Minnesota Local History

Minnesota Local History Blog.

Minnesota Local History Blog.

Advice and help with building history capacity.

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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Attracting Gen X Families

By: grabitsdm | January 25, 2010
The Pew Charitable Trust released a study on The New Economics of Marriage. The report shows an increase in educational attainment by wives, and a slight decrease for husbands. The report suggests then that women have more power within the household, and presumably over decisions on what the family will do.

The report seems to bear some of the general things known about Generation X families, since it focuses on people aged 30-44. Generation X places a very high value on education, and educational attainment rates tend to be higher for Gen X  than in other age cohorts. Gen X focuses on trade-offs such as what might they not be able to do if they choose to come to a history museum.

A couple years ago the Sherburne County Historical Society and I were looking at population statistics as they pondered how best to provide programs. One statistic that caught our attention was that the percentage of women-owned firms was relatively high (33%), but that most were very small with only one employee and a small percentage of the total revenue (6% of all revenue). The Pew report reminded me of these stats and Generation X: high educational attainment, individualistic, and probably an indication of the use of education to create small businesses.

What are you noticing about Generation X families in your community? How has that influenced the way you deliver your services? After reading the Pew report, does anything in that report remind you of what you see in visitation or usage at your organization?

Finding eTime with Children

By: grabitsdm | Interpretation | Information Technology | January 25, 2010
USA Today carried the story Kids' electronic media use jumps to 53 hours a week. If one goal of local historical organizations is to be where people are, and children spend 53 hours a week on average with electronic gadgets, what should local history museums be thinking about?

One approach might be to embrace all of the eGadgets and aim to put programming in them where children will encounter them. Another might be to include more of this kind of hardware in our exhibits, websites, and public programming. Another still might be to forgo eMedia altogether to offer children a break from what they do, instead of piling on more time. There should be further strategies: how will you use electronic gadgets to your advantage?

Handy Tools

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | January 13, 2010
In reading newsletters and e-blasts and other communications from local historical organizations, there seems to be a solid variety of electronic media tools that are used to further the missions of historical organizations.

What are the top ten (or any number) e-sources of information do you consult to help you do your work? Please cite specific blogs, e-newsletters, etc. What do you look for in each?

Name the top three ways you communicate electronically with your audiences. What benefits do you see from each?

Cremated Public History

By: grabitsdm | January 5, 2010
Public historians have long commented that to know a cemetery is to know a community. A recent article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota leads Midwest in a hot trend: cremation, highlights a growing challenge to this statement. What might local historical organizations do to document disposition of the dead for future genealogists? Will popular cemetery walks long endure as a public history program?

Making History Count

By: grabitsdm | December 24, 2009
When it comes to showing the worth of local history, some have noted a certain amount of difficulty in making the case to elected leaders. Perhaps one way for local historical organizations in Minnesota to further demonstrate the practicality of their missions is to become involved with the 2010 Census.

In a press release earlier today, State Demographer Tom Gillaspy noted that Minnesota stands to lose one congressional seat for the lack of 1,100 people. One of the biggest issues is where Minnesota's snowbirds are counted. For months the state has gotten the message out that snowbirds need to remember their home state when returning the census.

Is there a role here for local historical organizations? Many are in solid contact with their snowbird members through newsletters and other means. It seems to be within the twofold interest of Minnesota's local historical organizations to use their contacts to help with the 2010 Census. First, the primary responsibility of local history organizations is to record history while it happens. The Census is a once-every-10-years snapshot of who lives in the United States - history as it happens. Second, recording the census accurately will augment reference libraries in the future. Most local historical organizations provide wonderful reference libraries that contain copies of past census returns.

Ensuring that Minnesota's population is accurately counted could help preserve the state's eight congressional seats, which then in turn would influence the amount of federal aid coming to the state and its local governments. And, ensuring accuracy in the census will help our reference libraries in the future (year 2082). What is your historical organization doing to help with the 2010 Census?

Local History News check up

By: grabitsdm | December 21, 2009
In June 2009 Local History News switched to Informz, which enables Minnesota Historical Society to monitor how well this service is used. Prior to the switch it was not possible to tell beyond anecdotal evidence how well Local History News was read. Just looking at the last two months of issues, Local History News has:

  • a net gain of 82 new subscribers (currently 1,843),

  • an average delivery rate of 99.05%,

  • an average unique subscriber open rate of 43.41%,

  • an average unique subscriber click-through rate of 29.99%, and

  • an average unique subscriber forwarding rate of 12.13%.


