About The Author

David Grabitske

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

Dennis Anderson’s “Memo to whiners: cut it out” (Star Tribune 2/10/2011) mirrored a post here on Why so bleak? Anderson suggests that Minnesotans have a penchant for pessimism even though the state in general has a solid track record. It was that tendency to go for the “low-hanging fruit” of negativity that often hinders local history work.

 One area in specific that can be criticized is the visible products of a history organization. The Minnesota Historical Society is not immune. One person recently wrote that he thought MHS had strayed from its mission by presenting traveling exhibitions like “Baseball as America,” “Vatican Splendors,” “Chocolate,” and opening next week “Discover the Real George Washington.” While such criticism is an important part of the discussion, hopefully those concerned about the vitality of historical organizations can understand the strategy. The MHS mission promises to connect people to history, granting flexibility for blockbuster history exhibits.

Local history organizations also host traveling exhibits from out of their area, be they from the Museum on Main Street program of the Smithsonian Institution, Minnesota Humanities Center and Minnesota Historical Society, or the new Exhibits to Go funded by the Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund. Minnesota’s Historic Northwest also collaboratively produces award-winning traveling exhibits that go to all of their member organizations.

Ford Bell, Minnesotan and President of the American Association of Museums, said in Tut brings in loot, and a balancing act (Star Tribune, 2/14/2011) that “The pejorative connotation is that these shows are not in keeping with core missions and have a mercenary purpose to generate ticket sales. That’s unfortunate in many cases, because [blockbuster traveling exhibits] get people in the door who haven’t come before.” Bell goes onto say, “You always get new members out of it, and even if you only keep 5 percent, that’s 5 percent you didn’t have [before].”

Getting people in the door or to our programs has never been more important. Not only to prove to current supporters that our organizations serve people well, but also to claim a stake in the expected transfer of wealth. Nonprofits hope to tap into wealth next door (Star Tribune, 2/12/2011) shows that neighbors in LeRoy and Luverne were ‘shocked’ at $3 million bequests left to their respective communities. Many similar rural areas of Minnesota have often stated that there is not much wealth where they live – it’s all in the Twin Cities. But, there is no reason to believe this, or to be shocked.

Even passive negative thinking then fans the flames of frustration for local nonprofit history organizations with unfulfilled aspirations because money seems scarce, and money is required to accomplish goals. Inducing the kind of giving as seen in LeRoy and Luverne, however, takes time and work.

Since most wealth is bound up in estates, the necessary work is convincing owners to include charitable purposes in their estate planning. Most people simply divide their estates equally among heirs, mostly children, who often have moved away from the community. When the estate is settled, the wealth then leaves the community. What needs to happen for charities is to help owners remember their communities. Perhaps instead of equally dividing among four children, divide the estate equally among four children and the local nonprofit historical organization. The key is to keep at least some of the resources local.

Jeff Yost of the Nebraska Community Foundation noted in the ‘tap into wealth’ article, “It’s taken a long time for rural communities to get into the plight they’re in. It will take a long time to get out. But, you can … change the conversation from what we don’t have to what we can do.”

While making sure that missions are furthered is very important, making sure our organizations reach the broadest possible audience is perhaps just as urgent. If historical organizations become a venue for history – all history and not just from their geographic region – they can increase the likelihood of someone considering their estate will discover how much they enjoy history, which then might lead to an unsolicited bequest. More likely these exhibits establish relationships, which after a time could lead to a planned gift.

One has to be careful, though, to return to mission in order to avoid merely ‘mercenary’ adventures chasing pipedreams. As with nearly everything, historical organizations need to balance the purity of mission with the necessity of inducing financial support. But above all, historical organizations need to “change the conversation from what we don’t have to what we can do.” We can host traveling history exhibitions that draw new audiences that would not consider coming to see their own history, which could lead to surprising relationshipsfor both our patrons and our organizations.

Now it’s your turn. What can we do?

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