BONSAI CIRCUS…..A SUCCESS STORY

ABS Newsletter, December 2015

By Lee Cheatle

Bonsai Society of Portland President

 

It was an epic weekend for those who were able to attend The Artisans Cup event and especially for those who were able to be there all four days. During that time bonsai artists were rewarded with multiple conversations with other bonsai addicts from all over the world.  

Many, after discovering that I was from Portland and a member of the highly successful and rapidly growing Bonsai Society of Portland, often asked the same questions. Those questions centered on club size and attendance and more importantly, what we are doing that creates our success as a club. At this time, I need to emphasize, and all of you know a club’s entire success comes down to four absolutes.  The first three are: active volunteers, ongoing good communication with quality information, and getting along. Getting along is bolstered by understanding that egos are left at the door and that the good of the whole is first and foremost. The fourth absolute you will read later in the article. 

During those conversations we also came to understand that not all clubs have enough members and/or resources to create the atmosphere that BSOP is able to invoke at meetings. But this article was written in the hope that at least one of our successes or ways of running our “circus” can be utilized at your meetings. 

Of recent, due to the high amount of activity at our general meetings, we have been calling our meetings a “Nine Ring Circus.” This circus consists of multiple areas or arenas that create a lot of action and are generally attractive to all segments of membership. They include: 

Arena 1) A Meet and Greet table is the first thing that members and guests encounter as they arrive. People can ask questions and receive answers or are directed to someone who can help.  We emphasize mingling and a warm and friendly atmosphere. Cliques are going to occur but are certainly not encouraged at our meetings. When possible, each guest is assigned a host to guide them through the arenas.  

Arena 2) We have a Show & Tell table where members can display trees that look especially good. We try to have signage by each tree to describe the tree and identify its owner. 

Arena 3) There is a Q & A table where members can get help with a particular question or tree.  We have a table set up that has at least one member with intermediate to advanced bonsai knowledge. This person assists newer members with advice and sometimes actual styling on trees that are brought in. If the instructor does not know, they locate someone who does. This arena starts an hour before the general meeting is scheduled to start. 

Arena 4) We are fortunate enough to have two or three vendors that set up tables thus creating a small marketplace at each meeting where members can buy tools, wire, pots, soils, of course trees, etc. In addition, we encourage our members to bring in trees or bonsai items to sell. 

Arena 5) This is the Raffle area. Each month the raffle benefits our library or one of our three offshoot programs on a rotation basis.  It takes a volunteer or two to set this up, manage it and sell the tickets. Donations of trees or any bonsai related items are brought in by members.  Near the end of the meeting we announce the closing of the raffle and then post the winners on a white board, which is much faster than calling out 25 to 50 raffle winners. 

Arena 6) This is our Silent Auction table. Thanks to a very generous membership base, we usually have enough donations to have an auction table in addition to the raffle table. Even if you only have a few items, I recommend that you still consider having both auction and raffle, as the auction table generates a different buzz than does the raffle table. We generally put the more valuable items on the auction tables. This is also an area where members can sell a higher caliber tree, keeping a portion of the proceeds and donating a percentage of the bid to the club.   

Arena 7) We have an extensive library consisting of over 1025 books, magazines and videos that appeal to all levels of the bonsai enthusiast. Those items can be checked out until the next meeting.   

Arena 8) Our Hospitality committee provides coffee, water and cookies for each meeting. Albeit not a necessary function of the meeting, we find that our members enjoy having access to a snack and some beverages. We post a jar requesting donations which help to cover the costs of the items served. More often than not, members bring in goodies; yummmmmy. 

Arena 9) This key arena is our general meeting. We try to keep announcements to a minimum, for we feel that most of our members come to see the presentation for that evening rather than listen to club business. We try to make new members and guests feel welcome and comfortable by offering personal introductions.  We also emphasize fun and a whole lot of quality education, especially styling. We try to have a guest speaker at all meetings. Sometimes it is one of our own more advanced members or one that has a specialty they can teach us like collecting or disease identification.  As often as we can afford, we try to have an out of town expert or professional speak at the meetings. 

That’s all there is to it! Just nine arenas of activity.  Maybe there is even room to add a tenth.  This article is focused on providing information that may plant seeds for ideas that will create success for your club. The BSOP did not start with nine arenas of activity. We morphed just like any growing organization. That is the key word too; growing. The old adage says; “if you are not moving forward, then you are moving backwards.” Vital to successful growth has to be management that is flexible, a willingness to try new ideas such as including one or two new arenas of activity. 

I made mention of “off shoot programs” in Arena 5. It would be remiss if this was not expanded upon, as these programs are our primary system of retaining new members; especially new members with little to no bonsai background. I have had multiple members tell me that our mentorship program is what kept them in the club. So suffice it to say that a mentorship program should be strongly considered for all clubs of all sizes. We offer three levels of mentorship: 101 (basic beginner training), 102 (advanced beginner), and 103 (intermediate and special techniques). These programs are group classes that last four hours. We strive to have multiple advanced members at these so we can give each mentee as much one on one as we can. 

And now for the fourth absolute. This is key and I believe you may possess it if you are still reading this article: Passion! Not everyone in your club will have it, but if you have a few that do, put them out in front and let them run; passion can be highly infectious. A few years ago I was invited to discuss bonsai at a Rhododendron Society in Florence, Oregon, population less than 9,000. Expecting to stand in front of 10 to 15 hardcore genial octogenarians, I was astonished to find assembled over 70 attendees. Not necessarily to hear me, but for what I believe were two much more important reasons: a passion for rhododendrons and a passionate leadership. The guy in charge was charged and his other board members were dynamos as well, thus, the membership was electric and honed in on having fun. It all starts with a spark; you can be that spark. Ignite the passion! 

So there you have it, a bonsai circus of success that we feel has created a recent upsurge in our membership numbers in the past year. I have to say, when we first started adding multiple arenas to our general meetings we were concerned it would prove to be too much; the actual reaction proved to be just the opposite. With nine arenas, our circus involves everyone, and involved members are happy members. 

From Portland, wishing you the best of success with your meetings. 

Written by Lee Cheatle with editing by Jan Hettick