IMHO: Seismic Shifts Predicted in Historic Preservation

SeismographUnlike the environmental movement, which has many national organizations devoted to its many and varied causes, historic preservation has just a handful. When something happens at one or two of them, it can significantly shape what’s happening at the state and local level.  This year promises seismic shifts because of transitions occurring at three national organizations:  Preservation Action, the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has been undergoing tremendous transformation since 2009, when Dick Moe’s long 17-year tenure as president ended. Stephanie Meeks, a former executive with the Nature Conservancy, took the helm and introduced a new strategic plan that narrowed its work by closing most of its regional offices, cutting Preservation magazine from six to four issues a year, closing its Save America’s Treasures office, reorganizing the National Main Street Center as a wholly-owned subsidiary, and cutting its ties with state and local preservation organizations. The plan (sometimes called Preservation 10X) also prompted a turnover of much of the staff through reorganizations and layoffs and put in place a new management team, most of whom are outside the field of history or preservation, suggesting a major retreat from its leadership position in historic preservation.

This year the focus at the National Trust seems to be on raising cash to survive. The last fiscal year ended $11 million in the red (spending $3 for every $2 in revenue) and the word on the street is that year-end donations were much less than expected. It is actively seeking a development director; already in negotiations to sell its landmark headquarters building in Washington, DC; and accepting proposals to lease out Woodlawn, its first historic site, to get its expenses off its books. Working with a much smaller staff and fewer resources than five years ago, these moves suggest that the National Trust will be distracted with its own internal issues and unable to make much impact nationally for the foreseeable future.

Possibly stepping into this breach are two national preservation organizations which are also based in Washington, DC: Preservation Action and the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO). Erik Hein will become the new executive director of NCSHPO in March, following the 27-year tenure of Nancy Schamu. As you might surmise by its name, NCSHPO facilitates communication among the preservation officers in each state, which admittedly is a mixed bag of professionals and political appointees. Nevertheless, it is the only national organization devoted to historic preservation with official representatives from every state government. Hein’s selection as the incoming executive director may signal a more active and visible organization because he not only has extensive hands-on experience in historic preservation and holds a joint masters degree in American studies and historic preservation but he is currently the executive director of Preservation Action, a grassroots advocacy organization working to improve or protect federal laws related to preservation.

Although NCSHPO is a closed organization (only state preservation officers can participate), it is financially strong and its members are highly influential and often set the pace for preservation in their states. Preservation Action, on the other hand, is much smaller but membership is open to anyone and its revenues have been growing these past few years. Both organizations are quite unlike the National Trust, but NCSHPO and Preservation Action have the opportunity to take a more active leadership role on a national level through their strengthening bonds. The choice of the next executive director for Preservation Action will be decisive and could be another aftershock in the tumult that is currently rocking historic preservation.  In a couple years, we’ll know who’s built on a stronger foundation.

10 thoughts on “IMHO: Seismic Shifts Predicted in Historic Preservation

  1. Erik

    I think it is absolutely a must to get preservationists, environmentalists, and sustainability experts all on the same page, all working together, and consolidating efforts to make a more efficient push to getting what all want done.

    Too many organizations trying to accomplish – in theory, the same things using a small pot of money.

    To preserve our natural environmental assets we need to save the buildings/places that are already present so that less natural space is developed on. To put to work the ones who plan/design/construct we need to put proper incentives and education to do so.

    It seems easy, should be easier, but just isn’t getting done.

  2. Sandra

    The pace of radical change at the Trust is something of note. I hardly recognize the organization where I worked for 12 years, and left less than 18 months ago. Whether these changes prove to be positive for the entire field, only time will tell.

  3. Main Streeter

    I think you are spot-on. I also am waiting to find out who is going to be leading the National Trust Main Street Center, too. I am afraid it has been stagnant for too long…will the years of inaction hamper its ability to explode from the gates? They need thoughtful new programs that will meet the needs of statewide and local Main Street programs, strong national leadership and real coalition building, and something to show for the hiatus – all which could have been achievable for this new subsidiary… if only the product of the restructuring period wasn’t putting the Center on the back burner.

    Preservation is local, but the policy leadership, advocacy, and education/best practices are national. I am looking forward to seeing how the *preservationists* at NCSHPO and PreservationAction are going to step up.

  4. John C. Larson

    There is no question that the National Trust has serious problems exacerbated by a financial crisis that is exacerbated by a lack of confidence.or the belief by many historic preservationist that the organization has lost its way (and perhaps moral compass) if not its capacity to function as the primary preservation advocate. Based on the recent turbulence, I fear we are looking at years for recovery. One can certainly look toward the NCSHPO. Although the SHPO does great work, it is a highly political animal joined at the hip to the National Park Service – or more specifically the National Register and Tax Credit programs.. Without the Tax Act provisions I fear we have a house of cards subject to political whims rather than moral imperative.. We live in perpetual fear of repeal or Federal cutbacks. I would agree that a huge burden now falls on Preservation Action for advocacy – I am not sure about their capacity for other programs. – but at the national level they are now the torch bearer and deserve our support. Ultimately, I will also look the state-wide preservation groups, the county/city groups and of course our often over looked historic sites to carry the movement forward and safe guard our historic buildings. They too deserve our monetary support.

