Until the ABA sent an e-mail about the firing of the CEO/President/Executive director/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, I was blissfully unconcerned and largely unaware of its problems. Sure, I knew membership was plummeting and money was short, but to be honest, I wasn’t terribly concerned. I can’t say for sure if that’s because I figured the ABA would figure out someway to survive or if I just didn’t care much if it did or not, but for whatever reason, I hadn’t thought about it until then.
Then the e-mail came out. I hadn’t heard any rumors up to that point, so the firing was completely unexpected. In a group e-mail, a friend asked others and me if we knew anything about it. (I didn’t, but I had a few educated guesses.) As luck would have it, that e-mail got me hooked up with some insider info. I got to see some of the messages a few well-known birders had sent to the board, and I also sent some of my thoughts to the board. I’m not bringing this up to imply that I’m part of the Circle of Elite Birders. I just got involved by dumb luck. But this was my epiphany that things seemed to be far from well at the ABA — money and memberships weren’t their only problem. It also got me thinking about why I am a member and also the reasons why should anyone be a member.
As things stand now, I see little reason to be a member of the ABA. The primary reason is to receive the ABA’s publications Birding and Winging It (I also get North American Birds, but you have to pay extra to get that and it only costs $2 more for non-members).
Just about every other offering from the ABA has been duplicated elsewhere or has disappeared:
- I’m not an ABA O.G., so I can’t say this with absolute certainty, but my impression is the original attraction of the ABA was that it was an opportunity to meet like-minded people and share birding information. Hello, internet!
- What about sharing list totals? The ABA was about that, too, right? Well now all you really need is a website to do the same thing. You can compare list totals on a number of sites. For example, Surfbirds lets you submit totals in a large number of categories. There are quite a few county listing sites, too, like one I started for Florida (but I let it languish and then turned it over to Bob Carroll who gave it the love and nurturing it needed to become successful).
- ABA conventions? There are now a ton of other wildlife festivals, some offering enough to be attractive to the more experienced birder.
There have been many compliments for Birders’ Exchange, and I haven’t heard anything negative about the Youth Programs, so I’ll count both of them in the pro-ABA column, but I don’t see these as things that make people want to be part of the organization.
BUT I still see potential in a revamped ABA, though achieving that potential will be difficult. Yes, there are internal problems with the board, bylaws, etc. These problems need to be resolved for the ABA to be healthy and flourish. But I have neither insider information nor insight to offer, and this subject has been well covered elsewhere (see the blogs of Rick Wright, Kenn Kaufman, and Nathan Swick and all the associated comments). For the purposes of this diatribe, I’ll assume that those things will be taken care of. (Yes, I realize that’s a big assumption.)
What follows are my thoughts on what the ABA should do once it gets its house in order. Sure, I may be way off base with at least some of them, but this is the internet, one of the few places where I occasionally get to pretend that I have all the answers, so please humor me. I realize that these are just opinions without any research to back them up, and you know what they say about opinions: they’re like a certain part of the anatomy, everyone has at least three, etc., etc. (or something like that). Also, I’ve read a lot of the comments on blogs and listservs, and I’ve not knowingly stolen anyone’s ideas, but if I have, I apologize for not giving credit where credit is due.
So without further ado, what should the ABA do?:
1) Appeal to a broader range of “birders”/increase advocacy/conservation. [I’m still not sure if I should have listed all these separately, but they go hand-in-hand. By the way, I recognize that everything in this section -- actually this whole post -- falls into the “easier said than done” category.] The ABA was created for the “keen” birder, but as I touched on earlier, the ABA isn’t needed for that anymore. If the ABA would cease to exist, the journal of Western Field Ornithologists (which perhaps is a viable replacement for the ABA), Western Birds, could pick up identification articles that would have appeared in Birding, hopefully Cornell and eBird could produce something similar to North American Birds, and as I mentioned there are other alternatives for comparing list totals and of course tons of listservs for regional birding information. But perhaps more importantly, there just aren’t that many higher-level birders to support an organization like the current version of the ABA.
