Solving SCB's Membership Crisis by Reinvigorating the Sections: Response to Schwartz et al.
Version of Record online: 14 JAN 2009
©2008 Society for Conservation Biology
Volume 23, Issue 1, pages 5–6, February 2009
How to Cite
Carroll, C., Noss, R. F., Hilty, J. and Trombulak, S. C. (2009), Solving SCB's Membership Crisis by Reinvigorating the Sections: Response to Schwartz et al. Conservation Biology, 23: 5–6. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.01143.x
- Issue online: 14 JAN 2009
- Version of Record online: 14 JAN 2009
The Society for Conservation Biology, like many scientific societies, is in the midst of a membership crisis. Part of the solution, as Schwartz et al. (M. W. Schwartz, M. L. Hunter Jr., and P. D. Boersma. 2008. Scientific societies in the 21st century: a membership crisis. Conservation Biology 2:1087–1089) emphasize, lies in better communicating why membership in a professional society should be an altruistic obligation for those in our field. Society membership, as Schwartz et al. suggest, also has tangible benefits to students and old-timers alike—most notably, an enhanced opportunity to establish and maintain friendships and professional contacts, which does more than anything to advance one's career. SCB's membership crisis, however, unlike that of more-established scientific societies, has some unique causes that are not treated in Schwartz et al. These latter factors must be remedied by restoring the relevance of the society to its membership by strengthening the regional sections.
Since 2001 our society has experienced a rapid and successful effort at internationalization. Despite the obvious value of promoting conservation biology on a global scale, SCB is now experiencing some unintended consequences of the ways in which it chose to achieve this relatively rapid transformation into a more international and necessarily larger and more bureaucratic organization. These include an increased disconnect between priorities of the global organization and regional sections. Many members at the 2008 global meeting expressed concern that SCB has become too bureaucratic, centralized, and distanced from grassroots conservation biologists in North America, where 72% of SCB's members reside. As SCB works to encourage continued growth in the proportion of membership from other continents, we also need to ensure that the society continues to serve its main membership base. Despite the fact that SCB's internationalization has been generally supported by the society's North American members, in part because many of these people conduct their research outside of North America, a decline in focus by the global organization on North American issues and services to those members will necessarily cause a decline in overall membership unless the North America section can replace the services formerly played by the society as a whole.
Several challenges currently prevent any regional section from effectively filling this role. Three of the next 4 global meetings will be held outside North America. Attending SCB meetings will therefore place a large financial burden on a majority of SCB's members, many of whom, especially students and agency staff, are unable to travel to international meetings. Meetings are where members come to regard SCB as their society. This lengthy gap means that only a small number of students entering graduate school in North America today can be expected to attend an SCB meeting before they finish their degrees and establish themselves in new positions. Because SCB will have been made largely irrelevant to their career development, it is far less likely that they will become members. Although robust regional meetings would help resolve this problem, the global organization has vigorously sought to limit the scope, format, and timing of North American regional meetings to ensure that they do not draw attendance away from global meetings.
We propose a return to the philosophy that, in most years, SCB members will have an opportunity to attend meetings in their own region. Regional meetings should receive active support from the Executive Office. One option might be a global meeting once every 4 years, with only regional meetings during the other 3 years. This 3 plus 1 philosophy models that of other professional organizations that operate as a global confederation of national groups.
Two additional issues must be addressed to achieve the goal of reinvigorating the sections: greater autonomy to sections in fundraising and conservation policy engagement. With respect to fundraising, the global organization has placed restrictions on the ability of regional sections to raise funds from sources that grant (or might grant) to the global organization. A better balance must be struck here to allow the sections to raise funds to meet the regional needs of members. One option might be a check-off option at the time of membership renewal that would direct a small portion of dues to the selected section.
When the North American section sought to fill the void created by SCB's shift to a global policy focus by weighing in on regional conservation policy issues, protracted negotiations occurred before the global organization felt comfortable with allowing the section some degree of autonomy on policy issues. SCB needs to strike a balance between the benefits of coordination of policy work on a global level and the dangers of a process that closes the door to members who want to prepare and seek approval of policy statements on a diversity of regional conservation issues.
To attract members by filling a unique niche in the universe of scientific societies, SCB must carefully assess how it can complement the role of other scientific societies and maintain the grassroots enthusiasm that has characterized SCB from the beginning. The challenge is to reinvigorate the relevance of the society to regional concerns and demonstrate to members that SCB is still their society and something worth belonging to. Solutions include giving greater autonomy in fundraising, conferences, and policy engagement to regional sections, and encouraging closer cooperation between sections and chapters (we have made considerable headway in the latter in North America). These steps may create short-term challenges for the global organization. However, they would benefit North America, other regional sections, and the global organization over the long term by helping stem the decline in membership. Most important is that we initiate the dialogue about the future of SCB in a way that involves the concerns and expertise of the membership as a whole. Although the goal of globalizing SCB is laudable, we have gone about it in a way that guarantees that the organization will shrink because it is not meeting anyone's needs for engagement and networking on a scale that is affordable and relevant to them professionally. Continuation along the current trajectory at the expense of the regional sections risks the demise of the organization as a whole and with it SCB's internationalization effort.
Editor's note: The views expressed herein are those of the authors and are not represented as those of the North American Section at large.