What if you could take your vacation time to not only see a new place, but meet new friends and use your hands to preserve built heritage all at the same time?
That’s just the kind of unforgettable experience Jamie Donahoe facilitates around the world. She co-founded Adventures in Preservation with the mission to save the world’s architectural heritage by supporting community-driven preservation projects that seek to create economic and environmental sustainability.
Jamie has a very down-to-earth personality that comes through in her communication online as well. In this interview, she talks about how she uses the web to tell the stories of heritage resources. But, just as importantly, she’ll explore how the Adventures in Preservation concept came about, and hopefully give you some insight into developing and marketing your own heritage brand.
Guin: Your site is called Adventures in Preservation, and was actually just rebranded. Tell me how it got started, and where you are today. [Time stamp #00:02:30.6#]
Donahoe: We used to be called Heritage Conservation Network and we started back in 2001 with an idea that a friend of mine–Judith Broeker–had. It was a typical Catch-22: People wanted to learn how to preserve buildings, but there was very little opportunity to get practical and experience. What was available was very expensive. So she had this idea of finding buildings that needed help. We did that for a while, and it eventually faded away. Then, in 2001, I was in the process of moving from Bangkok to Switzerland, and she said she would like to give the idea another try. So, I said let’s do it as a non-profit as a way to get grants and work with different types of structures. We launched Heritage Conservation Network, and we have projects in Italy, Mexico, and throughout the U.S. Word started to spread, and we found ourselves with more places in need of help than we had people to work on them. So we decided we needed more volunteers. We changed the focus more toward the volunteer vacation than the preservation training. You don’t need experience to go on the trips, although we love to have people along that will share their experience. That’s where we started. Then we did some research and decided to change the name to Adventures in Preservation, which seemed to be a little more dynamic and fun. For some reason, people couldn’t remember Heritage Conservation Network, just as they can’t remember names like The National Register of Historic Places–it’s always the National Historic Register, or something like that. We’ve had workshops in eight countries at this point. #00:04:57.4#
Guin: It really is a greater experience than just the classroom. Is that what inspired you to enter this “realm of endeavor?” #00:05:09.0#
D: In terms of the hands-on stuff, yes. Similar to the environmental movement, we really believe that the heart of preservation is education. By making preservation more accessible to people we help them realize that much of what they see around them has historic value and help them gain an appreciation of that. Just like teaching children you recycle for a reason, you try to convey why a building should be preserved by pointing out its special architectural value, history, setting, etc. I think that’s why our trips do well. We do a pretty good job converting people who aren’t yet die-hard preservationists. #00:06:02.9#
G: What do you see being the most common story about why people want to get involved? #00:06:09.8#
D: First, there are people who are contemplating a career in historic preservation, but aren’t yet sure it’s for them. We have a high success rate with that. We’ve had people pounding rocks for a week in the hot sun and they finishing saying “this is what I want to do for the rest of my life!” We also get a lot of “desk preservationists” who have never had the opportunity to do any of the hands-on stuff. For example, preservation planners may talk to planners or see their plans get implemented, but never have the opportunity to get their hands dirty. They then return to their jobs renewed and connected to what they’re working for. #00:07:06.8#
G: What do you see for the future of Adventures in Preservation? #00:07:20.8#
D: We’d like to continue to grow. We get many more requests for assistance than we can possibly account for. A sustainable level for us right now is 4-5 workshops a year. We’d like to expand that to 15-20 fully-staffed programs around the world each year. #00:07:51.9#
G: You alluded to the evolution of the brand. Adventures in Preservation is a name that sticks. Probably there are many heritage preservation organizations who are contemplating reworking their image for the digital age. Tell me about the process you went through, and what advice would you have for others? #00:08:19.9#
D: We made a decision early on, due to environmental concerns and the global nature of our work, to be a virtual organization. There are just two of us, so the nature of internet communication lets us accomplish quite a lot. There are so many ways to communicate now–Twitter, Facebook, etc. But before those, we had a strong presence using website and e-mail strategies. We’re very lucky that the person who set up our website was very together and designed our presence to be organized, easy to navigate and polished. In redesigning the website, we began to incorporate social media like embedded video and images to make the experience more dynamic. Interestingly, we have hits from 72 different countries, and when we look at our stats, we have a number of people who choose to receive our e-mail in text only, and have very slow connections. We have to consider the needs of our audience because we have projects in Africa, South America, and other countries. So everyone should keep in mind that not everyone is running broadband and wireless. #00:10:37.8#
G: How did you come up with the new name? #00:10:42.6#
D: In Boulder, Colo., you get a lot of creative and outdoorsy people. So Judith convened a panel–some had marketing expertise, others had adventure travel expertise–who generously donated their time. They brainstormed coming up with a name from both the heritage and travel angles. The name Adventures in Preservation came out of that with the tagline “restore a building, renew a community.” That is essentially what our projects do. #00:11:28.5#
