Non-profit evaluators such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar provide a terrific service to donors and public historians alike.  Using various metrics, they cut through the weeds of the annual tonnage of reporting documents for places such as historic sites–mainly the all-important IRS Form 990–and evaluate them, using stars or other ratings, in ways that certainly seem clear and unambiguous.  And those evaluations should also be instructive to the leaders of such sites and the people they regularly ask to invest in them.  It’s one-stop shopping for anyone interested in checking out the health of an organization, particularly the ones that meet the income threshold of $1 million, and provides a critical public window into the inner working of a site. So consider Charity Navigator, my evaluator of choice, as a sort of CNBC or Wall Street Journal of the business of public history — they read the numbers so that you don’t have to.

This comes to mind because Charity Navigator just downgraded Colonial Williamsburg (CW), the largest public history site in the world, and the media’s favorite punching bag for anything related to those who make their living from dressing in historical clothing, from three stars to two (out of four).  It makes for a somewhat easy story to tell because it fits into the broadly accepted narrative that CW is in a kind of free fall into an unknown future, just as somewhat similar places seem to have tripped off a financial cliff into the abyss of wedding rentals and ghost tours.  But what has always set CW apart from other apparent cognates has been its substantial endowment, its commitment to its mission, and its willingness to embrace its role as the leader in the public history and museum studies fields, with all the slings and arrows, and tremendous opportunities, that attend it.  Its early and longstanding partnership with the College of William & Mary to create what’s now the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture, which publishes the journal of record for the field of early American history, kept CW on the vanguard of academic history, just as its keen attention to material culture and architecture made it and its talented staff the beacon of expertise for museums and curators everywhere.  Like it or not, what CW did, and how it did it, mattered, especially as a bellwether of historical studies and heritage tourism, which, in my opinion, holds the single largest untapped economic potential in the entire tourism sector.

Consequently, the downgrade to two stars has generated not a little mumbling within the field that CW has finally begun an inexorable march towards its nadir–and is getting a sort of deserved comeuppance after decades of, to some observers, arrogant expansion into hospitality and investment in non-traditional innovative programming, such as the “Actor Interpreter”-driven immersive experience Revolutionary City.  That was part of a subtle but important shift in its mission “That the Future May Learn From the Past” and the core of its interpretation, from a vague colonial period, forever on the verge of the American Revolution, to “A Center for History and Citizenship” that jumped right into the founding era and a focus on the American Revolution itself and, most importantly, the ideas it continues to represent.  Out went the virtually unknown Robert Carter Nicholas and in came 25-year-old James Madison.  And now, as the members of the team that ushered in those changes have either departed willingly or more recently been ushered out, and with relatively new, untested leadership, with little to no experience in the field, in place, the downgrade is reflecting perception: CW is finally on its way out.  Charity Navigator says so.

Here’s the problem: That’s not what the downgrade actually means.  First, keep in mind that it’s an evaluation of a latest available year’s reporting documents, which aren’t usually filed until well into the following year, so it reflects a sort of financial vapor trail of 2013, rather than a snapshot of what’s going on in 2015.  Second, CW has been in this position before.  Lots of times.  Although it hasn’t had a four-star rating since 2003, CW has wavered between two and three stars ever since, earning a two-star rating seven times in the last 12 years.  So the lower rating itself isn’t news.

But here’s the bigger problem: What the numbers actually reveal.  You know, I’ve pounded the importance of deeply reading 990s, like Ted Kennedy trying to move a decent health care bill through the Senate, into every Board of Trustees, public history class, and museum director that I’ve ever been asked to counsel.  And that means reading between the lines of existing filings, comparing them to similarly situated institutions (which one should define as strictly as possible — CW is not Busch Gardens), and looking at them in historical context with past reports.  That’s where a southern friend of mine would say that things at CW get “hinky.”  In the past, CW’s ratings have been dragged down by steadily decreasing financial numbers.  That doesn’t exactly mean pure revenue, because those numbers can be fudged, if one looks closely enough.  Many institutions try to mask a high burn rate (the ratio of actual spending to budgeted amounts over the course of a fiscal year, usually reviewed monthly by an organization’s Finance Committee), and I’ve seen more than a few give it a shot, by drawing down on the principal of an endowment or, more positively, simply benefiting from an improved market, which shows up on a different 990 line (one site that I counseled even kept several million dollars in phantom collections assets on the books until I, um, strenuously explained the error).  Either way, CW’s financial rating is the lowest in its history, at 73.22 (its previous low was 76.33 in 2006). Looking at the raw data that drives the ratings makes matters worse, as Program Revenues at CW were, for 2013, at an all-time low of $38,180,000, the overall number of which was boosted by a slight tick in donations and a substantial boost from investment income.  So the rating actually could have been much, much worse.

