Cultural Organizations: It Is Time To Get Real About Failures

Hey cultural organizations! Do you know what we don’t do often enough? Talk about our failures. It’s a huge, frustrating, self-defeating problem – and it’s time for us to finally start fixing it. That’s the theme of this week’s Know Your Own Bone Fast Facts video. It’s time to get real about our “not-quite-as-we-had-hoped” initiative outcomes, and start sharing the valuable things that we have learned by our efforts.

There’s a bit of pride within for-profit culture in “failing forward” – it’s one of the ways that innovative companies learn and grow. But in order for failures to help any organization evolve, the organization has to own them.

Cultural organizations too often don’t share their most informative failures. And though it may seem counterproductive, I think it makes quite a bit of sense. Cultural organizations have board members to keep happy and funders to impress! Admitting that money may have been lost is traditionally to be avoided at all costs. Even if we learn something incredibly valuable that helps inform our futures when things don’t go exactly as planned, there’s still a good amount of ego on the line when confronting a short-term failure – let alone a very expensive one. If an organization has an initiative that they put a great deal of resources into and it worked out only okay, it may still feel like a letdown.

Again, I think that the unfortunate practice of hiding failures sort of makes sense. How could one blame a cultural executive for protecting their institution in this way? The stakes are incredibly high. Some executives may consider privately, “Why share the failure at all? We’ve learned our lesson. Must we share it with others and risk anyone’s trust in us to intelligently invest future funding?!”


But what do I know as an industry insider-outsider? I know enough to be frustrated.


At IMPACTS, we track a LOT of data and monitor 224 visitor-serving organizations. As a result, I get to bear witness to countless missteps and expensive failures. I also see incredible wins and achievements! I don’t see them in case studies shared at conferences. I see them in data. I see them in changing market perceptions regarding leading organizations. In fact, spotting failures and identifying succeses is a big part of my job.

Turning around cultural organization operations so that they are more strategic and data-informed can feel like turning a big ship…or, at least, veering it onto a different course. To elevate perceptions of relevance among cultural organization types, we need to collectively change up the perceptions attached to a traditional museum or a performing arts experience. We do not need to change it so that it becomes a completely different beast, but so that the market assumes that the experience will be meaningful and connective instead of stagnant or irrelevant or – perhaps our biggest perceptual threat of all – unwelcoming.


Sometimes organizations mask failures or initiatives with mediocre outcomes as successes.


The problem, from where I stand, isn’t simply that visitor-serving organizations don’t share their most meaningful failures – it’s that many actively hide them. Let’s talk about Case Study Envy: A few years after starting work at IMPACTS, my colleagues and I noticed something strange. It started out as a joke, but over time, it became alarming: It seemed that if market data suggested that a project or initiative created mission drift that confused the public – or if it cost a large sum of money and didn’t have demonstrable payoff but “sounded cool” – then it seemed that it was most likely to be shared at a conference as a success. Again, it was a joke at first. But as time went on, it was clear that there was something going on and we decided to look into it. It wasn’t a funny joke anymore.

It stinks to admit that something that we thought was going to be a raging success turned out to be a mediocre dud – especially when it was the director’s pet project or the brain child of the board chair! Sometimes, organizations may try to save face by saying something like, “Hey, this cool-sounding idea didn’t quite achieve the outcomes that we’d hoped in terms of motivating visitation or effectively elevating mission execution, but it’s still a cool idea. Let’s share it with others!” And then it is shared. And then we make the rest of our sector’s jobs of navigating the hot air even harder.

Misses (or, rather, well-intentioned initiatives that do not achieve meaningful goals) are also easy to infiltrate into conference case study line ups because it is extremely difficult to assess failures or successes in calendar-year increments. Calendar years do not generally align with visitation cycles to cultural organizations. It’s easy to tell the truth – but maybe not the whole truth – using calendar year numbers.

Data suggest that executive directors do not generally trust information shared at conferences. Perhaps executives know best that there are other reasons to share something at a conference beyond the purely altruistic motive of strengthening the sector: Appeasing board members, softening blows, bragging rights, funding fodder, professional development/presentation experience for staff, or increasing morale and celebrating staff members are all great reasons to present something (anything) at a conference. The problem is that this dilutes the good stuff.  This is a disservice to all of the hard earned achievements of organizations securing true, data-informed success.

This certainly doesn’t mean that all or even a majority of case studies that organizations share aren’t true successes – but it means that some red herrings are weaved within our conference walls. There are plenty of organizations that share their meaningful, important achievements – and those case studies certainly stand to elevate the industry.

