Our 2024-2027 Strategic Plan

Approved by the Board of Directors February 28, 2024

Our Mission

We use history to catalyze the connections that make Cambridge more vibrant and cohesive.

Our Guiding Frameworks

  1. We focus on the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  2. We believe that through their experiences of Cambridge, every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We support people in sharing history with each other — and weaving their knowledge together.
  3. We understand and promote the value of historical perspectives in understanding contemporary questions and issues and listen to the many voices across Cambridge.

Our Values

  • History is everywhere in Cambridge. We bring it to the surface and call attention to it wherever it exists.
  • We weave past, present, and future together in everything we do, recognizing that it is how people experience their city.
  • We celebrate all ways of knowing and caring about Cambridge. To that end, we never do history on its own; instead we embrace an interdisciplinary approach. We do “history and….” 
  • Just as every person in Cambridge has knowledge about its history, every person in Cambridge is a steward of Cambridge history. We encourage and inspire people to be caretakers of the city and its history. 
  • We work with Cambridge individuals and organizations to fill gaps in the historical record, looking out for forgotten stories, untold chapters, unshared knowledge, and silenced voices.
  • When we bring people together to share their stories, we create bridges between communities and build social cohesion.
  • The connections between residents and across the community make Cambridge a more resilient and sustainable city.
  • We use history to inspire and challenge people to be their best selves and to actively invest in the future of Cambridge so together we can make a better city.
  • By highlighting historical perspectives, we offer people tools to contextualize and critically examine issues of fairness and equity. With knowledge rooted in history, our city will be better positioned to enact change, strengthening community health and vibrancy.
  • We are a community convener. We create “third places” for people from all walks of life to mix, share, and connect. We know our convenings are working when strangers see each other as neighbors.
  • We ask questions, nurture open-ended exploration, and foster thoughtful dialogue with the goal of making curiosity about Cambridge infectious.
  • It is important for us to listen to Cambridge—and help Cambridge listen to itself.
  • We prioritize environmentally-sustainable practices throughout our work.
  • Even though we are a small organization with limited resources, we operate in the spirit of generosity rather than scarcity when we collaborate and convene. In an increasingly stratified city, generosity and sharing is the way forward together.

Theory of Change

A Theory of Change maps out a sequence of anticipated actions or changes from programmatic strategies to an organization’s ultimate goal or mission. History Cambridge’s Theory of Change is built on two core strategies: collecting and sharing the previously undocumented stories of the city and connecting people and organizations across the city.

We collect and share the stories of Cambridge past and present. We do more than invite people to join us in our work – we go to Cambridge’s neighborhoods and create opportunities for people to share their stories and perspectives.

We are a connector of people and organizations. This network and infrastructure allows us to work more efficiently but also more effectively – reaching and serving more of the city. 

The perspectives and experiences embedded in stories and our network of partners build and expand the public’s awareness and understanding of living in Cambridge in the past and present.

The city’s residents and communities appreciate the value and relevance of diverse historical experiences and perspectives. 

We use history to catalyze the connections that make Cambridge more vibrant and cohesive.

Our Goals for 2024-2027

History Cambridge will…

  1. Be an open, transparent, and inclusive institution as we continue to broaden and diversify the history we share and the people and communities we work with.
  2. Build social cohesion in Cambridge, bringing people together to document and share their stories and hear the stories of others.
  3. Be a more relevant and responsive historical voice in Cambridge.
  4. Ensure long-term financial and organizational sustainability.

Strategies We Will Undertake to Meet Our Goals

1. Grow our community of participants and partners through engaging programming.

  • Design programming that appeals to multiple audiences with all levels of historical knowledge and experience.
  • Continue to broaden the pool of people who benefit from, care about, and support the organization.
  • Cultivate ongoing engagement with people who participate in our programs.
  • Create a “friendship” program, uncoupling supporting History Cambridge’s work from making a financial contribution.
  • Offer people our platform to share their Cambridge history.
  • Develop a corps of History Cambridge volunteers who extend our capacity to do our work and develop projects in partnership with staff.
  • Serve as a point of connection and support for individuals who are researching Cambridge history and share it with the larger community.
  • Collaborate with organizations whose mission and values align with History Cambridge’s to more effectively serve Cambridge and grow our presence.

