The Relevance Test: Three Key Concepts to Future-Proof Nonprofit Organizations

Ivory tower

Ivory towers are proving fragile.

Many visitor-serving organizations benefit from “outside-in” thinking and have ceased depending solely on experiential intuition and other “inside-out” ways of thinking that have previously – and perhaps alarmingly – allowed a kind of Ivory Tower mentality to infiltrate many museums.

The dawning of the Age of the Internet has brought about many necessary changes in the way that people think and behave, and, thus, what people have come to expect from the organizations that they support. Digital, real-time tools now allow for transparency, the ability to communicate ongoing impact, and the ability to personally connect with organizations 24/7. Indeed, the market now expects – demands, really – transparent insights from organizations.

These changes shape the way that we interact and connect within our communities, create meaningful experiences, manage new demands for open authority, and inform our overall expectations of visitor-serving organizations.

While recognizing the progress that has been made, here are three new conflicting perceptions that visitor-serving organizations must internally resolve in order to remain relevant in our ever-evolving era:

 

 1. Prescription vs. Participation

What does your organization offer? Stale, outdated organizations offer a form of prescription. Today, however, if your organization believes that it is offering a form of treatment (i.e. to “teach” something, or to get people to believe something), then your organization is prescribing its experiences to folks who haven’t asked for a diagnosis. In short, if you haven’t first proven your relevance to people (let alone your unique relevance) then it’s hard to be relevant.

Offering participation and exploration encourages visitors to be active and uncover their own “truths”…for themselves. Thanks in large part to the amount of information available on the web, people expect to explore and make decisions for themselves. This is a big reason why open authority (basically, organizations finding ways to “open” their authority to the public) is increasingly important for visitor-serving organizations – and all other organizations for that matter.

This may trace back to the mission statements of visitor-serving organizations. Organizations aiming to “inspire” or “cultivate” may manifest themselves more dynamically than organizations aiming to “educate,” “demonstrate,” or “present” (exhibits, for instance). The former examples empower visitors; the latter examples remove this power. Many of our nation’s most prominent visitor-serving organizations’ mission statements are still self-oriented (and innately less relevant and impactful) rather than people or community-oriented. This may deeply affect how your organization functions…and, more critically, how your constituencies relate to your organization.

 

2. Tuition vs. Admission

Why are visitors paying to visit you? Most organizations call it “admission” – but is that how your organization internally considers the transaction?

When it comes to the overall satisfaction of a visitor’s experience, entertainment plays a leading role, and education is often used as a secondary or post-visit justification for visitation. Organizations that prioritize providing an educational experience may benefit by ensuring that it does not come at the cost of an entertaining experience.

Believing conceptually that your organization offers a form of “two-hour tuition” also demonstrates a misinformed viewpoint as to what makes a visit meaningful to your audiences. Namely, data demonstrate that who you are with and the memories folks make are more important that what they see at a visitor-serving organization. If you think that the thing that truly matters is the nuance of your unique collection of Monets, then you’re missing a bigger, data-supported benefit of what you offer your visitors: memories, experiences and opportunities for personal interaction.

 

 3. Institution vs. Community

What do you work to strengthen? Imagine how it would affect internal perceptions of your organization if you replaced every mention of the “institution” with the word “community.” Board members would sit at meetings and question, “How does this support our community?” and “What do we need to do to help our community prosper and grow?”

Because the market is the actual arbiter of your organization’s success (And, yes, I have been reminding you of that in nearly every single post), you need your followers infinitely more than they need you. Though it’s difficult to remember at times, your visitors could survive without your organization (though, yes, the world would be a little more drab and your mission more underserved)…but you cannot survive without your stakeholders. You need donors, visitors, supporters, evangelists…if you’re not cultivating them, then you aren’t serving your institution at all.

Ignore your community (both onsite locally and the potential national communities that you may serve digitally), and you risk ignoring the lifeblood of your institution. In other words: If you misunderstand or underestimate the deep connection between your institution and the socially-motivated community that you’re cultivating, then you risk rapid irrelevance.

 

Visitor-serving and other types of organizations must evolve – but this need for change extends beyond the obvious technology-enabled issues related to digital engagement. Perhaps the most important ways that organizations are evolving are more fundamental, more systemically pervasive than tactical: Ivory towers are proving fragile.  Instead of protecting and insulating an organization, they imperil and isolate its advancement.  Our opportunity comes not from on high (read: “in the tower”). It is born on the frontlines and lives at eye-level.  The organizations that thrive will connect and merge with the outside world.  “Inside-out” is yesterday.  “Outside-in” is tomorrow.  You choose where you want to be.

 

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Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Myth Busting, Sector Evolution, Trends 2 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

2 Responses to The Relevance Test: Three Key Concepts to Future-Proof Nonprofit Organizations

  1. Kevin Mills

    Colleen, what a timely call to action. Your observations echo a conversation we are having with our board and staff — namely, how do we increase our relevance and deepen our engagement around the authentic pursuit of our mission. Inviting our guests in should mean more than just opening our doors. Thanks for the provocative discussion.

    Kevin

     
    • colleendilen

      Thanks so much, Kevin. I am glad to hear that this is especially timely for the aquarium!

       

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