Genealogy organizations: what have you done for me lately?

On 9 January 2013, Amy Coffin posted “Mind the Gap: Comparing Genealogy Associations to Other Info-Based Groups” in her We Tree Genealogy Blog. The post referred back to a blog post written by the CEO of the Special Libraries Association (SLA), “SLA in 2012: Laying the Groundwork for an Essential Association.” I would invite all of my readers to read both posts, as well as the comments on “Mind the Gap.”

Amy wrote that genealogy organizations should look to the organizations of other fields, such as SLA, for inspiration in meeting their members’ needs.

Though I am a member of no less than six state genealogical societies, a few more historical societies, and a handful of county societies, I am only on the Board of Directors of one organization—which is also a professional organization in the same vein as the SLA. Of course I mean the Association of Professional Genealogists.

Quite honestly, while the CEO of SLA used a lot of inspiring catchphrases, I cannot see what actions the organization has taken that could be implemented by APG or any other organization as an improvement. A “vision” without action to back it up is mere fantasy.

Amy made a comment that resonated with me: “Why is APG membership essential to my development?”

For me, the answer is simple: The APG membership itself is essential. By this, I mean the members, individually and collectively. The knowledge of local history, repositories, records, etc., of  members of APG is the greatest genealogical resource in the world, in my opinion. Learning from these members–not just in a classroom or lecture hall, but through one-on-one discussion–has been the single most important factor in my genealogical education.

To bring this perspective back to the discussion at hand: Amy and several other commentors mentioned several things that APG should be doing better.

APG (and other genealogy organizations) are volunteer-run membership organizations. They rely on the hard work of volunteers. So, in essence, “they” are us.

When a genealogist says, “XYZ County Genealogical Society doesn’t provide any essential services or products to me, so I didn’t renew,” there is a distinct, discernible belief that “the Society” must be a provider to its members.

The reverse is closer to the truth.

There is no “Society” without the work of its members. If you, as a member, are just sitting around waiting for “them” to give you something, then you will probably be disappointed. As a member, you should be contributing–whether it be as an officer or on a committee or even just something as simple as writing an article for the newsletter.

What societies do provide to their members rests solely on the backs of other members who are willing to volunteer their time, energy, and hard work to making the society better. The members who contribute nothing but complain that nothing is being done are the biggest problem with societies. There can be no “take” without someone “giving.”

I recognize that time is limited, and not everyone has free hours to contribute. But the dues that members pay themselves help to keep the electricity in the library on, or purchase new books, or pay for a speaker to present. Just by maintaining your membership, you are contributing. And if you suddenly find yourself with a free weekend, maybe you can spend some time organizing or indexing the vertical files, or writing an article for the newsletter, or baking cookies for the next meeting, or filling some other need.

Genealogy organizations, including APG, exist through the efforts of volunteers. Members can either complain about the problems, or work to change them.

My choice to do the latter is why I sit on the Board of Directors of APG and several committees, as well as paying dues to all of the societies of which I am a member.

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Michael, are you saying that because someone is not satisfied with an organization that the person automatically expects others to fix it? That’s simply not true. I don’t believe the “what have you done for me lately?” tag you’ve placed on dissatisfied members is fair or accurate.

    APG is a group, just like any other group. Don’t you want to be essential in your members’ eyes? Don’t you want to ask them how to do that? Don’t you want that open dialogue to assure everyone is generally satisfied and on the same page? Share APG’s vision with members and they will gladly buy in and volunteer.

    You asked how APG could apply the SLA ideas. I answered in areas I thought could be improved. It was not a complaint list about APG.

    I’m glad you find value in APG. I’m glad it’s essential to your development. That’s not the case for everyone, and as you can see from the comments on my post, some have let their memberships go (including myself, and others). Do you know why they’ve left? Have you asked them? The answers might me painful to hear, but you should ask the tough questions. All groups should do this, not just APG. It how an organization continues to improve.

    You have every right to your opinion, but I resent the implication that I or anyone else who raises a criticism is just complaining without action. As I stated in my own comments, my 3 different attempts to volunteer with APG a couple years ago were met with silence. I tried. And then I moved on. My guess is that it’s better now and there is plenty of room and a warm welcome for volunteers. I hope that’s the case.

