Jim Donahue

Episode 91: Historic Significance, Current Relevance, with Jim Donahue

In any competitive landscape, keeping a legacy cultural institution relevant is a challenge. Keeping it relevant while retaining the original vision is an even greater challenge. For many in the travel and tourism industry, we’re always looking to strike a balance between differentiation and collaboration. We really need both to thrive. In New England, where you can’t walk ten feet without bumping into a place with historical significance, Old Sturbridge Village is striking this balance.

In this episode, we hear from Jim Donahue. Jim is highly regarded in the nonprofit sector as a collaborative visionary. He is recognized as one of the top nonprofit executives in New England, with an impressive background in leadership, education, and fundraising.

Prior to taking the position as president and CEO for Old Sturbridge Village, Jim was the CEO of the Bradford Dunn Institute for Learning Differences in Providence, Rhode Island. In that time, he managed the merger between the Bradford Dunn Institute and CVS Highlander Charter School in 2004. During his seven-year tenure as the director of the charter school, he led the renovation of two campuses for the school and the establishment of several key capacity-building partnerships.

Since taking over as Old Sturbridge Village president in 2007, Jim has led the institution through a renaissance by increasing attendance, fundraising, and revenue from special programs. Highlights of his tenure include the reopening of the museum’s restaurant division, the renovation, and reopening of the lodging complex, the creation of the Ken Burns Lifetime Achievement Award, establishing an immersive theater program, including The Sleepy Hollow Experience, and the expansion of popular events like Christmas by Candlelight and Fourth of July.

In 2017, he launched Old Sturbridge Academy, the first public charter school located in a museum in Massachusetts. A revolutionary model of experiential learning, and a partnership between a school and museum, the academy is already changing the lives of its students, many of whom come from underperforming school districts. In 2010, he was named Nonprofit Leader of the Year by the Worcester Business Journal, and in 2013, received the Larry Meehan Award for the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. He is a member of the American Antiquarian Society, a Fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and has served on the boards of a number of Rhode Island nonprofits.

More on Jim’s Background

Thank you so much for joining me, Jim.

Thank you, Nicole, for having me today.

That’s a very impressive bio and background. I knew when I read it, we were in for a very interesting conversation. But I also know that when I read these bios, it only tells part of the story of who you are and how you got to where you are today. I’m wondering if you could just share a little bit more about your journey, and what led you to where you are today.

Sure. Well, thank you again, Nicole, for having me today. It’s a real privilege to be with you. I have kind of an interesting journey. I graduated with a degree in economics from Colby College, and like many of my fellow graduates in the econ department, I wound up in banking. I started my banking career in Providence, Rhode Island. Soon into that career, I realized that I had an interest in education. I had done some community service work for the bank, working with youth groups, and really enjoyed that. With that experience, I thought it would be a good chance to spend a year or two exploring working in the inner city. I did that, and that wound up becoming a career for me. I was a teacher, and then an administrator, and then in 2000, as the bio indicated, I started my own public charter school in Providence, Rhode Island, and did that for a number of years.

Then in 2006, I received a call from the consultant who was leading the search for the presidency here at Old Sturbridge Village. I had been to Old Sturbridge Village as an educator and as a student myself, so I was a little bit familiar with the museum, but I hadn’t been in a while. When she called, I said, “You know, I don’t have a history background. I don’t have a background in collections or in preservation. I don’t think I’m really qualified for this job.” She said, “I don’t think that’s what they need. I think they’re looking for someone who’s about building capacity and thinking through strategic partnerships. I think they have plenty of expertise in the museum field. They really are looking for someone who’s thinking outside the box.”

