New revenue streams for historical nonprofits

History Smiths

Some of you reading this know that I have spent many years in the historical community as the board president of a historic house museum, as the director of a historical society, as a board member, volunteer, consultant, service provider….Point being, I am well familiar with the challenges all of you face. I faced them too, and I have the scars to prove it!

However – and I say this out of love and concern – I am also well aware of the opportunities that too many small historical organizations don’t take advantage of.

I am aware of the “poverty mentality,” the limiting mindset, and the overwhelming feeling that it’s all too much – you will never have enough money, time, or people to do what needs to be done.

Meanwhile, historic houses languish, archives and collections are not properly cared for, membership dwindles, volunteers age and pass on….My God, how depressing!

But here’s the thing. I just don’t think it has to be this way – I really don’t — and I’ll bet you don’t either.

But we can’t expect a different outcome if we keep doing things the same way. You need to be open to new ways of doing things, including finding new revenue streams.

And what I am offering all of you – through the ebook I’m publishing on how to do a business history, through the articles and reports here at, and through the services I provide my clients, are opportunities for some new revenue streams for you.

Let me give you three ideas right now.

First: business history research

A lot of businesses will purchase my ebook on how to do a business history, which will be available in just a couple of weeks. It’s a step-by-step manual, and I will tell you that I advise readers to contact all of the repositories of information in their community, state, and beyond if it’s appropriate and work with them. That’s you.

Some businesses will do the work themselves, but most will need help, and this is where you come in. If you can designate a person or persons as the go-to business history resource – and charge for it – that’s a revenue stream.

Yes, I’m sure you offer research assistance, but this is a specialized service you can now announce and promote in your community. It would be ideal if you could offer examples of a business history you’ve already done, or feel free to use my own work at

And please don’t charge $10 an hour! Historical societies are notorious for undercharging. It’s part of the poverty mentality. You are worth much more than that, so please charge more. And remember — they need you. You have knowledge, experience, and time they don’t have!

Second: Business history images

Businesses will need images and that’s another revenue stream for you. Again, I’m sure you’re already doing this, but you need to charge more. You also need to have your photographs digitized. Many of you have, or you’re in the process, but this is an ideal opportunity for a local business to be a local hero. Find one that can partner with you, especially one that has scanners and staff. Or, find one that can provide you with the equipment. It’s up to you, but you need to get it done. You need to be able to send out photographs right away, and not tell a business it will take 4 weeks to process. No one in the business world waits 4 weeks for anything!

In addition, do people in your community know what you have in your photography collection? Does you state historical society? Do you have specialized libraries in your area who should know? An example of what I’m talking about is the Baker Library at Harvard University. It’s the business library, and they happen to house the papers of Augustine Heard, one of America’s early China Trade success stories. He was from Ipswich, Massachusetts, and when I was at the historical society we made sure that they knew what we had and we knew what they had.

That way, any scholar working with those papers would know that portraits, paintings, and objects were in Ipswich and we could make money.

Letting people know what you have in your photography collection as part of your new business history service is another promotional opportunity for you!

Third: Partnerships

If a business in your community has done its history, you need to celebrate them. Can you host a display about their business (including a panel about how you helped)? Can you write about the project in your newsletter? You will get their name and your endorsement in front of your members, board, and trustees. Those are all potential new customers for the business. (And if they’re smart, they will make a special offer.)

In return, ask the business to offer a special discount to their customers for joining your organization. Ask them to make an outright donation or join at a significant level. Even better, can you co-host a function at their business where they will have a display and you will speak at the event? You will co-promote the event, and meet dozens of potential new members, donors, and volunteers.

If you do this right, you will inspire more and more businesses to do their own business history. Frankly, this work could turn into a business center for your organization.

These are just some ideas, and there are more in my ebook, A Source of Pride (and Customers): A Historian’s Guide to Doing Your Business History which I invite you to learn more about here.

Yes, businesses will buy this book, but it belongs in your library as well! I provide a lot of tricks of the trade because I’ve been doing this for many years.

I HOPE you are inspired to try these ideas, because I would love to see more businesses learn and take advantage of their history, I would love to see more private sector dollars come your way, and I would love to see more businesses and historical organizations forge long-standing, mutually beneficial partnerships.

A lot is at stake. I know. And I want to help.