The ABA needs the people who have never heard of the ABA: the backyard birder, the feeder watcher, people who like the “idea” of birds. Get the people who may never look at birds outside of their yard and get them thinking about things beyond their yard. There’s a huge market waiting to be tapped. There are very few people who dislike birds and nature. It’s just that these things are a very low priority for them. But how do we reach them and get them to join, what’s the selling point? Hey, I don’t have all the answers!
Besides increasing financial resources, a benefit of increasing membership is that it can be used to gain more political clout, which the ABA will need to be an effective advocate for birders. Some will probably question the need for an organization to fill this role. If that’s you, take a look at Ted Lee Eubanks’ article in Birding on this subject.
Getting everyone to see the light will be a tough sell. The NRA is widely regarded as the most effective lobby and advocacy group. According to Wikipedia, it has nearly four million members, and a big attraction of the organization is the protection of the rights of gun ownership. I doubt that birders feel that their “right to bird” is often under attack, so they’re not feeling a pressing need for a protector. However, birders are invisible to most policy makers. Everyday opportunities are lost when decisions are made without regard to birders’ interests, and little by little, these lost opportunities start adding up.
Now this may be wishful thinking, but with a large membership base, there’s even an opportunity to stop “environmentalism” from being a partisan issue. I know there are exceptions, but don’t you generally think of Democrats as being more pro-environment than Republicans? (Yes, sorry for being cynical, but ultimately every politician is really just pro-money, right?) But birders aren’t all liberal/Democrat/treehuggers. Anyone who spends time on listservs knows there are more than a few conservatives in the birding world…I could go on, but this is such a pie-in-the-sky idea I’ll just leave it here for now.
Conservation is the most contentious issue in the ABA debate. Some feel it’s absolutely vital. Others think the complete opposite. In some ways, everyone is right, and that’s because “conservation” is such a broad term. The ABA does need to be involved with conservation, but it needs to find a niche. Should it be buying land, organizing letter-writing campaigns, something else? Maybe. I don’t know, but as others have pointed out, there are already tons of conservation organizations, and there’s usually no need for duplication of effort. But as I mentioned before, Birders’ Exchange was praised, and that’s “conservation”. When traveling, letting business owners know that you’re visiting the area because of birding is “conservation”. Conservation is many things. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it isn’t, particularly when it seems for every step forward there are three steps back. But if you’ve been birding long enough, you’ll have a lot of other “not fun” moments, such as seeing the place where you got your lifer Vesper Sparrow converted into a housing development. Seeing a small fraction of the shorebirds that you used to at Delaware Bay isn’t exactly fun, nor is not seeing a Carolina Parakeet. On the other hand, protecting a mountain for Cerulean Warblers can be satisfying if not outright fun.
One final note: I realize I’ve been pretty unspecific about how to go about doing all of this. It’s one thing to say something should be done. It’s another to know how to do it. Anyway, the rest of my ideas are a bit more concrete.
2) [That’s right, I’m only at point 2!] Keep publishing Birding, Winging It, and North American Birds. Birding is the ABA’s bread and butter, so maybe it would be a good idea to stop giving away so much of it online. I get that putting it online for free is a way to hook non-members, but it seems like you now can get most of it, and just about all the really interesting stuff, without becoming an ABA member. I’d also like to see Birding expanded as membership grows. Put in something for the beginners and something for the experts but not at the expense of the other. If this is unworkable, perhaps offer members a choice of publications. Maybe an agreement could be reached so that beginners and backyard birders could receive Bird Watcher’s Digest (BWD) instead of Birding. [I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m looking down on beginners, backyard birders, or BWD because that’s not my intention.] This would be a less desirable alternative because there would be fewer opportunities for the ABA to address members receiving BWD and having a mix of articles for beginners and advanced birders gives the beginner material to grow into.
Anyway, offer members the option of receiving the publications in digital form instead of print. Put it online, but make it password protected (you can still offer a few articles for free, but cut back on that). And on that subject, give each member a user ID and password, unlike the current system used for Winging It, which uses the same user ID and password for everyone and has yet to be changed. It’s way too easy to share (I haven’t, honest!) and way too difficult to detect non-members using it.
