11 October 2011

Volunteering Outside the Box

As members of the Ontario Genealogical Society should be aware, the lack of volunteers to run the Society and the branches is reaching a critical stage. Three of the ten Directors positions on the OGS Board are vacant and two positions are filled by Past Presidents. In Ottawa Branch, the Chair, Treasurer, Secretary and Program Coordinator positions are empty and many of the other directors have served for long times. I was Chair for almost eight years because we could not find anyone willing to take on the role (and still cannot). Most other branches are in similar situations.

Despite these opportunities, many of the four thousand members of the Society seem to be willing to sit back and hope somebody else will do the job. I am sure that some of them are involved in other organizations and others have done their time with the Society. But groups like OGS need volunteers to operate. There are a few paid staff at the Provincial Office but we cannot afford to have all the work done by them. As a result, tasks are falling through the cracks and the remaining volunteers are getting tired of doing extra work.

I am not a great one for looking outside the box but perhaps there are other ways to handle some of these jobs. In Ottawa, we have one volunteer who lives in Hamilton and handles our publicity for us. We are hoping to hold at least some of our Board meetings on line, so that some of the volunteers would not have to live in the area. OGS has already done this with Executive meetings to save on travel costs.

I know that some branches have two or more people handling one task. At least one branch has co-chairs, so that they need only do part of the work. Another has a snowbird for a Chair, and others fill in when she is away for the winter. Others have committees so that they can share the work of producing the newsletter or arranging the meetings. There are probably other ideas for handling the work that needs to be done.

I have talked to some branches about sharing their workload but have yet to see this put into practice. Could one person do the same task for a couple of branches? With the use of e-mail and on-line meetings, I don’t see why not? It would mean more work for that person but not necessarily twice the workload, as there should be some overlap.

Consider what will happen to you if the Branch disappears? Or even the Society? What will you lose? What will you miss? How will it impact on your research and your enjoyment of the hobby? Will you do anything to prevent this? Do you have any ideas to help out? Let me know at pastchair@ogsottawa.on.ca


  1. Mike, I have to wonder why Provincial requires 11 possible but actually 10 Regions especially in light of the fact that 2 of the 3 regions currently without a regional director have 1 and 2 branches only. This seems like a heavy burden to put onto very few branches. Most other regions have from 3-5 with one region having only 1 branch. Although widespread geographically, it seems that Regions IX, X, and XI are all connected, representing Northern Ontario.

    Instead of jealously defending their territory, the branches need to start seeing themselves as part of the same family - sharing and pooling their resources.

    I constantly hear OGS members asking why the largest amount of money goes to Provincial and yet it is the Branches that are expected to work hardest for us. Perhaps Provincial should lead the way in making themselves leaner and meaner and help to fund branches to do the same.

    Provincial could negotiate a bulk purchase rate for Branches to purchase the equipment and software required to move into the technology age. Even better would be if, as a non-profit organization, Provincial were to approach some of the manufacturers and/or distributors for equipment donation?

    Just my humble opinion. I like the social aspect of my local Branch but I want more out of my distant Branches than just a newsletter every 4 months and sometimes a members only area on the website.

    In addition, we cannot expect that each and every branch as the technically savy people to make these things happen.

    Rather than more Regional Directors and the related expenses, we need a full-time paid technical person who job is to assist the Branches.

    Just my humble opinion but my 2011 dues were $168 with all the branches I joined. My decision for my 2012 dues will largely be driven by their remote accessibility and I mean more than just a webpage that tells me the date and time of monthly meetings and the names of the executive.

  2. Barbara, there was a review a few years ago that concluded we needed to keep the same structure but OGS will be looking into the structure of the Board, including the number of directors in the near future. Although I have not been around from the first days, I believe the structure was based on the need to communicate with the branches when all we had was phone and postal mail. However, I still believe that we need to ensure communications in both directions between the members and the Board. And despite the electronic age, face to face often works best.

    Regional directors are supposed to visit each of their branches at least twice per year, once for a general meeting and once for an executive. As Director of Region VIII, it is two hours each way to get to Kingston Branch, which is not a lot of found to attend an evening executive meeting. Travel up north is even more difficult, which is likely why the northern regions have a smaller number of branches. Does it still make sense? The new LiveMeeting capability may be the solution and bring the costs down.

    I agree with your comment about the territorial nature of the branches. In fact, in some cases, the branches are actually working against the Society. WE ARE ONE SOCIETY but many don't seem to think that way. What would happen if the Society folded? How many branches would be able to continue to operate as "independent" organizations. How much of than money that goes to OGS actually comes back to members in support?

    You have some good ideas for what the Society could be doing but remember that the Society consist of one full time employee, three part time and the Board (which as you mentioned is short several members). I recently read about a presentation by David Rencher at the FGS Conference where he urged groups to reduce costs by relying on volunteers. How do we do that when we cannot get volunteers? In my eight years as Chair of Ottawa branch, I was constantly approached by members who wanted somebody else to do a project. I can only think of one case where the member actually agreed to take on the project herself and that was a year later.

    We are ONE Society and we will only be as good as our members make it. I am glad to see that you have provide some input and I know that you are active. But a review of the Ottawa branch membership shows barely 16% have ever volunteered for the Branch. Sad.

  3. Diana Thomson, Member #22917March 20, 2012 at 1:52 PM

    Thanks, Mike for raising the alarm. Something decisive must be done very soon to address this situation.
    I have no doubt that our present structure served both OGS and its Branches well in the past but I believe it is now working against us. It requires each Branch to duplicate all the functions necessary to carry out operations. This arrangement isn't sustainable in today's environment. Any company allowing its branches to operate like this would quickly go bankrupt.
    The present structure requires a significant volunteer workforce given the duplication of effort. As you point out we are experiencing a shortage of people willing to do volunteer work. This phenomenon is being experienced by other groups as well. We have to adjust to this reality.
    In order to sustain their operations, Branches presently need to charge membership and other fees. This scenario has surely contributed to a 'distancing' between OGS and branches. It also adds to an already high membership fee, especially for members with ancestors scattered all over Ontario.I have no doubt that some prospective members decide against joining because of this.
    Ideally, OGS members should have access to all the resources of every Branch. Only then will people feel we are ONE society.
    What if we had a technically very well-equipped workforce, both paid and volunteer, which fulfilled those particular Branch functions that could be done 'centrally'? I'm thinking of printing, mailing,technical support, webinars and so on. (Much of the workforce, particularly the volunteer component, could be located anywhere with the appropriate know-how and equipment, saving on rent and travel costs.) Precious volunteer hours would also be saved, reducing burnout in long-standing volunteers and leaving volunteers at the local level to concentrate on tasks that need to be carried out locally - cemetery transcriptions as an example.
    Please note that the above are my personal views. I will raise this subject with the Toronto Branch Executive and Council and alert you to their comments and suggestions. Hopefully your blog will start a lively and constructive debate amongst members.