ChapterGram: August 2013
Ideas for Attracting Younger Members to Your Chapter
The following submission was e-mailed to Mac McClellan by Josh Esser (EAA 1056966), member of Chapter 30, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Josh candidly talks about some of the obstacles we have in getting younger folks involved in our chapters.
As I have been reading Sport Aviation, Experimenter, and AOPA's and COPA's magazines, I continue to see comments about the need to inject young blood into our organizations, but the fact seems to be that though this need exists, it does not seem to have become an actuality.
I am a 25-year-old private pilot. My wife is a 25-year-old Lear 35 first officer. At our wedding in May, we had over 50 attendees who were younger than 30 and held either a commercial or a private pilot license. Obviously our case is a little different than most, but my point is that there are lots of pilots under 30 out there, but not one of them that I personally know is involved in a flying organization chapter of any sort that I am aware of, except for myself.
So why are none of these young pilots in clubs? Our first problem with injecting young blood into the organization is that no outsiders know where they are or anything about them. You may have a fly-in breakfast or something hosted by your chapter, but the only people that hear about it are other chapters. This lack of outreach has a big impact.
When I was living in my hometown, I was interested in joining a chapter or club. When I found out that there was no local EAA chapter, I found the phone number for the president of the local COPA chapter. I called him up, and he briefly told me there was a meeting the first Tuesday of every month at the Air Force Association building. He did not sound excited or inviting, and so when it got closer to the date, I forgot all about it. I like to think that I might have ended up at that meeting if I was given an enthusiastic invitation and if my contact information was received with a subsequent phone call a few days ahead of time to remind me about the meeting, plus a reaffirmation that they would want me there. I think there was a good chance I would have been there.
But the root of the problem is that everybody who wants to join a club has to first want to join and then has to go through the process of finding that club. There are programs all over the U.S. and Canada that are full of young people who fly or want to fly. Namely, programs like the Civil Air Patrol, the Royal Canadian Air Cadets (probably has the most successful pilot licensing program for teens in the world), and many flight college programs across the country. How many clubs have ever approached the leaders of these programs and spoken to the youth and young adults about your chapters? I think that number is probably less than 1 percent.
In reality, you are only going to get chapter growth from the flight college programs, but it is good to instill the seeds early into the teen programs as well. There are literally thousands of 20-year-olds learning to fly across the U.S. and Canada right now who are in commercial college-based flight programs. Do you think this next generation that has clearly demonstrated its passion for flying may want to be involved in a program full of like-minded individuals? I would like to believe that there is a good chance. It therefore would be great if a couple of proactive members actually came and gave a presentation for what EAA is all about. Don't make the young pilots find the chapter; show them where it is.
When I relocated to my current city, I joined a COPA chapter and an EAA chapter. When I asked my wife if she wanted to come to one of the meetings with me, she crinkled up her nose and said, "I don't want to go to an old boys club and talk to a bunch of crusty old guys. Half of them are so out of touch with the type of flying I do, yet try to argue with me when I try to talk to them about the stuff I do every day at my job." (I am paraphrasing a bit, but you get the point.)
The chapter has zero to offer her. What can we do to offer the younger generation value to their membership? First of all, we need to have an open mind. New members have new opinions, and the students in these flight programs are highly trained in air law. Maybe members have never heard of what they are talking about, but that doesn't mean it isn't true. I have heard of other chapters reducing the rate for younger-than-30-year-olds to $10. That is beside the point. To them it is still a wasted $10.
Before we cut our membership rates, why don't we increase our chapter membership value? For example, when I first went to my new chapters meeting, I had to go out of my way to talk to people and meet acquaintances. If I didn't make that move, I would have sat in the corner and not talked to anyone all night. I am a very outgoing guy, so this was easy for me; but it may not be as easy for the next guy. It is easy to add value to a new membership; you need to make new members feel welcome. I mean really welcome. Don't just say hi and walk away. Talk to them; ask them about their flying experiences, what they are flying now, and what they want to fly.
I understand that with younger people it may be hard to find engaging topics due to the age gap, but they are there because they like airplanes! And you like airplanes, too, so you have a whole breadth of topics to talk about now.
I would go as far as to say that new members need to be assigned a flying veteran member as a mentor. A one-on-one contact who they can ask questions, a mentor who will call them to remind them to come, a mentor who will call them midweek and say, "I'm going for a spin. You want to jump in? If you help me wash the bugs off when we are done, we will call it even." Don't split fuel costs or anything for these new members. You were going flying anyway, so take them for the trip. If they offer to pay for some gas, so be it.
A young person will have a lot of expenses between tuition payments and higher-than-ever living costs. You don't want them to turn down a ride because they can't afford it. One day they will be able to afford it, and I would bet my bottom dollar they will pay it forward to the next generation. Do you think a new member who gets to tag along with a member who is going flying anyway, getting a couple of free flights a month, would see some value in membership? I sure do. If you don't have a plane but you have a project, maybe you can invite them over and show them what a cleco is and how to buck rivets. It takes very little effort by the chapter members to make the new members feel appreciated. Plus an extra set of hands is sometimes great to have.
I like the new EAA Chapter Video Magazine. I think there is a lot of production value and good information in that video. Unfortunately, showing that video and then doing nothing more at your meeting will not resonate with the younger crowd. Why?
Young people are more tech savvy. They will ask the question, "Why can't I just watch this from home? Did I really have to drive 30 minutes to watch this episode that could have just been e-mailed to me monthly as part of my membership?" I am not trying to discredit the video; just make sure you have some other content instead of turning the lights back on and telling everyone that's all for this month's meeting.
When the chapter is discussing topics, engage the new and younger members. Ask them their opinions, even if they are not well versed in the subject. Have a real conversation about why you may feel differently about a certain subject than they do. I know this seems like simple stuff, but it happens all the time. You may find that the new members from the college flight programs have a lot of knowledge and insight into various discussions.
I find it amazing that pilots who plan every aspect of a flight just want new pilots to join their chapters and wonder why they aren't. We need to approach this recruitment like we would build an airplane. You don't just start throwing plane-like pieces together and hope it flies. No, you need to sit down and think about what you want that plane to do. Once you establish that, you sharpen your pencil and you start to design the plane and get a solid plan together.
Once the plan is on paper and everything checks out, you start to implement your design, ordering the tools and material you need to do the job properly. You start to assemble your plan and check the quality as you go, while learning from mistakes.
So I guess I really am challenging everyone to start putting a plan together. Spread the word of what ideas are working for your chapter and what ideas don't work. I feel that a lot of members talk about wanting younger members, but not many are actually doing something. Maybe we all need to put our heads together and brainstorm on how we can make improvements and get more young people involved.