Thursday, 29 October 2009

Running your Bonsai Life on a Handshake

Chatting online yesterday with @bonsaibanter had brought up an interesting point where the hobby of bonsai in the UK is concerned.

Our discussion touched on big bonsai shows, and @bonsaibanter was of the view that these '...demand a good deal of labour and I wonder how sustainable that is in a volunteer based organisation'.

Now there's the rub.

Most bonsai clubs/associations are run by people who earn bugger-all from the work they put into it. In general, clubs and societies will have started out as a group of like-minded people wanting to share time and resources around their interest. Things tend to go upwards from there, especially if there is already a centralised body that's able to facilitate things for them like speakers, show insurance, resource directories and so on.

And this happy little group of people will continue meeting in a backyard and work on their trees, and their reputation will grow, and more people will come and join them. So they'll move to a larger venue where more people will hear about their happy little group which is now mushrooming like a monolithic blowfish. (Talk about mixed metaphors...)

Which is all well and good until administrational demands kick in, involving the dreaded F-word 'finances' and the other dreaded 4-letter word 'work'.

In my experience, of the number of attendees/members in hobbyist societies, only a very small fraction will volunteer to go onto the steering committees and face the administrative grind that keeps said happy little group alive, functioning and out of trouble. And - again in my experience and especially in artsy-fartsy hobbies like bonsai - the majority of people involved in steering committees tend to be shite at real-world skills like administration. Or possibly they just won't have the experience to be 100% efficient. 'Tend to be' being the active qualifier here, of course.

What about the rest of the club members?

Well, the bulk will probably be people who are of the middle-of-the-road persuasion, willing to chip in if co-opted but preferring to stay out of doing any more work if they can help it. Their primary focus is getting on and developing the skills of their hobby. There's also a smaller group that's primarily in there to socialise. Acquisition of skills is less of a priority than the actual fun & fellowship package. Then there's the artsy-fartsy lot who like to shine. They'll be the ones who'll always want to front giving talks and schmoozing up to 'big names', because their nature is to look for the spotlight. They may accept a figurehead position, but heaven help you if they actually want to run something.

Because, let's face it - the good administrative talent will not be spending their free time doing more admin. They'll already be earning the big bucks at their day job, doing nitty gritty that a lot of people suck at. But for their free time? Very few will be willing to put in the same hours or effort for zero amount of remuneration while staying in the background. Admin is neither fun nor glamourous, peeps. It's just that the people who're good at it have figured out how to do it faster and more efficiently than the rest of mankind.

But the number of people who excel at anything, who are truly GIFTED and TALENTED at it - be it bonsai styling, horticulture, arts or admin - they are few and far between. They probably have the temperament to match their talent, but that's the risk you run with anything. There are also lots of people with monumental ego and bugger-all talent, which is all by the bye.

So if your club is lucky enough to have one or several of these suckers who are willing to give up their free time to do your admin, I'd really suggest you start thanking your lucky stars. And figure out how to drag more of the same in. Because the downside of volunteer work is they can give you the finger and sod off anytime they want to. The upside of course being that you get their time and effort for free (just in case you still haven't figured this out by now).

We are lucky in our little local bonsai club. Many of the members are retired professionals who no longer have the over-arching need to prove anything to anyone, several are very knowledgeable in niche areas like horticulture and styling, and there are also a lot of willing hands to go around. However, when we lost our Treasurer, a Committee member's wife had to be co-opted into doing the role even though she's not a bonsai enthusiast. But she is both faithful and efficient at what she does. Not all societies are as fortunate in having as much talent to hand within an active membership of possibly less than a dozen people.

Lots of people still associate bonsai with big money and cash cows. Wake up and smell the coffee, dudes. The hobby's heyday in the UK is about 10 years past and the market has since matured. The leisure market is full of competition, and in times of recession the average customer isn't going to be chucking his hard-earned cash left, right and centre. No matter how big your UK bonsai club is, it's still going to be dinky small fry in comparison with the gaming industry, for example, which is far better at being enticing. So running a club like a backyard operation will bring you backyard results, and if you aren't good at leveraging whatever freebie resources you have... well then, over time backyard starts turning into backward.

You get the picture.

The people that win in an overcrowded market are those with a lot of savvy... but I'm sure you've had enough of me banging on about marketing and savvy, haven't you? :D

Well if you haven't, and if I haven't posted on it in the next couple of weeks or so, you're just going to have to remind me. Hurrr.

What? Disagree? The Comments box is open...


  1. Maybe only allow membership under the agreement that their is a duty rota for club committee. Say, after 3 years of membership they are obliged to help run things. Of course, some will conventiently drift away when their time comes but perhaps they would not be the club members needed, alternatively set a financial penalty. A deposit to be returned once a committee post has been served.

  2. Hmmm. Could see that working in larger associations the size of the RHS (where mega-££ is involved) or centralised steering bodies. Simply because the concepts of commitment & responsibility would almost be expected.

    In small local clubs, I wonder if that wouldn't be a drawback to getting bums on seats, so to speak.

    But that's the trouble with volunteer organisations, innit? So kudos IMHO to the leaders that are actually able to work with, motivate & produce results from volunteers, 'cause it requires more patience & tact than I'm capable of!

  3. If the stick is not going to work to encourage a contribution to the administration of a club then perhaps a carrot needs to be found for club officials. Let's start with free membership, a free subscription, a gift or even wages. Then that comes back to your original point of finances. It seems that to make a club sustainable is going to take a huge lift in membership fees which itself will then deter membership levels and so reduce available resources.
    The other option is to have a very loose organisation. Merely, book a venue and meet. Venue costs are shared out between those attending but I doubt this would be attractive to new members who, let's face it, want free/cheap tutorship. So there is no financial solution for niche hobby groups.
    The other possibility is to develop the correct club philosophy. That is, that the needs of the group is greater than that of the individual. A bit left-wing perhaps but it is this community spirit that is expected of club officials so there should be no reason to expect it from the rest of the membership. To develop an environment of giving in our current self obsessed society is another matter. It will demand a degree of leadership to overcome this ingrained behaviour and there's the crux.

  4. Perhaps the way to go is for the founders to decide from the onset what sort of membership they want to attract - the cheerful socialites vs the die-hard artists/scientists/geeks - and how they want to live the rest of their club life - mega attendance (come one, come all) vs exclusivity (only the serious need apply).

    However that would also necessitate that the founders would be free of hidden agenda like ego-tripping and veiled business interests.

    So like you said, it's not just the minions but also the leadership that's crucial. The question for me then becomes, what's harder to find - good/honest Chiefs or good/honest Indians?

  5. Good points.
    It seems there is a need for both sorts of club, one for apprentices and one for the artisans. You get to join the artisans after a period as an apprentice. "Elitism" I hear. But joining the artisans could be offered as a reward for running the apprentices.

    Singling out an individuals motives is always going to be a problem. Not everyone is altruistic.