How Another Hobby is Organized

Every August, Elizabeth and I load our minivan and head for Pennsic. Every February, Elizabeth's parents load their minivan and head for Tucson. Our hobby is the SCA; theirs is mineral collecting. The Tucson Gem and Mineral show is several times the size of Pennsic. My wife's parents are as active in their hobby as we are in ours--more active these days, since their children are grown and ours are not. My mother-in-law is currently the first vice president of the Midwestern Federation of Mineral Societies.

We had formed the impression, from past conversations, that the formal structure of their hobby was considerably less centralized than ours, so on a recent visit we asked some detailed questions. I thought the results might be of interest to others, hence this posting.

How Gem and Mineral Collecting is Organized

The national organization of gem and mineral collectors, their nearest equivalent to the SCA Inc., is the American Federation of Mineral Societies (AFMS). It has seven members--the seven regional federations. The members of the regional federations are local gem and mineral clubs, plus some unaffiliated individuals (typically from areas without a local club). The individual clubs are unincorporated, or in some cases incorporated, associations.

The only control that the national federation exercises over the regionals, or the regional federations over the individual clubs, is the decision to accept them as members. A club that wishes to be a member of one of the regional federations must submit its bylaws for approval, but my mother-in-law had never heard of an application being turned down. A club must also agree to a statement of principles covering things such as collectors leaving sites at least as clean as they find them and reporting important finds to the appropriate scientific authorities. Subject to approval of bylaws, the internal structure of the club is entirely its own business. There are no mandatory reports up a bureaucratic hierarchy, no requirement that the regional approve the officers of the local club or the national approve the officers of the regional.

Individual clubs have no territorial monopoly; I am free to form a club in the same city in which one already exists. Regional Federations do have a defined territory. They cannot solicit clubs outside their territory, but can accept clubs from outside their territory that ask to join. A club can, and a few do, belong to more than one regional federation.

How Directors and Officers are Chosen

The Board of directors of the national federation consists of the president and first vice president of each regional federation plus one national officer elected from each region. Which region elects which officer rotates, at least for the top two officers. The officers apparently have a vote on the Board, so the Board consists of 14 members ex-officio (presidents and vice presidents of the seven regionals) plus 7 national officers. The national officers are elected by the previous year's Board.

The rules of the regionals can and do vary; my information is on the Midwest Regional Federation. Midwest has an annual convention at which each club gets one delegate (unaffiliated members have no vote). Regional officers are nominated by a nominating commitee of 7, consisting of two committee members elected each of the past three years (for a three year term), plus the current president. They nominate 4 candidates for their committee, of whom 2 will be elected to replace the 2 whose terms are expiring. They nominate one candidate for each of the 5 offices. Candidates can also be nominated from the floor, by a petition signed by at least 100 adult members (which is currently less than 1% of the membership), coming from at least 10% of the clubs. This has happened, but rarely--in my mother-in-law's view, it happens when the committee nominates the wrong person.

The five officers are the president, the first vice president, the second vice president, the secretary and the treasurer. Currently, the secretary of the Midwest Federation has been in "forever," the treasurer has been in for four to six years. The other three offices are held for only one year. At the end of the year, this year's first vice president is normally nominated as president and this year's second vice president is normally nominated as first vp. So being elected second vice president usually means a three year term--one year as second vice president, one year as first vice president, one year as president.

One reason I have gone into so much detail is that the structure of both the National and the Midwest federations shows one way of balancing stability and democracy. As long as everything goes smoothly, the system is self-perpetuating. But if the people running either level seriously upset the membership, the membership has the power to replace all of the regional officers within a year (assuming the other regionals have systems similar to the Midwestern) and, if it happens in at least six of the regions, all of the national directors within two years.

HowWell Does it Work?

Gem and Mineral Collecting is a somewhat bigger hobby than ours; my in-laws estimated about 50,000 members nationally and about 13,000 in the Midwest, which is the second largest of the regional federations. One similarity between the two hobbies is that in both there has been a recent, drastic increase in dues at the national level. In our case it was a jump from $25/year to $35/year for a subscribing membership, along with changes in the other classes. In their case it was a jump from twenty-five cents to fifty cents per club member in the fee that the National Federation charges the regional federations. The fees charged by regional federations vary; the Midwestern Regional charges its clubs a fee of $1 per member per year, out of which it pays (or will pay when the new rates are implemented) fifty cents to the National Federation.

