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History Center Raises Bigger Questions


The Gazette

February 5, 2006

 [Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

"No money, no mission’’ goes the well-worn saying in the world of non-profit organizations.
A painful reminder of how true that is came last week in Linn County with the temporary closing of The Carl and Mary Koehler History Center. Few obligations of a community are more fundamental than recording, preserving and sharing its own history. That basic mission, though, has been hampered in Linn County by the History Center’s inability to raise enough money to pay its operational expenses.

   That’s particularly disturbing to a public that contributed significantly just two years ago to clearing the History Center’s $1.4 million debt that remained from building its new museum on First Avenue SE in downtown Cedar Rapids. Without debt to repay, it was expected the History Center would thrive. But even now, its revenues have consistently fallen short of expenses, creating a new $170,000 debt.

   The failure of some ventures is unavoidable and inevitable, even with the best management and the most dependable business plan. The closing of a community history center — even temporarily — is not unavoidable or inevitable. It’s embarrassing, and it should not have happened.

   As the History Center retools in hopes of reopening, there are some lessons, some questions and some hope.

   First, the lessons:

   Very few non-profit organizations will ever ‘‘have it made.’’ By the nature of what they do, nonprofits are in an eternal cycle of applying for every grant, keeping their hand out to every donor and trying to make every dollar stretch as far as it can. There’s some sense there was a communitywide sigh of relief when the History Center was ‘‘saved’’ two years ago, so instead of momentum, the center got lethargy.

   Management of any organization is critical to its success. From the board of directors, the executive director and the staff,
there has to be a deep understanding of the business plan. Non-profits are driven by mission, of course, not by profit motives. But — no money, no mission. So leadership, including boards that too often are not aware enough of operational details, need to be accountable for the financial health of their organization.

   The questions:

   What role should local government play in supporting non-profit organizations? The History Center gets more tax proceeds than many similar organizations, but has it been enough? Has it been too much? Are taxpayers satisfied with the way hotel-motel tax revenues are distributed to support arts and culture in this community?

   Are there too many non-profit organizations vying for limited community resources? Should there be more sharing of resources, allowing unique missions to be sustained while collaborating on common functions?

   The hope:

   A Non-Profit Resource Center is in its infancy in Cedar Rapids. Under the umbrella of the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, this new center is designed to help non-profit organizations with everything from board development, strategic planning, fundraising ideas, etc. If organizations reach out to the resource center when trouble arises — and even before trouble arises — it just might help avoid the next trouble spot among non-profit organizations in this community.