Why and how historical nonprofits need to think and act differently

History Smiths

“We already tried that. It didn’t work.” “That’s not how we do things here.” “We can’t afford it.” “It will never work.” “That’s for other people.” “No one cares anyway except us.” Do any of these lamentations sound familiar? I’ve heard them all and then some, and if you’re affiliated with a small historical society or museum you probably have too. Trouble is, while amusing to a point, this kind of negative thinking gets you nowhere except confined to the cobwebs, the dusty rooms, and the “bell jar” under which too may small organizations hide. They (you?) may feel safe in their familiar comfort zone, but they will become irrelevant.

As I wrote in my chapter on historic house interpretation for Her Past Around Us: Interpreting Sites for Women’s History:

“Bringing the interpretation of historic houses up to today’s standards of inclusiveness and historical accuracy must be done — and it can be done — but the central question remains: who decides that change is needed? The best volunteer and staff intentions will never see the light of day unless there is a commitment to change at the leadership level. Too often boards of directors cling to the “great white male” and “artifact” approach. They do this to the detriment of their organizations and to the peril of the houses they so earnestly want to preserve. They are violating the public’s trust. They will drive people away, become irrelevant, and lose the support of their broader community — just when the house should be loved and supported.” The same is true for any area of change faced by a small nonprofit, not just interpretation. What is at stake? Frankly, your organization is at stake, and so is your historic house and collection. This is serious stuff. And ironically, it’s often the very people who cling so tightly to “their stuff” who are doing the real damage. Thinking differently

Public domain, public trust

Here’s a shocker. It’s not your stuff! You, your board, volunteers, and staff really need to get behind the idea that you are caretakers of all of our history. You are free to wreck your own house and belongings, but historical objects and houses under your trust do not belong to you. It was all there before you, and it will be there after you. You are caretaking for future generations, and that’s a very sacred responsibility. Tough love, I know!

You ARE in business!

Another shocker. Yes, you are in business. “Nonprofit” is simply a tax classification. “Non” does not mean AGAINST profit, it’s just about what you do with it. You invest the money you make in the organization and its mission rather than line the pockets of Wall Street types – but let’s not go there.

New ways of understanding your organization

Carl Nold, the president of Historic New England, has for the past few years taken on the mission of giving the directors of historic house museums “permission” to think differently about their properties. As he puts it, America really has too many historic house museums, and not every historic building SHOULD be a museum. Perhaps there is a better use for your building, one that would bring you income, which would then be used to preserve it! Hamilton Hall in Salem, Massachusetts is a perfect example. This historically significant building is not a museum. Instead, the nonprofit that manages it rents it out for special events. It is constant use, beloved by the community, a money-maker, and preserved for all to enjoy. Acting differently

Customer service and a welcoming environment

Here’s where you start acting differently. Small historical organizations tend to be inwardly focused. They are perceived as unwelcoming, exclusive clubs. You need to break that up immediately, even if it means “firing” the volunteers who perpetuate this culture. You will continue to drive people away if you don’t. Every member of your organization needs to treat visitors, volunteers, staff, tradespeople, members of the community, local businesses — everyone — with courtesy and a helpful attitude. This must start at the top, with your board president, filter downward, and permeate your organization. And it must be genuine. People know the difference.

You are in marketing

Whether of not you have professional staffers who understand marketing and public relations, and most small historical societies don’t, you can still engage your board and volunteers in thinking like marketers. Opportunities for you to promote your organization and collection abound, and many of them are low cost or free. In my own work as the head of two historical organizations, I was constantly balancing the acts of assertively finding opportunities for promotion and taking advantage of those that crossed my path. Today, in the talks I give on promoting historical collections, the volunteers who attend — none of them a professional promoter — are thrilled to hear specific ideas they can apply to their own situation. A few examples: Do you have a connection to a national holiday, a community anniversary, or a historical figure’s birthday? Is there a “larger” initiative in which you could take part (meaning, someone else is paying for the marketing)? I also teach people to “think like marketers” when they obtain the latest news, have conversations in town, or receive email queries. Pay attention, and listen. What are you hearing? How can you be helpful? How does your “product” connect?


“Everyone” knows they should be doing this, but “everyone” isn’t necessarily doing it. With whom do you have shared or complementary goals? Can you work with another nonprofit or local business for mutual benefit (think creatively!)? Can you share costs? Can you plan a program together and cross-promote?


Here again, we all know how incredibly powerful and effective social media and the Web are, but too many historical societies, in particular, are just not with the program. I know, because I visit their websites! This is where you do need to spend money unless you have a REALLY GOOD volunteer who knows what she/he is doing AND who will make the site and Facebook page accessible for multiple people to edit. People come and go, and you need that control. Technology is your friend. Embrace it! (It’s also fun.)   Back to “Why” Why is this stuff important? Because it’s to your peril if you don’t think and act differently. You can’t afford it, and the public deserves — and increasingly demands — responsible caretakers. If you are reading this article, you are already part of the change! Take charge, and spread it around.