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AIS: Bulletins, Changes, Membership

In a message dated 2/9/2006 11:09:17 PM Eastern Standard Time,  
rpries@sbcglobal.net writes:

<< My guess is that new and potential members are really not  interested in 
information and that it detracts from the journal such  that they dont 
renew. The numbers of new members we get each year is  astounding, but we seem to 
be loosing almost all within the first year. While  the Bulletin is attractive 
to old-timers, I suspect it turns off many new  members by the amount of 
organizational stuff
that they have little  interest in.
I would like to respond to some of these points. It will be seen  that I 
interpret the situation differently  in several significant particulars. Mine is 
just one member's  opinion.
First, I want to observe that in my experience significant  numbers of the 
"new" members which are being "lost" each year were  probably really not there 
to begin with. They did not join of their own  volition, fueled by an interest 
in irises. They were given their  memberships, either as gifts, or as 
promotional incentives by Affiliates or  individuals, or they were signed up at 
someone's expense to increase the  membership rolls of a local group, or they were 
signed up because someone  thought giving a membership to a local nursery 
center or a newspaper columnist  was a good idea. We hear ideas put forth all the 
time about giving away  memberships as a means to exciting the public or 
getting the message  out, so we should not be surprised that some or most of  these 
people do not renew. We may rightly say that we have failed to  win them over, 
possibly that they were even driven away, but I think it  is well to be 
realistic about the situation and the odds in these  cases. Members also drop at 
the two year, the three year, the five year,  and the tenth year point, and I 
would be more concerned about those  losses. It is just as important to keep the 
excitement going for  the continuing--read sustaining--members as it is to 
create  excitement for new ones. 
Second, I do not think having business material in the Bulletin has  anything 
to do with the losses. I suspect people turn away from the magazine  not 
because of what they find there, but what they do not find: Items  which reflect 
their own interests and what they want from the society,  and everyone wants 
something. The problem is that they don't always want  what the Society can 
provide, or what the Society itself needs them to  want, which is to be active, 
engaged participatory members,  informed members who are actually interested in 
the business of the Society,  contributing members who want to know what is 
being decided by and about the  organization, that community of people they have 
Were I able to wave a magic wand to make one change in AIS it  would be this: 
I would wish that every member would  fully understand that when we speak of 
AIS we speak not of "they," as in  "they keep printing stuff in the Bulletin 
which does not appeal to  me....they keep raising the dues and not giving me my 
dollar's worth...they  are not getting the news of the Dykes winner out to 
the media...I don't  know why they don't do more for the young...they keep  
pushing bearded irises at the expense of others...they don't meet my  needs." Nor 
do we, as members, accurately speak of AIS as "you" as in "you are  losing 
members" or "you have a membership problem" or "you are not meeting my  needs and 
expectations" There is no They among members; there is no You.  The word in 
most of these instances must be  "We," although often it is "I." 
There is a Board, yes, and administrative agencies at various levels,  but 
AIS is not just these people, these members. AIS  is the membership as a whole, 
each one of whom is ideally a supporter of  the Society's mission and a 
contributing member of the whole, according to  their abilities, resources, 
circumstances, and interests. That, I  believe, is what joining AIS means. 
Unfortunately, many folks see opting for membership in AIS as a  consumer 
issue, like buying a warranted product, as opposed to joining in  an activity, or 
entering a venue for self education. Declaring  that AIS, or the Bulletin, is 
not delivering on the dollar is to  define membership as a product, and I 
deplore it. 
I believe AIS has to some extent failed in its mission to educate,  by which 
I mean not failed to define a vital position for itself in the world  of 
contemporary horticulture, although arguably it has also not  distinguished itself 
in that regard. I mean that it has failed to educate  its own members as to 
the purpose of the organization, or purposes,  for the mission is defined in 
broad and noble terms in  which most irisarians can find some posture which 
mirrors  their own. It is a set of goals of which all sorts of members  can be 
proud. The AIS mission is stated in the first paragraphs of the Bylaws,  and 
rewards rereading from time to time.
In neglecting to orient its rhetoric, and to some extent its  activity, 
toward its mission, AIS-- and here I am speaking of its  leadership, elected and 
otherwise, at all levels of the Society-- has, I  believe, drifted from its 
centering, its focus. The gyroscope has  fallen off the pin. The Society has 
become  introverted, preoccupied with and defensive about what it sees  as tumbling 
membership figures, and overly solicitous of the individual  needs of its 
members, some of which, it must be said, members must  be expected to meet for 
I am reminded here of an interesting observation made by Violet Walker,  the 
second president of the Garden Club of Virginia, the organization  which 
undertakes to put on Historic Garden Week in Virginia, and with the  proceeds 
restores the gardens of historic shrines in the  Commonwealth. Violet Walker, who 
was a superb gardener and writer and  editor, a friend of Elizabeth Lawrence, 
and a member of AAIS from 1923 on, in  remembering the first days of her 
organization in the 1920s, said that it  was clear pretty early on that they were 
going to have to have a  cause to believe in, a focus for their activity, if the 
group  was going to survive and amount to anything. I think this observation  
bears remembering.   
AIS needs to remember who she is, and she needs to celebrate  this awareness 
and draw her strength from it. She should  testify to her own worth and 
righteousness at all opportunities, and in  all venues open to her, and then make 
new opportunities. AIS' public face  needs to be, as I have said so often, a 
cheerful, affirmative,confident and  welcoming one. Not a defensive or woebegone 
or whining or  defeatist one. Surely I am not the only one who does not want 
to be part  of that sort of scene, or have all the others left by now? AIS 
needs  to attract kindred spirits, not seek to retrofit herself to accommodate  
transient desiderata which may or may not be consistent with the best  interests 
of the whole, short or long term.

Now, I think we are all aware that there are some problems  at the local 
level so that some new members are "driven off." Or we  suspect that could be the 
case because we keep hearing upsetting  stories, and rather a lot of them. It 
appears that, lamentably, within  some areas of AIS there is ignorance not 
only of the mission,  yes, but also of cordial social intercourse. This is not, I 
 understand, a problem unique to the American Iris Society.
In life it will be seen that some persons denied any other outlet  for their 
unwholesome cravings to bully others; or cause  mischief through destructive 
gossip; or orchestrate public humiliation  for one poor soul or another; or 
lord it over their peers on one or another  pretense; or otherwise stir things up 
to alleviate whatever monkey  is on their own back, typically boredom, will 
sniff out  organizations in which they can assuage their base frustrations, to  
be thwarted only by the organization's self- cleansing mechanisms,  if any. 
It seems obvious that any group which tolerates this sort  of behavior at any 
level, top to bottom, which does not insist  that people behave in a civilized 
manner, is likely to loose members. If  the social culture of AIS is broken, 
we as AIS, are the ones who must fix  it. 
Remember, in the end, the AIS you make must be equal to the AIS you  take.
Anner Whitehead
Richmond VA USA

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