Co-Stewardship at Historic Sites and the Path to Local Governance

By Anne Nelson posted 02-13-2015 11:24


The National Trust’s vision for historic sites—the “Sites Vision”—focuses on the relationship of five elements—national significance or impact, alignment with the National Trust’s mission, financial self-sufficiency, the modeling of a variety of preservation options, and, as is the focus of this blog post, local governance. Because the National Trust's headquarters is in Washington, D.C., and its historic sites are located in 14 states, transitioning to local governance requires partnerships to ensure strong oversight and connections with the local community.

One model the National Trust is using to implement the local governance aspect of the Sites Vision is to transition stewardship sites (sites owned and operated by the National Trust) to co-stewardship sites (sites that are owned by the National Trust but operated by a separate organization). The co-stewardship model, however, is not new to the National Trust. Ten National Trust Historic Sites are currently operated by co-stewardship organizations with the first being Filoli, a two-story Georgian Revival country house with formal gardens in Woodside, California.

 View of Drayton Hall from across the pond. | Credit: Robbin Knight
View of Drayton Hall from across the pond. | Credit: Robbin Knight

Drayton Hall, a National Trust Historic Site in Charleston, South Carolina, self selected to be the first site to undertake the governance transition since the adoption of the new Sites Vision in January 2014. By working closely with staff at Drayton Hall and several members of its Site Advisory Council (and new Board of Trustees), the National Trust was able to update and refresh the legal agreements and develop a process and other tools that will lead to a successful locally-governed site and that can guide co-stewardship transitions at other sites.

 Co-stewardship historic sites are governed by a set of legal documents known as “co-stewardship agreements”—the three main documents being the cooperative agreement, the lease and the loan agreement. These agreements set forth the terms under which a partner organization may operate the site, make changes to the property, exhibit the collections, use or apply for funds from the National Trust, etc. Through discussions with our partner at Drayton Hall, the Drayton Hall Preservation Trust (DHPT), the National Trust revised these legal agreements to include new provisions aimed at stimulating ongoing conversations between DHPT and the National Trust and to provide more autonomy at the site.

 Drayton Hall Preservation Trust board members with National Trust President Stephanie Meeks. | Credit: Ashley Darland
Drayton Hall Preservation Trust board members with National Trust President Stephanie Meeks. | Credit: Ashley Darland

To encourage discussion and collaboration, the parties will meet at least every five years to review the relationship. The National Trust staff will also conduct annual site visits. A new consultation process was developed to encourage the parties to discuss proposals for the property when they are first conceived. This process allows certain projects or proposals to be developed in consultation with the National Trust, rather than the projects being subject to the approval of the National Trust. For Drayton Hall, the National Trust and DHPT agreed that the consultation process was appropriate for the development of long-term plans for the property and for changes to the property. An approval right by the National Trust, though, was decided to be appropriate for changes to the buildings and landscape in the historic core.

 The co-stewardship transition at Drayton Hall also resulted in the creation of tools that can be used for transitions at other sites. One product was a detailed checklist that specifies all tasks to be completed before and after the transition. This list included items such as drafting the legal agreements, assigning contracts, setting up accounting systems, obtaining board approval for the transition, migrating the email address, obtaining insurance, updating the National Trust’s insurance policy, and many other items. Progress on checklist items was discussed at bi-weekly meetings of a transition working group. This checklist can easily be tailored for use by other sites. A process for assessing existing contracts related to the site and whether they should be assigned or terminated was also developed.

The National Trust staff at headquarters and at Drayton Hall, along with representatives from the Site Advisory Council, worked diligently for over a year to transition Drayton Hall to a co-stewardship site in accordance with the Sites Vision. While this transition places a separate entity in charge of operations at Drayton Hall, the collaborative work to achieve the transition and the improved co-stewardship agreements have strengthened and solidified the close relationships between staff and board members across both organizations and their mutual commitment to the preservation and success of the local governance of Drayton Hall.

Anne Nelson is an associate general counsel with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

#DraytonHall #co-stewardship #HistoricSites #Legal

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