G: You’re using your website to great effect, and your social media presence as well. I’ve never been on one of your trips, but I’m certainly a fan and follower. Tell me how you picked the communications tools that you did and how you use them in such a targeted, conversational way. #00:12:13.6#
D: Unlike many preservation organizations that work locally or regionally, we work all over the world. We honestly sat on the idea of getting into Twitter and Facebook because we couldn’t imagine fitting it in. It got to the point that we realized that we had to be on there if we wanted to start attracting students and younger people to the programs. Then, information started coming out about the fastest growing demographic on Facebook is women 55 and older. We knew we got a lot of those people on our trips, so we knew we had to be there. We didn’t want to miss the boat. I’m a total information junkie and love computers, so I love finding so many interesting things on Twitter. We had people become fans because I talk about so many topics. I don’t know yet it that has translated into people coming to our workshops yet. I’m still having fun. What’s been useful about social media already is getting feedback from people who might tell us they can’t go on our trips because they are too expensive. Because we have a dialog already going, we can let them know we sometimes have scholarships or financial assistance, and offer other tips for reducing their costs. We can also communicate that more broadly to other people who might be thinking the same thing. #00:14:23.7#
G: Have you run across anyone who went on your trips and really discovered a new passion, and went on to become involved with preservation as a mission in their own lives? #00:14:33.2#
D: A lot of our guests already have a preservation bent anyway. There is a woman who has been on four trips with us. She is a self-described conservation junkie. There are more people who went on a specific project and became preservation advocates of just that project. For example, in Waynesville, N.C., at the Francis Gristmill, there’s a man there who turns out to be my father’s long-lost cousin. He lived part time in Waynesville and saw an article in the newspaper. As retired engineer, he was intrigued. So he joined that workshop and has since become one of the key volunteers of the Francis Mill Preservation Society. He is now one of only three people who know how to run the mill, so that resource certainly benefited longterm from his participation in that project. #00:15:47.2#
G: What sparks people to make the leap to sign up for one of your projects? #00:15:58.8#
D. That is the $100,000 question. Ordinarily, they see something on the website. It interests them personally, but not quite sure so they call for more information. We do have a lot of people who hear about a project, instantly fall in love with it, and sign up. To show you how far the web has come since we started, there is a group called the Analysis Exchange, and they match mentors. They are helping us with the web analytics, which is more deeply scientific than I ever knew. That is helping us understand how people are interacting with our website and informing what we do to communicate through it. #00:17:03.4#
G: What analytics platform are you using? #00:17:09.9#
D: We’re using Google Analytics, and learning so much. I always just looked at the reports to note if our hits had gone up, but have now learned an incredible amount. I would recommend that any non-profit organization that’s looking to use its website to help further its mission to contact them. #00:17:42.2#
G: How important is an international perspective for a preservation organization? #00:17:46.8#
D: I think an international perspective is important for everything. I’m personally very grateful to have worked overseas for so many years, and for my daughter work grow up overseas as well. I think the more information you can get for any problem you are facing, the better. A lot of the problems buildings in the United States are now having, people in Europe dealt with 200 years ago. We have to share that knowledge. There’s a lot of historic reinforced concrete (yes there is such a thing) here that’s falling apart due to humidity, and they bring in experts to deal with those problems. Steven Booker is an Australian conservation architect who went to our workshop in Slovenia two years ago and just fell in love with the country. He agreed to come back this year and lead the work. His perspective is that our purpose is to share our stories and experiences and hopefully they decide that approach is for them. But we’re not telling anyone how they have to do anything for it to be right. It’s about doing what’s right for the buildings, but also helping people make informed decisions. #00:19:22.3#
G: How can people connect with you, and are there any new areas of the web you are starting to explore? #00:19:33.6#
D: We have started blogging, and the site is called “Preservation Journey.” We’re currently merging the blog into our main site. Blogging is fun because it can be about anything–Twitter on a larger scale. We’d also like to be able to do commerce online more easily. This is a bigger issue when you are working internationally. For example: we have people who are Slovenian and they want to go to a workshop in Albania, but PayPal may not take their currency. As the world becomes even smaller and web software makes these kind of transactions easier, these problems will continue to become fewer. #00:20:48.4#
G: Do you ever get to do some of the hands-on work, or are you stuck in the virtual space? #00:20:48.4#
D: I get to do a little of both. I had a good time broiling in the sun at the Bartow-Pell Mansion. My best experience was at the Francis Mill, though. Partly because of finding my father’s cousin. The people were great. When I was there in 2004, the building was in a state of near collapse. The east side was completely water damaged. We had two weeks there, and the last hour, we had a boom crane lift this 26-ft. hemlock sill beam and we slid it into place. It was the greatest experience of my life, other than having my daughter. We were all saying “Oh my God, we did it! We saved this building!” There’s not too many opportunities you can say you really did that. #00:22:06.6#
G: Very good! Is there anything else you’d like to add? #00:22:07.8#
D: We certainly invite you to come along on one of our workshops. We’ve got some great ones planned for the future!