Erin Carlson Mast
President Lincoln’s Cottage
“We’re better together.”
Tell us about your leadership style and how this contributes to your organization’s success.
My style is to be focused, flexible, and supportive. I take calculated risks and strive to take the long view.
We first opened President Lincoln’s Cottage to the public in 2008. This fact surprises many people given the importance of this place to Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, and especially to his development of the Emancipation Proclamation. Compared to peer organizations, especially other presidential sites in the area, we’re significantly smaller, newer, lesser known, and have fewer resources. Yet visitors, donors, and other stakeholders expect us to compete at the same level as more established sites. To meet that challenge, we have a strong mission and vision that differentiates us and is tied directly to the power of this place. By establishing and maintaining that focus, I have marshalled our resources for maximum impact, resulting in us receiving national recognition and being cited as an example for the field.
Early on, I recognized that how we achieve our mission and vision is necessarily fluid — it has to be, given that the world is constantly changing. I have focused on building a culture of trust, creativity, inclusivity, and collaboration in our organization. Our work culture allows us to be nimble and innovative in how we serve the public, while our focus on vision and mission means we never lose sight of our long-term goals. Staff burnout is a common concern in the nonprofit sector, including the museum field. We have avoided that pitfall by providing consistent support, training, and schedule flexibility for our team.
Few people could have foreseen, when we opened in 2008, that by 2016, President Lincoln’s Cottage would partner with a member of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture on a paradigm-shifting visitor study, or win a Presidential Medal for our Students Opposing Slavery program. Taking on both the study and the program was not without risks, but the opportunities came to us because of the trust we’d built with partners, board, staff, and stakeholders. These initiatives succeed because of that trust, and the support we have provided our visitors and participants who have used what they gained here to serve as leaders in their own communities, around the world.
What advice would you offer for other nonprofit leaders?
Take time for conscious reflection. There is tremendous pressure to meet demands in both our personal and professional lives. Carving out time for serious, purposeful reflection can be difficult. I haven’t met a nonprofit leader who hasn’t been confronted with disparate and complex obstacles in the course of their work — one historic site colleague had to deal with wild bears and plumbing issues while donors were arriving for a cocktail event. Sometimes triage is unavoidable, but taking the time to consciously reflect lets us develop a strong sense of self, set clear priorities for the organization, and to step back and see the bigger picture. In so doing, we can be as prepared as possible when the unforeseeable hits — no matter how outrageous it may be.
We’re better together. One of the many things that drew me to this sector is how open people are to collaboration and partnerships, especially non-traditional ones. Our partnerships with local businesses, government agencies, and all kinds of other nonprofits have allowed us to reach new audiences, strengthen ties to our communities, and given us the benefit of diverse perspectives. Yes, partnerships and collaborations take considerable time and effort, but if chosen thoughtfully and given the investment they deserve, they can be game changing.
Build a strong, inclusive, productive work culture. We couldn’t achieve half of what we have without a tremendously dedicated board, passionate staff, and supportive stakeholders. I have emphasized the importance of living our mission at the organization, and that includes being progressive on labor issues. After all, while living here Lincoln dealt a decisive blow to the most extreme unfair labor practice — slavery. People made the Cottage a powerful place historically, and people are making it a powerful place again today.
What does this award mean for you and your organization?
Being nominated was a humbling experience, and being a finalist is a great honor. With the board, I’ve taken our operation through the arduous process of transitioning from a larger, national nonprofit to being a DC-based, independent nonprofit, a change that came with great risk but also greater self-determination. With a new strategic plan in place and the 10th anniversary of being open to the public on the horizon, this award would come at a pivotal moment in our organization’s history and provide a vote of confidence and a dedicated investment in our entire team at the ideal time.
I have always been committed to staff development, but have naturally had to get creative when resources are scarce. Having dedicated, external resources opens the doors to new opportunities. We’ve been fortunate to get significant, national recognition for our programs and other aspects of our operation, but never for a member of our team specifically. Having that external recognition of staff talent and promise is critical to our ability to generate more support for our mission.
Learn more about President Lincoln’s Cottage