Watkins Community Museum of History should be a gem of this community, drawing broad financial support and participation in programs and exhibits that showcase this area's rich history.
But before the museum can take on that role, it has to break the cycle that leaves it almost constantly on the brink of financial ruin.
The museum's director, Rebecca Phipps, told the Douglas County Commission Wednesday that the museum needs an additional $14,500 from the county next year "just to maintain what we do now." That would bring the county's total allocation to the museum to $135,000. Phipps added that without the additional funding "the museum might as well close."
That dramatic statement comes after several years of negotiations with county commissioners aimed at trying to get the museum on a firm financial footing. Looking over the efforts, it's understandable that commissioners are frustrated by the increased budget request.
Phipps started work as the museum's director in February 2003, replacing longtime director Steve Jansen, who left the museum as the result of a reorganization plan implemented by the board. Recognizing that fundraising was a key component of stabilizing the museum, county commissioners funded the hiring of a part-time consultant in 2004 to help generate donations and grants and set up a financial plan for the museum.
But now, two years later, little progress seems to have been made on the financial front. Phipps reported to commissioners that new exhibits have been developed during the past year and artifacts are being cataloged and entered into a database, which hadn't been done before. There are many favorable reports in the community about progress that has occurred under Phipps' leadership, but the financial problems remain.
What did the fundraising consultant tell the Douglas County Historical Society, which oversees the museum? The consultant came on board in April 2004. At its annual meeting the following November, the society reported that a two-phase fundraising campaign had brought in pledges totaling $68,000. That's great, but it obviously isn't enough to meet the museum's needs. What's the plan for the future?
It is not inexpensive to maintain the historical Watkins bank building that houses the museum or to provide programming and exhibits, but, as other nonprofit organizations have discovered, it is not a winning strategy to expect taxpayers to continue to pick up much of that cost.
Funding and programming can be a vicious cycle. Without funds, it's difficult to present the programming and exhibits that get people excited about the museum and more willing to support it with donations. Without the donations, it's hard to get programming and events off the ground. Watkins Museum seems to be trapped in this no-win situation.
The best way to get out of this trap may be to hire a permanent development professional who is responsible for seeking donations and planning fundraising events for the museum. This person's only job would be to raise enough money to cover not only his or her salary but a large chunk of the museum's operations. That could involve soliciting private donations, planning community fundraising events and seeking new members for the Douglas County Historical Society.
Many well-intentioned people have put a lot of effort into the work of the Watkins museum. Hiring someone whose ongoing job is to raise money would honor their efforts by making sure this museum is a continuing and even more vital asset to the community for many years to come.