Growing Membership

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I seriously lay in bed at night wide-eyed at times wondering how to penetrate the skulls of the anglers in my state to convince them to become members. To get some foothold among current members to inspire them into involvement. To generate interest from ready-made leaders who simply refuse to lead.

I thought I would share some thoughts and hopefully generate some discussion around this important subject. As part of our nationwide strategic plan to double membership, I want to do my part in my state in any way I can. I wouldn't have volunteered as a Council Chair unless I thought I could make a difference for the mission. I don't do this for personal ego or some sort of need for being the king of the club. I sincerely am passionate for the mission and think this is the vehicle where I can make the biggest impact.

Here are a few things I've tried to pull off over my last 1-1/2 years as Council Chair in order to generate more interest and make TU more fun and inviting...and my initial perception of the success:

  • Completely overhauled our website to make it modern, fresh, packed with info yet not too busy. We won Trout Unlimited website of the year in 2012 for this effort. The new site is hosted by and is a WYSIWG editor. My Council Secretary and I can make changes from any computer anywhere with an online connection with no software. There is a password protected Leader's Library section for Council leaders and TU National Staff in our state to access containing Council documents such as Google Earth files of membership mapping, fracking permits, and wild/native trout streams. Committee & Council policies and manuals and other things to make leadership a little easier. Success
  • A billboard program to gain awareness. We made contact with a statewide billboard company that donated free space to TU as a Public Service Announcement since we are a non-profit. The printing cost us $50/billboard. In 2012 we payed for 20 of these billboards across the state and put a PayPal linked "Adopt A Sign" page on our website for people to donate $50 to offset the costs. Only 5 people actually donated $50 and one of those was a TU Staffer. I designed the billboards and used my photography and the TU National Logo. The slogan "Cold, Clean, Fishable Water" was used and "". During the 2 months after the billboards were rolled out our membership needle barely moved. Unsuccessful?
  • We needed something FUN. So in 2012 I brought the Fly Fishing Film Tour to West Virginia for the first time ever and billed it as the "Event of the Year". I hosted it at a cool theater in the biggest city in the state (Charleston). I only had help from one person in organizing the event. At the time of the show I scrambled up 4-5 other volunteers. I had lots and lots of incredible prizes to raffle. Only about 50 showed up and we barely broke even. An Orvis Superfine fly rod and a pair of Costa sunglasses brought about $100 total in raffle tickets combined. Our TU display in the front lobby and membership table signed up 0 members. Unsuccessful
  • So we needed something MORE FUN. In 2013 I created the first ever Mountain State Trout Festival. I wanted something BIGGER and more inclusive than a Fly Fishing Show. We were approached by the largest ski resort in the Southeast, Snowshoe Mountain Resort, to host it there. They gave us a sweetheart deal of 2 free rooms, free use of their zip lines for a "trout toss" where people tossed a trout into a bucket as they zipped overhead, free use of the outdoor theater for the F3T, free application for ABC licensing for them to sell beer and give away free snacks, use of the 15,000 sq ft indoor expo for only $1000, and they even provided a team of their own volunteers to work the event. We still lost money. I was able to get 25 really really really great vendors, some amazing speakers, etc all at the event but only about 60 people showed up. It was advertised in multiple newspapers, through mass email over and over to TU membership, on local messageboards, with neighboring Councils, outdoor columnists, and blog writers. Feedback I got was "well, people would rather go fishing than go buy gear they already have or listen to people talk about fishing". So what the heck am I supposed to do to make TU fun if people refuse to participate in anything? Lost over $1000. Initially Unsuccessful - - - will keep trying, but at that rate it will bankrupt Council funds in a few years.
  • Stream Explorers Membership. We have around 35 TIC programs in WV, but less than 10 SE members. I can't get Chapters to promote this at all. Unsuccessful
  • Free Women's Membership. Holy cow! Free?! and in 15 seconds you can sign up your spouse, daughter, your coworker that fishes, etc. I've promoted the snot out of this as a means to easily wreck the servers in getting advantage of this even if they don't renew. If only 5% of them renew maybe we could see some faint light of a women's initiative come about. At least if we could get a huge surge in membership in a single year perhaps that will be a magic time to promote advocacy in policy making. Elected offiicals pay attention to you when you say "we are an org with X number of members". Jury still out - initially unsure how many are taking advantage of it.
  • Invigorating Leadership. We had many "Committees" that never met, never created business, never did anything. I consolidated or did away with some of these committees. In others, I tried to get new young professional Committee Chairs to come on board. I made some bad decisions because most of these young guys would rather fish 14 days a month and in the past year have still not held a committee meeting or even so much as a conference call or email to their committees. There wasn't the resolve to make a difference that I thought there was. I invited the TU Regional Meeting to my state for the first time ever. I made it kickass too if I might brag. We had a BBQ with musicians, a FREE screening of the Fly Fishing Film Tour, great facilities, within 20 minutes of trout water, and amazing speakers. Only 3 chapters sent representatives and the chapter located 30 minutes away sent nobody. Success for those who attended, Unsuccessful for my effort in inspiring failing chapters.
  • Creating awareness for WHAT WE DO. Perhaps the reason some anglers don't become members is because they don't really know "what we do". I hear a lot "well, I'd become a member but my chapter is 2 hours away and I can't go to meetings." Not to mention we have a few chapters that don't even meet anymore and I've had difficultly finding local members to take leadership in those chapters. So I found a new newsletter editor and started pounding away on our Facebook/Twitter feeds, our website, our mass email tool, local angling messageboards, etc to promote the success not just of chapter projects, but with National staff success.
  • That ONE thing. What's that ONE big big big big thing that your Council has done in the past decade? In it's lifetime? I started looking at that and was embarrassed at the lack of a BIG thing to hang our hat on. Sure we've gotten certain streams designated as C&R...probably more of a social regulation than necessary one. But really? Is that what I tell people we do? I latched onto this effort to create the first ever USFS National Monument in the east - one that has the native brook trout as its mascot - and didn't just promote it, but am making an effort to put our Council front and center in the campaign.