It also occurs to me that so few organizations may be collecting market data that some lower-level staff may be unaware that their initiative didn’t do much to help their organization achieve long-term goals. That sounds like an honest mistake. But for how long should we excuse it as such?


It is time to be more open about valuable lessons learned.


“Well, well, Little Miss Know-It-All. Why don’t you share the failures that you’re seeing with all this data?”

(Okay. That’s fair…on all accounts.)

I won’t do it. It’s not my place. It’s yours. Your hard lessons are yours alone to own and, more importantly, to share. They decidedly are not mine to call out in a public forum (although I have shared examples of positive situations that name specific organizations.) I often get emails from media asking for data about specific organizations, and I reliably turn down these requests because I don’t think shaming is how we turn this ship around.

Perhaps we do need a whistleblower to call out those organizations touting deleterious practices as best practices at the expense of the sector and for the purpose of individual organizational gain. Perhaps we need that hero. I’m not that hero. You’re going to need to get someone who is less of a hate mail wuss. (I am such a hate mail wuss.)

Here’s the obvious thing, though: Organizations have learned – and are constantly learning – many valuable lessons! We simply need to become more adept – and willing – communicators of the actual outcomes of our decisions.

I’m not talking about “we made the program about 18th century porcelain tureens and we should have chosen a different 18th century artifact focus” failures. (I’m being intentionally glib in that example – although, indeed, those kinds of lessons can be valuable, too.) I’m talking about the big ones. I’m talking about those strategic, expensive failures that are hard for us to admit, let alone discuss.  There are many lessons that I know that organizations have learned, but it’s not my place to call out the organizations that have learned them by name.

Here’s one: I cannot point out the organizations that are committing blockbuster suicide. They are building visitation around special exhibits instead of permanent collections, creating an expensive and financially unsustainable cycle that manifests itself in their public perceptions and 990s.

Here’s another: I cannot point out how much revenue was lost by organizations that regularly discount and devalue their own brand.

And yet another: I cannot point out the organizations whose modest investments in frontline staff increased long-term visitation more than their building a multi-million dollar wing.

And on that note: I cannot point out that multi-million dollar wings generally don’t solve long-term visitation problems. This is often because the things that truly kept folks from visiting aren’t necessarily addressed by a building project. (Heads up: I just got cleared to share average long-term attendance data from eleven cultural organizations that underwent multi-million dollar expansions and will publish it on June 14th.)


Failure and learning are critical for success.


There are organizations that have learned lessons that change up the baseline ways in which visitor-serving organizations do business. When organizations own and share their failures, they can help prevent other organizations from making the same mistakes. Why wouldn’t we spare the people like us and entities like ours from the pain and struggle of lessons learned? I don’t think it’s that cultural professionals don’t necessarily want to share missteps more openly, it’s that our industry isn’t yet doing it as a matter of practice. It’s not in our culture. And if one organization is brave, who is to say anyone will follow them instead of shame them?

It’s a risk that may start a wave to better keep cultural organizations afloat.

Earlier this month, I had the honor of keynoting the Museums Galleries Australia annual conference and then taking part in the closing panel. Alec Coles, the CEO of the Western Australia Museum, shared that he took part in honest conversations related to sharing failures during the conference. When I heard that, my mouth dropped. While visitor-serving funding and operations structures are a bit different in the US than they are in Australia (and that may play a role in the willingness to discuss our most painful failures), consider that discussing our most meaningful failures may never be easy. From my point of view, sharing failures is never not-brave.

I hope that we can make sharing learned lessons less scary. I hope that one day these stories will be transparently weaved in among the true, data-informed successes. I wonder if this may have to start at the top of organizations in board rooms and executive meetings. People trust museums and cultural organizations. Cultural organizations should be able to trust one another.

Let’s work to stop burying and suppressing valuable lessons. After all, we’re all working toward a similar mission to meaningfully educate and inspire as many people as we can.


Like this post? Don’t forget to check out my Fast Fact videos on my YouTube channel. Here are a few related posts from Know Your Own Bone that you might also enjoy:


Interested in getting blog posts, tips, and some silly social media geekery periodically delivered in your Facebook newsfeed? Like my Facebook page. Or for more regular sharing of nonprofit marketing information, follow me on Twitter.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Fast Facts Video, Sector Evolution, Trends Leave a comment

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

Add a Comment