As I look back on what I have accomplished this summer with the American Civil War Museum, I am very proud of my work, the relationships I have built, and the skills I have gained. I have gone above and beyond the goals I initially set for myself in my personal plan paper. I took this internship because of my interest in nonprofit work, and I am absolutely certain that I have a career in mission-based work. That being said, I’m not sure that I would like to stay in the realm of museums and cultural institutions, though I did learn a lot about the functionality of a mid-sized, politically relevant museum. I enjoyed every second of this internship, even during the five weeks I fulfilled the Membership Coordinator’s duties while the position was vacant. This unique set of circumstances launched me into work I hadn’t seen myself doing, and I gained immense confidence in my communication skills, professionalism, customer service, and capability to learn new things quickly. This internship certainly satisfied my goal to hone my written, verbal, and digital communication skills, as I edited and processed over 1000 individual letters, ranging from board member communications to general appeals.
Communications took up a large part of my time with the museum, as the Membership Coordinator’s job was essentially to act as a representative to members, new visitors, and our junior executive board. This position gave me experience with many different modes of communication with many different types of people. From Saturdays with the visitor engagement team to the summer foundation board meeting, I interacted with all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. I witnessed the Foundation President and the Director of Development plan and make direct asks to major individual donors and foundations, while I spoke with members and new visitors directly about their experiences and support of the museum. This multitude of different communication styles improved both my communication skills and my professionalism. I am most proud of my diligence with our membership mailings and the interns’ invitation to the foundation board meeting. Though I didn’t personally craft all of our member and board communications, my attention to detail ensured that the letters were perfectly formatted, in line with the museum’s mission, and easy for our new Membership Coordinator and any new intern to work with. With a couple days of editing the template, I cut the editing time for acknowledgment letters down from an average of 2 hours to about 20 minutes, streamlining the process to a more manageable level. I also redesigned a dated pamphlet and helped to plan and edit new mailings with Katie, the new Membership Coordinator.
I learned two incredibly important facets of teamwork in the five weeks without a Membership Coordinator: be ready to learn, and make it easy for the next person to learn. As an intern, this first step was easy. I was here to learn, though no one anticipated how much I had to learn this summer. As Ben, the Membership Coordinator I started with back in March, transitioned out of his position, he taught me a few things that “I would probably never have to do”. I took diligent notes, just in case the next person needed help with the transition. Once Ben’s successor quit suddenly, I was next in line to fill the coordinator’s shoes and keep the membership communications going. I had to learn how to manage both my own workflow and the other intern’s workflow very quickly, as I was immediately handed tasks and projects that I hadn’t anticipated. Carter and I worked together to divide the work appropriately for our own experiences and talents, though I naturally fell into more of a directive role between the two of us. Though the rest of the development team was supportive, without a supervisor with direct experience in the membership program, I was forced to think quickly and critically as each new problem arose. I also quickly learned the value of organization and diligence when it comes to data, editing, and finance standards. I especially did not expect to be working so closely with the finance department, but I checked in with either the CFO and senior accountant at least once a day from that point on. When it came time to compile monthly, quarterly, and yearly reports for the summer board meeting and the end of the fiscal year, I realized how necessary proper organization and data standardization is. I frequently ran into obstacles when a major donation was not attributed to the correct person, the correct appeal, or as the correct transaction type. I became extremely familiar with Altru, the museum’s member and donor database. I spent quite a bit of time browsing through the database’s user guides in an attempt to find a solution to any number of problems that arose while creating these reports. Because of the often ad-hoc manner of donor relations, not everything was reported in the same way, which made it hard to track donations and relationships. I had to get very creative with my approaches to these previously scattered reporting practices.
The new Membership Coordinator shared my frustrations once she was settled in. Though the other intern and I had done quite a bit of reorganizing in the interim, Katie immediately set to streamlining our dated filing and reporting practices. This was quite a relief, and we were able to set some more effective organizational standards. As for Altru, Katie and I had to get creative again to work around the system’s constraints and previously scattered attribution system. This transitional time taught me the value of consistency, diligence, and simplification. Often, the issues that arose required very simple solutions that could only be achieved in creative ways. This meant a lot of trial and error, and a lot of writing down what did and did not work. By the end of my internship, we had created a four-page guide on everything we had done as interns while the Membership Coordinator position was vacant. This guide was meant to help Katie in her transition, as well as any future development intern. Ben had left a somewhat scattered binder of helpful information, though my attention to detail helped to clarify a lot of what had previously been assumed or unspoken practices. I previously described the museum as a very “Virginian” place to work. For the most part, we did things the way we have always done them. However, progress requires change, and the museum is trying to move away from how things have always been done and toward a more progressive, inclusive telling of the American Civil War. Even with a new mission statement, building, exhibits, staff, and ultimately a new message, there were still a few practices left over. Primarily, our methods of recording interactions with donors and members were all over the place, and our new Membership Coordinator and Grant Writer found it difficult to keep up with nuanced details about major donors and board members they hadn’t yet interacted with. Attention to detail doesn’t matter much if you can’t communicate those details to your team.
The size of the museum (and the foundation in particular) made it easy to understand the team dynamics at play. S. Waite Rawls, the Foundation President, had been the president and CEO of the Museum of the Confederacy, before it merged with the American Civil War Center, so he has long-standing relationships with many of our greatest supporters. His expertise and legitimacy in the development office demanded respect and hard work, even if that meant doing things “how we always did” them. Much of nonprofit development involves building and maintaining relationships, which is easy for someone who has been working with the museum’s supporters since the 1990s. The leadership at the museum seemed like the perfect combination of talent, experience, passion, and graciousness. Christy Coleman, the museum’s CEO, is the perfect example of someone who cares deeply about her impact from the international level to her own staff. Her leadership showed me everything I was looking for in the nonprofit field: compassion, ingenuity, graciousness, and progress. After a couple weeks, I was not treated as an intern who needed to be taught, but rather as a colleague who is willing to learn.
Whatever their reasons, every single person who worked at the museum cares about the Civil War and its legacies. From Justice and Civil Society to Critical Thinking to Ethics of Influence, I had to think critically about my role in the museum, the museum’s role in the community and national stage, and the ethics of the museum’s goals. In my view, the museum has already made an incredible impact on those who have visited since the new building’s opening in May. Hopefully, the museum can grow in its intended direction, and accomplish what it has set out to do. The museum has plenty of exciting plans in the works, which unfortunately I cannot share until a formal press release has been made. However, there are many people who are not on board with the museum’s goals, enough so to send severe criticism, hatred, and threats. When these kinds of interactions happen, it can be disheartening, but with the museum’s incredible leadership, we are invigorated, rather than discouraged. Whether it was informal interactions with the Visitor Engagement Associates, or sitting in on the foundation’s board meeting, everyone from every level is absolutely invested in the museum’s success and a more inclusive narrative of the Civil War. I am grateful to have been a part of the team for those six months, and I am inspired to continue my career in the nonprofit sector, wherever I end up.