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.
Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs
This federal commission conducted its work 1973-1975, and is often better known as the Filer Commission, after its chair John Filer. Its purpose was to investigate nonprofit charitable grantmaking with regard to the Internal Revenue Service’s oversight of taxation. One of the recommendations was for a federal advisory committee on private philanthropy and public needs to oversee nonprofits to make sure that they worked for the public good. Although temporarily begun, this committee was disbanded in 1978.
The Filer Commission authored the landmark report, Giving in America: Toward a Stronger Voluntary Sector (1975). The 248-page report is considered one of the most comprehensive studies of nonprofits, and informs most subsequent investigative initiatives.
The notion of studying nonprofits then sparked the discussion over who should study them. Should it be the government, or nonprofits themselves? Both have their problems. On the one hand, heavy regulation comes at a high cost both in money and flexibility for innovation. On the other, as noted in Data for Dollars, if nonprofits diagnose themselves, how valid, objective, or reliable is that self-study? With the federal advisory committee unsupported, a new nonprofit emerged called Independent Sector.
Independent Sector in the 1970s and 1980s set out to maintain distance between funding and study to avoid the appearance that money bought opinions. The success of their efforts naturally has been debated since. All the same, the research available on its website underscores both the kind of study needed about nonprofits and the sector’s impact.
Integrity and Confusion
This debate over who should collect data about nonprofits and interpret the meaning of the data really has never been settled.
The positive outcome of the debate has kept attention squarely focused the integrity of the data and methods. Transparency is often quite high, and if one spends time consider conclusions drawn, a great deal of clarity can emerge.
However, the negative outcome is that the field constantly receives requests to fill out yet another survey. One report after the next has new recommendations as to what to do, and sometimes distinguishing the value of each report is difficult. Confusion can reign.
Beryl Radin’s 2006 book Challenging the Performance Movement: Accountability, complexity and democratic values, examines the federal government’s use of measureable outcomes in the 1990s. She wrote “Increasingly, citizens both within the United States and across the globe are unwilling to blindly accept the level of work of a range of institutions within their societies. These include not only government institutions but also foundations and organizations in the health sector, education, and other areas.”
And for good reason – how many of us are concerned to read in the media about ‘wasteful’ spending? Thus many 'silver bullet' efforts to quantify performance have been put in place as safeguards, despite the complexity and nuance of programs that is often unquantifiable in any meaningful way.
Radin comments about this paradox, and then further notes four problems with the way performance was measured when she worked for the Department of Health and Human Services.
- First, “the agency officials who had the most difficulty complying with GPRA [Government Performance and Results Act of 1993] requirements were the very people who were most concerned about achieving effective programs.”
- Second, performance measurement “tended to be insensitive to differences.”
- Third, performance measurement “often bypassed the judgments of professional staff members who were essential to program implementation success.”
- And finally, performance measurement “rarely acknowledged the complex goals of public action, and instead, focused only on efficiency outcomes.”
Outcome Based Evaluation
If all things eventually reach a well-intentioned but ultimately unpractical state, then the drive toward performance measurement reached that with Outcome Based Evaluation (OBE). OBE seeks to set performance goals at the beginning, which if not satisfied fully, can have an adverse affect on the program’s priority in the future, which naturally raises certain fears in project managers about what happens if the effort is successful yet just misses the projected target.
The problem with OBE is that OBE seeks to simplify complex solutions and focuses on efficiency. While the finite resources available for nonprofits should never be squandered, determining measurable outcomes should recognize the complexity of what nonprofits seek to achieve and focus on effectiveness.
Two Great Questions
Therefore in terms of measuring the value of nonprofit historical organizations, these two questions remain open for debate.
First, who should collect and interpret the data? Should that be government or another party, or the nonprofit sector itself? No matter who is collecting and interpreting, how will those charged with this task gain appropriate training?
Second, how can nonprofits balance good stewardship for the finite resources available to them with the need for demonstrably effective (rather than purely efficient) programs? In other words, how can nonprofits show donors that their gifts have been responsibly used to positive result?
"Clay County Historical Society decided to do a MAP assessment because:
- we weren’t sure how visible we were in our community
- we felt we might be being overshadowed
- we might be mistaken for the other museum organization in the building (both organizations shared, held programming in and displayed exhibits in.)
"We wanted to find out:
- how much we were known
- what audiences knew about us
- how we could maximize our marketing and programming efforts.
