Thursday, April 30, 2015

An open letter to genealogy societies

Dear genealogy societies,

No doubt some genealogy society people will be offended by what I've got to say, but this has been on my mind for a long time. I've discussed my concerns with society members from around the country as well with some society board members. I'm just ready to take the conversation to a more public forum.

I have been a member of many genealogy and historical societies - local, state and in a variety of states. As with any type of structured organization, the experience varies with each one. Over the last couple years, I have not been renewing my membership to several of the societies I've been paying dues to for many years.


Why? Mainly, it's because the societies are not meeting my needs as a member. And why is that? Because, as I say tongue in cheek, "genealogists are stuck in the past." While that is where we need to be as genealogists, the past is not where societies need to be.

My list of frustrations with many/some societies today:

1. Hoarding money. I've been a member of societies that have between $14,000 and $80,000 in the bank and at annual meetings the board members seem to be proud of this. When I've asked what the funds are earmarked for, the response has been "saving for a rainy day" to "we don't know." I have some suggestions for how these societies could put the funds to good use for their members: adding books to the society's library, paying for the digitization and online availability of records for your geographic area, paying speakers for their services rather than expecting them to donate their time with no honorarium or travel expenses.

2. The journals and newsletters you send out are a waste of paper and usually a waste of my time. The content is of no value to me. Often, newsletter articles are reprints of something I read online months before. Journals and newsletters represent a bygone era. We are in an electronic age. Give me your news and updates via social media and your web site. And if you insist on continuing to publish your newsletters and journals, please give me the option of receiving it digitally. I don't want your paper.

3. Conferences are usually pretty good. But I've been to enough at this point that I'm hearing the same stuff over and over again. A lot of the content is geared toward the beginning genealogist, not those who have been doing this for a long time. And please don't think that you have to fill every minute of the conference day. You don't have to have entertainment at a luncheon, nor do you need an after dinner speaker. You know what genealogists like? We enjoy the opportunity to visit socially with fellow genealogists - to share our stories, our research successes and frustrations. Much of the time I learn more from these informal gatherings than I learn from the conference content. We need that time with each other. Build it into your conference structure. Make sure your conference rooms have tables. Some of us like to take notes - either on paper or electronically. It's extremely difficult to do this when juggling a notepad or laptop.

4. Web sites aren't updated, nor is content removed once an event has occurred. Hopefully, we are all Googlers and it's frustrating when we do a search on a topic, then land on a web page about an event that occurred five years ago. Keep fresh content on your web site. As a society member, I expect that I may have to pay for content that is behind the curtain. Those databases and indexes that are for "members only" is incentive for people to join your society. Make sure your web site indicates the city, town, county and state in which you are located. Your web site also needs to provide a method for contacting you.

5. You need fresh blood. Some of my societies have been recycling the same board members over and over for years. The societies operate from "we've always done it this way" rather than seeking new and innovative ideas.

6. Think outside the box. Learn about new technologies. I applaud the societies I belong to that offer webinars and podcasts. Not everyone is physically able to attend some of your in-person sessions. Remember that your out-of-town and out-of-state members are entitled to a level of membership services, too. I'm always hearing "we want to get younger members" but the societies are not using the social media strategies that attract that audience. And guess what, if you don't have a society member who has those skills, it's okay to use some of that money you are hoarding to pay someone to do it for you. I recently read a comment in a Facebook forum that a well-known member of the genealogy community was rejected as a conference speaker because he would only provide his syllabus in digital form.

7. While thinking outside the box, let go of the annual membership strategy. Whenever I join your society, I expect a full 12 month membership. When I join in June, don't tell me that I have to rejoin in July and pay another full year's membership fee. And let me be able to join online. I want immediate gratification. Don't make me have to write a check, put it in an envelope, find a stamp and go to the post office. 

