About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

 In January the blog noted in Threat to Tax Deductions that some believe that only those nonprofits that address the social good should have tax deductible status, possibly ruling out local historical organizations. In the most recent issue of The Public Historian (February 2008), the entire volume looks at “Sites of Conscience.” The forward cites a 1999 meeting of historic site directors that considered how museums could serve as new centers for democracy in action. They adopted the following statement:

“We hold in common the belief that it is the obligation of historic sites to assist the pulbic in drawing connections between the history of our sites and its contemporary implications. We view stimulating dialogue on pressing social issues and promoting democratic and humanitarian values as a primary function.”

How might this statement help satisfy those that want to see tax deductibility reserved for social justice nonprofits?

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5 Responses to Being a social benefit

  1. Mary Warner says:

    If those who want to see tax deductibility reserved for social justice nonprofits can’t see the societal benefits of other nonprofits, they’re not looking hard enough. Without the work and resources of our historical society, the city of Little Falls would not have been revamped back to its original historic style. Our resources help people to figure out their connections to family and community. We can show people what happened in the past and how it affects what’s happening today. In short, we are already doing what’s in the quoted mission statement above.

    I can’t really blame people for not seeing that we’re meeting that societal need, though. The problem boils down to marketing, or rather, a lack of marketing. The reason the public knows how cool the iPod is is because Apple has spent a small fortune on advertising. The company knows how to get its message out. Small nonprofit organizations don’t have the time or money needed to blanket consumers with our message of public service.

    When we published our Nathan Richardson book, we should have spent at least a good year on marketing it. As Greg Britton of MHS Press once said, it’s easy to write and publish a book. It’s the distribution that’s hard. Marketing is a big part of that distribution, but we couldn’t take time away from other mission-related projects in order to focus solely on marketing, so it didn’t get done.

    Given what’s needed to market our organizations properly and that we don’t have the necessary resources, I’m not sure how we’re ever going to convince everyone that what we’re doing is critical to society. I can tell you one thing though, if the resources we take care of were unavailable, people would miss them and come to realize their importance.


    David Grabitske reply on May 13th, 2008:

    Is “stimulating dialogue on pressing social issues and promoting democratic and humanitarian values” enough? Should local historical organizations become advocates for social issues? I think there is an interesting shift in thinking as promoted by this statement. Rather than actively or passively documenting social issues, nonprofit historical organizations seem to be encouraged to abandon objectivity by “promoting democratic values.” Thoughts?


    Mary Warner reply on May 14th, 2008:

    I think we have to be a little careful here, David. Which social issues are we supposed to be advocates for? In taking on social issues, wouldn’t we be duplicating the efforts of many other fine nonprofits? While I can understand throwing ourselves in front of the wrecking ball on historic buildings, how would building houses for Habitat for Humanity meet our mission?

    I don’t like the idea of abandoning our objectivity because that would seem to work against the idea of promoting democratic values. Do we not need documentation of all sides of past issues collected together under the rubric of “museum” in order to continue the democratic tradition? Look what happens in the media when the stories presented get lopsided toward one ideological perspective. The information contained in museums and archives is critical to bringing back the historic balance, to uncovering the stories that didn’t get full voice (or any voice) in the popular press. If, in a democratic society, you expect your citizens to be informed, museums are a great place to start.


    David Grabitske reply on May 14th, 2008:

    Right. The 1999 statement, which is a basis for civic engagement, seems broad, and taken in light of the threat to tax deductions, perhaps is cause for reflection. Like Mary, I would not want to see objectivity lost. One of the things that the history profession teaches so well is critical thinking. The statement along with some people’s wish for a more social focus in nonprofits could be construed as a call for advocacy. Also, the statement calls for reinforcing democratic and humanitarian values. While both democracy and humanitarianism are useful, values tend to shift. Nonprofit museums hopefully will retain a strong measure objectivity to avoid sliding into a “lopsided…ideological perspective.” And, I believe museums should be civicly engaged, but hope that the public will continue to value historical objectivity.


    Mary Warner reply on May 15th, 2008:

    You know, David, I was trying to picture what exactly the writers of the aforementioned statement wanted museums to do. All I could come up with is that they envisioned us hosting town hall style meetings, where we’d have lively discussions about the issues of the day. While there may be a little room for us to do this among what other organizations do (I’m thinking MPR, here), I think this kind of activity would slice into our mission of collecting and preserving. While it might be part of our educational mission, how realistic is it that citizens would suddenly get all gung ho about having public discussions about social issues when they barely seem to have the time or desire to do that now?


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