One reason their cost is so low is that the National has only two employees, both part time. One reason for that, presumably, is that with only seven members the National Federation does not need to do a lot of complicated record keeping. Similarly, since the Regional has mainly clubs as members, it also does not have to do a lot of record keeping. Money earned or spent by a club is the concern of that club, not the regional or national federation.

A second reason is that they provide substantially less in the way of publications to their members. Both the national and regional newsletters go to clubs--two or three copies to each club (three if the club has its own newsletter, in which case the third goes to the person in charge of it). Individuals can also subscribe; I do not know the cost. The national newsletter provides about as many square inches of publication per year as we get, although the physical quality is considerably worse--more like a newspaper and less like a magazine. The Midwest Federation newsletter provides somewhat fewer square inches per year than the Pale.

A third reason their cost is low is that insurance is not included in the basic membership. It is available to clubs that want it for an additional charge (in the Midwest) of $1.60/member/year. Coverage is $1,000,000 per incident/$2,000,000 per occasion. It covers all members at a club event against liability. It does not directly cover the site.

Apparently, many sites consider such coverage adequate, on the theory that if something happens the victim will sue the insured club members rather than the site. Some sites require an additional insurance certificate naming the site as coinsured; my in-laws thought that had cost either $60 or $100 for a gem and mineral show they were involved with, which had about 2000 attendees, about 70 club members working the show, and about 50 dealers.

History of the Hobby

One argument raised in discussions of decentralizing the SCA is the possibility of internal conflict, splits, etc. I asked my in-laws about whether the Gem and Mineral hobby had had such problems. Their answer was that, so far as they knew, there had been one serious split in the history of the National Association. The facts, as they remembered them, are as follows:

The National Federation is somewhat over forty years old; some of the regional federations are older. The Eastern Federation used to cover the entire East Coast, from Mississippi to Maine. Quite a long time ago, some of the sourthern members decided that they wanted to split off. Under the national rules, a new regional federation federation is recognized by the AFMS only if it is has the consent of the regional federation it had been a part of. Instead, the Southerners seceded.

For a while, the resulting Southeastern Federation was not a member of the National. Some clubs in the region were members of the Southeastern Federation, some of the Eastern, and there were bad feelings between the two groups. After about ten years, the Eastern Federation agreed to accept the split and the Southeastern Federation became part of the AFMS.


The two striking differences between what I have described and our organization are that they are much more decentralized and much less expensive. Including the cost of insurance, membership in the Midwest Federation comes to $2.60/year. The comparable figures for the SCA are $20/year without any publications or $35 with publications. Our publications are somewhat better than theirs, and they go to all subscribing members--but they only absorb about a third of our budget. Their system for handling publications provides a way of guaranteeing that the club has information about regional and national activities, without requiring officers to subscribe individually.

Their insurance limits are, I believe, the same as ours. The coverage is better in some ways (all club members are covered against liability) but worse in others (covering the site requires an additional payment--although I gather this is the case, via insurance certificates, in some cases for us too). Their hobby is probably at least as risky as ours--mineral collectors sometimes do their collecting in dangerous places such as abandoned quarries and old mine shafts, their shows have a lot of outsiders going through them, and their merchants have much more expensive goods available to be stolen or damaged.

Decentralization does not prevent cooperation. Gem and Mineral shows are sometimes run by groups of clubs and are generally open to competitors from lots of other clubs and exhibitors both from other clubs and from ouside the federation. My general impression is that the level of consistency across the member clubs of the AFMS is not radically different from that across the groups of the SCA.

Nor does decentralization seem to lead to more internal conflict than centralization. Over a history significantly longer than ours, they have had one internal conflict on the scale of a kingdom breaking up with the breakaway region effectively seceding, and it was eventually resolved. We have had at least two smaller conflicts of that sort (leading to the Far Isles group in England and MSR), both so far unresolved, and our present difficulties might easily lead to one or more kingdoms seceding.