ABA: Let's Look Forward

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: Six weeks have passed since Dick Ashford, chair of the board of the American Birding Association (ABA), contacted me out of the blue and asked me to be on the search committee for ABA’s next Executive Director (or President, as the position is currently called). Being part of the search has been far more time-consuming than I had expected initially, but it has given me some rewarding insights as well.

Shortly after getting involved, I wrote about the ABA’s situation on this blog, and the outpouring of comments was remarkable -- highly detailed comments came in from more than 40 people, including no fewer than seven former ABA board members and other well-known leaders of the North American birding community. During the same time period, I had conversations with most of the current ABA staff, dedicated long-term members of the organization, and many others.

After the first couple of weeks my outlook on ABA’s future was not very positive, for three reasons:

1. Many of the comments -- including some from birders with detailed knowledge of ABA’s history -- were very negative.

2. Some aspects of the current situation were worse than I had realized.

3. At first there were very few applicants for the President position, leading me to wonder if the best candidates had been scared off by the situation or by the rhetoric about it.

But as I said, that was just my initial outlook. As things have developed, I’m now seeing a much more positive picture and a much brighter future for the American Birding Association. These are the things that have changed my perspective:

1. Even in the midst of intense outside criticism, the ABA board of directors has continued to do its job. While some harsh critics were calling for the resignation of the entire board, several board members continued to work behind the scenes to deal with current problems and move the organization forward.

2. Although there have been few official responses, the ABA board of directors has been paying close attention to the ongoing discussion. Case in point: several people raised questions about the ABA bylaws, so board chair Dick Ashford established a committee to review these bylaws. The committee, chaired by Lynn Barber, includes staff and board representatives, plus outside individuals -- such as Rick Wright, who had criticized the bylaws in the first place. This is clearly a case of listening to the concerns of critics rather than shutting them out.

3. The professional staff of ABA has continued to do a superb job. The upheaval and uncertainty of recent months have affected them more than anyone, but they continue to put out wonderful publications and carry out worthwhile programs. These dedicated and talented people represent a major asset for the organization.

4. Although I’m not at liberty to discuss what I know about this, there are some positive changes in the works regarding the infrastructure of the organization, including the workings of the board of directors. The board recognizes its own problems and is quietly but actively working to correct them.

5. Finally, I am tremendously encouraged by the fact that several highly qualified individuals have applied for the ABA President position. At first I was worried that no one would apply, but fortunately that turns out not to be an issue, and ABA has the luxury of trying to make the best choice from among several very strong candidates.

And it is energizing to read the comments from the leading candidates. They’re all aware of the significant challenges in the short term, but they are all brimming with optimism as they look at the extraordinary potential of the organization. They see that there is a huge role for the American Birding Association to play, serving to promote birding, to advocate for birding, to provide a strong voice for the whole community of birders. To read their comments, the glass isn’t just half full, it’s overflowing with potential. That’s the kind of attitude that we need as we go forward.

I respect everyone’s opinions, and I recognize that some long-term ABA members have a right to be angry about some recent missteps. But as for myself, I prefer to look forward and to focus on the amazing possibilities that still lie ahead. I’m optimistic that within a few months we’ll be looking forward confidently to a bright future for the ABA.

Incidentally, I’m not alone in this attitude. When I had this piece mostly drafted, I ran across two very recent blog posts that are well worth reading. Rick Wright at Aimophila Adventures wrote about the qualities he would like to see in the next ABA President -- a consideration that wouldn’t be necessary if the organization had no future. The essay is here.

Over at The Drinking Bird blog, the ever insightful Nathan Swick has a very thoughtful essay about the online conversation that developed this summer over the ABA’s situation. Nate makes the point that this conversation was significant in several ways: not only did it prove that a lot of people were interested in the ABA, not only did a lot of ideas come out of it, but the very nature and format of the online discussion served as a demonstration of the ways that ABA can communicate and act in the modern birding community. This must-read essay is here.

The American Birding Association was very important to me when I was a kid birder -- I was an ABA member long before I had a driver’s license. I’m not a kid any more, but I’m still an eager ABA birder. Now I’m looking ahead to the ABA’s 50th-anniversary bash in the year 2019 -- it ought to be a doozy. I’ll hope to see you there!


  1. Kenn, it sounds like this might be one of the best things that could happen to and for the ABA. Shining the light in dark places, putting the organization under the microscope, airing dirty laundry - say it however you'd like, the organization will only become stronger and hopefully more accessible from the process.
    I care very much about the accessibility of the ABA to birders from my "community", i.e., average people who just want to enjoy the birds daily by putting out birdfeeders. As you know, this is a VAST community that has been somewhat excluded from the ABA community.
    I look forward to what seems to be the promise of a bright future for the ABA.
    And I truly appreciate your willingness to be part of the process in molding ABA's future.

  2. Based on what I knew and read as the current situation at ABA became apparent, I too originally felt ABA was doomed. However, the many comments, suggestions, and concerned enthusiasm that has been shown by the birding community has also buoyed my feelings that ABA still has a chance to return to its previous role in serving the birding community.

    However, I hope you and the search committee can find a candidate that truly meets all (or most) of the desirable criteria listed in the job posting put out after you were asked to become a part of the process. If another person who lacks any birding experience or a top birder who lacks management experience in an organization the size of ABA is chosen, then I fear the survival of ABA may still be in serious doubt.

  3. I truly hope the future of the ABA will indeed be bright and allow what has happended to become a history the organization learns from. Good luck in the search for the new president. I know many eagerly await the announcement.


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