Demographics. When I looked around at the people who, like me, were representing various volunteer associations -- local museums and historical societies -- once again I was one of the youngest and healthiest people in attendance. That shouldn't be true. I'm a fat, out of shape 68-year-old geezer. But most of the other attendees were in their 70s and 80s. I felt downright youthful in comparison. One lady got up when we did brief reports on what was happening with our groups to brag -- brag!! -- about the fact the four officers for her group ranged in age from 78 to 94 but they were still doing more than the younger people.
Holy wah. Bragging about the fact your officers are all teetering on the edge of the grave doesn't strike me as being much of a positive. I know involvement in historical societies does tend to be something that people dive deeper into when they retire, but even so. . . no one lives forever. You shouldn't have a group where a majority of the members are using canes or dragging little oxygen canisters around. Yes, it's great to stay active as long as possible, but there has to be a younger generation involved, too. Multiple younger generations, in fact. People across a wide age range, not just old folks who can wax nostalgic about the first time they saw Elvis (Presley, not Costello) on tv or how much they loved watching Crusader Rabbit.
The Big Question is, of course, how do you recruit them? Sometimes there are structural reasons for an organization having a membership cohort that all falls within the same fairly narrow demographic window. The Baraga County Historical Society is a classic example of an organization that screwed up back in the 1960s when it didn't build a requirement for turnover among its officers into its constitution. Anytime an organization allows the same person to serve as president indefinitely, that organization has basically signed its own death warrant. It just doesn't know it. No turnover in leadership equals stagnation; stagnation is a slow death.
Then when you add in the fact that way too often and hand in hand with the no turnover at the top, there's active discouragement of new ideas it's easy to see why organizations have aging memberships. That is, all too often younger generations have been chased away by older members who can be more tenacious about clinging to the illusion of power or control than a banana republic dictator denying the existence of the mob howling outside the palace doors. The group's elders shoot down proposals ("We can't do that. We tried that once, and it didn't work"), resist new ways of doing things ("Facebook? We don't need to be on Facebook"), and occasionally have a bad habit of talking loudly about how their particular organization wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for their own heroic efforts. You want to turn prospective members off fast? Be a martyr. (This is advice I need to follow myself; it's a real easy pattern to fall into.)
I heard examples of all three Kiss of Death behaviors at the conference: the president of one historical society pooh-poohing the efforts of younger members to establish a presence in social media, a director for another complaining about newer members who want to hold events or collaborate with other groups that she knows will fail because they tried it once 20 years ago and it didn't go well, and a whole bunch of people doing the "I'm indispensable" speech. Christ on a crutch, ladies. No one is indispensable. If you were abducted by aliens tomorrow, you'd be missed, but life would go on. If you really cared, instead of nattering on and on about how the organization would curl up and die if you weren't there you should be making sure that when you do get hit by a bus no one gets stuck wondering what the password is for the computer or where to find the key to the post office box.
So how do you get organizations to change that have trapped themselves in a death spiral by failing to recruit younger members? Good question. We're slowly rebuilding our local historical society -- we have significantly more members now than we did when I joined in 2012, our profile is creeping back up locally -- but we still don't have nearly enough younger, active members. We are on Facebook, but really should be doing Instagram, too, and our website needs to be rebuilt. We need more bodies, and we need more people who are able and willing to take on leadership roles. And for sure we need to revise our constitution to make sure that once we have more members, we have more turnover. No matter how nice, talented, or enthusiastic a person is, no one should end up being the Society's president for more than two decades ever again.