Shopping for a ham club can be a little like internet dating. Sometimes you make it all the way to desert before your see the fly in your Creme Brule'. Group dynamics within ham clubs are an interesting beast. (READ: group dynamics within a bunch of geeks are an interesting beast.) However, the benefits of finding and fitting into a new club well outweigh the risks.
There are a few things you can look for, however, that may clue you into the inner mind of the group before you make the time commitment and pay your dues, so let’s explore a few of those.
Before the meeting:
In this day and age, it should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway.
Check out the club website. Is it well designed? Can you easily find the mission statement or the “About Us” page? Once you’re there, look for clearly defined objectives. Do these objectives match your ideas? No one club is going to service everyone’s needs, but it should be easy to close your eyes and see a role for yourself within those goals. If you like emergency communications, are you going to be comfortable in DXing club? The great thing about ham clubs is you can join more than one if your tastes are more micro-focused. Also, if you called or email someone to find out meeting specifics, did someone get back with you promptly? What was the tone of the email or phone call like?
At your first meeting:
Probably the first and foremost thing to tune into after attending a club meeting are your own instincts. When I attended my first club meeting, I knew by the end of the evening that I had found a very functional organization. The atmosphere was fun and jovial. I felt welcomed, and while the technical information was plenty challenging, the social interaction was not. Things to note: When you went to your first meeting, did someone greet you or did your visit go largely unnoticed?
Another clue to the organization is to observe how meetings are run. If the majority of the time is spent ironing out details of the standing rules and the technical topic is given less than five minutes air time, this might be a clue that there are some misaligned core values. Also, while it’s customary for the president to run the meeting, notice whether or not they confer with others. If they present a question to the peanut gallery, are there people in the group who will raise their hand and give an answer?
Healthy clubs accept new ideas from anyone. Ego shouldn’t get in the way of finding a good suggestion. If someone asks for ideas or solutions from the masses, that’s probably a good indication that they are open to listening to new ideas. Do multiple hands go up? Would you be comfortable making a suggestion if you had one? Or at least catching someone after a meeting and making a suggestion? The most astute leaders know the best ideas come from the newest people because they haven’t been indoctrinated into “this is how it should be” Group Think.
At your first / second meeting:
Along with the ability to accept ideas from new people comes the ability to change with the times. Ham radio is a constantly changing technological ooze. Trying to predict the next up and coming direction of the hobby is like trying to nail Jello to a
tree. And let’s face it, we wouldn’t have it any other way. But if you’re shopping for a new club, technical presentations should match the ever-evolving science of ham radio.
While fellowship is important, learning is one of the key benefits to a ham club. Are the Elmers easy to spot? If you ask a question and the person you ask doesn’t know the answer, they should be able to quickly find someone else who does. Preferably they will take you over that person and actively participate in the discussion so that *they* learn the answer as well. Also, trust your instincts and be satisfied with your answer you receive. There is no benefit to leaving more confused than you started.
Don’t get overwhelmed by a full-calendar of upcoming events! Lots of club activity equals lots of on-the-job training. Do what you can, learn what you can, when you can.
Speaking of which, new hams are ham radio gold. Hook in with the club that fosters them. Do they promote the hobby and lead new hams into the fold by testing, training and working with youth organizations? Is your new club active with community outreach programs? It pains me to say it, but most people don’t really know what ham radio is. I know this full well because I didn’t really know what ham radio was when I walked in the door to my first meeting. The philosophy should be to get ‘em in and get ‘em hooked in short order. Because when it really comes down to it… When all else fails, amateur radio may save the day.
You’ve found your club. Now what? Well, here you go. Ask not what your club can do for you… Ask what you can do for your club. Find your place within the organization, then kick back for a few months and watch. Once you figure out what’s going on, take the plunge. Find your place and take ownership. Learn. Volunteer. Lead. Do stuff. Hang out with your new friends and share beverage of choice and talk radio ad nausium. Hopefully, you chose wisely and you’ll have many many years to work out the kinks.