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Preserving an Island's History

A case study of financial and social effects of a Challenge Grant

June 30, 2011 | By Brandon Johnson

North Haven is a small island community off the coast of Maine, with a history dating back to 1762 when the first permanent settler arrived. The North Haven Historical Society was organized in 1975 to acquire, study, and preserve archival material and artifacts chronicling the community’s past. Two decades later, it was in need of a suitable storage facility.

In 2002 the Historical Society applied for and was awarded a $60,000 NEH challenge grant, to be matched by $180,000 in nonfederal donations. The society proposed to use the funds to construct an Archives Building for the safe housing of the documents and artifacts embodying the history of the island and its people. The society met the required three-to-one match well ahead of schedule, and in 2004 and 2005 sought bids for construction to be completed by 2006.

Unfortunately, the original estimates for the construction costs were far too low, especially given the expense of hiring an “off-island” contractor to do the work. Few bids were submitted in response to the original solicitation, and those that were proved to be far more expensive than originally anticipated (upwards of $850,000 as opposed to $350,000). The society persevered, however, using the same fundraising techniques that had allowed them to meet the NEH matching requirement ahead of schedule, and by spring of 2006, when it was warm enough to pour concrete, the new building was finally under construction.

The NEH challenge played an important “leveraging” role even after the grant was officially closed. As the project director reported in 2005: “In no small part, the reminder to our donors of the NEH grant helped considerably [to raise the extra money needed]. The prestige such a grant affords is impressive and very helpful.” That is, the effects of the grant were both tangible, in the form of funds, and intangible in the form of motivation. While paying for only a portion of the new building, the challenge grant proved to be the stimulus for a transformative enhancement of the society’s humanities capabilities.

The building was finally completed in 2008. On Memorial Day of 2009, the Office of Challenge Grants received the following report. “[T]he North Haven Historical Society has moved into its new archives building and is coping with the overwhelming task of achieving order for the vast amount of material that has been given for preservation and education.

“Once again we are reminded of the generous and encouraging challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. How thankful we are for the courage that grant gave us to move forward and build an excellent facility that should serve the island for many generations. It was just the incentive the Society needed and a clear indication to our potential donors that we - and you - meant to provide an archival safe haven for all that we had been given, for future acquisitions, and [as] an enticement for community members (especially students) to explore their heritage. It has all come to fruition and programs with the school this past year have been inspiring.”