She encouraged me to come up to the museum and just talk with one of the vice presidents. When I did, we walked around the campus, and the campus is about 300 acres. We have over 100 buildings. At the time, Nicole, the museum was in real trouble. I mean, just frankly, it was probably a year away from closing. There had been massive layoffs. This was an institution that, in its heyday in the 1970s, saw upwards of half a million visitors a year, and we were down to about 200,000. As your audience may or may not know, we are probably the largest outdoor history museum in New England, and we interpret life as it was lived between 1790 and 1830, and we do that through costumed interpretations. We have people working in the museum in costume, and they’re doing things that people would have done during that period of our history. But those people had pretty much gone away, and the museum’s restaurant had been closed, the hotel had been closed, and it was kind of limping its way toward bankruptcy.

I remember driving back from that first interview, thinking to myself, “If this place closes, it would never come back again. It’s gonna be game over.” And all of this rich history that had been taught to millions of visitors since the museum opened in 1946 would be lost. I threw my hat in the ring, and completely unqualified to drive the bus, got hired in the winter of 2007, and have been here ever since.

Wow. That’s amazing. You were called by a recruiter to take a leap and take a new position, and this organization is near bankruptcy. Some people would have taken the tour and said, “No thank you.”

I know.

You really saw it for what it could be, and also the importance of what it provides to the community. You saw the opportunity to not just save it, but build it into something that can have some staying power for the next generation.

Yes. There was no question, Nicole, and I think you’re right. When I was weighing whether to accept the job, I thought, “This is either the best decision of my career or the worst decision of my career.” It wound up, I think, is one of the best. For me, I saw the value in Old Sturbridge Village, and in what the village had offered in the past, and what it could offer in the future. If there was any way that I could play a role in helping to turn it around and make it more sustainable and more relevant, then I wanted the opportunity to do that. It’s been a privilege to be part of the team working on that for the past 11 years.

Deciding with Data

That sounds awesome. Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve done to pull it out of that situation? I think we hit on some of it in your bio, but can you expand on some of those things that you have done to give it a new life, so to speak?

Sure. I feel like I’m very lucky, Nicole, to be the spokesperson for the museum. I speak for hundreds of people who have been part of working to make it successful, so I’ll share our collective story. I think for me, my first goal when I came here was to turn the gate around. I wanted to bring more visitors into the museum. I also wanted us to establish a culture that was very data-driven. I think prior to my arrival, we were making some important marketing and programming decisions based upon what we, on the staff, thought a visitor wanted. But we had no data to support that.

One of the first things I did when I came was to hire a superb marketing and PR firm to come in and to do some visitor research and some analysis of what we were doing here at the museum. They interviews both customers of the village, folks who hadn’t come in a long time, and folks who had never been here at all. That gave us some important data, in terms of what our visitors liked about the village, what they expected, and what people’s perceptions of the museum were.  We were able to leverage that data to not only develop a marketing and advertising campaign that I felt was more effective, but also to inform some of our program development so that we were actually creating offerings, right, that were resonating with the audience that was most likely to want to come here.

It’s funny. I started part-time in February of ’07, and began this work pretty quickly, and my first full month on the job was July of ’07, and that’s the first month that we saw the turnaround at the gate, where attendance started to rise instead of falling or being flat. We’re up probably 30,000 or 40,000 visitors a year over where we were when I first came.

Data was important, and then the second piece for me was helping our staff who were engaging with the public to see themselves as serving the customer as well as educating the customer. I think there had been a perception here that the audience was expected to work pretty hard to get knowledge of the history, and I wanted to change that. We wanted a more customer-friendly approach throughout the museum. I think we were successful at doing that, as well.

What’s impressive is that you had these two areas of focus you wanted to start with, and then I’m sure since then have built off of that. I love that it’s data-driven and that you did your research and used that research to inform your marketing. Can you expand a little bit on program development? What types of things did you learn in doing that visitor research that was key to some of those changes that you made early on? Does anything stand out for you in particular?

It was enlightening information. Before I started, we had been on a trajectory, in order to reduce expenses, of eliminating costumed interpretation, and replacing that with technology. Instead of walking into a blacksmith’s shop and seeing a blacksmith working, you would walk in and there would be a television monitor and a video playing instead. We were also eliminating the agriculture program with the animals because it’s a very expensive program.

