We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us
How to reverse 60 years of membership decline in lawn bowling.
Lawn bowling membership has been in decline since the 1960s in Canada. It has not always been a straight decline with fits and starts along the way. Some clubs have recruited well for extended periods but overall most clubs have not been able to replace their membership losses with new people. Our current numbers sit at about half the totals of the 1980s.
Did lawn bowling clubs suddenly start recruiting poorly after the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s? No. Most clubs had not been recruiting well for a long time but this was disguised by immigration patterns which brought a regular source of new lawn bowling recruits from the UK. When that stream dried up, we started to hit a steady decline across Canada.
Some clubs continued to be successful in fits and starts by following good recruiting practices such as reaching out into community events, linking themselves to curling clubs, advertising and running events to promote their club in the broader community. These practices have not spread to the broader lawn bowling community in enough numbers to stop the decline. Both Bowls Canada and the OLBA have promoted activities like these consistently. I can remember articles in “The Green” from BCB about recruiting as far back as the 1970s. I remember material being sent out to clubs in club mailings in the 1980s and 1990s about best practices. Ken Simpson wrote several strong articles about how to run a successful offsite recruiting event. Our website and social media regularly promote examples of how to recruit.
What we can summarize from this experience is that every attempt to just tell clubs what to do to recruit will fail and fail miserably. Our clubs either do not read the material that we send our or they do not adopt these practices in enough numbers to turn the membership situation around. The best that we can do right now with our current efforts is to hold back the flood and keep numbers steady.
Compounding this problem is that most clubs have damaged themselves financially by only charging enough for membership to cover their yearly operational expenses. The typical club does not have a marketing budget worthy of the name. Most clubs should be spending at least $1000 to $2000 annually on promotion but the typical budget is more like $200 to $300. Finally, in all my years as a bowler, I have never seen DEPRECIATION in a club’s financial statements. Many of our clubs have become run down and the facilities are unattractive to new people.
How do we fix this?
It’s All About Money
We cannot force local lawn bowling clubs to do anything regarding recruiting and improving their facilities to make themselves more attractive to new members. However, we can create a situation where their incentive to act is so strong that they will buy in and benefit. The New Horizons grant program has existed since the 1970s and offers up to $25,000 each year to groups that support activities for seniors. It is targeted at capital projects. In Ontario, we also have the Seniors Community Program Grant – advertising and non capital item projects, Trillium, the Ontario Sport and Recreation Communities Fund and projects to pay the wages of summer students for labour (provincial and federal). Other provinces have other sources of grant money from their respective provincial governments.
Typically, in Ontario, about 10% of clubs apply for some sort of government grant each year. We need that number to be somewhere between 60% and 80% nationwide. Impossible? In one year of strongly promoting the New Horizons grants in Ontario, we have managed to get 40 of 118 clubs to apply for a New Horizons grant in 2018. Keep in mind that this is our first year of promoting this grant actively.
To accomplish this, we did the following:
- Hosted workshops all across Ontario teaching clubs both individually and in groups how to apply. You have to go out and meet the bowlers. These meetings were combined with a membership workshop at the same time.
- Provided an easy to follow YouTube “How to Apply” video.
- Provided templates of successful applications.
- Provided follow up assistance to people writing the grants
- Provided generic grant applications that clubs could edit with minor changes and submit. (Never underestimate laziness.)
- Provided follow up assistance in answering questions directed at the clubs provided by the New Horizons grants reviewers.
What we have done in Ontario can easily be transplanted nationwide by using the same materials. Until there are people to directly lead grants workshops in other provinces, it is possible to do conference calls or webinars with clubs to answer questions.
New Horizons are the easiest grants to obtain although they have recently tightened up their application process in ways that will mean we have to be more detailed in writing up the application. If 40 clubs apply and 75% are accepted, this means that up to $875,000 will come into Ontario clubs next year. This is not counting Trillium money or other grants. This is more between 3 and 4 times the entire annual budget of the OLBA. Doing this with more clubs year after year will push membership numbers upwards.
The generic application that I do is targeted at a “Fitness for Seniors” program that requires clubs to go out and recruit as part of the process. If clubs follow the generic application, they are forced to adopt good membership practices as part of the grant process. Also, if they don’t spend the money, they don’t get to keep the money so the incentive to follow the program is strong.
What else do clubs get with the money? New greens equipment for faster greens. New lighting and ditch board replacement. New appliances for the club house. New smaller coloured club bowls. All of these directly or indirectly, make the clubs more inviting to new members. They also relieve some of the financial squeeze that the clubs have been feeling because of not charging enough for membership to cover depreciation. There is literally no downside at all to this program.
In Ontario, the Seniors Community Program grant supports advertising which is unique to that grant. It is a new grant and if it continues, it will be a key part of our strategy in Ontario. At this point, it does not look like there will be a new call for applications in 2018/2019.
Once clubs receive grants for the first time, they become our best sales people to other clubs. They will tell other clubs in their area about their experience and we will promote this heavily at District meetings and with our website and social media presence. Money is a powerful motivator and this will open the doors to clubs that have resisted our membership efforts so far.
How long before we see results? We will know if the program is working in 3 to 5 years of getting clubs to apply year after year. Some clubs will spend their money well. Some will spend their money poorly. However, as a gardener once told, me “If you spread enough fertilizer, sooner or later flowers start growing.” Grant money will be our fertilizer.
OLBA Marketing and Membership Director