Updated: Dec 16, 2019
Will Your Club Last ?
Want to start a motorcycle club? WHY? The phenomenal surge in Motorcycle Club start-ups in recent years really raises several questions; What is behind this? Why are so many different clubs starting up? What sets them apart? What is the most sustainable model?
What follows here is written from the law-abiding club perspective. Outlaw clubs are mentioned generally only to illustrate important differences between the outlaw and law-abiding motorcycle club cultures.
Motorcycle clubs have been around for a hundred years, give or take. But since the late 1990’s we have seen a new wave of motorcycle club start-ups. Much to the chagrin of the outlaw and 1% clubs, this growth is comprised mainly of law abiding folks and the growth is mostly uncontrolled and somewhat disorganized. The reason for this is simple. People are just exercising their FREEDOM at a time when true freedom is constantly under attack.
The mystique and romance of a leather cut with patches which indicates belonging and a big v-twin motorcycle which expresses individual power and independence, combined with the need/satisfaction of human connection with like-minded individuals is the perfect formula for a Motorcycle Club.
The Start-up phase begins with at least two people who have something in-common besides their love of motorcycling. For some it is purely social, for some it is based on employment or service, for some it arises out of politics. Motorcycle Clubs will most often have a common social thread in its membership which may range from social misfits and criminals to law abiding citizens. Most clubs are constructed around a common theme which includes motorcycles. In some cases, it is exclusively about motorcycles.
If the start-up theme is too narrow, membership will be difficult to come by or to sustain.
The reasons why individuals start clubs varies. The common flaw in leadership is the self-appointed leader. This person usually has an agenda which is meant to feed his/her own ego and has little to do service to the members of the organization. This person (or persons) may attract some membership at first, but, if the leadership position(s) are held in the grip of the self-interested for too long the club will usually fail. Anger, rejection, personal conflict, ego, are among the common (and wrong) reasons for starting a motorcycle club.
Too many clubs are started by people with no plan or vision. Without these things members, by-laws, and patches are useless. A new club should have a clear vision of what it wants to be or accomplish and a viable plan to get there.
While it is true that most initial club leaders have some self-interest, this must yield to selfless leadership at some point if the club is to survive. A true leader, in this context, plans for his/her own replacement by succession and leaves a legacy as an example to his/her successors. A club that evolves is a club that survives. A club that falls to failed leadership may spawn a new start-up club, and the cycle can perpetuate itself.
The social aspect of a motorcycle club is too often overshadowed by rules. By-laws get too heavy and some people become enforcers of them, this is the number one reason members quit. The point of MC membership is to provide escape from the daily grind of work, family, and other obligations that make people feel tied down.
The elements of a successful motorcycle club include but are not limited to:
A Clear Vision and Plan - Know who you are or want to be and how you will accomplish this.
Selfless Leaders - Leaders who know that they serve the membership first and themselves last. They know they will be replaced and should plan for it.
Availability of Members - The club should be geographically situated where members have access to each other. Members should be socially compatible.
GROWTH AND ATTRITION
Each person has their own motivation for starting and/or joining a motorcycle club. These motivations have a range. It may be just a passing interest which will come and go in a short period of time, and the subject will move on to something else of interest. It may be a natural extension of that person’s lifestyle and will last most of their adult life.
The growth of the club will depend on the existence of interested persons and level of commitment of those who may join. If the club employs a follow the (self-interested) leader strategy it won’t go too far and attrition will be a problem.
Growth occurs when members are enthusiastic enough to reach out to others and bring in membership because they believe in the club’s viability. People want to believe that they are a part of something greater than themselves and that their contributions are meaningful. For some, simple acceptance is enough. For others having their contributions validated by recognition or acknowledgement is necessary. An effective leader knows the difference and how to capitalize on it for the good of the club.
There is no good that can come from self-interested leaders whose only goal is to have some status for themselves and power over others. This usually means that these people are missing something in their personal lives. In my experience this type of leader has more ego than compassion and has few, if any, real friends. Their concern for others is usually a thin facade that breaks down when they are challenged. Every failed Motorcycle Club has this chink in their armor.
