I started writing this morning intending to give a brief update about fun paddling activities. Instead, it turned into the post below about my experience as secretary of a Dutch paddling club over the past 3 years. Apparently I felt that I needed to put this on paper before I could move forward. It wouldn't feel right to only post about some individual paddling experiences, because nearly all of them occurred in the context of the story below.
It's been an incredible learning experience. I regularly find parallels between our small Rotterdam paddling community and other parts of my life where different types of people need to work together: at work, in our home owner association, and even when reading about politics. As someone who doesn't easily approach someone I don't know, this role has given me a means to get to know so many club members, both new and old. And lately, it's been particularly rewarding, and that's what I'm excited to share here.
It feels weird to have to say this, but everything below is my own perspective/experience (not necessarily that of others involved in our club). I'm sure I'm forgetting some important details/contributions - if you're reading this and you think I should add something, please let me know :)
A new role
After thinking about it for a few weeks, I walked up to the then-president and said "I want to be secretary!" and he said "Awesome!" and seemed very relieved, since the position had been vacant for several months.
And so it began. When I started in early 2018, the club leadership wasn't very active, so we didn't have regular meetings. Over the first few months I focused on the administrative/secretarial side of things:
- Cleaning up the membership lists, which had been a bit neglected
- Setting up a Google Drive for club documents, as I was somehow never able to get access to the previous club DropBox
- Setting up an email list-serve (via Google Groups) - previous communication had been using BCC for nearly 100 people, which regularly led to accidentally putting people in CC, forgetting people, and emailing people who were no longer members...
- Automating the emails that remind members to clean the club house when it's their turn
- Setting up the framework for a monthly newsletter, and gathering/generating content
- Getting access to the club website/Facebook, and starting to post more content
Once that was done, I turned my attention to my main goal: improving the new member experience and retention rate. I started by setting up a more standardized introduction process, with the help of Iede, the club's main kayaking instructor. I also wrote about it at the time in this post. I won't go into the details here, but these are the main components:
- Teach the intro course in small groups, rather than individually. This was previously done in a very ad-hoc way - potential members would show up on club evening and get instruction, often alone. While the technical instruction was good, participants didn't always feel like they were "part of the club" at the end.
- Communicate regularly throughout the introduction, to explain the introduction steps, and how to become a member (I think we often forgot to follow up with people who finished the intro class, to explain how to become a member!).
- Set up small WhatsApp groups for each intro class, and a general New Member group where new members can feel free to ask beginner questions, and instructors can share paddling information.
- Offer plenty of beginner-friendly activities, especially towards the end of the summer
- Ensure new members meet many other members during the introduction process, by having different volunteers host them for the test paddle, teach the introduction to kayaking course, and guide beginner trips.
Nerding about statistics
A new team
A bit of club history (~2015 to 2017)
The funny thing is that while the generalizations about the two clubs may be valid on average, there are plenty of members in both clubs whose interests span the full spectrum of paddling styles. Plenty of other clubs in the Netherlands encompass all types of paddling (and more, like whitewater, polo, surfing...), so why can't we?
Since ~2015, when it started to become clear that our clubhouse would require major renovations to address issues with a rotting floor, an idea started drifting around. Why not rebuild the club house together with the neighbors? This idea was floated by a group of (non-member) architect students who were given the assignment to design a new clubhouse. They didn't understand why there were two tiny clubhouses sharing a wall, both of which have changing rooms, kitchens/bars, and a lack of boat storage space. They came up with a beautiful design for a combined future clubhouse, with more boat storage, a canteen near the water, and a big shared open space for paddling activities in the yard. Over two(?) semesters, groups of students continued developing the designs, with occasional input from our club. At the end of the process, around 2017, the club decided to propose the joint construction plan to the neighbors. However, this was more or less a complete surprise to them, and felt like it was coming out of nowhere. They had only recently renovated their showers/changing rooms and did not feel the same urgent need to rebuild their cozy clubhouse. I'm missing a lot of the details and nuance in this history, but I think that captures the general storyline.