3) Produce online site guides written and regularly updated by local experts (and maybe make them interactive, like a wiki, too). It will be difficult to implement, probably cost a lot to get started, and take a lot of work to keep current, but it’s worth trying. It would help at least partially to restore the ABA as the place for birding information. These guides can be built upon the existing ABA Birdfinding Guide series. There’s a lot of potential here: linking site guides to Google Earth, eBird (though they may not want to be part of this since it would compete with the BirdsEye app), RBAs, and whatever else might come down the line. I’d suggest not charging much, if anything, for access to these guides. Make access to them a benefit of membership. A few qualifiers: 1) access needs to be password protected in the same manner I mentioned above for publications, and 2) this idea probably won’t really take off until mobile devices such as smart phones and iPads and mobile internet access become more common.
4) Convert the old membership directory to an online service that is essentially a social networking website. I’m sure some members will not want to be part of a social networking website. That’s fine. Let them opt out. But everyone else can have an online profile (again, accessible only to members) to facilitate communication. Remember the codes denoting a person willing to take visiting members birding, willing to take phone calls, etc.? That can be part of the person’s profile. Like the idea of the online site guides, this will take some cash to hire developers and staff to maintain the services, but it offers advantages over other social media in that it would be customizable to the ABA’s specific needs and it will be easier for users to find other birders since everyone on the service would be a birder [OK, maybe everyone won’t meet a certain definition of “birder”, but...].
The ABA should still maintain a presence on Facebook, Twitter, or whatever the site du jour is as a place to connect with non-members, but these aren’t the baskets to put all of the ABA’s cybereggs [do you like how I modernized that idiom? Cybereggs? C'mon, that's an instant classic].
5) Discounts. I’m far from an expert on how and why it works, but there are discounts everywhere for members of AAA and AARP. How about working out something like that for ABA members? ABA Sales might not ever return to what it was, but how about bringing back the discount members used to get? Stop taking that commission and return it to the members. I don’t know how important that revenue stream is for the ABA, and they probably don’t want to give it up, but I think getting back to a member discount will pay off in the long run with a larger membership.
The ABA-Endorsed Tour program should take a similar approach. [Disclaimer: I’m a tour operator and not a member of the ABA-Endorsed Tour program.] I won’t rant about this as much as I could because I don’t want to sound like I’m attacking the tour operators. Bottom line is the ABA should develop a program that gives members discounts when going on an endorsed tour (and perhaps they should shift from “endorsed tours” to “endorsed operators”). I’ll even take it upon myself and do a bit of self-promotion here: any current ABA members on my upcoming Barrow/Ross’s Gull tour get a $45 discount (that’s a one-year membership), and if I can fill both of next year’s Attu tours, current ABA members get a $90 discount – yes, that’s just a drop in the bucket but you can use it to renew your membership for two years. ABA, you can thank me later. [Another disclaimer: these are NOT ABA-Endorsed Tours, and the ABA is in no way affiliated with this offer or my tours.] Sorry for being self-serving here, but it illustrates how easy it could be to essentially make the ABA essentially a “dues-free” organization. I recognize only a small portion of the membership will go on a birding tour, but if discounts can be obtained from a greater variety of businesses, it could benefit most members.
6) This one is just a pet peeve: Continue being a place to share list totals, but don’t delete totals when someone is no longer a member, especially if they’re no longer a member because they are deceased. If you think you’d lose a significant source of income because of this (which I doubt), institute an extra “lifetime listing” fee. This has always bugged me because if you compare it to baseball, it would be like records of retired players were completely meaningless. Hank Aaron? No, he doesn’t count anymore.
7) Cut the pay for the CEO/President/Executive Director by $50K. The salary will still be a raise for the people most qualified for the position.
I’m done now. Thanks for reading this far. Maybe these ideas would work, maybe not, but they’re worth investigating (feel free to tell me why I’m wrong in the comments section). No, I’m not campaigning for the CEO job, but ABA, you can send me a check for my consulting services when you get back on your feet. You have my address.