Friday, August 6, 2010

My Thoughts On The ABA

I’d like to add one more voice to the chorus of thoughts and observations offered recently in discussions about the ABA on the Web and through the BirdChat listserv.

I come to the discussion from a different perspective. My name is Jann Dorothy. I am a decades-long recreational birding enthusiast. Some of you may know me as BirdGalAlcatraz on Twitter and Facebook. I’m not a scholar, nor a scientist. I don’t have a lengthy life list. But I may well represent the vast majority of birding enthusiasts – a sizeable number – who do not have a history with the ABA. And I believe that these people hold the key to the ABA’s future. It’s pretty simple; one just needs to do the math.

Hundreds of heartfelt and well-reasoned observations have been made public over the last few weeks from both notable and not-so- well-known voices in the birding community. This is a summary of the recurrent themes:

• The ABA has had a long and distinguished history, but also has had its share of missteps. Some people fear for the future of the organization.

• There is a deep well of pride and nostalgia for the ABA. But there is concern that in today's fast-moving world, competition from Internet venues and other recreational pursuits for the same dollar presents challenges to the idea of “membership."

• There seems to be a lack of consensus of the ABA’s mission: recurring conservation vs. recreation discussions that are inherently circular. Mission creep often hampers organizations where such discussions can become dominant.

While many have expressed ideas about what the ABA should do in the future, few have felt qualified to offer thoughts on how it should do so. That’s why the ABA is seeking a new president. And, I believe Kenn Kaufman is to be commended for offering his service to the ABA’s Search Committee and for reaching out to the community for input and ideas.

From my perspective as one who’s had a long career in management and marketing, here are a few thoughts on how the ABA might get back on track.

Re-engage and re-grow membership. First and foremost, steps need to be taken to stem the tide of membership loss and begin to build numbers again. This is the ABA’s principal source of revenue. It has to be secured or all other strategies are moot.

Leverage core strengths in targeted ways that serve membership growth. These include Birding magazine and Birder’s Exchange, as well as recognizing the importance and contributions of the ABA's professional staff.

Evaluate ways in which board service and member contributions can be broadened. Internal and external communications should be strengthened and roles re-examined.

Redefine the ABA’s strategic plan and aggressively promote a comprehensive marketing agenda. This should incorporate a vibrant marketing communications plan that integrates membership, marketing and fundraising, and effectively employs both traditional and new media technologies.

Some would like the ABA to become more like the NRA or Ducks Unlimited, primarily a political advocacy model. I happen to agree that no organization can represent birding advocacy in the way the ABA can.

However, redirecting ABA’s mission is a long term aspiration. ABA’s shorter term focus must be upon driving member growth to stabilize itself or such larger goals are unattainable.

The road ahead is not an easy one, but I concur there’s a role for the ABA to play in today’s crowded marketplace. The organization occupies a niche that effective branding and positioning can successfully exploit, and I hope the board of the ABA chooses a leader who can make that happen.


  1. Membership is a tough gig in these depressed economic times. I was the membership chair for a local industry association and we've more than half our membership. I wonder how much birding organizations have suffered membership loss, not because they don't love the association, but because they simply can no longer afford it. I'm sure charities have been affected in the same way.

    Kudos to you for offering professional insight and solutions!

  2. This is a very thoughtful, well done summary. I'm quite optimistic that ABA can be reborn and once again serve as a forge for the birding community. Its mission is unique and one that is too important, I believe, to be left to other organizations, or worse, to be left unfulfilled.

    I really appreciate your taking the time to share your perspective on what ABA can and ought to do to get back on track.

  3. Robert & Jeff, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Much appreciated. I'm glad you offered me some feedback on these thoughts.

  4. As a former employee of ABA, I appreciate the time you took to put some thought into how ABA is going to get out of the mess it is in. Between being financially strapped, morally degraded, and emotionally bankrupt, the task of survival is huge.
    There needs to be a reason for people to join ABA. Is it just a magazine? Is it the opportunity to go birding with fellow members at conferences and conventions? Was it the IFOs (Institute of Field Ornithology)? Is it a feel-good donation to advance birding? Why join? This seems to be a big stumbling block that several Presidents could not get past.
    Just as the discussions on Kenn's, Nate's and Rick's blogs have unveiled, ABA does not seem to know what it should be. The biggest question while I was on staff was "What does ABA want to be when it grows up?"
    ABA needs input FROM THE MEMBERS on what they would like their organization to provide them.
    Finally, your blog makes reference to redefining "ABA's strategic plan." This assumes that the Board of Directors actually HAD a strategic plan!

  5. Some great thoughts, Jann. One of the things that is so heartening about all this is that there are lots of experienced non-profit leaders willing to offer some useful advice.

    I especially agree with your take with regard to birder advocacy. I think it ties in conservation initiatives with the idea that birding should be, above all, fun really nicely.

  6. Anonymous, thanks for reading and for your thoughts. What you say doesn't come as much of a surprise, actually, since member organizations often struggle with the basic concepts of strategic planning and marketing. The ABA needs a firm hand to help guide this process and get to what marketing folks call the UVP -- the unique value proposition. That can be awfully hard to see when things are chaotic, but it's what is required for the ABA to attract and retain members.

    Many thank for your thoughts and best wishes to you.

  7. Nate, many thanks for your thoughts. I'm glad to hear that there are other non-profit leaders adding their advice into the mix. That's encouraging.

  8. I just got into this from a reference to it on Facebook. I appreciated BirdGalAlcatraz comments. I am a recreational birder who really enjoys it as a hobby that developed late in life, so I will never be the expert that it sounds as if most ABA members are. I am not a member of ABA and know little about it except that I did find its code of ethics once when an issue came up in my local bird club about the use of bird calls to bring in the ones we wanted to see.

    I have been actively birding for about 8 years, am a member of a local and a regional birding club and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and have been on several birding vacations in Central America, Texas, etc. with my local bird club and Elderhostel as well as many local field trips.

    I don't know how ABA markets itself but I don't recall ever seeing anything inviting me to join. The question is, are you welcoming to the growing number of recreational bird watchers -- or only to the expert birders who tend to be patronizing to those of us who are in it for recreational purposes?

  9. Your post here illustrates my point better than any words I could offer.

    No matter what direction the ABA chooses with its Board and management, the association's future is dependent upon its ability to attract and keep members. Recreational birders are the largest contingent of prospective members out there and effectively marketing what it can offer you and others is critical.

    You offer a perfect example.

    I have great respect for the many experts who are a core part of the ABA's nurtured growth and distinguished heritage -- but they alone are not enough.

    Recreational birders are essential to the growth and longevity of the organization. Providing both a reason and an invitation to join go hand-in-hand.

    ABA's new leadership is going to have to figure that out in short order. I believe it can be done and the time to start is ysterday.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your very important thoughts.

  10. The issue the Anonymous commenter brings up is one I hear every time the topic of the ABA comes up. While I think the question of whether the ABA is just for "serious" birders is largely a matter of perception rather than reality, it's clearly a problem for the ABA and it's either not something the ABA has seemed to go out of its way to discourage or they just haven't done a good job of it. Probably both actually, and I definitely feel it's an issue of marketing and priorities more than it is an issue of content.

    Anonymous is exactly the person to whom the ABA should be actively reaching out. A birder who is active in their local birding community, and who likes traveling to see new birds. That's right in their wheelhouse.

    If it's something as simple as asking people to join, then the ABA should be doing that. But they should also be looking at ways to better roll out the welcome mat too.