When MC membership becomes just another obligation to be stacked against existing obligations, members will consider their options. Most people will put family and job first and rightfully so. The “brotherhood” will fade for a member who feels marginalized, put upon, or segregated. This is supposed to be something that a member looks forward to amidst the daily grind much like sports, music, and the arts.
A member’s spare time is limited. It is incumbent on the leadership to provide an atmosphere that makes the member glad he/she chose this and will want to dedicate a significant portion of their personal time to it. For a leader, this means being able to see it from the members’ perspective.
Absolute retention of membership is virtually impossible. It can be difficult to gauge a person’s level of dedication. The level of dedication may change due to unforeseen circumstances. Like most human social structures there will be a core of true believers who will remain steadfast. There will be a group of moderately dedicated individuals who will stay for a significant time and show a respectable level of involvement. Then there will be peripheral members who will have a low level of dedication. These outliers will be the first to go if anything controversial happens. They will enjoy wearing the patch and “Being there” for a while. But, when it comes to putting forth the effort to sustain the club, build a good reputation, and live up to the stated mission and goals, only a few will rise to the occasion.
A club that starts with just a few friends will not grow if the original members don’t recognize that friendship should be the result of club membership not a prerequisite for it.
Members stay with the club because it fits with their lifestyle, there is little or no conflict with work, family, or other social activities. It is something that they identify with and a place where they feel accepted and comfortable.
Internal drama is the biggest club killer. Unfortunately, MC life attracts people who love DRAMA. The combination of excessive politics, drama, and friction among members will drive people away. This usually means someone is targeted and antagonized for the entertainment of the antagonist. Get rid of these people before they destroy your club. This is where the prospecting period comes into play. Proper prospecting can prevent some of the most damaging drama related problems. Most problems and internal conflicts can be solved without drama with steady handed leadership.
Members leave because of conflict with family, work, or they find greater solace in other social activities. Too many members forget to leave their egos at the door. Motorcycle club life is about social interaction that provides some reward to the members. The leadership should be promoting collective harmony. A club that leaves its members feeling conflicted about their place will lose people until it folds. Any person who joins a motorcycle club should do so with the motivation that they will offer more than they expect to get in return. Other than the feeling of comradery and the good times that can accompany it, there isn't really much personal reward for the average member. If you’re not doing it because you love it, then you shouldn't be doing it.
If the club’s mission and goals are not realistic or mutually agreed upon, the pursuit of these things will not happen and the club loses focus or purpose. This will cause members to drift and eventually leave. Leadership should be careful not to overstate the clubs mission and goals unless they are achievable. Don't join a club whose stated mission and/or goals doesn't appeal to you. Don't recruit members who are not on board with your program.
Patch jumping happens when a member seeks satisfaction of their personal MC goals and/or ambitions elsewhere. Too many clubs will state they select members carefully but in fact do not. Too many members will accept a patch from a club where they clearly do not fit in. The competition for members can be fierce and tempting to those who are unfulfilled in their current situation. All of this is natural to some degree.
The real challenge in MC life is to make the club sustainable and solid. Long term stability depends on committed members who stay for the long haul. Longevity also requires some level of recognition and acceptance from those outside the club, like the community and other clubs. If each member has a realistic view of his/her position within the club and feels fulfilled by that role, then longevity has a chance.
Longevity only happens when leaders and members are smart enough to plan for future generations of members and leaders.
The REPUTATION of the club among outsiders is just as important as internal morale. Let’s face it, people talk. If your club is a dramatic revolving door for members, it won’t be long before this is what you are known for. Eventually, no-one will want to join a club that is known for ejecting or driving away members.
The reputation of your club among neighboring clubs also important. If the relationship does not involve competition for members you should be viewed with respect by your fellow clubs. This, or course does not include the outlaw or 1% clubs who will likely not respect you under any circumstances.
Internal morale can be seriously affected if the members feel that other clubs view them with disrespect. The best way to earn the respect of other clubs is to show some respect without compromising your integrity. Once you've taken your ground, stand on it! Never lose sight of the possibility that you may have to defend your club’s honor. This requires highly committed members.
The true measure of success is when outsiders will defend your honor.
