Genealogical Societies in the Time of the Pandemic

Originally posted on:
Facebook, The Genealogy Squad, 1 April 2020, “Genealogical Societies in the Time of Pandemic,” Jill Morelli, guest post.

I can brag to my husband about a new record set or a brick wall busted, but I “happy dance” alone! One of the major reasons I joined my local genealogical society is to enjoy the company of like minded individuals. It is fun to share our discoveries with genealogical buddies at the society meetings. But, what happens to the “place,” when the “place” can no longer be occupied?

We are told to stay home and our genealogical community can’t meet. Does our society no longer exist, because it doesn’t meet?

I am seeing some good coming out of this enforced isolation—societies are forced to embrace technology in ways they haven’t. Times like these are when urban planners plan, because they know things will turn and they want a plan in place when it does. This is the time when genealogical societies should be planning for the future, because we know things will change. The alternative is to put your society on hold until fall, and see if your members come back. Seattle Genealogical Society (SGS) is not waiting.

About five years ago, SGS tested incorporating some technological solutions to some of our programs and issues. We  came to this decision out of necessity—our annual budgets showed us spending more money than we were taking in, our membership had been dropping for years, and our volunteer base was aging. Sound familiar?

Under the pressure of budget problems those many years ago, the SGS Board and selected others  brainstormed ideas for increasing our income and decreasing our expenses. Every idea was put on the table. Some were implemented immediately, some were dropped and some resurrected themselves years later for re-consideration. (And, some were tried but didn’t work.)

Little did we know that by implementing those successful ideas we were positioning ourselves to be nimble in the time of the pandemic.

Here are some of our initiatives. Maybe some will work for you.

  • Embrace technology. SGS still accommodates those with no email by mailing a paper election ballot (we are down to just 25), and printing a few copies of our SGS Journal, but the assumption is we are going digital. SGS drastically cut the cost of the publication of our journal and mailings by going to an electronic system. Our bylaws had to change to allow electronic voting.
  • Our monthly Board meeting packets are now stored “in the cloud.” Nothing is emailed or mailed. While not an economic move, it saved human time in meeting preparation.
  • About five years ago we had a process audit and discovered that the committee couldn’t find our important documents! We found them, but it precipitated the concept of online storage. All our important papers and historical documents are in the cloud as well—insurance forms, tax forms, historical meeting notes. Even our first meeting minutes from 1923 are there! And they are all searchable using optical character recognition.
  • SGS started teaching one online course; we are up to three and hope to add a fourth soon. These have been a financial benefit to the society. While a fee is paid to the instructors and for expenses, most goes into the General Operating Fund. We would like this to expand.
  • We standardized our monthly member meetings at our facility with a program called Second Saturday. In the time of the coronavirus we are still meeting at the same time—just virtually. This was a free service then and continues. Standardization of the date was important to increase the attendance.
  • SGS communicates with the membership and our friends more frequently then we did a few years ago. Our free eNews!electronic newsletter is composed of happenings of SGS, genealogical tips and events around the Sound. We had a quarterly newsletter that was mailed to the membership. We now communicate with them a minimum of 2x/month, and even more during this sequestering. We have over 1000 individuals on the mailing list, and welcome you to join.
  • Seattle’s vehicular traffic is horrible and most people didn’t want to spend more time getting to and from a Board meeting than the Board meeting itself. We instituted an online option for board meetings. We have been able to seamlessly transition the entire Board to the online Board meeting.
  • Our website was antiquated and only one person knew how to update it. We tried to build one ourselves but that initiative “sagged under its own weight.” SGS paid for an off-the-shelf product for genealogical societies and has been satisfied. No one got all they wanted, but it is easy for our members and friends. The package included a membership and a library catalog component. We dropped our subscription to our stand-alone library package and ended up net zero on the cost for the website.
  • SGS became a FamilySearch affiliate a year ago and saw an uptick in visits to our library to use our computers (of course, now the library is closed). We think this will grow, post-personal lock down.
  • Our membership is growing, counter to trends for most societies.We are also seeing a younger audience at our seminars. I think it is because we have more virtual options and we are reaching out to them in new and different ways that fit with their schedules.
  • We continue to see usage of the books and access to the catalog of the society drop, yet we have one of our more active volunteer groups working tirelessly to catalog donations, and recommend purchases. While I have an increasing appreciation for the book collection, I wonder about its future.

After this is over, there will be a “new normal.” What it will be like, I don’t know, but it will reward the flexible. As we look to the future and as I step down from the presidency of SGS, here are some personal thoughts:

I believe some societies in our region are having problems, usually due to a lack of volunteers willing to assume leadership positions. This may result in some societies merging with others; some that disappear and some that decide to “hibernate”.

I believe that some people are “afraid” to assume leadership positions because they become positions for life—not healthy for any society. A graceful way out has to be provided by the society, not only to get new people on the Board, but to get new ideas percolating in the society. Sometimes “tough love” is the only way to do it.  If you have been in a single position for 10 years—quit! If the society wishes to survive it will. SGS has a three year graceful exit for all Board positions. It doesn’t always work, but it’s there.

If we are sincere about reaching out to younger members, we cannot hold our learning options (meetings, etc.) on Monday through Friday between 8-5.

If we want younger members on our Boards, we have to give them a virtual option.

Revisit your mission statement. You may find that it hinders you from looking forward or does not express the innovative society you are.

Keep it simple—the simpler the better. We know that for SGS to survive for the next 100 years we must focus on our volunteer’s ability to assume the responsibility of positions without a hitch.  There cannot be a huge learning curve upon takeover of any position and that includes operations, treasurer, membership, publications, etc.

It’s not all perfect at Seattle Genealogical Society, but we have balanced our budget, our membership is increasing and we have new volunteers in leadership positions. We look forward to our 100th anniversary in 2023 and are starting the planning now.

You may have members who are resistant to change, but you and other Board members know it is the right thing to do. See this as your opportunity.

Happy hunting!


What I have done since the last post: we are “sequestered in Seattle” but waiting for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan to show up!  I don’t know when this will be published and when it is this segment will be old.  I am working on a paper on Swedish emigrants, setting up for the next two Certification Discussion Group classes, figured out finally why a “behind a password” document was showing up on Google and cleaning out my desk drawers and my three-ring binders.



5 comments on “Genealogical Societies in the Time of the Pandemic

  1. Dorothy Nguyen-Graff says:

    Hi Jill
    I was wondering if you can talk to me son about his genealogy merit badge for Scouts BSA as a professional genealogist. You can contact me as Thank you. Dorothy

  2. Bend Genealogical Society (Bend, Oregon) says:

    Hi Jill,
    Your post is so timely right now for making decisions to change genealogical society practices. One sentence really caught my eye concerning SGS changes: “And, some were tried, but didn’t work.” I would love to hear about what didn’t work to perhaps save my genealogical society from heading down a rabbit hole that had a dead end. Thank you for this post, Sandy Thompson, Treasurer

    • Jill Morelli says:

      I might just blog about that—there were not too many of them, and some might have been of bad timing and not bad concept. Some were–we were slow to make the change and should have done it sooner. Nothing “fatal.”

  3. […] response to the previous blog post, a reader asked me to elaborate on what programs Seattle Genealogical Society (SGS) started that […]

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