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Community Engagement

Six Urgent Reasons To Add Millennials To Your Nonprofit Board of Directors

Millennial board members

If your organization doesn’t have at least one millennial on its Board of Directors, then you may be setting your organization up for a difficult future. 

I cannot help but notice that the Boards of Directors of many large nonprofits are missing representatives from a critical current constituency – millennials. Strangely, this seems to especially be the case within large nonprofits (annual operating budgets >$30 million, or attendance >1 million for visitor-serving organizations)… And that’s particularly terrifying, as many smaller organizations often look to larger ones for cues to the future.

Missing millennial representatives on the board doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t loads of important conversations taking place about how to better engage millennials. It seems that many organizations are stuck in the mud of dialogue instead of finding traction in actually doing something constructive to meet this opportunity where it counts most. I’ve found that it’s not uncommon at many board meetings for there to be numerous Baby Boomers – and a few members of Generation X – waxing poetic about the urgent need to “engage millennials”…without any input from actual millennials.

The fact remains: The millennials aren’t coming.  They’re here now.  The time has come for organizations to sink or swim based on how effectively they engage millennials…which may be particularly hard to do when nobody tasked to govern leading organizations is actually a member of this generation. 

To be fair, there are some organizations that are moving forward and integrating millennials into their boards and strategic decision-making processes. I’m a millennial serving on the Board of Directors at the National Aquarium during an incredibly important time for the organization’s future. I’m grateful for this opportunity…but I also know that I’m one of relatively few millennials on the board of a larger nonprofit or a museum.

Don’t have at least one millennial on your Board of Directors yet? Here are six, critical reasons to call up the nominating committee and work on getting some impressive millennials aboard your nonprofit Board right now.

 

1) Millennials represent the largest generation in human history

…So not having at least one of them on your board may be a bit out of touch. Until Generation Y came along, baby boomers represented the largest generational cohort in the United States. However, at nearly 90 million strong, millennials have baby boomers outnumbered by an estimated 20 million people. As boomers age, the divide will continue to grow. This statistic alone should be more than enough to make executive leaders pause to consider the future of their organizations. Moreover, millennials will begin to tip the scales in buying power in the United States next year, and our economy will be feeling the impact by 2017.

 

2) Millennials will have primary influence on culture and society for an unprecedented duration

…So not having one on your board is delaying an inevitable future and holding back progress. I’ve written about this fact more directly before, but here’s a reminder: Millennials who have children are not having as many of them as their baby boomer parents. Moreover, Gen X (which is only roughly half the size of Gen Y) is simply too small in number to give birth to a future, large generation. Simply put, America’s birth-over-death rate is not increasing at the historic rates established by Baby Boomers. This means that millennials will remain the largest generational demographic in the United States for a much longer period of time than did the Baby Boomers – or any prior generation to date.

 

3) Millennials will significantly influence the outcomes of the next six presidential elections

…And if your organization does not get millennials involved in understanding policy-related challenges and opportunities from a leadership buy-in standpoint, you may be “voting” against your own best interests. Indeed, this depends upon millennials actually voting, but building any aspect of your organization’s survival strategy upon 90 million people not turning up for elections is a stupid strategy. Moreover, millennials will eventually dominate a very, very vast majority of all government leadership positions…mandatory government retirement policies dictate this math. Inviting millennials onto your board helps ensure that your organization’s best interests are best protected.

 

4) Engaging millennials requires immediate, strategic shifts in leadership mentalities

…Far beyond simply “using social media.” Engaging millennials isn’t merely a communication medium opportunity (especially because data suggests that millennials are not even close to the only audiences using social media). Engaging millennials requires new ways of thinking about marketing, development, human resources and operations, and even new strategic practices regarding things like membership. Millennial board members may provide valuable perspective regarding their own peer group and generational mindset.

 

5) What your organization actually DOES is more important than ever before

…And aiming to be seen as an organization welcoming millennials without actually welcoming millennials where it counts may actually be detrimental to your bottom lines. We live in a world now where everybody (not just millennials) increasingly look to real-time platforms to make decisions. People want to assess an organization’s promise, reliability, trustworthiness, and impact on their own – guided largely by perceived transparency. If your organization is actively trying to engage millennials, then it’s doing something smart (for the reasons mentioned above), but if it’s doing it without also empowering millennials where it counts (in the Board Room and the future of your social mission), then the story is incongruent. Thanks in large part to the web, we live in a “show vs. tell” world – and if what you say doesn’t match what you do, people are likely to notice.

 

6) Millennial board members can help connect your organization directly to millennial donors

…Because millennial board members can be every bit as valuable as other board members. Despite a strange want to promulgate the concept that millennials never do and never will actively contribute to nonprofit organizations, data suggests that most millennials actually do contribute. Yes, millennials donors exist and your organization is probably messing a lot of things up trying to engage with them even if you think you’re doing it right. (Here are six sad truths that I have learned as a millennial donor.) But the good things about adding other, more diverse members to your board are still true for millennials: insight, connectivity to the right people, an “in” with a valuable group of up-and-comers, and fresh perspectives.

 

With all of these reasons why it is absolutely critical to add quality millennials to your nonprofit’s board of directors, it makes me wonder why I don’t have many friends on the boards of larger nonprofits at all? It begs the question, “What are current board members of nonprofits so afraid of?” Change? Shifting tides? Loss of power? Diminished relevance?

Generational change and progress are inevitable – and they are horrible reasons to cripple the evolution of mission-driven organizations. The new first imperative of power should be not to retain it but, instead, to share it. That is the stuff of a true and worthy organizational legacy.

 

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

Posted on by colleendilen in Community Engagement, Generation Y, Leadership, Management, Museums, Nonprofits, Public Management, Social Change, Social Media, The Future, Words of Wisdom Leave a comment

Why Talking About The Future of Museums May Be Holding Museums Back

Marketoonist- Risks

What if we took some of the time that we spend patting ourselves on the back for thinking about “the future” and use it to better adapt to the world we are living in right now?

Before I jump in, I need to come clean and admit that I’m not innocent here. I’ve been (proudly) called a futurist for visitor-serving organizations and I even say that, for a living, I help “future-proof” nonprofit organizations. Some of my favorite resources and those that I believe to be the most thoughtful focus on “the future” (like the Center for The Future of Museum’s blog – which is worth checking out for its valuable thought-fuel). But here’s the thing:

While those ideas shared by our industry’s most engaging thought leaders and go-to resources may be “future-facing” (as in, they are sure to increase in relevance in the future) they are not actually about the future. Yes, it is a matter of language that is confusing things. Using the word “future” when we are talking about the “present” may be harmful to organizations because of what the word “future” means. Many resources focusing on “the future” are actually communicating about emerging trends that are happening right now…and when we call them “the future” we do our organizations a grave disservice.

