Does the National Trust Model Have Value in Developing Countries?

Posted on: November 7th, 2008 by David J. Brown
Old town Bratislava.

Old town Bratislava.

On the first day of the annual Executive Committee meeting for the International National Trusts Organisation (INTO), more than a dozen representatives from National Trusts around the globe gathered in Bratislava, Slovakia, to focus on our work for the years ahead. INTO was established last December in a burst of celebration at the 12th International Conference of National Trusts in New Delhi, India. Since then we’ve hired part-time staff, engaged two high-level volunteer directors, and established an office in London.

But the hard work lies ahead. We have to take the vision and promise of INTO and translate that into an aspirational yet achievable plan that helps existing National Trusts while encouraging and supporting new organizations in countries without similar non-governmental advocacy groups.

We sat down this morning with Alan Hunt from The National Trust of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Alan has the wonderfully descriptive title “Head of Foresight” and he helped us think through what an organization made up of disparate organizations could do to be effective in the 21st century. We talked about building on the power of networks that already exist as well as ones that we help build. With the impact of the Obama campaign’s transformational use of the Internet fresh on everyone’s minds, we spoke of the need for staff and leaders who were flexible, nimble, strategic, and savvy in the ways of today’s communication tools. We agonized over the program priorities that would have the most impact in saving historic places.

But underlying all our discussion was the question of the value of the National Trust model in developing countries. Virtually every group around the table, including our National Trust in the U.S., was built on the British structure which was established more than 100 years ago. That model generally involves property management, advocacy, and – in most organizations – a close relationship between the preservation of buildings and land. We tried to understand the ways the Trust model works as well as the limitations it may pose, especially in non-English speaking countries.

Old town Bratislava.

Old town Bratislava.

As it turned out our hosts – the National Trust for Slovakia – provided an instructive lesson for our discussion. In the 1990s, as Slovakia went through major changes in every facet of civic life, a young man named Martin Kovac completed his studies at university and went to England to learn from the National Trust. He was so inspired that he returned to his home in Slovakia to co-found and serve as the first director of the National Trust of Slovakia. Some 14 years later the group is small but thriving. Martin now serves as the group’s board chairman, is close with leading politicians such as the Minister of Culture, and works in a related position for the Association of Cities and Municipalities of Slovakia.

As we considered the Slovakian example, we were surrounded by the beautiful buildings of the historic core of Bratislava, many of them beautifully restored. In talking with government and civic leaders in the country both yesterday and today, it became apparent that the experience of the National Trust of Slovakia in many ways served as a shining example of what we – as a collective body of National Trusts – could do on a much larger scale. We turned back to our work with great enthusiasm, passion, and hope.

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David J. Brown is Executive Vice President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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