Will the NRHS Survive? Part Three: What Comes Next?

Posted by John Hankey
on Thursday, September 18, 2014

Many thanks to all of you who offered such useful (and civil) suggestions and criticism. This is the kind of discussion that is difficult to initiate, and even harder to sustain. It can be extraordinarily useful when engaged by people with a willingness to be reasonable and look forward.

The next few months are going to be difficult for the national NRHS as it decides what kind of organization it wants to be, and as it fights for its life against a nasty lawsuit. It will be hard for the chapters, which one way or another will need to figure out how to be more independent and adapt to a new reality. One way or another, things are going to change.

And it will be hard for the rest of us, because as one of the oldest and most accomplished railway heritage organizations we have, the NRHS could have been the kind of national, comprehensive, respected railway heritage organization that we so desperately need. That doesn't seem to be part of the discussion.

See the Trains News Wire article published on September 9 about the hopes NRHS has for its "New Business Model." Justin Franz's piece summarizes what I have heard from many sources, and looks like spot-on reporting.

It is plain that for years, a schism has been opening up within the NRHS. It is not as straightforward as "chapter versus national" or "inward versus outward," or any other way I can describe it. Like most schisms--and they are far more common in national organizations than we admit--there are multiple causes. It would take a careful and honest process to ventilate the issues. We have neither the time nor the "safe space" to do that at the moment. NRHS is in full crisis mode.

It is also apparent that the NRHS finds itself on an unfortunate trajectory. From the outside, it looks like a bobsled course: Once the run begins, there is no way to pause until it is done. From the inside, it must be gut wrenching, especially because there are so many seemingly intractable factors pressing in from so many directions. This kind of crisis management is not what anyone associates with being part of an old-fashioned hobby organization.

In broadest terms, there are three ways to think about potential outcomes for the NRHS situation:

Best Case. Everybody takes a deep breath. There is good communication all the way around, and everyone behaves with the long-term interests of the NRHS (and the larger fields of railroad enthusiasm, heritage, and preservation) at heart. The creditors and adversaries are reasonable, NRHS gets real support from the other major railroad and heritage organizations, and there is enough time to craft and carry out a responsible plan for a New NRHS. The membership agrees and gets behind the newly invigorated organization.

That is what "ought to happen." And we all know how rarely that turns out to be the case.

Worst Case. Obviously, this is pretty much the opposite of the "best case." There would be tension, dishonesty, and poor communication. The hidden agendas and deeply entrenched positions become so complicated and nasty that the long-term interests of the NRHS get lost in the tangle. Creditors, adversaries, and even potential supporters see an unfolding crisis, and either go in for the kill or back away from what looks like a hopeless situation. The membership--and the rest of Train World--are left to wonder just what in the Hell just happened: this was supposed to be a hobby pursuit.

The Worst Case is a realistic possibility, and the speed with which the NRHS might constructively disappear would surprise us. Here for 80 years, gone tomorrow . . .

Muddle Through. Then there is the usual, messy "middle way," in which a plan gets cobbled together and enough people reluctantly go along so as to preserve the NRHS in some altered, but recognizable form. What emerges on the other side might have a fighting chance. It would certainly be smaller, have a different focus, and be very fragile. Half-measures--no matter how well intentioned, or how sincere the desire to preserve an organization--are almost never a good solution. Too often, "success" ends up being what is possible at the moment, and not a realistic plan.

That is where we hope the NRHS directors show vision, courage, and the kind of  broad-gauge thinking that made railroading possible in the first place.

What I Hope Happens. Based on everything I know at this point--and my experience with hundreds of museums, historical societies, railroad clubs, and not-for-profit organizations over the last 40 years--the NRHS would be wise to adopt the "New Business Model" suggested by the committee. It is a reasonable plan that gives the NRHS the best chance to survive, and more importantly, to create a stable future. NRHS does not have that now, and I have not seen any other plausible way to get there.

As I noted before, the reorganization of the national NRHS into something like the National Trust for Historic Preservation does not mean the extinction of local NRHS chapters. By definition, chapters are already independent, largely autonomous not-for-profit entities. Many of them are large enough to function as stand-alone railway heritage institutions. Smaller chapters should be simple enough to administer as independent clubs. The new business model includes the possibility of formal affiliation with the new NRHS. This is not a "zero sum game." No one need lose out. But everyone might need to change and adjust a little.

