“In building a society it should always be remembered that a congenial membership is more important than numerical strength.”  – William T. Innes (1935)

By April 2019, I had been involved with the aquarium hobby for over 35 years. Tanks, fishrooms, and ponds of all sizes had come and gone. I wrote a couple books and magazine columns, held aquarium society positions, chaired a national convention, and did speaking engagements around North America. The friendships and acquaintances you make are the best part of this hobby. Just one thing remained in my (water change) bucket list: an aquarium club in my own backyard, the unserved New Jersey Skylands.

That April I learned of the passing of three hobby friends, two within days of each other from rare diseases. That moved my long dream of starting my own club from “when I have the time” to “now is the time”. Important for me was to create a different kind of “fish club” from the ground up.

A Better Mousetrap?

Over the decades I have been involved with or observed dozens of aquarium societies. Most, at any given point, function well. The standard “mission” is educating the public via speakers, and fish/plant/supply auctions. With fundraising, dues, and raffles, its common for clubs to morph into monthly event venues, which creates high expectations from members, and more work for its volunteers and leadership.

Sadly, it was common to witness clubs in crisis, too: overburdened or criticized volunteers, ineffectual or authoritarian leaders, offensive members – even coup attempts and club dissolution. Some of this was due to bad actors: rabble-rousing members and/or those elected. Some was due to the complexity and stress involved in running a traditional club as described above. Either way, the result was the same: new members and volunteers leaving, never to return.

In my hobby travels, the clubs I admired most, with the most loyal following, seem to have 3 ingredients in their secret sauce:

  1. they prioritized people over programs
  2. they governed by adhocracy not bureaucracy
  3. they focused on fun over finances

I also wanted my club to be an “antidote” to our increasingly isolated and anonymous culture, by creating a sense of community and connection for local hobbyists (thus our name, Skylands Aquarium & Water Garden Group).

The SAWGG Model

SAWGG was modeled after the small group format used by churches, and the informal killifish and plant clubs. These groups are tight-knit and meet around tables or at member homes. We then bolted on the best parts of traditional clubs (BAP, Bowl Show, speaker, auction), but simplified everything with fewer volunteers and less work. SAWGG has a Perpetual Board of Trustees (no elections) that only meets annually and when needed. Our governing principle in our Charter is “simple, fun, and friendly” in everything we do.

SAWGG is incorporated as a non-profit 501c7 social club. This allows us to curate our membership, and means we cannot be open to the general public like traditional aquarium clubs. We remain poor by design (social clubs must be funded primarily through dues, donations, and assessments) so the burden of constant and tiring fundraising is eliminated. Our Members come first, so our auction splits are high, dues are low, and we spend down our treasury by the end of every season. It helps that SAWGG is a registered non-profit with insurance, as we are able to acquire free meeting space.

The Result

SAWGG’s first meeting was Friday, September 6, 2019 to a welcome crowd. We have continued to add new members (even during COVID). Connections with fellow hobbyists are made, friendships cultivated, and sharing of information, livestock, and supplies enabled.

If the cultivation or conservation of aquatic life interests you, and you want to meet other hobbyists in a safe, friendly environment to share ideas, hear a Speaker, and acquire new species, click here to read our requirements and contact us for a visit.

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