Business Planning for Professional Genealogists (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice  by Louise St Denis, Brenda Dougall Merriman and Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Research Services

What Kind of Research Service?

Unless you are a truly experienced researcher with plenty of confidence in your skills, you will probably want to start out with searching for specific records or answering relatively simple queries. However, even complex requests or long-term projects can be “broken down” into manageable portions. The more you work with records and sources (repetitious but effective) the more your ability to evaluate and analyze will grow.

This section focuses only on the type of research service you might offer. You are already familiar with family research for yourself or others. Ask yourself first: What resources will I focus on?

  • By resources, we mean the places (repositories, libraries, archives, FamilySearch Centers, universities, historical societies, Internet, etc) that hold the various types of records and materials you need to consult.
  • By sources, we mean the actual records or documents or books that contain the information you are looking for.

Geography Plays A Part

If you are resident in Alberta, you are not likely to offer a service for Louisiana parish records. If you live in Australia, you may not expect to be a French Canadian expert. We can safely generalize to say that where you live plays a major part in your decision about where you can conveniently spend your research time. You have hands-on access to your local resource centers and whatever original materials they hold. There is much to be said for becoming known as a Manitoba Métis specialist in Winnipeg or a DAR Library specialist in Washington DC.

Of course there are always exceptions to this general rule!

  • The Internet now makes it possible to quickly contact or find information about distant sources and resources. However, what you can actually access are likely only finding aids, catalogues or inventories. In other words, you can seldom view actual documents on your home computer screen (although this too is changing all the time).
  • In Canada and the United States, borrowing microfilm via inter-loan (also called interlibrary loan or inter-institutional loan) from some archives or large libraries is an option if your nearest public library has a microfilm reader. Films are sent to the library, not to you! Popular usage might mean several weeks’ wait for the arrival of your requested material. Books too can be borrowed.
  • The LDS FamilySearch Centers—if you are within reasonable distance of one—also bring distant records to you via microfilm. Many researchers with access to the Family History Library or one of its branches feel confident in using the records of many different regions or countries in this manner.

Finally, the knowledge you built up in your own family research plays a part in determining which sources and resources you feel comfortably experienced with. You may already be aware that family research or client research can take twists and turns into territory unknown to you and at that point you will need to decide if you can best serve your needs with a new personal learning curve, or whether hiring another professional in that region or specialty would be of the most benefit.


If you live in a smallish town with limited resources there is convenience and advantage in becoming the local expert. On the other hand, one of those side trips into unknown territory may have triggered your interest enough to thoroughly delve into a fascinating sidelight of genealogy. You might further develop this interest and knowledge to specialize in that subject.

Now in the 21st century, researchers almost have to concentrate their sights on a specialized approach. That is because we are constantly bombarded with information about new discoveries, sources, strategies, products and services. None of us can possibly know every thing about every subject that involves genealogy! A huge flood of news comes to us via our print and Internet subscriptions (including websites, list serves and chat forums) and at times it can be overwhelming. Some random suggestions for special focus are:

Religion: Have you studied one particular denomination, and/or are you close to their archives or headquarters? Almost any religious denomination is a case in point.

Migration and Settlements: Perhaps you had ancestors in the Highland Clearances or on Australian convict ships. Huguenots or Acadians are other examples of large migrations, although there are scores of smaller, distinct groups. Who are the Scandinavians who moved to the American mid-west? Why did certain Germans join the British Army and end up in 18th century Canada? Maybe you’re the best person to research and answer questions from such areas.

Heir Searching: This is a specialized aspect of research sometimes called forensic genealogy; it can be individual work, or for an already existing company that concentrates on these matters. Probate courts have regular lists of deceased persons whose estates have not been claimed by any heirs. In Canada, many such estates are handled by a provincial Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee, which hires genealogists to trace living heirs. Legal firms may also need genealogical expertise for heir tracing.

Medical: The need for professional genealogy is growing in the field of genetics; hereditary diseases and medical research into their causes and cures require a family history for about three generations of participants in a study group. The tracing of extended family members may also be needed. Genetic counselling clinics may also find genealogy services useful.

Native: Native and tribal genealogy is a specialty that combines traditional research techniques with knowledge of specific sources, and contacts with individual tribal councils or governments. The latter will have their own requirements for proof of status. Some genealogists also work for native interests in disputed land claims.

Adoption: The most sensitive specialty of all, adoption work starts with a living person and largely deals with contemporary sources which can differ from one case to another. Knowing how government or private adoption agencies operate is a must. Reunions can obviously be immensely rewarding for the parties but they are emotional and need a professional in that field.

Military: Perhaps this is an interest you can develop from the background of one of your own ancestors—army, marine, navy and air force records; regimental, ship or squadron histories; awarding of medals; campaigns and battles; and so on. Few genealogists seem to penetrate more than a superficial layer of the massive paperwork created by government for their armed forces.

Lineage: Tracing direct lines of descent may be of more interest to you than the “all the descendants in every generation” mode. You may prefer to work with applicants for one particular lineage society with whose membership requirements you are thoroughly familiar.

Fees and Charges

How will you charge for your services, and how much? This is a big question on the minds of newcomers entering professional practice. First of all, you need to have your business goal and plan in mind. Will you be part-time for supplemental income, or full time for a profitable, living wage? Either way, a professional expects to be properly compensated for performance. What is the income level you need or expect? Clearly, the answer will range widely among individuals.

