Will the NRHS Survive? Part One: How did we get to this point?

Posted by John Hankey
on Thursday, August 28, 2014

Not to put too fine a point on things, but the national organization of the NRHS is in a pretty tight spot. Whether the National Railway Historical Society survives through the end of the year is in serious doubt. Their own newsletter mentions serious financial and organizational challenges, while otherwise cheerily describing business as usual. The NRHS membership has legitimate grounds to wonder just what is going on and what version of the several "truths" flying around they should heed.

And the most painful question remains: Does it really matter? If the NRHS goes away, will anyone actually notice? The recent — and critical — election for president of the national NRHS was decided by a margin of 548 votes out of 3,190 cast. The total number of NRHS members eligible to vote for president of the national organization was roughly 12,000.

Even the NRHS membership itself either didn't care, or did so without a full understanding of who the candidates were, what they stood for, or what the consequences might really be.

In future posts, I'll explain why these questions matter, and why we need a new, robust, forward-looking NRHS —or something in its place. But for the moment, we ought to be mildly shocked and truly concerned. How did things get to this point? And why didn't anyone notice until it was almost too late?

To begin with, national NRHS recently completed a major organizational overhaul, which is always traumatic. It is enduring what can only be described as a significant insurgency from within the ranks — again, traumatic. There is an ongoing (but badly framed and poorly managed) internal debate about the very nature of the NRHS. Genuine goodwill and a spirit of shared purpose seem to be in short supply.

The NRHS is an intensely traditional organization still resolutely adhering to a mid-20th century model of a fraternal organization. A few chapters have a more modern outlook. But for the most part, the NRHS and its constituent chapters have maintained an inward-looking, club-like special interest orientation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, assuming the resources are available to permit that luxury. But the national NRHS is essentially insolvent, and the resources of most chapters are thin at best.

At the moment, NRHS chapters are seceding, membership is dropping, and there are few interested young people signing on. The folks who remain are old, and getting older (and I am one of them). From what I can tell, at least a considerable share of the membership isn't terribly interested in looking forward. Looking backward and keeping things as they have always been is more important. That can be crippling to any organization.

The NRHS is broke, and in debt. It doesn't have an endowment or an effective long-term fundraising plan in place. There are no major assets, and a nasty lawsuit hangs over everything. For the most part, it is a volunteer organization with little sense of professional not-for-profit management procedure. I don't think the rank-and-file fully trusts the outside firm hired to run the national organization's back office functions. And official communication has been terrible. In fact, I might call it a disaster.

The committee of the national NRHS board recently charged with coming up with a new "business model" has an incredibly difficult task, and not many resources to work with. Think of standing in a swamp, with quicksand, alligators, swarms of mosquitos, piranha fish for variety, and no apparent way out. And it is getting dark and cold — no matches, no food.

In very broad terms, this is what I think happened. It seems to have been a case of "institutional inversion."

The NRHS originated (and for six decades, operated) in an environment where travel and communication were much more expensive, and life in general was much more decentralized. The NRHS was defined by the work of its chapters, and the national organization was more-or-less a service organization with the several hundred individual chapters as its clients.

The chapters themselves were basically traditional clubs, in the same way that dozens of other organizations with national brands and local chapters prospered as clubs for people with shared views and interests. Some NRHS chapters were outward looking and strove to address a broad railway heritage agenda.

Others were more inward looking and aspired to nothing more than a social agenda and a shared interest in trains. Hovering over all of that was a generally cooperative railroad industry and the ability of even small chapters to do interesting things with excursions, tours, and firsthand involvement in railroading.

As Jim Wrinn observed, for many years the local — or nearest — NRHS chapter was the only place where people interested in trains could get together and explore that interest, outside of actually working for the railroad. And working for a railroad usually was not a place where people could casually share interests in photography, heritage, history, memorabilia, or fan trips.

For decades, NRHS chapters also took the lead in doing things and making things happen. Even smaller chapters could organize fan trips and facilities tours. Railroads were willing to accommodate most reasonable requests — but it was simply easier to say "yes" to an ask from an NRHS chapter (or other railfan organization) than to an individual. For a solid 40 years, NRHS and its chapters were most often in the lead in defining railroad heritage and what it meant to be a railfan and railroad enthusiast.

That changed dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s. The temporary boost to membership generated by the Southern/Norfolk Southern steam program and the last of the industry's real engagement with the public masked the fact that the traditional NRHS structure was growing obsolete and ineffective. The same was true for the Railroadians of America, Railroad Enthusiasts, regional railroad clubs, and thousands of other bowling, fraternal, and special interest entities.

