Editor’s note: This is the sixth and final installment that takes a look at Colonial Williamsburg’s finances. To revisit the series, visit vagazette.com/colonialwilliamsburg.
When Mitchell Reiss considers Colonial Williamsburg’s future, he focuses on two things: its balance sheet and an evolving desire.
His goal is to stabilize the organization’s financial health in a sustainable way. One or two years of success is not enough; it needs to last.
The desire, he admits, is harder to put a finger on, and it isn’t defined by admissions receipts and expense reports.
“How do we become relevant again to a national conversation? That, really, is a challenging question,” said Reiss during an interview in his office with the Gazette. “It's one I've raised with the board; I've raised it with our donors. I think we all need to think about it, and we're going through a very tough time right now.”
That tough time revolves around politics and civic engagement.
“We appear to be as divided as any time I can remember going back to the Vietnam War,” he said. “I just think there's an anxiety out there in the country. We're not showing our better angels these days as often as we need to.”
As Reiss envisions the future of Colonial Williamsburg, he is taking steps to right its finances. In June he announced the organization would lay off 71 people by the end of the year and outsource several functions as part of a restructuring plan that would affect another 262 employees.
“Transition to the outside vendors has gone smoothly,” he said. “I required each (vendor) guarantee full-time employment for at least a year to all of our employees, and many of our employees took up that offer.”
Those changes come as Colonial Williamsburg has spent more than a decade carrying more than $300 million in debt and repeatedly dipped into its endowment to the point that the fund’s balance has dropped 5.4 percent (to $663.6 million) since the beginning of the organization's 2010 fiscal year.
“With regard to its fiscal and attendance problems, Colonial Williamsburg has not progressed or evolved as one would expect since the last review,” wrote the American Alliance of Museums in July after its review and reaccreditation of Colonial Williamsburg. “Indeed, it has clearly been struggling with essentially the same issues of overspending and declining attendance over a period of nearly two decades. However, over the last two years and under new leadership, CW has developed a clear assessment of its fiscal and attendance challenges and a plan to address them.
“The next few years will require some very heavy lifting. Challenges include tackling a precarious financial situation, learning how to serve and attract a 21st-century audience, making an organizational cultural shift to become guest-centric and family-friendly ...”
The alliance’s accreditation process is centered on self-study and peer review and takes 8-16 months to complete, every 10 years.
Reconnecting with the Founding Fathers
Reiss admits he needs more time to think about Colonial Williamsburg’s place in the larger conversation about citizenship and civic responsibility. He plans to hire two senior vice presidents who will manage operations of the nonprofit foundation and for-profit hospitality side of Colonial Williamsburg. Those moves should free more of his time to meet with donors and focus on a vision for the organization.
Reiss said Colonial Williamsburg should inject itself more into political discourse as a nonpartisan actor.
“We all, I think, want to create a different future for our country,” he said. “So is there some way, some role this place can play, as a convener, reconnecting people with the Founding Fathers’ ideas? Is it going out across the country helping people just understand our history at a time when less history is being taught in schools? Maybe it's all of those things.”
Answers to those questions began to take form in August 2015 when actor-interpreter Ron Carnegie traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire — playing the role of George Washington — to promote voter engagement and civility on the presidential campaign trail. During that trip, he spoke on the Des Moines Register’s Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair and attended several events, including a minor league baseball game.
“We're a special place, and we have convening authority in a way very few places do. We're not partisan in the way that think-tanks are, the way that political parties are, even the way that colleges and universities are sometimes perceived,” Reiss said. “So it's a safe space for people to have those sorts of conversations.
“And how do we structure that? How do we do that so it actually has legs and resonates more broadly? How do we move the needle in the national conversation? Those are tough questions. I don't have the answers right now, but I'm spending a lot of time thinking about them.”
Reiss is unsure yet whether the answer includes hosting political debates, voter registration drives or continuing to send interpreters across the country on campaign trails.
