“How will your society survive?” asked David Rencher at the opening session of the Federation of Genealogical Society’s (FGS) annual conference. The first day of the conference is focused for society officers and Rencher’s remarks were squarely aimed at them. Rencher is Chief Genealogical Officer of FamilySearch International and a member of the FGS board.
Rencher said that on this, the 35th anniversary of the founding of FGS, one third of the original 35 charter societies are out of business.
“I believe in my heart of hearts your society can succeed,” he said. “What should you do? What should you change?” Concentrate on the fundamentals. “Get back to the purpose for which you were created,” he said. And don’t forget, “if it isn’t fun, why are we doing it?”
“You have data locally,” he said. “You have data that the large companies will never have.” You have local knowledge and expertise. For example, while Rencher was researching his family in Mount Calm, Hill County, Texas, a local informed him that when the railroad came through, the town picked up and moved north out of Limestone county and into Hill county. “Do you think that changed where I went to look for records” he asked hypothetically.
“For your society to succeed, I contend that your society must have a business model,” he told attendees. “The goal should be, drive your costs to zero.” Think through your cost structure. Replace costs with free services and volunteers. “What is your society’s magnet for community participation?” said Rencher. A projects like indexing the 1940 census can appeal to volunteers. (Rencher said it will be really depressing should you index yourself in the 1940 census. But I digress…)
“Embrace change and make dramatic changes on the way you do things,” he said. “Do you really have to charge membership dues?” asked Rencher. “I know you’re thinking, ‘Has this man lost his mind?’” Do more things online. Appeal to distance members—those who don’t live locally, but have ancestors that did. Utilize social media and webinars.
Following the session I overheard society officers discussing changes for their society, real changes. One suggested changing their secretary to an online communication specialist. Another was going to check the costs of Skype.
I thought to myself, “David, you’re right. Genealogical societies will survive.”