Where’s the Goal Line? – Understanding the Club’s Culture

Having seen numerous clubs from the inside as a consultant, appraiser and member, I’ve often wondered how club leaders, boards and members perceive the goals of the club.  There are typically more objectives than there are members and the challenge is to balance all the individual interests with what promotes the greater good for the future of the club.

Most clubs have what I call “special interest groups”.  These will often be segmented by gender, age, golfing or other sport skill level and for sure financial capability.  When clubs make decisions, the interests most represented are often those groups with the most representation on the board.  While the purpose of this post is not to question how clubs govern or the decisions they make, I hope to explore and shed light on the motivation behind those decisions are made and what leadership’s goals are.

Many clubs, especially those with financial challenges, make decisions focused on the club’s fiscal condition.  Often, that means that necessary projects are postponed or even ignored to make the budget balance.  Many such clubs are fearful of imposing assessments which sometimes precipitate member flight.  Conversely, clubs not so financially challenged might seek to embark on pet projects of board members which may not be in the best interests of most members which can drive up the cost of membership and make even the most desirable clubs vulnerable.

It’s critically important for clubs to continue to provide value in membership and as a “luxury product” balancing the cost with the value is increasingly important.  People join clubs for different reasons.  They like to tell people they belong and they like to show off their club.  Other segments of membership simply seek out the recreational and athletic opportunities while some enjoy the social activities and business networking that clubs offer.

Most clubs have segments of the membership focused on the prestige in membership element as well.  It is those clubs focused on prestige that often make decisions that can lead to decline.  While a very few clubs, whether through sheer size of membership or because of a lack of competition, or even because they’re just financially capable can survive such decisions, most can’t and need to plan for the future recognizing that no club is bulletproof.  Many boards become so insulated to the world outside club boundaries and are so enamored with their club that they often forget that only a few years down the road can bring decline and distress, even to the most desirable clubs.

They need to identify a path to long term success.  This includes not only satisfying current members, but anticipating the desires of future members who will populate the club and allow it to thrive with stability.  It’s the prestige element that often causes clubs to go off the rails.  The “pet project(s)” are done and the club incurs debt and while few members use the new facility, many members leave and seek a more cost-effective option.  Additionally, when a club seeks prestige as its primary goal, they often attempt to fabricate it with onerous rules and policies that make the club less comfortable and “stuffy”.  The next generation resists and won’t pay for it.

The real question here relates to a club’s goals.  Is the goal to be prestigious? Stuffy?  Some, a very few, can succeed at that and move forward.  More often, it’s the club that finds the right balance between recreational value for the dollar, fiscal responsibility and overall desirability (not just prestige) that experiences the greatest success.  Of course, every club has its own “culture”, which can be defined as “a whole way of life” or “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic or age group”.   It’s critical for leadership to understand that culture and not take for granted that membership will concur with leadership’s direction as it relates to both current and future membership.  A club is made up of many elements.  The property, the golf course, the athletic facilities, the food, the clubhouse and the location.  It’s not just a golf course and it’s not just about the physical elements.

When club leadership misreads the culture, the club can suffer, no matter how prestigious they think they are.  What’s your club’s goal?  Like everything else in life, establish realistic goals.  No club is bulletproof.