By Larry Shepherd
It’s time to vote in another ANA election, and unlike the last election when the number of candidates was just large enough to fill the number of vacancies, this year’s large slate more resembles the field for the Kentucky Derby.
That means we voters have a better opportunity to choose wisely, and it is critical that we do. The next two to four years will determine whether the ANA can recover from another series of setbacks, or continues a decline that now risks becoming steeper and uncontrollable. Based on my experience, here are some things I think you should consider as you fill out your ballot:
• Being a member of multiple coin clubs and organizations shows that a person is involved with the hobby, but it does not, on its own, make them qualified to run an organization with a $6,000,000 annual budget. The same can be said for being a long time dealer or collector. Both are important as measures of involvement, but not as a guarantee of success.
• Being well liked and “a great guy or gal” is a nice quality but is no guarantee of astute management or wise leadership. The world is full of nice people who can’t see the big picture or who get lost on the way to the bathroom.
• Having exhibited many times and having won multiple exhibit awards, shows a person’s interest in the hobby, and passion for exhibiting, but it does not, on its own, prepare that person to run a multi-person, multi-dimensional organization with a wide range of constituencies beyond exhibiting.
• Running on a platform of “more education” is not sufficient reason to elect that person. We all endorse more education. It’s like a politician saying they stand for “world peace,” or a social worker who wants to end hunger. Such broad universal goals are commendable, but mean nothing unless a person can demonstrate the vision and the wisdom to actually put the meat on the bread.
So the operative questions that need to be asked when an ANA Board candidate says he or she wants more education is 1.) Do you know what our constituents really want from us? 2.) What are the specifics and details of your plan? 3.) What type of education? 4.) Delivered how? 5.) By whom? 6.) And equally important, since the ANA is a non-profit organization, how are you going to pay for it?
If the candidate can give realistic and cogent answers on all those questions, then he/she is serious about education; if not, then he is just using seductive buzzwords to get elected.
In my experience at the ANA, and this includes current and past ANA staff members and Board members, as well as others, you will ferret out about 98 percent of the big talkers even before you get to the last question.
• Like education, all candidates will advocate more emphasis on Young Numismatists (YN’s). This is a great goal. I fully agree that we can’t do enough there. The more the better. But … and this is critically important … the future of the ANA in the near term, and the main factor determining whether there will still be a ANA in 2025, will be much more dependent on whether the ANA can make itself relevant to its “lost generation,” the huge mass of collectors who are now past the YN age, but too young to remember when the ANA was something really important to be part of. We are talking about people from their mid-20s, up through mid-40s, the collectors who came in to the hobby while the ANA was asleep, not bound by tradition, open to new ideas, and who find more that relates to their own interests on internet sites such as Collector’s Universe, NGC, and other online forums, clubs, news and auction sites.
Sure, the ANA has quite a few members in this generational segment, but only a fraction of the potential, and not enough to make up for the high percentage of ANA members that will be lost to death or retirement in the next 15 years. When your average member is over 60 years old and creeping higher every year, as is the case with the ANA, you can’t wait for the YN’s to grow up and fill the void. If the ANA is going to survive, it’s imperative that it find a way to attract a large percentage of this age segment to offset the loss of membership from an aging body of current members; and that’s why it is so strategically important that we elect Board members in these next two elections that look to the future and not to the past, and have credible ideas or plans on how to bring more “tweeners” into the fold.
• When deciding whether to vote for incumbents, pay far more attention to what they have done while in office, rather than what they say. The current administration is a classic example, constantly saying they are putting the ANA on the right track, yet their actions during the past two years speak otherwise, as they roar around that track with their transmissions stuck in reverse. You may be on the right track, but if you’re in reverse you’re still headed in the wrong direction.
• Look closer when you hear an incumbent, or a new candidate, say they think the ANA should “go back to the basics.” Have they somehow deluded themselves into thinking the ANA had become too progressive?
Perhaps we need to remind them that “the basics” have led to declining membership since the early ‘80s, and operating deficits in 19 out of the 20 years prior to 2008 that nearly bankrupted the organization.
What “going back to the basics” usually means is “I want to get back into my comfort zone.” What we really need are Board members and leaders who have the depth and breadth to step out of their comfort zone.
• Beware of the candidates who exhort the simplistic view that all we have to do to build the ANA back up is to put renewed emphasis on the “club” network, or to invest more in the club representative program. Don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to either. The ANA’s network of clubs, and the club representative program are important components in the ANA’s sphere of activities, but there is very little linkage between coin cubs and finding the ANA’s lost relevance, or stemming the precipitous slide in ANA membership that is currently underway.
