Genealogical societies may learn from 61-year-old historical society’s demise

When genealogical society board members read the British Columbia Historical Federation article about the why the Burnaby Historical Society had to disband after 61 years, they may recognize the warning signs in their own organization.

Roger Whitehouse, a Burnaby Historical Society board member, said, “We’re probably the oldest society in Burnaby. It’s a disappointment and a wakeup call.”

Board members interviewed for the article cited a few reasons why membership had dropped from 100 to 14 members.

  • Didn’t keep pace with technology.
  • No website and not on social media, so promoting the society was difficult.
  • Young people are not interested in going to meetings. Most work and some have more than one job.
  • Older members died or moved away.
  • Volunteers were burned out.

It’s a shame to see this historical society dissolve after the preservation work they did and scholarships they issued over the years.

They had seen the writing on the wall, but were unable to attract new members and perhaps unwilling to change their ways. They’re not alone, unfortunately.

Let’s hope other historical and genealogical societies are able to find a way to grow their membership, rather than thinking that what worked in 1985 will still work in 2019. They need to act now.

This entry was posted in Societies. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Genealogical societies may learn from 61-year-old historical society’s demise

  1. Teresa says:

    I sure hope that other societies learn from this. Not having any online presence in this day and age is just stupid. I’m not saying every society needs a fully interactive, super-duper website and a SnapChat account, but a basic WordPress website and a Facebook page is doable by most people.

    I’m involved with a local family history group I started with another genealogist – we’re both in our 50s and likely the youngest members, but we hope to attract some younger members.

    • Vik says:

      I did something as simple as post a screenshot of the announcement of local historical society’s next meeting & guest speaker from their social media page & a related recent article from the state historical website on the county news group here. I was happy to see at least one new young man (a teenager, too) sitting in with the older long time members in their followup photos. Helps that it’s strongly Native American & a majority of people who live here own land where historical events occurred & the participants lived. Almost all are related in some way to the relocated tribe too, but still, you go where the fish (socially) are if you want to catch some.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Change is inevitable and change is also inevitably uncomfortable. Much like the body rebels after calisthenics when such activities are not the norm. However, the alternative is to grow weak and cease to exist as consequence of not initiating a change, and making that change a perpetual purpose of the body. A society must accept some minute change in itself and the members that make it. The battle cry of, “we have always done it this way” could also be its epitaph if not.

    Much like physical fitness, change need not be drastic. Just as a sedentary person can not be expect to win an Olympic gold medal without first training. A dedication to identifying (and acknowledging) issues in a society is the initial step. Developing a plan to resolve those issues, and most importantly resolving issues that pertain to fact and not people or feelings is the most difficult hurdle. We often get caught up in the personal issues of a society, we become cliche like, and aren’t welcoming to outsiders or the change that they may bring. We welcome their materials, money, and volunteerism, but ideas that are divergent to our own existing ideas of what the society is and how it conducts business are unwelcomed.

    Many of the items identified in the article as issues of concern can most likely be identified in our own societies, but we see no clear solution, so we avoid their at-length discussion. Today, we see ourselves as a group of friends and compatriots who work well together; who shoulder the work of the society. But tomorrow we are a bit older, the chaos of life can occur, or our health fails us. Now the group of friends is smaller, but the work remains and the burden is greater for each remaining person. Eventually meetings are the same people, wearing multiple different hats, reporting to each other news they already know because they participated in the body of work completed. In a last gasp of desperation the idea of recruiting new blood is accepted, but the remaining members haven’t trained on how to identify what kind of new members they need, where to look, or how to reach them. If new members are found they slowly leave because the society hasn’t practiced how to engage and retain their members. So much effort wasted is the thought that passes through their minds.

    Eventually, the doors are closed, and someone is left being the last one two lock the door and to wonder what they could have done differently.


    If a society were to take a look at themselves, identify their concerns, address their stakeholders, communicate with other organizations that are membership/volunteer-based, identify similar issues and mitigating practices then half the battle is won. The hemorrhaging of membership can be staunched. Communicating with the public and taking an active part in the community is also key. Do people even know you exist?

