Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Public Historian as Fundraiser: A Different Kind of Public History “Controversy”

For a year after college, I served as a development officer for a medium-sized religious nonprofit. In that time, I learned two truths: (1) Happy donors make a happy nonprofit, and (2) Tell the donors whatever they need to hear to stay happy. While arguably key to a well-funded organization, this professional penchant for “spin” nevertheless leave little room for transparency.

This fundamental lack of transparency does not seem to disturb fundraising professional Nell Pratt, the protagonist in Sheila Connolly’s Fundraising the Dead. When she learns that her institution, the Pennsylvania Antiquarian Society, is hemorrhaging valuable historical artifacts, likely due to theft, Nell does everything in her power to keep a tight lid on the matter—at least as far as her donor base (and the public at large) is concerned.

Such lack of transparency may not bother Nell—but it should bother a public historian, especially if we view the public historian as a professional who shares authority with a broad constituency and who has a responsibility to act ethically and honestly toward that constituency.

With this in mind, I wonder, “Can public historians also be effective fundraisers?” Or, stated another way, “In what ways might effective fundraising inhibit effective public historical scholarship?”

I see this as a key question, especially for those PHs running small-to-medium-sized nonprofits. For these folks, fundraising is and must be a key component of their job description. Without a budget big enough to fund a director of development, these professionals don a fundraising cap and seek to cultivate an ever-expanding donor base. But is it possible that, in cultivating a confident and committed donor base, these public historians-cum-fundraisers are forced to abrogate an essential responsibility to the public good?

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