These are just some of my ideas for how to kick membership, participation, and leadership in the butt. I think we have to make TU alive, relevant, and authentic in order to achieve this. However, I obviously don't have the answers. This seems to be like nailing Jello to a wall. Anglers are a selfish lot. I've seen tiny little 100 member churches rake in $3,000 from golf scrambles. I can't get millionaire anglers to donate $50. So my question to other Council Chairs is - what worked(s) for you and what didn't? What are your "big ideas"? Were things just "ok as they are" when you took over and you just are trying not to shake it up? How do you generate interest, participation, and leadership in towns hours and hours away from you where you don't know anybody?


said on Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Thank you Philip for a great post and thank you for all your amazing effort. You share some really great ideas that may appear to be less than successful, but as in all promotional efforts are hard to quantify. You have touched more like-minded conservationist than you know.

I would like to add that every Council and Chapter encourage their membership set up an individual profile on the and add to the conversation. This is a great way to be a part of the community and witness all the good TU members are doing throughout the country.

Another suggestion to add to your concept of a website update would be to take advantage of the new TU Chapter & Council Site Tools. Every Chapter and Council can now build their own site within the, which is hosted by Trout Unlimited. This is yet another great tool in your promotional fly box. If Chapters and Councils would like to build a new site, please contact Doug Agee for more information.

I will be sharing this post with my TU Chapter (Stonefly Society) and am looking forward to more ideas to come from the great volunteer members of Trout Unlimited.


said on Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

Amen to Doug's comments and thanks for your great post and leadership, Phil.  Hopefully, this can kick off a good discussion and lead to the sharing of good ideas.  

said on Monday, August 5th, 2013

These are some great ideas and a tremendous effort! One suggestion on the film tour...keep pushing forward! We sign up a few new members each year, although certainly not a lot, but we raise some good cash as a result of the raffle. The key with that is to work with your local fly shops and keep building relationships with manufacturers to use donated items for the raffle to keep the costs down. We also host it inside a local craft brewery, who doantes the space to us for the night, and it makes for a fun environment with sell out attendance each year. 

Thanks again for some fresh ideas!

said on Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

I believe the quickest way to increase membership in TU is for the organization to stop presenting itself as an elitist, fly fishing only, catch and release only organization. There are far more spin fishermen and women that fish for trout than fly fishermen and women, yet they are nearly totally ignored by TU nation wide. I enjoy both methods of fishing, but got into fly fishing much later in life. Most of my friends are spin fishemen and they think TU members look down their noses at spin casting. Show me a single good article on spin casting for trout in Trout magazine or other publications in the past five years.

Actually eating a trout is looked at as heresy by some TU members. Show me an article or discussion within our organization of good trout recipes. Most spin fishermen I know in WV strongly support a cerrtain amount of catch and release areas, but strongly oppose too many. Some in the TU community are almost radical enviromentalists, while most spin fishermen I know want to protect the environment, but not to the point of being ultra liberal nut jobs. In the general membership of TU most are rational great people and fun to work with, but some of the ones rising to activist leadership go too far.


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