About The Author

David Grabitske

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

In the world of betting, the over-under is a wager that an actual score in a game will be over or under a number set by a sportsbook manager. In the nonprofit world, the over-under refers to over-organization and undercapitalization.

A lot of ink has been used to detail how little needed another museum – especially a historic house museum – actually is. Carol Kammen in her “On Doing Local History” column in the Summer 2009 issue of History News reports on a 1936 AASLH census of history related organizations that showed 583 in the United States that year. She notes the count probably was less than complete. Today estimates put that number around17,500, with most having been established in the last 40 years. Over-organization is a concern when there is a finite number of resources (time, money, people) to support each organization.

Kammen briefly touches on the sacrifices made to establish organizational presence in its community. Many unseen volunteer hours went into organizing, collecting, indexing, and making accessible the history preserved by the organization that often the community takes for granted the history without acknowledging the serious effort applied by organizers. Often efforts to establish organizations require sacrifices, but these resources can wear thin in time leaving the organization undercapitalized at its core. While some experts may say it is number of organizations and rate of creation, the real concern more likely is the unsustainable undercapitalization of core functions.

In working with well-intentioned citizens who wish to organize to preserve history, these arguments about over and under really do not concern the enthusiast. The response often is that where others have failed, they are sure to succeed. How could they not? They can see the passion, excitement, and energy around them at least in the short term, that they hope to build for the long term. But building on emotion is problematic at best and betting on the outcome is almost a near-certainty for both the enthusiasts and observers (but with two totally different expected results). The field needs to develop a menu of measures from which enthusiasts may choose in order to better evaluate their long term chances of success.

Local history organizations face these same challenges within their communities. How do you awaken enthusiasts to the hard realities of successful organizing to accomplish what they think they want to do?

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One Response to The Over Under

  1. Mary Warner says:

    Sometimes the only way to awaken people to the hard realities of starting & running a nonprofit is to go ahead and let them try. Thing is, you can have lots of experience with running a nonprofit & can forewarn enthusiasts of the many challenges that lie ahead and they won’t believe you. (Remember, experts come from out of town with slides. Surely they can’t reside among us. 😉 )

    If someone is really interested in starting a nonprofit in Minnesota, I suggest they contact the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, which has a web page full of suggestions about other ways to accomplish what they want without starting a nonprofit.


    I think what existing nonprofits can do is find ways for people to engage in an organized effort/interest without feeling the need to start another nonprofit. Easier said than done, I know, but obviously something we need to address if we don’t want a glut of undercapitalized nonprofits.


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