"We had just gone through a recent long-range planning process where these questions came up, and we decided that the MAP was a tool we could use to find answers and find solutions to our perceived visibility problems. The Museum Assessment Program (MAP) is an affordable way to strengthen your museum and achieve excellence. Within a year your museum can conduct a self-study, consult with a museum professional and gain the tools to become a stronger institution."
- Lisa Vedaa, curator, Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County in Moorhead MN
"Our MAP was very useful as assessment of our organization. It showed both our weakness and strengths. When it was originally completed some recommendations were acted upon immediately while others met with board opposition. Over the years our society continued to use the assessment report as a road map for where we needed to go as an organization. As board changes have been made the wisdom in some of the comments have become apparent. We continue to find the advice useful and strive to comply with all the suggestions. The MAP was very worth while and our Society would encourage others to apply for the opportunity."
- Patrick Demuth, curator, Nobles County Historical Society in Worthington MN
"I think how MAP helped us most was to reaffirm to the board what staff already knew. I remember a board member telling me, “Did you tell him what to say? He just told us what you have been telling us all along.” It helps to hear it from someone else. We used the MAP to write our strategic plan. Once that was in place, it was our beacon to focus on."
-Wendy Petersen-Biorn, executive director, Carver County Historical Society in Waconia MN
MAP is open to small and mid-sized museums of all types, including history museums, zoos, aquariums, public gardens, art museums and children’s museums. Apply for one of three MAP assessments:
- Collections Stewardship
- Community Engagement
Apply now. The postmark deadline is February 18, 2011. MAP grants in Minnesota have been few and far between. This is an excellent program to further strengthen your museum, and reviewers are eager to help. One even came from Corpus Christi TX in late January to northern Minnesota!
MAP staff are available to answer any questions at or 202-289-9118.
The annual program is supported through a cooperative agreement between the American Association of Museums (AAM) and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
Assistant Director, Museum Assessment Program
T: 202.289.9111 | F: 202.289.6578
American Association of Museums
1575 Eye Street NW, Suite 400 | Washington DC 20005
One problem of which historical organizations all need to be aware is that the proof in cultural data collection projects really could be described as self-authenticated since it originates from the field. This is why the fourth concern about perhaps having insufficient objectivity was included - not only for inappropriate self-diagnosis, but also to insulate history museums from criticism that could undermine advocacy.
If collecting cultural data about history museums based on effective use of finite resources could be problematic, then it seems as though alignment with commonly accepted metrics might be another answer. Certainly over the years many museum conference sessions have encouraged educational institutions to align with state education standards, and to work on pressing social concerns such as closing education gaps. These are worthy and urgent goals.
One commonly accepted metric that may be useful is the North American Industry Classification System, developed by Canada, Mexico, and the United States. While history and museums are on the list, the codes for these are near the bottom of that list, and not as finely granulated as other industries. The use of NAICS can be seen in the recent 2011 Report to the Governor and Legislature from the Minnesota Historical Society that shows for every $1 spent on history projects from the Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund that an additional $1.95 is put into the economy.
A third way to establish value is to show how historical organizations assist or further public policy initiatives. One here in Minnesota that the history field should examine is The Itasca Project. The project looks at aligning public policy with a more conducive climate for business. Its aim seems to be to expand the number of taxable entities rather than continually raising taxes on an ever shrinking number of taxable entities. Since its start in 2004, the project has determined six priorities and four other initiatives. The many reports generated by the project may suggest additional ways to align the work of local history for the betterment of the state.
For example, in The Economics of Early Childhood Education the report shows that one adverse affect to early childhood development is that providers are weaker for their inability to buy services on an efficient scale. While some history museums make a concerted effort to help Home Educators to do this, and a few also reach to daycare operations, do any also reach out to stay-at home parents? While stay-at home parents may be a shrinking market, what the report really suggests is that all segments of early childhood care taken as a whole need access to economically efficient services, meaning services acquired on scale. So, while a historical organization may have a program for home schools or daycares, does it offer its service broadly at a consistent price?
If successful historical organizations reach people because they go where the people are, it may stand to reason that financially successful historical organizations will operate in the same circles as producers of wealth. It may make a certain amount of sense to thoughtfully consider how historical organizations not only contribute to the quality of life, but also contribute to the bottom line for local businesses.
In addition to the valuable self-research of cultural data collection, is it appropriate to consider alignment with established and presumably objective metrics? How about with public policy studies like The Itasca Project? What other initiatives or metrics do you use when advocating for your organization?
