I’m not happy today to be removing this membership symbol from my website and mention of the organisation from my LinkedIn page. No, I haven’t left the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors (ISFHWE). No, they haven’t kicked me out. Instead, they’ve closed up shop – permanently!
This institution within genealogy began life in May 1987 at an NGS Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. Initially it was called the Council of Genealogy Columnists but in May 2000 it became ISFHWE. It functioned as a support and networking organisation for writers on the subject, whether amateur or professional. Though its members primarily were from the USA, I felt it was worthwhile to get involved, partly for myself but also partly to support a body serving the specific area of genealogical writing. I joined in 2014.
In five and a half years of membership I had minimal involvement in the organisation, but I got the impression that most other members weren’t any more active. I did try to recruit a few members in my circle and one colleague joined. In the hope of encouraging some others to consider membership, I wrote an article for CONNECT – the online newsletter for AGI and ASGRA. These are the organisations that provide credentials for Irish and Scottish professional genealogists.
The article was about ISFHWE and a similar organisation which supports lecturers, the Genealogical Speakers Guild. I requested permission to use the symbols of both organisations as illustrations, seeing as I was trying to expand their membership. The then President of the Guild (of which I was not a member) readily agreed; the President of ISFHWE declined. Today I’m using it as a memorial of a dead society, without permission from anyone, as no one has the authority to stop me.
I have every sympathy for people who are trying to keep voluntary organisations going. Everywhere in the world, and in all types of pursuits, clubs and societies are run by a small band of people who find it hard to motivate others to get involved. I’m sure those running ISFHWE found it difficult in recent times. According to a comment I read just last night on the ISFHWE Facebook group, the organisation ‘struggled to remain viable, but just couldn’t thrive financially’. Was that the only, or main, reason for it to stop functioning?
As a member, I’m left wondering. There was no rumour, no hint, no discussion about disbanding. On 23 May I received the ISFHWE online quarterly newsletter, Columns, by email with the subject line declaring ‘Final Issue’. The email itself informed me that the issue included messages ‘regarding information on the dissolution of our Society’. That’s how I heard of it! The website (which was to disappear yesterday) had a notice on its homepage last night stating: The board members and staff regretfully announce that, as of 15 April 2020, the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors no longer exists as an active society. Looking at the Facebook group, I found a post, dated 18 May, saying ‘Fellow ISFHWE members – our Society is closing down’.
I’m baffled, and I don’t believe I’m the only one. There was some talk a while ago about needing to increase the annual membership subscription. This seemed like a reasonable idea, as the existing fee was small anyway. If finances were the only concerns they could have been addressed through consultation with members. Presumably there were other considerations, but if I were in charge of an organisation that was in danger of disbanding I would feel it incumbent on me to inform the membership of the possibility and provide the opportunity to turn things around.
There were approximately 140 members listed on the website last night. If they were told that there was a crisis and that a recruitment drive was needed to save the society, I’m sure at least some would have responded. They might have had ideas on how to make the organisation more vibrant. They might have decided to volunteer to help in practical terms.
One thing I would have suggested would have been to restructure the board of directors. The organisation had five officers but the rest of the board was made up of six regional representatives. Five of those regions were in the USA. The sixth represented the entire world outside the United States. From my time as a member I gathered that some of those regional seats were regularly uncontested. If they were not tied to geographical locations there might have been people from other regions willing to serve.
But it’s gone now – consigned to history – the only organisation of which I was a member that was dissolved without the members being informed. On 23 May I was told that the funeral had taken place, rather than being warned that the death was imminent. Do I sound tetchy? Certainly I’m sad, and I’m aggrieved that I wasn’t given the chance to help.
I would like to acknowledge the volunteerism that made ISFHWE work for over three decades and to thank Mark Beasley and Tina Sansone, two of the people who were helpful to me during the few years I was a member.
I'm a genealogist by profession, with credentials from AGI. I also dabble in local history and the history of Irish golfers, and I'm always writing something!