What I've described is not necessarily representative of all of the societies in which I've been a member. But I've heard the same or similar concerns expressed by fellow genealogists around the country. I want to support you, I want to be a member, but I expect some member services for my dues and I expect you to put a good portion of the money you collect back in to member services. I'll reiterate my earlier idea that you can put this money into your library collection and the digitization of records.

I'll continue to join and support some societies, but certainly not as many as I have in the past. As Bob Dylan sang more than 50 years ago, "the times they are a-changing."

76 comments:

  1. Well said! I could not agree more.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Susan. I appreciate your support.

      Delete
  2. Good points! The social media issue is a biggie. And people do want instant gratification. In this day and technological age, why not?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the comment. Many genealogy societies have shown improvement in the use of social media in the last five years, but there is a long way to go!

      Delete
  3. This is resonating with me over and over!

    One society I excitedly joined has turned out to mostly be focused on electing (or re-electing) it's committee.

    Another, has a wealth of local artefacts that aren't scannable but is scuppered by technology.

    One society, that I've known many years has finally embraced some of its issues, and I've been asked to join the committee. I've accepted, although keen to find out how best I can apply my skills and enthusiasm.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I wish you well in helping move your society forward in the coming years!

      Delete
  4. Well done. I only renew those that give me some of those items suggested. Living for in CA and having most ancestors in Mn, Wi, and NH I need some of those things

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the comment, Sue. I'm definitely re-evaluating where I budget my society membership dollars.

      Delete
  5. You're singing my song. What you have produced is a list societies can use as a tool for evaluation. Well done.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Jill. Your comments mean a lot to me. And, of course, I find it interesting to learn this is an international issue, not just in the U.S.

      Delete
    2. Definitely an international issue! You've captured a number of my key frustrations with a couple of genealogy societies I am or have been associated with here in Germany ... being a member of a "Verein" here is so ingrained in German culture ... there has been a bit of snobbism in genealogy circles here which seems to say, if you're not a member of a "Verein", then you're not a "real" genealogist. But I've been doing a lot of head scratching lately and asking myself - hey, what benefit am I really getting from the payment of this membership fee - other than being "part of the club"? I am definitely becoming much more selective about which societies I choose to join and support with my (hard-earned) membership dues....

      Delete
  6. You're singing my song. This list coul be used by societies an evaluative tool.Well done.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I totally agree with everything stated above. Technology is moving at a fast pace and the societies need to keep up. Constructive ideas of how to do this is definately needed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for commenting. It seems like it took forever for one of my societies just to add online payment via PayPal to the web site.

      Delete
  8. I just hope that some of our Australian societies also read this great list of points for moving societies into the 21st century

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Shauna. It was interesting to me that you and Jill both commented - apparently this is an international issue as well!

      Delete
  9. I totally agree with the comments above. Societies need to move with the times. technology is moving at an amazing pace and any ideas to implement new technology is always welcome.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Amen! Well said! I agree with all of the points you have listed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the supportive comment.

      Delete
  11. A lot of truth there. I keep sending in dues and wondering what for? The help they gave me was many years ago.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Clearly, one of my concerns is societies collecting dues and not doing anything with the funds! Thank you for your comment!

      Delete
  12. Bravo. You have articulated well what most of us think.
    Also, some of us join societies to gain access to submitted pedigrees (etc) that might be relevant to us, in an area that our families originated from in the 'old country'. Please make these articles more accessible to us! I was happy to pay the 12 pounds for the information, but not being able to pay electronically or via PayPal was a massive pain. Banks charge $35 for a Pounds Stirling cheque, on top of the amount the cheque is written for!! Cheque books are going the way of the dinosaur. Thankfully I have a friend in the UK who could make the payment for me. Having items digitised that appeal most to far-flung members is crucial if they want us to pay money & join the association.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. PayPal is a very easy solution for societies! More need to get on board. There is so much demand for online digitized records - I'd like to see more societies make records available.

