Society Spotlight: Volunteers, Skills, and Big Ideas

SOCIETY SPOTLIGHT: Today is the final part of the blogging theme of history societies, and I now explore ways that you can get involved, or ways for societies to overcome their hurdles.

In this, the final part of my Society Spotlight series of blog posts, I look back on the last five posts, and try to conclude and speculate on the future of our history societies based on their answers.

Photograph of maps, documents and a magnifying glass
Photo: Andrew Martin.


Q1. What is the Society’s biggest need?

For the first question, all three Societies were pretty much united in their answer. Their biggest need is people.

Societies rely on the time and expertise of those who can spare even just an hour a month, through to those who can offer a more regular amount of time. Not only does this volunteering offer skills to a society, but often those skills have value to the volunteer – particularly if they are looking to build their CV. Volunteers help societies to develop, and ultimately work more efficiently, and actively contribute to their evolution. Without those people who give their time for free, some societies may end up lost forever, along with all that they worked to achieve.

In the words of Lisa Newman from The Cambridgeshire Family History Society:

“Our biggest need is to encourage the next generation so that we maintain interest in the future in order to fund projects that preserve original material.”

Where do volunteers come from?

I’m pretty sure that the societies are being pro-active in seeking volunteers, but where might they be advertising? Word or mouth? Events? Their own publications? Perhaps even the media or online?

Volunteers can come from anywhere, and all will have their own interest area, so it can be hard to advertise generally when there are so many nuances that might be the hook to bring someone into helping.

Some volunteers might like to have a firm idea of what they might be doing before they offer themselves up. A few years back, I was working for a charity, and needed about 2-3 days per week help when my workload escalated. I worked alone and we didn’t have the skills in-house, so I wrote a ‘job’ description but for a volunteer, that clearly outlined the type of work they’d be doing and roughly how much time per week this amounted to (although I was clear that it could be flexible). We advertised it through the local business network community and a few local job (online and offline) boards. Within a couple of weeks, and after holding an informal ‘interview’ to work out whether there was a match of interests, the volunteer began working alongside me – they were perfect for the role. She eventually went on to take over my paid role after i left.

Some kind of structure at the outset, helps to give a volunteer a sense of purpose and a goal. If they’re just to do bits and bobs here and there, it might not be so appealing (although that approach might work for some too), as they won’t be able to see where or how their contribution fits in to the overall goals and aims of the society. By giving a volunteer a sense of purpose and responsibility, it can surely only help to keep them happy and interested.

For a bigger and fuller-time society, it might be an option to offer an internship – paying expenses in return for their time (during which they’ll pick up skills), but there’s probably a few legal hoops to jump through with that one, so worth checking before you leap into that.

Q2. What is the Society’s biggest challenge?

It would seem that awareness is the biggest challenge, again for all three societies, and particularly when pitching alongside the behemoths of online genealogy – Ancestry, FamilySearch, MyHeritage, FindMyPast etc.

Finding that niche

Societies hold a vast amount of information around their focussed locale, occupation, surname etc, and these often take the form of personal stories and amateur family histories, family trees, film and audio material that’s been donated to them, physical objects relating to their focus, and a wealth of other gems that hold an important but niche connection to the society’s focus.

Such niche gems are unlikely to be as desirable for the larger websites – who are trying to cater for a wide online audience, and make money from subscriptions by digitising desirable historic ephemera.

The stories from people such as this member of the Women’s Land Army may provide societies with their niche. Photo: JamesGardinerCollection via CreativeCommons.

The written history of say, Albert the coal delivery man, or Judith the land girl, might be an incredibly useful historical record of culture, occupation, locale, but of little interest to a wider audience.

My own personal opinion here, is that societies need to focus on finding their niche – something that’s popular and that they can easily handle/facilitate. Maybe it’s events and lectures, or maybe it’s the wealth of these unique records/objects, that are not found elsewhere, and using every PR opportunity to shout about themselves and what they do, in a bid to gain new members and raise awareness of the society.

In the words of Abbie Black from The Society of Genealogists;

“The biggest challenge for a genealogical society is that people are not aware of the vast amount of services a society can provide for members.”

Looking up census returns, family tree research services, and parish records, have all been wonderfully done in the past, but with these large online genealogy sites taking these activities to just a couple of clicks away, I feel that these unique items are the niche, and a society needs to capitalise on them now, and make them accessible and relevant to their niche audience.

