Chapter 6: Power of Efficiency
9:05 AM. Blue skies crash down upon perfectly smooth snowy surfaces—the roofs of a series of ponds that weave between woodlands and waterfowl. It’s such a gorgeous day. My phone rings. It’s one of the dads who is lost and needs directions to find the trailhead. I quickly reorient him. Then a text comes in. It’s a mom who lets me know their family has decided to come, and wants to make sure they know how to find us. I refer her to the map I posted on our Facebook group that shows the location of the makeshift teepee, where we’ll make basecamp.
9:10 AM. Several families have arrived now at the trailhead, and it’s time for us to head to basecamp. We visit the ponds regularly, and the children know it well. They tear off into the woodlands; a billow of snow swooshes into the crisp morning on their heels. When we arrive to basecamp, the children spot the teepee. It’s been decorated by the snow queen, they announce. They promptly burrow through slits to huddle like a tribe of elders planning an elaborate journey together in secret. Geese traipse across the horizon. It’s still sub-freezing as another family and children arrive at basecamp. Their happiness is contagious as ever, and the new arrival quickly joins in the fun.
Our relationship with technology is precarious—it connects us and makes us distant. As a tool to organize and coordinate family nature club, it is invaluable. And it is efficient. Using technology allows you to reach a great number of people, keeping them informed and inspired, while optimizing your efficiency.
How and What Technology to Use to Organize Events
You need three basic tools to organize every event for your family nature club: a calendar system, a reminder system, and a contact system. I’ve found that you can automate these using inexpensive Web-based technologies, and that doing so really improves your success in getting people to events and having a great time there. These technologies are easy to learn and use, and you will find that, as you use them, you will get much quicker in a short amount of time. Once you’ve got the three systems running smoothly, you’ll be very happy with how easy it is to organize your club!
The three systems you need:
Once you’ve figured out the logistics and written the descriptions for your events, the next step is to put them on a calendar. You need a calendar to make your life way easier, because it will allow you to schedule an event at a specific moment in time, and will automatically manage whether events are in the future or have already happened and are in the past. With a calendar, your club members will be able to quickly see upcoming events, and be able to put them on their own schedules. There are a lot of different options out there for calendar systems, from Google Calendar to Meetup.com to Facebook to WordPress plugins for a blog to custom-developed calendar software that lives on your website.
Scheduling events in advance and at the same time every week/every two weeks/every month/etc. will make it easier for people to get them on their schedules. Since I like to use feedback and observation to guide future event planning, I only schedule four or five events at a time, once per week—so just over a month of events. Sometimes I have special events that must occur at a specific time, such as camping (where we need to get a reservation early). In those cases, I schedule the events some months in the future. Since writing descriptions takes time, I tend to put events on the calendar with just a photo and maybe a link to the location/venue, and add a note that “details are coming soon.” This allows people to put the event on the calendar in advance. Then, as a second step, days/week(s) later I’ll go in and add the details of the event.
Many calendar systems also allow the ability to duplicate past events when starting new ones. This works well if you host repeat events, saving you time in copy/pasting or rewriting things you’ve already crafted.
Many calendar systems include event reminders as part of their services. This is helpful in case someone who has registered for an event forgets or needs a gentle reminder the day before the event. The reminder systems that are part of the calendar systems vary a great deal in how exactly they work, and it’s worth testing out different systems to see which one you think will work best for your members. Not all calendars have built-in reminders. For example, if you use Google Calendar to show events, club members will not be able to “register” for an event, and they will not be automatically getting a reminder even if they add it to their own calendars. If your calendar does not have reminders, you can set up an email system to send email reminders to your club members.
It’s important to have reminders sent to members either the day before, or the weekday before a weekend event. If your calendar system already has this function built in, you don’t have to do anything! For those using a standalone email system, such as Aweber, MailChimp, or even Gmail, it is best to write your reminder emails following a template. This will reduce your work and make it easier for users to quickly scan your emails and get the main point. The email reminders should link to the full event description or include the full description in the body of the email.
No matter how good a calendar system and reminder system you set up, you will still have people who need assistance in getting to the event on the day of. It may be that they’ll send you an email or a text asking for help. Alternately, you may have to make last-minute changes to an event. For example, if a location or activity is weather dependent, you may have to unexpectedly cancel it or make some changes to the time. In all cases, you should maintain an active contact list of your club members that includes their emails and mobile phone numbers. It is also a good idea to request emergency contact information.
You likely have your favorite way of storing contacts already, whether in your email system, on a spreadsheet, or just in a document. Spreadsheets are efficient and allow you to import the data into various other tools. It is important to keep your contact list up-to-date, so whenever a new member joins, you should add them to this list.
How to Pick the Best Technology
What technology you ultimately decide on will vary greatly based on your own requirements. Some questions to ask yourself as you are considering the options:
- Are you price sensitive and wanting to find something that is free, or are you OK with spending some money each month?
- What’s your level of technical comfort? Do you want to have to think about maintaining a Web application, or do you want a hosted solution?
- How will these systems integrate with each other and any other technology you’ll be using? Do you want one system, or are you OK with running a variety of technology?
- What will your club members respond best to?
When I first started my family nature club, I started by using Meetup, because Meetup provides a nice combination of social features (picture sharing, discussions), calendar, and email communications (for event reminders). However, Meetup’s settings for private groups only restrict the ability for members to automatically join your group. You can’t turn off the visibility of the group, and the result was that I received more than three dozen inquiries within the first several days of being live. Since I wanted to just invite a few friends to start, I closed my Meetup group and moved to Facebook, and set up a secret group. Facebook has been OK. It has nice social features, and I can set up events pretty easily. If you’re interested in setting up a public group, Meetup is great for attracting members with similar values and interests, and offers a free trial period and a low monthly cost.
Unfortunately, I’ve discovered that not everyone who wants to join my group is on Facebook, and they are thus not able to see the calendar. Additionally, Facebook’s emailing options for groups is not fantastic. I can’t be sure that my members are receiving emails about my notifications, and they often report not getting reminders (I believe they get lost in the many notifications Facebook sends). This year, I’ve decided to test MailChimp. This adds a bit of extra overhead administrative work for me, but I think it is much better for my club. Each week, I send one email with a reminder for the event to be held on the weekend, upcoming future events, and general announcements. It’s nice to be able to email people directly, and they appreciate getting emails with the information.
In talking with other club leaders, I’ve heard positive feedback about WordPress because it supports a blog and plugins can be used for the calendar, and it also has good features for privacy if needed.
What You’ve Learned
In this chapter, you’ve learned how valuable technology is for organizing and coordinating events for your family nature club. You’ve learned about calendar systems and email systems, and how to organize your contacts.