Thursday, August 10, 2006

What Can Local Societies Do to Attract More Members?

My blog post of yesterday followed a Dick Eastman post about heightened genealogy interest, yet society membership is declining and conference attendance is decreasing. My post offered a discussion and theory about the size of the market. Today I want to discuss what local societies could do to increase their membership.

Increasing society membership needs to be a three-pronged effort:

1) Retain your existing members by providing services and programs that keep them interested and active.

2) Encourage those active members to mentor other members in the society, and to encourage their genealogy friends to join in the activities.

3) Be a presence in the community - team with the local library, and the local historical society, and participate in community events (fairs, farmer's markets, parades, etc). Try to get publicity through local newspapers and free magazines.

Using the categories from my earlier post - the people that your society wants to attract are those in the community with an interest in genealogy, those who have done some research but have stopped, or those who are "fairly actively" doing genealogy research but are not members. My estimate is that there are about 300 people in Chula Vista (200,000 population) who are in the last category alone (4 times our CVGS membership).

I will use my local society, Chula Vista Genealogical Society (CVGS, 80 members, with monthly programs with speakers), as an example for these efforts - we have added many activities in the last four years. Some of these ideas may work for you, and others may not. They are offered freely:

1) The CVGS monthly meetings are held on a Monday morning, which is fine for seniors who enjoy the outing, but not so good for working people. We decided that we would also offer a program with a speaker on four Saturday mornings each year when nobody else has a genealogy program - the fifth Saturday that occurs in 4 months out of the year. This year they are in January, April, July and September. We had 8 visitors at the July program, out of a total attendance of 28, and 2 joined the society.

2) Offer a Computer Interest Group to help members and guests learn to use the Internet and genealogy web sites. We access the Chula Vista Library Computer Lab once a month for two hours, and have a yearly "Beginning Computer Skills for Genealogists" series.

3) Offer a Research Group to help members and guests with their brick wall problems. We have a round table discussion of research problems, suggesting opportunities for further research. This has been so successful that half our meeting is now about research successes, with members passing copies of interesting documents around. This year, we've added 5 minutes of genealogy industry news and a 10 minute lesson on some aspect of genealogy research. The typical attendance is 10 to 15 on a Wednesday morning.

4) Sponsor research trips to libraries in different cities. Our membership is fairly elderly and many don't drive the freeways, so we car-pool to the SD FHC, Carlsbad Library (the best genie library in the county, with home access to HQO with a card), the SDGS library in El Cajon, or the SD downtown library. It's a good social outing, and our people experience another library environment - perhaps it holds the record they need. Our trip last week to the FHC had 16 attendees - we used all the computers at the FHC.

5) Find new and interesting speakers and topics for the society meetings. We had an "Antiques Roadshow" program last year with a local appraiser who kindly donated her time. We had a Genealogy Humor program that was a hit, as was the Forensic Genealogy program. We recently had a Civil War love story program that touched the attendees, and a Digital Photo Restoration program. On tap is a program on San Diego Place Names and one on the Witches of Salem.

6) Communicate with the membership frequently. We have always had a monthly newsletter and a phone tree to notify members about the meetings. Over 60% of our members have email, and they receive notice via email of all society meetings and also about genealogy research news and tips (e.g., free access to Ancestry or other subscription sites). We added content to the newsletter, especially news about the different groups and articles about Internet research. We just put the newsletter on the web in order to save postage costs. Since there is no weight limit for postage costs online, we may add further content to the newsletter for online readers.

7) There are about 15 local libraries in the Southern part of San Diego County, and a number of large community centers and retirement homes. We deliver 10 program flyers a month to these places, and also to the San Diego Family History Center. By getting to know the librarians and activity directors, we have advocates in all of these places. The cost is about $6 per month, plus the time and gas to deliver them.

8) Notices of our meetings appear in the community calendar section of the San Diego and Chula Vista newspapers. It's free. Through this contact, we know who the editors and reporters are and they have asked, on occasion, if there are opportunities for newspaper articles about genealogy or family history.

9) October is Family History Month. CVGS is teaming with the Chula Vista Library to have a "Search Your Family History" program for families with school-age children. Since the kids usually have a homework assignment to tell about their family history, this is intended to give them a head start, and to hopefully interest some people to research further and join our society. The families will be given a handout when they sign up with directions to fill out a pedigree chart, and bring it to their meeting. We will have a CVGS member mentor the family, give them information in a 30 minute round table session, followed by 30 minutes in the Computer Lab, and a visit to the Family History section in the Library. In addition, we are going to have a Family History Month display case in the Library entry way with charts, photos, books, magazine, papers, etc. during October and November. The Library is enthusiastic about helping us, and vice versa.

10) Provide a free 4 to 6 hour brown-bag seminar on a Saturday featuring basic genealogy topics and research techniques, with the hope that it will not only attract potential members, but also serve as an update for members not actively attending the regular meetings. The cost was essentially the handout cost, with the 5 speakers being members of the society. When we did this in 2004, we added 4 new members.

Naturally, all of the above takes dedicated volunteers to make things happen. CVGS is fortunate to have a cadre of about 20 members who do most of the work and attend all of the meetings. The program speakers are usually either local San Diego researchers or genealogy professionals from Southern California.

Because of the Computer group and the Research group activities, we have "grown" the research capabilities and knowledge of our members to the point where many can mentor someone else. While our numbers are relatively small, we know most of our members by name and ancestors, we have a lot of fun and provide real service to our membership.

I would love to hear from YOU about what your society has offered to retain current members or bring in new members. Please share them by commenting to this post.

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