      Delete
  13. And..........for societies who go to the trouble of producing webinars (for that I thank you), please record them so we can watch when it suits us, & have the ability to pause it, for eg. Putting them on YouTube is one way to go, maybe behind a paywall if necessary.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Very good point! We've become so used to time-shifting television viewing and I agree that webinars should be available for at least a week. No matter if they are shown during the day, evening, week or weekend, the schedule won't work for everyone and we need an option to view on our schedule. I am definitely retaining my membership in societies that offer webinars.

      Delete
  14. Excellent article, could not agree more

    ReplyDelete
  15. Yes! I keep my membership in my local society even though they have nothing to offer but fellowship. They are broke. The committee has made the very hard decision to turn the best of the library over to an historical society that wants to digitise their section and a public university library (it has a satellite campus with a new library building). The university is thrilled to have the collection and it will be in its own section. We'll have access to uni facilities, conference rooms, etc as well as online access to their extensive Native American holdings at their main campus. Win all around. It's further to travel but this was really the only place that was interested and the collection needs a home. We'll have book moving parties in a month or so.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sometimes fellowship counts for more than anything else! I've heard of genealogy 'clubs' that have no organizational structure, no dues and no organized membership. But they provide a needed opportunity for genealogists to get together and share information.

      Delete
  16. All are very excellent points Susan. I'd add one that is a pet peeve of mine -- the society that seems to be the personal property of that handful of recycled board members. That situation can lead to many of the problems you point out. The membership doesn't have input, doesn't get involved, and is ignored and bored.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the comment, Marcia. One of my societies is exactly as you describe.

      Delete
  17. Very well said, although I suspect those from societies who would most benefit from this advice are not reading blogs, and probably wouldn't recognise that it was their society that needed this advice.

    ReplyDelete
  18. This is a great post, and brings to the fore a number if issues that need to be addressed if local genealogy societies are to survive and attract the younger researcher.

    ReplyDelete
  19. You know these comments break my heart. But I understand a great share of them from personal experience also. I guess it is why I try so hard to get inter active events to involve new people, Greeter at the door so they feel welcome, etc. I will say this at, least once a month a new attendee will come and later join but they are not into computers totally I think terrified of them. I met 5 last Sunday at a function that I did not even know they were doing genealogy and they said they kept it quiet so not feedback from people. I said, " I am the Educational Chairperson and a founding member of our society, Please come to some of our events and learn we are there to help and share and care." I am hoping at least three will.Would be tickled pink if they all did. But we had a bad incident one time that still leaves a bad taste in my mouth and serious regret it wasn't handled different. Keep up the good work and reach out. It can happen.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I avoided one of my local groups for a long time because I was never made to feel welcome at meetings. I tried to participate in a discussion and was brushed off. The inner clique didn't want any disruption to their status quo.

      Delete
  20. Like the idea of using this as a check list for societies to consider and act on soon. Tackling them head on, with a plan and a time frame in mind. Those like me who are not on the "committee" need to speak out, help and not just hide in the background moaning.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the comment. I agree that more of the membership ranks need to speak out. I hear from several society members who are so frustrated with how a society is run, but they have given up trying to make change because it is met with opposition from the inner circle.

      Delete
  21. Well said. I couldn't agree more.

    ReplyDelete
  22. An excellent thought provoking article. I know in my part of the world (Scotland), many organisations have problems getting members prepared to sit on a committee, let alone take office, which means roles are recycled and there is a dearth of new blood. So more members need to be more pro-active and noT just accept what they get, but push for change - more difficult I know when membership spans a wide geographical spread. But it needs to be done if societies are to survive and be effective.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is an astute observation. I suggested to one of my societies that we needed to provide training and mentorship to potential board members so they could be in a place to step into a leadership role. You guessed it; that idea went nowhere.

      Delete
  23. You have written what many people have been thinking Susan. It is important that societies/groups do not overlook the needs of their members. Groups should be prepared to adapt as time goes by, and be relevant to members, otherwise the next generation are not going to be interested.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your input, Michelle! I agree!

