Foxfire, still aglow — after catastrophic event, an organization’s lessons learned
In this column, members of Georgia Humanities and their colleagues take turns discussing Georgia’s history and culture, and other topics that matter. Through different voices, we hear different stories.
This week guest contributor JANET RECHTMAN, a senior fellow at the Fanning Institute and a Foxfire board member, offers lessons on how an organization can survive a disaster.
By Janet Rechtman
Since 1966, Foxfire students, teachers, staff, and volunteers have compiled a history of the people, communities, and traditions of southern Appalachia. Readers who found these stories through the beloved Foxfire book series have made the 106-acre Foxfire Museum and Heritage Center on Black Rock Mountain (fondly called “The Land”) a must-see destination for visitors from all over the world. The connections are equally strong when educators adopt an experiential education, which, for nearly 50 years, has also been known as the “Foxfire Approach to Teaching and Learning.”
In its early days, Foxfire became a national phenomenon. The Foxfire books were best sellers, with more than 9 million copies sold. There was a nationally distributed movie, multiple archived accounts of life in the North Georgia mountains, and three decades of courses and workshops on the “Foxfire Approach to Teaching and Learning.”
Then, Foxfire experienced a significant challenge. In 1992 the organization’s charismatic founder was indicted for molesting a student in his care. Pleading guilty, he served one year in the local county jail, after which he retired to Florida. Following this negotiated plea, the resulting corporate litigation, evidence of multiple wrongdoings, and settlements for damage to the victims who came forward brought an abrupt end to Foxfire’s early growth. While the harm done by the founder’s betrayal cannot be undone, Foxfire’s board and staff assumed accountability and settled legal matters in ways that respected the privacy of those affected. By adopting new stringent standards of protection for the students in its care, Foxfire became a model for other youth-serving organizations.
As a Foxfire board member and a teacher of nonprofit leadership, I have learned a lot about nonprofit sustainability through my association with Foxfire. Here are three key lessons I can share.
Lesson #1: There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
In the years following the founder’s guilty plea, much of the energy and resource base Foxfire had built during its early years dissipated. The scope and depth of the founder’s betrayal left a residue of anger, hurt, and distrust. Under strict legal supervision, the demoralized board and staff were hard pressed to reconstruct programs and outreach in a hostile environment. Still, Foxfire persisted, thanks in part to excellent insurance coverage and a cash reserve deep enough to sustain some catastrophic losses.
Most important were the relationships that had grown over Foxfire’s history. An attorney on the board provided pro bono legal services and expertise. Many unknown people continued to purchase the Foxfire books and visit The Land. The remaining staff members stayed the course through amazingly intense upheavals. Community members were quick to differentiate between the founder’s criminal behavior and the benefits they had enjoyed as Foxfire students. These relationships (sometimes called social capital) sustained Foxfire when funders and partners had disappeared.
Lesson 2: Rebuilding is not a straight line from here to there.
As the storms subsided, Foxfire’s leadership began to look at the future and to firm their belief in Foxfire’s educational approach and the organization’s role in documenting the culture and history of the Georgia mountains. In 1994 the board asked the new executive director to reengage the networks and to seek support for educational programming from major foundations. Few classroom teachers wanted to be associated with scandal, and foundations proved unwilling to extend further support, so Foxfire began to subsidize the educational function through an endowment established with the royalties from the Foxfire Book series.
Ultimately, using funds from the endowment to rebuild teacher networks proved to be unsustainable, given the financial requirements of Foxfire’s commitment to preserve invaluable personal and community artifacts donated by Foxfire “contacts” (folks who were interviewed in the magazine and book series). With this in mind, Foxfire’s board made the safety and security of these items in perpetuity its highest priority. In 1999 the executive director resigned, along with the staff she had hired to advance Foxfire’s educational work.
In 2000, with a new leader on board, Foxfire reinstated a range of community-focused experiential learning programs and established an educational partnership with Piedmont College, where longtime Foxfire stakeholders work to sustain the Foxfire teacher training, support research into the Foxfire approach, and provide leadership in the educational community.
Similar partnerships with the College of Education at the University of Georgia has led to increased interest in and support for research and practice in the Foxfire approach, and the Peabody Collection at UGA’s Russell Library houses part of the archives. Finally, Rabun County High School hosts a Foxfire classroom, where students continue to produce Foxfire magazine and add to the collection of artifacts and buildings on The Land. On Foxfire’s Living History Day, local families and volunteers in period dress present the activities of everyday 1800s Appalachian life, including open-hearth cooking, one-room school work and preaching in the chapel, blacksmithing, woodworking, corn-shuck doll-making, soap-making, and more.
Thus, with careful management and an annual payment from the endowment, Foxfire has continued its mission despite many challenges.
Lesson 3: Resiliency requires resources
Researchers at Emory University have found that knowing one’s family history is a key contributor to resiliency: people who have living connections to stories from their past are better able to handle life’s setbacks than those who have little or no roots in history. In this way Foxfire’s collection of interviews, photographs, music, artifacts, and buildings serves as a memory bank for people who live in the North Georgia mountains. Foxfire thus contributes to a sense of identity and rootedness in a rapidly homogenizing world.
The same is true for nonprofit organizations: resiliency begins with a deep appreciation of mission and traditions, which, in turn, energize stakeholders to sustain the work. As board members, we had to resist the temptation to romanticize Foxfire’s survival as a result of the appeal of our mission, lest we minimize the lingering impact of the founder’s crimes. The fact is, without the endowment created through Foxfire’s early success and its highly recognized brand name, Foxfire would most likely be a footnote in the annals of education and a fond memory of folks who live near The Land.
Instead, through a combination of mission, money, and commitments by people from all walks of life, Foxfire is poised to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 2016. Indeed, the celebration has already begun; in October, Foxfire received a Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities.
Immediately following the Foxfire founder’s indictment, high school students in the program went to businesses in Clayton and asked them to display a poster that said “Foxfire Still Glows,” referring to the bioluminescent mushroom that inspired the name of the organization. That is the key to survival: Foxfire continues to this day and into the future because of its own luminosity — a self-generated glimmer instead of a self-promoting flash in the pan. As we move into our second half-century, our hope is that the glow of Foxfire will continue to light the way for communities and educators alike.
Janet Rechtman is a Senior Fellow at the J. W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development at the University of Georgia, and a Foxfire board member.
Kelly Caudle of Georgia Humanities provides editorial assistance for the “Jamil’s Georgia” columns.