…and what we are trying to create

“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. Besides all the tanks, fishrooms, and ponds, I wrote books and for magazines, served on aquarium society boards, founded specialty organizations, and spoke at clubs around North America. I got to work with many cool fish and plants, but the real payback were all friends I made around the world.

There was still one thing left in my “water change bucket” list: a local club for hobbyists right here in the Skylands. One week in April I learned of the passing of 3 hobby friends, two within days of each other from rare diseases. Those tragedies pushed me to finally create SAWGG. Four months later in September 2019, SAWGG began gathering. So here we are!

Aquarium Clubs 101

Aquarium clubs have been around since the late 1800’s and are in every State. The majority follow a traditional Society Model, with elected Officers and Board Meetings. Most are registered as 501(c) 3 or 4 charitable organizations with a mission to educate or serve the public. Monthly meetings are open to the public with theatre-style seating and a guest speaker, capped off by an auction of attendee fish and plants. Door prizes, raffles, and bowl shows are common features. A monthly magazine is published. Field trips, all-day auction fundraisers, and award programs for breeders and growers take place throughout the season.

Traditional aquarium societies require logistics and many volunteers to function well. They have to navigate entertaining their attendees, volunteer burnout, filling Board positions, high member expectations, and internal politics (in-fighting and poor leadership choices plague all clubs at some point). Finances are always a concern. Monthly board meetings are often long and sometimes contentious. The payoff of the Society Model, however, is all the services, education, and large social network it offers the public and its members.

In contrast, the Group Model is followed by most smaller hobby clubs, and indeed, resemble the earliest Amercan aquarium societies. Killifish and planted aquaria specialties come to mind. More “club” than “society”, members in these groups have lower expectations. Meetings offer little more than fellowship, roundtable discussions with occasional local speakers, and exchanging fish, plants, and live food cultures. Smaller in size, these clubs meet in members’ homes or small rental spaces where they get to know each other. Less formal, they essentially self-govern, often with just a perpetual Moderator and Treasurer.

Surprisingly, the Group model has a dedicated following. Some members drive great distances, even crossing State lines, to attend them. We veteran aquarists refer to them as the “low stress fish club.” The risk for clubs like this is they may get too too cliquey, too old, shrink or get too large, or resistant to change.

The SAWGG Approach

I have been involved with clubs in North America over four decades. The clubs I enjoy most emphasize 3 things: (1) fellowship over finances, (2) socialization over speakers, (3) adhocracy over bureaucracy. SAWGG’s hybrid approach to an aquarium club follows the Group Model at its core, while bolting on the fun features of the Society Model. With some 21st century sensibilities like not meeting on a traditional work/school night, or publishing a newsletter. To quote Innes: “a congenial membership is more important than numerical strength.” 

To make this all happen, we set up SAWGG with two key features:

  • Face-to-face fellowship is our primary purpose, so we Incorporated as a New Jersey non-profit social club following Federal 501(c)7 guidelines. This means we must provide an opportunity for personal contact among Members, limit attendance to Members and their guests, and fund ourselves primarily through membership dues, donations, and assessments. We only assess $1-$3 per auction item and dues are $12 a year (buck-a-month). This keeps SAWGG poor by design.
  • Fun, Friendly, and Simple is our Rule of 3 that governs everything we do. (or we don’t do it). Our meetings are “in the round” with tables and chairs (or on Zoom, but this is only supplemental). Group discussion starts every meeting. If you are looking for a place to just acquire fish and plants, or hear a top Speaker, SAWGG is not the Group for you! SAWGG does not tolerate Members who are provocative or make others uncomfortable. We gladly accept but do not solicit donations from pet stores (who struggle already). Our BAP and GAP point system is not tiered. Our Board is small and perpetual, meeting annually per State requirements.

The SAWGG model was successful from our first meeting. New friends were made quickly and the vibe is always light and positive (as much as can be during COVID). If the keeping, cultivation, or conservation of aquatic life interests you, and you want to meet local hobbyists in a safe, social environment to learn new things, share ideas, and acquire new species, contact us here.

– Ted Coletti, Founder

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