      Delete
  24. You go girl! I wrote an article for the FGS FORUM (vol. 25, no. 3), entitled "Revitalize Your Society," challenging societies to take a long hard look at their organization, determine what problems exist, and set goals to fix the identified problems. I talk about all areas of societies, from membership benefits to publications to leadership, and provide several possible solutions for them to consider. I've had a handful of people contact me asking to share a copy of the article with their board members (which of course I said a big YES); I do hope it has helped some societies identify and fix their problem areas and essentially provide a wonderful service to their members.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for sharing, Julie. We have to keep putting the word out and let our societies know what we want and expect.

      Delete
  25. Thanks for putting into words what so many of us think . . . and doing it in such a clear and logical way. If I didn't know better, I'd think that you were describing our local society here in central Ohio -- right down to the stale (and clunky) web page, the fortress mentality, and the absolute refusal to spend money to promote development and growth. The sad thing is that the group has a great deal of potential, including a very good library, and a decent funding base. I'm not optimistic that they will ever open up, and they have a reputation of driving away people who try to 'rock the boat.' But reading your post has somehow given me the encouragement I need to make another go at it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mark, I've talked with folks from all over the country (US) about their societies. A common pattern began to emerge from the concerns expressed in those conversations. For a long time, I thought this was just in 'my' societies, but have discovered that this is common across the board.

      Delete
  26. Thanks for your message. As a Chair of a Branch of a larger Society - Your words have been and continues to be on our front plate. As volunteers for the branch, we continue to adapt to new technology and innovation to serve our membership and the Family history community. One goal we have is to develop relationships with other organizations or smaller groups in our area to assist in move them forward into the tech world. Keep talking the talk and you are are supported.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your comment and for your commitment to change.

      Delete
  27. Interesting and useful ideas here. I used to belong to my state society but with the advent of so many online resources (and none of my family coming from this state), I haven't been able to see the point. I thought about joining an interstate society where lots of my family lived but it is expensive, I only get there once a year so can't see what the benefit would be for me at this time.

    ReplyDelete
  28. As I read the blog and the various comments, I wondered how many of these folks had gone to their society and said that they would volunteer to fix the issue. Talk is cheap. If you want a better society, make a better society; don't sit around complaining and waiting for it to happen by magic. YOU are responsible if YOUR Society is not meeting your needs!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I served on the board of a local society as well as doing publicity and social media and teaching technology classes for three years. It took a toll because I was always going up against the old guard who were resistant to change.

      I never would have posted this had I not tried to get things changed. After a while, the struggle was more than I wanted to face in a volunteer world.

      I'm learning that I can do genealogy without being a member of some societies.

      Delete
    2. This is very well thought out. There do need to be more pushers in this vein. So many of the groups you refer to are inordinately weighted by lack of imagination: "this is the way we've always done it."

      One little caveat -- not all of us have access to fast internet connections that allow participation in webinars, google hangouts, social media and live-streaming. There is still much need for text-based instructional and insightful material on the web.

      Delete
  29. Bravo, bravo, bravo. Thank you for putting it all down and saying it so well! You got it right, Susan!

    ReplyDelete
  30. Thanks for this post Susan. I belong to several genealogy societies. The primary one, of course, being the San Diego Genealogical Society. I am proud of the progress being made in our society this past year. Many of the ideas you mentioned have been implemented. We still have a ways to go, but we are on course. Yeah for us. As to some of the others I belong to. Not so much progress and I too may not renew membership.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's been rather clear over the years that SDGS is one of the societies in the "movers and shakers" category! That's why I follow the society's Facebook page!

