Thursday, December 29, 2011

What have you done for me lately?

There is a growing trend that has me a bit concerned. There has been a lot of talk about genealogy societies and their viability as we move into an ever more virtual world. The Saturday-morning-meeting model for genealogy societies is failing and societies are finding themselves with fewer members than ever before. While the conversation around how to thrive in the new online culture of genealogy has been happening in society board rooms for a while now, it seemed to really catch fire after Curt Witcher’s FGS Luncheon presentation at RootsTech 2011. Unfortunately I didn’t attend much of RootsTech—I was stuck home with my kiddos—by I voraciously followed the twitter comments and blog posts coming from the conference.

Witcher’s presentation, “High Touch and High Tech: Being a Successful 21st Century Genealogical Society” sparked a fire storm of blog posts, comments, and tweets. See what I’m talking about at GeneaMusings and Luxegen. (Note that some of the comments and tweets referred to Witcher's related keynote speech "The Changing Face of Genealogy." Now for the most part I agree with what I’ve seen in terms of summaries and comments:
  • Societies do need to embrace technology to remain viable.
  • Societies do need to reach out to a younger generation.
  • Websites, e-publications, webinars, and surname databases are all great ways to both embrace technology and reach a younger generation.
But Witcher made another point during this lecture, and it’s one that I think we’re forgetting—genealogy societies are mission-centric. They are non-profit organizations created for a generally altruistic purpose. I think we’re losing sight of that fact.

We’re beginning to run our societies like businesses. We’re using words like ROI, profit margin, and customer. There is some value in that. There is value in ensuring we are offering sufficient member benefits. There is value in ensuring our societies don’t go bankrupt. There is, however, very little value in constructing a barrier between society boards and society members by classifying members as customers.

Societies don’t have customers—they are built on a member model. They were created by people who came together with a common goal expressed by their mission statement. Let’s look at the state mission statements of a few prominent societies:

National Genealogical Society (NGS)
“To serve and grow the genealogical community by providing education and training, fostering increased quality and standards, and promoting access to and preservation of genealogical records.”
Ohio Genealogical Society (OGS)
“OGS is a non-profit organization, incorporated under Internal Revenue Code 501©(3) whose purposes are:
  1. Fostering an interest in all of the peoples who contributed in any way to the establishment and perpetuation of the state of Ohio;
  2. Searching for the reasons and forces behind the migration of early settlers into this state;
  3. Preserving and safeguarding manuscripts, books, and memorabilia relating to the early settlers of Ohio;
  4. Securing and holding copyrights, master copies and plates of books, periodicals, tracts, and pamphlets of genealogical and historical interest to the people of Ohio;
  5. Publishing, printing, buying, selling, and circulating literature regarding the purposes, records, acquisitions, and discoveries of the Society.
  6. Aiding others in the publication and dissemination of materials pertaining to Ohio, including biography and family and local history;
  7. Receiving and holding gifts and bequests from any source for the benefit of the Society, disposing of such gifts and bequests not needed and using funds derived therefrom solely for the purposes of the Society;
  8. Doing all things incidental to the perpetuation of the purposes of the Society, and exercising the powers legally and properly requisite thereto.
Utah Genealogical Association (UGA)
“UGA provides genealogical information, sources, and education through personal instruction and published media on state, national, and international family history topics, while promoting high standards and ethical practices.”
What do these and many other genealogical society mission statements have in common? They all use words like promote, educate, preserve, and foster. These societies were built as service organizations. Do we still think of them that way? Are genealogy societies still a place where we come together to give back to our community? Or are we spending too much of our time complaining about what societies aren’t doing; about what they aren’t providing for us as consumers? I respectfully submit that it’s not a society’s job to meet our needs as consumers. It is their job to meet their mission statement—and in the process to provide a place for us to give back to the community in a meaningful way.

Disclosure: I serve on the board of the Utah Genealogical Association as an unpaid director. I also serve as the unpaid director of the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. These opinions are my own and don't reflect the board as a whole. In fact I'm not even sure the majority of UGA directors and members would agree with me!


  1. Great article and something to definitely think about.

  2. I agree with you, Christy! Well said!

  3. As past president of UGA, I do agree with you and think that you have hit it on the head with your analysis. Our genealogical societies ARE mission centric. When we lose site of this mission we tend to be moved by whomever cries out the loudest, whether it be a board member, a paying member, or a potential member. We need to stick to our guns, move with the technology and provide what we say we will provide - nothing more, nothing less.

  4. Thanks, guys! I admit to being a bit nervous that I may have been opening up Pandora's box on this one. It's nice to know I'm not alone in believing this. I agree with you, Luana, it is easy to be moved if you're unanchored.

  5. Nicely done, Christy! Similar thoughts may apply to APG itself.

  6. A refreshing view in a me, me, me world

  7. Well made points, Christy, and ones I haven't heard expressed so well anywhere else.

  8. Thank you, Harold, Jill, and Shelley. @Harold: I completely agree. Someone I respect enormously shared the same opinion at Samford last June when he stated that professional associations should be less about what the association can do for its members and more about providing a place for professionals to come together to further the profession (my paraphrasing). I've been guilty of the "what have you done for me" attitude in regards to APG and it's something I plan to correct very soon.

  9. One part of your post that resonated with me: "There is, however, very little value in constructing a barrier between society boards and society members by classifying members as customers."

    I've seen society members upset because of missed or late publications, as if the society is a "store" and they are "customers" — "I pay dues, I want my merchandise." While dues entitle a member to benefits, presumably the benefits are provided through the efforts of other members who volunteer. The business vs. society question is, if a society has no one who volunteers to plan programs (or edit a publication, etc.), then what? What happens if nobody steps up? Should the society be accountable? While some projects definitely can be jettisoned, others are pretty important. Maybe society membership should contain a requirement to pay dues AND commit to volunteer to make the society flourish.


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