Notes from the National Meeting

by Ed Schmidt

The national annual meeting of Wild Ones was held at the national headquarters in Neenah, Wisconsin. The drive up takes about seven hours , so we left St. Louis at 6 a.m., arriving around 3, in time for introductions before the start of the formal annual meeting at 4. Neenah abuts Appleton, on the Fox River near Lake Winnebago, an hour or so south and a little west of Green Bay. Extra drive time was encountered due to road work and heavy traffic driving toward Green Bay for a Friday evening Packers game.

Further south, while still in Illinois, the drive takes one through miles and miles of corn and soybean fields, and I couldn’t help but think about how the huge fields, each planted in a single species, had replaced the plant and critter diversity of pre‑settlement times. The nearest thing to a prairie that one sees is sections of median and roadside where prairie rehab has been done. Fortunately, either by plan or budget constraint, there is less mowing along the highway.

About 30 members attended from chapters around the country, and there was always a healthy contingent acting as hosts from the local Fox Valley Area Chapter, the clubs’ largest chapter with over 230 members.

The Center itself was built as a home on a large tract of land that abuts a slough of the Fox River. When the municipality banned hunting, the owners decided to sell, making the property available. I believe the owners were also discouraged by the presence of an active rail line and whistle crossing across the street, especially the 3 a.m. freight train.

Executive director Donna VanBuecken became emotional as she described how major donors came forward to make purchase of the property possible. Before purchase of the property Wild Ones operated out of her home, which was apparently getting too small for both home and office. Future development of the property includes the development of a large field into a savannah and the creation of a turtle nesting area along the slough.

The hour plus annual meeting might have been perfunctory, but for some high drama regarding a situation in the Niagara Chapter that had exposed the national organization to legal and financial liability. After lengthy debate including participation of a national board member in the Niagara Chapter, the chapter was suspended, giving national access to the chapter’s funds which were needed to pay contract commitments that the chapter had made but were unwilling to pay because members felt the terms of the contract had not been met.

The substance of the weekend program consisted of a series of workshops focusing on chapter development. Attendees had a choice of two topics in each time slot. I attended sessions entitled: Volunteers are Us, Here to Help ‑‑ Chapter Guidebook, Chapter Publicity, and Sustaining and Renewing Chapters. Teams of 3 or 4 attendees were asked to facilitate each session, except for the Chapter Guidebook session, which Donna presented.

Volunteers are Us.
Attendees were fascinated by the St. Louis Chapter’s policy of allowing members who work the plant sale to purchase plants at cost. I mentioned that we sometimes have difficulty getting volunteers for other events, and that we are considering letting members accumulate volunteer hours at these other events to apply toward purchase of plants at cost at the plant sale. I noted Betty Struckhoff’s comment that we are not like Master Gardeners where volunteerism is a requirement, and Dave Tylka’s comment at our August meeting that food helps draw people out.

The Rockford chapter does an annual survey of members in which they ask members to express their interests, and uses the returned surveys to solicit volunteers. The survey is also a part of a packet sent to new members.  Some chapters have a volunteer coordinator. In one chapter two hours of volunteerism gets one his/her name in a hat for an end of year drawing. It was suggested to send “thank you” notes to those who volunteer at an event.  Another approach is to get other groups to work with us on a project ‑‑ master gardeners, environmental groups, high school environmental clubs, and community college classes.

Issues relative to volunteerism: promoting, training, getting outside the core group, moving members from passive to active, answering requests from other groups. Suggestions: Start people off with small well‑defined task rather than something vague. Give volunteers guidelines going in, then turn them loose.

Volunteering can be good exercise ‑‑ stretching, bending, and being outside. Volunteering is a way to develop a network of like‑minded friends.

Here to Help ‑‑ Chapter Guidebook.
Donna led this session on how to use the on‑line Chapter Guidebook. I took it in the hopes I would be motivated to do more with the guidebook on my own. Hasn’t happened yet. One useful item is that there are downloads that chapters can have printed for handouts. Some of these might be useful as we create our brochure to be used at the SNR visitor’s center.

Chapter Publicity.
Questions: How does one keep up‑to‑date with all the technologies ‑‑ Facebook, twitter, etc.? How do we reach younger people? Should one focus on print or electronic media? How do we “brand” ourselves?  For the media we are, Wild Ones St. Louis; legally, we are the St. Louis Chapter of Wild Ones.

Notes from Fox Valley Publicity Chair Janet Carlson. They do a paper trifold, an online calendar, display boards for conferences, the occasional library display case, a native plant sale brochure, distribute a book mark with plant sale purchases, and Audubon and the Native Plant Society carry the chapter’s meeting announcements. For a newcomer, they always ask, “Where did you hear about this event?” They do a printed newsletter, in color, six times a year (on‑line), and they sponsor an all‑day conference in January or February that draws from a large area.

To get articles in the print media one must develop a relationship with a media person. Newspapers are looking for conflict ‑‑ avoid this. Community papers like things that are local. Read the handbook to develop your moxey (not sure what that means).  You can set up a virtual office (free phone service) through phone.com for free for one year, then $130 per year after that.  When you “like” something on Facebook, it gets sent to all your friends. A guerilla tactic: At a conference, rather than distribute a bunch of literature from a table that goes into a bag to never be seen again, instead put the handout on the dining tables. People will be drawn to read and discuss it over lunch. After lunch go around and collect those that have not been taken and use them for the next event.

Departments of Agriculture are allies now because of the issue of the decline of pollinators.

Sustaining and Renewing Chapters.
An issue here is that the founders get tired, burned out from working too hard. It is important to work on building a sense of community. Take care of board members first (food). Hold weed and feed events ‑‑ work then share a potluck ‑‑ nonmember email list gets notice of these events, too.

Have a hospitality chair for meetings. Have different name tags for visitors, so members can be sure to engage them. Announce the benefits of membership at each meeting and see membership chair after meeting to sign up.

At board meetings divide up the non‑renews for phone calls. Or send two email reminders when someone has lapsed.

I mentioned how we had changed some of our meeting times to accommodate people coming from work, moved most business from the general meeting to the board meetings, made a mini‑program a consistent part of the general meeting, and had prepared a written agenda which includes the location of the next meeting. We offered $5 off the membership fee at events, and though we may not have signed any/many new members it caused us to think about recruiting more members.

Virtually all chapters of size have regular meetings in a regular meeting place. We seem to be unique for a chapter our size in that we hold meeting at members’ homes. I find this appealing, but what do we do if we get more people coming to our meetings?

Marty Rice noted that in her chapter they reach out through publicity, 2/3 of the members are retirees ‑‑ so few members are buying their first house. How do we bring more younger people on board?  Publicity pieces come into play ‑‑ get the club name in front of people. Ask new members if they want to be a supporter or do they want to be active? Do you promote membership at plant sales?

There were some fun things during the weekend, too. Dinner at a restaurant in a recycled building on the Fox River, a morning walk on a foot/bicycle bridge (rail to trail conversion) over the Fox River, catered barbeque on the lawn.