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  • Finding Our Compass:Lessons in Planning from National Trust Historic Sites
  • Suzanne B. Laporte (bio) and National Trust Staff and Compass Volunteers (bio)

Stewards of historic sites including the National Trust may excel at preservation, collections management and interpretation, but they rarely excel at the business of running historic sites. Enter Compass, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that engages professionals from a variety of areas, including alumni from the nation’s top business schools; employees of consulting firms such as McKinsey and Booz Allen Hamilton; and lawyers, consultants and others to provide pro bono strategic business consulting to nonprofits in the greater Washington, D.C., and greater Philadelphia areas. Since 2010 Compass has worked with the National Trust and some of its sites on board development, governance, fundraising, planning, partnerships, program collaborations, mergers, and marketing. By promoting smart business practices and strategic planning, Compass has helped the National Trust ensure long-term sustainability at many of its cherished historic sites.


Oatlands (1798), a National Trust Historic Site and National Historic Landmark in Leesburg, Virginia, operated as a grain and wool-producing plantation whose success depended completely on a slave economy. Bequeathed to the National Trust in 1965, it opened the following year to the public as a historic, cultural and recreational site. Since then, it has become increasingly important as a year-round open-space refuge in fast-growing Loudoun County.

In 2009 Oatlands’ stewards ambitiously developed a strategic plan that required significant additional operating funds, while also proposing major restoration projects on the 1821 barn and 1810 greenhouse (the second oldest greenhouse in the country). As the board and staff began confronting the financial challenges the [End Page 32] strategic plan and renovations presented, they reached out to Compass for assistance.

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Oatlands, a National Trust Historic Site in Virginia, urgently needed help to gain financial sustainability. The Compass team’s recommendations, based on in-depth research, included building a stronger donor base and improving special-events facilities.

Compass conducted a deep market and profitability analysis of the site’s four principal funding categories: development, admissions, events and gift shop. Compass conducted extensive interviews with various staff and stakeholders and compiled operating and financial data on similar organizations. It became clear early on that Oatlands would benefit the most by focusing on development, where there was untapped potential that could lead to significant gains.

The Compass team’s final report for Oatlands included numerous recommendations, particularly around building a stronger donor base and realigning the site’s four funding categories. Other suggestions included increasing revenue from special events by addressing the lack of a permanent covered facility and making upgrades to the poorly performing gift shop. The site is implementing these recommendations by installing a party pavilion with a semi-permanent frame tent on a concrete base and by adjusting shop inventory.

According to the Compass team’s project leader, Jennifer Blasko, “The team explained that sometimes an income stream may serve a strategic purpose and therefore it is acceptable for it not to be profitable. However, it is important to define the net contribution of each of the streams and plan accordingly.” [End Page 33]

Interestingly, a notable cultural change at the site occurred after the Compass project concluded, but it was directly tied to the project. A new executive director worked to realign the board and recruit members with new skills to address the urgent need to work toward financial sustainability, a key theme of the Compass work.


Round 1: Strengthening the Core

President Lincoln’s Cottage (PLC) was Lincoln’s preferred summer residence during the most crucial years of the Civil War. Located several miles north of the White House on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, a retirement home for veterans, it provided the Lincoln family with a respite from the heat and humidity of central Washington and the constant distractions that were part of life in the White House. Lincoln spent nearly a quarter of his presidency living at this quiet retreat, where, among other things, he formulated the thoughts on freedom that eventually resulted in...


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pp. 32-42
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