    As I also stated in my comments, I am very encouraged with the current APG board and the direction of the group. You are doing good things. Though my suggestions were tough to hear, I do hope you consider them because I believe a dialogue is necessary in any volunteer-based group.

    Reply

    • Amy, I apologize that my post might read like a criticism of you or other commentors. I did not mean to imply that your criticism was complaining without action. I used your post and the discussion there as a springboard into this post.

      On the other hand, there are societies dying around the country. They want to attract new members, younger members. And yet younger genealogists are not joining or are not renewing their memberships because they are “not essential.” Organizations certainly have problems, and some are slow to change. There has to be a common meeting ground somewhere in the middle or everyone will lose.

      However I do believe that if a professional genealogist does not see membership in APG as essential to their development, then there is a problem. Part of this problem may be with the organization, but part of it may also be in the perception of the professional. If you are telling me that the opportunity to share and exchange ideas with such APG members as Elizabeth Shown Mills, Thomas Jones, and other well-established experts, as well as the new and emerging professionals who are currently building their reputations, does not in itself have value, then we will have to agree to disagree. Perhaps we hold different perspectives as to what is valuable and essential. Becoming the best genealogist that I can be is my personal goal, and there is no way to do that without APG.

      Reply

      • Michael, I hold Thomas Jones and Elizabeth Shown Mills in high regard. They are on my genea-celebrity A-list. But here’s the deal: I can access them via national conferences, webinars, other societies, social media, etc. APG does not own them. Lots of the wonderful things APG does and the benefits they offer can also be accessed other places. By “essential” I mean what does APG have that meets my goals and professional needs that I can’t get somewhere else? When I made my list, the membership fee didn’t match the unique value, in my opinion. I decided to take a break, explore other options in 2013 and see if they better met my needs. You and I value the same things in professional development. I’m just trying out a different professional supermarket to see if the products and prices are better.

        On my own blog, I posted an article about a group that had an interesting vision and posed some general discussion questions to all types of associations. You asked how APG could apply some of the SLA ideas. I answered with feedback and suggestions as requested. Three days later, I find myself referenced in this blog post, with the suggestion that some current and former APG members prefer to complain rather than get things done. While I don’t mind being the “what have you done for me lately?” poster child, I worry others will read this post and be afraid to offer their own constructive suggestions for APG, lest they also get the same coverage and reception on a board member’s blog.

      • Yes, Tom and Elizabeth also appear in other places. So do many other APG members, but not all of them. APG has nearly 2500 international members, and most of them have their own unique skills and expertise. I could try to track them all down one-at-a-time, or I could network with them through a single organization. This is not the only benefit that APG brings to the table, but the one that I find most important to me.

        Other than a few specialized organizations (CAFG, ISFHWE, GSG) there is only one organization for professional genealogists in the United States: APG. It is not a perfect organization, and I agree that there is room for change. I guess if you are a librarian, you can join a library association, but if you are a professional genealogist, then you join APG. The point of this post is that changes in a membership organization come through the members. If someone wants an organization to change, then they should become active and make the change.

        Just to be clear–I completely respect your opinion, and this is not an attack on you or anyone else. It is a call to action. If I have somehow offended you by mentioning your blog, please forgive me. I think that you did raise some points that deserved discussion. I began the discussion in your comments, and continued it here. I am not sure what you mean “coverage and reception,” but you definitely seem to have the impression that I hold a negative opinion toward you or your post, and this is not the case. I do not necessarily agree with everything you said, but that is far from negative. Disagreements foster progress.

      • One last thing, Amy: If I did not want your opinion, I wouldn’t have asked. I want to know why members do not find the organization essential.

  2. Posted by Theo on January 12, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    There are a lot of organizations out there. If you belong to many you know how difficult it is to give your time to all of them. You have to choose carefully because money and time are limited. You have to assess what you can give and what benefit you will obtain by membership. It helps that an organization does some self-assessment to determine how they might attract and retain membership like SLA does (disclosure: I am a member). In my view, that act in itself implies that an organization might be more responsive to me. There are many organizations that have created their own bubble, and don’t really want new blood, so it’s hard for a newbie to become involved.

