May the Nonprofit Force Be With You! Star Wars Museum in Petaluma Goes Nonprofit

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December 15, 2011; Source: TheForce.netIn one of the multitude of Star Wars movies, the venerable Obi-Wan Kenobi says, “Your eyes can deceive you; don’t trust them.” Maybe an organization’s tax status can look deceptive too—unintentionally, of course! In Petaluma, Rancho Obi-Wan, described as the “home of the largest privately held Star Wars™ collection in the world,” is now a “California nonprofit corporation whose purpose is to serve the public through the collection, conservation, exhibition, and interpretation of Star Wars memorabilia.”

The collection and the Rancho are the creative products of Steve Sansweet, who has been collecting Star Wars stuff since before the first Star Wars movie premiered in May, 1977. Formerly a chicken ranch, Rancho Obi-Wan houses both Sansweet’s 200,000-item museum and his home. Apparently, his enthusiasm for the Star Wars saga got Sansweet a job offer from Lucasfilm Ltd., where he is currently Fan Relations Advisor, according to the Rancho Obi-Wan Facebook page, functioning as an “interface” between the company and the fans of the saga.

Who are we to judge the “nonprofitness” of this nonprofit? The nonprofit sector is full of “expressive” as opposed to “instrumental” nonprofits. Most people think of nonprofits on the instrumental side of the continuum, serving and meeting some sort of instrumental community need or demand. Now at the University of Texas, formerly at the Hauser Center at Harvard, writer Peter Frumkin has written powerfully about the expressive functions of nonprofits—those organizations that exist simply to express a belief, value, or idea rather than having a utilitarian function of community benefit. The Rancho Obi-Wan, for example, created to pay homage to Star Wars memorabilia.

The promotional coverage of the nonprofit conversion describes ROW’s nonprofit business model:

Fans can join ROW at one of the various membership levels: Initiate ($35), Apprentice ($75), Knight ($200), Master ($600), or Grand Master ($1,300). Three of the membership levels allow fans to tour the collection with host Steve Sansweet; they can also rent the museum for events ranging from business meetings to weddings. (The museum is not open to the general public except through reserved membership tours.) All annual members will get an exclusive membership kit along with a quarterly email newsletter. ROW is also planning members-only events and other special activities. 

Individuals and companies will be able to make donations to help with ROW’s educational and creative activities, its gifts of tours to other non-profits and charitable fund-raisers, its public outreach, and the maintenance of the building and collection. These contributors will be recognized on a “Wall of Stars” at ROW.

Who’s the more foolish: the fool, or the fool who follows him?” asked Obi-Wan Kenobi in who-knows-which-Roman-numeraled Star Wars movie. Star Wars fans now have the option to become dues-paying initiates and gain access to Steve Sansweet’s nonprofit private collection.—Rick Cohen