It has always been challenging for arts organizations to write and then keep their histories current:

  • Organizations are paid to deliver programs today, not reflect on the past, so there’s precious little time to dig around in the archives.
  • Organizations don’t usually have a historian or archivist on staff either. Sorting out what’s important from the dross of organization work is difficult.
  • The purpose of a history is rarely clear and never urgent. For grant applications, it’s useful to have a brief description of the organization that includes when it was founded and perhaps its original mission, but beyond that the usefulness of a fuller history is not readily apparent. Who started an organization, their motivations and how the organization evolved over time appear to be of mostly academic interest.

Pit these arguments against those in favour of having a good organization history and keeping it up to date:

  • As they say, those who ignor history are bound to repeat it. Organizations often repeat the same cycles over and over. Usually they are aware they are doing it but also feel stuck, helpless to do things differently. To do things differently, you need to see what was done before so you can identify where it tripped up or failed or where the cycle repeated instead of moving forward.
  • All kinds of goodies are likely buried in your organization’s archives, including hand written letters and notes by prominent community members, fascinating reports on particular dramas or crises, plus charming vintage logos and graphics and nostalgic photos, all of which serve to bring history alive in the present. They show the organization’s depth and add immeasurably to its value.
  • The better the history is, and the more people who have read it, the more likely it will be carried forward through stories and anecdotes to new and younger members, again adding depth to everyone’s experience of the organization.
  • Organization history is the substance of organizational confidence. Strutting your stuff is just hubris if its not backed up by a track record that extends beyond your most recent (albeit amazing) accomplishments.
  • One of the more important, but often taken for granted, roles of organizations is to work together with other organizations. Networking, collaboration and partnerships are more than popular buzzwords, they are actual measures of organizational effectiveness. An organization’s history will show evidence of the networks it belongs to¬† and how it functioned in them, providing good guidance for present-day community initiatives.

Conclusion: Invest in your history and you are investing in your organization’s health. The rewards may be difficult to measure but they will be unmistakable when you learn to see the effects in the depth of programs, quality of governance decision-making and membership participation.

 

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