Two paddling clubs start dating (2018 - 2019)
That's roughly when I decided to take on the (3-months vacant) secretary role. I volunteered to put together a survey that was sent to members of both clubs, where members could indicate which types of joint activities they would be interested in attending/organizing. We (RCC+ND) used the results to put together a year-long (2019) schedule of joint activities, roughly once month. The clubs organized several fun and well-attended workshops (separately and together), focused on understanding each club's identity and identifying opportunities to grow closer.
Over the next year (2019) the two clubs did lots of activities together!
- A New Years polar bear plunge in the frigid lake
- Three pool sessions (though these were mainly attended by Never Dry members)
- A big Spring Cleaning event, which was well attended by both clubs
- Hosted an Open Day for paddling in Rotterdam
- Learned the basics of canoeing during a popular jointly-taught introduction to canoeing course
- A few Never Dry members paddled in the RCC evening marathon
- Trained for and came in second in the Rotterdam Dragon Boat Race!
- Did weekly winter fitness training together
In each of these activities, individual Never Dry members were meeting individual RCC members - putting names to faces and having fun on (or off) the water together. Though not all members participated in one or more of the events, it was still a success in creating familiarity and connections between the two clubs.
In early 2019, Iede and I had also met with an employee of Rotterdam Sport Support, which is an organization that helps sport clubs improve their long term sustainability, by providing help related to financing, club mergers, attracting new members, and more. That turned out to be the start of a cooperation that continues today.
What we're working on now (2020)
- Many duplicate roles (e.g. board members, various committees) would no longer be needed, freeing up many motivated volunteers to pick up new types of tasks and opportunities.
- All members would have more options in terms of paddling styles, club equipment, and paddling buddies.
- Even when both clubs are combined, we would remain a relatively small club (<200 members), so we don't think the "small club feeling" would be lost.
However, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what the boards think! The members decide with their votes at the club meetings. But before we can vote, there are so many things we need to investigate about what a potential merger might look like. We're defining various joint working groups (like communication, instruction, and finances) who will spend the coming months investigating these topics. The first working groups have already gotten started. I'm part of the communication and instruction teams. We're about to publish our first joint newsletter; from now on members of both clubs will be invited to/aware of all activities. The instruction team is putting together a joint instruction calendar for next year. We also co-developed an updated Introduction to Kayaking course, and we plan to introduce all new members to both clubs. Other working groups are busy looking into financial implications of a merger, and whether members can become a member of both "kayak unions" in the NL (I won't go into that now, but it also has a long and complicated history! Maybe something for a future blog post, once I understand it better...).
Over the past two months we (the two boards) have shifted gears to start sharing our enthusiasm for this future vision with more of the members. Some questions started coming in, and we realized we have not been doing the best job of keeping members informed. Given the Covid-19 situation, we decided to organize a series of small online meetings to catch-up with the members. Last week we finished the last of the four sessions. So far, roughly a quarter of Never Dry members (~25) are now fully up-to-date. And, the vast majority of them are also excited about our proposed plan! We got a lot of good feedback about things to keep in mind, and suggestions for additional ways to continue improving the collaboration.
We haven't only been talking in 2020, though. We've also done several activities together (even with limits related to Covid-19 safety), such as a very well attended New Member Evening, several intermediate kayaking courses, and online fitness trainings.
All of this is thanks to an awesome group of volunteers who put soooo many hours (mostly behind screens this year) to making this move forward.
What about actually going paddling?
Luckily it feels like Covid-19 has also helped. This spring, Henk and I suddenly had a lot more time and made a lot of progress on renovations - we're now at a point that our apartment feels cozy and comfortable. A lot of the club-related meetings went online, which made going to the club feel more exciting/fun, because it was for paddling instead of meetings. I asked if we could have less evening meetings (I wasn't sleeping well with running through my head after our late-night meetings), and the rest of the board agreed to this :). And most importantly, many enthusiastic and active new members joined the club, and it's been really fun to paddle with and get to know them!
All this to say: being club secretary has its ups and downs. There have been plenty of times I've been close to stepping down, so I could focus more on my own paddling, friends, and this page. At some point I will, but for now I've committed to being in this role for 1 more year, and I'm going to give it all I've got :)
I did go paddling occasionally, though! In the next post I'll share a few paddling highlights from the past two years. It's unlikely these will ever make it into formalized "trip reports" on this site, but I don't want to forget them, and I want to share some pretty kayaking pictures. Coming soon... hopefully!