Check out this innovative and brilliant example of a one-family-centric reunion event – that was packed with information and was so personal to a smaller group of people. Perhaps a more personal touch to events might help boost societies too?

Q3. How does the Society plan to preserve its knowledge for the future?

This question gave the most mixed answers.

Thankfully, all three society representatives showed that their societies have a plan to preserve their work so that our history can continue to exist in the future. Whether this is by their own pro-active programme of evolution (like the Society of Genealogists or Cambridgeshire Family History Society), or more eventual, by depositing its records and data with another larger society (the Newman Name Society).

defunct formats
Updating technologies will be one way of preserving history for the future. Photo: Andrew Martin.

In yesterday’s posting the Channel Islands Family History Society commented that utilising technology will be one way to keep a society up to speed with the bigger more well-known genealogy organisations/services.

How can we help history societies focus on the future?

Thinking back to the society that Linda McCauley talked of, it may have been that the society had grown out of a labour of love, or maybe it was just too hard to find anyone else who was genuinely interested in (or able to) help.

Geek Taming

If your society is pondering what to do with it’s data or has a technical conundrum, then there are ways to get this moving. It might cost a little, but think of it as an investment into your data or website that would bring it forward and help you and your society be more visible, and ultimately gain members, and funds.

One society that I know (I won’t reveal their name), has a large database of their member’s trees – packed with information. But the database was custom written in what is now old tech called MS DOS which was discontinued in 2000, and the person who wrote the database is sadly no longer alive. The legacy of this is, whilst the data is there and perfectly useable – it relies on an older PC to run it, and it is currently locked in time – without the skills available to unpick it, and export the data into something more modern. It also means that events rely on that old PC being transported to venues in order to delve into their database.

If you’re stuck for the free help of volunteers, a solution might come in the form of outsourcing that through sites like and, where you can identify the job you need undertaking, and then allow people to bid for the work. You can then choose the best deal, and they’ll do the work for you. Each freelancer has a rating – much like sellers on eBay – so you can see which bidder is the most reliable and best for your budget and job.

Another solution, might be to pitch your tech problem (if it’s like the example I gave above) to your local college, to give them a real project to work on. This will give valuable experience to the students, a great PR opportunity for the college, and may well solve the issue.

Locally to me, there’s many active MeetUp groups, one of which where individuals can pitch to a wide range of other experts including developers, copywriters, and designers, in a bid to get them interested in your project.

If you’re stuck for budget for your big development, crowdsourcing might be the answer. It has been highly successful – funding films, music albums, books, apps and all kinds of things through sites like Kickstarter or IndieGogo – where members of the international public can give money to projects they like, often in return for some small incentive (perhaps a free family tree search by one of your members?)

Society Spotlight – and that’s a wrap!

Hopefully some of these ideas will give you inspiration to either join a society, or if you are a society, to find the help you need to keep preserving our heritage for generations to come.

Thank you for the feedback this week, and for all the readers, and sharers of the blog posts. I hope that you have enjoyed my Society Spotlight theme, and perhaps have now become inspired to offer some of your time and/or expertise to a history society local to you, or at the very least, become a member.

Of course, I’d like to say a big thank you to Else Churchill and Abbie Black of The Society of Genealogists, Robert Newman of The Newman Name Society, Muriel Halliday and Lisa Newman of The Cambridgeshire Family History Society, and Linda McCauley. Without their willingness and openness, this series of posts would not have been possible. I hope that my week of blog posts will, in some way, help to bring new opportunities to our beloved history societies.


Society Spotlight: How can we help history societies focus on the future?

Every day this week, I’m focusing on History Societies. Three societies have each kindly answered three questions, and I’ll be covering their answers that reveal their needs, challenges, and plans for survival.

I’m a supporter of history societies. I think they’re great resources, and that they play a very important role in preserving and sharing information to communities. However, these treasure troves of information face a real risk without a healthy long-term plan of survival.

Whilst talking with genealogist Linda McCauley a few weeks ago, she recalled a story of a  society in the US that has nearly been wiped out after the recent death of its treasurer. The treasurer had pretty much run the society single-handedly and was the only person who knew where the membership list was kept. Now, that society faces a bleak future unless the list is found by the grieving family when their home is cleared. If not, it brings an end to the individual’s dedicated hard work for which they surely must have hoped would have a long-lasting legacy.

Genealogist Linda McCauley
Genealogist Linda McCauley.

“It’s so easy today for a society to back-up their critical information. All it takes is a few files stored online and multiple officers with the ID and password to access them” – Linda McCauley.

