The economics of a non-profit gun club is different than the economics of a commercial range, and necessarily so. One big issue with the club life is a lack of recognition that there are economics for a gun club. A gun club is just as much a business as a commercial range, and they are subject to the same forces, both in terms of economics and regulation. But their purpose is different. Their missions are different.
Commercial ranges do not necessarily exist to make money as a range. They exist to get eyeballs in the store and walking past the counter, where most of the revenue is generated. This is not a concern for a gun club, typically. A gun club is really just a pool of people who pool their resources to keep and maintain a place to shoot. I would argue that any shooting facility has a responsibility to the shooting community as a whole. The economics of both commercial ranges and non-profit clubs exist within a shooting ecosystem that needs to be alive and healthy for those institutions to maintain themselves.
Clubs need to be very concerned about what kind of membership they are cultivating because they are very dependent or in some cases entirely dependent on volunteer labor. Every club needs a large pool of people who pay their dues, use the facilities a few times a year, and do little else. These are the people that keep the lights on, because they provide needed revenue without taxing the resources much. But clubs also need to be sure they are bringing in serious shooters, because these are the people who will care enough to volunteer, and that is the lifeblood of a gun club.
I hear a lot of people complain about wait lists to get in, sponsorship requirements, etc. I hear you, but this is in large part because the economics of a club do not allow them to charge the market clearing price for dues (clearing price is the price at which supply will equal demand). The higher you make the dues, the more member turnover you’ll have as the lesser users decide their three visits a year just aren’t worth the dues.
Member turnover for a club is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because bringing in new members is a lot of work, and you’re putting all that on volunteers. If a club were a for-profit enterprise, you’d want to set the price at the clearing rate and hire people to handle the turnover. But the club is not a for-profit enterprise, and few clubs can afford staff. Turnover is a blessing because the initiation fees help the bottom line, and it brings in fresh members with fresh energy and perspectives.
But for those who complain about wait lists, my impression of clubs is that most of them are keeping turnover too low.
All clubs, generally speaking, are charging way less than market rates and filtering incoming members for quality in some fashion. There’s a rumor floating around at my club that we’re looking to become an “exclusive” club with few members and sky-high dues. The shooting economics of the area would never support that, and we do our best to quash rumors like that, but to a large degree every club is exclusive. Exclusivity is a necessary feature if you’re charging less than the market clearing price, which nearly every club is doing. Many clubs choose to do exclusivity by sponsorship: you gotta know somebody.
The more experience I get in management of a club, the less I think of sponsorship as a filter. On one hand, I get it: the volunteer pool is usually smaller than the amount of work that needs to be done, so a filter that spreads a task across the whole membership is appealing. But it’s the wrong filter. The prospectives are usually going to be like their sponsors. So if the sponsor is a marginally safe shooter, chances are he or she will miss those same safety issues with the prospective. My club does a qualification program, but it’s biased toward passing people. In other words, it’s not much of a barrier to unsafe shooters. Additionally, if you don’t have enough volunteers now, because you’re replacing casual shooters with more casual shooters, sponsorship ain’t changing that. So waiting lists abound.
Which brings me to another component of club economics: programs. Small clubs tend to be much more dependent on programs for revenue. I run a relatively large club of 1300 members. For us, programs revenue is drop in the bucket. Almost all of our income comes from dues and guest fees. This is probably the same for most every club close to our size.
Running healthy shooting programs is a must though, because much like the commercial range exists to draw in shooters past the gun counter, programs exist to draw serious shooters into the club. Matches and shooting events are a recruiting tool to help bring in people who make shooting a big part of their lives, and thus are more likely to get deeply involved with the volunteer and social life of a club. A club that isn’t running healthy programs is a dying club. One force I’ve had to battle in my own club is the desire to cloister the club off from the outside world, which would slowly kill it. Adam Smith said there was a lot of ruin in a nation, and the same is true for gun clubs, believe me.
A place to shoot is pure gold to our shooting community. Without places to shoot, everything we do is for naught. So they have to be saved, as best we can. I know there are fuddy duddy clubs out there whose current caretakers are determined to let die with them. We can’t save them all. But it’s worth it to spend the time and energy to save what we can, and I hope that by sharing some of what I’ve learned with the larger community, I can help with that in some small way.