Membership Counts

ARS Membership

Membership Counts

By Robert B. Martin, Jr.

While writing my book, “ Showing Good Roses” I went through 30 years of the American Rose to look for articles on exhibiting. In so doing, I got to reading the incoming messages of each of our society presidents. There, I noticed an interesting fact. Every single one of those messages expressed concern about the membership of the society. Even when the membership was growing and robust, there was concern. And, that concern has continued to this day.

Membership counts – there can be no doubt about that. We are a membership organization and, lacking members, we would not be able to carry out our purposes.

As you can see from the chart I created above, the membership of the ARS has been declining significantly in recent years. I think this is a problem. And it is a problem to which I have given some considerable thought. Here, I plan to share those thoughts,

First, I reject the view expressed by some that members have been deserting the ARS because of dissatisfaction with its policies. The truth is that we have long had an exceptional retention rate for members. But, what is happening – as we can see at nearly any local rose society meeting – is that we are losing members to the three "Ds", which in our case are death, divorce and downsizing. And, we are not replacing those members with new members.

In many respects, we are dealing with a problem that is not of our making and one that affects non-profit volunteer community service organizations all across America. These problems were documented in Robert Putnam’s 2000 book, “Bowling Alone” where he presents evidence that Americans today belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. Americans are not only bowling alone, we are also rose gardening alone

On the other hand, there are reasons for optimism. Putnam’s most recent research shows a reversal in the trend. The ARS continues to have a substantial and enviable base of very loyal members who consistently renew. Gardening is the most popular hobby in America, people are staying at home more. The economy is recovering. And, the rose continues to be the most beautiful and popular flower on the planet. So how do we reach the new generation of rose growers?

The answer, I believe, can be found in the line from one of my favorite films, “Field of Dreams” – “If you build it, they will come.” The question then becomes what we ought to be building in order to attract membership.

An Attitude Adjustment

To start, I think we need to remember why people join the American Rose Society. Why did you join? I joined many years ago so I could learn how to take care of the roses that the landscaper had planted at my new house. Over the years, I continued my membership as I learned more, and also so that I could give back for what I had learned by helping others to learn as well. I joined looking for expert advice and I stayed to provide it.

So what has changed? I tend to believe that what has changed is that Americans believe they have less need of plant societies and clubs in general. If you want to learn about roses, there are hundreds of articles on the internet, as well as books for your Kindle that appear to meet this need. And, if you want to talk about roses, you don’t need to drive at night to some remote location, but you can join the Garden Web or communicate with people in far off places through social media who will tell you any number of fantastic tales on how they grow roses with no effort at all. In short, people have come to believe that you don’t need to join the American Rose Society if you want to grow roses, or to promote the culture and appreciation of the rose.

But is that true?

It is not. Those of us who grow good roses know perfectly well that not only is there a wide diversity in roses, but that roses perform differently in different areas. There is no substitute for local expert knowledge and the observation of actual roses, rather than the images of photoshopped roses that populate the web. The American Rose Society is a specialized knowledge society and we know roses and how to grow them. We need to tell people that.

I also continue to think that we of the American Rose Society need to adjust our attitude. I think we spend too much time trying to tell people that roses can be grown without care and attention. Telling everybody to grow only ‘Knock Out’ roses does nothing to increase our membership. Gardeners are not going to join the American Rose Society to learn how to not take care of their roses. And, I don’t think they much care about studies in which roses are neglected and the last to die are called kind to the earth.

I think it is telling that the American Orchid Society, which has a lot harder plant to grow than we do, has over twice the membership. Why? Because people find orchids beautiful and want to be told how to grow them! We can do the same with roses.

Education is the Mission

"The American Rose Society exists to promote the culture and appreciation of the rose, through education and research, to members, to local rose societies and their members, and to the public.” That is the mission statement of the American Rose Society. Our purpose is to promote roses through education.

Education has always been the purpose of the American Rose Society. We are the experts on roses. We know of their diversity. We know there is a rose for every garden and every purpose. We know they are plants too. We know how to take care of roses and cause them to prosper and produce blooms like those we show in our rose shows and grow in our gardens. And we know its not that hard to do so, if you simply take some regular time to water, feed and attend to the health challenges of your roses. It is in fact not much different than raising our cats and dogs – and when was the last time you heard the American Kennel Society talk about “easy care” dogs?

If we build it, they will come. Membership does count and I think we can count a lot more members if we simply stay true to our roots as a specialized plant society composed of hundreds of experts who love roses and know how to grow them.