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Facing Up to the Long-term Future of Your Genealogy Society

8 Feb 2023 7:48 PM | Anonymous

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NOTE: This article contains several personal opinions.

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?

I hear all sorts of "reasons" why societies are shrinking these days. I suspect many are not true reasons but are merely "shoot from the hip" excuses offered with no statistics or research to back them up. Common excuses include, "It's competition from the Internet" or, "It's the economy" or, "People just aren't interested anymore." 

To be sure, competition and economic difficulties and even lack of interest exist everywhere. If society members and officers do nothing to offset these factors, inertia sets in, and societies suffer. However, these factors affect all societies. The question persists: why is it that some societies thrive and even expand while others are shrinking?

I think the answer is a combination of many factors. However, some of the causes and perhaps even a few of the solutions become obvious when we look at history. Our ancestors witnessed and perhaps participated in similar problems years ago in other industries. Indeed, in recent years, even those of us alive today have seen similar declines and occasional reversals in a number of business endeavors. Perhaps the answer to the future growth of your genealogy society may be found by first looking back at the history of similar problems in other fields of endeavor.

Here is the first question to ponder: What happened to all the railroads in North America? 

In the 1800s the railroad industry in the U.S. was a growth business. In some ways it was like today's Internet businesses. Consumers couldn't get enough of the railroads' "product:" convenient and easy travel. People traveled to places they never visited before, even if only to visit relatives in another state. Corporations also rushed to send their products by rail because it was cost-effective to do so. Farmers sent their products to distant markets that had previously been impossible to reach. The economy improved for farmers and for corporations, and the money then “trickled down” into almost all other businesses. The country flourished, in part because of the railroads.

Most every year, inventors created newer and more efficient locomotives. First it was steam, then it was petrol, then diesel, and still later it was electricity (in some cases). Times were good, and America had a bright, rail-based future.

So what happened? Why isn’t North America blanketed in rail routes today? Why doesn’t everyone commute to work on the railroad?  

Today, the railroad companies are a shell of what they once were. Why? Because automobiles and trucks came along and ran the railroads into the ground.

Senior managers at railroad companies seemed to believe "we are in the railroad business." In fact, they were really in the transportation business, but few executives realized that. A very few railroads expanded over the years into bus lines, trucking companies, and allied transportation businesses. 

One company provides a perfect example: Railway Express. This company specialized in brokering and delivering railroad freight, mostly smaller packages that required much less than a full box car for transportation. This was a "railroad company" that eventually was driven to bankruptcy by a newer company that saw the true business was delivering packages (parcels) by whatever means made sense: United Parcel Service. The new company, usually called "UPS," seems to have done quite well by delivering packages by rail, truck, and airline. In short, the company succeeded nicely by doing exactly what the older company had done except for one major difference: the new company did not limit its services by calling themselves a railroad company, but by calling themselves a freight delivery company and then by doing “whatever it takes” to serve the customers.

The overwhelming majority of railroad companies tried to remain just that: railroad companies. Then they wondered, "What happened to all the customers?"

Let's fast-forward a few years and look at another business: newspapers. Again, newspapers used to be multi-million dollar businesses that most everyone respected. They were the primary sources of news and information for most citizens. A very common question was, "Have you seen the paper today?" When was the last time anyone asked you that question?

The newspaper business was almost an exact repeat of the railroad business. New competition arose from radio, television, the Internet, and a host of small electronic devices. Even bloggers are competition to newspapers. Generally speaking, the new competition has been cheaper, faster, and much more flexible, able to change quickly to meet customers' demands.

The result was predictable: stodgy, old newspaper companies with inflexible management started losing business. Customers abandoned those companies where management said, "We are in the newspaper business." Yet a few forward-thinking managers said, "We are in the news and information business," and they survived by adopting the methods of their new competitors. A very small number of newspapers, such as USA Today, adopted modern business methods and built upon their strengths: dozens of reporters, editors, advertising departments, and more. They built multi-media organizations capable of delivering news and entertainment to their customers, wherever and whenever those customers want it. Yes, even if that meant publishing on the World Wide Web.

I will suggest that it makes no difference how a news story is delivered to a customer. One (slow) method is to print it on paper and send it out via overnight trucks to be sold in stores and newsstands. Another is to broadcast the same story on radio and television. Perhaps still better is to place the story on a web site where customers can retrieve it whenever they wish. Another option is to build the story into an RSS newsfeed where customers can access it via a newsreader. Better still, if the customer has a strong interest in some topic (sports, financial news, or most anything else), PUSH that information as it becomes available to the customer's smart phone that is on his hip or in her purse. 

Executives who think they are “in the newspaper business” will fail. In fact, the PRODUCT is news and information, and that is important. The DELIVERY METHOD might be paper or broadcast media or Internet. I will suggest that delivery methods are important, but never as important as the product. The product is INFORMATION, and companies in the information business have a better chance of survival than those companies that believe they are in the newspaper business.

Let's look at a third example, although one with a very different ending. Apple started in the computer business 46 years ago at about the same time as did Microsoft and a few dozen other personal computer companies. Some built hardware; a few created software. A very few, including Apple, tried to do both. In fact, Apple floundered for a few years as the company's managers tried to become the best and most successful computer company in the industry. By most standards of measurement, the Apple executives failed. Sales were down and continued to drop every year. At one time, Apple was close to bankruptcy.

