A theoretical survival guide for the local non-profit historical society

I’m told that the number of “historical societies” in the United States is uncertain. American Historical Association (AHA) (founded 1884) estimates place the number around 10,000.

That number is from a 2012 article (“The Future of Local Historical Societies”) The article also postulates that many (most?) of these local historical societies are underfunded and understaffed – i.e. the future of the average “local non-profit historical society” is questionable.

As a “student of history” with a “tech background” and an MBA I have given this subject a little thought – and come up with some suggestions.

Interest/who is the customer?

When starting a new business the first question asked is often “who is the customer?” Are there people that actually want/need the product/service we are considering? Are there enough of those people to constitute a “viable market?”

If the market is small and extremely competitive – then your product needs to be something special with a high value “unique selling proposition” – otherwise you are probably better off pursuing another venture.

The AHA article claims:

“These early societies were commonly formed by elites whose main interest was the history of people like themselves, leaders in business, commerce, and government. Their mission was to preserve the legacy of their ancestors, to commemorate local heroes, and to preserve historic architecture.”


Debbie Ann Doyle | Dec 1, 2012

Out imaginary “local historical society” (l.h.s. from here on) is faced with a small market BUT they (probably) have the advantage of being the only game in town. They may be small, underfunded, under staffed – but they are the only group doing what they do.

If “local history” is the product then the “customer” is the local community.

Products/Customers – What it is REALLY about

The problem facing our l.h.s. (small market size – lack of interest) becomes an advantage when we shift the focus from “selling local history to the local community” to “building the community with an appreciation of its history.”

To remain relevant the l.h.s. has to educate the local community about the COMMUNITY’S history. This education process will strengthen/build the local community and become a “positive feedback” – e.g. education about the community creates a stronger community with interest in its history.

Of course no community exists in a vacuum completely separate from anything else. Part of the responsibility of a l.h.s. is putting that history in perspective – the idea of “Veteran’s Parades” illustrates my point – but again, the primary focus of the l.h.s. is LOCAL.

Tourism AND Community building

The focus on local history doesn’t mean the l.h.s. can’t attract “tourism” – but it probably isn’t going to be a large source of revenue. Again the idea is that the l.h.s. is engaging in “community building” to a certain degree – so the “tourists” are the local community.

The Suggestions:
  1. website – of course your l.h.s. has a website. However, if it is a static website that someone put together in 1995 – you PROBABLY want to consider upgrading.

    The information/content on your “static site” is probably fine – but the “look and feel” of the site may not be what users expect/want in 2021

    e.g. This site (cameroncomputers.com) is running on WordPress – which takes care of a lot of the heavy lifting. “Mobile first” is important – “search engine optimization” is always nice, but not as important if your focus is “local community”
  2. Membership form – forcing people to print out a form and mail in payment to join/contribute to the l.h.s. limits membership. Paypal has been around long enough to become a verb – but there are other options.

    The l.h.s. can easily setup a “donation” and/or “membership” page. Make it easy (and secure) for people to join and then you will need to worry about having multiple people with access to the accounting system because you are bringing in so much $$ in membership dues (wouldn’t that be nice)
  3. email newsletter – a free email newsletter can be the “gateway to membership.” Educating about local history covers a wide range of topics – finding someone to create the content is (obviously) the first step. Then sending out a weekly email to a list of subscribers isn’t much harder than using “word processor” software.

    Sending lower volumes of email will be free – if the subscription list grows it can become its own source of revenue. Substack is nice, but many option are available.
  4. other content – if the “email newsletter” is the bread and butter fueling l.h.s. membership then video content might be the “meat and potatoes.” The resources required to produce video content is low. Some technical skills are required to get “good video and sound” – also a little bit of video editing will (probably) be required.

    SO maybe this becomes the differentiator between the “well organized” l.h.s. and the “not so well organized” l.h.s. – if you are underfunded and understaffed, then keeping that YouTube channel updated might be something to put aside until you get the email list build up.
  5. the “archives” – if your l.h.s. has boxes of pictures/newspapers sitting in storage, “digitizing” that content is probably the most valuable thing you can do for “local history.”

    This is the “high cost to setup” and “time intensive” suggestion – but again, also the one with the most “historic value.” This time around some “tech skills” are required (not a lot, but some) – computers setup, scanners attached, software configured – but the end result will be an easily searchable database of local history.
Happy to help

In an “ideal” world – humans would expand their world as they “grow up” – e.g. go from “family member” to “local community member” to “national member” to “responsible productive member of humanity.”

I will argue that the “loss of a sense of community” is one of the “big problems” with the United States in 2021. The problem isn’t that society is fragmented so much as “broken” – i.e. a lot of folks don’t feel like they belong “anywhere” and that is a breeding ground for all kinds of bad stuff.

So helping to build/preserve the “local history society” really becomes much more than just saving local history …

If you want to contact me – email les@clancameron.us – or find me on LinkedIn (mention “l.h.s.” or “local history” and I’ll gladly add you as a “connection”).

I’m available for “paid consultation” if you need something more than an email response. Thanks for reading this far 😉

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