One of my all-time most-read posts is 2010's Are County Historical Societies Dinosaurs? in which I took on what I saw as the increasing irrelevance of many historical societies. I've learned that it's assigned in museum studies and public history courses and shows up in some unexpected places. I always like to think that we're moving forward. But today, forwarded from a colleague, came a historical society's fundraising letter that reminded me how little has changed over the last four years. Here's the letter in its entirety with only the name changed:
Dear Members and Friends:
As you may know, building a healthy endowment is of critical importance for the long term health of any non-profit organization, including the ABC Historical Society.
Once again we are asking your help in boosting our endowment fund. In these times of shrinking financial support from other sectors we are counting on the generosity of our members and friends to take up the challenge and provide the ABC Historical Society with a solid foundation on which to build for the future. Once again we have been issued a challenge grant in that all money raised by us will be matched one for one. What that means is that every dollar donated will effectively be doubled!
All money raised will be deposited into our endowment account at the local bank. No donation is too small and of course, no donation can ever be too large! Thank you for your support!Honestly, this letter made me more annoyed, angry and discouraged than anything I've read in a long time. Why? There is not one, not a single one, mention of anything this organization does. As far as the letter reads, the primary mission of the organization is building an endowment. It's pretty easy to moan and groan about how small organizations can't get grants, that they do great, important work, but in fact, this is far from the only organization who can't even figure out for themselves why they matter much less make the case to their community.
A long time ago I was in a workshop taught by management consultant Dorothy Chen-Courtin who made us ask "so what?" at least seven times to get to an meaningful mission statement. Do you collect? So what? Do you preserve those collections? So what? Keep asking til you find real meaning and purpose. I see small organizations everywhere doing great work, with few resources. Those are places that deserve our support as a field and our individual contributions. Lazy organizations--because that's what I'll call this one--seem hardly to deserve anything. That's a sad fact, because our communities, large and small, rural and urban, deserve history organizations that can be so much more.