Cultural organizations use these defenses almost daily – and they are having a devastating effect on our institutions.
We live in a connected and constantly evolving world. Keeping up can be tough – and being cutting edge in developing new business strategies that actually aid in mission execution and long-term solvency sometimes feels overwhelming for cultural organizations such as museums, theaters, aquariums, symphonies, zoos, botanic gardens and historic sites. Our common industry response often seems to be to create more technology for technology’s sake – a distraction that allows us to show fancy things to board members that don’t necessarily help us achieve our goals…but they touch on something “digital” so they seem to scratch the superficial “we need to evolve” itch.
It leaves me frequently wondering: Why don’t we do much to really change our business strategies? Why don’t we talk more about changing membership structures and the informed economics of special exhibits instead of window dressing like mobile applications?
Here are the five most common defenses that I observe as excuses for failing to innovate and evolve. Let’s stop talking about how the dog ate our homework and get busy educating and inspiring audiences. It’s going to mean eliminating these five phrases from our daily dialogue.
1) “That does not apply to me!”
My colleagues and I frequently encounter this pervasive and poisonous “defense” when exploring data and attendant implications with various visitor-serving organizations that are having a difficult time adapting to change. Instead of thinking critically about findings, folks often say, “I’m not a museum, I’m a theater…so this could not possibly apply to me!” Even worse is something like this, “I’m not a children’s museum, I’m an art museum!” or “We’re not a symphony, we play jazz!” or “We aren’t a science museum, we’re a science center!” or “That science museum is in San Francisco and we’re in Texas. It’s completely different!”
This doesn’t just happen with visitor-serving industry data (which is drawn from organizations that generally have the same bottom lines of mission execution and financial solvency based largely on onsite engagement) – organizations seem to do this for every kind of data, including market data. We shoot ourselves in the foot when we make excuses for why we shouldn’t think critically about the applicability of data from every industry…especially data from our own industry.
Here’s what many cultural organizations have in common that fundamentally ties them together: Cultural, visitor-serving organizations are entities whose solvency relies upon attracting attendees and garnering financial support from advocates interested in the organization’s cause. At IMPACTS, we keep looking for big differences between visitation to various cultural organizations, and we find that the differentiation is often simply the content provided by each organization. Best practices remain fairly similar. Are all VSOs the same? Of course not – but these entities rely upon providing physical, social, and emotional experiences, and data suggest that makes these organizations unique as a group. Please don’t short sell your organization by dismissing data that is inconvenient. The world is full of emerging ideas and trends. Our industry needs more market data on the whole. Knowing what is going on in the world is part of our job as professionals.
Here’s my challenge to you: If you catch yourself ever saying, “Well, there’s no way that’s true for my organization for XYZ reason,” then pause and regroup. You may be right, but then ask yourself, “Wait. Am I sure of that?”
2) “But we are a nonprofit!”
When visitor-serving organizations don’t like nonprofit data, they sometimes say, “But we operate more like a for-profit!”…and when for-profit best practices surface, the inevitable rebuttal is, “But we are a nonprofit!” It’s a vicious habit wherein cultural enterprise put themselves in a never-ending position to “deny” themselves out of the realities of change and the need to keep up with the rest of the world.
Today, nonprofit organizations compete directly with private companies and audiences are largely sector agnostic. We don’t “own” social good, and data suggest that a majority of your visitors likely have no idea that your organization is nonprofit in the first place. Here’s a reminder of that data.
3) “Most industry changes have to do with marketing or technology or added tasks for lower-level staff. That is not my role!”
This is probably the mother of all uninformed, defensive excuses and arguably is the one most threatening to cultural organizations. Industry evolution is particularly critical for the leaders of visitor-serving organizations in all departments. Because the Web informs much of the world that we live in today, some leaders ignorantly shrug off these conversations, mistakenly thinking, “This isn’t my job.” The information age that we live in affects everything – and, increasingly, treating conversations with the word “digital” as someone else’s responsibility is doing nothing but making those professionals less qualified for their own jobs. In fact, the way that our industry approaches “digital” within higher level leadership may be the very thing keeping “digital from being effective.
