What is the future for family history societies?

Blogger and author Dick Eastman of the US has written a challenging article about the future of family history societies (or genealogy societies as he calls them).  You can read the full article on-line, but here’s a summary of the challenges and some solutions as he sees them.  Of course the Clan Matheson Society New Zealand branch isn’t a family history society, but the article deals with questions faced by many community or voluntary organisations.

Dick starts off by saying: “I travel a lot, and I spend a lot of time with officers and members of many genealogy societies.  Most everywhere I go, I hear stories of societies that are shrinking in size and even a few stories of societies that are struggling to maintain their existence.  Even amongst all this ‘doom and gloom’, I do hear a few rare stories of genealogy societies that are thriving and growing larger.  Not only are they attracting more members, but these few societies are also offering more and more services to their members with each passing year.

“Why do the majority of societies flounder while a handful succeed?”

His article goes on to consider some of the challenges that people mention when thinking about dwindling society membership, such as competition from the internet, the state of the economy, and changing interests.  Sure, they’re relevant, but the question still remains — why do some societies thrive and expand while others are shrinking?

Dick draws parallels from history.  What happened to all the railway companies in North America?  Most failed because managers thought they were in the railway business, but in fact they were in the transportation business.  For example one company, Railway Express, specialised in brokering and delivering railway freight, especially smaller packages that didn’t need a whole wagon for transportation.  This ‘railway company’ reinvented itself by realising that its true business was moving parcels, not shifting parcels by rail.  It’s now called United Parcel Service, or UPS.  Not much of its freight is moved by rail any more.

What is happening to newspaper companies?  Who still gets the paper delivered?  When did you last see a paper boy selling newspapers in the street?  Companies that think they are in the newspaper business are dying.  Those that realise they are in the business of delivering news, in whatever format, will adapt and grow.

Dick Eastman’s third example is Apple, which started out building and selling computers and nearly went bankrupt.  Along came Steve Jobs, who turned Apple into a ‘personal technology company’.  Apple failed as just a computer company, but is now one of the most successful businesses on the planet.

So what does all this mean for family history societies?  Dick Eastman asks: “Are they societies, or are they providers of genealogy information and education and other services?

“First, let’s stop calling them ‘societies’.  That is a very narrow term that encourages members and officers alike to narrow their focus.  We need to look at a bigger picture.  Perhaps we should call them ‘genealogy organizations’ or invent some other term that better describes the myriad of services possible”.

Such services can include:

  • education
  • publishing (on paper as well as electronic publishing)
  • travel services to local and distant repositories or even to ‘the old country’
  • lobbying services
  • fraternal organization services, somewhat like service clubs, working towards common public service goals
  • and perhaps the most important of all, entertainment.

Dick points out that not every organisation can provide all of these, and some services might fail to attract enough interest.  “Like Steve Jobs’ experiences at Apple, some of these services will flounder and become miserable failures.  Chalk those up as ‘learning experiences’.   All you want is to make sure that enough of your organization’s efforts succeed and generate enough revenue to help sustain the organization.”

He also challenges us to wonder why services have to be restricted to members.  “Why not make all services available to the general public?  Sure, you might offer a discount to members, but restricting items ‘as a benefit of membership’ rarely benefits anyone.  By restricting services to members, all the society is doing is locking out potential new members and others who may have an interest in genealogy.  The best advertising to attract new members is to let non-members use the organization’s present services, although perhaps at a slightly higher price than what members pay.  Some of these ‘outsiders’ will be motivated to join.  The remainder at least will have added to the organization’s treasury”.

He adds: “As proven recently by the television networks, genealogy is also ‘entertainment’.  Yes, we are in the entertainment business, whether we realize it or not.  Let’s entertain our members and especially let’s entertain our potential future members!”

Dick Eastman concludes that: “The above list only scratches the surface.  I am sure you and your associates can create a longer list of worthwhile activities.  We need to exist, thrive, and even grow in a high tech world of instant communications and collaboration.  We cannot sit back and complain of competition from the internet.  Instead, we need to embrace the internet and every other form of technology and use all these tools to further our own interests.

“My prediction: many genealogy societies will continue to shrink and will eventually die.  Genealogy ‘organizations’ with a broad outlook and a willingness to experiment with new methods of delivering services will expand and become influencers within the genealogy world.

“Where will you and your society fit into all of this?”

Thought-provoking stuff.  You can read the whole article here.  It’s also worth reading Dick Eastman’s family history blog, which is updated frequently.  Some of the articles are available only to subscribers, but he generously makes most available to everyone free of charge.

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