The "New Business Model" seems to me a serious attempt by thoughtful people to put the NRHS on a sound footing, and ensure its future. It also takes into account the waves of change that have swept over all of us in the last few decades. As painful as this kind of change may be to some members, the very existence of the NRHS is on the line. The alternative is probably the accelerating decline of the NRHS, leading to an untimely and embarrassing end.

So: My sincere hope is that the NRHS can resolve its difficulties and find a way to exist for a very long time as a sustainable organization. It would continue the good work it has done, but recognize that it takes an immense amount of hard work and considerable resources to keep things as they have always been.

Adopting the New Business Model would be the first step. But at that point, a "new" NRHS would still face considerable challenges, not least of which would be deciding just what kind of railroad heritage work it should emphasize. And that is where things get really interesting.

No matter what its new structure, the NRHS could continue to work primarily through, and with, what before had been chapters. A strong, nationally-oriented NRHS could coordinate the goals and activities of a wide range of independent--but loosely affiliated--railroad heritage organizations. That is how things generally work today.

I realize that this idea may stand on its head the traditional idea of the NRHS, in which "the national" is merely a back office function doing bookkeeping for the chapters. But this is a different world from the 1940s and 1950s, when that arrangement last made sense.

Or the new NRHS might choose instead to concentrate on the big questions and important issues that define all parts of Train World. We have needed an organization like that for decades. Think of it as analogous to the Association of American Railroads, or perhaps the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.

That idea is controversial, and I understand the desire some people have to keep railfanning and railroad heritage (in all its forms) simple, pure, decentralized, and unspoiled by things like agendas and politics. Unfortunately, the world doesn't work like that anymore--if it ever did.

At the moment, this is what I see as the dilemma. The upcoming vote by the NRHS board seems to be about two very different questions--related, but very different.

The first question is whether to complete the institutional reorganization begun five years ago, with the intention of stabilizing the NRHS and giving it a better chance for survival. That is a pretty technical question, and has more to do with the mechanics of running a practical, not-for-profit organization.

The second question is more philosophical, and requires a bit more engagement by NRHS members. It seems to be about whether the NRHS will continue to be more of a club, focused inwardly on member's social activities and particular local interests, or whether the NRHS ought to be something closer to a modern advocacy group, "representing" railroad heritage and enthusiasm in its various forms to many different audiences.

This seems to many folks as an "either, or" situation, and I just don't see it that way. There is irony in the fact that a substantial proportion of of the hundreds of people I've spoken with about the NRHS over the past few months dislike the national NRHS, have no use for it, or wouldn't mind seeing it go away.

There is further irony in the fact that in 1935--when a few brave individuals set up the original structure of the NRHS--it was a radical, progressive, and innovative organization. The founders based it on traditional models of fraternal organizations, but the core principle--to encourage interest in railroading in all of its forms--was a novel and courageous idea.

I think we are at a similar point now. The NRHS has an opportunity to reinvent itself as an umbrella organization to help coordinate and promote the many distinct forms of railroad interest and enjoyment. That is what I take away from the proposed "New Business Model." This is a big and important question. It takes the NRHS back to its roots, and deals with the same kinds of issues: Does the NRHS aspire to be the continent's primary, general, welcoming organization for people interested in railroading? Or does it want to remain a marginal, inward-looking collection of local organizations?

In the end, it may be unrealistic to expect the traditional NRHS to embrace a new and very different "business model"--one that upends decades of experience and asks members to think of railroad heritage and engagement in ways they simply are not accustomed to. It is entirely possible that external forces will override any decision the board makes. The NRHS really is in uncharted waters here.

I hope the board adopts the New Business Model. It is a well-reasoned, measured plan to adapt the original principles of the NRHS to a rapidly evolving 21st century landscape. It looks like the best option for an organization rapidly running out of other options.

I hope that chapter members take the time to understand the new model, and that they consider both the alternatives, and the hard realities of trying to make an organization like the NRHS work now, and into the future.

The plan isn't perfect. There is a lot of room for negotiation and compromise. I have the sense that the committee appointed by the board on behalf of the members didn't get a lot of help, guidance, or support from either. But it is a good place to start. The "New Business Model" at least gives the NRHS a chance for survival and reasonable footing.

No matter what the outcome, we owe the NRHS the benefit of the doubt, and our forbearance going forward. It is in a very tight spot. It has shaped Train World in ways we have yet to calculate, and we all would be the poorer if it went away.

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