The Over Under

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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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The Over Under

By: grabitsdm | September 16, 2009
In the world of betting, the over-under is a wager that an actual score in a game will be over or under a number set by a sportsbook manager. In the nonprofit world, the over-under refers to over-organization and undercapitalization.

A lot of ink has been used to detail how little needed another museum - especially a historic house museum - actually is. Carol Kammen in her "On Doing Local History" column in the Summer 2009 issue of History News reports on a 1936 AASLH census of history related organizations that showed 583 in the United States that year. She notes the count probably was less than complete. Today estimates put that number around17,500, with most having been established in the last 40 years. Over-organization is a concern when there is a finite number of resources (time, money, people) to support each organization.

Kammen briefly touches on the sacrifices made to establish organizational presence in its community. Many unseen volunteer hours went into organizing, collecting, indexing, and making accessible the history preserved by the organization that often the community takes for granted the history without acknowledging the serious effort applied by organizers. Often efforts to establish organizations require sacrifices, but these resources can wear thin in time leaving the organization undercapitalized at its core. While some experts may say it is number of organizations and rate of creation, the real concern more likely is the unsustainable undercapitalization of core functions.

In working with well-intentioned citizens who wish to organize to preserve history, these arguments about over and under really do not concern the enthusiast. The response often is that where others have failed, they are sure to succeed. How could they not? They can see the passion, excitement, and energy around them at least in the short term, that they hope to build for the long term. But building on emotion is problematic at best and betting on the outcome is almost a near-certainty for both the enthusiasts and observers (but with two totally different expected results). The field needs to develop a menu of measures from which enthusiasts may choose in order to better evaluate their long term chances of success.

Local history organizations face these same challenges within their communities. How do you awaken enthusiasts to the hard realities of successful organizing to accomplish what they think they want to do?