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The ABA’s Renaissance?

August 19, 2010

Should the birding community send Rob Robinson a thank-you card?

For a few months, after it became known that the former head of the American Birding Association seems to have put the ABA in the difficult situation from which it’s currently trying to extricate itself, things looked pretty dire.  L’affaire Robinson was only the last and most obvious of a series of apparent mis-steps  from an ABA looking to define itself in a birding milieu different in many important ways from the environment in which it was founded nearly 40 years ago. Robinson himself may have applied the punctuation, but the writing had been on the wall for some time.  The ABA felt too removed from the birding community as a whole; it felt as though it was an organization for a certain kind of birder, defined by a generation gap as much as a skill level.  New birders were finding the information that was once the unique province of the ABA elsewhere, and even though the ABA still very clearly had value, the perception was that it didn’t seem as essential for birders less interested in aging gulls and more interested in getting together to share something special.  There were those willing to write its obituary, and maybe rightly so.

But then something extraordinary happened.  A conversation.

It started with a few e-mails to the board that were passed around a small group of birders.  It wasn’t long before the sentiment was made public, and no less influential birding figures than Kenn Kaufman, Rick Wright, and Ted Eubanks made their eloquent voices heard.  But it hardly stopped there.  Birdchat hosted one of its longest threads in ages about the ABA’s ongoing search for a new president where more people weighed in.  Birdchick said her piece, Birdfreak too.  And members of the broader birding community from bird tour leaders to non-profit experts to web designers all made their two cents known and nearly every one offered not only a unique take on the way forward for the ABA, but a jumping off point for further discussion about the ABA specifically, and birding in general.  Sure some were a bit more self-serving than others, but every one also sparked great discussion about what birders want in a organization that represents them; a discussion that was, perhaps, a long time coming for this particular organization.

In the early days of the Robinson dismissal there was a lot of frustration expressed, particularly in the direction of the board of directors, for letting the situation get to this point.  There were some long time ABA advocates calling for an en masse resignation or, at least, a public reckoning and heartfelt apology.  I have to say, for a period there I was probably among them (a resignation supporter rather than a long time attention-payer), but there are indications that there is mea culpa enough if one looks for it.  The decision to include Kenn Kaufman on the presidential search committee, knowing that some dirty laundry would inevitably be aired, was a good sign.  The creation of an independent committee to take a look at making the ABA by-laws more inclusive for current and potential members, and that this committee includes Rick Wright for whom this has been a particularly adamant cause, is a very good sign.  Yours truly has had a post sent around to the ABA staff and board, an action that still leaves my mind fairly boggled, but one I hope leads to the embrace of some more forward thinking ways to communicate with members.  Best of all though, especially for those of us screaming into the internet void, it’s clear that the powers that be in the ABA are listening, reading and considering, and that’s the best sign of all.  I don’t know about you, but I find that incredibly gratifying.

But beyond that inside baseball stuff, I think that the self-evaluation among birders that has come out of this, especially in thinking about how we all “sell” birding to people of all skills and ages, has been really productive because while it affects all of us, it most directly pertains to the ABA’s future as an advocate for every type of birder.  While I’ve always felt that the idea that the ABA is only for a certain species of hotshot glass-slinger was more perception rather than reality, condescension, however inadvertent, to a newer birder is something that we should all try to be aware of.  While the ABA could certainly stand to do a better job reaching out to all sorts of bird people, it goes both ways too.  I think that the denigration of a certain type of “elite” birder as an uncaring jerk has more to do with projecting insecurities than it does with any particular experience, but the bottom line is that both caricatures are unnecessary. Every group has its… er… characters… there’s no getting around it, but by approaching each other with humility and respect and losing the chips on our shoulders we go a long way towards bridging those gaps.  But I really digress (Besides, Laura Kammermeier says it better than I could here).

These days I have to think that, should the ABA find its footing following the Robinson era, the future actually looks pretty bright.  Despite the very obvious difficulties the organization faces, I know of at least two excellent candidates for the top job who would be fantastic leaders going forward.  There is evidence that even the Board is taking the need for new blood seriously, and there are some exciting things going on there as well.  What I’m trying to say in so many words here is that the fact that this discussion took place at all has been a revelation, in that it not only produced a wealth of wonderful discussions about the direction of the ABA, but the medium itself showed a way that the organization can actively include the membership in its decision making processes.  This is the crucial point.  That in every blog post and listserv message there is a sense of ownership that has been sorely lacking of late. We felt involved in a way that we haven’t for some time, and I honestly think that if it hadn’t been for the criticism and subsequent public brainstorming session from so many different channels, the ABA may well have slipped away with a whimper, or at least, its future would still be very much in doubt.