    I am a younger person. I’ve been following Robert’s Rule of Order on boards and committees since I was fourteen years old, and still to this day I do not see the obsession with meetings. Having a meeting for the purpose of a meeting is a waste of time and attention. It transforms our society’s into social clubs which should not be our intention. In other organizations that I’ve participated in, business meetings were quarterly while every monthly meeting was activity based, be it educational or society-centric work. The point is that something is produced other than a document of minutes.

    Another issue that can be resolved is moving from the officers/trustee and members model. Are officers needed? Yes. Do you need 10 officers and 10 standing committees? Probably not. Such a structure does over obligate the membership and causes members to burn-out. It also gives new members no entry-point to be included into the society. A model with the least number of officers as possible and then combined standing committees, that collaborate on similar projects or products, minimizes your need for people to fill shoes and/or wear a number of hats. Requiring only the chair of each committee to be a member also allows the structure to encourage community involvement. If members of the community can be involved in a task they have interested they may become members. Happy members doing what they like keeps members. Members who have to fill positions because positions are vacant and need filled makes former members.

    Keeping pace with technology is a broad statement, but it applies in two different ways to two different parties: the society and the individual. As a society, investment must be made in technology, and made wisely. A website can be free, but you also get what you pay for or you pay for what is free. If there isn’t someone who “does” tech in your organization speak to another local organization to see how they traversed the issue. Better yet speak to multiple similar organizations. Our society was paying several hundred dollars a year for a website that under-performed and was insecure and at one point paid over a hundred dollars for website software that is free. Similarly, online payment platforms are often maligned because little to no training has been given on their usage and as a result “something was wrong with x and we no longer use it.” Society’s can no longer lean on local transactions and local markets to make sales of their publications. Training with online payment platforms such a Paypal and Amazon are needed to expand their reach to prevent publications from becoming a financial liability. Personally, I wouldn’t want to contribute my time and efforts into creating a publication that was never sold because the cost was too high due to limited local print options and limited distribution (higher distribution=quicker break-even point=lower price). Other tech related issues: knowing that Facebook Pages are to engage the public and measuring engagement metrics and that Groups are best used for people that are already members. How can the public know what your society is doing (or that you exist) if all of your work is in a walled garden group. Or utilizing Google Suite for Non-profits? I was once told by a supervisor the best way to kill a plan was to put it in a binder. How many binders upon binders have information has out societies generated and then not been able to search, collaborate with, or act on because it was in a binder (but which or where?). G Suite even allows a society to have uniform email addresses that can be handed off when officer or chairs change; no more cold starts for information flowing or endless stream of forwarded emails. Also no more official emails being sent from That’s just a small sample of the organization tech that is available to a society. Unfortunately, using these tools are a change from normal procedure and take some start up. If you want to frustrate a new member, have them set up this tech for you, and then never use or take the time to learn how to use it. The second party responsible for embracing technology as it applies to genealogy is the member. Please understand what I am about to say comes from a good place without personal judgement. We can’t wait for someone to take us by the hand and step by step walk us through how to sign into our email once a week or to ignore phishing attempts for organizational money. No, we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater because there is a learning curve. Each of us doing genealogical work have had a difficult moment in our research, and we’ve learned new techniques or applications to mitigate the problem. Integrating technology is no different. There is a personal responsibility to learn not have someone do for you.

    Lastly, and not addressed in the body of the article, the organization and it’s members have to accept that they need to be more welcoming and engaging. Membership courting should not stop at the moment their check clears. No it doesn’t need to be a fishing buddies level of friendship, but one of equality and mutual respect. No one wants to pay to be around people who are rude or condescending or who intentionally exclude others. If these people are in your organization, they are a poison that will stifle your growth and lead to its demise.

    For such a brief article I apologize for such a lengthy reply. I am a member of a society who in its current condition is far behind Burnaby. I have only been a member for several years, but at the end of my official term this year I will not be renewing my membership for many of the reasons identified in the article and all of the reasons identified in my reply. I will continue on my own where change is accepted and welcomed.

Comments are closed.