Thursday, January 24, 2019

Round Table Thoughts

Every now and again I get a burr on my backside when I think about Civil War Round Tables.  Perhaps it would be more appropriate to call it an aggravation, caused by an inability to understand why many Round Tables have short-sighted vision, an inability to understand why they do not grow when they go through the same motions year after year and watch their membership age and become smaller in size.  Conversely there are those Round Tables who seem to understand a changing world and embrace any and all ideas to increase awareness, which in turn increases membership, which in turn increases the Round Table's ability to bring in more known speakers and complete larger preservation projects.  Wouldn't that be the ultimate goal, to have such a large membership that the preservation impact would be that much greater?  To add youth to ensure sustainability as the current leadership ages and, realistically to say, passes on?  What are they doing to pass the torch, to become a more viable partner in the Civil War community, because let's be honest, Round Tables have the ability to become great community partners through their programs, tours, and preservation programs, working with local historical sites, and helping to increase tourism.

Wait a second, Darryl, I didn't sign up for this.  Community involvement?  I just want to go to the meetings and hear a speaker.  You can take your community involvement and....

Ask yourself why do you go to Round Table meetings?  To learn?  To share?  To spend time with like-minded folks?  Most likely all of those reasons drive your participation.  You obviously have a strong interest in the American Civil War, as do your fellow attendees, otherwise you wouldn't pay the membership fee and in some cases a meeting or meal fee.  But what about the public you've never met, who do not know your Round Table exists, or has an impression that your Round Table is exclusive (white men), stuffy, OLD?  

Darryl, you're nuts.  Young people do not want to be involved, they do not care about our history, they won't join a Round Table.  And women, no way we can get more women members.

Really?  Let's do a little case study, using Facebook and its ability to create targeted ads based on location, interest, age, and even sex.

I live in Cincinnati.  Within twenty-five miles of my local Round Table there are thousands of Facebook users who have taken the time to add "American Civil War" as an interest.  Let's see how their demographics break down, shall we?

Let's start with the overarching number:  210,000.  Yep, 210,000 Facebook users within a twenty-five mile radius of the Round Table's meeting location have taken the time to list American Civil War as an interest.  

Well, okay, I find that number to be crazy high...I had no idea that many people on Facebook are interested in the Civil War, but no way those folks are youngsters.  The youth do not care....

Wanna bet?  Of those 210,000 users, 73,000 are forty years old, or younger.  And 38,000 of those 73,000 are 30 or under.  So much for your premise that the youth do not care or are not interested in history.  You just are not reaching them.

Um, but, well, I bet they are all men!

Let's go back to that 210,000 number.  Of that total 100,000 are women, or nearly half.  What else you got for me?

Well, they won't come to meetings and listen to speakers.  They won't join.

Here is where you need to flip the script.  Your Round Table has built a speaker program, has a bit of a treasury to work with, holds eight to a dozen meetings per year.  What more should you do to increase membership when you are already doing that?  But I also ask, if you are doing that, and not growing, are you not open to try new ideas?

Let's go back to my local Round Table.  When I was active I pushed for events beyond our normal meeting schedule (eight times a year, and not during the summer).  The first event I organized was a tour of a local site, the Harriet Beecher Stowe House.  I was told by certain board members that people would not show up, especially as I had scheduled this event on the first Saturday of December, a month that is apparently taboo to the Round Table.  I used Facebook to create an ad, spent maybe ten bucks on same, and asked the Stowe House to help promote the event as it was open to all.  We simply asked for attendees to donate a few bucks to the house.  We had thirty-five attendees, fifteen of whom were locals of various ages.  This was after I was told that our members would not show, after I was told that our members do not like extra events, especially in December.  After the tour several of us (nearly all non-members) went to a local pizza and beer joint, and we carried on the conversations a Round Table should.

