Envisioning New Economic Models for Public History, Part III: Abandon Fundraising

In my previous post, I alluded to the problems of cultural organizations relying heavily on grants and wealthy donors. I would like to dig into that a little more and argue that, even if cultural organizations do not pursue a strictly cooperative model, there is still good reason to abandon fundraising and adopt a public-oriented approach to resource development. In other words, shared authority is not just good public history, but a sustainable financial model for cultural organizations.*

Actual dog, tired of chasing its own tail

First of all, I acknowledge that funds from foundations and wealthy donors can accomplish high-impact work and supply the start-up money for self-contained or self-sustaining projects. As I learned at NCPH 2018, sometimes project-based work can resist the problems inherent in institutional work. However, organizations risk becoming dependent on short-term, high-dollar grants for basic operation over the long term. It might start with grant guidelines reshaping a project’s scope; over time, institutional priorities may shift to accommodate the interests of philanthropists and foundations. Cultural organizations seeking grants can quickly become like a dog chasing its own tail, neglecting the needs and interests of the broader public who cannot immediately provide that high-dollar high. This approach feeds a scarcity mentality that maintains that the only way to develop resources is to appeal to those in power. In The Active Life, Parker Palmer observes:

“The scarcity assumption pervades our institutional lives by putting the power in the hands of the few and keeping it there. Hierarchies are always rooted in the belief that power itself is, or ought to be, a scarce commodity, rooted in the belief that few people are qualified to hold power, or that few should be allowed to hold it, lest the threatening abundance of power, known as “democracy,” comes to pass. From the teacher who grades on the curve to the administrator who rules by fiat, the control of the few over the many is rationalized by scarcity assumption.” (126)

Relying on a broader cross-section of diverse-income stakeholders for financial abundance requires a complete reorientation away from the scarcity mentality of fundraising. What can it look like for a cultural organization to embrace economic shared authority?

◊ Acknowledge resources beyond large sums of money, including stakeholder time, labor, and skills

◊ Believe that $10 from 100 people just as important—and more sustainable in the long term—than $1000 from one person

◊ Replace fundraising with long-term relationship building among diverse stakeholders to build a sustainable, growing revenue stream

◊ Listen to stakeholder needs and align organizational priorities accordingly

◊ Structure a budget that operates within its means (tangibly backed by stakeholder buy-in) and does not require big, last-minute infusions to break even

◊ Forego flashy projects that might bring in the big foundation bucks but do not have any existing buy-in from the local community

◊ Appreciate stakeholders who contribute resources to an organization that reflects them and their needs

For one example of the economic viability of shared authority, consider the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society (RPWRHS), a local cultural organization on the brink of financial disaster in 2014. Thanks to the involvement of the Public History Lab at Loyola University Chicago (that included Hope and myself), an influx of energetic volunteers, and leaders ready for change, RPWRHS recommitted to their public mission and soon found financial stability and growth. (Check out their website—recently redesigned by yours truly!) Although RPWRHS still has plenty of progress to make, their trajectory offers just a hint of the financial sustainability that is possible when cultural organizations value public stakeholders beyond foundations and wealthy donors. In her next post, Hope will talk more about RPWRHS and what a public-oriented approach looks like for another part of their organization: the collection.

*Shared authority is a concept that acknowledging the power of both scholars and the public to create history and meaning. Originally proposed by Michael Frisch as a guiding concept for conducting oral histories, I join a generation of public historians pushing to expand the application of shared authority not only to collaborative storytelling, but to shared social and economic endeavors.