Should Historic Sites Become Social Entrepreneurs?

Historic sites and house museums are increasingly being encouraged to think as much about the revenue as they do expenses, as much about profit as they do mission.  It’s often hard for non-profit organizations to embrace this movement–many are still stinging from the years when “business thinking” and MBAs were all the rage in the executive office.  Certainly economic sustainability is a goal (if we go out of business, who will do our good work?) but it doesn’t seem the usual models coming out of business schools is appropriate.  Perhaps it’s time to recognize that another model can be followed, one that combines mission and money along with a new set of performance measures.

“Social Entrepreneurship” and “For Benefit Corporations” may offer a new approach to managing historic sites, although it’s actually not that new.  It’s been around since the 1970s and one social entrepreneur–Muhammad Yunus for his microlending program through Grameen Bank–has received a Nobel Peace Prize.  In “Social Entrepreneurship and the Next Generation of Giving,” the Washington Post provides the latest summary of this type of organization as well as some advice:

  • Get the Right People Working on the Right Team:  “To drive a social innovation to scale, it takes a person with the right skill set — people who are systems thinkers, collaborators, empathetic innovators. But innovators and entrepreneurs do not work in isolation. They require teams and structures in order to be effective.”
  • Develop New Measures of Success:  “In the for-profit business sector, there are universal measures, such as financial profitability or growth that allow very different companies to gauge performance using the same measures. In the nonprofit sector, that uniformity does not exist.  Assessment becomes very much connected to specific goals.  You have to be very thoughtful about developing a set of indicators that, taken together, allow you to get a sense of whether you’re moving in the right direction or not.  For example, micro-lender Kiva uses three criteria to measure its effectiveness: scale of impact, depth of impact, and the operational sustainability of Kiva as a nonprofit organization.
  • Think Big, Start Small:  “If we talk about the world’s biggest problems, it becomes disempowering and you don’t even know what step one is.  But “step one” is basic and fundamental.  Step one is doing the smallest possible thing in this moment.  And then step two will present itself.

You may not be ready to become a social entrepreneur, but perhaps you’re ready to tackle one of these areas. To learn more about getting the right people on the right team, you might Good to Great by Jim Collins helpful.  If you want to develop new measures of success, look at Randi Korn’s article “A Case for Holistic Intentionality” or How to Measure Anything by Douglas Hubbard.  For starting small, looking at the work of John Kotter, especially his book Leading Change.  And if you want to keep up on the trends and ideas around philanthropy and social entrepreneurship, check out the “On Giving” section of the Washington Post.