Here’s why:

1) Things that get characterized as “the future” within the museum industry generally are not about the future at all

Check this out: Embracing millennials, mastering community management on social media, opening authority, heightening engagement with onsite technologies, breaking down ivory towers with shifts from prescription to participation, engaging more diverse audiences, utilizing mobile platforms, understanding the role of “digital,” breaking down organizational silos…These are things that we frequently discuss as if they are part of the future. But they aren’t. In fact, if your organization hasn’t already had deep discussions about these issues and begun evolving and deploying new strategies at this point, then you may arguably be too late in responding to forces challenging our sector today.

 

2) Calling it “the future” excuses putting off issues which are actually immediate needs for organizational survival

What if we called these things “The Right Now?” Would it be easier to get leadership to allocate resources to social media endeavors or deploy creative ways to grow stakeholder affinity by highlighting participation and personalization?  Are we excusing the poor transition from planning to action by deferring most investments to “The Future?”

Basically, we’ve created a beat-around-the-bush way of talking about hard things that separates successful and unsuccessful organizations. For many less successful organizations struggling to find their footing in our rapidly evolving times, their go-to euphemistic solution for “immediate and difficult” seems to be “worth thinking about in the future.” When we call it “the future,” we excuse ourselves from thinking about these issues right now (which is exactly when we should be considering if not fully deploying them).

Contrast this deferment strategy with those of more successful organizations who invariably and reliably “beat the market to the spot.”  It isn’t pure chance and serendipity that underpins successful engagement strategies – these are the product of ample foresight, planning, investment and action…all of it done many yesterdays ago!

 

3) The future implies uncertainty but trend data is not uncertain

Moreover, common wisdom supports that “the future” is uncertain.  “We cannot tell the future.” Admittedly, some sources that aim to talk about the future truly attempt to open folks’ brains to a distant time period. However, much of what is shared by those we call “futurists” is not necessarily uncertain. In fact (and especially when it comes to trends in data), we’re not guessing.  I’ve sat in on a few meetings within organizations in which trends and actual data are taken and then presented as “the future” or within the conversation of “things to discuss in the future.” Wait. What?

Certainly, new opportunities evolve and trends may ebb with shifting market sentiments…but why would an organization choose uncertainty over something that is known right now?

 

4) We may not be paying enough time and attention to right now

I don’t think that referring to “right now trends” as “the future” would be as potentially damaging to organizations if we spent enough time being more strategic and thoughtful about “right now trends” in general.  Many organizations seem to be always playing catch-up with the present.  If organizations are struggling to keep up with the present, how will they ever be adequately prepared for the future?

 

5) Talking about “the future” sometimes provides a false sense of innovation that may simply be vanity

To be certain, we all need “wins” – especially in nonprofit organizations where burnout is frequent and market perceptions are quickly changing. The need for evolution is constant and the want for a moment’s rest may be justified. That said, it seems as though talking about “the future” (which, as we’ve covered, is actually upon us) is often simply providing the opportunity for organizations to pat themselves on the back for “considering” movement instead of actually moving. To have the perceived luxury of being able to think about the future may give some leaders a false sense of security that they aren’t, in fact, constantly trying to keep up with the present.

 

Talking about “the future” seems to mean that you are talking about something that is – yes – perhaps cutting edge, but also uncertain, not urgent, not immediate, and somehow a type of creative brainstorming endeavor. While certainly brainstorming about the actual future may be beneficial (there are some great minds in the museum industry that do this!), it may be wise for organizations to realize that most of what we call “the future” is a too-nice way of reminding organizations that the world is turning as we speak and you may already be a laggard organization.

Think about your favorite museum or nonprofit thinker. My guess is that you consider that person to be a kind of futurist, but really, you may find that they are interesting to you because they are actually a “right-now-ist.” They provide ideas, thoughts, and innovative solutions about challenges that are currently facing your organization.

This is all a long way of saying something incredibly simple, but astoundingly true: The future is now.  Let’s start treating it that way.

 

A quick aside: Speaking of “the future is now,” I’ll be conducting a free webinar with Blackbaud tomorrow (August 14) at 1pm Eastern entitled “Get Strategic: How to Connect With Members in a Digital Age.” You can sign up here!

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

Posted on by colleendilen in Big ideas, Community Engagement, Museums, Nonprofit Marketing, Nonprofits, Public Management, Social Change, Social Media, Technology, The Future 5 Comments

Six Reasons Why Content Is No Longer King (And What Now Holds the Throne)

Know Your Own Bone - Connectivity is King

“Content is king” is confusing people and the reign is over. There’s a different ruler in town that is driving successful organizations: connectivity.

“Content is king,” said Bill Gates famously as the chief executive of Microsoft in 1996.  And for a while, there was little reason to disagree with Mr. Gates’s assessment – so much so that this mantra has been used by marketers the world over.  It makes sense: You need content to inspire folks to act in your organization’s best interest (i.e. become a member, purchase a ticket, make a donation, etc.).  But the reign of content has ended and – while still important – the saying is becoming quickly outdated in today’s increasingly digital world. In fact, the repetition of this saying is causing, cultivating, and excusing misunderstandings among organizations’ staff members. 

Let’s clear the air and work together to update the saying so that it can be more effectively applied to the purpose of inspiring action in today’s world. There’s a new king in town. Today, connectivity is king.

 

1) The concept of content as king is causing some problems

Let’s get one thing straight: Content is not unimportant. Compelling content creates the bridge that often inspires connectivity. However, our misbelief that content remains supreme is causing certain organizational problems that risk growing more deeply-rooted each day. Here are some symptoms of the outdated notion that content remains king that may actually jeopardize an organization’s solvency. Each of these conditions are symptomatic of a content-centric organization that deeply believes that what it outputs is more valuable than its outreach.

 

2) Connectivity is about your organization and its relationship with other people (Content is just about your organization)

The marketing channels about which the “content is king” saying may have originated were one-way communication channels. In other words, they were channels that generally gave your organization a “mouth” (e.g. television, radio, billboards, etc.). However, today’s most effective and efficient marketing channels have mouths and ears. That is, they provide a means of supplying feedback for the organization in addition to being soapboxes (e.g. social media, peer review sites, email, etc.).  Thus, it makes sense that the driving force in cultivating a desired behavior may have evolved to be more about linking up with an individual by way of a shared passion or situation than about an organization itself.

In other words, content is not necessarily about your audience. Cultivating connectivity, however, breeds and helps to strengthen a relationship with your brand and organization. Connectivity happens when an organization presents a passion or platform that resonates with a potential constituent. It’s about both the organization and the potential constituent. It’s the passion/subject/topic/mission/sentiment that bonds (or interests) the constituent to what your organization stands for.

 

3) Connectivity is necessarily relevant (Content can be irrelevant)

Connectivity is definitionally personal in that it is depends on something being of personal interest to an individual.  That  means that connectivity is necessarily relevant. Content, on the other hand, risks self-orientation that may not answer one of the most important questions that communicators should ask themselves from the perspective of potential constituents when they put out content: “So what?”

 

4) Connectivity is prerequisite for action (Content can operate in isolation)

Remember (because I mention it in nearly every post): Your organization can sometimes determine importance, but the market always determines relevance. In other words, you can talk…but unless people are connected to what you’re saying, nobody may be listening. Simply put: Without connectivity, nobody cares about your organization.

