Friday, August 25, 2006

Declining Membership in Genealogical Societies: Parting Advice

All good things must come to an end. And I want to believe that this series of posts has been a good thing. However, I don't claim that all the ideas presented in these posts are right for every group. Nor do I recommend that any genealogical society scrap every vestige of their existing group in favor of recreating a totally new group, at least not without the approval of their current membership. But certainly there are ideas here that could help just about any group be more appealing and accessible to their members and potential members.

It's apparent that I'm a strong proponent of utilizing whatever new or current technology makes sense to help people find their roots. In fact, the more the merrier. But I've been careful to suggest only those technologies that I believe ordinary people could set up for their societies. You don't need to be a web master to set up a social networking group, a blog, or a wiki. The internet has really become user friendly these days.

There is one recommendation that I would like make as I wrap up this series, and that is to check out what kinds of changes your current membership would appreciate most. First and foremost, you don't want to alienate your member base. Do not assume that you and your executive board know what's in the best interest of your group. You really should get feedback on what additions or changes your membership would like to see. If you're thinking about making changes but aren't sure if you'll get applause or complaints, ask your membership. A survey is a great way to do this.

Back when I was an active board member of my local genealogical society I created a survey that was mailed (postal mail) out to every member and it was also posted to the society's web site as a form so they had an option to complete it online or mail the form back (I controlled the online form so that people could not vote multiple times). It was a multi-page form that asked members to rank what the priorities for the society should be as well as making suggestions for future meeting and seminar topics, content for the web site, research topics to be addressed in the journal, ongoing group research projects, if we should have a newsletter, etc. The survey also asked if members had computers and/or internet access. This survey was done about 5 years ago when the group had in the neighborhood of 500 members.

We got over 100 completed surveys, certainly a good enough percentage to make the results carry some weight (and way more than the typical voter turnout for the election of officers each year). Some of the results were predictable. But what was a surprise to most of us was the high priority placed on the society's web site. It was second in importance only to the society's journal. And this was back before Broad Band was common and the vast majority of our members who had computers and internet access had a dialup connection to the internet. But you see, the journal and the web site were really the only things that benefited members who lived out of the area. And I suspect that if the society's journal were put online as a part of the web site (like posting articles to a wiki) it would have made the web site their top priority.

Without going into a lot of detail, an entire new slate of officers were elected a couple months after the results of the survey were compiled. The new administration "did not put much faith in numbers" and was committed to doing things the traditional way they had always been done. And to this day nothing's really changed in that respect. Membership is less than half what it once was and I doubt if any changes they could implement now would get those numbers back... short of offering membership for free. In all fairness, I have to say that the organization had other serious issues besides a resistence to change that led to its decline in membership. So I certainly don't want to paint the picture that doing things the traditional way is solely responsible for the substantial drop in membership. But I do truly believe that their determination to continue running the organization the way it has always been done has contributed greatly to the decline in their membership.

In reflecting back on the writing of this series, I have to admit that I had no idea I had so much to say on this subject when I started. I'd like to tell you that I thought this all out ahead of time but I didn't. Oh I did start with an outline but I certainly didn't envision a 14 part series when I began! And to be honest with you, the hardest part of writing it was trying to find concise ways to word things. I'm not a concise-style writer in case you haven't noticed ;-) I could easily have turned this into a book, and I'm not kidding. There are so many details and considerations that I had to omit in the interest of my blog readers. Each post could have been a chapter, and 14 chapters could have made a book. But I'm content with what I've written.

I strongly believe in the concept that genealogical societies were founded on... that a group of people working together, sharing with and educating each other benefits all the members more than if they were each working independently on their family history research. I really want to see genealogical societies continue and flourish. I hope in some small way I've contributed to that cause.

Let's get these ideas and suggestions circulating around the net. I'm sure I haven't thought of everything that could help stop the trend of declining memberships in genealogical societies. People like Lee Anders are wondering "What's in it for me?". If you've got a good reason why Lee should join a genealogical society, let's hear it. There's a comment link below.

Now, who wants to hire me as a consultant? ;-)