At this point, I am continuing to maintain paper records like they started in 1966, but my volunteers are wondering if it is worth it and want to know what everyone else is doing. :-)
Pope County Historical Society
Even in better times local historical organizations can struggle to find compelling ways to express the urgency and importance of what they do in order encourage strong giving.
There are a number of ongoing projects to develop data sets that can be used as benchmarking tools for historical organizations, sometimes within a broader scope of arts and cultural heritage. However, the field has traditionally encouraged organizations to benchmark their progress against themselves, rather than compare to other organizations. Thus these projects seek the ability to compare across institutions.
To get money, many organizations first need to prove that they are responsible stewards of the money they already have. Technical Development Corporation's paper Getting Beyond Breakeven shows some of the financial ways in which a cultural nonprofit can lay the groundwork for sustainability. One must be careful, though, with this report not to extend capitalization to the collections held in public trust.
Other financial studies have looked at specific kinds of financial support. For example, The Center for Effective Philanthropy studied General Operating Support (GOS). It found that while GOS is the single most desired kind of funding, GOS seems to work best when it is "at least six figures and multi-year." Since funders typically do not tend to grant multi-year commitments, and $100,000 or more per year is a lot money, GOS probably won't be a priority for many providers.
Others seek to delve deeper, beyond just the need for money to show the worth of investment. The Pew Charitable Trust's Cultural Data Project is a "powerful online management tool designed to strengthen arts and cultural organizations." Seemingly, though, CDP's focus is on arts organizations that are similar in some ways to history organizations, but that perhaps do not match historical organizations as closely as some would prefer.
The Institute of Museums and Library Services began a Museum Data Collection project with a report in 2005. The focus of this is tends to be on much larger museums in more regional centers. Thus the Mid-America Arts Alliance undertook a six-state study (which included historical organizations) in its report, Hidden Assets: Research on Small Museums. This report acknowledges, "Small, rural museums fill an important role in their communities. They often are the only cultural assets in their towns, but despite this role, they tend to lack the resources to sustain or improve their facilities, operations, and collections."
So this drive to find key indicators of success that should inspire stronger giving is nothing very new, but the many efforts seem to have hard to compare findings.
After looking at these various studies, there are four concerns that come to mind:
- None of the studies really make a compelling argument as to why data should be collected in the first place, beyond generic statements like "we should" or "we need to be prepared for the future" or something similar. There are no case studies to show that data has made a cultural nonprofit more stable.
- Relationships Matter. None of the studies discuss the importance of maintaining a proper balance between the inherent advantages of being nonprofit and emerging business practices. Also, none of the reports look beyond business to find commonalities with other kinds of cultural institutions.
- Since nonprofits are mission driven enterprises, and if data is to support arguments about the effectiveness of those missions, these mission statements need to be revised in such a way that the public can instantly understand qualitative outcomes based on metrics.
- Lastly, with nonprofits examining themselves to develop data sets, it seems as though perhaps the field should develop experts that would be able to objectively look at readings to interpret the data, similar to the reason we all see a doctor about our more serious medical conditions as they arise.
Key indicators of success probably would need to show relationship between income and fixed costs, engagement of supporters, rate at which new ideas are acquired, strength of the diversity of income, and relationship of the organization's product to its self-defined service area.
What kinds of data would be the most useful to you to inspire supporters to give, and why? Is it appropriate to change the field from one organization measuring against itself to making broader comparisons? Are there an inherent problems with this kind of effort that could deprive organizations of funding?
Watonwan County Historical Society in Madelia inspired generous support to complete this addition in 2004.
As is often said, the actions of a few museums color the way the public perceives all museums. The reaction can take various forms, from harmless opinions to legislative corrections suddenly deemed necessary. This is unfortunate, and perhaps the most effective step the history museum community in Minnesota can be to help refocus the message onto more productive lines of public discourse.
The Wall Street Journal of December 21, 2010, carried the article by Clare Ansberry, "For Jimmy Stewart Museum, a Not-So-Wonderful Plight." The story is familar: lots of initial enthusiasm for a museum, followed by solid attendance that slowly has been eroding, and now a story about the museum's budget and potentially bleak future.
Closer to home, the Pioneer Press of January 1, 2011, carried an article about the Serbian Cultural and History Center in South St. Paul, with much the same story of adversity mixed with urgency by Nick Farraro.
The message in both stories seems to be that certain segments of history are unimportant because too few care. That sentiment easily transfers to a broader pool of history organizations when that little yeast works its way through the rest of the batter.