This story struck a chord with me and got me thinking – how can we help history societies survive?

Hold on, why should we help history societies?

Societies are often run by volunteers, and with little or no funding behind them. This means that they rely on the donations from members, events, making a profit on their publications, and membership subscriptions. It also means that they don’t necessarily have the funding to digitise their archive, or to put it securely online for people to browse (or even just to digitally preserve, and/or put a searchable index online).

The kind of records that societies hold varies considerably, but often include items that are otherwise ignored by the larger organisations that have the monopoly on digitizing records and making available online – items include items such as personal collections from local people, self-published family stories, one-off types of items, personal photograph collections, and many other types. These records are likely to be ‘small fry’ for the likes of Ancestry, FindMyPast, Genes Reunited etc, as they won’t have such a wide appeal, and therefore won’t be the money-spinner worth investing in. One society I know, holds their parish gravedigger’s note book, which alongside the parish register, provides a useful corroborative record of burials.

How do history societies want to be helped?

The best way to know the answer to this is to ask them. So I contacted five different UK-based societies to see how they would answer three questions.  Three have replied since I contacted them back on 29th June 2013. The respondent three were:

  • The Society of Genealogists – a large genealogy society which holds the largest collection of parish records and is based in London. It is widely known and visible through the events and training courses that it organises, and appearances on television.
  • The Cambridgeshire Family History Society – a county-wide family and local history society in England, with a wide range of publications, international members, and support courses.
  • The Newman Name Society – a member of the Guild Of One-Name Studies (GOONS), and the first family history society I ever joined, almost 20 years ago.

I asked each of them the same three questions, and for the next five days i’ll be sharing their answers to each question in turn, and looking at ways that you can help your local society, or the society local to your ancestors. The questions were:

  1. What is the society’s biggest need?
  2. What is the society’s biggest challenge?
  3. How does the society plan to preserve its knowledge for the future?

I hope that you will find this series of posts interesting, and perhaps find it inspiring enough to contact your local society and offer them even just a few hours of your time and/or expertise, or at least become a member to help fund them.

If you’re a member of a society already, or already helping a society in some capacity, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below (and feel free to post a link to their website!). Let’s promote them!

Come back tomorrow when I’ll be talking about the death of a family history society.

Video: What’s Up Genealogy – Episode 11 with Andrew Martin

Catch up with my interview on episode 11 of the What’s Up Genealogy? show.

Last night I was the guest on What’s Up Genealogy? show – broadcast live via Google Hangout Air and streamed straight through to YouTube.

The show is hosted on US Central Time from Texas, meaning that whilst the show goes out each Friday at 8pm, for me here in the UK on BST this was a 2am slot. Fuelled entirely on extra strong tea, I was able to take part. I might even have been coherent – i’ll let you be the judge…

Presented by professional genealogist Caroline Pointer, and in the company of regular expert panel members Linda McCauley, Tessa Keough, Jerry Kocis and Gena Philibert-Ortega, I joined the panel to talk genealogy news and tips before going under the spotlight.

We covered the ‘controversial’ subject of the death of Ancestry Old Search – a topic that flared up on social media immediately after it was announced (check out Dick Eastman’s article on it). We also talked about the death of Google Reader and the rise of Feedly, and I talked about the importance of family/local history societies.

Let me know what you think. You can catch the rest of the episodes over at the show’s YouTube channel.

Interview on What’s Up Genealogy? Live show this Friday

Andrew Martin will be interviewed live on Friday 8pm CDT for episode 11 of What’s Up Genealogy? show.

I’ll be beaming live on Friday/Saturday, as I take part in a live video interview with the What’s Up Genealogy? show.

What's Up Genealogy? advert

I’m really looking forward to it, having watched the show evolve from it’s weekly 20 min format of its first episode, through to last week’s episode (over 1 hour, episode 10, and the first of its second series).

Led by Caroline Pointer of, and packed with tips, news, and a mighty slice of tech, I’ll be joining Caroline and fellow panelists Tessa Keough, Linda McCauley, Jerry Kocis, and Gena Philibert-Ortega to talk about researching genealogy, including my experiences of doing that in the UK.

You can catch it live at 8pm CDT tomorrow/2am BST Saturday, or watch it on YouTube afterwards, by going to the What’s Up Genealogy? show channel.

For a taster of what to expect, here’s last week’s episode, with guest Tina Lyons.