Apple's board of directors then re-hired Steve Jobs. He was a founder of the company but later left to pursue other opportunities. Newly-re-hired Steve Jobs was given one objective: turn the company around. He was given a free rein to do whatever he thought was best.

The rest is history.

Even today, Apple does not build as many personal computers as some of its competitors and does not produce as much software as its biggest competitor. Yet Apple is now more profitable than any other company, even more profitable than Microsoft. In fact, Apple now has the highest corporate valuation IN HISTORY.

How is this possible? There are a number of reasons, but the biggest seems to be that Apple stopped being a computer company years ago. Instead, Apple is now the world's leading PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY COMPANY.

To be sure, Apple does make a significant amount of income from sales of personal computers. However, that revenue is not as big as the money derived from the sales of cell phones and tablet devices. Apple also produces devices to stream movies and television programs across the Internet. Indeed, this is no longer a computer company.

Apple failed as a personal computer company, but it became wildly successful as a personal technology company.

Better than any other tech company, Apple paid attention to the trends of what consumers want, and they’ve never been afraid to experiment with other products. Some of those products failed miserably, (remember the Apple Newton?) but others succeeded far beyond anyone's expectations. The result is the most profitable company in the industry with more money in the bank than the gross national products of many countries.

The railroad moguls of days past said, “We’re in the railroad business!” when they should have been saying, “We’re in the transportation business.” Newspaper managers used to say they ran newspaper companies when they should have been managing news and entertainment companies. 

Steve Jobs and Apple got this right by saying, “We’re not a personal computer company; we’re a technology company.”


So what does this mean for your genealogy society? 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:

    1. Education

    2. Publishing (on paper as well as electronic publishing)

    3. Travel services to local and distant repositories or even to "the old country"

    4. Lobbying services

    5. Sponsoring a cruise for members and others and offer seminars when at sea

    6. Fraternal organization services, somewhat like the Elks or Lions or Masons or other fraternities and sororities, all working towards common public service goals

    7. And perhaps the most important of all: offer entertainment

Probably not all genealogy organizations need to perform all of these activities, but I will suggest that most organizations need to perform at least several of the above. 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. 

Most societies already perform educational activities for members and sometimes for non-members. All we can do is to expand this. Perhaps societies should be holding classes and information sessions for the general public. How about establishing scholarships for local high school seniors planning to pursue studies in history or allied fields?

Publishing is performed by many societies today although often is limited to small booklets that are published only on paper and are not well advertised nationwide. Yet today's technology allows for electronic publishing at far lower costs than older methods of printing books. Shouldn't we be placing all genealogy publications online and making them available to anyone and everyone worldwide for a modest fee? Or will we continue to act like newspapers?

Travel services can be a major service for members. How many of your organization's members have ever visited the state historical society's library? Or a nearby university's archives? Organize a trip! A trip doesn't always have to involve airfare to distant locations; a local visit can be just as valuable for members and non-members alike.

Lobbying is perhaps one of the greatest needs of genealogy organizations today. We are under constant pressure from well-meaning, but ignorant, legislators to limit access to the very records we depend upon. Genealogy organizations need to make sure that legislators understand that identity theft is not a factor when looking at death records from many years ago. In short, we need to lobby!

Speaking of members, do 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 a casual 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.

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!

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?


  • 9 Feb 2023 9:25 AM | Anonymous
    You are correct about the business models. I have to disagree with you about #6 the service organizations. The Moose, Elks, Masons, Rotary are fast disappearing themselves. Memberships in all manner of organizations to include once powerful unions are far below what there were in previous generations despite the increase in the population. I belong to various musical groups and the Gideons, and at 63, I'm one of the youngest. I've heard that the Millennials and younger are not joiners, rather subscribers. I take that to mean they'd rather be on-line, than in-person. Just my supposition. I am not a sociologist, but I'm very concerned about the effects of screen time replacing face time.
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    • 9 Feb 2023 9:42 AM | Anonymous
      Many genealogy societies are 501c3, which are prohibited from legislative lobbying.
      Link  •  Reply
      • 9 Feb 2023 10:44 AM | Anonymous
        This is a common error. Advocating to government is NOT prohibited. As with all tax policy, it's complicated. I've testified in Austin for and against draft legislation with no threat to 501c3 status.
        Link  •  Reply
  • 9 Feb 2023 12:57 PM | Anonymous
    I am a Past President of a Genealogy Society and sit on the board of a federation of local societies. Some of our societies are functioning without a President or much other leadership and they are muddling along with an aging membership. My society was flexible and was among the first in the region to go virtual and continue to offer meetings. Long before I became President, we worked hard continually to identify potential future leadership and invite them to join our board. and have an active board, as a result. We have almost doubled our paid memberhip (to over 400) since the pandemic, and now offer two virtual meetings a month. We use social media and provide our meetings on Facebook live. We have four board members under 35 (including one who is in her early 20's). We are preparing to go back to live meetings once a month, but we will also keep our virtual meeting, as well. It is never too late to begin working towards the future.
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