Connectivity is a prerequisite to action (e.g. signing a petition, securing a donor, summoning support, selling a ticket). Content, however, can easily operate in isolation if it isn’t thoughtful and/or doesn’t inspire connectivity.

 

5) Content can be the bridge that provides a pathway for connectivity (but if connectivity is not present then your content is pointless)

This is where connectivity emerges as the true “king” in today’s environment. Certainly, content is critical. Arguably, there could be no connectivity without content. However (and this is where folks are getting confused), there can be a great deal of content without connectivity.  Not all content is connective.

Connectivity that’s created through a shared interest in a topic, idea, mission, purpose, or sentiment aligned with your organization’s brand and values is powerful.  Otherwise, your content will likely fall on deaf ears…and certainly not inspire engagement and supportive behaviors

 

6) Connectivity is about your whole organization and its mission (Content is viewed as marketing jargon)

Because “content” tends to fall under the conceptual categorization of one-way communication, the idea of “creating content” often falls to the marketing or public relations department. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But what IS a bad thing is when people “not my job” content creation. Today, communication and content creation is an every-department job.  Worse yet, the problem of silo-ing the important work of creating connectivity is often exacerbated within organizations due to some staff members’ ridiculous associations with the word “digital.”

 

Connectivity can be sparked when the content being communicated communicated is deeply-rooted within your organization and mission. It may seem strange to some leaders, but the ins and outs of your day and your passions matter to your audiences. Often, to audiences, the transparent, unvarnished insights of how and why you do what you do in pursuit of your mission is every bit as important as what you are doing.

There’s a reason why marketing messages increasingly perform poorly in terms of engagement: People want to know what’s really going on…not simply receive your sales pitch (which, frequently, is the charge of the marketing department).  The most connective content often comes from other departments who represent the core of what you do. The marketing team’s best role is strategically making the balance of your organization’s content accessible (i.e. inspiring connections).

 

Let’s stop aiming “to content” and instead aim to connect.

If you supply content, they will come? Nope. Not necessarily.

If you supply connectivity, they will come? It’s much more likely.

At our best, our organizations do more than provide education…even more than provide memorable experiences in the case of visitor-serving organizations.  We provide and facilitate meaningful interaction – connectivity.  By connecting people to people, people to places, and people to ideas, we transcend mere content and provide pathways to engagement.  People – not artifacts – change the world.

Content isn’t dead, but connectivity assuredly is king. 

Long live the king.

 

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

Posted on by colleendilen in Big ideas, Branding, Community Engagement, Marketing, Museums, Nonprofit Marketing, Nonprofits, Public Management, Social Change, Social Media, Words of Wisdom 4 Comments

The Real Reason Some Nonprofits Stink at “Digital” (And Why It Is Getting Worse)

Dilbert vagueness plan

Within some organizations, “going digital” is causing more problems than it’s solving. This isn’t because of the people who work in digital. It’s because of the people who don’t.

I’ve posted briefly on the dangers of separating “digital” and “marketing,” but this topic arose quite explicitly on the very first day of the annual MuseumNext conference last month and was inspired by a presentation from museum pro, Koven J. Smith. (Sidenote to make good on a promise:  the slides from my keynote at MuseumNext are available here.)  Though the seeds of this article blossomed at a museum-oriented conference, the threat is relevant for many nonprofit organizations and businesses in general.

“Are you saying that ideally nobody in museums should have “digital” in their title?” one person asked in regard to a point in Koven’s talk. He paused for barely a moment. “Yes,” he stated simply.

This idea was a small part of his argument (check out more of his rich thought-fuel here), but I think he’s onto something big…something that I observe everyday in my work with well-intentioned nonprofit organizations: We are breeding a culture of misunderstanding around the important role of “digital” in the future of our organizations and, frankly, it imperils the vibrancy of the very future that we are trying to ensure. “Digital” has been allowed to become an “other” (i.e. “not within my scope of work” and/or “something I don’t ‘get’”) for certain individuals in certain organizations, and, like most “others,” digital (as a concept) is misunderstood, abused, and used as a scapegoat for an organization’s cultural and structural shortcomings.

Dramatic? Maybe…but until we solve this issue, how can organizations steeped in these misunderstandings remain relevant and thrive in the future? Here’s why conceptually separating “digital” – as the rest of the organization understands it – is a problem that is making it harder for nonprofits to succeed.

 

1) It constantly reaffirms that “digital” is about platforms or technological skillsets and not about people (and it actually IS all about people)

Digital marketing and marketing are one in the same – they are both about people and behavior. Likewise, digital fundraising and fundraising are synonymous in successful organizations. Again, they are both about people and behavior. Digital touch can be as powerful in inspiring audiences as physical touch.  “Digital” is a way of communicating and connecting, not “knowing java” or “mastering Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm.” Sure, those skills may have value in the digital world, but they aren’t the point of “being digital.” Communication goals on real-time, digital platforms should serve the exact same purpose and mission as the rest of the institution.

An online donor is still a donor. For visitor-serving organizations, a website visitor is still a visitor (a person connecting with your brand and mission). The difference is the platform (“connection point”), and the goal is the same as “in real life.”  Digital – when it is used with audiences – IS “real life” and organizations will benefit from treating it as such.

 

2) Believing “digital” is about technology instead of people and behavior breeds a desire to simply translate real life to the digital realm (and that is generally a bad idea and waste of resources)

This, too, was a very popular topic of conversation amongst the thought leaders at MuseumNext: The very real-time nature of digital platforms necessitates different behaviors online than would take place in similar offline situations. For instance, a businessman may not check out your collections (if you’re a museum, for instance) at 10am in his pajamas “IRL.”  But, he can do so digitally…and that changes how we need to think about collections, engagement, social care, image rights, accessibility, membership retention, donor cultivation, and donor discovery. It’s not a one-way track wherein we simply “copy and paste” what’s onsite onto the web. That’s not engaging and it misses opportunities. If we didn’t deeply believe that “digital” was aligned more closely with technological skillsets than brand strategy, then we probably wouldn’t still be making these mistakes (i.e. posting our collections to the web or starting a simple blog, patting ourselves on the back for it, and wondering why nobody engages with it.)

 

3) It excuses leaders for being out of touch with the market (which is a glaring sign of bad leadership)

To paraphrase another point made at MuseumNext: It’s okay (and maybe even cute) if your grandmother doesn’t know what Twitter is or how exactly it is used. It’s absolutely NOT okay for today’s leaders, fundraisers, curators, and administrators to not be minimally facile with Twitter, Facebook and basic platforms or means of modern day engagement. Ignorance isn’t cute. It makes you less qualified for your job.

A basic facility with engagement platforms doesn’t mean everyone needs to be tweeting up a storm 24/7 – but if someone claiming a position of influence or leadership doesn’t understand what Twitter is, its benefit as a social force, or how people use it, then you’re dealing with a willfully ignorant, disconnected person. Good tip for organizations whose solvency depends on making connections with the market: Don’t hire people who live in holes.