Six weeks ago I would have put my money on the end of the ABA, but I’m much more optimistic these days.  Perhaps we should hold off on that obituary for now.

  1. August 19, 2010 8:06 am

    Well said, Nate.

    “the medium itself showed a way that the organization can actively include the membership in its decision making processes.”

    One of the most cliche, yet most powerfully apt statements about social media is that it “lets you be part of the conversation.”

    Today’s successful organizations pay attention to, invigorate, and harness the exchange of ideas that takes place online. One needs more than a website and a Facebook page in this day and age to keep up with the “thought leaders” (marketing speak for opinionated bloggers) that can pop up just about anywhere.

    Birding is interesting in that a proliferation of blogs and online thought leaders organically developed over time. Most of these voices were not necessarily attached to an organization. In fact, organizations have it tough when they TRY to put out their own voices online, because readers on the Internet tend to ignore the sanitized messages in favor of more guerilla-style commentary. Such as blogs that start with “Should we be sending a thank you card to the most recent embezzling president of the ABA?” Ha!

    Honesty, rawness, and authenticity is key…yet how can an organizations who do have to be mindful of political correctness harness these disparate voices, like yours, that have so much to offer?

    I still think we’re moving closer to the idea of vocal clearinghouses…where multi-author blogs (e..g., 10000birds) or editor’s choice compilations (e.g., Huffington Post) are the norm. To reach members, have your experts, but also, stay down, stay dirty, stay relevant.

    Finally, “every blog post and listserv message there is a sense of ownership that has been sorely lacking of late.”

    Refreshing, isn’t it?

  2. August 19, 2010 10:53 am

    Great post, Nate, and I’m encouraged by your optimism and the summary of what has transpired over a number of weeks this summer. I pretty much read it all and I think you’ve encapsulated it nicely.

    I also very much agree with Laura’s cogent thoughts. Especially this thought she expressed: “Today’s successful organizations pay attention to, invigorate, and harness the exchange of ideas that takes place online.”

    No matter what kind of organization you are, you’ve got to reinvent yourself every day. With today’s multi-communication, 24/7 environment, it’s like drinking from a fire hose. You have to find ways to harness the stream and ride it or you drown.

    I hope the ABA makes the structural changes it needs to reinvigorate itself — bylaws changes, board renewal, new leadership — but its marketing and communications outreach to members and potential members is going to be the place the rubber meets the road.

    It’s been great to hear so many people speak up and gratifying to know that many, many people care enough to contribute their thoughts and ideas. As the saying goes, it’s a good thing.

  3. Nate permalink*
    August 19, 2010 12:42 pm

    @Laura- I couldn’t agree more with just about everything you said. I think the ABA, should it make a social networking component a priority (and my feeling on that are clear), can take advantage of the authentic voices and still provide a central voice in the conversation. I would suspect that there’s a large segment of the membership who is, as yet, mostly unaware of the bird blogosphere and the voices therein. Which is why I think the ABA has the authority (it may well be the only organization that could pull it off) to act as a filter as much a provider of new content. The ABA is in the unique position of being able to bridge the gap between the online birding community and the meatspace birding community should it choose to go that way in a manner that even 10k Birds, as great as it is, might not be able to do.

    And once you’ve set the groundwork, the opportunities it presents are almost limitless. Just look at the successful political, sports, and entertainment blogs and imagine what something like that would look like for the birding community. The prospects are kind of exciting.

    That said, they’ve already got Drew Wheelan pushing boundaries which has been pretty well-regarded. I’m not saying a general ABA blog has to go that far, or even that it should, but there’s a precedent there. But I’d agree that this post would likely be considered inappropriate. 🙂

    @Jann- I think you pretty much nailed it. If there’s something positive to take from the Robinson debacle, it’s the opportunity for the organization to freely reinvent itself. No one really expects a whole lot from the current model, and there’s nothing to lose, so why not? Changing the way the ABA interacts with birders should be, as you say, absolutely crucial. I see an enormous opportunity to do something special to that end, and I really hope they take it.

