Study: Age-old problems continue for local historical societies

09/26/2015 6:00 AM |

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Paltry budgets. Aging patrons. Inadequate staffing.

These are all issues the majority of historical society directors in Suffolk County say they contend with, according to the results of a county-wide survey conducted earlier this year by the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation and Adelphi University.

The survey results were released Friday at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead during a presentation called “Looking in the Mirror: Assessing the Future of Historical Societies of Suffolk County.”

“You need to know this: Eighty-five percent of the nonprofits in this country have budgets well under a million dollars,” said Ann Marie Thigpen, director of Adelphi University’s Center for Nonprofit Leadership, which recorded the data. “So you are really part of a larger picture and I understand that’s no comfort sometimes, but it is indeed the reality.”

According to Ms. Thigpen, 110 organizations were asked to complete the online survey this past spring. Of those, 62 responded, including SCHS, the Southold Historical Society and the Oysterponds Historical Society in Orient. A full list of respondents wasn’t available.

Plans for the survey were announced at SCHS in February during the Association of Suffolk County Historical Societies’ annual meeting. The point of the questionnaire, then-SCHS executive director Kathy Curran said at the time, was to better understand the needs of historical societies in terms of finances and community outreach.

“The survey is what I thought it would be,” said Karen Lund-Rooney, the new director at Southold Historical Society and a former interim director at Oysterponds Historical Society. “We have commonalities of needing support, of needing to engage in collaboration with museums and other historical societies.”

On Friday, Ms. Curran said she hoped the survey’s participants saw the exercise “not only as a way of accessing your organization’s needs but as a way of connecting to your colleagues.”

In August, Ms. Curran resigned from SCHS to assume the role of executive director at the Gardiner Foundation in Hampton Bays, which provides funding to historical societies across Long Island, including SCHS. Last week, Ms. Thigpen praised the Gardiner Foundation for its work, while stressing the need for historical societies to take an active role in securing their own futures.

While directors know “exactly who they are and what they’re about,” Ms. Thigpen said, the survey revealed that 40 percent of historical societies said they had no fundraising plan and 10 percent were unsure if they did.

In addition, said Ms. Thigpen, “When asked ‘Do you have a process or approach for stewarding your donors?’ approximately 65 percent said they didn’t. Yet that’s the heart and soul of your fundraising plan.”

Gail Horton, president of the Stirling Historical Society in Greenport, wasn’t able to attend the presentation and said she didn’t receive the survey. Still, she said, her organization has a “small but growing” fundraising plan that is bolstered by events like its annual benefit gala.

“People are very generous with donations,” she said.

In Southold, Ms. Lund-Rooney said her organization is researching grants to help raise money to restore a linotype machine. They also plan to hold a raffle.

“We’re focusing on one concept at a time,” she said.

Ms. Thigpen urged participants to create an individual donor base if they haven’t already done so. She also encouraged directors to rethink their approach to staffing.

“Most of you are highly dependent on your volunteers and most of you said you needed more volunteers, but only half of you had job descriptions for your volunteers,” she said. “They are a critical piece of the success of most organizations.”

Crucially, Ms. Thigpen said historical societies must find a way to attract a younger audience, noting that the typical museum patron is “white, older and upper-middle-class.”

One major way of addressing this, Ms. Thigpen said, is to create exhibits that people under age 40 will want to attend. She also said creating social media pages and an attractive website are essential.

“That’s where people go to find out about you,” she said. “I know this costs money, but some things are worth investing in.”

Ms. Horton and Ms. Lund-Rooney both acknowledged that finding ways to entice young people to visit is an ongoing challenge.

“This is really true for every historical society: how to engage more of a spectrum of people so that we can start engaging young families,” Ms. Lund-Rooney said.

Ms. Thigpen also told participants they should have a plan in place outlining their successor, something Ms. Horton said hasn’t been decided at Stirling Historical Society. In addition, Ms. Thigpen said it was “unacceptable” for a historical society’s board members to not be required to make an annual financial contribution.

“I can’t go to National Grid and say ‘Look, I’m going to volunteer twice a week and then I don’t have to pay my bill,’ ” Ms. Thigpen said.

Following the hour-long presentation, Nanette Lawrenson, executive director of the Shelter Island Historical Society, said she felt good about her organization and its board.

“We’re in the tail-end of a capital campaign to build a new study center and archival wall, so we’ve been crystallizing our mission and how we do things,” she said. “The takeaway that I really enjoyed was the out-of-the-box thinking, getting people’s ideas.”

Ms. Lawrenson said that despite being fairly isolated from the rest of Long Island, the Shelter Island Historical Society receives a lot of inquiries from people who live out of state. It has roughly 100 active volunteers and is doing its best to reach a younger audience.

“We just started a program using Shelter Island High School students where they’ll be conducting interviews with people on the island,” she said.

Overall, local historical society directors seemed to agree that while more work can always be done, the North Fork’s semi-insular environment serves them well.

“Our strength is that we’re small and the area is kind of cohesive,” Ms. Horton said. “We get a great response and authentic information that our visitors really love.”

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Photo credit: Rachel Young

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