Thursday, August 17, 2006

Declining Membership in Genealogical Societies: Give Them Something They Aren't Getting Elsewhere

In order to reverse the trend of declining memberships in genealogical societies, change has to occur. It doesn’t have to occur overnight and it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. But it does have to start and the sooner the better.

To begin with, it’s important to “get real” as Dr. Phil McGraw would say. There’s no sense continuing to do things the same old way and hoping to see better results. If you’re an executive of a genealogical society and you’re thinking that’s going to happen for your organization, you’re in denial. Get over it! Accept the fact that you’ll have to move the group beyond their current comfort zone by learning new ways of doing things. It’ll be good for them and good for your organization.

But where to start? Start by looking at what you currently have to offer to your membership. Look at it objectively and measure it by today’s standards, not those of the founding fathers of the organization. Back in the “old days”, a genealogical society was most likely the “only game in town” when it came to getting genealogical research advice. But is that still the case or have the offerings of your society been diluted by what’s being offered via new technology? Is what you’re offering worth what you’re asking members to pay? Or are you just giving them more of what they can already get elsewhere more conveniently and economically?

First and foremost if you want people to join your organization or renew their membership you must give them something they aren’t getting elsewhere. That can be easier said than done with all the information at people's fingertips on the internet. Most people join genealogical societies for education and assistance, some also for social opportunities. So you must find appealing ways to educate and assist them and maybe offer an occasional social event too. Here’re some ideas of how you can make membership in your genealogical society more appealing.

Make sure you have something to offer for genealogists at all levels of research experience!

For novices, the best help you can give them is to stress the value of learning to use computers and the internet if they don’t already know how. These have become the two most valuable tools in genealogical research and researchers are at a severe disadvantage if they don’t know how to use them. Now this doesn’t mean you need to offer classes in computer use. Don’t waste your time re-inventing the wheel. There are computer classes offered in virtually all communities these days.

You’ll likely come up against some resistance from people who just don’t want to be bothered learning to use computers. This is very common especially among the senior population that genealogical societies traditionally draw from. However, it only takes a few minutes of conversation and perhaps a short demonstration using to show the advantage of obtaining vital record information in minutes versus having to pay for copies and wait for sometimes months to receive the same records. Add a little reassurance and encouragement and you’ll make the idea seem less daunting to them.

Keep a list of senior citizen groups who teach computer skills and have printouts of contact information for these groups available at each society meeting. There’s nothing like having a teacher you can relate to. And traditionally most of the people joining genealogical societies are seniors. So give them a list of senior organizations that teach computer skills!

Consider having your regular meetings at a facility that has computer access to allow for demonstrations and have a “computer use” session before each meeting. You don’t need to teach computer usage but it would be helpful to have sessions on different types of genealogy software, family reunion planning software, key internet web sites, etc. Members aren’t likely to find this type of “hands on” help with genealogy-specific software and resources elsewhere.

Make a list of community libraries in your area that have subscriptions to, Heritage Quest, and the online Sanborn Maps so that those on fixed incomes can find access to online resources in their own neighborhoods. Many public libraries have these subscriptions and welcome anyone to use them, even if you don’t have a library card from their library. That’s likely to be information they won’t find elsewhere (at least not without effort!).

For the intermediate researcher, probably the best way you can assist them is with specific knowledge of documents relevant to their area of research i.e. knowing where to find BMD records abroad if your group is ethnically based or knowing what local church or land records are available if your group is geographically based. In other words, specialize in knowing how to access the types of records the members of your group are likely to benefit from. And find various ways to deliver this information.

Capitalize on your niche market. Resist the temptation to spread yourself too thin. General research information is available online or in books for “Dummies” at virtually all libraries. You want to offer information people won’t find in “Dummy” books. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t have any meeting topics or speakers to address general research topics, but you should concentrate on offering more on specialty topics. That’s the stuff that’s harder for people to find information on. That’s the information they’ll join an organization for or renew their membership to keep track of.

By the time someone becomes an advanced researcher, they’ve already met with some success and are fairly knowledgeable about specific sources and how to access them. These individuals are often more interested in learning about the lives of their ancestors, the history of their times. We’re talking ancillary information here… adding leaves that bring color to the branches on their trees. For this group you’ll want to offer such topics as: how to write your family history with flavor, how to locate and contact family members living abroad, fiction and non-fiction books on history local to your society’s area of specialization, and other such topics that become interesting after one has already filled in some branches on their tree.

So, one key to getting and keeping members in genealogical societies is to give them something they aren’t already getting or can’t find easily somewhere else. And it’s equally important to give it to them in ways they appreciate and can take advantage of.

Next we’ll take a look at how to make the information you have to share with your members more accessible.