Monday, May 31, 2010

Summer of Genealogy Wishes - Genealogy Societies: The Transition Balance Beam by Thomas MacEntee

Welcome to the first week of the Summer of Genealogy Wishes! To kick off the summer I am happy to present a wonderful guest post by Thomas MacEntee. If you would like to be a part of this series, just send me an email to with your wishes for the genealogy community.

Without further ado, I present:

Genealogy Societies: The Transition Balance Beam by Thomas MacEntee

Anyone who sits on the board of a genealogy society these days knows what it is like to walk a balance beam: trying to attract new members and expand services by utilizing new technologies while at the same time keeping your long-time members who are rooted in tradition happy. It is not an easy task and no matter what action is taken, it seems as if some current members will up and leave and some potential members just won’t join.

But is there a way to walk that balance beam and handle the transition from costly and outdated practices to more efficient and updated ones while at the same time minimizing the number of unhappy members, both new and old?

Having worked with various genealogy societies as well as sitting on the governing board of a state genealogy society, here is a five step plan that can get your board members walking that balance beam without falling off.

Step One: Perform a Needs Assessment

The society needs to do a serious “self-check” and determine the following:

  • What works and what doesn’t?
  • What are the most expensive components of membership?
  • Do the society goals include expanding membership? Adding new services?

But this isn’t limited to services - for each of these items under consideration, the society must estimate how changes will impact current and potential new members.

  • If the newsletter is no longer printed but only available online, will we lose members?
  • If we don’t allow folks to sign-up and pay for membership online, will potential members not join?

Step Two: Think Multiple Converging Balance Beams

Many societies that undertake a plan to transition to less expensive and more efficient services, often fail because of the “all or nothing” approach. They eliminate instead of transitioning and offering dual tracks. Envision a balance beam that splits into two, then converges back to one beam.

An example: offer a lower-rate “e-membership” that allows people to join and purchase a membership online and receive all society communication via email. This does not mean raising the current price point for a traditional membership, but it gives the society a chance to see how attractive this alternative membership format is to potential members. After six months to a year, the society can then decide to switch or not switch depending upon the results.

Step Three: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Change is never easy. Most of us know this from trying to make changes in our own personal lives. Habits are hard to break and many of us don’t like stepping out of our comfort zone. And if we do need to make changes, we like to do them on our own. We don’t like to be told what we’ll have to change and when!

Communication - frequent and clear - is the key to keeping as many parties involved as possible during any transition.

  • Don’t just state the change being made; be clear as to why, the impact on the society as well as on its members.
  • Realize that no matter how many times you mention a pending change, someone will act as if this is the first time they’ve heard of it and how the society will be much worse off for the change.
  • Send out surveys to your current membership putting forth different scenarios (e-newsletter only, e-newsletter for free with printed newsletter for a small fee, etc.) and get opinions.
  • Be clear that changes are being considered not merely to “keep up with the times” but to ensure the future of the society.

Step Four: Commit to an Action Plan

A society needs to stick to its guns when putting changes into effect:

  • Don’t let emotional reactions of long-time members or the influence of a large financial contributor derail your plan.
  • You still need to listen to the concerns of the membership and just don’t do so as a means of “going through the motions.”
  • Write down the issues raised. You will need to include them later when you track the results of the changes. The results will either support the concerns raised by the membership or will bear out and be supportive of the changes made.

Step Five: Track the Results

After three months, go back and survey your long-time members and get their thoughts on the changes. Continue to do so every three months or as major changes are made. Publish the results on your blog or website and in your newsletter.

Very often when results are seen in writing, especially when they support the decision to institute changes, the vocal opponents suddenly get laryngitis.


While the genealogy and family history fields continue to expand thanks to recent media exposure via Faces of America, The Generations Project and Who Do You Think You Are?, genealogy societies must walk a balance beam in order to meet the needs of their members both current and future.

On one side of the beam are the loyal and supportive long-time members with valuable experience in the field yet lacking in an understanding of current technologies such as social media. On the other side are new members at ease with social media and technology who want to learn as much as possible about genealogy yet are frustrated at what they see as outdated and inefficient practices.

The walk down that beam should not be predicated on keeping as many people as possible happy. The walk should be one which advances the mission of the society and embraces new technologies while still respecting tradition and helping members make the transition. Such a walk is possible with careful planning, committed execution, and thoughtful listening.

© 2010, copyright Thomas MacEntee

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Thomas MacEntee is a genealogist specializing in the use of technology and social media to improve genealogical research and as a means of interacting with others in the family history community. Utilizing over 25 years of experience in the information technology field, through his business High-Definition Genealogy, Thomas writes and lectures on the many ways in which blogs, Facebook and Twitter can be leveraged to add new dimensions to the genealogy experience. As the creator of he has organized and engaged a community of over 1,000 bloggers to document their own journeys in the search for ancestors.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Thomas! Thank you, and thank you Tina!