Friday, July 16, 2010

Which Way for ABA?

From a state of contemplation, Kenn writes: The American Birding Association (ABA) has been an important part of my life ever since I joined, at the age of 16, back in the 1970s. The ABA was a brand-new organization then, and it served a unique role in connecting the active birders of the U.S. and Canada. Its little bimonthly magazine, Birding, was a treasure trove for me as a teenager, giving me tips on bird-finding and bird identification that I wouldn’t have known about in any other way. When I started traveling, as a hitch-hiking, teenaged birder, the ABA connected me with other enthusiasts and with prime birding hotspots, and helped to put me on a course as a professional naturalist.

In subsequent years I was involved with ABA in many ways. I taught bird I.D. workshops at many of their conventions, and later I began giving evening keynote talks at these events; for a while, I had spoken at more ABA conventions than anyone else. I wrote dozens of pieces for Birding magazine, and edited their Photo Quiz feature for ten years. I served on their checklist committee, and even served two terms on their board of directors, most recently in the mid-1990s.

But I hadn’t had any kind of leadership role at ABA for more than ten years now. So I was very surprised when Dick Ashford, current chair of the board, called me out of the blue to ask me to get involved. The ABA is looking to hire a new President, and Dick wanted me to serve (along with three current board members) on the search committee to find someone for that position.

Given my history with ABA, you might think that I would have accepted immediately. As it happened, ultimately I did agree to be on the search committee, but it was with some trepidation.

The fact is that the American Birding Association is facing a tough situation right now. Membership numbers have been declining for the last few years, there have been a number of bad management decisions, and the organization is in financial difficulties. Whoever comes in as the new president is going to have to overcome some major challenges.

Of course, a decline in numbers is something that has happened to many membership organizations and many print publications over the last decade or so. But ABA has taken a double hit from the effects of the internet and the proliferation of bird festivals. Back in the early 1990s, birders who wanted to be "in the loop" on a continentwide scale almost had to belong to ABA. The magazine and newsletter were prime sources of the latest information, and the biennial ABA convention was a really big deal, with hundreds of the most active birders in attendance. Today many birders get their information, and even their sense of community, most easily online: bits of news on listserves and social networking sites, detailed information on websites, opinion pieces and essays on blogs. And there are so many birding festivals all over the continent that it has become very hard for ABA conventions to compete. The publications-and-conventions model that worked so well in the early 1990s just doesn’t cut it in 2010.

So ABA has fallen farther and farther behind the curve during the last decade. It wasn’t inevitable -- it would have been possible for the organization to keep up, or stay ahead, with some innovative and forward-looking changes. But those changes weren’t made. I’m not going to point fingers or assign blame -- indeed, I don’t want to, as ABA’s leadership over the last decade has included various friends of mine. But no one took those bold steps that would have made ABA membership an obvious must-have for active birders. And the resulting slow decline has been accelerated by some very bad recent decisions that have put the organization in a precarious financial fix.

That being the case, why am I involved at all in trying to help out? After all, there’s nothing in it for me except risk -- I’m just one person on the search committee, so I can’t control the outcome, but I’ll get part of the blame if things go badly.

But I think it’s worth the risk because I see not just big problems, but big potential. ABA still has thousands of active members. It still has excellent programs in place -- its "Birders’ Exchange," for example, is doing wonderful things to promote research and conservation in Latin America. Its magazine, Birding, its technical journal, North American Birds, and its newsletter, Winging It, continue to be valuable. And beyond that, I can envision a future in which ABA could be a tremendously positive force. Currently there is no organization that serves effectively as an advocate for birders and birding in North America. Yes, there are bird conservation groups, and ornithological societies that promote scientific study of birds, but there is no group that really advocates for birders -- promoting birding for its own sake, providing a sense of community, working to give birders a unified voice. ABA could be that voice. But only if it survives. And that may come down to the next person hired as president of the beleagured organization.

So ... anyone interested? ABA is seeking a highly motivated person to serve as President (analogous to what would be called the Executive Director in many other nonprofits). This person should have a good knowledge of active field birding, and should have relevant experience in running a nonprofit, running a small business, or both. This person had better have a lot of energy, and had better be committed to the vision of helping the birding community at large. You can read the whole job description here.

For more independent background on ABA’s current situation and future prospects, written by the perceptive and articulate Nate over at "The Drinking Bird," click here.