While stories of adversity can inspire us to apply lessons in our own circumstances, and urgency can prompt action, both of these stories lack compelling reasons for the history museum to continue in the first place. I know there must be compelling reasons to continue, but neither story mentions what those reasons are. The stories spread further yeast to historical museums in general through fairly typically proposed "solutions" to money woes, namely writing grants, wedding rentals, resource for educational groups, or selling reproductions or even collections themselves (which is unethical).
Even when newspaper articles and other media attempt to characterize compelling reasons to support a history museum, how often is it not that the museum believes that it is out of space to store history? Surely history and the need to preserve it is more compelling than "we are out of space."
Many at Minnesota history museums, however, have had success describing compelling need and have been recognized with national awards for finding practical and yet innovative solutions to prioritized needs. The Winona County Historical Society raised over $4.5 million in a very tough economic climate. Many other historical organizations have found financial resources recently as well, and for the very reason they articulated specific compelling reasons for merit that support.
Two questions: 1) How can we as a history museum community refocus the messages about our museums to something more productive? and, 2) What examples could you share from your experience?
If people do not live near historic resources most become unfamiliar with the importance of these historic places. In a sense, depopulation is contributing to the challenges for preserving significant resources.
Could there ever be too many people living near historic resources? The Guardian News for Friday December 3, 2010, shows that too many people can also be a problem. "Italy's Abundance of Heritage Sites Leads to Indifference" shows that when there are a great many sites interspersed with a large population, the loss or deterioration of historic places is not seen as a call to action.
In America, the call to action in terms of rural resources at the National Trust for Historic Preservation seems be to blunt rapid development of areas adjacent to urban cities, resorts, and other popular destinations. The Trust's Preserving America's Rural Heritage intersects with population issues, but seems more focused on inducing visits through Heritage Tourism rather than figuring out how to help people to learn to live in those wonderful environments.
When I worked at the Sibley Historic Site in Mendota in the late 1990s, a study suggested that capacity for the Sibley House was about 7,000 people per year. More than that might love the resource to death. Beyond even this study focuses on visitation. I am unaware of any broad study of what the population density capacity near a historic resources is in general.
In a sense, to preserve historic resources, they need to be legible to people. If the resources are not seen on a daily basis, or as common as trees in a forest, it is hard for the resources to be seen.
The Guardian's story along with obvious threats to historic resources in Minnesota due to centralizing forces that encourage rural depopulation show that as in a great many things, balance is critical.
Perhaps it is time to undertake a study of population densities around historic resources to determine if there is an optimum level, and if so what that might be.
There is a deep desire to be social. There is a deep and sometimes urgent desire to raise cash. There is a deep desire to eat ice cream. The ice cream social for over a century has, more or less successfully, has attempted to fulfill all those desires in one amazing event.
Ice cream, if you pardon the pun, was a hot commodity in the beginning of the 19th century as commercial Ice Cream Gardens appeared around America and England and offered a variety of sweet treats in a garden like setting and some even offered music. These gardens gave way to Ice Cream Socials as the cost of ice cream became less expensive and churches duplicated the ice cream gardens to use them as fundraising events.
No one back then called it an “Old Fashioned" Ice Cream Social. Ice Cream Socials in the good-ol'-days were innovative - marketing genius. I am unsure just when the words "Old Fashioned" were regularly added to "Ice Cream Social", probably when it ceased to be innovative.
However, ice cream socials as mentioned at the beginning, if done correctly could satisfy a community's social, monetary and sweet tooth needs. Note that Ice Cream Socials far out numbered Brussels Sprout Socials, Broccoli Socials and Castor Oil Socials combined. Something about a sweet treat just spells out success and a guaranteed ability to attract people (Lutefisk Socials however have always been a mystery to me).
An ice cream social was an easy if not tasty way for the community to show its support.
But an ice cream social was indeed a "social" event too not just a way to raise cash. Otherwise ice cream without the social is simply as fundraising oriented as selling Girl Scout Cookies or Fuller Brushes. "Social" provides a chance for the organizations members to come together and "Ice Cream" provides the key ingredient.
I know organizations where they actually loose money on the Ice Cream Social and still consider it a success. That is what is called a loss leader. You loose money on the event/product but gain it back in sales of another product or increased memberships or simply in the difficult to monetize - strengthen of community bonds. In military terms - you may loose a battle but win the war.
In building an organizations presence on Facebook, folks could learn a thing or two from ice cream socials.
