Within the last week I have been involved in strategic planning exercises as a Trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Board of the Landmarks Illinois, and besides being reminded of the facilitation and SWOT analysis I first experienced 26 years ago in a Joliet hotel (yes, that sounds odd, but trust me, it isn’t) I was also struck by some of the challenges facing both non-profit membership organizations and the heritage conservation/historic preservation field as a whole.
One of those challenges is in the realm of membership. Membership has dropped at both organizations, and it has aged. It seems the 19th and 20th century pattern of the membership organization is being either eclipsed or remodeled. There was a lot of talk in both board retreats about reaching out to younger generations and wondering whether younger generations will join as members or simply be affiliated and affinitized (not a word) via social media and social networks, depriving the old membership organizations of a fundamental pillar of their existence.
As usual in the shifts and spasms of changes to our social economy, the fears are probably disproportionate. Membership was always important in preservation because it had a political policy implication as well as a revenue source, but in fact the revenue source was never primary. Arguably membership numbers had more impact on policy than income. The National Trust plan for the 21st century (from a few years back) called for “engaging” a million people, and while we aren’t there yet, as I reported in the last blog entry, the Trust has been relatively adept at engaging social media and the interwebs.
This doesn’t translate into traditional membership and thus there is a drain on income, but at the same time it could translate into MORE engaged people, which would have a positive impact on the public policy side of the equation. Plus, you can click and donate pretty easily on the Trust website, either in general or in specific advocacy cases. So too with Landmarks Illinois, although I pushed for a more fluid site. I also suggested PRESERVATION FLASH MOBS! (run with it).
The real issue for 2011 and the real shift is this: the most significant aspect of our technological progress over the last two decades has been the shift to user control, to individual control. I resisted (go back five years in this blog and you can witness some of that resistance) a lot of technological changes like cell phones and MP-3s and digital photography because I saw a diminution in quality. Of course, quality has improved, but the pattern of technological progress actually follows an initial shift to lower quality. Why?
I remember talking to a printer about a decade ago about people choosing to do their own printing via digital technology rather than going to a traditional offset press. He responded simply: People are happy to exchange quality for control. I can hold 10,000 MP-3 songs in the palm of my hand and choose when and how I hear them, so who cares if the treble is tinny and the bass is thunky and the mid-range has vanished? I can design my invitations all by myself and control the process, so I don’t mind the thin paper and bleeding lines. The hard drive on my desk the size of my hand holds more photos than a 6-foot tall shelving unit behind me, so I don’t mind the fact that I lose a few bits of information each time I open that jpg.
The answer of course, is that you need to have a web presence that allows user INPUT and control. The internet is NOT a new method of disseminating information, it is a new method of social interaction, and websites that act like information newsletters or annual reports are used once and disposed. The brilliance of the Partners in Preservation program the National Trust does with American Express is that it is all about interaction. Landmarks Illinois saw similar interaction when its 11 Most Endangered list was put up for public voting via internet (which landmarks did people really want to save?). And there is no dearth of models for monetizing websites, although the challenge for not-for-profits with comparatively low numbers of engaged public is daunting.
The point I pushed to both organizations was this: it is not a matter of figuring out how to engage the next generation: every older generation makes the same mistake of trying to identify what it is about the next generation that is significant, relevant and then tries to build a bridge based on those parameters. Don’t. It won’t work. The whole point of any generation is that it is a network, and that it MUST DEFINE ITSELF and you must accept that part of how it defines itself will be in CONTRAST to your generation. You can’t change that equation for love or money or even genius.
What you have to do is allow each generation ACCESS to cultural heritage conservation, historic preservation, or whatever they want to call it. Don’t fret that they don’t value it – if you found intrinsic social and human value in it, they will too, but they won’t find it the same way you did. Its patterns and modalities will change. Its definition may change. Our job as the older generation is to give the next generation INPUT into the field and be patient and agile as they change it, grow it, and make it relevant for themselves.
The second challenge to our field lies in a point National Trust President Stephanie Meeks made in Austin in October: We need to stop being perceived as the people who saw “no.” This stems from the fact that in the 1960s and 1970s national and local preservation laws were passed all over the country, and often these laws seemed too architectural and arcane for the average person to understand. And even though both the National Trust and Landmarks Illinois are private organizations that have NEVER (ever) had any regulatory power or role, the perception remains.
When I did my dissertation under Bob Bruegmann, he challenged me to write a history of preservation without reference to any laws, and suggested that people were probably preserving buildings and neighborhoods long before there were any preservation laws. He was right. You can find that phenomenon in Greenwich Village in 1910 and in 1935 and in 1955 long before laws went into effect there in 1969. You can find it in Old Town in Chicago in 1925 and 1949 and 1968 long before laws went into effect a decade later. I was in Seattle for the National Trust meetings and I sought out buildings Barry Byrne had designed with Andrew Willatzen between 1908 and 1912 and with the exception of one teardown for a weed-filled lot, each of the houses and buildings I found were remarkably well preserved and well cared for even though they were a hundred years old. They had no infelicitous additions or alterations I could see, despite the fact that Seattle has succumbed to anti-regulatory paranoia, people were preserving century-old Prairie style houses.
At Landmarks Illinois we talked about trying to link to Sustainability, which was another part of our Seattle meeting – seeing the Trust’s Preservation Green Lab there, which is run by a real estate developer, and here is a sign from another real estate developer (and good friend) who is building a new glass highrise downtown.
Sustainability, like natural area conservation, has become an embedded ethic in society that no amount of Koch Brothers funding can unseat. How can preservation achieve this? Part of the answer lies in those Byrne and Willatzen houses, and understanding that the houses on my block – which are gloriously preserved – are preserved MOSTLY because people want to and only secondarily because there are regulations. Regulations can’t preserve the buildings on my block – or those Seattle Prairie houses. They can keep them from being torn down. But there is a widespread ethic that values their design and their age value and their history and backs up that value with the investment of money and time and energy.
I first spoke at a National Trust conference in 1993 and the topic was how do we get preservation to happen in inner-city neighborhoods. I did a 15-year history of how historic preservation was happening in inner-city neighborhoods in Chicago. My conclusion? The question was wrong. The preservation was happening: our job was to support and assist community groups that chose preservation and rehabilitation as means to community revitalization. You don’t have to create them, you just have to find them.
(Amazing side note: I just pulled out the outline of that speech from a folder. In less than a minute. Damn I’m organized!)
So the answer to this second preservation challenge is remarkably similar to the first: you have to be willing to cede some control. You have to believe that the aesthetic, historical, cultural and place-based values you hold, are also held by others. You have to be willing to tack to the wind and trust that changes in how the field operates will not undercut those values.
You have to be willing not simply to CHANGE your organization,
but to let it BE CHANGED. And that takes a bit more courage.