The American Philatelic Society’s membership numbers are well down from its 1980s peak. Youth engagement is central to its new recruitment strategy.
A report on last weekend’s StampShow conference in Columbus, Ohio, included some troubling numbers about its lead sponsor, the American Philatelic Society. Membership in the association of stamp collectors is now at 29,000 after a peak of 55,000 in the early ‘80s. Moreover, 80 percent of APS members are over 60 years old.
Take those numbers with a grain of salt, cautioned APS Executive Director Scott D. English. Membership restructuring and dues raises have cut into the membership numbers, he said, but the association enjoys a retention rate of 90 percent. As for the age of membership, English said it’s always been thus. “I could pull out [APS] journals from 1900, from 1920, 1940, you name it, that basically say the same thing: ‘We have too many white hairs around and not enough young people.’”
Stamp collectors, English said, tend to pursue the hobby at an early age, then set it aside in their teens and 20s before returning to it. Part of the goal of the most recent StampShow was to attract families with young children and stoke that engagement and reengagement: Admission is free, and the show highlighted a kid-friendly dragon theme. But the show also was designed to emphasize the breadth of interests that mom and dad collectors can pursue: This is the first year that APS has partnered with another cosponsor, the American Topical Association, which focuses on theme-based stamp collectors.
We aren’t promoting stamp collecting when we all feel like we have to individually have our own shows.
“I started meeting with the president of the Topical Association and I just said to him, ‘We aren’t promoting stamp collecting when we all feel like we have to individually have our own shows,’” English said. “One of the purposes of the show has got to be to promote the hobby to the public at large.” Starting in 2020, English said, APS will bring in a third sponsor for the show, the American First Day Cover Society, an organization focused on stamps postmarked on their day of issue.
While APS is working to keep interest in the hobby from being diluted across multiple shows, it’s also trying to boost engagement among the teens and twentysomethings who typically put stamp collecting on the shelf. It’s reemphasized its Young Philatelic Leaders Fellowship, a program for 16-to-24-year-olds that connects them with professionals in the field. Though the program has been in place since 2009, English—who joined APS in 2015—wants to make sure the program empowers more of its participants into leadership roles, such as running stamp gatherings.
“We’re providing opportunities for them that are really more than just, ‘Wait your turn, collect your stamps, and then we’ll let you know when you’re 50 and you’re OK to do something,’” he said.
The most important measurement for APS, English said, isn’t age but number of membership applications: Engagement with youth, other organizations, and resellers like eBay (which does a healthy amount of selling to collectors) will help inspire people to join.
“My objective in the long term is to expose the organization to as many people as possible and bring that application number back up,” he said. “My metric is always going to be the number of new applications I get every year.”