

It would be nice to think we could motivate festival volunteers to do some of this work, but realistically speaking we are just glad that they turn up to help at the festival.

As pointed out earlier, a more flexible, less formal approach to branch socials, which bypasses “What’s Brewing” and it’s ridiculously lengthy deadlines, is certainly one way forward. That way branches can bypass the Social Secretary’s role, and be much more spontaneous.

Finally, I wonder how much of the problems we all have mentioned, and have experience of with regard to branches struggling, is actually getting back to St Albans. Precious little, I would wager, and even when it does, there seems to be very much a “head in the sand” approach by a leadership focussed solely on increasing membership.

Dave said...

I can pretty much guarantee your knowledge and opinion on this subject is more accurate than mine! Thanks for the well thought out reply.

Matt said...

The National Trust analogy is a very apt one, a large organisation of mostly inactive members who pay their direct debit because they're vaguely in favour of what it does and get some benefits in return. Added to that is the perception, right or wrong, that the campaign to save cask beer has been won, its future is now secure and the crusading zeal of the 70s is no longer required.

One thing an ever expanding membership does allow you to do though is employ more full-time staff who in the future will inevitably increasingly substitute for and take on the roles now undertaken by volunteer activists, the kind of servicing organisation which many trade unions have effectively become.

Curmudgeon said...

"Have branches tried creative ways to get people to rate the pubs\beer? I am thinking of ticker books."

Beer scoring is primarily online now, of course. Our branch used to have a quarterly raffle for people who had submitted beer scores, but the conclusion was that it didn't really make any different to the level of interest.

Also a perennial problem is that 50% of the scores are recorded by about four pubs.

Curmudgeon said...

A pity that John Buckley deleted his comment as it included some worthwhile points.

There's an assumption in all this, though, that "campaigning" is per se a worthwhile activity, regardless of what it's campaigning about. While I remain an active member of CAMRA on the basis that the organisation as a whole is a GOOD THING, I tend to feel many of its actual campaigns are barking up the wrong tree or flogging dead horses.

Cooking Lager said...

Heh, that touched a nerve. But you did not answer. You clearly think CAMRA is a worthwhile endeavour. Yet you are not on the committee? You seem to think others should give up the time to do so. Why should others do what you are unwilling?

It's not important to me. I just like the spoons tokens, discounts & beer magazine. That's my reason for not doing it. Whether you like that or not is your problem not mine. I'm not about to start caring about CAMRA through your disapproval that I don't.

It's important to you. So I ask again. Why not get off your arse and do it yourself?

Paul Bailey said...

"Why should others do what you are unwilling?" Because Cooking Lager, I spent 30+ years on the committee of my local branch, holding a variety of positions, carrying out GBG surveys, helping to run beer festivals, to say nothing of writing and editing a couple of branch magazines.

It's my turn for a rest now, and what irritating wind-up merchants, who have to hide behind a false persona, think about CAMRA, or anything else for that matter, is totally irrelevant to me.

Curmudgeon said...

Maybe Cookie would care to explain what motivated him to serve on a CAMRA branch committee.

There's a fine line between being a wind-up merchant and just being a tosser.

Paul Bailey said...

CAMRA is definitely at a major crossroads, and probably more so than it was before the “Revitalisation Campaign” was launched. It would appear from what has been published so far that the organisation is trying to be all things to all men (an women, of course), but there is always a danger in trying to appeal to everyone, as you can often end up pleasing no-one and upsetting everyone.

I don’t want to go into too much detail but if I can cite one example, the failure to spin off APPLE as a separate campaign, was a lost opportunity, which leaves CAMRA saddled with promoting a drink which has no relation to beer, and which diverts resources away from campaigning for the latter.

Curmudgeon mentions too many nebulous or totally unnecessary Campaigns, and CAMRA has certainly been guilty of this over the years. Looking at the current campaigns on the CAMRA website, there seems to be rather too much style and very little substance; too many grand gestures, which are not backed up by grassroots campaigning. It’s almost as though CAMRA has decided to go into politics!

Matt mentions that full-time staff, paid for out of subscriptions from the increasing membership, might be the way forward; but again this is far too removed for my liking, from the grassroots campaigning organisation I joined back in the mid-1970’s.

