How to Run an Outdoors Club: The Basics

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How to Run an Outdoors Club is the ultimate guide for student leaders. Check out the full series here

Conducting a student-run operation to get people outside can be a logistical nightmare. There are leaders and participants to organize, meetings to plan, budgets to manage, not to mention ensuring trips run safely and smoothly (and, you know, going to class). An intuitive and well-designed club structure is the foundation for successful outings and happy campers! In this installment of How to Run an Outdoors Club we will cover the basics of club structure and documentation. Whether you are looking to build a club from scratch or improve upon an existing structure, we’ve gathered tried and true approaches from leaders of existing clubs.

Leadership and Membership Structure

 The configuration of a club depends on a multitude of factors including existing leadership and membership, dues, student body size, demand for trips, etc. There are hundreds of functional models out there, any number of which might work great for your club; pulling tidbits from each can help you refine a structure that’s best for you. With an understanding that every group operates differently, we present a handful of proven methods out of the hundreds of working models that can be adapted wholly or in parts to any club.

 Model Club #1: Drexel Weekend Warriors (Philadelphia, PA)

The Drexel Weekend Warriors exemplify a model in which “The Club” is comprised of trip leaders only, and any member of the Drexel community is welcome on trips. Club members include a Senior Leadership Team (President and VP, Secretary, Treasurer, etc.) and trip leaders. Membership is determined by applications reviewed by the Senior Leadership Team. Trip participants are not technically club members, and do not attend regular meetings.

Best for: Clubs desiring to keep membership and meetings to a manageable size; serving an entire student body.

Pros:

  • Even though membership is exclusive, trip participation is open to the whole community, and there is a low barrier of entry for trip participation
  • Limiting trip leaders to an application-based group ensures that only competent, trained leaders are leading safe and educational trips
  • Lack of membership dues allows anyone to participate and encourages beginners to try outdoor activities for the first time
  • Providing a non-exclusive, campus-wide service may garner respect and support from university administration

Cons:

  • This model is not ideal for clubs wishing to gain revenue by charging membership dues to participants
  • Participants may perceive a divide between club members and participants; fostering a wider outdoors-loving community beyond the club may be difficult
  • Without a quantifiable membership base, it can be more difficult to measure demand for trips and demonstrate a club’s influence on campus

Take a look at the Drexel Weekend Warriors’ constitution (below) for more information

  Model Club #2: University of Denver Alpine Club (Denver, CO)

The DUAC exemplifies a two-tiered membership model. The club consists of a board of elected officers who make decisions and plan and lead trips, and dues-paying members who go on trips. Trips are technically open to any student, but club members get priority sign-ups and discounted trip fees, among other perks like free rental gear.

Best for: Clubs that prefer a defined member group rather than an open format; standardized trip planning and execution.

Pros:

  • Allows the club to gain revenue from membership dues
  • Allows for membership perks such as club swag or access to club deals and sponsorships
  • Limiting trip leaders to an application-based group ensures that only competent, trained leaders are leading safe and educational trips, potentially alleviating university administration liability concerns
  • With a quantifiable membership base, it is easy to demonstrate a club’s influence on campus to an administration

Cons:

  • A closed membership model introduces a level of exclusivity that may alienate beginners or non-members from the outdoor community
  • The cost of membership adds a barrier to entry for getting outside
  • This model does not accommodate for lots of growth for more leaders—if the officer board gets too big, management could become difficult
  • A small officer board limits on number of trips that can go out on a given weekend

Take a look at the DUAC’s officer manual (below) for more information

 Club Model #3: University of Connecticut Outing Club (Storrs, CT)

The UCONN Outing Club also illustrates a two-tiered structure consisting of an officer board and a general body of dues-paying members. The officer board handles funding and decision-making, but any club member may plan and lead a trip. Members propose trips at weekly meetings and invite other members to join. Officers plan larger and more logistically involved trips, and may veto trip proposals from members which they deem it unsafe or unfeasible.

Best for: School communities that have a high number of experienced outdoor enthusiasts and a high level of interest for weekly trips; running a high volume of beginner, non-technical trips such as local day hikes.