2. Lead an inclusive and participatory process for Cambridge 400, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Cambridge’s founding (2030), and the Semiquincentennial of the Declaration of Independence (2026).

  • Survey people in Cambridge about what people know and are interested in about both Cambridge 400 and the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the years leading up to the American Revolution.
  • Create relationships with people whose stories have been excluded so that we are prepared to commemorate the anniversaries in a more historically accurate and inclusive way.
  • Create partnerships and connections with other organizations (beyond history) to ensure that the commemoration of Cambridge 400 is reflective of the entire city.

3. Continue our outreach to Cambridge to better reflect the interests, questions, and priorities of our changing city and its people and make Cambridge history feel personal.

  • Select a neighborhood to focus on each year to build stronger relationships around people’s hyperlocal interest in history.
  • Elicit, collect, and share stories around the many ways people connect to the history of Cambridge.
  • Develop ongoing strategies for identifying issues where a historical perspective could be useful and find ways to bring that to the city’s discussion.

4. Build our capacity to realize our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

  • Increase diversity of staff, board, and volunteers.
  • Significantly increase the diversity of those who affiliate with HC (friends, donors, partners, program participants).
  • Regularly assess and publicly report on our progress.

5. Align our facilities with our mission, vision, and goals.

  • Determine what facilities we need to accomplish our work.
  • Develop plans for securing and locating to appropriate facilities (including program locations and formats) that support our values and goals and reflect our commitment to sustainability.
  • Develop plans for the long-term use of 159 Brattle Street.

6. Re-examine all our collections – both physical and digital assets – in the context of our mission, vision, and goals.

  • Reconvene the Collections Committee.
  • Prioritize researching and sharing collections (including digital assets) that diversify Cambridge history, speak to a democratized notion of local history, or tie the past to current issues in the city.
  • Review all of our physical collections (objects, library, archives) in relationship to our mission, facilities and capacity. Reevaluate our capacity to care for collections, understand the options presented by other repositories in the city, and identify collections best transferred to other stewards.
  • Start the seven-year clock on the “found in collections” process to clarify collections recordkeeping.
  • Define the scope of the digital collection and write a digital collections policy.
  • Evaluate options, select, and implement a digital assets management system, including staff training.

7. Build History Cambridge’s visibility across the city.

  • Articulate relevant segments of our current and desired audiences (given our annual neighborhood focus) and develop engagement strategies appropriate for each segment.
  • Develop communications strategies to identify and reach younger audiences.
  • Recruit representatives of History Cambridge to attend events and meetings across the city to share our work and offer our historical resources.
  • Connect with potential partners to build deeper, ongoing relationships leading to active collaborations.

8. Improve financial sustainability with increased resources.

  • Focus on rebuilding our donor base by devoting resources to development.
  • Leverage our annual neighborhood focus to build support from individuals and businesses.
  • Use this plan to secure grants, sponsorships, underwriting, and other new revenue sources.
  • Plan regular fundraising events to raise unrestricted funds and capture any relevant historical content from the event for general distribution.
  • Pilot an earned income event.
  • Experiment with developing selected retail items.

9. Refine and improve governance.

  • Create a committee responsible for governance/nominating and charge it with: revising the committee structure, articulating board expectations, developing and implementing an annual board assessment, and completing a review of existing and needed policies.
  • Diversify the board and volunteers by age, race/ethnicity, and neighborhood.
  • Develop an annual assessment of the executive director.

