LETTERS TO THE EDITOR: Challenges of Aging Institutions

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Dear Editor:

The reasons behind the dissolution of the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California were the same challenges facing organizations whose founders were primarily Nisei. Namely, leadership succession and an aging membership.

Every organization bemoans the lack of younger members to take the reins of leadership. Yet, the age gap is difficult to surmount. People in their 20s and 30s want to form their own organizations, not join organizations of their parents and grandparents with missions and goals that, too, may not be and probably are not in sync with their interests.

All organizations have that core group of people who keep it going. The problem arises when that core remains the same, and also when the general membership remains the same in age.

A second issue is when the organization does not evolve with the passage of time. Organizations are tied to the original mission, which can also restrict change, or, the mission is no longer viable because the birth of the organization was tied to a specific event or time.

One organization that I feel that has evolved while keeping the spirit of the original mission is NCRR, formerly known as National Coalition for Redress/Reparations. Redress and reparations for our World War II incarceration gave rise to the organization. Once that was accomplished, they changed their name to Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress, retained the mission of civil rights and redress of wrongs, but expanded it to all communities (primarily of color).

Several years ago, one active member told me they had a core group of the same people doing everything – I think it numbered around 12, which I thought was a huge number for a core group. And, age– they are all now ten years or more older – is still a factor. In five to ten years, they may be where I found myself four years ago.

At 71 four years ago, facing my own mortality and feelings of fiduciary responsibility for the JAHSSC, I asked the board at that time what their intentions were. Not one envisioned stepping up to a commitment of five, 10-plus years. After all, they, too, were plus or minus close to me in age. Except for one 27-year-old, who was not looking at the long term.

So, I suggested dissolution, taking three years and making thoughtful, meaningful decisions to use our fairly healthy treasury wisely. We gave a good portion to organizations selected as our Adopt-a-Wish recipients, chosen primarily for their long support of JAHSSC. We were more generous with honorariums for our final year of programs. We were even willing to pay for airfare for our program speakers, which we had never done before. Our whole perspective changed with the decision to dissolve – like it gave us new life, paradoxically.

Following the guidelines for dissolution of 501(c)(3) nonprofits set by the Attorney General’s Office of Charitable Trusts and the Secretary of State, we selected the Little Tokyo Historical Society to receive whatever assets are left at the end. The dissolution process itself is daunting – so much paperwork. It was easier to become a non-profit than to get out!

We are about three months from dissolution, when the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California will become history.

Iku Kiriyama, Torrance

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