February 9, 2021
Roadmap to unity: How Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites' board prevailed in achieving compliance among its Friends groups
Board members and volunteers at 11 historic sites navigate a year-long journey to reach a model of collaboration 
(Para leer en español, haga clic aquí) Translated by LUNA Language Services
by Shari Finnell, editor, Not for Profit News

When volunteers are providing an invaluable service to a nonprofit, it can be challenging to tell them that they have it all wrong in some critical areas — especially when they’ve been operating in that mode for years or, in some cases, decades.
That was the dilemma facing the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites' board of directors following a March 6, 2019. meeting in which its past board president, Greg Pemberton, an attorney outlined the need to update a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Plan for the Friends groups connected to its network of 11 historic sites across the state of Indiana.
“Many of these groups have kept the state at arm’s length for several years, and some are untrusting when both the Friends groups and the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites (ISMHS) organization both have the same goal,” Pemberton said during the 2019 meeting, before leading a board discussion on numerous areas of concern:
  • Friends groups cannot operate independently of the overall museum system. However, many had been acting independently for decades, developing their own branding for their websites and marketing collateral; operating board-related activities for their respective sites; and, in some cases, identifying themselves as separate 501(c)3 organizations.

  • Some of the groups had been inconsistently reporting tax information to the state, which is required under law.

  • Each group had been operating under outdated MOUs, which were drafted before the museum system became a quasi-state agency in 2011. All guidelines would need to be updated to align with legal requirements outlined by the attorney general’s office. The new guidelines would dictate that all funding and donations from the 12-network system, including the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis, must come from one unified fund.
The board members seemed optimistic that many of these issues could be quickly addressed with new Community Partner Guidelines, and a series of discussions with its Friends groups. By the end of the board meeting, Cathy Ferree, ISMHS president and CEO, and Kate Brownlee, then ISMHS chief development officer, had agreed to meet with ISMHS regional directors and Friends’ board of directors over a two-month period. The ultimate goal was to have the Friends groups operating under the new guidelines by July 1, 2019.
Encountering resistance along the way
As it turns out, shifting to the new agreement wasn’t a straightforward proposition.
Overwhelmingly, the Friends groups’ response to operating under the new guidelines was, “Why do we want to change things?,” recalled Andrew Briggs, who has been an ISM board member for about 10 years.
“A lot of these groups had been set up years ago,” said Briggs, a banker from Geneva., Ind., who also serves as the chairman of the Indiana Bankers Association. “They didn’t have a structure that was conducive to a quasi-government entity. They sort of did things their own way — ‘under our umbrella and tax ID number.’”
According to P. Garrett Adams, President/Board Chair for the T.C. Steele State Historic Site Friends group, the site in Nashville, Ind., had been operating independently for nearly 30 years. The members of the volunteer organization had developed close ties with the site staff and community, actively recruiting volunteers, raising funds for capital improvements and seeking grants to support enhancements, including a recreation of Steele’s studio wagon, AV equipment and golf carts for visitors.

When that model of operations was threatened to be disrupted, members of the Friends group feared that their long-term relationship with the site and its staff also would be impacted, said Adams, who is a pharmaceutical project manager for Eli Lilly & Co. “We were not as concerned about losing autonomy,” he recalled. “We needed a better understanding of the impact on members and membership benefits. The larger focus was on seeking to understand what it meant for our relationship to the site.”
Because of those types of concerns, at least one Friends group appealed to its local legislators to block the implementation of the new Community Partner Guidelines among the historic sites, Ferree recalled. “It was complicated,” she said. “Change is difficult for people. Many of them were confused; they didn’t understand why the rules had suddenly changed.”

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