Identity is a key message

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The Minnesota Historical Society’s Local History Services helps Minnesotans preserve and share their history. This blog is a resource of best practices on the wide variety of museum, preservation, conservation, funding, and non-profit management topics. We’re here to help.

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Identity is a key message

By: grabitsdm | December 4, 2009
An article from Thursday December 3, 2009 in BusinessNorth highlights potential one reason for the sudden closure of Minnesota Discovery Center (formerly Ironworld) in Chisholm just before Thanksgiving. That reason is a lack of identity for the organization: is it a historical repository or an amusement park?

Having a strong sense of what it is that an organization does is important. So important that the new Form 990 places prominent emphasis on mission like it has not done before: it is on the first page! Indentity helps the public quickly understand purpose and grants access to the benefits of the organization.

Minnesota Discovery Center is not alone in this struggle. Many nonprofit organizations suffer "mission drift" due to the misplaced enthusiasm of well-intentioned people or by chasing after perceived available money. To be successful, organizations like the people of which they are composed need to stay focused.

Another organization with which I've worked is a classic example. Dedicated staff over the years have wanted the institution to be a historical repository to facilitate education, while most board members simply desired it to be a tourist destination and one founder wanted it to be a Hall of Fame. It is not that these are completely incompatible, and there may be a way to synthesize these ambitions into a single clear direction. However, with so many competing visions this institution confuses potential donors and grantmakers. The challenge for nonprofit historical organizations is to be clear with the public about what we do specifically, how we do that (standards), and why is this so important. In the case of this organization, it will have to consider what the legacy of each vision will mean for the future of the organization.

From news sources about the Discovery Center's closure, the message from Ironworld Development Corporation's board recognizes this need for clear identity. That's the first step in the right direction. Now the hard work begins in formulating that identity and communicating it to supporters and the public who might only now remember that "Minnesota Discovery Center closed."

Can you share how your organization has dealt with issues of organizational identity? How were you able to bring closure to those questions and move forward with clarity? What lasting impacts to your organizational reputation continue to need attention?