Making the World a Better Place for Entomology: A Q&A with David Gammel
By Helen Spafford, Ph.D.
Editor’s note: David Gammel, CAE, has been the executive director of the Entomological Society of America for the last nine years. He recently announced his resignation from the Society to pursue a new opportunity as a principal with McKinley Advisors. Helen Spafford interviewed him about his time at ESA, his work as an executive director, and the field of entomology. Excerpts from the conversation can be found below.
Spafford: For the last nine years you have been the executive director of ESA. What tasks do you enjoy most and least about the work of an executive director?
Gammel: I think what I like most about this role is that I’m the one person in the world who’s paid full-time to care about entomology in its entirety. Sometimes I joke with my wife when I leave for work in the morning, “I’m off to make the world a better place for entomology!” Work I can do, conversations I have, or things that I can help advance to serve the discipline, and really help the individuals within it, are the things I enjoy most. The stuff I enjoy the least is the administrivia. Those activities not contributing to the mission tend to be my least favorite things.
What drew you to the position as executive director of the ESA?
I’ve worked with membership associations and nonprofit organizations my whole career. What I like about associations, in general, is that the organizations are dedicated to helping advance either an entire industry or profession or a group of people that have something in common. I get to help people be better at what they do and what they are passionate about. That’s always been a good hook for me.
When this opportunity came up, 10 years ago, I was a consultant. I had my own consulting business working with associations on web strategy and technology. I think everything the society needed was something that I had touched on in my career, for most of it. They wanted to grow internationally, they wanted to increase their influence, they wanted to broaden engagement in the society. ESA was coming off some years of turmoil in the executive director position, looking to get a little steadier, and get some things done. All these things were attractive to me.
I do look at this role as a form of service. I am a steward of the organization, the discipline, and the membership. It is not my castle, it is theirs. I’m here to make sure it is better off when I leave it than it was when I got there.
How did you and the board at that time work together to move through that tumultuous period and then effect future growth?
With me coming in, there were relationships that had to be repaired. A lot had been damaged.
I purposely came in to my first year with a very soft hand in terms of change. I did not plan to change a whole lot in my first year. I did a lot of listening. I talked with people and asked questions, tried to repair relationships and build trust.
There is a saying I learned from people in the military: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” If you move slowly you can do something smoothly, right? You first build cooperation and consensus. Once you have that consensus you can move pretty quickly to get stuff done. It’s really critical for decision making in associations and nonprofits, in general, to build consensus and the capacity to execute on it at the same time so you can move and have an effect.
Consensus is hard. You’ve got to take your time, but once you’ve got it you can move as long as you have got the resources in hand to really do something. The unique thing about associations that gives them their inherent authority and value is this consensus-based decision-making model. Consensus-based decision-making really gives ESA credibility. It gives us the authority to speak out on things that are in our wheelhouse, and people will listen to us because of that.
So, building that consensus was important in moving through that tumultuous period. Repairing those relationships and building trust was important, too.
Yes. I had a good friend that as I came into this job, I was talking with him about preparing for it. He said to me, “You know David, just go in there and honor their work. Even if you don’t understand what it is, honor it. Show respect for it.” I discovered that one great way to show respect for it was to show interest in it. When I first came in, I tried to learn as much about entomology as I could. I sat in on scientific sessions and student talks. Apparently, I was one of the few executive directors in recent memory to do that. Members noticed. I not only increased my knowledge, but it helped build trust too.
I do think with associations and nonprofits you have to be able to muster some empathy for what your members are doing even if you don’t fully understand the technical side of it. You need to at least be able to appreciate it and personally value it because if you don’t, you are not going to be able to do this job effectively. I’ve been approached by recruiters over the years, and some of them were for associations whose missions I just couldn’t get out of bed in the morning for.
But you got out of bed for bugs.
What do you feel are ESA’s greatest strengths moving forward, and what are the challenges facing the organization?
The big challenge, and it is not just ESA but all scientific societies, is that the publishing enterprise is changing radically. Organizations need to adapt to that. That’s going to be hard because scientific societies have been used to having that revenue for their entire existence.
ESA’s big opportunity is that entomology matters. The discipline is so relevant. There are so many issues going on in the world today, whether it is sustainable agriculture, human health, animal health, biodiversity, climate change. They all have something to do with insects. That’s a huge advantage.
ESA’s other advantage is that it has a really passionate and engaged membership who donate so much time and effort to the organization. I see that continuing to grow. It is something that can be relied on and continue to develop.
What are your thoughts about the nine years at ESA?
What I have loved about this job is that it has used absolutely every experience I’ve had in my career. It doesn’t matter, from camp counselor to web developer to consulting, it has all been useful, especially the camp counselor one. But it also threw things at me that I had never had to deal with before. I got to learn a lot, identifying new opportunities for the organization and then helping them become a reality. The whole ride has been great. I don’t have too many regrets. It has been a blast.
Bonus reading: To get to know ESA’s incoming executive director, Chris Stelzig, check out this fun interview with him in the Annapolis, Maryland, Capital Gazette and ESA’s press release announcing his hire.
Helen Spafford, Ph.D., is an entomologist, a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at the University of New Orleans, and a member of the ESA Science Policy Fellows Class of 2015. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.