So please, as you peruse the Web and go about your day, resist any potential desire to skip important articles, thinking, “This relates only to marketing” or, “I’ll just pass this along to a Coordinator.” It doesn’t and please don’t (without considering it first for yourself). Even the role of marketing has changed in today’s world. Hint: It is no longer a service department.
This excuse is likely why industry leaders are not often at conferences aiming to discuss industry evolution. Many leaders believe that “industry evolution” means “creating more mobile apps” – which, of course, is a huge miss.
Speaking of conferences…
4) “Let us share that failed project at [industry conference] and frame it as huge success!”
Of course, people don’t say that directly (that I know of…). But when you dig into 990s and look at them alongside presentations at conferences, it becomes clear that many institutions are actually sharing their current failures as models of success. It certainly isn’t true for all organizations and presentations – but we often note at IMPACTS that if an initiative creates mission drift or costs a very large sum of money and has no demonstrative payoff, then it’s going to be shared as a success at a conference.
Sadly, this response makes complete and total sense: There’s too much at stake to share our failures as actual failures. There are board member reputations, a CEO’s symbolic capital, and even funder satisfaction at risk when we admit to failure. If we admit it’s a failure, then we have to say to board members, “Hey, this big project that you supported and might have even been your idea didn’t work.” And we really don’t want to say that. So, instead, we say, “It didn’t increase visitation or notably impact our brand equities in a positive manner, but it helps position us as ‘experts’ in our industry! To prove it, we’ll share it at [insert industry conference].”
I’m not saying it’s not messed up, but I am saying that the fear of calling a dog a dog may be understandable in this context that disproportionately punishes risk. What’s more is that executive leaders seem to know that many of the case studies presented at conferences are actually failures. It’s a reason for the inverse correlation between trust and influence and information being shared at a conference. Yes. Executive leaders find information shared at conferences to be less trustworthy because it is shared at a conference.
Here’s how much executive leaders trust various information channels. An index value less than 100 indicates lessened trust in the information based on its source. (Here’s the link to the original post with the data and more information on it.)
Think that’s bad? The data on the influence of information is much more alarming.
This is not to say that all presentations at industry conferences are useless – far from it. Conferences are a wonderful opportunity to connect and share experiences and, indeed, we need them. But they cannot help us unless we change how we approach them and stop making “finding the things that actually work” harder than spotting a sundress at Nordstrom Rack in the wintertime. It might be there – but you’ll have to search long and hard for it.
While excuses are prevalent in the industry, there are many excellent examples of organizations doing forward-facing things. It’s a shame that those examples are scarce and diluted by so many glorious funeral ceremonies for failures disguised as successes at conferences.
5) “Let us be leaders! But first find me a similar institution in our area who has already done it.”
This one may be a matter of courage and, again, a matter of pleasing key stakeholders. To be a leader, somebody needs to step forward and lead. Leading involves investment and risk. If you have a great idea for a program and you have market data to indicate that it may be effective in helping to reach your organizational goals, make like Nike and just do it.
I’ve worked with organizations that have devised entire strategies and then sat on them because they wanted another organization to do it first. It’s okay (and actually important) to do things that the Monterey Bay Aquarium, San Diego Zoo, LA Philharmonic, Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Smithsonian Institution aren’t doing yet. These organizations can be amazing examples of institutions doing incredible things, but they – like any organization- can be terrible models.
Perhaps all of these excuses and defenses are failures of courage. Times are hard for cultural organizations and maybe we just need a little bit more love. Running a cultural organization today is hard. Very hard. And perhaps we don’t always give credit where it’s due.
It’s time that we acknowledge the hard work of inspiring engagement within cultural organizations and own up to our shortcomings. Let’s knock it off with these five excuses. They deny our organizations the benefit of our critical thinking and leadership.
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Photo credit goes to TravelPod member Eundel