But what does all that mean for CW today and, more importantly, for the health of heritage tourism and the livelihoods that depend on them?  One good friend of mine, who has 30-plus years of experience with CW, the Omohundro Institute, and academic history in Virginia and New England (he lives near me in Boston now), thinks that CW’s decline is representative of a broader shift, that the era of such historic sites everywhere, especially places like CW, Old Sturbridge Village, and Historic Deerfield, with such high overheads, is, frankly, over.  Post-World War II tourism has changed and segmented; heritage tourists aren’t interested in what are increasingly seen, especially when programming departs from missions, as precisely what they have long been criticized and ridiculed, incorrectly in the past, for being: Historical theme parks, with a costumed historical figure bearing no functional difference to a sweltering intern dressed up as a cartoon character, and the cringe-worthy “Try to Nail the British Soldier Cut-Out with a Rubber ‘Tommyhawk'” more or less the same as a game of “Whack-a-Mole.”  To my friend, such sites will only survive if they base their futures on their own pasts, as places that represent a more recent, nostalgic history.  After all, what one sees at CW–as it stands now–never actually looked like it does at any point in its pre-restoration history.  Its buildings, landscape, and collections represent a conglomeration of different times and tastes from across the Chesapeake, a trend that has continued with the influence of particular major donors.  The “year in history” approach in the era of colonial interpretation, in which CW took a calendar year and portrayed it for guests in real time (which I thought was pretty nifty, and kept the visitor experience fresh), and then the Revolutionary City master narrative, attempted to connect the disparate elements into a coherent guest experience, with varying degrees of success.  For example, in 1775, almost every house was painted white, the main thoroughfare was an often muddy, dirt road, and what’s been recreated as “Palace Green” was actually a wide (and, yes, muddy) boulevard.  But hardly anyone would pay for that sort of authentic experience.

Those are not criticisms but facts, so, as my friend suggests, CW and other sites might have a future by embracing that character, and the power of the memories of the people who positively experienced it in their own pasts, rather than attempting to compete for a kind of tourist–one purely out for recreation, rather than heritage–that evidence strongly suggests it will never sufficiently draw.  Smaller, and therefore potentially more nimble, historic sites that can collaborate with other sites and experiment with audiences and programming might actually be better situated to take advantage of the modern possibilities presented by heritage tourism.

I confess a great deal of sympathy for that perspective, even if I don’t yet wholly embrace it (except for the point about smaller sites, with which I’m totally on board).  CW’s current leadership is, I strongly suspect, incisive enough to recognize that its program revenue decline is precipitous and might well be permanent.  Without a drastic reorganization, that includes the shedding of almost all the hotels and restaurants (the Inn and Lodge are both splendid, and an evening in one of the Colonial Houses can be almost magical), which are a major drag on the CW budget given the tight connection between the for-profit and non-profit sides of what we collectively think of as CW, that ship cannot even begin to be righted.  But the CW brand remains strong, with quality interpreters, and the potential for generating revenue while shaping the historical understanding of a new generation of Americans in a mission-appropriate way has not yet been sacrificed (the Historic Trades, for example, remains a shining gem in CW’s interpretive crown, so to speak).  However, recent efforts to increase visitation while cutting costs on the non-profit side are not just worrying, they’re alarming, so distinctly do they smack of the sort of short-term, monthly profit-loss report decision-making that comes from, it must be said, inexperience in the field, and that will doom a public history site of any size.  A proper historical foundation for its programming, for example, appears to have gone straight out the window.  A new gecko-type “mascot” for CW–a type of dog that George Washington did not own until well after the Revolution and was never, in fact, in Williamsburg (Washington was no Charles Lee with his foxhounds, endlessly trailing after him through the Governor’s Palace in 1776)–is nothing when compared with the flabbergasting message sent to the academic community by the July 1, 2015, announcement that CW has ended its partnership with the College of William & Mary and its support for the Omohundro Institute.  Just as the creation of the Institute firmly established CW’s commitment to historical integrity, its severance declared that era to be over.  And once historical integrity is lost by an institution ostensibly based on it, then all else might be lost as well.

I don’t mean to offer this post as a eulogy to a place and group of people for whom I maintain considerable fondness.  But recent programming and other decisions are not suggestive of a sustainable, mission-oriented future on which donors can rely in terms of a sound return on their investment in public history and civic education.  Consequently, the Charity Navigator downgrade of CW does not, as Thomas Jefferson might say, signal the death knell of a storied and cherished institution, but the numbers behind it are certainly a fire bell in the night.

