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David Grabitske

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

An article from Thursday December 3, 2009 in BusinessNorth highlights potential one reason for the sudden closure of Minnesota Discovery Center (formerly Ironworld) in Chisholm just before Thanksgiving. That reason is a lack of identity for the organization: is it a historical repository or an amusement park?

Having a strong sense of what it is that an organization does is important. So important that the new Form 990 places prominent emphasis on mission like it has not done before: it is on the first page! Indentity helps the public quickly understand purpose and grants access to the benefits of the organization.

Minnesota Discovery Center is not alone in this struggle. Many nonprofit organizations suffer “mission drift” due to the misplaced enthusiasm of well-intentioned people or by chasing after perceived available money. To be successful, organizations like the people of which they are composed need to stay focused.

Another organization with which I’ve worked is a classic example. Dedicated staff over the years have wanted the institution to be a historical repository to facilitate education, while most board members simply desired it to be a tourist destination and one founder wanted it to be a Hall of Fame. It is not that these are completely incompatible, and there may be a way to synthesize these ambitions into a single clear direction. However, with so many competing visions this institution confuses potential donors and grantmakers. The challenge for nonprofit historical organizations is to be clear with the public about what we do specifically, how we do that (standards), and why is this so important. In the case of this organization, it will have to consider what the legacy of each vision will mean for the future of the organization.

From news sources about the Discovery Center’s closure, the message from Ironworld Development Corporation’s board recognizes this need for clear identity. That’s the first step in the right direction. Now the hard work begins in formulating that identity and communicating it to supporters and the public who might only now remember that “Minnesota Discovery Center closed.”

Can you share how your organization has dealt with issues of organizational identity? How were you able to bring closure to those questions and move forward with clarity? What lasting impacts to your organizational reputation continue to need attention?

6 Responses to Identity is a key message

  1. [...] update on the Ironworld closure:  an article linked by David Grabitske asserts that the Minnesota Discovery Center’s problems stemmed from an identity crisis: [...]

  2. Barb Sommer says:

    David:

    Thank you for an insightful article about the recent sudden closing of the Minnesota Discovery Center (Ironworld). While I am glad to hear its Board is working to clarify its identity as an organization, I hope no one loses sight of the extensive archival collections at its research center. What is the current status of these unique Minnesota history primary source materials? Did the decision to close the entire facility put the research center collections at risk? What is the current status of the collections? What role will the collections play in the identity discussions? And what are long-term plans for protection of and access to the collections should the Board decide not to continue the research center function? These are questions for everyone interested in Minnesota history and the unique contributions that the research center collections make toward an understanding of our past.

    Thanks again for a helpful article.

    Barb Sommer

    Reply

  3. Barb:

    Many of the answers to your question might be answered in this news article from Nov. 20:

    http://www.businessnorth.com/briefing.asp?RID=3249

    Of particular note: “Iron Range Resources is moving quickly to ensure that the Minnesota Discovery Center complex and its important historical and cultural materials are protected and preserved,” said Sandy Layman Iron Range Resources commissioner. “Although the IDC board and staff have earnestly worked to successfully operate the facility, this deficit has caused both the IDC and agency to evaluate future operating scenarios. We will work with Ironworld Development Corporation to determine long-term operational solutions.”

    Hope this helps.

    The events of the past few weeks in Chisholm likely will be illustrative for a number of case studies. No less important than many of the obvious applications is the caution of having a clear identity with audiences. It seems greatly encouraging that this was acknowledged and I believe good things may be expected as a result.

    If others have examples of experiences that would broaden this discussion of public identity, please share.

    Reply

  4. Minnesota Discovery Center will reopen soon after an infusion of operating dollars:

    Duluth News Tribune:
    http://www.duluthnewstribune.com/event/article/id/154736/

    Reply

  5. Trish Lewis says:

    I have never visited the Iron Range Center in person. But I have corresponded with them many times. Always about history and historical records. That is how I think of them, and how I hope they will build their identity. I was shocked to find them closed recently when I contacted them for records on my family that only they have. I am glad to hear that some emergency funding will help them maintain themselves for the short term…

    Reply

  6. The decision to reopen the library at Minnesota Discovery Center was overturned:

    St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dec. 17, 2009
    http://www.twincities.com/ci_14017188?nclick_check=1

    Reply

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