When we did our visitor research, the top two things that our visitors expected to see when they came to the museum were people working in costume, and animals on the farm. Our data was telling us that the most important things to our visitors were actually things that, for the previous four or five years, we were eliminating at the museum. There was a clear disconnect between what the customer wanted and expected, and what we were delivering for them. That allowed me to change course pretty much immediately, and reverse those steps. We put more people in costume out into the museum and put more resources behind the agriculture program, and I think that contributed to the turnaround.

The other thing we learned in that initial data; at that time in 2007, our primary visitor was a mom visiting with kids under the age of 10. That was pretty much our majority audience in 2007, so we needed to do a better job of programming for that customer, and then marketing toward that customer. We shifted our advertising buys to places where we thought that demographic was most likely to visit, either by radio, or billboard, or now digital. We also started pushing more family-friendly programming, and things that would appeal to families coming through. I think that also contributed to the initial turnaround.

Partnerships were another big thing. We wanted to leverage our relationships with other tourism destinations here in central Massachusetts. We’ve been looking at geographic demographics to see if there might be opportunities for us to partner with folks in other states, so I think those things also contributed.

That’s great. Interesting, right? Because you get into a situation where you need to balance a budget, and you’ve got this declining gate, and so you try to balance the budget, but then what you don’t realize is by doing that, you’re contributing to the issue that you’re trying to course correct.


Customer Engagement: Becoming a Hands-on Museum

That’s a great illustration of how important it is to keep your eye on the data, to really understand your customer and to constantly be in touch with what they’re looking for, and be able to make those adjustments. I think that’s just awesome.

The other thing I wanted to circle back to is, I loved that part of your approach included, of course, your staff, and how they serve and educate the customer. Can you elaborate on that?

I think we took a very, I would say, didactic approach to it. We also took a more organic approach to it. We instituted formalized customer service training, which had not been done here at Old Sturbridge Village for as long as I know. I think there was the perception that our costumed historians would be working in the village and would kind of be doing their thing, and then if the customer showed up, great, and interacted, great. If not, that was great too. I wanted to create a different mindset in the village. I wanted the customer to really feel welcomed, and engaged, and invited. The analogy that one of my colleagues came up with that I thought was really great was that when you visit an art museum, you’re kind of walking around a gallery, and you might be looking at paintings, and portraits, and sculptures. But here at Old Sturbridge Village, we wanted to invite our visitor to actually step into the painting with us. It was an opportunity for them to actually be part of the canvas.

“Here at Old Sturbridge Village, we wanted to invite our visitor to actually step into the painting with us. It was an opportunity for them to actually be part of the canvas.” - Jim Donahue #podcast Click To Tweet

One of the shifts we made was to move from being a hands-off museum, where you came into an exhibit and you didn’t touch anything, to being a hands-on museum. In our pottery shop now, visitors can come in and our potter will invite a visitor to come up to the wheel and feel the clay as it’s forming. They can come into the blacksmith’s shop and step behind the barrier, and bang the anvil. We’ve moved from a museum that was barrier-driven, I think, when I first came here, to one that’s much more engaging. Because I think the 21st-century tourist is looking for experience. You can pull up a YouTube video and watch somebody blacksmithing from the comfort of your living room, but we really want people to experience what that’s like. We had to take the barriers down, and we had to coach our staff and help them understand how to engage the visitor, invite the visitor, make the visitor feel comfortable, and also to read the body language of the visitor. So if someone is pretty much tired of hearing about what it was like to work in a 1830s bank, how do you release them, so they don’t have to hear anymore?

For my staff, to their credit, I think they really embraced that and saw that as an opportunity to get closer to the customer, and for the customer to get closer to us.

