Jim Donahue '88

 

agent of change

Jim Donahue '88
Jim Donahue '88
No one could accuse Jim Donahue ’88 of backing away from a new challenge. But a decade ago, no one could have predicted that the banker and teacher would apply his turnaround skills to the 18th century.

Donahue is president and chief executive officer of Old Sturbridge Village, in Massachusetts, one of the country’s largest living-history museums. While the museum recreates colonial life, running it has called on Donahue’s very modern business acumen.

After graduating from Colby with a degree in economics, he began what might have been a typical career route by landing a job with Fleet Financial Group in his native Providence, R.I. But teaching a high school Junior Achievement class inspired him to stay in the classroom to teach sixth-grade math and science and to serve as assistant headmaster at a Providence charter school. Donahue led a merger of the school with a nonprofit, serving as CEO of both.

And then, in 2007, it was time for another challenge.

The new century has not been kind to living-history museums in general. Even the granddaddy of them all, Colonial Williamsburg, sees only about half the visitor numbers it had during its peak in the 1970s. And Sturbridge Village had seen a drop from a peak of 750,000 to just 220,000 in 2006.

It was time for someone to turn things around, and Donahue was, in the words of the president of the Sturbridge Village board, “the perfect candidate.” Quickly, the organization moved toward interactive exhibits (visitors to Sturbridge now can make their own candles and hammer their own pewter dishes). “People are looking for new experiences beyond just going to see and read,” Donahue said. “It’s all part of adjusting to different tastes and learning what brings in families today.”

Under Donahue’s leadership, the museum saw annual attendance grow eight percent in 2008, from 228,000 to 240,000.

“We need to do what we do best,” he said, “which is to present the region’s history in a compelling way.”

—Douglas Rooks ’76