      Delete
  31. I'm glad to read this blog as it makes me very happy to be able to "brag" about the progress we have made in the past few years. I've shared it with our board and brought it up during "Mondays with MYRT" on our weekly Google HOA. Our society is the Western Massachusetts Genealogical Society, established over 40 years ago. We're far from stuck in the past. First of all, we have extended our season from 10 months to a full 12, meet every month, conduct presentations with live speakers AND virtual presentations so that we can invite anyone in the world (yes...the world!), we're taking up a cemetery project and conduct research clinics twice a month. Once or twice a year, our meeting is a simple panel where our members can throw out any question whatsoever and we do our best to get them the answer. Some of those have been "lively!" Soon, we'll be broadcasting our meetings to our paid membership ala Legacy Webinars and archive them on YouTube. And there are a few other "modern" things that we've adopted such as electronic newsletters (we still mail 5 rather that 125!), a Facebook page and a Google+ Community. I thought we might lose some of our more senior members. On the contrary, we've grown! Happy to talk with anyone about how we did this all! By the way, this topic took up a full hour on Mondays with MYRT which you can see archived at YouTube. Just search for "DearMYRTLE" and you'll find dozens and possibly hundreds of the Dear Myrtle broadcasts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for letting me know about the discussion on the HOA today. I was able to listen to a good portion of the discussion. Glad to learn you are with one of the progressive societies!

      During the discussion you mentioned you had posted a comment on the blog that hadn't appeared. I just double checked my emails and spam folders and the above comment from you is the only one that came through the comments queue.

      Delete
  32. While I agree with 98% of your advice, and have run across recalcitrant volunteers, it is not my experience that every society is dominated by this attitude. Such people and attitudes exist in the societies in which I'm most active, and while they may generate noise, attention and frustration, they are the minority, not the majority. (There are ways of dealing with such people, but that is a subject beyond the scope of this comment).

    What is most concerning to me is that, culturally, we now seem to think more in terms of "what can the society do for me?" rather than "what can I do for the society?" This is not a new discussion. See:

    http://livingancestors.blogspot.com/2011/12/what-have-you-done-for-me-lately.html

    Organizations cannot survive even if they add new blood and adopt modern technology unless more of us focus on how we can give back to the genealogical community. We each have different strengths and interests, and genealogical societies may not be for everyone. However, when we focus on building on the strengths of an organization rather than bemoaning the weaknesses, and think more about "we" than "me," we will all be better off.

    I'm most taken aback by your comment that you're hearing the same stuff over and over again at conferences. We must not go to the same conferences! While I agree that conference planners must consider the needs of intermediate and advanced genealogists, I have never attended a class or lecture on even the most basic topic where I didn't learn something. I have been a student of genealogy since I was in my 20s, and have been researching for 25+ years, and the more I learn about methodology and other advanced subjects, the more I find myself needing to revisit the basics.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for your comment.

      Let me be clear that I have donated hundreds of volunteer hours to genealogy society work. So I'm not bitching about things I know nothing about.I know well that societies face difficulties in getting volunteers to step up to the plate.

      I'm looking forward to attending my first national conference next week. I, too, learn something from each workshop or conference I attend. From the sessions I've selected to attend, I'm definitely expecting some content that will be above the level I've experienced to this point.

      Delete
    2. I agree with you, Connie. I, too, have been a long time researcher (began in England in 1973 and have continued here in Australia) and also founded my local family history society in 1979 which now has about 250 members. We try to keep up with modern technology with networked and internet computers & provide our members with free access to Ancestry, FindmyPast and the Brit.Newspaper Archive, also have bi-monthly meetings with interesting speakers (and provide a delicious afternoon tea!), and index local history projects, too. In the past year we have offered to man a table at local public libraries and give a free talk on family history and library staff have more than welcomed us.These have proved extremely popular and as well as getting our 'name' out there we have gained a few new members. I am the editor of our Peninsula Past Times, which gets mailed out to all members and also exchanged with other societies. We have recently digitised the newsletter and some people are happy to get it via the internet, however the majority still like paper copies.

      While our committee has had few changes over the years, these dedicated committee members all have a job to do (roster of vols, genie trips, speaker co-ordinator, etc.etc), however we do co-opt members onboard to get new ideas - and we always try to be innovative.

