Sunday, October 11, 2015

Fishing for Stories

No, this is not about fish stories—you know, about "The One That Got Away."

This time—same as the last two days' posts—I'm thinking about our world of genealogy and the societies dedicated to encouraging people to pursue their family's stories.

But not just their stories—you know, those stories about our ancestors which make them come alive to us again. This time, I'm not thinking content; I'm thinking process. The process of drawing potential members into our group. What makes people join genealogical societies? What influences people to join any group, for that matter?

Once again, I'm drawing inspiration from marketer Seth Godin's blog:
Some people contribute because of the story they are able to tell themselves about the work they're doing.

Thinking of what convinces people to give of their time, effort or money to benefit non-profit organizations, Godin came out and called it "Altruistic Narcissism," point blank. Though it sounds oxymoronic, I think he's right on, in this case. Even when it comes to donations, people need a compelling reason to become generous.

How many times have we bothered to question our fellow genealogical society members on what convinced them to get involved? How many of us have even asked ourselves that question—and come up with an honest answer?

There is something fascinating about Story. That's the craft that skillfully re-organizes the facts into a digestible narrative. Something much more palatable than a recitation of dates and labels—or genealogies, for that matter. That's the "irresistible" that makes our ears perk up, and even "ear hustle" around corners, back a row in the bus, or alongside our restaurant table.

We already know what compelling force Story infuses into our family history research. An outgrowth of one of the most successful genealogical conventions of the past year has been the conclusion that it is really the stories we are after, not just the litany of name, birth, death and—maybe—descendants. But those are stories about our ancestors.

What of the stories about ourselves? Especially, the stories about what compels us to join in and help an organization worthy of our attention. Can those stories, discovered, help us understand what motivates people to join in on the projects we struggle, as a society, to complete? Can understanding what draws people to volunteer—for our organization, our Big Idea—help us realize what is required of us in attaining the goals we need to achieve? Or does that mean risking the possibility that input from fresh help will change the face of the very mission we hope to achieve?

When it comes to working with volunteer situations, talk is sometimes focused on what is called Opportunity Cost. If, for instance, I do This on Monday nights, I can't do That. Not, at least, at the same time. Not even if I'm a talented multi-tasker. That is the Opportunity Cost for Monday night choices.

We see that all the time in genealogical societies—in any non-profit organization—although often it is the unspoken obstacle in finding volunteer help. It would be wise to not schedule our genealogy training meetings, for instance, on the same day as our city's D.A.R. meetings—especially if we already know we share mutual participants.

The choice, in such conflicts, may lie in that very aspect of which story the member is able to tell herself. I assure you, the better story is the one which will win. Do we know what story our members are telling themselves about why they opt for our organization's events?

Above: "The Fisher Girl," 1894 oil on canvas by American landscape painter, Winslow Homer; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Anyone's personal "family tapestry" is not for everyone - but surely there are threads within that are of interest to "many" (if not "most"). What seems to be the hard trick - is determining which threads are of which sort.. beginning with how (and if) to they connect (to others) and how they resonate or have mutual relevance if they do

    I think a genealogy society would see (at least) two separate engagements..

    1) Teaching novices how do the science for themselves - teach the tools and provide insight and tips\wisdom from experience.

    2) Surface the threads of common and mutual interest and provide a reason for doing so - e.g., learn a lesson from history or share admiration of some human trait like courage or learn how our ancestors did things and why and be able to apply that to our own lives...

    1. It's interesting that you mention that, Iggy. Of course, many local genealogical societies are advocates for education for beginners--and also work hard to provide the tools and materials to help others start their search. But your second point is one to heed, too.

      I'm excited that a new project our local society has worked on launching this year fits that second category somewhat. We've started a "First Families" project, from which we hope to construct a research resource of the early settlers in this area, and their contributions to establishing the towns and cities in our area. Hopefully, those resources will someday become robust enough that people can draw out those threads of our common story in this locale. If nothing else, the local history buffs will be appreciative!


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