Tough love moment (which I’ll admit may be funny because I’m an energetic, camp counselor type): I’m talking to you, people who say “digital just isn’t my thing” and write it off as something that isn’t worth your time to minimally understand. You sound stupid. Personally, finance isn’t my innate passion – but I’m a professional, functioning adult and, as such, I make an effort to understand the basics of how the world around me works.   There are no excuses for choosing ignorance and disconnection – especially for people in the nonprofit realm who often claim “education” and “engagement” as their raisons d’être.

 

4) It makes digital teams a dumping ground for nebulous projects

Koven Smith MuseumNext It’s difficult to read, but Koven‘s slide references a quote that was made jokingly, but may be indicative of a larger point: “If my co-workers say, ‘I don’t get this,’ it’s automatically in the digital department.”

When the digital department becomes a dumping ground for all things tech-oriented, an opportunity is lost. “Digital” is not necessarily the same as “IT.” Again, it’s about people, strategy, engagement, and utilizing new platforms in creative ways. When “digital” devolves into a language that certain employees cannot speak or a thing that they’re allowed not to understand, they become more removed from the world that we live in. That excuses and further cultivates an out-of-touch team… and that could be deadly for the future of your organization.

Does this mean everyone needs to run out and learn code? Again, no. Not even a little bit. But join the conversation and start thinking more strategically about organizational goals and creative engagement. It’s okay if you don’t know CSS (of course), but understand what the CSS is trying to achieve.

5) It silos marketers from content (which makes it harder to make connections to audiences)

“Digital” often resides somewhere around marketing within organizations – and that’s good! But if “digital” is considered too much of an “other,” then it forces web engagement teams to operate on their own. Social media is an every-department job, and often, creative engagement is as well. Marketers have no connective content without the aid of other departments. Basically, if we conceptually divide “digital” from the strategic functions of the organization, then we lose the very benefit of being “digital” – creating connections to people and creating meaning that will inspire a desired behavior (e.g. donation, visitation, participating in a beach clean-up, etc.).

 

Basically, when people in organizations stubbornly section out “digital” as something associated simply with technological skillsets, they are admitting to being out of touch with the very people that they are trying to serve. (P.S. Museum visitors and most bigger nonprofit donors for other kinds of organizations profile as “super-connected” with broadband access at home, work, and/or on mobile). When it comes to the inevitable pace of innovation, there is no comfort in yesterday.

If you don’t care to “get” digital, then get out of the way. Your organization is trying to effectively serve a social mission and it has important work to do.  

 

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

Posted on by colleendilen in Big ideas, Community Engagement, Education, Leadership, Management, Marketing, Museums, Nonprofit Marketing, Nonprofits, Public Management, Public Service Motivation, Social Change, Social Media, Technology, The Future, Words of Wisdom 4 Comments

There Is No Mission Without Money: Why Cultural Organizations Need To Get Smart About Pricing Practices

museum admission line

This article concludes a four-part series intended to help visitor-serving organizations understand and respond to emerging trends that will impact their financial and mission-related goals. Learn more about the series here. 

Austerity measures and the loss of heretofore “reliable” funding mechanisms pitched many European cultural organizations into a tenuous financial state and catalyzed a conversation concerning the sustained solvency of visitor-serving enterprise worldwide. In an increasingly competitive market where volume-based strategies (such as an ever-increasing attendance) are less likely remedies to the new economic reality that emphasizes earned revenues, 2014 will mark the year when organizations will need to “get smart” about leveraging data to develop intelligent, efficient price indices. In turn, analysis of an organization’s pricing structure will likely – and necessarily – foster additional discussion concerning the creation of more effective affordable access programming.

Nonprofits are increasingly competing with for-profit organizations as private companies capitalize on shifts in market behavior toward supporting social causes. The market – and especially millennials – are also increasingly sector-agnostic, meaning that simply being a nonprofit doesn’t necessarily indicate to audiences that your organization is providing more social value than a private company.   This is one of the reasons why visitor-serving organizations that highlight their mission outperform museums that market themselves primarily as attractions. 

It’s time to pause and think about your organization’s relevance – and relevance is determined by the market and the support that your organization is able to summon. In short order, museums that cannot survive a “natural selection” and appeal to audiences will sink due to lack of support (relevance), while those that remain solvent and vital (while also pursuing their mission), will enjoy sustained success.

 

1) Here’s why your organization needs to think about revenue and pricing right now (and more than ever before):

 

A) In general, fewer people may be attending your organization because of negative substitution of traditional visitors so increasing attendance may prove challenging in the near-term.

Visitor-serving organizations’ (VSOs) “historic” visitors are leaving the market at a faster rate than new high-propensity visitors are entering the market, creating a negative substitution phenomenon that does not paint a bright future (or present, for that matter) for VSOs. In fact, for every one historic HPV that leaves the market, they are being replaced by 0.989 “new” high-propensity visitors. That may sound like a small difference, but these people add up! Keep up your hard work reaching your traditional audiences and – for no fault of your own – negative substitution factors would suggest that an organization currently serving one million annual visitors will attract 946,000 visitors five years from now (that is 54,000 fewer people, and a likely corresponding decline in membership and program participation). This troubling “glide path” also considers that you’ll be doing everything that you can do to meet your current audience’s needs, and continue to market to them like exceptional rockstars! This data suggests that the key to long-term organizational solvency is to evolve our engagement strategies to include your emerging high-propensity visitors.

The good news: If museums begin to target and cultivate new audiences now, we should start to observe a broad attendance turnaround in year 2019 as emerging audiences (such as English as Second Language households) continue to acculturate into the “mainstream” market and if millennials (who will dominate the market in terms of number and purchasing power) have been engaged by VSOs. But the attendance trend still stands: In spite of overall population growth and even if your organization does its very best and starts evolving right now (as you should in order to get things back up when the market is ripe around 2019), there’s a good chance that your attendance numbers may flatten out these next few years.

 

B) Expensive special exhibits are often financial drains when compared to the potential alternative uses of these same funds.

Despite clear data that utilizing special exhibits to cultivate visitation is an ineffective long-term strategy and has particularly costly and detrimental consequences for organizations, many VSOs (and museums, in particular), get wrapped up in this bad, bad practice when times get tight.

In my world, we refer to organizations that prioritize special exhibits over building affinity for permanent collections as committing “blockbuster suicide.” And – though I won’t throw any organizations under the bus by mentioning their names – I’ll bet that you can think of an organization or two that has “committed suicide” in this way and is now in quite a financial pickle.  These museums train even their closest constituents to wait for expensive exhibits in order to motivate a return visit. Not only is this plan ineffective and ridiculously short-sighted, but it’s also very expensive.