It’s not all bad though, and one area where I think CAMRA has really shone is on the publications side; as the organisation has produced and published some excellent books, across a wide spectrum of beer and pub related topics.

The social side of CAMRA is another important facet, and one which I particularly enjoy, as I’m sure many other members do as well. If the Campaign were to fold, then I think this important aspect would continue, albeit in a looser and perhaps less formal way than at present.

So I feel it is a question of “watch this space,” and see which, if any, of the “Revitalisation Committee’s” recommendations are adopted.

Dave said...

I could not agree more about the success of the publications. Great quality. They are definitely encouraging people to visit pubs. A definite success. And blogs like this one as well. Frankly, this blog is doing your part. And you don't have to get off your arse to write it.

Cooking Lager said...

If this is trolling it is certainly effective given the reaction. Thank you for the answer. To spend 30 years on an endeavour the beery campaign must have meant a great deal to you. I can see why you may be sad it does not mean the same to others. You are not so old and decrepit that you had to quit it, though? If it still meant to you what it used to, then maybe you’d discover the inclination?

Though it remains my central point to ask others what you are unwilling to do yourself is a hypocrisy. The failure of others to take up the reigns is in fact your own failure and that of the commentators that agree with you that it should be done, but it’s now someone else’s job. Old men wishing to send young men to war and horrified to discover the young men have their own opinions and don’t consider the fight worth it.

Many young people are politically active, on issues that matter to them, that they have decided for themselves. If I were a recent graduate, I’d think of more worthy causes than what bitter got sold in pubs.

Maybe try to appreciate why a new generation do not consider it important enough to bother with? A 40-year-old campaign is hardly relevant to todays young gentleman drinker, I would guess.

As for Mudgie’s opinion. Have you noticed that disagreeing with him gets comments removed from his blog? Not least calling someone a tosser. Playing the man, not the ball. It's too easy to get Mudgie biting his fist.

But his question also deserves an answer. A few years ago, I was looking for something in life and joined a number of organisations. A political party. Charity work. I found what I was looking for and quit what didn’t. CAMRA was one of those quit. Whilst a nice bunch of people, the endeavour was basically pointless & most of the effort a waste of time. Those that do it seemed happy enough, but it wasn’t my bag. I could never get over the basic waste of time of the whole thing.

Curmudgeon said...

The only comments I've removed have been offensive ones.

Paul Bailey said...

I’m glad you are enjoying the blog, Dave. I enjoy writing and researching it, and it keeps me out of mischief as well!.

With the exception of Cooking Lager, who I will reply to later, a big thank-you to everyone for their constructive and positive contributions. They have been both welcome and informative.

Paul Bailey said...

Cooking Lager, I am “not so old and decrepit that I had to quit.” More a question of I fancied a rest and doing something different with my time. To be truthful, CAMRA doesn’t mean as much to me as it used to, but that doesn’t mean I want to see the organisation wither and die.

You could be right of course when you say a 40-year-old campaign is hardly relevant to today’s young “gentleman drinker”, but then why are people joining CAMRA in their droves? The point I wish to clear up is, I am not asking others to do what I am now unwilling to do myself; I am merely asking why people are becoming members of an organisation with the word “Campaign” in its title, only to sit on their backsides?

As for, “old men wishing to send young men to war and horrified to discover the young men have their own opinions and don’t consider the fight worth it,” that’s been the truth since time immemorial; although there’s a world of difference between laying down your life for a cause you might or might not believe in, and spending a few hours each week doing enjoyable “stuff” for CAMRA.

Mudge has stated you once served on a CAMRA committee, so I am rather puzzled by your incessant knocking, and off-hand dismissal of the organisation; especially as it must have meant something to you in the past.

Anyway, that’s more than enough time wasted answering your pointless and rather provocative questions. It’s one thing hiding behind the cavalier, “jack-the-lad” persona you like to project, but there’s a real world out there, and whilst you think it’s all a bit of a laugh, you may find it will jump up and bite you one day!

Dave said...