The ANA currently has 452 member coin clubs. Those 452 clubs have approximately 35,000 members of their own. Of the 35,000 people who belong to an ANA member coin club, fewer than 3,000 are members of the ANA. Fewer than 8 percent of the people who belong to a coin club support the ANA through individual membership. So, with the exception of a few dozen outstanding, energized clubs who work hard to promote the hobby, coin clubs as a whole play a very limited role in building or maintaining ANA membership.
• Beware of candidates who declare I will do this, I will fix this, or I will change this. They can’t! At least not by themselves. All they really can do is propose their ideas and try to convince at least four other Board members, the Advisory Council, the general counsel, and the countless number of vocal members to go along with them. No one person can make unilateral changes; and if they try, they usually end up creating more opposition than acquiescence. Instead, look for candidates who have the wisdom to propose fresh ideas, and the skills to convince others and build consensus.
•Be on the lookout for any stated, or hidden, agendas. Single agenda candidates rarely have the breadth of experience or wisdom to help move the organization forward, and sometimes those agendas may be very damaging.
• Beware of romanticized goals and rear view mirrors. Some things are gone for good and not coming back: eight-tracks, VCR’s, outhouses, and the romanticized numismatic periods of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, (and even ‘90s) come to mind. Gone are the days when Mom and Dad sat at the kitchen table on Sunday afternoons with little Billy and little Sally, searching through rolls of coins they got from the bank, gently pushing their finds into the Whitman folders they bought for 25 cents each at the local Ben Franklin “dime” store, while Muffie lays at their feet and the Lennon sisters perform on “The Lawrence Welk Show” in the background.
The hobby has changed, and even though some individuals may not like it, it is not the ANA’s role to dictate hobbyist’s preferences, but rather to embrace and nourish them. Those Board members and senior staff members who are fixated on preserving the past are the biggest impediments to securing the future.
I have seen and worked with (or around) passionate, dedicated hobbyists who can only view the hobby in terms of the past. If a person is going to be a positive force in moving the ANA forward they must keep their eye on the future, rather than the past. You simply cannot move forward while constantly peering into a rear-view mirror.
• We need candidates who respect our history, but are fearless of, and have a vision for the future. We need to elect people who can appreciate the evolution in the hobby over the past two or three decades, and can adapt their views so they can effectively govern in the present; all the while preparing the organization to meet the needs and the challenges of the future. The ANA should be out front as the hobby evolves, as opposed to eternally trying to catch up. We need people with vision. But the accomplishments or experiences that most candidates glow about on their resume say little about their ability to deliver it. Former ANA governor Joe Boling once grudgingly acknowledged, while referring to me during an ANA Board meeting, that I had “that vision thing.” He clearly said it in a way that sounded like “that vision thing” was some form of dread disease or toe fungus.
People of the ANA, we have to stop electing people to the Board, or Board Officers, who equate vision to toe fungus.
• And most importantly, we have to stop the process of making extensive searches to find the best available candidate for Executive Director, looking for someone who is intelligent, experienced, and capable of seeing the big picture, then handicapping that person’s leadership abilities with small minded, one-dimensional, backward looking, micro-managing bosses, who may have a new agenda every two years.
I realize that statement may sound pompous, and make some of you cringe. It may offend some, but if you want your organization to move forward and prosper, to stop making jaw dropping blunders, sudden U-turns, and the on-again, off-again, two steps forward, three steps backward pattern of recent years, then you need to give the statement above a lot of thought. If the shameful, and potentially disastrous actions taken in recent days do not awaken you to the reality of this point, then you have your head in the sand. This organization cannot keep on shooting itself in the foot and being an embarrassment to the hobby if it wants to have any chance of attracting the new blood necessary for its survival.
If we elect the wrong people to the Board, then we should not criticize them when they make the wrong decisions. We have the opportunity coming up to start the process of moving forward again, if we make the right decisions. But if we don’t all get our heads out of the sand there won’t be an ANA in 2025.
Disclosure: I am involved in litigation with the ANA stemming from the way my termination as Executive Director was handled. This is not intended however to be a retributive article. While I have tried to keep bias to a minimum, the reader needs to recognize that some bias is unavoidable. I am not going to sugar coat and say I think something is great, if I really think otherwise. But at the same time, having invested a lot of heart and effort into making the ANA better, I sincerely do want to see it survive and prosper, so the concerns expressed are real, as opposed to politically motivated.
This “Viewpoint” was written by Larry Shepherd, former American Numismatic Association executive director.
Viewpoint is a forum for the expression of opinion on a variety of numismatic subjects. To have your opinion considered for Viewpoint, write to David C. Harper, Editor, Numismatic News, 700 E. State St., Iola, WI 54990. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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