Working in local history usually makes me reluctant to speculate on the future. “I’m a historian,” I will tell people when asked to guess what might happen. “Not a prognosticator.” However, being conscious the future is vital for any business, for-profit or nonprofit or government.
Internally the Minnesota Historical Society has been estimating challenges it faces going forward, which it periodically does and is good to do. This activity prompted me to think about what local historical organizations may need to consider going forward. I presented a session on this in 2009, and little has changed since then. Essentially there seems to be five compelling issues that need to be addressed, and soon.
1. Mission-based presence. Most organizations have a geography to their mission, whether a county, a city, or whatever. Even those that don’t have a geographical focus do have a mission focus. Whatever the focus the organization dedicated to a specific history needs to consider what its presence has to look like in order to be successful. The cost of communication through traditional means continues to increase, while newer media is not always accepted by our main supporters. What can you do to continue to have a strong presence in your mission focus? We simply cannot afford to hole-up in our facilities. Leadership is all about putting yourself on the line, and to do so you have to be an active member of whatever community for whose history you are responsible.
2. 21st-century user expectations for products. Every concern needs to reconsider what it offers from the perspective of the user. Peter Drucker, a renowned management thinker, spoke of this as adopting an “outside-in” view of your company. Too many history organizations tend to think of things from the inside-out: how can we organize better in order to be more efficient? The trouble is that if no one desires what you efficiently offer (even though “they should”), you risk becoming irrelevant. What is it that people who use your current services want? What do nonusers and especially newer residents need and can you offer that? Do you know?
3. Developing knowledge workers for history organizations. The economy and demographics are changing. As historical organizations we preserve the memory of why and how things have changed, so that these are changing is good news because that means more to document. The economy is often said to be changing over from an industrial “make stuff” model to a knowledge-based “know stuff” model. The machinery of the economy then is increasingly in the heads of workers rather than on a factory floor. In a sense history organizations have always been in the so-called new economy of knowledge workers, since history organizations preserve and provide knowledge. For once, we may be ahead of the curve. However, a trend of knowledge workers is to more frequently change jobs. No longer does a worker put in 40 years on the assembly line. The expectation is to move frequently. With the steeper learning curve of knowledge work, what does job-migration mean for the way we recruit and train workers? As to demographics and the browning of Minnesota, equipping non-Whites for work in local history is imperative in order to assure continuance of local history organizations. Further, for organizations in more rural areas, we need to be part of the solution to depopulation by demonstrating to the youth how it is possible to live and make a living without relocating to a larger population area. Too often those in rural areas apologize for not having something or being better than they. Having grown up in a town of less than 2,000 people at the time, it is tempting to think this way at times and I certainly did not stay (In my defense, my parents moved us to Arlington when I was 10, and today I live in a house that belonged to my great uncle. So, in a sense history does keep me where I live). Resist the temptation to think negatively about size because you can’t build on scarcity, only on what you have. Besides, there are a surplus of great reasons to choose to live in any of the 850+ cities or 1,700+ townships across the state. Local history should be able to document why.
4. Shift to project-based budgets. Over time philanthropy has shifted from funding bricks-and-mortar projects to funding programmatic offerings, and now it seems that the shift from general operations to project-based grants is here to stay. That means the savvy manager has to create flexibility in the fiscal budget, often with employees left hanging in the balance of phrases like “Position subject to renewal contingent on funding.” So, not only do we have to worry about the knowledge worker leaving for greener pastures but also about our pasture drying up. Still funding mission is very possible for those willing to put in additional effort to “projectize” elements of the workplan to free up general support for tasks that may not be grant-worthy. A number of local history organizations have done this for collections-related initiatives like inventory, catalog, and backlog reduction. Still, we should be asking, “how can an organization remain diligent through the intentional application of resources to problems if funding is so seemingly opportunistic and uncertain?” Time will tell, but for the moment I know grappling with project-based budgets has to be perplexing and exhausting.
5. Evidence and access for the 21st century. In rethinking all that we do, the questions of what to collect, how much to collect, and how will we make what we collect accessible, all need to be on the table. Some local history organizations have taken the extreme, though perhaps necessary, step of a collecting moratorium until they have solid answers for these questions. In a time when the common expectation for access is 24/7 and from anywhere in the world, how do local history organizations that are inherently tied to the physical address the virtual? Although space for digital assets seems endless, it isn’t. Think of digitization as a way to expand your storage, but remember that this too is not infinite, because nothing is infinite. The boundaries are costs in terms of time, money, and opportunity. The opportunity cost is that for whatever you do, there is now something you cannot do. Returning to the public repeatedly to seek funds for more space is something to be mindful about, whether for a building or for electronic capacity. Collectively we as a field need to figure out how to reduce the pace of space consumption before we fatigue our supporters.
Quite a few history organizations are very good at these points already. Too many, however, are locked into patterns established long ago. Those patterns were probably quite appropriate at one time. With more than one million nonprofits currently in the U.S., and the promise of an additional 12 million more to come as Boomers retire, the targets for charitable giving will increase the competition for finite funding. If local history nonprofits do not have the courage to meet the 21st century on its own terms, they should not expect to be competitive.
However, the inherent purposes of local history wedded with adaptations for the 21st century should make local history nearly unbeatable as a worthy recipient of funding. People are most often self-centered. They want to see themselves in your exhibits and programs and publications. They want to know what’s in it for them. Yes, a great many try to overcome their self-absorption, which is what we all should strive to do, but in the end we are still naturally interested in ourselves. Local history in its current form was started to help people in the present (often veterans) and to document the present for the future. Local history is all about us, which at the core should keep local history quite relevant. Thus, if you can ask yourself in light of the five challenges above, “How will we help our neighbors?” and “What should we tell the future about our neighbors?” – local history should remain competitive by remaining true to our purposes.
We’d love to hear from anyone with examples of how they are addressing any of the issues above.