Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Declining Membership in Genealogical Societies: The Sunflower Model

Let's roll up our sleeves and get to work on examining this new model for genealogical societies. We've redefined our member base (previous post) and we know our purposes haven't changed from:

Most genealogical societies have as their main purpose to share and educate members about genealogical research methodology. Secondarily, most also see themselves as social opportunities for those interested in researching their family histories. Beyond that, purposes and definitions become more individualized for each organization.

...or have they?

Well, as a matter they need to. Here's where I propose a big dose of adaptation (read that: change). The first order of business is to change the priority of these purposes. Our new group (I'm going to refer to it as a "group" as opposed to a "genealogical society" from here on out because a part of our new model includes shedding the old image), will have as it's primary goal to be a social opportunity for people sharing an interest in learning about their family's history and secondarily to share and educate members about genealogical research methodology.

As previously discussed, people are drawn to online social networking web sites like And not just kids, grownups too. Online dating sites like appeal to singles of all ages. And seniors have their own online communities at and Member growth on these types of sites is growing hugely. So our new model is going to start with a social networking site as the base we build our new group on. Yep, the group is internet based from the word go... because that's where our very import new pool of future members live.

Now don't go wrinkling your nose at the idea so fast. The model has merit. We start building it from an online social networking site but we don't end there...

The model for our new group is based on the sunflower. The center of the sunflower is the core which contains the seeds and supports the petals. In our case, the center or core of the group is an online social networking web site which contains the member lists and supports (links to) the additional venues. The whole organization is internet based with the intention of utilizing the internet first and foremost for all the group's endeavors.

The group can still accommodate some traditional ways of doing things, but for the most part we're talking about a model that uses current technology available for free on the internet (with a few possible exceptions), that is user friendly and requires no knowledge of programming. Since is does away with the costs associated with printing and mailing traditional journals and newsletters (which is the single biggest line item for most genealogy groups), and it has options for raising money for other specific costs, basic membership to all is FREE. If a member still wants to receive their journals and newsletters in print they can pay for a premium membership (via PayPal) which would essentially cover the costs of on-demand printing and mailing of these items. I think you'll be surprised how many people will take online for free over printed for $$. D'ya think that allowing people to become members for free might increase your membership? I think so.

I'm going to focus here on the concept of the online social networking site as the core. For details about the "petals", you'll have to visit the genealogy wiki I created. I encourage you to visit my genealogy wiki and click on the link for the "The Sunflower Model for an Internet Based Genealogy Group". At the bottom of the page is a link where you can enter your comments or ask questions about the "petal items" or the model in general.

By the way, this is a legitmate wiki on the subject of genealogy (though it's just getting off the ground) so please consider becoming a contributor to it. Try it and see how easy it is to contribute an article to it. Browse through the categories I've created so far. Most are empty, just waiting for your contribution. You can create your own category as need be for your genealogy article, or just add a sub-page to a category already listed. And for those who are concerned about their privacy, you can do so anonymously. I've uploaded my bio that way so you can see that it's possible.

And now, back to the core of the group. The core is an online social networking site. If you don't know what that is, check out Wikipedia where you'll get a good explanation as well as a list of such sites. You'll have to do some looking and comparing because all these sites are not created equal. They usually offer a "bundle" or suite of features (some will be the "petals" in the Sunflower Model) but each site will offer different features in their bundles. Find one that's comfortable for the group you envision. Some offer more control, some less. It's worth putting some real time into investigating these options because once you set one up and start adding the "petals" you'll have a load of work on your hands to change it.

Most of these online social networking sites allow for "groups" or "families". You'll have to adapt them to your organization. I would also suggest looking at Famster and GenMates as possibilities.

Once you have your core established (your online social networking site set up), you can begin adding "petals". The beauty of the Sunflower Model for an internet based genealogy group is that there can be as many or as few petals as you want. The ones I have suggested in the model shown are ones I think every group should consider. But that doesn't mean you have to implement them all. Some may not work for your group. You may not have enough volunteers to monitor them all. Or, you may add "petals" that I haven't in my model. That's OK! The Sunflower is flexible.

So how does one go about adding the "petals"? First make a list of which "petals" you'd like your group to offer. Then look at what your core social networking site offers. If they have one of the features you want, good! Use the one they offer. If they don't, find a site that offers that service (you can find links to sites that offer just about all of these features in my previous posts). Create an account for your group there and link to it from your core site. And that's all there is to adding a "petal". So to clarify, you don't have all the features on one web site. You set them up individually as need be and link to them from your core site. Start with a few and add as you go.

Here's a list of the basic differences between using the Sunflower Model for an internet based genealogy group and a traditional genealogical society:

Online Gene Group:
  • Primary way to meet with others is: Online, via chat sessions or Skypecasts.
  • Primary way to distribute educational material is: Blog journal and wiki, updated 24/7
  • Primary way for members to get advice/help: Message boards, chat sessions, and Skypecasts.
  • Dues: None, group is self supporting through ads (May elect to receive journal and newsletter in printed form for a small fee. This would be on-demand printing of a PDF so the cost would be less that commercially published journals).
  • Member accessiblility/input: Unlimited for most features.
  • Access to group's "library" of information: Available online 24/7, searchable.
  • Structure of the group: Flexible, spontaneous, input/contributions spread out among more people.
Traditional Gen Society:
  • Primary way to meet with others is: Face to face at scheduled meetings.
  • Primary way to distribute educational material is: Monthly meetings, and in printed monthly/quarterly journals.
  • Primary way for members to get advice/help: Monthly meetings in local area.
  • Dues: Traditionally $15-$35 yr, depends on the society. Usually includes printed journal.
  • Member accessiblility/input: Local monthy meetings, journal articles accepted by editor, or newsletter items.
  • Access to group's "library" of information: Available to members who live in the local area, not searchable.
  • Structure of the group: More control by executives, and editors.

With an online based group all members contribute content at will. So you lose the need for an editor and editorial staff and most of the responsibilities of the web master as well. You would need to add a tech consultant and several monitors. There's less program planning for face to face meetings but more coordination required for scheduled chat sessions or Skypecasts.

I think that about sums it up for the Sunflower Model. I'm curious about your thoughts. Comments?

Next we'll look at picking a new name for our newly redesigned group.