In The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale said, “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” A career in politics taught me two valuable lessons about criticism: 1. Don’t let it define you, and 2. Buried in it is useful information.
A recent comment on a stamp collecting forum stated, “APS Membership is no longer a metric for anything. My feeling is that the APS membership number is meaningless since at least 2000 or so and becomes more meaningless every day. Too many of the younger generation have no interest in paying for something that gives them little or no benefit. The model just does not work anymore.”
The commenter is a mature collector who last belonged to the APS when former President Bill Clinton was still in his first term. That’s not outright dismissal, but it does provide necessary context. Is he right? That merits some discussion.
From our website, we know more than half of our users are 55 and younger, with 41 percent ages 25 to 50. Those numbers remain consistent monthly, so we know we’re attracting collectors outside our membership. Engaging those users and building a relationship is the next step. The website modernization was the first step in the process, improving the user experience, expanding what we offer online, and increasing our ability to build relationships.
Let’s look back at our roots. As stamp collecting grew in popularity in the 19th century, the Chicago Stamp Collectors Union convened prominent philatelists under the Committee on National Organization. In April 1886, the Committee put forth six reasons to form a national organization (summarized below):
1. “In union there is strength”;
2. National recognition of the hobby;
3. Connect collectors to exchange ideas and information;
4. Protect against counterfeits;
5. Lower market prices through competition;
6. Following Europe in creating a national stamp collecting organization.
This solicitation led to the formation of the American Philatelic Association in September 1886, with more than 200 members. This month, 136 years later, the organization remains home to more than 26,000 collectors worldwide. We’ve had highs and lows over the years, and while philately has changed, the underlying need we provide for the hobby has not.
At our inception, the APS relied on a network of stamp clubs to distribute information and recruit members. Stamp conventions gave way to regional and national-level stamp shows where collectors could buy and sell stamps. Philatelic exhibits are mounted in 16-page frames, highlighting material and research.
What we do becomes habitual to the point of comfort. If carried on long enough, the activities become the end rather than a means. We have, to some degree, lost sight of the mission given to us in 1886 to bring collectors together to acquire and dispose of stamps, learn and socialize. We wrestled with this challenge before the pandemic, but the past two-plus years have made it more apparent.
How do we bring this largely unorganized segment of the hobby to join us? That’s the question we will be working to answer in the months ahead. I’ve invited some of the most active online philatelists to consider the hobby's future, what it will look like and how the APS can continue to provide the same mission in the modern world. It’s not a simple answer, but it requires some understanding of the online community and the needs we should address.
Input is critical, and I always invite APS members to share their thoughts in the Letters to the Editor section or with me directly at email@example.com. I see a bright future for our hobby, but we cannot wait for it to come; we must lead the way.