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FEATURE: New clubs face an uphill battle

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McMaster’s annual Clubsfest can be as overwhelming as it is exciting. Hundreds of enthusiastic McMaster clubs flock to the Burke Science Building lawn to try and seduce new and old students alike to their group. The competition is fierce because for many clubs, the sign-ups gathered at Clubsfest form the basis of their membership for that year.

“There were a lot of people,” said Mehjabeen Elahi, a first-year Humanities student. “And where it was busy I just skipped.” Elahi ended up in three clubs: Humanity at Mac, UNICEF, and the Muslim Students Association.

Jenna Healey, a second-year Life Sciences student, also remarked on how busy the day was. “There was a ton of clubs. We tried to see all of them,” she said.

The chaos of Clubsfest was not just in their heads. For 2013/14, the McMaster Students Union ratified a whopping 326 clubs. That’s more than most schools in Ontario; in comparison, the University of Ottawa has 186 clubs and Western University has 204.

“Anecdotally speaking, and from my own research into a number of different schools, McMaster University does have one of the largest Clubs departments in Ontario,” said Jessica Irvine, the MSU’s Clubs Administrator.

At first glance, this huge diversity seems like a point of pride, and indeed, the MSU’s website says of Clubsfest that, “With hundreds of clubs to choose from, there’s something for everyone at McMaster!”

But does the quality of McMaster’s clubs programming increase with the quantity? There is only so much space on McMaster bulletin boards and only so many tables at Clubsfest, and McMaster students are limited in the number of events, meetings, and fundraisers they can attend. A membership increase in one club forces, to a certain extent, a membership decrease in another.

These are problems that disproportionately affect new clubs, of which there are 54 this year. Many established clubs already have members to plan and attend events. In contrast, new clubs often start the year with just half a dozen or so charter members, and spend the first few weeks of school fighting the more than 300 competing clubs to attract the dedicated members that make possible the fundraisers and social events for which clubs exist. Inevitably, some are unable to compete and fizzle out by the end of the year, evidenced by the fact that 65 clubs failed to apply for re-ratification this year.

“It’s a challenge to get the word out there and to get people really interested in the group,” said Yara Farran, a second-year Arts and Science student. Farran is the communications director of McMaster’s Golden Z club, new this year. It is the campus chapter of the Zonta International Group, which, according to the organization’s website, seeks to “[improve] the legal, political, economic, educational, health and professional status of women worldwide.”

To try and attract members, McMaster Golden Z relies heavily on social media. “We’re really using word of mouth because on the executive committee it’s ten girls, and we’re just telling all of our friends, we’re inviting everyone we know on Facebook,” said Farran.

For some clubs, though, even just 10 members is a lot.

Bracelet of Hope is a charity that seeks to empower women in the African country of Lesotho by buying and selling their handmade goods, especially the red bead bracelets that give the organization its name. Victoria McKinnon, a third-year Arts and Science student, is the President of the group’s McMaster chapter, which started last year.

“There were five of us,” she said. “We just kind of decided we would start it and see what we could do with it. It was ratified as a club last year, and then the other four members graduated so I’m president now.”

For McKinnon, the small size of the club was appealing in some ways. “It really gave me a chance to take on a role of leadership that I probably never would have had in a big club where you have 30 people applying for an executive position,” she said.

In other ways, though, size was a limiting factor. “There are fewer people to volunteer for events, fewer people to volunteer for bake sales, and if people’s schedules conflict that’s more of an issue,” McKinnon continued. This year, she has worked to increase membership, and BoH is now up to 30 members.

Another problem that arises with McMaster’s club saturation is that each organization’s piece of the MSU financial pie is smaller. Clubs can apply for between $100 and $1000 of MSU funding.

“Based on the nature of the club, the size of the club, the scope and the programming the club has planned they will receive a specific allocation amount which they can use for items such as advertising, promotions, operating fees, room rentals etc. Typically, larger groups with more members will receive a larger allocation as their cost is generally higher,” said Irvine.

However, it’s not just small clubs that receive less funding—it’s new clubs, too.

“Finding money—that’s the hardest part,” said Katarina Polletto, the President of the new McMaster Alliance for Body Peace, when asked about the challenges of starting a new club. “Especially as a new club, we know we’re not getting any money. We requested, I think, $600, but that’s not going to cover anything. And we’re not going to get it, I know we’re not.”

Despite financial limitations, Polletto has grand plans for her club, which she initiated after seeing two close friends suffer from eating disorders. Already, she’s had interest from off-campus sponsors.

Clubs are also able to fundraise on campus, but even this is made difficult by the amount of competition. Bake sales in MUSC, for example, are an efficient way to raise money, but space in the atrium is limited.

“It definitely is very competitive to get bake sale tables, which makes it difficult because this year there’s one club a day allowed a bake sale table,” said McKinnon.

The most successful clubs at McMaster often do not experience these same problems from year to year.

For Asian F.O.C.U.S., one of McMaster’s most popular and visible clubs, neither membership nor money are the issues, according to the club’s president, Colin Liu, a fourth-year Commerce student.

“We’ve been around about 16 years,” he said. “We’d like to say we get a hundred [new active members] every year. So anywhere between 300 to 400 active general members [each year].”

As far as money goes, AF’s social events are so lucrative that they even allow the club to act as a source of funding for other campus organizations. “There are a lot of charitable clubs on campus that require a little bit of upstart or donations to help their cause, and so frequently you will have a lot of clubs on McMaster that contact us personally asking for some sort of collaboration or some sort of donation or what not,” said Liu.

Liu sees a lack of longevity as the biggest issue facing campus clubs. “Often, what I see is that there will be a huge cluster of students that start a club together and then they graduate. And then you’re left with a new wave that’s not as prepared,” he said.

To avoid that collapse, it is important to build a strong base and attract motivated new members from a variety of years early on. This makes the start-up process for new clubs stressful as they compete with other organizations to gather money and members. However, each executive was optimistic about the coming year.

Polletto is excited to lay the groundwork to ensure the Alliance for Body Peace’s future success. “At least three of us, me, the events coordinator, and the publications [coordinator], are going to be here for another three years. So we should be able to get some establishment down before we move forward,” she said.

Similarly, McKinnon is looking forward to utilizing the increased funding available to BoH as a club in its second year. “I want to bring [Bracelet of Hope’s founder] Dr. Anne-Marie back. She’s really good.”

Meanwhile, Liu will try to keep AF’s momentum going. “I think you just got to do what you got to do. Be friendly,” he said, when asked how to get noticed on campus.

“[Our members] get their friends involved, and it’s just a snowball effect.”

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