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

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, but neither is it Mount Vernon), 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 rating 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.