(+) Is Your Genealogy Society Growing or Shrinking?

The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman. 

declineI am fortunate in that I travel a lot and am often asked to speak at local genealogy society meetings. I meet a lot of members and officers of these societies, and I hear a lot of stories about each society’s successes and failures. A few stories seem to be repeated over and over by multiple societies although I do hear a few exceptions. By far, the most common stories I hear are that a particular society is struggling and is slowly becoming smaller and smaller. A few societies report the opposite: they are steadily growing in both membership and in services.

What is the difference? I don’t have all the answers, but I do see a few common factors amongst the stories I hear.

A Changing Environment

The most common story I hear is that the world is changing around us. Of course, the world has always been changing; but changes appear to be happening faster today than ever before. The major items that seem to impact genealogy societies include rapidly-changing technology, ever-increasing expenses of publishing and distributing printed materials, increased expenses of gasoline and other travel expenses for members, competition from the World Wide Web, and also a great problem with inertia. Inertia is illustrated by a refrain that I hear often: “We don’t want to change.”

Let’s tackle that last item first: inertia. This “problem” has been with us forever. I am guessing that buggy whip manufacturers didn’t want to change their production lines when the horseless carriage first became popular. The same problem still exists today except that changes come faster today than they used to.

I recall a great conversation I had several years ago over lunch with the officers and board of directors of one unnamed local genealogy society. They meet monthly on a weekday afternoon, and I was invited to lunch a couple of hours before the meeting. The officers and board members expressed frustration with their declining membership and revenue. They asked if I had any advice on how to grow the membership.

I suggested that the only members who could attend a weekday afternoon meeting were those who are retired. I suggested holding meetings in the evening or on weekends for the convenience of the general public. Almost unanimously, those seated at the table provided a long list of objections. “Our members like afternoon meetings.” “Many of our members do not drive at night.” “Many of our members spend weekends with their children and grandchildren.” The list of objections went on and on.

A similar conversation at a different society revolved around the publishing of the society’s monthly newsletter and quarterly journal. Not only did a declining membership affect the incoming revenue to pay for these publications, but ever-increasing printing and postage expenses now exceeded the amount of dues being collected. In short, the society was losing money and was looking for a solution.

I suggested switching to electronic publication, including sending items by email and also making them available on a web site. That would avoid most of the printing and mailing expenses. Again, several objections were voiced: “Some of our members don’t have computers.” “We want to provide (printed) copies to the local library.” “We don’t know how to do all that.”

Do you see a thread in these objections? All of these are variations of a single problem:

“We do things this way because we have always done things this way.”

I am not surprised that these societies have difficulties with declining membership and declining revenue as well as with increasing expenses.

A Few Success Stories

In contrast to the above, a few societies are growing and thriving. The societies that are growing all seem to have several things in common.

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