Saturday, October 10, 2015

Is Your Genealogy Society Remarkable?

If people talk about what you're doing, it's remarkable, by definition.
                                                                              —Seth Godin

Clear-thinking author and entrepreneur Seth Godin has a few things to say on becoming remarkable. Of course, since his focus is on marketing, most of what he says, he addresses to businesses. But I'd like to revisit his straightforward advice featured in The Guardian, back in 2007, and posted on his blog, and apply it to our current concerns about what to do with our own ailing genealogical societies.

The Godin article explores "How to be Remarkable." Let's not think fresh-college-grad-out-to-conquer-the-career-world, here. Instead, let's re-imagine what can be done with our own challenges: facing a world in which there seems to be no viable reason to continue gathering together for anything related to genealogy. After all, is there really life after, FamilySearch, FindMyPast, MyHeritage and all the literally hundreds of other online outlets for those who are interested in finding their roots? Can we salvage a past tradition of local meetings for genealogy enthusiasts?

Since Seth Godin starts out advising a reality check of your organization's situation, we may as well do the same. "Understand the urgency of the situation," he warns. "The only way to grow is to abandon your strategy of doing what you did yesterday, but better."

More of the same, only "improved," isn't enough, according to Godin. This requires some real organizational commitment. Reading through his advice, for me as an elected officer in a local genealogical society, prompted some questions. I'm thinking out loud, sharing them in hopes they'll be useful for you in your own genealogical society, as well.

If you could get what you want for your organization, what would you want? Many of the offerings promoted by one local society will be similar to those listed by other societies—and that's to be expected. However, if all we offer turns out to be mundane and lackluster, we give potential members no reason to exchange their valuable time and money for partnership with our organization. Sometimes, considering the smallness of many of our organizations, we limit our horizons when thinking of what we could accomplish through our group efforts. Yet it is precisely when we step out of those boundaries called norms that we edge toward the possibility of remarkableness. As Seth Godin remarked,
People in first place, those considered the best in the world, these are the folks that get what they want. Rock stars have groupies because they're stars, not because they're good looking.

How committed is your board to doing what it takes to become not only a viable organization in the next decade, but a remarkable one? How committed is your membership? If your society's goals are to keep doing the same thing, you won't just get the same results; as our organizations' context keeps changing, we will either become more and more out of place just by standing still, or we will learn to adapt just to survive. But before the hard work can begin, we need to solidify the commitment.

What, within your society's mission, can you do in a remarkable way? What will get people talking about you? Granted, we will never get one hundred percent riveted attention from the entire community-at-large surrounding our society. But it isn't our task to win over an entire city as True Believers. Just our own constituency. However, how many of the genealogy enthusiasts within your city or county are drawn to your organization? If your location is like ours, you likely have a significant number of people who are fascinated with genealogy—or are already doing it—that know nothing about your existence at all, despite your best efforts. Think that isn't likely? Our society is continually launching new initiatives in which we bump into people who had no idea of our existence. It is in that unexpected nexus that we need to be caught already executing our efforts remarkably.

Who is your real audience? Who will talk about what your group is doing? Considering your society's mission and goals, who are you really aiming to serve? You will soon realize your goal isn't to please everyone. With a mission as broad as to be all things genealogical to all comers, you will find your group's limited resources will demand that you hone your focus. On the other hand, small groups can multiply their efforts by joining forces with other like-minded organizations. The need for such synergy means you'll have additional constituencies you hope will see your group as remarkable. But once again, no matter which partnerships your group enters into, the importance of that laser-like focus is essential. As Seth Godin noticed,
Your goal isn't to please everyone. Your goal is to please those that actually speak up, spread the word, buy new things or hire the talented.

What's the best thing you can be first at? And what are you risking to be bold, daring and different? Becoming a remarkable organization demands being an outlier instead of a centrist. Being one-of-many is forgettable. Your goal is to grab the attention of those who want to be winners, too. It is those who resonate with your energy who will turn around and convert others with their commitment to what you are doing.

Of course, for some, the question may be, "Do we need to become remarkable?" The pull of the status quo is so strong. After all, the realm of genealogy is firmly anchored within the milieu of tradition, forging an extra restraint to breaking loose of what may be dragging us down.

Yet even that is a crucial question to ask ourselves as part of genealogical societies—followed up by the more introspective, "Why or why not?" Perhaps this is even an invitation to go back and revisit those mission statements and goals incorporated into our founding documents from fifty, sixty or even over one hundred years ago. No matter what we do with these questions—perhaps they are left floating in the air, hanging over our heads like swords of an impending future—by intent or default, our societies will have to grapple with them at some point. Our organizational survival demands it.

Above: "On the Suffolk Coast," 1885 oil on canvas by Willard Metcalf; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. Your Society is blessed to have you as a Board Member! :)

    1. Thanks, Far Side. It's really a matter of feeling like being able to accomplish something worthwhile that is the motivator. I believe genealogical societies have such potential yet to come!


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