CL, you mention above "hitting a nerve." The fact that you continue to hammer the same theme is really the only nerve you hit. It's just a bit tiresome after a while. You claim "it wasn’t my bag. I could never get over the basic waste of time of the whole thing" yet you feel compelled to relentlessly post comments on the topic. If it isn't your bag, just leave it. Let it go. It should be easy to walk away.

qq said...

Interesting that you mention Labour - I've heard a lot of comments about how their huge increase in membership has not translated into into a lot of activity at monthly meetings, although they were able to get some of the new members out onto the ground for the election. I think that's a general pattern - it's like how pre-Corbyn the youth of today were perceived as not being very party political but get very political about particular issues.

Part of it is that the young have lots of opportunities for week-to-week socialising, so they don't need a formal structure for that in the same way that middle-aged people do. But you can't ignore the huge social changes that have happened since the early 70s. Two big ones are that women have entered the workforce in a big way, which in turn has meant the age of first baby has gone up massively, it went up something like 8 years in 2 decades.

Two consequences - blokes have a lot less free time as they're having to do some of the chores/child wrangling that was formerly done by wives/girlfriends. And you no longer have that cohort of 40/50-something men who still have lots of energy but are looking for something to do as their kids have flown the nest (or are looking to get away from teenage children). But those in their 20's are not twiddling their thumbs wondering what to do with all the free time they've got now that they're not raising children - although they can divert some of that free time for specific "projects".

That's before you get into the cultural change that has happened, the rise of "craft" for want of a better word. It's not clear-cut, it's a normal distribution where I know a teenage girl who loves her brown cask ale and I'm sure there's 70 year-olds who love a DIPA - but to generalise wildly above about 40 "good beer" is associated with cask, under 40's see good beer as coming in cans, kegs, bottles or cask. In the past CAMRA membership has been a way to show support for "good beer" - but by tying themselves so tightly to one method of dispense that's no longer the case. So it no longer feels like a "campaign" to younger members unless there's something specific like campaigning to save a pub.

As for the social aspect - I think it's fair to say that going drinking with the average 60-something CAMRA beardy is perhaps not the most attractive option for young'uns, particularly women. Plus the practicalities of beery socials have changed - drink driving laws have tightened, local government cuts may mean that there's no buses after 6pm. That's concentrated the active membership into the big towns, which in turn starts feeling cliquey (qv the comment about ratings being concentrated in four pubs). Maybe bigger branches would help, if there's a critical mass in more than one big town in a branch then that would force people to get out and about more.

Maybe the answer is to have a under-40 branch so that the kids don't have to hang out with the old beards, but it gives them some organisation to be deployed for things like festivals. Maybe have a seating area set aside at festivals for "young CAMRA" to let them get to know each other and form those personal bonds that can later be leveraged for CAMRA's good?

Oh, and I completely disagree with you Paul about cider - it may be a different drink but >80% of its problems are the same as cask ale, notably HMRC and the tied system, and it wouldn't be efficient to duplicate campaigning on those issues. I don't drink it much myself, but I regard say 30% of my CAMRA membership fee as being for cider.

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks for your extensive and well thought out comments, qq. There’s not much in your piece that I would disagree with, as I think you have encapsulated the changes which have taken place, both in society in general, and within the beer scene in particular, during the past four decades since the Campaign for Real Ale was founded.

I can definitely identify with the rising age of the first baby; 36 in the case of my wife and I, but 24 for my parents. I also appreciate what you say about youngsters not being particularly keen to go drinking with 60-something beardies, although in defence, we’re not all boring old farts, and we don’t all sport beards!

CAMRA’s obsession with dispense is not helping either, as the world of brewing has moved on in leaps and bounds since the days of the Big Six and their appalling national keg brands.

I think the issue which swung the debate in favour of keeping cider within the Campaign, was not so much shared issues, but a realisation that many small cider producers rely on CAMRA beer festivals for a large part of their sales. There was a concern that some could go under if they were to lose what was, in effect, a guaranteed source of income.

Interesting times!

Liam K said...

Well based on the email igot today I have to agree. They've now moved to rewarding you for referring people to CAMRA. First 50 refers get £10 as does the person who joins...

Paul Bailey said...

"They've now moved to rewarding you for referring people to CAMRA. First 50 refers get £10 as does the person who joins."

I rest my case,the Campaign is now little more than a numbers game!