Genealogical Societies: Publish or Perish? by George G. Morgan

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 society’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. 
  • 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. 
  • 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 Society’s Decision
I’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 “inherited” 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 “begging” 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 library’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:

  1. Place electronic PDF files of the publications on our website and e-mail members when they were available. 
  2. 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 “publication charge” of between $5.00 and $7.50 per year in addition to their annual $15.00 membership.
  3. Raise the annual membership for all members to $25.00. (We immediately nixed that idea. After all, we are trying to attract new members.)
  4. 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 “traditional” Web page for the society, we established a Weblog (blog) on Blogger and redirected our Web address 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, we’re looking for some new members who would like to attend some great new programs and to help with some interesting new projects!

Happy Hunting!
George

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George’s brand new book, The Official Guide to Ancestry.com, is now available from his company’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.

12 thoughts on “Genealogical Societies: Publish or Perish? by George G. Morgan

  1. This sounds like a great idea for those who are able to go online. Though of course there are those who for one reason or another don’t have access to a computer or internet connection, but it seems like overall it will reach many members and may even draw others to join the society after finding them on the web.
    Kathy

  2. Bravo. I am convinced this is the model that all struggling family history societies should adopt. Of course, it was not an original idea by me. I have seen hints of it a number of places in the last few years, and especially in the CreativeGene Blog. I know that it is difficult to explain to people my age (64) and older why we can’t keep on with 20th Century methods in the 21st Century. I have been respectfully ignored as I tried to lay out a plan to help with dwindling interest, members, and resources. However, technology is a tool that can help us both stay alive and to attract new members. I see many ways to attract distance members into more contributions in local societies using technological advances now available and coming down the pike. Now I’ll climb off the soap box.

  3. Another option for your publications is Lulu (www.lulu.com). This publish-on-demand company allows you to upload your publication in PDF format and offer both a print and download version. If you offer the print version “at cost”, you can then offer the download version at no charge. Lulu handles the transaction tasks – storefront, purchase, printing, shipping and customer service. If you choose to offer a publication for profit (with a markup), Lulu takes a small percentage of the profit and sends you a monthly check for the rest.

    I’ve used it to publish a family cookbook (for profit) and images of an ancestor’s autograph book (at cost). I was impressed with both the quality of the publications and the service. You can see for yourself at http://stores.lulu.com/moultriecreek. Oh, and there’s no charge to set up your storefront either.

  4. Pingback: Family Matters » » Publishing Option for Societies

  5. Congratulations! You have effectively shut out those without Internet or non-dialup access to the Internet. I am editor for our local society and most of our members PREFER the print edition, mostly due to lack of Internet connection or a dialup connection that makes it difficult to access, though some have a difficult time also figuring out how to access it. Though we had to raise our dues to $15 this year to cover the costs of publishing and mailing the newsletters, all have agreed that it is worth it to them. I would at least respectfully suggest that you let those without Internet or with dialup have the option to obtain a print edition without a massive increase in cost (not always their fault that dialup is only type available or affordable, as is the case with myself). Or do you already have this or another option in place that you forgot to mention? Technology is great and well worth the effort to utilize, but I am not one to want to block anyone out if I can avoid it, which usually can be done. Thanks for your ear. :-)

  6. If the societies are to survive, whatever they do needs to involve online access to all of their research material.

  7. I think it makes a lot of sense but have you made any adjustment for those who are not computer literate? Many of our society members are not.

  8. I always enjoy what George Morgan writes. He always puts it in terms most of us can understand….until he begins speaking computerese. For the life of me sometimes I can’t follow him.

    For example. What is a “blog”. It seems to be another name for a chat room that is governed by subject, but I am not sure.
    Explain podcast and how you get to it.

    To blogger # 5. Linda, go to your local library. You should be able to download it quickly and at no charge. Some of our local folks go once a month and pick up all the newsletters they get at one time. Maybe this would help.

  9. Everything George states in this article are so true. It is impossible to get enough members to take on publishing these journals and newsletters. People will get used to using the internet to get the society’s messages and they will be more up-to-date than we could have ever had sending out by regular mail.

  10. I love the article and as president of a Genealogical Society I understand perfectly the dilemma of enticing new members and the cost of publications. Three years ago we started publishing our current newsletter online for members and older issues for non-members. Members that do not have web access or a slow connection were given the option to receive a printed and mailed version. It has decreased our cost a lot and I think about 95 percent of our members receive the society newsletter online. We have also started a blog and have special classes during the year. While I can’t say that any of this has increased our membership, it has allowed us to keep the members we have and we always have a good turn out at our meetings. I noticed that one person posted a comment that online publishing shuts out non-internet users and I would like to let that person know that most of the members of my society are elderly and don’t have a problem with the computer or new things, they love their online newsletter and can print it if they want to. We do however work hard to make sure they know how to use and maintain their computers and several members are always ready to help them with any computer problem they may have. Training is the key. Once they learned they can even increase the print size online, they were all for it.
    The money we have saved has allowed us to do other things like have great speakers, purchase items for our library and even set aside money to help send the president to the FGS conference each year. We were able to purchase Ancestry for our library when the LDS lost it. None of which would have been possible if we are spending it all on publications. We recently started a BLOG and although it is a slow start I am sure it well take off once we are able to train members a little.
    Take a chance, implement some of the suggestions that George made, they work.

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