Of course, it would be ideal if the open rate were much higher. Still, these statistics show that Local History News exceeds industry benchmarks for direct email. The Minnesota Historical Society's information technology staff report that industry standard benchmarks are currently at:

  • 92% delivery rate,

  • 40% unique subscriber open rate, and

  • 20% unique subscriber click-through rate.


EmailStatCenter shows these benchmarks:

  • 79.3% open rate,

  • 22.2% unique subscriber open rate, and

  • 5.9% unique subscriber click-through rate.


Mailer Mailer's report on email marketing for the first half of 2008(latest available) shows standards for a number of industries. Although history is not listed separately, and could fit a couple categories, for simplicity the numbers listed for nonprofit trade associations are:

  • 98.07% delivery rate,

  • 13.80% unique subscriber open rate, and

  • 1.72% unique subscriber click-through rate.


Similarly, Mail Chimp's online statistics for nonprofit e-newsletters show:

  • 27.66% unique subscriber open rate, and

  • 4.06% unique subscriber click-through rate.


Any way the numbers are cut, users of Local History News from the Minnesota Historical Society are an engaged audience. Please take a collective pat on the back and keep up the good work for 2010.

What prompts you to read Local History News each week? What is useful? What could be eliminated? All advice would welcome.

Memorials for Volunteers

By: grabitsdm | December 14, 2009
The sudden death of longtime Blue Earth County Historical Society volunteer Orv Jensen was truly unexpected. When I worked at BECHS in the early 1990s, Orv and his colleague Win Grundmeier were already veteran volunteers, and they did much to educate me about this field. Thanks, Orv, for all you did for me. You will be missed.

Earlier today I spoke with current BECHS executive director Jessica Potter, who both lamented Orv's death and those of other longtime volunteers. For the moment, each retains their mailboxes at BECHS. Jessica is thinking about ways to substantially honor people who spend abundant time as volunteers without permanent memorials affixed to the building that would have to be left behind should the museum ever move and would not be something future staff would have to find room to house (like a bronzed desk), but would be something that staff and loved ones could visit and remember the volunteer and the volunteer's contributions and passions.

How do you honor extraordinary volunteers posthumously? In what ways might volunteer memorialization be sustainable?

How many nonprofits are appropriate?

By: grabitsdm | December 11, 2009
New York Times for December 5, 2009 carried an article, "Charities Rise, Costing U.S. Billions in Tax Breaks." After noting that the Internal Revenue Service approves 99 percent of all applications to become new 501(c)(3) charities, and that the $300 billion donated to public charities last year cost the U.S. treasury $50 billion in lost revenue, the real question is whether the pace of expansion is sustainable.

With approximately 1.1 million 501(c)(3) nonprofits on the books already, that is an appropriate question as some colleagues have noted that too many adversely affect their own local fundraising. However, even Sarah Sibley in 1860 noted her difficulty in raising funds in Minnesota for the Mount Vernon Ladies Association when she wrote, "The objects of charity among us are so numerous, as to tax very severely the means of the community at large, and thus prevent those manifestations of good will to the Mt. Vernon Association which I know to exist in the State." Not only do nonprofit charities affect the national treasury, but the more of them that there are causes increased competition for a finite amount of local resources. Nothing has seemingly changed about local competition for donations in 140 years.

The answer probably is not in establishing quotas, but in guidelines that allow for competition for some number of 501(c)(3)s available that year. If charities affect treasury revenue, they must do so for a public good. Not all good purposes are necessarily as urgent, and therefore competition probably could be one way of managing the growing demand. To speculate still further, one might imagine that an economist has studied the carrying capacity of the U.S. economy in terms of how many nonprofit charities can it safely afford, similar to bond ratings and other financial safety nets. In doing a very brief search online, no such study turned up. If you know of one, please post it here. Solutions for perceived problems in this area will require thoughtful discussion and further research. 

What have you noticed about the growth of 501(c)(3) charities in your community? Do you suppose limitations on the number of charities necessarily focus donations more effectively or limit the adverse affect on the U.S. treasury? Why or why not?

Heritage Tourists visit Facebook

By: grabitsdm | Information Technology | December 7, 2009
In "A New Study Reveals Popularity of U.S. Cultural and Heritage Travel" on Gozaic a summary of new findings is provided. What caught my attention was that 42% of heritage travelers use Facebook. It would be interesting to know if there is any kind of a trend, or which of the many social media outlets heritage travelers are more likely to use.

How might historical organizations document changes in visitation based on social media?

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?

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