Before you can set a fee or rate, quite apart from the initial business setup, equipment purchases and all the indirect expenses of running an office or business, you must evaluate your costs and expenses incurred for a client. Indirect expenses refer to supporting costs and can be income tax-related, as in the Business Plan section. Direct expenses incurred for an individual client may be such things as photocopy/printout charges, paper and envelopes, entrance fees to repositories, travel to and from or between repositories, phone calls, postage, sub-contracting, and so on. Will you charge extra for these, or build them into your fees? If you charge extra, this must be clearly outlined to potential clients in advance, and itemized on any invoice you prepare.

Chapter 10 by Sandra Luebking in Professional Genealogy addresses this issue in much more detail; she suggests two tried-and-true formulas for an hourly billing operation:

  • salary + expenses + profit = targeted income
  • targeted income + billable hours = hourly fee

Billable hours are the amount of time spent on client work—the research and reporting. For most professionals, this number fluctuates during any given week and normally increases as your business grows. When starting out, you will have to set whatever looks realistic to you.

Be assured that whatever you charge a client, it is customary to ask for an advance deposit or retainer before undertaking his project. Here is a spot where you may decide at the outset that you will not initiate a project without x-number of hours’ advance payment, applied to all new clients. With repeat clients and projects done in stages, you would use your own judgment about the possibility of subsequent invoicing after the fact.

In the two approaches that follow, all the direct and indirect costs and expenses need to be factored into your decision.

Hourly Billing

The suggested formula for determining an hourly rate relies on your desired income level with (gross) or without (net) your expected costs and expenses. It also takes into account how many hours you want or expect to work at this business. The calculation can be done on a monthly or annual basis, whatever suits you.

In a purely business way, you will add gross income and expenses together and then divide by your number of expected working hours, which will give you the hourly fee you should charge. However, a few other factors may come into play, depending on various circumstances:

  • Supply and demand! Or conversely demand and supply, with “demand” being the foreseeable client interest and “supply” being the number of available researchers to provide the service. Are there many professionals already working in your local area, or in the field you choose? Can you predict the demand, or volume of business you can expect? Will you be sharing that demand with other, perhaps more seasoned, researchers?
  • The going rate - The above leads to good advice to learn how, and how much, other professionals are charging for their services, especially in your local or chosen area. You’ll find a certain reluctance to discuss this personal issue because each may have calculated his/her fees in different ways. But the “going rate” parameters do have some influence. If the average charge in your local area or chosen specialty is $15.00 per hour, then your decision to charge $30.00 per hour may not attract enough clients to make a viable business unless you can do the necessarily aggressive marketing. Competition is the reverse face of professional networking, but active networking also gives you the credibility for frank discussion with colleagues.
  • Experience and credentials can justify a heightened hourly rate. If your experience has spanned many years, or includes more than your own family history, or you’ve concentrated on a specialty topic, you may feel you deserve more than say $15.00 an hour. A diploma or certificate for completing courses of study could nudge your fee upwards. If you have become certified or accredited, you can feel confident that such peer recognition justifies a little more than the average hourly fee. This might also apply to a university degree in an allied field such as history or law, but it does not mean that a degree in engineering or journalism has a direct impact on genealogical research.
  • Advanced services are offered by researchers who are skilled and confident enough to compile family histories or extended genealogies for a client. This normally unfolds as your name becomes known among your peers, or by word of mouth from clients that you are an accurate, well-experienced professional. Obviously, additional skills are essential here: how to format a genealogy, how to write well, how and where to add relevant contemporary information to present a full and interesting family history. You may have special training in other fields that could enhance your services, such as reading/writing a foreign language, or knowledge of printing and publishing.
  • Work for other professional firms might be a matter of charging a higher rate for your research and/or consulting skills. This is what some professionals advocate because in most cases their hourly rates would be much higher than ours, and we are providing them with an unfamiliar special service. Examples would be being retained for legal, archaeological, or medical/genetic projects.

Package or Project Rates

There are those of you who may prefer to offer “package rates.” You can set a specific figure for an assortment of package types you think are attractive. You may include basic index searches and census returns in one package or religious records as another. The more you include in a package, the more time it takes, then the more you must charge for it.

This can appeal to clients who have no foreknowledge at all about genealogical sources or procedures, clients who are starting from scratch on their family history. By offering a collective group of records at one go, a new client will feel like they are getting value for their money although they must pick and choose with your guidance.

The upside is that you can likely prepare customized forms for your working time (collection of information) but we certainly don’t recommend passing them on as “reports” to the client. If you stick only to packages, it may be more difficult to tailor proposed research for the individual clients and their ancestors. In other words, the downside may be weakness on the research plans or proposals which must address each individual case.

When outside professions or firms ask for your services, they may ask for a ballpark figure to cover your part of a larger project. Examples could be work for legal, archaeological, or medical enterprises, or a government department. This will take very careful planning to make such an estimate. Indeed, in these circumstances a written contract or agreement may be involved. If they intend to pay on an hourly basis, with authorization for x-number of hours, many genealogists have a policy of a higher rate for corporate work. Also, in many instances, you can expect to receive payment a few months later (unlike genealogy clients who normally pay part upfront and the remainder on receipt of a report).


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Methodology - Part 1: Getting Started, Methodology - Part 2: Organizing and Skillbuilding, Methodology - Part 3: More Strategies, Methodology - Part 4: Effective Searching and Recording, Methodology - Part 5: How To Prove It, and Methodology - Part 6: Professional Preparation and Practice offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about these courses or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.