To Dues or Not To Dues: that should be the question.
Belonging to a society, was very important throughout much of American history. The organizations you belonged to added prestige to your resume and announced to the world those things which were most important to you. But
long gone are the days when people would pay annual membership dues simply to belong to some group simply to have their name on that membership roll.
Today, a Genealogical society will retain only a few renewing members because “they’ve always been a member.” People are less interesting in joining something, less interested in social group interaction, and less interested in volunteering their time for a cause.
People today will readily join a Genealogical society if they perceive that it will provide valuable information in their personal quest to find their own ancestors. Local data online, and perhaps local training, are of primary interest. The problem remains that there needs to be a good group of committed volunteers to compile and distribute that information, and the membership dues generally become access fees to cover the cost of keeping the data online. Without volunteers there be no data, and with no data there will be no perceived value to entice new members.
For many societies, perhaps the best solution would be to get rid of the time-worn paid membership model. Email newsletters put an end to printing and mailing costs, and without rigid societal organization there is generally little financial requirement to keep things going. These smaller societies should at least consider whether requiring paid membership is limiting their effectiveness and working against their greater purpose.
Perhaps a society would be best served by offering free, unpaid membership, seeking to connect every genealogy enthusiast in the area. By vastly increasing its membership in this way, they are able to communicate with everyone who has an interest, to appeal to everyone to participate in individual and group projects, and to encourage and educate many more people in the genealogical arts. When there is a financial need, an appeal can be made to a larger group of people who may choose to contribute without the forced constraint of dues.
To many of us who have appreciated and participated in the traditional genealogical society, this might mean giving up monthly meetings, bylaws and traditions, and self-perpetuating committees. The reward will be less rigidity, more adaptability, more connection with all members of the genealogical community, and greater opportunity to garner participation in specific projects.
If your society is finding membership dues to be a successful model, keep up the great work. But if your society is struggling to remain viable in the current culture, perhaps re-thinking your society structure would be an option to consider instead of making the final decision to disband. The society is just as important today as it historically has always been; however, how it fulfills its mission will need to change in the days ahead.