Posts by Heidi Campbell-Shoaf
The love of money, it is said, is the root of all evil. I think we can all agree, given the recent financial unpleasantness, the statement conveys a universal truth. As an executive director of a non-profit historical organization, I think about money more than I really care to, but it comes with the job. I know of no one in my position who would tell you she or he has all the fiduciary resources they need. But we work with what we have, find places to get funding for particular projects and delay, redesign or abandon when necessary.
When I read stories about the embezzlement of funds from AASLH or the mismanagement (to put it kindly) of funds at the Missouri History Museum, it is disheartening. Not because it happened. Human nature expresses itself in different ways and dishonesty is one of them. But because when it happens in our small world of historical non-profits, it hurts us all. We are challenged on a regular basis from many quarters by things unrelated to money. We are challenged to reach the public with our historical message, we are challenged to help the same public understand what we do (e.g. an exhibit isn’t just a display of a bunch of old stuff, we don’t know the answer to every random history query off the top of our heads, no you cannot borrow an object from our museum or archive to display in your home/business) and we are challenged to make a case for the value of our institution, our work, and our services to the community.
Preventing financial misdeeds is one reason why we have policies and procedures, codes of ethics, conflict of interest agreements, etc. But a bunch of polices do not enforce themselves and it is not until something goes wrong that the finger pointing starts. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with the board of directors. The non-profit executive serves at the pleasure of the governing body which is the board. The executive is to provide the specialized professional expertise to run the organization within the best practices accepted by the field. The board is responsible for ensuring the fiduciary well-being of the organization and for supervising the executive. That means, along with making sure the organization has enough funds to operate, members of the board need to make sure there are checks on the power of the executive. For example, limits on discretionary spending and arranging for an audit by a certified individual or firm on a regular basis. Audits, when done right, do not just look into the financial records of a non-profit but also examine procedures for handling money and expenditures, and looks at the relationship between the board and the executive staff. One issue the AASLH auditors brought up before the embezzlement became known was their concern about the fact only one person in the organization had authority over funds.
From my point of view, when a board abdicates responsibility through apathy, inaction or disregard of policy, it creates an atmosphere conducive to misdeeds. I’ve seen more than one organization that, but for the high ethical standards of its executive and staff, could end up in a mess like the Missouri History Museum or worse. In another post, I’ll talk about what happens when the board oversteps its bounds, which can be just as bad.
Over the last few weeks I have been turning over in my mind and bouncing off colleagues the idea of admission fees, pro and con. Museum fees are hot button issue for many reasons. Few museums can claim fees are the sole or even the majority of their budget revenue; they are a part of the funding jambalaya that includes—or should include—membership or similar programs, endowment or investment funds, fundraising event proceeds, planned giving gifts, etc. How big a role fees play in funding varies depending on the size of the organization. Read more.
I accompanied my husband on a business trip to New York City not long ago. It was a whirlwind, less than 24 hour excursion, but I hadn’t been in a while and I always find the Big Apple both intellectually and sensorially stimulating—yay for NYC! I noticed on the trip that every time (I’m not exaggerating) my husband mentioned he was a magazine editor the person he was talking to asked if the magazine was available online or as an app. The age range of the people asking him was between 18 and 55. This spoke volumes to me as a person whose job is also making information available to people. Read more.
I got a new phone last month and for the first time in my cell phone owning life it is up to date. That means I can download and use apps with ease, watch YouTube if I want, play Angry Birds (the Star Wars version is pretty cool), oh, and make calls, too. Having gone from a not-so-smart phone to a very smart phone, I can understand a bit about the technology divide that we have in our society. There’s a lot of talk about the growing economic chasm between the rich and the rest of us but not as much talk about access to technology. Read more.
The holidays are upon us and if you are surprised you haven’t been in a retail establishment since oh, mid-September. If the holidays—and specifically I mean Christmas—were a person it would be that kid who tries to sneak up on you but the jingle bells blow her cover. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy cookie baking, tree trimming and festive parties but this bleed-through into not just Thanksgiving but Halloween and even earlier has gotten out of hand. By the time December rolls around everyone is suffering from Christmas fatigue. Read more.
The month of September was a blur. Here in the north-central part of Maryland, we were consumed by Civil War Sesquicentennial events. There were all manner of activities and commemorations relating to the actions 150 years ago leading up to and resulting from the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day in U.S. history. In Frederick, the people felt it very keenly since most of the public buildings, some of the private ones and many of the churches were turned into hospitals and would remain so for months. 150 years later the churches in the city joined together to create a program for the public talking about this fact and sharing their history with people who might not otherwise darken their doors. Read more.
Wow! I am thrilled about the response to my last post about living history practitioners. It seems I’ve hit a rich vein of potential discussions. I will be getting back to that subject in my next post but right now I’m thinking more about some of the stories that have been making news lately involving historians or, to be clearer, people who claim to be historians. Read more.
Some colleagues and I were talking the other day about things they don’t teach you in museum studies/public history class. There’s a lot. The topic that day was living history practioners. I prefer to use this term which I believe better describes them than reenactors, living historians (aren’t all historians living, except the ones that are dead?) or costumed interpreters aka museum-trained and outfitted docents. Read more.
I was pondering what I would write about this month. Sitting at my desk, looking at my computer screen, I was going through a list of ideas in my head none of which excited me enough to start writing. Now, you have to understand the state of my desk. I have piles, not nice, neat piles just piles, of various documents and publications, binders and my engagement calendar is under there, too (I know, I do have a Blackberry and I try to use it to keep track of my schedule but I like my paper calendar). Read more.
It’s that time of year when a whole new flock of bright-eyed, idealistic, newly-minted public historians are pushed from their academic nest into the rough and tumble real world. Let’s just say that they are successful finding work in this very competitive field, then they will discover another level of challenges. The one I’m going to touch on today is at the foundation of what we do as public historians. Read more.