In an economy that increasingly relies on maximizing earned revenues from a finite audience, the margin of financial success is very small. Many organizations cannot afford expensive vanity projects that do little to improve net revenues but add significant costs to their financial model.  Alternative uses of funds that focus on improving the visitor experience frequently realize better returns than the costs to actualize a “special” exhibit.  While many organizations have become very astute at calculating per capita revenues, it may also be wise to similarly calculate the per capita operating costs attendant to serving your visitors.  We reliably observe that exhibits increase per capita operating costs at a level that exceeds any short-term increase in per capita revenues.  In other words, there is little evidence to recommend the viability of special exhibits as a sustainable revenue maximization strategy.

 

C) Visitor-serving organizations that discount to increase word of mouth and drive attendance experience the backlash of negative reputational equities.

What about social media? Can’t we use that to drive attendance? Yes, data suggest that utilizing social media to increase reputation in order to drive attendance is effective and indeed you should! However, when times get tight financially, we see many organizations resort to offering discounts via social media…and offering discounts via social media is a big mistake. This practice cultivates a “market addiction” that has long-term, negative consequences on the health of your organization.

Moreover, the more steeply you discount, the less likely visitors are to return. (Here’s the data again). People also tend to value what they pay for. Those who visit your organization at a discount are also statistically less satisfied with their experience and report more negative reviews than those who come in at full price (Hey, you devalued your brand first!). So much for crossing your fingers for better word of mouth as the result of a discount…

 

 

2) Now look at how most organizations decide how to price for admission:

Many organizations price their admissions based on what we at IMPACTS have termed “unintentional collusion.” Take a look back in time to your most recent conversation about pricing. The origin of your pricing framework probably went something like this:

IMPACTS unintentional collusion pricing

This happens because organizations misunderstand a fundamental principle of pricing.

Museums actually have different reputational equities and thus differing values that the market is willing to pay for a unique experience. If you’re a zoo that is charging the same admission as a nearby children’s museum (or vice versa), then your organization may be ignorantly “leaving money on the table” by relying on the comparative price of a neighboring or “like” organization. Each museum actually has an optimal price index (often best derived as the result of data-based price analyses) wherein the optimal price to visit an organization maximizes revenues without demeaning attendance potential. Along these same lines (and for the reasons stated above), I’d like to offer up a concept that is increasingly critical for the long-term health and vitality of many VSOs:

The amount of revenue that your organization secures is more important than the amount of attendees that walk through your door.

Many executive leaders and board members have a shockingly hard time understanding this necessary – and completely pragmatic – evolution in visitor-serving “business” practices. Many have been hardwired over time to think of success as the number of people that walk through the door. (Why do we even think this way anyway?! It’s an outdated preoccupation with a relatively meaningless nonprofit output.)

The most direct and savvy way to reap the benefits of your labors cultivating evangelists and working to increase your reputation?  Utilizing it to increase your revenue. And when attendance plateaus at the time that your brand is at its most premium, the most efficient way to do this is to adjust your admission price accordingly.

 

3) Optimized pricing will necessitate conversations about affordable access programming that serves lower-income and other underserved constituencies (in other words, programming that actually works)

If your organization has been value-advantaged (“leaving money on the table”) when it comes to your admission price, then raising the price of tickets may, indeed, increase the barrier for low-income households to attend your organization. Because affordable access is often a key part of many organizations’ missions – or even required in order to be eligible for certain grants and government funding opportunities –  getting smarter about pricing will mean getting smarter about affordable access programs as well.

Experience at IMPACTS has shown time and time again that many affordable access programs are extremely inefficient. Specifically, many affordable access programs achieve startlingly little in terms of providing targeted benefit to low-income households and, instead, allow discounted access to those who would otherwise be able and willing to pay full price. These programs are neither capturing low-income households, nor are they increasing revenues so that museums may more effectively and efficiently fulfill their missions. They are glorified discount programs that organizations offer so that they may check off a symbolic box of “affordable access.”

As visitor-serving organizations realize the need to pay attention to pricing and maximize their investments, there will be incentive to re-evaluate affordable access programs so that they actually work. Namely, that they provide an opportunity for low-income households and other targeted underserved audiences to visit the organization without concurrently discounting admission for those who would be willing to pay full price for your unique experience.

All of this is a long way of saying that nonprofit organizations are finally going to have to think about money and stop defending outdated nonprofit dogmas that tend to demonize revenue as a “necessary evil.”  Museums, zoos, aquariums, performing arts and other cultural organizations are big business – accounting for $135 billion in annual economic activity and more than 4.1 million jobs.  Instead of considering volume of visitation as a key performance indicator, we ought to instead focus on meaningful outcomes and recognize that our collective ambitions to achieve social good require revenues.  In other words, there is no mission without money. 

 

*Photo credit: Telegraph, AP (The photo choice has nothing to do with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s pricing!)

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Posted on by colleendilen in Arts, Big ideas, Branding, Community Engagement, Exhibits, Management, Museums, Nonprofit Marketing, Nonprofits, Public Management, Public Service Motivation, Social Change, Social Media, The Future, Words of Wisdom 2 Comments

Finding: Museums That Highlight Mission Financially Outperform Museums That Market Primarily as Attractions (DATA)

seafood watch

This article kicks off a four-part series intended to help visitor-serving organizations understand and respond to emerging trends that will impact their ability to achieve their financial and mission-related goals. Learn more about the series here. 

Data suggest a “new” draw to your organization that is now key to engaging both visitation and donor support. Well, actually, it’s not “new” – it’s the reason why your organization exists: Your mission. How credibly the market perceives your organization in terms of your ability to effectively deliver on your mission has a very strong positive correlation with your organization’s financial performance.

An analysis of the recent financial performance of a large and representative number of visitor-serving organizations coupled with the public perceptions of these same organizations reveals an outcome that may not be surprising for those who keep tabs on consumer behaviors: Organizations perceived as “best-in-class” in terms of mission delivery reliably outperform organizations that rely more on their reputations as “attractions” when it comes to their financial bottom lines.  In other words, mission and business are not in conflict – being superlative at your mission is good business!

There are three overall findings relating to the “mission is good business” trend:

1) Organizations perceived as more credible actors in terms of fulfilling their mission financially outperform peer organizations whose reputational equities relate primarily to their roles as attractions

IMPACTS collects and analyzes attitudinal and awareness data for 224 visitor-serving organizations in the US (and that may even include your own). This data and analysis informs the development of key performance indicators that reveal trends and correlations affecting visitor-serving enterprise.  The charts below indicate the relationship between 35 visitor-serving organizations’ financial performance in terms of “revenue efficiency” coupled with the market’s perception of these same organizations’ “reputational equities.”  (In the interest of maintaining appropriate confidences, I’ve “anonymized” the findings)

First, a few quick definitions (with advance apologies for the analytical jargon):

Revenue Efficiency: A composite metric contemplative of onsite-related earned and contributed revenues (e.g. admission, contributions, grants, membership, programs) contemplated relative to the cost to deliver onsite services (i.e. operating expenses) and the number of persons served onsite.  Generally, a more “revenue efficient” organization exhibits more favorable financial key performance indicators (e.g. greater revenues, greater net operating surplus) and reduced financial volatility than does a less revenue efficient organization.  Data informing the IMPACTS revenue efficiency calculation are commonly available in an organization’s financial statements, annual reports, and Form 990 filings.

