Ham radio clubs are often thought of as the bedrock of amateur radio. As one who has both criticized ham radio clubs as well as made suggestions for helping improve them, I want to take some time to talk through what makes a great ham radio club.
The very first decision that needs making when forming a club is this one: do you want your club to be a general purpose club or a specialty club?
General purpose radio clubs are those clubs that want ham radio operators from the many different subsections of the overall hobby. You want to attract DX’ers, contesters, VHF enthusiasts, rag chewers, digital enthusiasts, builders, CW operators, SSTV types and people who love to work satellites and bounce signals off the Moon. QRP and QRO. Public service and emergency communications.
The very first thing you need to do is decide what type of club you want to be. These different types of clubs are managed differently, promote themselves differently and approach club membership differently.
Now, if you are not in a large enough area to support specialty clubs, you may by default need to be a general purpose radio club so that ten people can get together as a club. That’s just fine, but you need to then manage the club as a general purpose club and not a specialty club that happens to have three other people in it.
And for established clubs, you need to periodically take a hard look at what type of club you actually are and not what your mission statement says you are. Is your entire club now consisting of DX’ers and Contesting? Maybe you should split in two – or focus on getting other hams with more diverse interests involved in your club.
Your club can be a general purpose club or a specialty club, but not both.
If you are a specialty club, you can focus on that one specialty. DX clubs don’t care much about SSTV. And contesting clubs don’t care much about rag chewing or how to do keyboard to keyboard packet. It’s not what they are about.
General purpose clubs, on the other hand, have to work a relatively delicate balance that promotes all the different aspects of the hobby without concentrating on one specific part of the hobby. That diversity is reflected in how you run the meetings, what programs you bring in and the events that you hold. As soon as a general purpose club starts to focus too much on one particular area of ham radio, you start to lose those not in that particular part of ham radio.
The strength of a specialty club is that the club can focus exclusively on that specialty. But that strength is matched by the fact that a specialty club focuses on that one area of ham radio.
Take DXing, for instance. At a sunspot high, DX is fabulous. Ten watts on ten meters and the world is your oyster and new countries are pearls for the taking. But at a sunspot low, not so much. The high bands never open, the power, space and antennas needed to work DX on the low bands put most everyone at a disadvantage not to mention that low band DXing is best done at night. Easy membership now wanes, the club becomes smaller and the enthusiasm changes. That needs management.
A general purpose club, on the other hand, promotes all parts of ham radio. It doesn’t matter what is hot at the moment, the general purpose club is agile enough to move to whatever is hot at the moment. It can promote different parts of the hobby and others in the club can learn about new areas of ham radio. But the diversity of the topics mean not every topic will be interesting to everyone all of the time. That balance between helping hams learn about different parts of the hobby while not focusing on one area is the disadvantage general purpose clubs provide.
If you are forming a club, figure out what type of club you want to be. And if you are an existing club, take a hard look at least once a year to determine if you are really still a specialty club or if you are really still a general purpose club. Once you start being something you are not, a slippery slope–attracting and retaining members, budgets, dues, and conflict in the club–is not far behind.