Form alliances with like-minded clubs. Be diplomatic. Look for opportunities to partner with benevolent entities with your home community to do some good for others. Use the local press to your advantage to shed some light on the good things that you do. Don't just state that you are a law abiding club, BE ONE !! Become a lobbyist with the local elected officials and gain their support. This may involve some Quid-Pro-Quo. Just keep it above board.
There is no point in acting like an outlaw if you don’t want to be seen as an outlaw. This is a common mistake of law abiding motorcycle clubs. Your club’s reputation is a direct reflection of your leaders’ capabilities, and your members’ behavior. It is not enough to just be law-abiding, you must take the initiative to make your club appear to be socially responsible and an asset to your community.
A person’s reaction, upon hearing your name, is the best measuring rod of your reputation in the community. It is also one of the most difficult to control, given the bad reputation of MCs’ in general. People will only see the difference between you and the feared/hated criminal gangs, if you show it to them. If you want the public’s respect, you must earn it.
Guilt by association is an unfortunate reality in our world. A law abiding club should not affiliate or associate with any club who states or demonstrates that they are outlaw affiliated or oriented or that they support the efforts of an outlaw club. The best approach with these clubs is just live and let live. However, be prepared to stand your ground if challenged. No club that is worth its salt will be dictated to by those without proper authority. Do not attend or support any function sponsored by outlaws, leave them to their own. There are plenty of opportunities to ride, organize and/or support events which the general public sees as worthwhile, that will result in some good being done for someone who needs it.
The concept and the meaning of “Brotherhood” is misplaced in the modern world of law abiding motorcycle clubs. It is wrong headed to put a patch on the backs of several people and call it a “Brotherhood”. The idea is to emulate the outlaw concept of brotherhood which is counter-intuitive to the law abiding MC culture.
A brotherhood forms when shared experiences, over time, evolve into mutually held beliefs by people who are engaged in similar activities, in a like-minded way. A kinship bond is formed that includes only those involved and is greater than that of other social or family bonds. In other words, the club member’s bond with his fellow members, is stronger than the bond he/she has with others outside the club. In law abiding clubs this is rarely the case. There may be those people who have stronger ties to fellow club members than their own families, but this is not true of the average law abiding club member. This may be the reason that outlaws object to the law abiding club culture’s characterization of “Brotherhood”.
We put family, job and God ahead of all social activities, including MC obligations, the outlaws don’t. In the law abiding club world, those who put club first are the most hard-core members. This level of commitment can be intimidating to the average member who doesn't see it that way. In the outlaw world there is no substitute or compromise for total commitment to the club.
Simple membership in a motorcycle club does not mean that the members are brothers. It is sad that MC membership is a condition of brotherhood to some. Brotherhood and MC membership are, in fact, mutually exclusive and only co-exist under certain circumstances involving enduring friendship and personal loyalty, which transcends MC membership. Today’s relatively unstable club climate is evidence, of the lack of real brotherhood among too many of today’s law abiding clubs.
BOILING IT DOWN
In the law abiding motorcycle club world we may look like outlaws. We ride the same bikes, wear similar clothing, and have clubs which are similarly structured. People only know we are not outlaws by our actions and behaviors. A good reputation is very hard to come by and requires commitment and some hard work.
Any club which, in its behaviors, emulates those outlaw clubs that communities fear and hate, is bound to fall either to community pressure, or to outlaw pressure, or both. A sustainable club is one that is attractive to members and potential members, is seen in the community as an asset (not a threat), and has an available pool of willing and committed members who are willing to give their time and efforts to good causes greater than themselves.
A sustainable club is led by people who know that they serve the membership first, the community next, and themselves last. A practical leader knows he/she will be replaced eventually and should plan for it in the name of sustainability.
A sustainable club recognizes that public perception and reputation are the only way to keep the community on your side. Consistent and ongoing efforts to build and maintain a positive public image is a challenge which must be accepted and embraced by every member.
Owning a motorcycle and wanting friends to ride with is not enough to sustain a Motorcycle Club. It may not even be enough to sustain the friendship. A motorcycle club is something more than the sum of the parts. It is an organization, recognized by its name, known by its reputation, and embraced by its community.
Today there many groups who ride motorcycles, wear a common patch, and share a name. Few of them will last beyond a few years. Even fewer of them will last beyond a generation.