Sometimes, our strongest suits can also turn out to become our greatest weaknesses. This past week, I had two experiences which prompted some meditation on that paradox. Both kept calling me back for later reflection. And both grew out of meetings with our local genealogical society.
Local genealogical societies are facing a thrive-or-demise turning point. Those who are involved in leadership of these societies have seen that situation looming for years. The pandemic has not helped—although, hey: our meeting attendance numbers could have done a deep dive now without that worldwide excuse. As "next gen" genealogy advocates have been telling us, what we do as societies needs to keep better pace with the world's changes and family history practitioners' current needs.
Many local genealogical organizations began with a worthy mission: to preserve their locale's history, particularly through the use of locally-generated records. When many local government agencies in the past century may have viewed that "outdated" paperwork as an encumbrance—and I know; our county's record storage was, in some cases, abysmal—genealogical societies made it their mission to catalog, index, or transcribe the information gleaned from those crumbling, decaying records.
That's where our strength came in. We burrowed deep into the catacombs of government, church, and other organizational records and extracted material that we could then network with others to share with those seeking answers concerning their family's past. With the advent of technological aids, we became even more proficient at preserving and passing along what we had rescued. Our freedom-of-information spirit predated that of this era's government-mandated legislation. We were among the forerunners of preservation programs, even if we were more like mom-and-pop enterprises than big-business powerhouses.
We—and I use that term quite generally—were some of the first to marry the ideas of historic preservation and cutting edge technology. Some of us, standing on the shoulders of those local organizations, coalesced with other organizations and the promise of new tech to try out fresh ideas: why not copy actual records and enable access to those records using computers? Why not encourage networking of family tree discoveries?
Eventually, the best and brightest of us assembled information domains—unparalleled and widely-accessible opportunities for researchers to access what they had been seeking (in some cases, for years). But with that strength, the unspoken question became: why rely on local organizations to continue making document search-and-rescue a cornerstone of their mission? The strength of our best and brightest, while helpful in unparalleled magnitudes, became the weakness of those whose shoulders they once stood upon.
That same aggregating process followed in the realm of genealogical education. If local societies included education and training in their mission, the organizing and aggregating efforts of bigger entities could, of course, do things faster, bigger, better. Why pay $25 for yearly dues to a local genealogical society when you could enjoy world class training resources for a full twelve months, accessible twenty four hours a day online, for barely more than the cost of local membership?
The bottom line becomes: the strengths we once had have inspired the bigger and better innovations made by others, carving out the core of our mission and leaving us less effective, less pertinent. Why bother having a volunteer-operated local genealogical organization at all? There will always be someone else who can offer the same services our local missions statement addresses for less cost and better coverage.
The answer to that question, thankfully, was the gift I received this past week from the words of members at two local society meetings. Let me describe these two very different gatherings and what happened to provide such inspiration.
The first was an impromptu gathering of about twenty of our local members. The meeting came about because one member who recently joined our society felt the need to meet other members face to face. She had joined our organization after we had been through nearly three full years of online meetings due to precautions required by the pandemic. Seeing thumbnail-sized pictures of each attendee's face was not enough for this woman; she wanted to meet in person, and asked our board to put together something—anything—to allow new members to get to know our regulars.
Since our organization traditionally takes the summer months off from our meeting schedule, we decided last week would be a good time to beta test her idea. Flash meeting: we sent out an email blast to let members know the date, time and place and gathered for coffee, come whoever may.
Despite having a deep drop in membership since the beginning of the pandemic (except for picking up several long-distance members thanks to online meetings), nearly twenty highly-energized members showed up at the appointed time to get re-acquainted with each other and meet our newest members. The agenda was open; no official speakers or topics. No one even needed to talk about genealogy.
Out of that session came such a burst of energy—and a volley of great ideas. What if we tried this new activity? How about participating in this specific local event as a community outreach? And, surprise: did your family come from that same town in Oklahoma? Or marry someone with my family's surname?
The meeting also became a time for true confessions. Members shared that desire to learn more about their roots, something they discovered from the very first moment, as some put it, that the "bug" bit them to delve into researching their own family. Finding a document or getting a chance to travel to an ancient homeland might have been the initiating call, but when Life happens, these members noticed, sometimes the symptoms from that bug's bite wax and wane. They always could count on the desire coming back at the right time—and knowing that our organization would always be there to inspire and shape them, once they had that opportunity to renew their research passion.
Organic growth, as I've learned from a different field of inquiry, can be the best kind of organizational development. And this non-organized event became the Petri dish for some beneficial growth and badly-needed dose of administrative energy for our burned-out board members. Our members took ownership of their own organization and, while still shunning those dreaded mantles of responsibility, were quite pleased to offer their ideas and assistance. We all realized we needed that boost. We needed to take back one of our organization's true strengths from those echoes of the pandemic still taunting us: the strengths of our members. Our organization evolves—and thus, ultimately informs our mission statement—according to the current needs of the members who continue to bring it into existence.
Organizations are a living, breathing entity. That is their strength. The more we realize that need of organizations to morph to fit the form of the people who power it, the better we become at continuing to grow our own local society. Just like those living, breathing organizations, though, we need to realize one additional weakness: organizations, like individuals, can die. And that became the second of the inspirations I gained from last week's society engagements.
The week started off with our society's monthly board meeting. We have a cordial board composed of long-standing members who are, at this point, frankly burned out with the roles they've taken on behalf of the organization. Though we can write off that problem with excuses like "the pandemic" or "nobody steps up to run for office"—I'm sure your group has a long list of such mantras—the fact is, whether through forced attrition (the only reason one president "stepped down" from her office was because she unexpectedly died during her service) or a strictly-enforced term limits policy, without willing members, the organization will die. That is our weakness.
That thought apparently weighed heavily on one of our board members who, at last week's board meeting, expressed that concern. In our group's case, that is a gravely heavy concern. We have a term limits policy outlined in our bylaws, instituted by a previous administration which sought to use that stipulation as a way to force members to take their turn at the helm. In normal years, the usual influx of new members, year after year, might have provided the willing talent to step up to those board positions and thus avert any organizational demise. But not with the last three years our group has been having.
In a heartfelt outline of concerns, this board member's bottom line was: "I don't want to see this group die." This group is important to members, enough for those who can to push the limits to make happen the efforts needed to preserve stability through rough times.
While the thoughts expressed were cogent—and the feelings genuine and resonant—that episode in our recent board meeting ricocheted through my mind in the following days for yet another reason. Having stepped up to share feelings on the meaning and importance of the group, that board member staked a claim of joint ownership: an intention to do what it takes to allow this organization to continue so others in the future can, at some point, become part of us when the connection is right. When the "bug" bites and the need to learn or to share or to contribute finds its right time and place, we still need to have that living organization there to meet those renewed members.
That claim of joint ownership—being a part of what gives a group a future—is itself an expression of strength. It is a sign that someone thinks this organization needs to continue not only having a reason to exist, but an imperative to fill a needed role that others, too, will value. It is a pledge for the future, that others will agree with us that it's important to keep the organization alive, not just to drag existence further into the future, but because the organization becomes a symbol of the integral essence joining the organization's purpose with our individual meaning. When a group's meaning is married to what helps us as individuals thrive and self-actualize, that infuses the organization with the strength it needs to continue.