Appendix 1: Background and Context

Founded in 1905 by a group of amateur historians, the Cambridge Historical Society (CHS) initially met in private homes and on the Harvard campus to present lectures on early Cambridge history. Since 1957, the Cambridge Historical Society has been headquartered at the historic Hooper-Lee-Nichols House at 159 Brattle Street. For its first 100 years, CHS operated as a conventional local historical society, similar to those found throughout the United States during the 20th  century. Membership was exclusive, and the histories the organization preserved mostly represented elite West Cambridge. 

CHS began to expand its mission in the early 2000s, with a goal of serving everyone in Cambridge. In 2015, with the arrival of current executive director Marieke Van Damme, CHS implemented new plans to transform into an audience-centered, inclusive organization. CHS began experimenting with new programming methods, holding events at library branches, bars, and cafés throughout the city. It won a national award from the American Association for State and Local History for its 2016 Fall Symposium.

In December 2019, Cambridge Historical Society engaged Laura Roberts and Rainey Tisdale to develop a new strategic plan that would further transform the organization, expanding its efforts to reach new audiences while maintaining organizational sustainability. Using a new experimental model of creative strategic planning, CHS conducted an audience analysis, interviewed community stakeholders, benchmarked CHS against other local history organizations, developed a vision for CHS’s future, and brainstormed new ways for CHS to serve Cambridge. The result was a living plan, strong in identity, values, goals, and first steps. By design, this plan did not contain prescriptions and absolutes. Instead, the plan set up 2021 as a year of prototyping, enabling CHS to continue to iterate and refine the plan as these prototypes yielded additional insights, and positioning CHS to respond and evolve through 2023 as audience needs and community opportunities presented themselves.

The 2021-2023 Strategic Plan was approved by the Board of Directors in December 2020. The following spring, CHS introduced its new brand identity to the public as History Cambridge. Significant progress on the plan included the name change, a programming pivot that highlights one Cambridge neighborhood a year, growing the number of partners and friends, and legally establishing clear ownership title of 159 Brattle Street. Public programs developed under the strategic plan, such as the Forgotten Souls of Tory Row art installation, clearly illustrated that the new direction was right and effective.

In 2023, History Cambridge started a refresh process, revisiting the goals and strategies from the previous plan and updating them. The resulting plan is one rooted in experience and new information while remaining creative, flexible, and reflective of our values.

Appendix 2: Our Audiences

In the coming years, History Cambridge will prioritize the following four audiences in developing projects and allocating resources.1 We do our best work when we find effective ways to bring together and serve all four of these audiences at the same time.

History Enthusiasts: We were founded by amateur historians and they have been our most important stakeholders and audience. In the coming years we will harness their research knowledge, passion, and approach to help us engage the other audiences. We serve History Enthusiasts when we empower them to share their love of history effectively and meaningfully.

Boosters: Cambridge is full of civically-minded residents who are committed to seeing their city thrive. They love it when our work builds social capital and social cohesion, using history to knit Cantabrigians more closely together, identify community needs, and imagine a brighter future for the city. We serve Boosters when our work helps and improves Cambridge. 

Curious Explorers. Many Cantabrigians love to learn about the rich and complex layers of their city in unexpected ways. In order to serve them, we have to mix it up. They need us to connect history to the present and future, and to highlight how Cambridge history can be multidisciplinary, surprising, and/or quirky. We serve Curious Explorers when our work is fascinating, mixes history with other topics, and asks new questions.

Social Facilitators. These folks are the hosts, the connectors, and the social glue. They scan Cambridge’s calendar listings and their social media feeds looking for opportunities to gather their friends and family for memorable quality time. We serve Social Facilitators when our work fosters enjoyable or meaningful experiences for the people in their group, and helps them share parts of Cambridge they know and love with people they know and love.

1Rainey Tisdale developed these audience profiles by applying John Falk’s model of museum visitor identities to local history audiences (Falk, Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience, 2009). Thanks to Laura B. Roberts and Katie Wright for their input.