      With regard to conferences, for many years I attended the National Conferences here in Australia, many organised by professional conmpanies with accompanying high fees. I found with the long distance travel, accommodation costs plus conference costs, it was beginning to get out of hand. Older retired people just could not afford to attend and much as I enjoyed learning from guest overseas experts, decided I would make do with the smaller (and far friendlier) State conferences as these being organised by societies themselves, were far easier on the pocket.

      Delete
  33. Susan, it seems that many societies are in the rut that you describe so well. You have started a discussion that I hope will provide a wake up call to them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. From the feedback here and in other forums, apparently a nerve has been struck. From the discussion in today's Monday's With Myrt, I can really embrace the concept that Hangouts, webinars, Facebook forums and other online communities are better at serving the needs of many genealogists today than societies.

      Delete
    2. Susan, I hope you think that HCGS is moving in the right direction. Will I see you on Saturday?

      Delete
    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
  34. I'm a relatively new member to the society where I belong; a little over two months. I had to look up how much was donated recently to the local library. I thought it was $1000, but just found the correct amount was $1800.

    I was offered a ride to the first 'event' I attended about two weeks ago. The board member who I rode with requested that I step up to the plate and help out with some activity(ies). And I Will help out when I can. The board member was happy with my response. Since we were early to that seminar, I helped setup the reception table then staff the table along with a person who is apparently a long time member. She introduced me by name to all the people coming to pickup their badge by their name and position. I recognized a lot of their faces and remembered some of their names.

    I noticed something else during all of these introductions. As is common in many groups such as this, 20% of the people are doing 80% of the work. It took less than 20 minutes to figure that out. Now, I am not a 20 %er doing 80%, but again, I will do what I can. I expect noting in return, I just want to be part of the solution. Soon enough, girlfriend will be introducing new members to me. I know our society is not the only one. As Susan stated above "What I've described is not necessarily representative of all of the societies..." I just thought I'd throw in 2 cents to help even up the players. Since we are going there, I am not much for social networks. I did create an account on The Facebook for a library class, will probably delete it soon. Don't have a twit account and only lurk on Pinterest when it lets me. Stepping down. Who's next? Oh one last note. My blog has been in hiatus for four years now. I'll get back on it soon.

    ReplyDelete
  35. When I read this, I was so proud of my local society http://www.hcgsohio.org. We have made so much progress on many of these items over the past five years. It has been a lot of work, but very rewarding. One comment about the money in the bank: I was shocked when I initially became involved in the society at the amount of money in the bank. I was equally surprised when I found out that our society has many lifetime members and money has to be "kept" to serve them over a lifetime. A significant amount of the money in the bank is earmarked for lifetime membership obligations. I still feel like we could spend more, but I feel like we've spent a lot over the past few years on a new website, updating technology, etc. There is always room for improvement, but since implementing these changes, our membership has increased A LOT. Paypal is a significant improvement. So is our facebook presence. Thanks for writing such a fantastic post. I'll be sharing it with others. It points out what we've done right and where we need to move.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Yes, apparently a nerve has been struck. One of the points stated was that the same individuals run the organization year after year. I know in organizations I belong to they do this because no one else will step up to the plate and take their turn. Many members just like to come to meetings for the social aspect and forget that the society has a mission. They forget that it takes work to keep a society alive. The programs, resources, and events that they enjoy don’t just happen. Some don’t want the society to grow. They are comfortable with things the way they are. It’s a difficult task to change the mindset

    ReplyDelete
  37. Yes, apparently a nerve has been struck. One of the points stated was that the same individuals run the organization year after year. I know in organizations I belong to they do this because no one else will step up to the plate and take their turn. Many members just like to come to meetings for the social aspect and forget that the society has a mission. They forget that it takes work to keep a society alive. The programs, resources, and events that they enjoy don’t just happen. Some don’t want the society to grow. They are comfortable with things the way they are. It’s a difficult task to change the mindset

    ReplyDelete