    Reply

  3. Non-profit organizations usually start out being managed by the board of directors and then evolving to a more mature state. The most successful nonprofits have evolved beyond micro-management by their volunteer boards and the board committees. The gold standard of nonprofit management is a board of directors that provides vision, policy, oversight and financial stability with a staff, led by an executive director or CEO, that implements the vision and policy. The most successful nonprofits have focus, short and long range strategies, membership recruitment and retention policies, and can define themselves, their constituencies, and the work product of their members. Current issues are in at least the 3rd incarnation since I participated 6 years ago. APG offers much more now, but it still has not addressed the core issues, IMHO.

    Reply

  4. Bravo, Mr. Hait! You are right on point.

    Reply

  5. Michael, I’ve read both columns and all the posts and I think the dialogue is interesting.

    I’ve been doing genealogy since I was 10 years old. I’ve had to do it on my own, with minor help from a society here and there. My skills have enhanced because I read, read, and read some more – books, blogs, and now webinars with really good genealogists.

    I’m now 31. I walk into a society meeting, people are still presenting with paper, they’re all much older than I am, and they don’t do anything to make a person who’s used to the digital age feel welcome. And I’ve gone to hundreds – I tend to make a habit of seeing what a local society is like (some I join on the spot, like Ionia Co MI Gen Society or the Markham Settlers Association) to get a feel for the local genealogy scene.

    I’ve actually just joined a gen. society and plan to join a second soon – #1, Oakland County, MI, because they are willing to do the work to reach out to their audience digitally with a great Facebook and email presence, and their website allows me to pay dues online. #2, Fox Valley Genealogy Society in Illinois – not because I have any ancestors in the area or any connection, but because they were kind, generous with their time, and made me feel as welcome as anyone at their meetings. I’ve never walked into a gen. society and felt like they actually wanted me there as in their meetings.

    To be quite honest, I’ve never even thought of joining APG before – I assumed it was just a certification that folks like you, Thomas McEntee, and Judy Russell had earned because you work in the field. I’ve tried to hire people out of the directory and gotten no responses. I can’t even join online fully because you have to mail the payment (why no Paypal?). It doesn’t seem like they are embracing the digital age like OCGS, and for that matter, I didn’t even know there was an APG chapter in Brookfield, a half hour from my house, so their members must not be pushing the old fashioned marketing, either.

    Something as simple as adding PayPal to the APG website would be little effort and something that could get new members for the organization. Encouraging members to go out and attend FHC forums and other genealogy society meetings to encourage people to join the organization and/or learn what its about – they might even drum up some clients at the same time.

    The President and Board of APG can make all these changes, to become more inspirational, to encourage their members to change – but above all, they have to make sure the members are going to go along with them. If the members are unwilling to change, then its going to be a failed effort and there will have been a bunch of talk and no action.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Katie Chapman on June 13, 2013 at 2:48 am

    I love finding gems way after everyone else on occassion. I actually found this post doing some homework tonight for one of my summer classes. I think it is true. What you say about needing to get involved in order to inspire change. One caution is that it does not always happen overnight, and I think some would like to believe it does. Sometimes it takes time to become involved. Then it takes additional time to have your voice for change be heard. And again, still more time to enact needed changes. If the organization has enough value in you mind to bother complaining about it, rather than simply walking away, it should have enough value to stick it out through that potentially time intensive process. If the group does not have that kind of value, but you genuinely think they would improve their valuable-ness, then go ahead and share your constructive suggestions. If, however, the group is not worth the time investment to you and you are not constructive in your parting advise, then you simply take up the trumpet of complaint and it does essentially no one any good. I have not read the other related posts (not enough time in the midst of my homework tonight), but I have seen all of these scenarios many times over in other areas of my life. It is easy to throw out a grumble. It is harder, but still not too difficult, to offer helpful suggestions for specific means of improvement. It is harder still, sometimes downright overwhelminly difficult, to work your way in and find ways to bring changes fron the inside out, but that is where change is most effective. Thanks for making me think tonight (as always) Michael.

    Reply

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