Pros:

  • Allowing any member to lead a trip creates an inclusive environment and strong sense of community
  • Without a limited number of leaders, this structure facilitates a higher volume of trips running each weekend, meaning more students can get outside
  • Informal process encourages more students to step out of their comfort zones and meet new people

Cons:

  • Ensuring that leaders are competent and well-trained is difficult, introducing a level of complication to risk management
  • Trips are non-standardized, which could lead to logistical disorganization or disapproval from university overseers
  • Technical trips that require leader expertise must rely on members with prior experience, and there is no way to monitor their competence

Take a look at the UCONN Outing Club’s constitution (below)  for more information

 Model Club #4: Brown Outing Club (Providence, RI)

Brown’s model comprises a three-tiered structure. A board of leaders meets regularly to plan activities for members; leaders must apply to join the board. In addition to the leader board, a small core group of leaders called the Steering Committee meets regularly to make guiding decisions. This allows for a large group of leaders to engage with the club and lead trips, while providing a smaller setting for efficient administration and decision-making. Anyone on the club’s email list is considered a member and can sign up for trips.

Best for: Clubs that have experienced rapid growth or serve a large membership base; clubs desiring to separate decision-making from trip-leading.

Pros:

  • Designating a group to making big-picture decisions allows leaders to effect real change in the club and discuss and implement new initiatives
  • This model could feasibly allow the club to charge member dues or open trips to all students
  • Allows for more students to become trip leaders, putting a focus on leadership development and training
  • With a quantifiable membership base, it is easy to demonstrate a club’s influence on campus to an administration

Cons:

  • Welcoming a large group of leaders into the club can raise issues of leader accountability
  • Task delegation and separation of responsibilities between the Steering Committee and the leader board can become vague
  • Hierarchical structure may introduce social divisions within the club
  • Not ideal for small groups where multiple trips per weekend are not in high demand

Take a look at the BOC’s constitution (below) for more information.

Model 5: Iowa State University Outdoor Recreation (Ames, IA)

While not a student-run organization, the Iowa State Outdoor Rec program exemplifies an evolved version of student-run clubs that have matured over time. This program began as a small, student-run enterprise, eventually acquiring a full-time advisor and more university funding and resources. Trip leaders are hired by a faculty administrator, undergo extensive training, and are paid to lead trips that are open any member of the student body.

Best for: Large organizations with involved faculty advisor and university financial support; clubs wishing to run more technical trips such as canyoneering.

Pros:

  • Administration support leads to benefits such as increased funding and access to resources such as vans, gear, and certification courses
  • Larger programs with abundant resources can compensate leaders for their time
  • A strong focus on leader development benefits student leaders and ensures that trips are led by qualified guides

Cons:

  • For smaller, student-run clubs, it takes a lot of time and growth to develop into a university-sponsored program
  • Increased advising and supervision may detract from the independence of an entirely student-run group and often requires adherence to strictly enforced protocols
  • A formalized hiring process adds a barrier of entry for students who want to become leaders

Writing a Constitution

Once you’ve designed a perfect leadership and membership structure for your club, it’s time to make it official. Writing a constitution from scratch can be a daunting task, but the benefits of documentation are invaluable. Creating and maintaining formal club documents allows your organization to sustain and grow over time, long after you graduate. Not only will having a comprehensive club constitution prepare you for seamless leader transition from year to year, but it will serve as a tool to legitimize your organization in the eyes of university administration. Furthermore, establishing and recording protocols to hold student leaders accountable encourages everyone to make things happen and get outside!

Not sure where to start? We’ve done the dirty work so you don’t have to. The following documents were created by leaders of various organizations, and are at your disposal as sample templates. Skim over the provided documents for examples of formatting, style, and language.

Drexel Weekend Warriors Constitution and Bylaws

DU Alpine Club Officer Manual

UConn Outing Club Constitution

Brown Outing Club Constitution

Top Tips 

Student and administration leaders reveal wisdom they’ve acquired from years of managing their own clubs

“Have a solid constitution that lays out everyone’s specific jobs and expectations. This will keep tasks delegated so no one gets swamped or overwhelmed. Also, as a President, meet regularly with executive leaders and members to keep up with projects and make sure everyone’s on the same page.” –Vic Smith, President, Drexel Weekend Warriors

Zoe Gates has served as President and Vice President of Brown Outing Club, redrafting a constitution, aiding in a club structure overhaul, renting out gear and leading trips. As an intern at College Outside, she’s discussed the nitty-gritty of running an outdoors club with hundreds of student leaders and advisors from across the country.

Got advice to share with other student leaders? Email zoe.gates@collegeoutside.com or post on our  Collegiate Outdoor Leadership Forum Facebook page


Related:

A no-experience-required guide to trip leading

 

 

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