Genealogical societies have been going through some difficult times the last few years. As older members are lost for one reason or another, societies have struggled to attract and retain new members. They have tried a wide variety of tactics to raise interest and draw people to their activities, and then to join. Some of the approaches that have been used include the following:
- Reschedule meetings from weekdays to weekends. This allows the people who work to fit a society meeting into their schedule, and sometimes evening meetings are less desirable because older people may experience difficulty driving at night.
- Offer special interest groups (SIGs) geared to the special interests of sub-groups of the societyâ€™s members. These might include small group meetings to exchange information about: geographical areas of the United States (Southern, New England, Midwestern, Western areas); foreign countries, past and present (Canada, the UK, Scandinavia, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, etc.). Groups focused on ethnicity and religion, such as Jewish, African American, Huguenot, and others are popular.Â
- Establish and host computer groups and SIGs relating to the use of the Internet such as Ancestry.com and RootsWeb, and user groups for genealogy database software such as Family Tree Maker, PAF, and Legacy, and utilities (Clooz, Family Atlas, and GenSmarts to name a few.)
- Offer field trips to different libraries and to speaking engagements at other genealogical societies.Â
- Develop projects in which people can participate in various ways. Some people may travel to a cemetery, for example, to canvass and record information, while others may perform computer data entry, editing, and indexing work.
- Add a social hour with refreshments and discussions.
The most common complaint I hear from society officers and board members concerns the society members who are either too shy or insecure to volunteer to participate. So many people just pay their dues and want to sit back, let other people do the work, and then just enjoy watching. While some people certainly are unable to volunteer and to contribute physically, there is something that can be done by everyone.
The Publication Blues
One of the most difficult jobs in any genealogical society is that of publications chair. This person is responsible for soliciting written contributions to a newsletter, a journal, or both. He or she then must compile, design the layout, and format the content in a consistent manner. The next step is the editorial work and getting the materials printed–sometimes at a printer and sometimes by themselves on their own computer. Then there are the tedious jobs of stuffing envelopes or sealing the printed materials, producing mailing labels, applying the labels and postage, and taking the publication to the post office.
Few members seem to feel confident about writing a short piece about their own research experience, compiling a list of new and exciting Web links they have discovered, announcements of events, book reviews, and other input. Even fewer want to work on the mundane envelope-stuffing and mailing preparation work.
The most recent complication for struggling societies is the postage increases implemented by the United States Postal Service (USPS). A small society, non-profit or not, that does not qualify for bulk mailing is now paying $.41 for a one-ounce or less piece of First Class mail. A small, multiple-page newsletter usually costs more than that.
One Societyâ€™s Decision
Iâ€™m a member of the Board of the Florida Genealogical Society, Inc., in Tampa, Florida (not to be confused with the Florida State Genealogical Society, which is a separate organization). We are the oldest genealogical society in Florida, founded in 1958 and scheduling our fiftieth anniversary celebration next year.
When our publications editor resigned last year, I â€œinheritedâ€ the job. It was an eye-opening experience, even though in the past I have been editor of newsletters and of a magazine. The first newsletter I produced involved a lot of â€œbeggingâ€ of members for input and newsy items. With few exceptions, I received e-mail input from people with the details but not a written article. I ended up writing about 80 percent of the newsletter myself. I was responsible for getting it printed, and two of us on the board spent an evening collating, stapling, sealing, and stamping. At the end of the process, I produced an invoice for our treasurer that reflected the itemized total of each of the component pieces of the newsletter–excluding any volunteer time. When I divided the total cost by the number of newsletters, I was astonished to discover that each newsletter cost more than $.82 a piece! With six newsletters a year, it appeared that our newsletter production cost $4.92 per member, per year.
I next asked our treasurer to provide me with the costs of publishing our semi-annual journal for the last two years. We have been using a commercial printer and he has given us a reduced price as a non-profit corporation. However, when I compiled the costs and averaged the last four journals produced, I discovered that the costs averaged $3.90 per journal, a total of $7.80 per member per year! When I added $7.80 for the journal and $4.92 for the newsletter, the total was $12.72 per member–just for publications. Since the society only charges $15.00 per year for membership, it was obvious that something had to be done.
In addition, we have historically engaged in a courtesy exchange of publication program with almost eighty other societies and libraries, and the copies we received went directly to our libraryâ€™s periodicals collection. This is a huge additional expense that provides few of our members with any benefits that they could not obtain by using PERSI.
Making Tough Decisions
The rest of our board was astonished and appalled at the expense of just the publications. We had several options to consider:
- Place electronic PDF files of the publications on our website and e-mail members when they were available.Â
- Ask members to provide e-mail addresses and e-mail these people a PDF of each publication. Those who did not provide an e-mail address would be assessed a â€œpublication chargeâ€ of between $5.00 and $7.50 per year in addition to their annual $15.00 membership.
- Raise the annual membership for all members to $25.00. (We immediately nixed that idea. After all, we are trying to attract new members.)
- Discontinue all publications and the courtesy publications exchange program.
We discussed at great length the need to produce a printed newsletter and journal. We listed the pros and cons, and we ultimately reached what we believe is the most beneficial decision for our members. Instead of having a â€œtraditionalâ€ Web page for the society, we established a Weblog (blog) on Blogger and redirected our Web addressÂ to the new blog. I built the blog and added news items I had collected, including announcements of our own programs and those at other societies. I added links to our important documents, to genealogical libraries within 100 miles of Tampa, and to other genealogical societies in eight surrounding counties. The blog will replace the printed newsletter and will be timelier.
We also realized that the information, indexes, and other material included in our journal would be better represented on a website. We have decided to embark on additional project–and volunteer recruitment–whose final output can be indexed, placed on the Web, and made searchable and completely free to the genealogy community worldwide.
The large amount of money we will have saved by eliminating publications will now be used for producing better programs, paying speakers a better honorarium, funding for our annual Fall Seminar, and funding projects such as digitization of records, adding new SIGs, and helping to fund field trips. We believe that our genealogical society will be adding more value through the savings accomplished by eliminating our print publications and the rising expenses they represent.
Now, weâ€™re looking for some new members who would like to attend some great new programs and to help with some interesting new projects!
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Georgeâ€™s brand new book, The Official Guide to Ancestry.com, is now available from his companyâ€™s website, Aha! Seminars, Inc., (http://www.ahaseminars.com) personally autographed by the author! Listen to The Genealogy Guys Podcast each week for fun, entertaining, and informative genealogy discussions.