Well, and I imagine people in costume are passionate about your organization, and about the stories that they’re telling. I think the closer that you can get to the visitor and the more engaged you can get your audience, it makes it more exciting to participate in it.

It really does, and when I walk around the museum in the few moments of the day that I might be able to do that, I notice a difference. When I’m walking into an exhibit and I can see how the audience is engaged compared to when I first came here; it is a much more dynamic experience now than it was then.

“I can see how the audience is engaged compared to when I first came here; it is a much more dynamic experience now than it was then.” - Jim Donahue #podcast Click To Tweet

The other thing we’ve done is to find what I call these blue ocean ideas: things that only Old Sturbridge Village does, that are really big and bold. I felt for a long time that we were leaving Halloween on the table. We weren’t doing anything to capitalize on Halloween, because Halloween didn’t happen in the 1830s, so it’s hard to bring that into the village experience. I sent one of my marketing people on a mission to find something that we could do here that wouldn’t conflict with the program during the day, because October is one of our busiest months, but would allow us to bring in an audience to celebrate Halloween.

He came back about a week later and said, “Hey, there’s this great outdoor theater company in Atlanta, Georgia, and they mount an immersive theatrical production of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow every October. If you fly me down, I’ll check it out and talk to the director.” I did, and he approached the director. The director thought doing something here at Old Sturbridge would be cool, flew him up, and now we have, for about four or five weeks every fall, The Sleepy Hollow Experience here at Old Sturbridge Village in late October. It’s an immersive theater experience, and we easily sell out all 12,000 tickets typically online before October 1. That’s been a way to attract a whole new audience, right, to the museum, who might not have thought of coming to us for the regular daytime program, but has an interest in this, and it’s a new way to use the campus in the evening. That’s been a big success and a great partnership for us.

That’s great. I love this concept of blue ocean ideas. One of the things that we like to focus on is this whole idea of creativity and competition. People have so much to choose from. I like this idea of big and bold, “Only at Sturbridge Village can you find this,” ideas. The Halloween example is just perfect. What other blue ocean ideas can you share?

Sticking with holidays, there is another example. Even though, again, Christmas was not celebrated in New England during the time period we interpret, we were more flexible with our mission, and we created a Christmas by Candlelight program, which is a fully immersive, walk around outdoor experience here that happens every weekend, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We bring to life a Christmas village. Some would argue that that’s not a blue ocean, that there are other places outdoors where you can do this, but there’s nothing really within driving distance of here, and I think we bring the history into it, Nicole. We do Christmas traditions, from the mid-19th century right up until now, the lighting of a big Christmas tree on the common. If there’s snow on the ground, there are sleigh rides. There are performers.

That has actually grown to be one of our biggest programs of the year. We now will see over a period of nine or 10 nights in December, well over 20,000 visitors who will come now every year and make it part of their tradition, which has been the nice part of that program. Again, it’s something that you can really only do at Old Sturbridge Village. The staff loves it. It’s a great way to get people in, and families make it part of their tradition. Also, it generates a lot of revenue across all of our engines, right? The hotel does well, the restaurants do well, the retail division does well, so it really is a tide that lifts all boats.

New Projects and Initiatives 

That’s awesome. That’s really great. I’m going to shift gears just a little bit and ask you if there’s anything new that you’re working on now, a project that’s coming up that you might be really excited about?

Yes. I’ve been here for 11 years, and in that period of time, we’ve done a lot of cool programs at the museum, but we haven’t built any new buildings to improve the interpretation of our story. A few years ago, one of our curators mounted an exhibit on a New England furniture maker named Nathan Lombard. She found out, as part of her research, that Lombard actually had a connection to the property that our museum sits on. Cabinetmaking, which is what he did for a living, and woodworking, were a big piece of what happened here in Sturbridge. Currently, we don’t tell that story very effectively inside the museum. I’m very excited that we’re embarking on a project to bring a replica cabinetmaking shop here to Old Sturbridge Village, so we’ll add cabinetmaking to our story. As you know, furniture and furniture collecting are very big right now. Furniture makers tell a great story, and craft, in general, is an important part of who we are here, so I’m very, very excited that we’ll add one more building to Old Sturbridge Village, and bring a cabinet maker to town on a permanent basis in the next couple of years. That’s one exciting piece of what’s happening here.