  5. Max van Balgooy Post author

    Thanks for your comments, and I welcome others. This story must have touched a hot issue–so far it’s generated twice the number of views of the typical post. Most people are clicking through to learn more about the executive staff of the National Trust, its FY2012 annual report, the sale of its headquarters building, and the Mt. Vernon Patch story on Arcadia/Woodlawn.

  6. Ken Sharp

    I doubt that Eric Hein will do anything to make preservation more relevant while at NCSHPO. He would have to actually show up to do some real work. Preservation Action should just close up their doors and claim success – their financial debts to previous board members and lack of progress and leadership by Hein and that president before him shows that there is no clear direction set by the board of trustees. You can’t make any legit reason as to why PA should get any funds from my pocket.

    State and citywides should step it up and lead in your communities. That is what will move the preservation movement forward.

  7. JFS

    This is a very serious topic, I am glad someone is writing about it. The Trust is in serious debt and that’s why they came out with this marketing strategy of nominating these “National Treasures” and target their efforts in highly urbanized areas from where they can get the cash to pay their salaries, not to save buildings. In doing so, they compromised their biggest asset, their staff and the connections with the community that they had built and worked for in the past. Now all they want is tweet, tweet, tweet, donate, donate, donate, engage for a second, and live that place behind and move to another that can give them more money. So different from the old Trust.

  8. EarlyBird 13

    How’d NTHP get in that serious debt that everyone likes to mention but not confront? Surely it could not have been the previous administration, in place for 17 years. Is it the new executive team? The staff who has left of their own accord? The staff who were laid off? Blame more things on Stephanie. It obviously helps your cause.

    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Thanks for your comment, but I’m unclear what you mean that blaming more things on Stephanie Meeks “obviously helps your cause.” I’m a longtime and continuing supporter of the mission of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and I established Engaging Places, LLC to focus on “connecting people to historic places” through activities such as preservation, interpretation, and advocacy. My cause and the National Trust’s cause are pretty much the same.

      This post suggests that the hierarchy among the national preservation organizations is shifting significantly. Whether the National Trust is unwilling or unable to maintain its lead position is secondary because the result is the same–it has less capacity to fulfill its mission but perhaps the other national organizations–PA and NCSHPO–can help fill the gap. Perhaps another organization could rise up as well, but I’m not aware of any.

      We both agree that the FY2012 deficit is serious but it’s beyond this post to explore that topic in-depth. However, I did review the IRS Forms 990 for the National Trust and in FY2008 it had a deficit of $2.6M; in FY2009 it had a surplus of $2M (but it’s an odd three-month fiscal year, so it may offset the previous fiscal year’s deficit); in FY2010 it had a deficit of $8M; and in FY2011 it had a surplus of $5M (most of that a result of $6M in additional investment income and $5M in other revenue). So the $11M deficit reported in the National Trust’s FY2012 financial report is the largest in recent years (which is an odd six-month fiscal year and may be different from its Form 990 for 2012, which is not yet available). These reports are all available free at GuideStar.org.

      Who’s to blame for the National Trust’s diminished capacity? That would require more research but for any non-profit organization, there are some obvious places to look, as you mentioned:

      1. The president and CEO is responsible for the management of the National Trust. Stephanie Meeks arrived in July 2010–two and a half years ago–during which time she completed a strategic plan and has had sufficient time to implement at least some of it. CEOs typically have a very short window in which to make substantial changes to an organization and I believe that occurred at the National Trust in 2011. Only time will tell if her changes helped or hindered the National Trust in the long run, but in the short term, a review of the strategic plan or its related strategy called Preservation 10X could be helpful. Unfortunately, the National Trust does not make either document available to the public.
      2. The board of trustees, which is currently led by Carolyn Brody, establishes policies and approves the budget, which is implemented by the president and CEO. Likewise, the president’s plans and decisions would need to be approved by the Board of Trustees. Unfortunately, the board meetings are private and the staff reports and minutes are not published, so it’s not possible to know their role or responsibility at this time.
      3. Richard Moe, the previous president and CEO. What was the condition of the organization when he left? Was it trending upward, downward, or flat? Were its activities converging on or diverging from the mission? This has the makings for a great thesis paper for a graduate student (hint, hint).
      4. Other things–staff, members, donors, economy, government, public opinion–dominated the organization and controlled its circumstances.

      If you have any information that could shed light on any of these possibilities, please share them.

      To follow up on the National Trust’s desire to sell its headquarters building in Washington, DC, the Washington Post reported on February 17 that the building was sold to the American Enterprise Institute for an undisclosed amount. The National Trust will stay in the building through the end of 2013 while it is seeking a new location.

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