by Pierre Filion

I have worked more than 40 years in and around small associations, in lacrosse and in other fields or areas. I have come to develop an understanding of how they work and why they are small….and often remain small.

1.. Small associations have small memberships.

That is obvious and that is why they are identified as being small.

In some instance the membership is determined by the association’s bylaws or constitution. The Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame is a prime example. The bylaws call for a maximum of 15 members who are the directors of the corporation. No one else is a member; no one else can be a member. The members of the Hall’s committees are not members; the inducted ‘’great ones’’, though called ‘’honorary members’’, are not members. The Canadian Lacrosse Foundation is in the same category by virtue of its bylaws.

Many other associations have limited members for many different reasons; population, financial situation, geography, tradition. In 2023 according to Lacrosse Canada’s official records four provincial associations (New Brunswick, First Nations, PEI and Newfoundland) represented, together, 2% of the total membership; six associations (the four mentioned above plus Québec and Manitoba) represented 8% of the total membership; there are 11 provincial associations within Lacrosse Canada. Five associations represent 92% of the membership. The total membership is of 46,959 members.

A review of Lacrosse Canada’s registrations for the last 20 years gives the following portrait for the six provincial associations mentioned;

Association                         2003                     2013               2023

Manitoba                            1,228                     350                1,653

Québec                                 915                       1,543             1,245

New Brunswick                  1,110                     746                 627

First Nations                        200                        617                342

PEI                                         0                             0                    216

Newfoundland                    0                             169                100

Population and demographics play a significant role when it comes time to appreciate the size of small associations. But a comparison between hockey and lacrosse might suggest some reservations. Let’s have a look at hockey’s registrations for 2021-22 and lacrosse’s for 2022:

Association           Population              Hockey 2021-22                 Lacrosse 2022

Québec                  8,751,352               73,433                                  630

Manitoba              1,420,228                21,287                                 1121

New Brunswick    820,786                   11,651                                 288

Newfoundland     528,818                   8,395                                    0

PEI                          172,707                   4,120                                    131

First Nations         non applicable                                                     130

Clearly population is not the only factor explaining the size of small associations.

Finally what is often noted is that small associations tend not to indicate their real numbers and size. A small growth is identified as a huge gain, a significant gain is outstanding and a great step forward. Numbers vary significantly from year to year or are somehow amplified as if there was a gain from having larger numbers than real numbers. A case in point here is Lacrosse Canada who officially issues its 2023 national registration numbers to be of 46,959 members yet informs the public, on its website, that along with its provincial partners it represents 85,000 participants. There is a huge difference between 46,959 and 85,000 which obviously raises a question of credibility.

2. Small associations have limited relationships and no network.

What comes out of research concerning small associations is that the members ‘’are comfortable together’’. They have been together for a long time; they know one another and they appreciate one another not just within the association but outside the realms and mandates of the association. Somehow they are family, open to family members and slightly fearful of ‘’visitors’’ or newcomers. Their members search not outside the associations for new members; a member’ wife, a young son or a close friend will often be the best person for an open position! ‘’We are comfortable with what he brings to the association’’…is often what is said to include a new member within a small association.

Small associations have no lobby; they have very limited networks of influence; they have never lobbied but they have often begged. They deal in ‘’charity’’ and not in ‘’politics’’. And would not know how to organize a lobby and who should be lobbied. They trust their internal resources and in a way fear that opening up the association would lead to some type of invasion of the association’s privacy.

In obtaining the ‘’national summer sport’’ status the Canadian Lacrosse Association engaged in a lengthy lobbying process (it’s first ever) and had to create a network of contacts that never had existed and never had served the Association. Because they were never asked…

3. Small associations have small budgets.

That also is obvious but it’s not the small budgets and resources that strikes; it’s the comfort in which small associations deal with their limited budgets. There is some sort of wisdom and acceptance of reality. ‘’That’s the way it is; we don’t have money; we just need to work with what we have’’.

‘’So we cut this and we cut that; we cancel this, we cancel that, we overwork ourselves and ask more of our members because the cause is just; we are pursuing a worthy ideal’’. Resources will not increase; budgets will not grow and it seems everyone within the association has the wisdom, or passivity, to accept that and simply carry on with their lunch pail.

4. Small associations have no stated goals and no identified objectives.

We have often mentioned that it is difficult to score when there are no goals to shoot at. It is also very difficult to be successful when the money that is spent by an association is not related to the association’s goals; because there are no goals. Small associations raise money and spend money on the traditional events the association has been involved in for years. Same people, same events, same expenses just moving along but not clearly knowing where things are going.

‘’Our minds are made up; don’t confuse us with facts’’. ‘’We all agree that we had a good year’’. ‘’We are growing the game’’…

5. Small associations have great internal cohesion.

The members stick together; they wear the same color coats, caps or jerseys and proudly stand up for their association because they have been there for a long time and will not allow anyone to say anything wrong about the association. Inbreeding processes, when including a new member to a new position within the association, increase the sense of tradition and loyalty. Confidentiality of discussions, of decision-making processes and of internal documents is of paramount importance and elevates the sense of belonging, of responsibility and of togetherness.

Members remain members for a long time and are very tolerant of non-efficient members who just show up to vote and are not really available to the association. But their wise vote counts and disturbs not the internal cohesion. They have been there for such a long time that it would be a disgrace to ask them to resign. They never submit reports, joke along and are not accountable for their deficiencies. Their inefficiencies are accepted and become an expression of their wisdom and judgement. ‘’If it is not broken don’t fix it’’.

6. Small associations have one and only one narrative.

A narrative is a description of facts, but of selected facts. In small associations the narrative is ‘’imposed’’ by the ‘’leader’’. The leader has been there for a long time; he knows the ropes; he knows his people and selects them to be his followers and the parrots of his narrative. His narrative is accepted as the only obvious one and a different narrative (description of facts) is quickly shot down as being obviously out of touch with reality. The holder of the alternate narrative then becomes silent, corrects his mistaken narrative, often resigns or becomes cynically inefficient; he has no support from the members who view his narrative as some type of betrayal of the leader. There is no room for dissent within a small association. Often there is even no room for discussion!

In a small association the leader can be the executive director, a successful coach or the president who has been there for a long time. The leader appears to be a democratic leader but controls just about everything; he is everywhere; in every committee and on every document; he controls agendas and facts; he selects members and assigns them to different committees; he prepares meetings and presents options that are totally hashed out before and that leave no doubts on which decision must be taken. The members have a choice between ‘’very good’’ and ‘’slightly better’’. Unanimity is often the only way to move together and often creates a cult which is accepted by everyone. One leader, one narrative one decision. Strength comes from within and remains within.

7. Political meetings are controlled social meetings.

Within small associations annual or semi-annual meetings (which are in fact political meetings) become meetings of friends. Friends from here and there who come together because of the greatness of ‘’the cause’’ and who willingly participate in small talks and in reverence to the leader. Great cookies, small sandwiches, shrimps and wine color the meetings and are what is remembered.

There is often the need to decrease the number of people in attendance at annual meetings as this is the one meeting that is most difficult to control. Anyone could say just about anything about everything. Too many people could derail the association. ‘’We need not embarrass the leader’’ thus, often, strategies are devised to limit the number of participants or to involve or imprison them in non- significant discussions about irrelevant topics…Lacrosse Canada’s proposal to decrease the number of votes and of attendees at its annual meetings goes in that direction and illustrates the centralization of power and the control of associations over their members. The number of silent and smiling people attending annual meetings is the one thing to look at when one searches for a small association.

Shrimps, friends and small talk; reverence, control and obvious decisions make up the happy life of small associations.