Reputational Equities: A composite metric contemplative of numerous visitor perceptions such as reputation, trust, authority, credibility, and satisfaction that collectively indicate the market’s opinion of an organization’s relative efficacy in delivering its mission.  As mentioned previously, IMPACTS collects perceptual data from 224 visitor-serving organizations in the US to inform its reputational equities calculation.

KYOB aquariums reputation and revenue

Aquariums are a good place to start because (a) in addition to tackling the mission of inspiring audiences, they are also increasingly engaging audiences on broader conservation issues; and (b) aquariums tend to be more reliant on earned revenues than their museum and zoo brethren who may have greater public funding and/or endowment support. In short, absent the safety net of large endowments and government appropriations, aquariums are among the most market-driven businesses in the nonprofit sector, and translating positive reputational equities has an enormous financial benefit for these organizations (and, in inverse, lessened reputational perceptions bear tremendous risk to an organization’s bottom line).

Generally, revenue efficiency follows reputational equities (so working to increase reputational equities tends to positively affect revenue efficiency). Thus, we can reasonably surmise that year 2014 may bring continued challenges for Aquariums H, I, K and L should they choose not to prioritize remedy for their lacking perceptions as credible actors when it comes to delivering on their missions.

KYOB zoos reputation and revenues

Much like aquariums, the zoos that are perceived as credible actors in regard to their mission achieve the greatest revenue efficiency. Again, in the example indicated by the assessed zoos, the relationship between reputational equities as a predictor of financial success is clear and compelling.

KYOB museums reputation and revenues

Again, when segmented by museums (in the above example, all of the assessed organizations would be rightfully classified as either “art” or “natural history” museums), the trend holds true: Those museums perceived by the market as the most esteemed in terms of fulfilling the promise of their missions achieve the greatest financial performance.

You’ll notice that out of the 35 organizations represented in this assessment, Museum H is the only organization that does not indicate the relationship between reputational equities and financial performance – and, even in this exception to the trend, the difference is very slight.

 

2) Your organization must increasingly be MORE THAN an attraction but it still must be an entertaining attraction.

The reputational equity metric is contemplative of overall satisfaction and data indicate that providing an entertaining experience is an extremely important component of visitor satisfaction. To be clear: The data do not support abandoning efforts to deliver an entertaining experience in the hopes of enhancing your organization’s reputation as a credible, mission-related authority. Instead, data support efforts to underscore your social mission and demonstrate topic expertise alongside location-based content to help drive visitation and provide insight into the entertaining and inspiring experiences that you provide.

Simply put, people want to visit organizations that are more than just attractions.

 

3) The importance of underscoring reputational equities is likely to grow as millennials increasingly comprise a greater percentage of museum audiences

The analysis indicating the relationship between favorable reputational equities and financial performance for visitor-serving organizations aligns with multiple findings concerning the influence of social missions (in business-speak, think “corporate social responsibility”) on consumer purchasing behaviors. Namely, people – and especially millennials – are more likely to purchase products that support a mission.

The data has long suggested that millennials are particularly public-service motivated, and as Gen Y has become a more powerful market segment (indeed, millennials are the largest generation in human history), organizations have experienced a “market shift” in support of organizations that support “social good.”

That sounds great for educational, conservation, and cultural organizations such as museums, aquariums, and zoos, right? Well…maybe not…especially because millennials are generally sector agnostic. Millennials tend to support organizations and businesses that appeal to them regardless of whether or not there is 501(c)3 designation involved. (In other words, while the IRS may care about your tax-exempt status, the market increasingly does not!) This means that in terms of securing support, many nonprofits are “competing” directly with for-profits for the market’s time, attention, and resources.

Organizations that have marketed themselves too heavily as attractions without underscoring their mission and social impact have lost a valuable opportunity to differentiate themselves as superlative to a critical demographic. Potentially worse yet, they may have built their reputations based on motivations that millennials don’t care about. Case-in-point: Take a look at what millennials want out of a zoo, aquarium, or museum membership compared to older generations.

Organizations that the market favorably perceives as more than “just an attraction” tend to financially outperform organizations perceived primarily as attractions.  Money follows reputational equities. Zoos, aquariums, and museums that have been trying to “sell” the wrong brand attributes may find themselves struggling even more in the future as emerging audiences emphasize mission and social impact as vital attributes of the relationship that they seek with the organizations that they support.  Year 2013 was only the tip of the iceberg. Perceptions are changing and the data affirms a strong, encouraging trend:

Finally, it’s cool to be kind.  More than that, it’s plain good business.

National Aquarium cleaning debris

National Aquarium

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Posted on by colleendilen in Big ideas, Generation Y, Management, Marketing, Museums, Nonprofit Marketing, Nonprofits, Public Management, Public Service Motivation, Social Change, The Future, Words of Wisdom Leave a comment

Most Popular Posts of 2013 for Nonprofits and Museums

KYOB best wishes for 20142014 is very quickly approaching and the Internet is overflowing with “Best of 2013” lists. There’s a good reason for that: the market generally likes them (and not to mention, they are easy to create). Because I write Know Your Own Bone in order to provide nonprofits and visitor-serving organizations with intelligence regarding market behaviors and perceptions, I thought it only fitting to share your (a rather focused tribe of industry leaders) favorite KYOB posts of 2013.

It was a great year on this end! I became a part-time expat living in London (here’s the (perhaps surprising) reason why), the need for organizations to engage with audiences on digital platforms heightened, and the call for organizations to utilize the type of “big data” that I have access to at IMPACTS increased, resulting in a big, busy year of incredibly rewarding work! I hope that 2013 was a great year for each of you as well – both personally and professionally.

Thank you for reading, engaging with, and passing along Know Your Own Bone among your organizations and circles of industry professionals. I am constantly amazed by your passion – and I am honored to aim to provide market insight for such a thoughtful and hard-working bunch of nonprofiteers! I’m thrilled by the prospect that these posts may be providing value for your friends, colleagues, fellow board members and executives, and even college and graduate students. I hope that my work being a nonprofit/for-profit double-agent has been of value!

I’ll stop gushing and get to the good stuff. Here are KYOB’s most viewed and passed-along posts of 2013. These are the posts that my analytics suggest you emailed around the most, shared with your friends and colleagues, and got the most attention within graduate programs and professional development curriculums:

 

1. Six Sad Truths that I Have Learned as a Millennial Donor

“Hi nonprofit executives and board members. My name is Colleen Dilenschneider. I’m a millennial donor and I exist.”

 

2. Entertainment Vs. Education: How Your Audience Really Rates the Museum Experience (DATA)

“In terms of maximizing visitor satisfaction, VSOs may not truly understand “where their bread is buttered,” and this misunderstanding may result in serious financial repercussions.”

 

3. Three Ways The Role of Your Website Has Changed. Is Your Nonprofit Keeping Up?

“There seems to be a misconception that nonprofit websites are immune to the evolution attendant to all other digital platforms…Here are three, outdated ways that some organizations still view the role of their respective websites – and how that old role has long since evolved.

