New conversations and new partnerships between "business" and "history"

History Smiths

Before I approach this topic, let me say up front that I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for many years – as a board president, board member, volunteer, fundraiser, staff member and service provider. All this is not to impress you, but to impress upon you that I know nonprofits well, and particularly historical nonprofits.

When business people get involved with historical nonprofits, it’s usually as a donor, board member/trustee, or service provider. But it’s usually about the check the business person can write. I simply don’t remember the last time a small historical nonprofit understood the concepts of relationship building, partnerships, or joint ventures. It was all about getting the check.

This scenario is not meaningful to the business person in your community who cares deeply about local history and wants to contribute in a meaningful, lasting way. Not at all.

Instead, I believe historical nonprofits need to have a different kind of conversation with their existing and potential donors from the business community.

First, you need to leave your office and go to the business person whose support you want.

Approach him or her as an equal partner in a new venture – he/she has something you want (and please don’t have it just be money), and you have something he/she wants.

You need to find out what that something is – where the two of you can meet as partners.

• What aspect of history is he/she interested in?

• What does he/she really know about your organization?

• Are there projects he/she has heard about?

• What does he/she feel needs to be done with local history that isn’t being done?

• What are his/her greatest biggest business challenges right now?

• Is there a way you can help?

• Would he/she be interested in a joint venture, one that would meet some of his/her business challenges, help your organization, and create – together – something of lasting value?

Whatever your joint venture turns out to be, you will both:

• Promote it onsite

• Promote it through your regular communications vehicles to your lists

An example of what I mean is from a friend of mine who owns a frame shop. She approached her local historical society, which has a store that sells historical prints, and offered a 20% off discount to anyone who bought a print from the historical society and had it framed at her shop. She would promote her special offer to her list and at her place of business (with samples already done), and the historical society would promote her offer in their store and every time a sale was made.

They weren’t interested! My friend was stunned, and so was I. She wanted to be a generous corporate citizen and smart business woman and she was rebuffed.

So…to all of you who volunteer for or work at small historical organizations, please hear me.

The old days are gone. You need new revenue streams beyond the annual fund and admission, and you need to think differently about the business community. They are not just walking checkbooks. Many of them have a deep interest in local history and love their community.

Please have a different conversation. Approach members of the business community with respect, as a partner, and find out how you can support each other.