  4. August 19, 2010 1:53 pm

    I think the airing of grievances has been healthy for the birding community, even if it doesn’t influence on the future direction of the ABA. (People in state and local organizations need to heed the same complaints.) One interesting aspect has been the contrast in the job searches for the ABA and Audubon. The ABA’s attracted much more public debate about the future of the organization than Audubon’s, which mostly stayed quiet until the hire was announced. While that may be a result of more complaints, it’s also a sign that birders care about what the ABA is doing.

  5. Nate permalink*
    August 19, 2010 4:28 pm

    @John- I agree. You make an interesting point about Audubon versus the ABA. I wonder if it’s just that most birders see Audubon as primarily an environmental organization anymore rather than one that caters specifically to birders, so there’s less concern. The leader of a successful environmental NGO could conceivably come from anywhere, but the leader of a birding specific organization seems to require a much more well-defined skill-set, one that many birders feel strongly about apparently.

    • August 22, 2010 8:55 am

      Great post and great follow-on conversation.

      This whole issue of authentic, individual voices (even a multi-author chorus of them) vs. a more sanitized, corporate style of communication seems key to me. I think one core reason birders are so passionate about birding is that the culture is seen as a largely authentic, personal one. It’s an antidote to the constant barrage of soulless sales pitches to which we’re all constantly subjected. (Though, to be fair, even some of those soulless sales pitches do have a certain style).

      But birding still demands that you get muddy, that you grapple with the unknown, the unfamiliar, and the uncertain. It’s a place where you can almost depend on surprises–and not just surprises that tested well with the focus groups.

      I’d draw a parallel to musicians that are so-called cult favorites. Their audiences are extraordinarily devoted to them because they feel a direct, truthful communication between artist and fan. How many times have you seen one of those artists try to branch out and reach a wider audience, only to both fail in the marketplace AND be branded a sell-out by their base?

      ABA has to first get back to its roots and reestablish the confidence of its diehards. This, honestly, shouldn’t take long, but it will take care, creativity, and ongoing effort to maintain.

      Then, ABA must find a way to expand, but in a way that has its supporters (most of them–there is always a minority that is truly only interested in the obscure and exclusive) screaming, “Hell yeah!,” and feeling proud, not covering their eyes and groaning, “Oh, please, no!”

      It’ll be a trick, but I think it’s achievable. If this conversation that so many of us are both drawing energy from and putting energy into keeps going, if birders are willing to stay involved and offer various kinds of support (money, sure, but it goes way beyond just that), and if ABA can give them a place to do so and reasons for hope, I think the future could be very bright indeed.

      And maybe we all should send that thank you note.

      • Nate permalink*
        August 22, 2010 10:06 pm

        @Jeff- Thanks for the kind words. You make an interesting point. When I think about a sanitized message versus something we’d describe as “authentic” I’m trying to think of how that would play out in a birding context and I don’t know that it’s as difficult to achieve as we may think in theory.

        So long as birding stays and feels authentic, I think anything around it is going to be as well. This is especially true given the talent already available, but it will take no small bit of careful attention, which I think is the key part of the equation. I’d wager substance seems less important than style, consistency and responsiveness.

  6. August 25, 2010 9:15 am

    Hi Nate,
    I recently stumbled upon some technology that may allow this idea of harnessing multiple voices … I explain it here on my blog.

    Eager to hear your thoughts.

  7. August 26, 2010 9:29 am

    Aw, Nate, you always make me blush when you talk about 10,000 Birds that way! But seriously, you’ve really captured the sea change that’s occurred in a pretty short time. Just 6 months ago, two large populations of birders were running on parallel tracks, but now it feels like our paths are intertwined towards something bigger. We’ll see!

  8. August 26, 2010 5:39 pm

    Thanks so much for this fine assessment of where we are right now with ABA. I have been on the board for fours years and it has been a rough four years but you hit the nail on the head when you predicted that ABA can move now to a unique position of strength for the birding community, and for conservation and advocacy at large. I am excited and hopeful for the future and with the fine candidates we have to consider for our new ABA president things are really looking up.

  9. Nate permalink*
    August 26, 2010 6:39 pm

    @Laura- Love the post, and that’s a topic I’ll be exploring in the future. I hope you’ll lend your voice to the discussion!

    @Mike- I couldn’t agree more. I think the ultimate goal here is to promote birds and birding, and the more outlets for that message the better. It just seems right that the bird blogosphere and the ABA should find a way to interact productively.

    @Jane- It’s my pleasure. I’m beside myself that people are getting something positive out of it. I don’t envy the Board their decision given the presidential candidates that I’m aware of. There’s some real class in that field.

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