 

4. Why Your Audience Is Not Buying Tickets Online (And Why it May Be Your Fault)

“While you may think that you’re making life easier for your potential visitors by selling tickets online, many organizations actually make the act of purchasing a ticket a more expensive and/or more cumbersome process for their would-be visitors… Here are four common conditions that may create needless barriers to your market purchasing a ticket online.”

 

5. Leisure Activity Motivation: How People Decide to Attend Your Museum or Visitor-Serving Organization (DATA)

“Data indicate that an organization’s own, internal offerings generally matter less to visitors than does the market’s perceptions of the surrounding macro-environment when it comes to motivating leisure visitation.”

 

6. Information Overload: How Case Study Envy Stifles Nonprofit Success

“Too many nonprofits seem to distract themselves from opportunities by making inappropriate comparisons between other organizations and their own… When considering case studies and the operations of other nonprofit organizations, it may help to keep in mind the following four items.”

 

7. Does Your Nonprofit Believe This Myth? The Best Indicator That an Organization is Bad at Social Media

“The easiest way to spot an organization that completely misunderstands the role of social media is to look for those boasting that it’s cheap or free. It’s not. And it hasn’t been for a while now.” Here’s why.

 

8. Marketing Your Nonprofit to Audiences That ACTUALLY Matter

“Many nonprofit executives are collecting information and doing everything in their power to keep up with nonprofit-dubbed best practices….and, perhaps that’s why a lot of them are still flailing…and why many will ultimately fail.”

 

9. Five Key Reasons Why Social Media Strategies Are Different Than Traditional Marketing Strategies

“We have a new platform that didn’t exist in the past – and it has changed a whole heck of a lot about how organizations “do” Communications…  perhaps because it has so drastically changed how the market views Communications.”

 

10. Social Media Degrees: The New Fool’s Gold for Nonprofits

“Here are the five attributes that organizations should try to avoid like the plague and that, quite remarkably, seem inherent to the type of person who may choose to pursue a degree or ‘certificate’ in social media.”

 

Cheers to an incredible 2014 for all of your nonprofits, museums, zoos, aquariums, theaters, symphonies, and other visitor-serving organizations aiming to inspire audiences! May this next year bring you and your organizations much success.

Thanks again for following along!

 

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Posted on by colleendilen in Big ideas, Blogging, Lessons Learned, Management, Marketing, Museums, Nonprofit Marketing, Nonprofits, Public Management, Social Change, Social Media, The Future, Words of Wisdom 2 Comments

A Cure For Point of Reference Sensitivity: Why Visitor Satisfaction For Your Nonprofit Is Lower Than It Could Be

opinion_of_our_productIMPACTS data indicate that visitors to zoos, aquariums and museums (and other visitor-serving organizations such as historical sites, theaters, symphonies, etc.) who have never previously visited any other like organization rate their experiences 18.1% higher in terms of overall satisfaction and 14.8% higher in terms of value for cost of admission than visitors who had previously visited any other zoo, aquarium, museum, etc. Further, as the number and frequency of one’s visits increases, a visitor’s level of satisfaction and perceived cost for value of admission tends to decrease.

This is just fine if your art museum (for instance) is the first art museum that your every guest has ever visited, but it has a host of potential repercussions on your organization’s bottom line (like tackling a social mission and achieving long-term financial sustainability) if you’re the second art museum someone visits. Or third, or fourth, or fifth….

This phenomenon is known as “Point of Reference Sensitivity” and suggests that the market’s expectations are being constantly reframed by recent experiences. In short, as the market gains familiarity with an experience, it becomes increasingly harder to “impress” the market.

So, what can be done to minimize the deleterious effects of Point of Reference Sensitivity? [I will henceforth refer to Point of Reference Sensitivity as “PoRS” because a) that’s just the kind of relationship that we’ve developed and b) it sounds a bit like a disease, which may be appropriate.] PoRS is an important consideration for visitor-serving organizations with regard to key performance indicators, and not even the very best visitor-serving organizations in the world are immune to its negative effects. The commonality of PoRS, however, does not mean that it is unimportant to your own organization’s reputational performance. Just because many other organizations suffer from PoRS doesn’t “even the playing field.” The market – not other organizations – are the ultimate arbiters of your organization’s success…and data suggest that despite your best efforts (great exhibits, well-trained staff, thoughtful access programs), you are still likely to experience a decline in satisfaction over time from a sizable portion of your audience simply because folks visited other organizations before they walked in your door.

The good news is that strategic prioritization and effective PR/communications practices may provide both prophylaxis and remedy against even the most stubborn case of PoRS.

What causes PoRS in visitors?

Qualitative research related to these findings suggest that PoRS may be due, in part, to a “been there, done that” mentality that tends to accompany repeat visitation to “like” organizations. The research suggests that this sentiment stems from a perceptual belief that “like” organizations (think of one zoo compared to another zoo, or one art museum compared to another art museum) share an elemental “sameness” that challenges the market’s ability to differentiate the unique attributes of individual organizations. Further exacerbating PoRS is the premium that we tend to psychologically ascribe to “firsts” – first love, first car, first baseball game, first kiss. When someone first visits a zoo, it may be the first time that they have ever seen live animals up close, but upon visiting a second zoo, there is a loss of “newness of experience.” There may be other factors that contribute to PoRS: Perhaps the first zoo visited is in an individual’s hometown and is a point of civic pride. Perhaps the newness of the experience is matched with a memory of sharing the experience with a favorite friend or family member, thus creating a unique, personal remembrance that is difficult to duplicate and impossible to top.

How is PoRS hurting your organization?

Reputation is a leading driver of visitation, and reviews from trusted resources (such as word of mouth recommendations from friends, peer review sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor, and even social media) are the strongest contributing factors to building your reputation (12.85x greater than any paid advertising channel). Aside from the more obvious impacts of lower guest satisfaction metrics and potential declines in the likelihood of repeat visitation, PoRS may also affect your organization’s word of mouth value. This may result in securing fewer visitors, fewer opportunities to cultivate donors with affinity for your organization, and fewer evangelists to amplify and promulgate your organization’s mission.

How can your organization overcome PoRS?

Data based on visitor feedback suggest that the solution may be very simple in theory: Be more unique. One way to do this is to utilize social media and other communication resources to underscore what differentiates your organization as a unique experience. Focusing more on your mission – as opposed to your existence as a “destination” – may help. An emphasis on mission-related content may allow your organization to increase its relevance beyond being a visitor-serving destination on real-time, online platforms by more actively defining the public perception of your museum. If your organization can cultivate a reputation as “more than just a visitor-serving organization” prior to a guest’s arrival, then your organization may also improve its satisfaction-related metrics.

