By Bruce Walker
I found Larry Shepherd’s recent Viewpoint regarding the future of the American Numismatic Association to be insightful. His assessment of the demographic challenges facing the ANA could not be more timely. His observation about other organizations, such as Collector’s Universe, NGC, and CoinTalk, providing a whole new venue for collectors is an accurate statement of the changes in the hobby. These changes have eroded ANA membership, particularly among younger collectors. That all this has occurred simultaneous to a severe economic downturn and a significant increase in membership dues, leaves little mystery as to why the number of ANA members has declined significantly.
Most of the focus the last few years, at least as communicated by the board, involves education and technology. I have my doubts about the efficacy of either of these two focal points. While education enhances the enjoyment of the hobby for all who pursue it, the majority of eligible ANA members do not view education as a necessary requirement to pursue the hobby.
How often have we all heard the statement, “Buy the book before you buy the coin?” While it makes sense from a purely investment vantage point, I suspect the reality is that most collectors buy the coin, the medal, the token – in fact they buy many of them before (if ever) venturing on to in-depth educational material. And this remains true even as access to these resources has become much easier than in the past. Sure, they may own a Red Book or other entry level hobby book geared towards their specific interests, but for the vast majority of collectors – or more importantly, potential ANA members – education is not going to be the driving force behind their decision to join.
Likewise, I don’t envision technology as being the answer to declining enrollment either. For most organizations, technology is simply a tool used to reduce costs. Taken to its logical extreme, the ANA could use technology to eliminate every single job in Colorado Springs, Colo., headquarters. The organization’s coin and book collections could be digitized, then made available on a server being administered from China or India. Nearly all the U.S. employees could then be fired and shown the door. The collections themselves could then be de-accessioned, with the proceeds distributed to current ANA members. Who wouldn’t want to be on board as a member when that happened? But is that a realistic long-term goal for the organization? It certainly isn’t if the ANA wants to be around 25 years from now.
So what should be the driving force behind attracting new members? I’m convinced it’s the same thing it always was before the advent of competing organizations or network technologies. In a single word, prestige. Meriam-Webster defines it as:
1: standing or estimation in the eyes of people : weight or credit in general opinion
2: commanding position in people’s minds — pres·tige·ful adjective
Everyone, no matter their age or educational background, is familiar with prestige. Prestige is gained every time a worn key-date cull is added to a humble Whitman cent folder. The owner senses that his collection now has some mass, some depth, a level of desirability that did not exist prior to the addition of the new acquisition. In a word, the set has gained prestige by the addition of the new coin. The same applies to valuable and esoteric coins an advanced collector might obtain, each addition adds prestige to the collection.
So too, it used to be with ANA membership. I highly doubt most members originally joined the ANA looking for technological solutions that could only be accessed using an electronic device. Nor did they join because it added so many educational opportunities. Nope. The average collector joined because membership in the ANA added prestige to their own status as a collector or numismatist. To the extent that ongoing and continuing problems with the governance of the organization tarnish the prestige of being associated with the ANA, so too does membership decline.
Meanwhile, Q. David Bowers has recently put forth some very compelling suggestions about changes in the structure of the ANA and in how it is governed. One of his key suggestions is staggered elections of board members, with terms possibly exceeding two years. I personally feel Mr. Bowers has identified one of the root causes of the problems at the ANA over the past few years. It is my hope that his suggestions are eventually implemented.
Like Larry Shepherd observed, there is little point in pondering the future of the ANA without first addressing the more paralyzing handicaps of the current governance structure. Only after these difficulties have been addressed, and significant changes made to the structure of the organization, can the ANA once again claim the prestige it so rightfully earned through the course of its history. And only then can the organization hope to attract younger members. Members who once again can say they are proud to be a part of the ANA, because the ANA represents for them what they hold in esteem as collectors.
This Viewpoint was written by Bruce Walker of Kansas City, Mo. 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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