As that vision evolves, Colonial Williamsburg continues to make changes to its day-to-day operations.
Since 2014, Colonial Williamsburg has trained interpreters to play a young Thomas Jefferson, young Martha Washington, George Mason, James Armistead Lafayette and (barber) John Hope. In 2018, the foundation will unveil interpreters who will play roles as a second George Washington, a second Gowan Pamphlet, Aggy of Turkey Island, Ann Wager, Clementina Rind and an indentured servant.
This year, the Wythe, Geddy and Randolph houses expanded to include programming seven days a week.
The organization spent about $105.6 million on programs it deems a part of its core mission in 2015, according to the organization’s most recent publicly available tax records. That amount has remained relatively flat since 2010 when it spent $105.8 million on those programs.
Colonial Williamsburg also began to expand its donor-funded teacher institute this year. The organization wants to double participation in the summer teacher professional development program for education in history and civics. The institute, held at Colonial Williamsburg, includes five-day sessions and new three-day themed seminars where participants engage in an interdisciplinary approach to teaching social studies with American history as the focus.
Teachers pay $2,200 for the five-day institute sessions and $1,250 for the three-day seminars. Colonial Williamsburg also offers scholarships and matching grants for some teachers. The institute hosted close to 400 teachers from 43 states in 2016, according to Colonial Williamsburg.
Capital and strategy
Colonial Williamsburg adopted a strategic plan in 2016 that “… stresses long-term financial good health for the organization while keeping our efforts clearly focused on preserving and sharing America’s story,” according to CW’s 2016 annual report.
The organization will not share that strategic plan with the public, although the American Alliance of Museums wrote “… there is good reason to believe that, as outlined in the current strategic plan, it will achieve a more fiscally sound operating status by 2021, or sooner.”
Colonial Williamsburg also is undertaking longer-term capital projects.
It is using $40 million from donors to expand the Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg. Groundbreaking took place in the spring. The project includes a new wing that will add 65,000 square feet — adding more gallery space — and improvements to public access to the building through a new entrance on Nassau Street. Reiss said that money is part of the $60 million the organization plans to spend between 2018 and 2020 on capital projects, including $10 million on a 20,000-square-foot archaeological collections building adjacent to the Historic Area (construction begins in the spring) and on hospitality projects.
The archaeology building will provide more space for CW’s artifact collection, lab and archaeological research team, as well as enable visitors to see the conservators and researchers in action. The project is funded by the late Forrest Mars Jr.
Reiss said he continues to be mindful of the organization’s financial situation while trying to place Colonial Williamsburg on a national pedestal.
“What our Founding Fathers did here 240-plus years ago has something to say. If only the example of civility, of getting together and having opposing views aired and even trying to strike compromises …”
Evolving history: In review
- This is sixth and final installment in a series by the Gazette looking at Colonial Williamsburg’s finances. To revisit the series, visit vagazette.com/colonialwilliamsburg.
- Oct. 14: Colonial Williamsburg president and CEO Mitchell Reiss met with employees Oct. 10 to pass on some good news about year-end bonuses and organizational changes. It came a little more than three months after he announced outsourcing and layoffs. Reiss also re-energized an idea he is considering to build a wall around the Historic Area. Be believes the barrier would help ensure the safety of employees and paid visitors.
- Oct. 18: Colonial Williamsburg has two big burdens it must change: An over-reliance on its endowment and a high level of debt. Those issues have not stopped the organization from offering first-class perks to some of its high-level employees.
- Oct. 21: Reiss believes changes his senior leadership team has made in the past two years have stopped declining visitorship. Some critics believe newer programming may be shifting the organization away from heritage and history.
- Oct. 25: Colonial Williamsburg is trying to rebound financially while a new tax imposed by the city of Williamsburg looms over its head. The admissions tax is causing tension between CW and the city.
- Oct. 28: Historic sites throughout the country are addressing financial challenges in ways that are as unique as the sites themselves.
Brauchle can be reached by phone at 757-846-4361.