10 thoughts on “What Colonial Williamsburg’s Charity Navigator Downgrade to 2 Stars Does–and Doesn’t–Mean

  1. Thanks for diving deep into this topic and not simply providing a superficial announcement of CWF’s downgrade on GuideStar. Although the Form 990 attempts to provide standard financial reporting for the field so that we make useful comparisons across time and organizations, readers also need to have some understanding of accounting to recognize when numbers (which seem so neutral and factual) can be misleading (or even manipulated). It’s most useful as a device to to get beyond the sanitized news releases and begin identifying patterns, trends, and questions–just like any other historical source. Although the Form 990 didn’t identify the end of the partnership with W&M, combined with that story and a new CEO with little to no experience in public history or in managing a major historic site suggests that CWF is pursuing a very different direction–but we have no clue where it’s going. Is CWF still a leader in the field or has it become another wanderer?

    1. I really appreciate your trenchant comments. From this far away, it looks like CWF is just heading in its own direction. The new leadership is making some cosmetic moves — now they’re changing the name of the CW Journal to “bring it into the 21st century” — without addressing the substantive issues or, what might be worse, letting the substance just fade away. But the Board, which is the only constituency any leadership generally cares about, will perceive action, even if none of that action is ultimately going to be reflected in better numbers or–what I think is more important–a stronger institution.

      If an institution has strong, mission-relevant programming that can rely on a base audience, and then know where to build for sustainable audience growth, that’s a platform for the future. In that case, it’s best to hit rock bottom with a solid product, to put it crudely, and then go from there. The kind of thing that’s going on now, though, is not, in my humble opinion, that direction. So, back to your point, I think CWF is just headed in a direction of its own.

  2. A very interesting read indeed. We have been visiting CW for more than three decades and I have noticed the shift. I assume like watching your children grow the decline of CW almost seems imperceptible. However, with your thoughtful analysis I have seen the very same signs. I too think the historic trades are spot on and most of the historic agriculture but a lot of the old solid programs are no longer offered. Truly the increase in Ghost Tours is exhausting but the rise in African American program is a plus. Thanks again for your insight.

  3. My wife and I have been visiting for over thirty years. We have even lodged in one of the historical houses and found it an awesome experience. Over the years we have seen the over all feel of the historic area change. We feel that it has been going in a direction that makes it less desirable for our taste and desires to keep returning. It feels like it becoming less of a historical learning area to more of a resort area. I hope that it goes back to the historic area that we used to know.

  4. I worked in Historic Trades during a boom period (the mid-1980’s) and found it to be a wonderfully energetic, creative, and engaging place . . . as did most of our visitors. From the beginning, CW has been a different animal in this field . . . a museum operation attempting to preserve and interpret the entire historic core of a very significant colonial community . . . and in that sense, there’s always been a certain element of learning-as-you-go. I think that that aspect of their “corporate culture” (flexibility, innovation, and trying something new) has and will serve them well in the future, as they deal with the latest downturn. Yes, it’s a big operation with a lot of overhead, but there are also a lot of very experienced, creative people on staff who (you can bet) are already working on the next round of innovative programming.

  5. Hmm. I used to visit CW annually, from the time I was independent enough to travel solo from my home in New England. There was a time when all I wanted to do was learn to be as much of an expert in living history as I perceived so many of the interpreters there to be. Over time, though, I started to see through the cracks and became disenchanted as more and more corporate culture seeped into the everyday experience of visiting my faborite place. You see, my educational goals were constrained by financial limitations which had resulted in an inadvertent career in corporate retail as I slogged along in undergrad part-time for the better part of two decades. This corporate experience had the effect of developing my skills in discernment and I began feeling that something was “off” at CW. Meanwhile, my particular interests in history shifted away from the Colonial amd Federal Periods and toward a more specific goal of professionalizing those small institutions which hold a great deal of assets and lack the trained leadership to further their mission in Public History and education. Long story short, CW lost my attention and smaller, struggling institutions in backwater locales took precedence. I somehow missed the memo of CW dissolving its relationship with W&M…and I am, as you put it, FLABBERGASTED.

    My questions for you are: Is this a relationship that can be restored in future? Should it be? How would CW repair the damage this decision has most certainly caused? Would CW be able to regain its standing as an educational authority? To me, this decision is the ultimate sell-out and inexcuseably foolish.

    But I’m not an expert. I’m just a formerly loyal patron who adored the experience CW once offered and wanted to create a microcosm of that experience in small-but-significant, formerly-overlooked-but-worth-the-effort institutions as soon as my education and individual efforts brought me to a place where I could exert some level of positive influence. So I ask, is CW a lost cause? Or can people like me do some kind of “lobbying” for a restoration of the history and a shedding of the country-club-and-spa-day package deals that started turning us off some ten years ago?