Hindsight is always acute. But it now seems apparent that the NRHS needed to begin rethinking its mission and structure twenty-five years ago, and should have been a very different kind of organization as it entered the 21st century.

I mean no disrespect, and do not wish to suggest blame or responsibility. The fundamental nature of railroading changed dramatically and completely between about 1980 and 2000, and almost all of the things the NRHS did, stood for, and assumed changed also. But the national organization didn't seem to notice. Or at least it showed no ability to deal with a rapidly evolving future. That is the point at which the "inversion" became acute.

The chapters continued to look inward, concerned mainly with their local affairs. Instead of recognizing the broader trends in the railroad industry and the changing nature of railroad enthusiasm, heritage, and preservation, the national organization likewise looked inward. Greg Molloy, until recently the long-serving president of the national NRHS, describes everyone as existing comfortably inside their own "silos." It is hard to see the heavy weather blowing in when you are firmly ensconced within a silo.

By 2000, there were few fantrips and little straightforward access to the main line. Visits to railroad facilities became more rare and more restrictive. Traditional railroad public relations activities (and most traditional railroad PR departments) disappeared. Railroads became modern, well-run, Wall Street-driven corporations with scant interest in engaging the public at large, and no interest in outfits like NRHS chapters. I was there. I was part of it from both sides. It was depressing.

I am sorry to have to frame it this way, but the railroad industry took a mildly adversarial position with regards to railroad enthusiasm and railway heritage. With a few exceptions, the industry was delighted to see us fade away. One of the casualties of the reinvention of the railroad industry over the last 30 years was the 100-year long, traditional industry sponsorship of railroad heritage and enthusiast activities. It was a divorce of the most thorough kind. American business is a cold, hard, ruthless place to be a "fan."

At a national level, the NRHS neither saw that coming, nor would have understood how to respond even if it did. The national leadership was firmly turned inward, focused on conventions, publications, and serving the needs of the chapters. There seemed to be little interest in looking outward or forward, or asking the kinds of hard and consequential questions that real leadership understands as its prime function. Apparently, no one thought to approach the AAR or major railroads and ask questions such as "Excuse me, what about this community of supporters and enthusiasts that you have been cultivating for a century or so"? "Can we at least maintain a serious and consequential conversation"?

What needed to happen was for some existing organization with stature, resources, and vision to step up and basically take control of the overall agenda for how folks might engage the railroad industry going forward. We, collectively, needed a respected and established "voice" to talk to the railroad industry and see how we could continue to be involved — with trips, tours, joint programs, and updated versions of the kinds of engagement we've had going back 150 years.

NRHS could have been that organization — if its national leadership had been looking outward and not inward. The Railway & Locomotive Historical Society was much smaller, had a different focus, and in any case was going through its own organizational crisis. All of the other "national" railroad organizations had withered by the late 20th century, and no single museum or heritage railroad had the ability or reach to help define what the relationship between railroads and their admirers ought to be going forward.

For all sorts of reasons, the national NRHS organization just could contemplate a broader, more consequential role for itself. Until recently, it had an unwieldy governance structure intensely focused on very small internal issues. It was one of the most self-reflexive, inwardly oriented, rearward-looking organizations I have ever encountered.

And that was exactly where a substantial majority of its members wanted it to be. In a world so rapidly changing in so many nasty and uncomfortable ways, an NRHS that changed very little was a comfortable place. I understand that completely, and sought comfort there myself.

But ironically, to many chapters the national organization did a terrible job of being the traditional national organization. National NRHS was neither very good at "representing" railroad enthusiasm and heritage to the world at large, nor at being an efficient and responsive service provider to its affiliated chapters. Over time, the internal politics of the NRHS grew murky and fraught.

Too late, probably two decades too late, the national NRHS organization went through a structural reorganization that brought it more in line with contemporary not-for-profit administration. For the first time in a long time, it is trying look ahead and trying to figure out what place it has in the world going forward. That should have happened 15 years ago.

The overall problem is that the Big Wide World rushes forward at an accelerating rate, and like it or not (and I do not), organizations like the NRHS need either to keep up with the times, or risk extinction. That has already happened to thousands of once-flourishing fraternal organizations, clubs, societies, and special interest groups. The Internet only one of many proximate causes.

No matter what the others, I am reminded of the idea that "No matter where you go, there you are."

So we come to this. As it enters its 80th year, the NRHS is on the very edge of extinction. In the next post, I will try to lay out an argument for why the NRHS — or some new national organization — could help define and advance agendas and policies that benefit anyone interested in railroading or its heritage, documentation, and future.

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