Provide real content: It is not good enough to say you're having an ice cream social only to surprise them by making them sit through a two hour long seminar on the legacy value of leaving your organization in their will when they do their estate planning before they can get their miserable little scoop of ice cream and yet amazingly that is what organizations do when all they do is use Facebook like a press release feed. Content is king with social media and historical societies and museums often lucky enough to have an embarrassing amount of content. You want to lead them back to your web site. Social networking does not work until you start producing things on your web site that people want to go to.
Provide a sweet treat: It is one thing to get someone to "Like" you it is another thing to balance your posts so they don't "Unlike" you or even worse simply "Hide" you from their news feed. So what you provide not only has to be original content but the content you provide has to be relevant to your audience. But what is relevant? Relevant does not necessary mean good for you. Remember, Ice Cream Socials are way more popular than Brussel Sprout Socials. So it is content that is simple, tastes good, easy to eat, fun and appeal to a wide audience.
I am not saying that you should not go ahead and post your organization's fifty events at once or post your research article Effects of the Disappearance of the Rocky Mountain Locust on Biodynamic corn Production in the late 19th Century American Midwest, just that the Facebook "News Feed" that appears when you log in posts does not list the most recent posts. Instead it is a complicated algorithm that aggregates posts Facebook thinks you will find most desirable based on things like the popularity of the post - or of posts similar to it; Do your friends like the post?; Have you "Liked" a post from that organization before?; How many times has your organization posted in the last hour, etc, etc...
That is why it is important to space out your event postings and why things like "Object of the Day", "Guess this Object", "Then & Now", This Day in History and. They are easy to view and easy to "Like"
Be Social: I have never heard of an "Ice Cream Business Networking" event. An Ice Cream Social may not be the best time to pass out business cards and it simply may wind up annoying any potential customers, it is a time to kick back, relax and get to know your community through ice cream.
As with social media, now is not the time to put on your professional face. Carefully crated posts in the Chicago Manual of Style may win the hearts of traditional media for your press releases, but frankly it is dull, formulaic and frankly now is chance to give your brand a little personality. Many of the social media sites are a chance to get to know your followers (admirers).
What are you doing to build community on Facebook and other social media sites? Are you really engaging? What are you doing right that others can learn from? What do you find most difficult in building and engaging with your community?
Indeed, libraries and historical organizations have a lot in common, and the two can often learn much from one another particularly as both struggle to address public expectation of instant online access. However, sometimes the rush toward this natural comparison fails to make distinctions between the two in sum.
The article cited above offers insight on one difference. Most local historical organizations' budgets should not be affected by rising cost in scholarly journals, which is a distinct difference with libraries. The story highlights the rising cost of publishing journals, specifically scientific periodicals, at the same time of diminishing government resources.
Of course, the article points out that the United Kingdom's situation is different than in the United States. And, some historical organizations, particularly larger ones, do purchase scholarly journal subscriptions. Still other local historical organizations purchase subscriptions to certain library services, such as Ancestry.com, but how many subscribe to JSTOR?
Perhaps this story suggests that one pressure libraries may feel is not one that will affect local history research libraries. Agree? Why or why not? Or, is this another case of smaller is more likely to survive? In what other ways do you perceive that local history organizations are distinct from libraries?
Last year this blog posed a question on Collecting Christmas Letters, for which there was a solid response. To expand on this question, are there any historical organizations offering training on how to write good annual summary letters?
One reason that a historical organization might offer such classes is that such an activity might be seen as relevant and useful to the public. How often have historical organizations been accused of not being relevant or even an "optional extra"? By offering something that people can immediately use, historical organizations can further dispel doubts about relevancy.
There are other far more practical reasons, perhaps, than just plain relevancy.
Since everything should start with mission, and missions of local historical organizations are usually to collect, interpret and preserve, training the public to write solid letters would go a long way towards that mission.
Articulate and insightful letters that evaluate a person or family's experience in the past twelve months are better additions to a research library than letters that lack such clarity.
By providing such classes a historical organization may attract a new audience that it has not previously served. Those people for whom the organization is new may never have thought much about history, their own legacy, or the good work being done by the organization.
By attracting new people, the organization may find new friends willing not only to donate a copy of their annual holiday summary, but also willing to contribute money and time.
Here are a few useful sites for learning how to write solid holiday letters:
How to Write Family Christmas Letters
Seven Tips for Sparkling Christmas Letters
Christmas News Letters - Suggestions and Examples
Christmas Letter Tips.com