By using Facebook we increased our membership by over ten percent in one year.  Now the local Round Table only carries around 100 members, but to climb to 115 was a shock to the board as they had not seen that number in decades.  We simply added our events to the calendar, and added a couple of events that were not meetings that would held on different days of the week.  We posted regularly on the page, we shared, and that led to increased membership.  Alas, many of the other ideas I wanted to implement were frowned upon, and in turn they lost one of their most active volunteers.  But the case study proves that using something as simple as Facebook can yield increased membership.  And we could have increased our membership even more....

Meetings.  Arrgh.  The bane of the Round Table growth.  What are you talking about, Darryl?  Meetings at at the core of what we do!  Wonder why you do not have younger attendees at your meetings?  Because that meeting schedule (usually a set weeknight once a month) does not lend itself well to adding younger members, particularly those with children who participate in activities.  Yeah, that's right, Darryl.  They are too busy to come join.  Told you!  Short-sighted I say.  Why are you asking a busy younger couple to adhere to your Round Table's schedule instead of, wait for it, offering more events on different days that cater to their schedule?  Let's face it, we might get a lot of folks liking our Facebook page (if we have one), but how many are actually members?  Not many.  So, that shows that people care, are interested, but it is not converting to increased membership.  Why not?  Because your meeting date doesn't work for them and hence they have no reason to join!  Offer more events for these folks to attend, and you'll start to see faces you never knew existed, and the more they can do these events that fit their schedule the more likely they will be to join your Round Table.

Case in point.  Recently the local Round Table held a two day tour around our city.  We posted on Facebook, opened it to the public, and we had over forty attendees, half of whom were not members.  Wanna talk about recruitment opportunities?  We had pamphlets to hand out, shook hands, talked to the non-members.  Now, many did not join, but a few did, and just think if we could offer more events on different days of the week and increase the number of new faces we would have an opportunity to meet.

Okay, back to meetings.  Most Round Tables hold a business meeting (boring and often too long).  Keep the business portion short and sweet.  Touch on the important topics and let the members know that additional details are on the website, in the newsletter, on the Facebook page.  Drive them to use these resources outside the meeting, and then use the extra time for more meet and greet with the speaker, more social time, more interaction.

Well, Darryl, that is all fine and dandy, but we do not have enough people to do extra events.

Yep, you don't, because of the old 10% rule...about 10% of your membership will be active.  If you only have 50 members, then you have about five people driving the bus.  But what can you do now to increase membership?  First of all, if you have a website, UPDATE IT!  There are so many Round Table websites that show meeting dates from last year or longer.  Don't have a website?  Create one, or as a free alternative, create a Facebook page.  It is fairly simple...heck, I'll even help you set one up, gratis!  Get the word out.  Contact the local chamber of commerce, tourism department, newspaper, want ads, Craigslist, etc., etc.  If you can slowly add a few new members, you will increase the number of volunteers that can help add events to your traditional meeting schedule.

And on the topic of volunteers, NEVER turn them away!  Find a way to spark and sustain their passion.  Even if their desire is different than what you think is the norm, work to incorporate them into being a leader for you.  If I am simply wanting to be in charge of providing cookies for the meetings, and you've never done that before, then let me do it.  I may turn into a person who one day will take an officer position and do even more.

Darryl, I live in rural (insert town here), not a major city like you...this won't work!

I disagree.  Send me the name of your town, and I bet we can find people on Facebook within 25 miles who are interested in the Civil War.  Jefferson City, Missouri?  27,000 people.  Dover, Tennessee?  30,000 people.  Lebanon, Kansas?  2,000 people.  Make it happen, people!  Get your Round Table moving forward, increase your impact, grow your membership, get online, stay fresh!  And if you put an email address out there for contact, respond in a timely manner!


  1. Good on you Darryl for posting this. I spoke at the Brunswick CWRT last month. They regularly get 450+ people at their meetings in a location that is hardly convenient or close to a major urban center. The key fro them, as for most successful organizations, is leadership and vision. I believe the model is still viable, but leaders need to be more inclusive and think bigger. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    1. Thank you David. I've had conversations with Wally and I think the Brunswick model is one that most RTs should go up to new ways of recruiting, new types of events, find a place for volunteers to use their passion.



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