20 March 2012

Counteracting the decline of genealogical societies

Last October FGS radio, hosted by Thomas McEntee, featured a session with guest Randy Whited with the provocative title "If your society folded today would anyone care." It's still available.

It was timely as one of our local societies here in Ottawa had raised the issue with their members.  A blog post Volunteering Outside the Box by Mike More reinforced a mock branch obit published in the branch newsletter appealing for members to step up and take on board responsibilities.

One of the issues touched on by McEntee, almost in passing, was that of breakaway groups dissatisfied with an existing society and moving to form another.  It's what happened in Ottawa getting on for 20 years ago.  As I understand, it was before I was involved, a group of local people got tired of sending subscriptions to the OGS provincial organization in Toronto which they didn't find addressed their needs or provided value for money. These were people with British or Irish ancestry; statistically that's a large majority of Canada's anglophone population.

The result is that Ottawa has two large primarily genealogy/family history societies with roughly equal membership. Quite a few people belong to both. In most cases the societies work together reasonably harmoniously. Ottawa Branch of OGS focuses on those with Ottawa valley roots, and includes a substantial proportion of remote members. BIFHSGO attracts mostly members local to the Ottawa area with British and/or Irish roots.

To return to the FGS radio session. Some of the notes I took during the session are:

How do/can societies measure success, do they measure success?
If you can't measure it, you can't manage it
If you keep doing the same thing you've always done you're going to get the same result.
Genealogy societies should be run in a more business-like (which does not mean  less friendly) manner.
Societies need to periodically (annually) take a hard at where they are and set goals for the year, and five years.
Being welcoming to newcomers is an important aspect of attracting new members.
Have a greeter at the door of your meetings.
If someone does volunteer engage them immediately, not 3 - 6 months later.
The potential new members are likely those with an interest in family history but limited knowledge. Go out into the community to find these folks at fairs and shopping centres.
Consider setting aside time before presentations for newcomers.
Encourage special interest groups
Encourage long distance members through a "virtual chapter."
If you can put your monthly meeting presentation online you serve not only the remote members but also those who can't attend that particular meeting.
Societies with great programs attract members
Avoid being too academic as it turns off new members. Don't tell people they're doing things the wrong way or preach (did I hear "cite your sources").
Remember that for most people genealogy is the path, the goal is an output such as a quilt, photo collection, book, website. Focus on helping them achieve the goal.
A stale society website is a good indication that nothing much is happening.

I have some additional thoughts about the troubling paradox in the genealogical community that membership in genealogical and family history societies is declining, in some cases dramatically, while baby boomers, prime member candidates, are retiring. It should also be a boom time for family history societies.

Why isn't that happening?

Some people think it has to do with the increased availability of family history resources online. Today you don't need to find out about the intricacies of local records, or of searching patiently through unindexed microfilm data when everything is easily searchable online. While you and I know that everything isn't online what's the perception? We are told in TV ads that you don't even have to know what you're looking for. Perception has a habit of becoming reality, or what passes for reality on television.

While online data availability may have something to do with it I don't think it's the whole story.

The most loyal members of any society are those who have served in a board or other volunteeer capacity. Having invested significant amounts of their own time they don't want to see the organization  fail.

Many societies experience a lack of people who have served in such a capacity because in the past no one came forward to take on those roles. The same people continued on and the society kept going. In fact the existing programs prospered because of experienced leadership - until burnout.

Had the same people not continued to serve the society might have failed some years ago.

But it also means that a younger generation of ex-board members and other volunteers are not there to boost the society with a new generation. And let's face it, you have better luck recruiting people to the society through the networks of enthuiastic existing members inviting a friend or colleague to attend a meeting. Catch them and those younger generations will network with and attract younger generations.

You may think you can get around this by advertizing and gaining media publicity. But only the extroverts amongst us are comfortable going into a setting where they don't know anyone. The occasional introvert may wander in and unless someone steps up to welcome them find themselves feeling very much an outsider.

Do you think family history attracts more extroverts or introverts?

What can be done?

In the long term consider term limits on board membership. People who've served two terms should seriously think about whether continuing is in the long-term interest of the organization they've worked so hard to support. Ex board members can still continue to serve, and be encouraged to play the role of ambassador, just as retired politicians are often appointed ambassadors in the world of diplomacy.


Elizabeth Kipp said...

I have to agree with your post John and well said. For myself, I was a member of 10 different family history societies but have since dropped my membership from all except for BIFHSGO and the Guild of one-name Studies (I am a family member for four OGS branches, NEHGS, NYGBS but these are my husband's memberships). Mostly I just didn't want to continue receiving all those paper journals which I glanced at quickly and then put in a bookshelf - mind you I have now given them to BIFHSGO library and hopefully they will receive a lot more use. I will join once again when the journals are available online.

Cannuk said...

Wow! It's really a different story here in Victoria, BC. Our video pretty much tells the story. Check it out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzVxCjk-bsw&feature=share. Also look at our website at www.victoriags.org.
There's even a second little family history club that, although not officially affiliated with VGS, has a collegial relationship.
I would like to challenge one point in your blog--if you can't measure it, you can't manage it. That's only true in part. Measuring has it's importance, but there are huge intangibles like enthusiasm, creativity, energy, good personal relationships, and understanding. As far as all these intangibles, and tangibles we couldn't be better served by our executive and membership.

Margaret Burwell said...

Since much of this post revolves around getting people to step forward and volunteer for leadership positions, I think there is one more that needs to exist in a healthy society of any kind - succession planning. If you don't plan for new people coming into leadership positions, nobody will step forward. Spending time as an assistant or associate is a good way to find out if you woul like the job and could lift some of the load from the board member / whomever.

Persephone said...

Do you think family history attracts more extroverts or introverts?

While I support the idea of ensuring new members are welcome, I'd just like to point out that the term "introvert" was never meant to be a synonym for "shy". Extroverts draw energy from others and get overwhelmed if left alone too long. Introverts draw energy from themselves and get overwhelmed if denied a bit of solitude. (I'm an introvert -- I'm not sure people would describe me as "shy".) That said, the first thing I noticed when joining BIFHSGO was how many engineers we seem to have as members! Are engineers introverts? I think that's the popular perception (hence "engineer jokes"), but I think what draws them, and many others, to family history is a sense of order and a need to belong (and to know where they belong). Maybe "preachy" is a comfort -- it implies rules.

What I'm seeing increasingly online are people who research exclusively online, and as a result, seem to have no inkling of what family research is, beyond copying others' online trees. What a family history society gives us is "face time", along with the promotion of the idea that we make far better (and certainly more accurate) progress by sharing ideas and actually learning about stuff like historical context, and even citing sources. (Maybe we need to find a less intimidating way to say this? Uh..."It's always helpful to be able to say where you got your information"? Maybe not.)

I really wish I could encourage exclusive online family "researchers" to join a FHS. Their trees are brimming with relatives -- but not their own...