Secrets to Growing Branch Membership

By Cathy Shouse, Muncie Branch

NLAPW Pensacola Branch

Branch member Christine Salome shares her work at one of the meetings.

When the Pensacola Branch of Florida earned the “Highest Membership Growth” award, many of us asked: What are its secrets?

Rejuvenating membership numbers is the top priority for many branches, and we need answers. These Pen Women’s boundless optimism and wisdom are likely the primary reason that the branch is growing. What follows are the highlights of the winning branch’s strategies.

One of the clues to the branch’s growth is that membership is everyone’s business. Branch No. 84 members Autry Dye, Helen Breton, Christine Salome, and current President Mara Viksnins all play a part in attracting new members, as does Nancy Nesvik, the branch technology coordinator.

Location, Location, Location: Leveraging community assets

Pensacola’s historic flavor in the downtown area offers Spanish and French architecture and iron balconies, and there are monthly “Gallery Nights,” pop-up art displays, and street performers. So the branch is anchored where these creative events are happening.

Nesvik said, “A once large, stately courthouse was converted to hold the nonprofit, experimental ‘Artel Gallery.’ Our Pen Women branch has long supported Artel, and we are fortunate to hold our meetings right in the display gallery itself.”

Soup to Nuts: Meeting content and structure

“At our Pen Women meetings, we try to create an atmosphere akin to the French ‘salons’ of the 17th century,” Viksnins said. “The ‘Show and Share’ segment for letters and arts allows membership and guests to bring work — finished or work in progress — with no critique, which is particularly rewarding for both participants and members. I have noticed that the more membership feels involved, the more enthusiasm is generated.

The meetings are open to anyone who is interested in the arts.

Pensacola Branch women at dinner

Pensacola Branch member Carol Loethen (standing) was the featured artist displaying in a local marina-side restaurant. Even though it was summertime, when the branch doesn’t have meetings, many Pen Women met for dinner to congratulate her.

“Just because someone is a professional in other than the arts does not preclude them from being involved,” Viksnins said. “We recently held our 75th anniversary celebration — it was a magnificent undertaking and it took all of us to pull it off.

“I am a firm believer that when you exclude women who want to support the arts but don’t necessarily have immediate credentials to go to national, you are doing your branch a disservice,” she said. “I strongly advise that you encourage these women to be a part of your meetings.”

The presentation topics at the meetings vary. They may include members sharing their perspectives on their works, visiting speakers from the community, or reports on historical Pen Women in the area with visits to their gravesites.

“If a member offers a demonstration, that month we may meet in her home or studio, or at a local frame shop with a designated demo space,” Nesvik said.

Hope Is Not a Plan: Being strategic

Viksnins said that the branch formed a membership committee to expand its membership drive.

“The committee members meet and greet our guests at the meetings and act as ‘big sisters’ to help our guests understand what Pen Women is all about,” she said. “They have all been trained in all the national membership qualifications.”

Pen Woman Patricia O’Neal demonstrates abstract collage techniques at the home studio of fellow member Autry Dye.

The branch has special business cards that include the membership chair’s name and contact information.

“These are handed out whenever (a member) encounters a potential interested candidate,” Viksnins said.

Autry’s advice on membership is to go where younger people are — for example, events such as open mics and outdoor art shows — to hand out brochures and talk to them about the organization. She recommends having an exhibition, inviting a noted artist to give a demo for the group, and advertising it as “free.”

“I have recruited several members from my church,” she said. “Try the other clubs your members belong to. I joined a writers group and now both Pen Women and the writers group are growing. Creative people do not like to waste their limited time.”

The branch has snacks at the meetings, but more important is what the women share with each other, whether it’s poetry readings, the latest piece of art, or information on technology for creatives.