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In Focus

An Administrator at Heart: Charles Bickford

By Amy Lifson | HUMANITIES, March/April 2001 | Volume 22, Number 2

When Charles Bickford’s time is divided between teaching and administration, administration usually wins out. Not that he doesn’t enjoy teaching, which he often does in less traditional places—he and his wife, a photographer, just returned from a stint as visiting professors in Burma. He spent a semester teaching at the Foreign Language College in Hanoi two years ago, and has also taught inmates through projects with the New Hampshire prisons. But his real flare is for encouraging ideas and finding the support to get them off the ground. He says, “I love the opportunity to cajole and convince and to listen—to help people get something done. I’m really goal-oriented.”

“How to do a lot with a little” is how Bickford describes the work of the New Hampshire Humanities Council. Bickford, who retires as executive director of the council this May, was lured to New Hampshire in 1983 by the possibility of making a difference.

The task was daunting. New Hampshire has never had the professional cultural infrastructure of its populous neighbor, Massachusetts. “Some libraries are only open four afternoons a week, and the historical society is run entirely by volunteers,” says Bickford. “The challenge was, how do we get excellent programs to people throughout the state when we know that they don’t necessarily have the time to commit to a project?” One of the solutions was the establishment of the Humanities Resource Center.

When the center began its programming between 1985 and 1987 it supported 365 humanities projects. In 2000, it supported seventeen hundred. Bickford attributes the center’s success to its responsiveness to New Hampshire’s needs: It provides a rolling deadline for projects, an easy, one-page form, a quick turnaround for applications, opportunities for collaboration, and the minigrant category for organizations that might find larger projects intimidating.

The center has helped the council improve its visibility. “About one-half to one-third of all the programs we fund, from Portsmouth to Bethlehem, are from the Humanities Resource Center,” says Bickford. The council got another enormous boost in visibility in the mid eighties through an exemplary grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was the first statewide project for the council and focused on New Hampshire’s role during the Revolutionary period, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution. It coincided with a state-run bicentennial celebration that had grand ideas but very little money. A marriage of convenience formed between the momentarily well-funded council and the cash-strapped bicentennial commission.

It turned out even better than expected. “We were able to give intellectual depth to the bicentennial activities,” recalls Bickford. What wasn’t expected was the bicentennial commission giving the council $50,000, which it raised at an end-of-the-year event, to start its endowment. That was about fifteen years ago and now the endowment is more than $2 million.

Fundraising has always come easy to Bickford, since he first worked on a building campaign for new Hispanic residents in Springfield, Massachusetts. He has just finished leading a successful, yearlong capital campaign for the council, which raised $1.9 million for programming and education, and won Bickford and the council the Walter J. Dunfey Award for Excellence in Management. To Bickford the dollars are important, but the process even more so. “It gave us a chance to tell our story to people who were new or unaware of all our resources. Our working board is far more savvy because they went through this process. It enabled us to cultivate people, learn about our friends, and point us to our future,” he says.

Bickford says that raising the visibility of the council has made his job easier. Some of the projects that have spread the word about the humanities council are the Annual Meeting that brings an audience of eight hundred or more to listen and meet speakers such as Bishop Tutu, Ken Burns, or Tom Brokaw; the statewide “What Is New Hampshire Reading?” discussion series; one-minute spots on commercial TV that highlight a piece of history or literature related to New Hampshire; or “The Many Faces of God,” which focuses each year on a different world religion and culture. “Everything is much easier because now we have a reputation and a record,” says Bickford. “In a small state, when you do one good thing, some people notice. Then you do two good things, then you do three, and then people say ‘Okay, we can start to trust you.’ You build confidence and goodwill and people become much more accessible and generous.”