    1. Melanie, Thank you for such a thoughtful and insightful set of observations — and some pretty trenchant questions (and that’s not just because I share many of your goals). There are almost no forums for informed discussions about such things, particularly when it comes to CW, so I’m very happy that you raised them here. In a sense, your questions are, unfortunately, rhetorical. I mean, we have no idea what Reiss and the current Board will, as you suggest, will leave standing when they’ve finished with their institutional wrecking ball. What is clear, by any objective standard in the field, is that CW is in the midst of squandering, with shocking speed, a resonance and reputation–one of the most important motivating factors for guests at heritage tourism sites–built over 80 years of commitment to public history. I don’t think that means that it’s a lost cause, though. CW is not the Titanic, or at least I hope we don’t get to see the simile tested, especially if alternative voices can be heard. Your point about the “country-club-and-spa-day” CW is well taken, and the fact that the place is being rendered nothing more than a unique background to that, rather than the main event, boggles the imagination. The most productive next step is, I think, your point about lobbying, with the creation of some sort of independent “Friends” group that can be an advocate for CW’s historical mission and counterpoint to the current leadership, which seems to have no inclination to follow it. What will happen, if the experience of other sites is any indicator, is that in attempting to forego heritage tourists in order to capture leisure tourists, that CW will lose them both and attendance will plummet to unknown depths, creating an even larger financial hole than the corporate side of the place (the hotels, spa, restaurants, etc.) is in already. I’d, of course, appreciate your thoughts, and thanks again. — Taylor

    2. Melanie, very interesting points and observations. I’m a journalist with an interest in history and historic sites that was fostered through Colonial Williamsburg. That interest started with a chance visit to Colonial Williamsburg’s wide range of web offerings in 2009. I became sucked in by the offerings of podcasts and vodcasts featuring the many great interpreters and historic trades folks there.
      In 2012, I finally had a chance to visit, and I was amazed. I had never seen an historic site that put the people who lived there, not just objects, at the center of their interpretation. From hearing a first person program involving Patrick Henry, to getting a tour of Peyton Randolph’s house from a slave’s eye view. The experience was very engaging and made me think long and hard about what it was like to live during the American Revolution, and why people chose the sides they did.
      If I were a slave, the British offer of Freedom would be quite tempting, but then there’s the question of leaving friends and family behind and I wouldn’t even want to think about what would happen when I get caught. How about the thoughts of having family members sold like property?
      I learned that labeling Patriots and Loyalists good guys and bad guys isn’t as easy as Mario and Bowser in the Super Mario Bros video games. Although history text books like to make folks think that way.
      CW also produced these wonderful streaming video programs called “Connect” that used actors interpreters, a moderator and a panel of historians that tried to link continuing issues like Freedom of Religion back to the Founders. They featured questions from the moderator mixed in with questions from the public sent via social media and telephone. I even sent a few questions that were answered during the program.
      But sadly It seems CW under the current leadership team has really lost their way. They’ve jettisoned a sensible separation between the non-profit and the for-profit resort side. Judging from their blog the marketing department now drives the bus in regards to any CW online offerings, as the history or citizenship related blogs were jettisoned in favor of ones emphasizing ghosts tours, food and offerings at the resorts.
      It seems they transitioned into a “colonial history family funk park to attract that crowd. The ticket packages and social media strategy all resemble theme parks, which I’m quite familiar as a big roller coaster aficionado. This new CW has all of the things I hate about theme parks, overpriced mediocre food, expensive ticket packages, gift shops at every turn, and now even cheesy shows, like the Blackbeard stuff. Now they’ve added cheesy corporate sponsorships and tie ins, like the M&M statue in the Visitor’s Center and the M&M’s Trick-or-Treating. Courtesy of Mars Candy tycoon Forrest Mars Jr., who has become a key CW donor.
      These are tried and true Six Flags ideas.
      Wouldn’t be nice just to have one place that doesn’t have everything sponsored by something?
      I agree with Taylor. I can’t see how they can build loyalty with this crowd, and I’m amazed how willing they are to throw away any educational authority and the trust they built among loyal patrons over such a long time for a few gimmicks to put heads in the beds in their grossly overbuilt resort properties.
      CW is also jettisoning what makes them “one of a kind,” it’s history and how it tells that story. Now they are just becoming like any other resort town.
      As for the Connect programs, these are just distance memories replaced by videos of a guy in a pirate suit running around, stealing money from office vending machines and scaring kids on playgrounds.
      The circus is in town now, the question is when, if ever, it’ll leave?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s