We’re doing more theater. This summer, I mounted a live-action production of Charlotte’s Web, right on our farm. We have six actors who are out there twice a day, two performances, and with the farm as their backdrop, Charlotte comes to life, and with her magical web she saves Wilbur, and kids and families seem to love it, and it’s a great way to tie children’s literature into what we’re doing here at the museum. I’m hoping to bring more theater into the daytime experience as well as the evening experience. Those are two things that we’re pretty excited about.

Those sound very exciting, and they stay kind of in theme with where you started this conversation, just talking about making things more hands-on, more engaging, more action-oriented, and a little bit less static. Those sound like two very terrific additions.

Thank you.

Collaborative Exhibit

You mentioned a little bit earlier in our conversation about partnerships. I like to call it “co-opetition,” where competitors, or it could be assumed competitors, actually come together to create something bigger by cooperating, than they could do on their own. I’m wondering if you could describe a time when a collaboration such as that has worked for you.

That’s a great question, and one clear example comes to mind. This happened about three years ago. There was a collaboration forming of several Boston-area museums to do a collaborative exhibit around New England furniture. I managed to talk with the gentleman who was spearheading this collaboration, and said, “You know, Old Sturbridge Village would like to be part of that.” Here we were, among 11 other institutions who might be considered competitors, right? But at the end of the day, the collaboration with everybody doing the furniture exhibit over the same period of 24 months was terrific. What it did was it got people who were loyal Old Sturbridge Village members to be inspired to go see something at the Peabody Essex Museum in Boston, or the Museum of Fine Art. It created opportunities for people to go to social events at these different institutions around this common interest in furniture, build relationships, maybe even take out a membership at another organization.

I really felt that that was a great example of all 11 or 12 institutions working toward the same goal, sharing the audience with one another, and really hoping that those synergies wound up increasing attendance for everybody. I think the key to that was that the CEOs of each of the partner institutions were 100% behind the collaboration.

Our contribution to the collaboration was on the marketing side because we had one of the larger marketing staffs. It meant more effort from people who already have a pretty busy day job, but at the end of the day, I think that support and commitment wound up making for a really successful partnership, and it’s inspired a second one. We’re now part of something called The Massachusetts Fashion Collaborative, which is a slightly smaller group of institutions, about six or seven, doing simultaneous exhibits on fashion and leveraging one another to get more people to come to more of our places. I really like that project and that collaboration.

That’s a fabulous example. I like how you called out the importance of having the CEO of each partner being behind the collaboration. Even though it may be executed through your programming, or maybe it’s the curators who are involved, or maybe it’s your marketing team, to have that top-level support sounds like the key to what made it successful.

I think it’s absolutely the key. It’s very easy to default into, “We’re just too busy to take this on.” Or, “I don’t want to go to these meetings.” That’s normal and natural, right? But I think having that support and commitment helped everyone pull it off, for sure.

Absolutely. That was a great example.

Before I let you go, you had mentioned working with different tourism destinations. I’m wondering if you can elaborate on how you do partner with tourism destinations in your area and the kinds of programs that you might be involved with as it relates to those-

Sure. When I came here in 2007, one of the things that really impressed me about the Sturbridge area and the central Massachusetts area, in general, was the level of collaboration that was already happening among the tourism destinations. We have, here in Sturbridge, a chamber of commerce that is so dedicated to helping to facilitate the partnership among the different tourism destinations. When the village is doing our Christmas program, for example, we’re also trying to leverage opportunities for people to stay in town, and put more heads in beds in hotels, and perhaps create experiences at the Salem Cross Inn, which is right up to the street. We have a great local brewery market here, so we’ve been trying to create packages there. How do we get people to spend more time and money in the central Massachusetts area?