It seems that our mothers were onto something – “You’re judged by the company that you keep.” PoRS is particularly insidious amongst the perceptual middle ranks of visitor-serving organizations – those places that are so “destination-focused” in their communications that they end up positioning themselves as “just another museum” (or zoo, or aquarium, or botanical garden, etc.) The overcome may be in elevating your organization from the sameness of a sector by differentiating not only your experience, but by the means by which you achieve your mission (the impacts that you have and the differences that you make).

As stakeholders for visitor-serving organizations, we tend to believe that the entities that we serve (or support, or visit) are unique and superlative.  Our challenge – and, indeed, our opportunity – is to similarly articulate these differences to our visitors so that they, too, consider us as more than a place. What makes your organization unique is probably not the artifacts that you house, the collections that you keep, or the building within which you keep them. What makes you unique is the outcomes that you achieve by fulfilling your mission… and communicating these outcomes is the best defense against a nasty case of PoRS.

 

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Posted on by colleendilen in Branding, Community Engagement, Exhibits, Management, Marketing, Museums, Nonprofit Marketing, Nonprofits, Public Management, Social Change, Social Media, Words of Wisdom 1 Comment

A Hint for the Future of Museums: Europe is Looking to US Aquariums

In my line of work (developing predictive data) and my spot in that line (analyzing and applying data on behalf of organizations equally concerned with social and fiscal bottom lines), opportunity often comes from keeping a pulse on the market. Along these lines, I’ve recently experienced shifts in my professional world that may be illustrative of the future of museums and the broader nonprofit community.

"7 hours and 57 minutes until I am officially based out of Chicago AND London! Let's do this!"

“7 hours, 57 minutes until I’m officially based out of Chicago AND London! Let’s do this!” (4/1/13)

In April, I officially joined the ranks of part-time expatriates (and long-haul commuters) when IMPACTS asked me to help open our London office while also maintaining a “home base” in Chicago.  Preparations for our London office enabled me to hire a Digital Marketing Manager to provide additional support to our projects, and also challenged me to be more thoughtful about how I could focus my efforts to best serve our clients.  A few months removed from my hop across the pond, I’ve been reliably asked two questions from colleagues, other museum professionals and even friends and family – the answers to which are closely related and may provide interesting insight to the museum industry:

1) Why London?

The obvious answer: proximity. I am in London largely because it is an accessible base for much of the work that IMPACTS is currently performing on behalf of visitor-serving organizations (e.g. museums) throughout the Americas, Europe and the Middle East.

The more interesting answer: market demand in Europe for the American nonprofit business model. You read that right! Any quick glance at the news tells stories of shifting economies that have created an unprecedented struggle for many of Europe’s most treasured museums.  While not-too-long ago many of the elite European institutions might have politely sneered at the suggestion of adopting a more “American model” of doing business (especially “nonprofit business!”), these sentiments are quickly shifting.

The “American model” (as it is colloquially referred to in my dealings) is a euphemism for a visitor-serving business that doesn’t rely on government support (or grants or endowments) and, instead, is a market-driven enterprise whose success hinges on engaging a diverse, sustainable constituency.

In other words, many of the world’s greatest museums – the ones that we Americans revere and admire with a distant and mysterious “otherness” – are looking to U.S. visitor-serving organizations as sources of inspiration, innovation and know-how when it comes to reinventing their business models to best respond to their current economic conditions.

2) Why do you spend so much time working with aquariums?

It’s true. I do find myself increasingly spending more time and energy working closely with aquariums. Here’s the end-game: We have an interest in aquariums because they are often cited by our clients as best-in-class practitioners of the “American model.” (Stick with me, other-types-of-museum folks. I’ll connect the dots…)

IMPACTS works with nearly every form of visitor-serving organization from art museums and symphonies to science centers and botanical gardens, and there’s one thing that we’ve found to be generally true: The market-driven practices developed by aquariums may have the greatest impact and “usability” for exalting the entire visitor-serving industry.  While the role of aquariums as models may seem surprising to many of America’s most venerable museums, the relative esteem with which U.S. aquariums are internationally regarded evidences itself in my work on a daily basis. In fact, the European organizations (including many art museums) that I work with have less interest in the “best practices” of American art museums and, increasingly, more interest in those of American aquariums.

Here’s why.  There are two conditions that make U.S. aquariums of particular interest to the global museum and visitor-serving industry:

 

A) The U.S. aquarium business model is motivated by market demand (and not overly dependent on grants, endowments, or government funding)

This is not to say that aquariums do not seek to obtain grants or secure government appropriations – but, as a group, the chart below indicates that aquariums tend to rely least on contributed and dividend revenues when compared to other types of visitor-serving organizations:

IMPACTS Visitor Serving Organization Earned Revenue

Theoretically, if government funding were to cease on a macro-level tomorrow, aquariums (as well as select museums, theaters, science centers and other more self-reliant organizations) may have the greatest chance of keeping their doors open long-term.

Also, after evaluating a representative sample of 224 U.S.-based visitor-serving organizations, aquariums generally have the smallest endowments relative to their annual operating budgets – perhaps suggesting that aquariums must be particularly attuned to the market since they have less “cushion” in their revenue streams. We see outcomes of this market responsiveness all the time: While some museums are hiring extra grantwriters and expanding their lobbying efforts for funding, many aquariums are hiring social media and online community managers because they understand that digital engagement helps drive attendance. Of course, smart museums also realize this and are hiring these kinds of people, too – but as the chart below illustrates, the lack of a “safety net” places a particular financial imperative on aquariums to be responsive to market opportunities:

IMPACTS - Visitor Serving organization endowment backstop

 

B) Many aquariums regularly invest in active, global, social missions that extend beyond education and research

I can hear you now: “But all museums aim to change the world!” I know. This does not mean that other missions are any less important – simply that many organizations with which I work consider aquariums to be at an interesting intersection between topic expertise and “right now” relevance…particularly when it comes to prominent, controversial issues such as climate change and other environmental topics. In short, while the social missions and operations of aquariums tackle education and research (two critical items that are also common among other, select visitor-serving organizations), they also take up the battle of ocean conservation. The initiatives attendant to this addition are particularly timely, global, and live in a rather elusive “save the world” space.

It’s a seemingly at-odds and extreme combination:  Aquariums may be considered among the most “for profit” of organizations in that they rely heavily on earned revenues, but they also aim to be among the most globally impactful among organizations pursuing active, social missions.

 

I “go deep” in my work with aquariums because helping them evolve and perfect their business model to remain solvent in both fiscal and social terms provides the lessons that help other organizations achieve their similarly aspirational ideals.

I’m intentionally speaking in terms of sector generalities – not all zoos rely on government funding, not every museum lives on its endowment, and, for that matter, not all aquariums are truly bringing their A-game to the “save the ocean” effort. The organizations operating with the objectives of being both market-relevant AND “big mission-serving” (aquarium or not) may be our best models for the future of museums. They can survive on their own, and they can do it while serving a very large-scale social mission.

 

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Posted on by colleendilen in Big ideas, Leadership, Management, Museums, Nonprofit Marketing, Nonprofits, Public Management, Public Service Motivation, Social Change, The Future, Words of Wisdom 3 Comments