“One of the things that really impressed me about the Sturbridge area and the central Massachusetts area, in general, was the level of collaboration that was already happening among the tourism destinations.” - Jim Donahue #podcast #WhyCollaborate Click To Tweet

That can be difficult, too. The plus side is that everybody wants the tide to rise, so people are willing to collaborate and work together. The hard part can sometimes be how we do that. You know, the modality. I remember several years ago having a conversation with one of our strategic tourism partners here in this area, who said, “You know, I don’t do social media. I don’t see any reason to do Facebook, and I don’t think we should be spending any of our collective resources on social media or digital.” I just remember sitting back and thinking, I have to somehow help this person understand that this is where we’re headed. Spending on social media – those are efficient dollars. They’re targeted dollars. It’s probably the highest and best use of the spend right now, and so how do I help this partner come on board?

“Spending on social media – those are efficient dollars. They're targeted dollars. It's probably the highest and best use of the spend right now.” - Jim Donahue #podcast Click To Tweet

But those conversations are not the norm. We have a big package at our hotel with Six Flags. Parents can come in, and spend a few days; one day is here at Old Sturbridge Village, and the other day is at Six Flags New England. We have partnerships with zoos, with other museums. When I asked my lodging director, “What’s driving our business over there?” The first thing he’ll say is, “Destination weddings.” But the second thing he’ll say is, “Our packages with other destinations.” That tells me that our traveler is looking for those kinds of partnerships when they come.

You just shared so many great golden nuggets of information, but I want to back up to that example of the person that you were collaborating with that didn’t believe in social media right away. I think you make a great point, because regardless if it’s social media or some other tactic that you’re trying to use to promote collaboratively, having those partners understand the strategy, and the results that you’re trying to get is so important. Much better than pushing ahead, and leaving this person sitting at the table scratching their head, and maybe not completely understanding.

I wanted to make sure our listeners caught that, that even though you have your marketing plans and you know what’s successful for you, sometimes you have to educate and bring along others in the partnership, in order to truly make it successful. I thought that was a great point.

It’s funny, Nicole, in that particular instance, what we learned as we did that work with that partner was that it wasn’t so much that they did not understand the impact and the potential of social media or digital media, it’s that they were afraid of the digital footprint of a potential negative comment. That helped us have a conversation about the importance of hearing from visitors, and that a negative comment, while hard to see, and hard to have on your page, is an opportunity to communicate with that person, to fix it, to make the business better.I think we convinced this particular partner that it was worth the risk. Because they ran a very good business, and it was unlikely that would happen, but if it did, you know what? You have to deal with it. It’s part of being in the digital space now, and it raises the stakes for everybody. That was also an important part of the process for us, which is to understand what’s really behind this particular partner’s nxiety about social media.

“A negative comment, while hard to see, and hard to have on your page, is an opportunity to communicate with that person, to fix it, to make the business better.” - Jim Donahue #podcast Click To Tweet

That’s a great point, too. It might not be exactly what you first hear, so really digging in and having that conversation, how important that is. I couldn’t agree with you more. All comments are opportunities for the organization, so whether it’s negative or positive, they’re all important. I think that’s just great.

Well, Jim, I knew this would be a great conversation, and as usual, our time just flies by. Before we close out, do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to share with our listeners?

Nope. Just I’m very grateful, Nicole, to you, for the time and for the opportunity. I always enjoy these discussions, and appreciated the questions, and hope to see more folks at Old Sturbridge Village over the next 11 years.

Absolutely, and I know I’ve just added it to my bucket list. If it’s not already on bucket lists, I’m sure it’s going to be added, so a lot of exciting things happening there. Thank you so much, Jim, for joining us. We’ll look forward to catching up with you again.

Great. Thank you, Nicole, for your time. I really appreciate it.