Special Exhibits vs. Permanent Collections (DATA)

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Eight Realities To Help You Become A Data-Informed Cultural Organization

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A Quarter of Likely Visitors to Cultural Organizations Are In One Age Bracket (DATA)

Nearly 25% of potential attendees to visitor-serving organizations fall into one, ten-year age bracket. Which generation has the greatest Read more

People Trust Museums More Than Newspapers. Here Is Why That Matters Right Now (DATA)

Actually, it always matters. But data lend particular insight into an important role that audiences want museums to play Read more

The Top Seven Macro Trends Impacting Cultural Organizations

These seven macro trends are driving the market for visitor-serving organizations. Big data helps spot market trends. The data that Read more

The Three Most Overlooked Marketing Realities For Cultural Organizations

These three marketing realities for cultural organizations may be the most urgent – and also the most overlooked. This Read more

Community Engagement

Curating: Everyone’s Doing It

Curating is not just for museums anymore

At the initial rise of social media, everyone was a self-proclaimed guru. Then last summer, everyone hopped on the entrepreneur bandwagon. The newest buzzword making the rounds? Curator.

The popularization of curating is a great thing for museums. It’s also a great thing for nonprofits grappling to describe what they are doing in this people-driven economy.

As Lucy Bernholz describes in her latest blog post, lots of folks are curating nowadays. Or, using curating as the new way to express actions of coordinating, producing, and organizing for public consumption. For example,  Pop!Tech, TED, and TEDx did not produce or organize their talks, Lucy found. Rather, they claimed to have curated them.

A curator is commonly known as a keeper of  cultural heritage, and as a content specialist responsible for an institution’s collections. They are trained specialists with a keen eye toward making content accessible to the public. With this in mind, the desire to curate– or be associated with curating– makes sense. Creating culture, making connections, and getting people to feel connected is a big aim for nonprofit and for-profiteers.

No doubt the word has grown out of the museum flowerpot and taken root in the new way businesses and organizations develop strategic plans. I cannot help but think that this a big step forward for museums, libraries, and archives. The word curator, once solely used in these institutions, created an intellectual barrier between the well-educated staffers, and presumably less-educated museum visitors. As the word becomes popularized, the ivory tower of over-educated museum inaccessibility breaks down. It also puts museums at the front-end of the trend, as they employed curators for decades if not centuries before a for-profit company hired a formal event curator.

Curating has come to mean not just producing, but something of producing for the public. Thus, curating is an effective verb for nonprofits to use that embeds the task of interaction, storytelling, and public understanding.

Maybe we are even changing the word. Maybe, in the future, the word “curating” will be more associated with community engagement than with item arrangement, more connected to social media than to location-based planning, and more overtly focused on the present than the past.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Trends 4 Comments

Nonprofit Management Ideology: Are You Liberal or Conservative?

When discussing the future evolution of the nonprofit sector with colleagues and classmates, I often explain myself and then say, “but that’s coming from a Nonprofit Lefty…”

Everyone wants nonprofit progress, but there are different trains of thought in the nonprofit world about which practices and mentalities will get us there.

Nonprofit right: On one hand there are folks that are set on keeping the sector ideologically separate from the others. They advocate the more conservative and traditional practices that got us to where we are today– such as championing low administration costs, hiring predominately folks who work only for nonprofit organizations or are experts in the field, and drawing out the moral differentiation between the civic sector and private sector. When I think of a nonprofit thought-leader focused on reform and progress from a more “conservative” standpoint, I think of Rosetta Thurman.

Nonprofit left: On the other end of this nonprofit political spectrum, there are organization leaders that favor a more inclusive definition of the nonprofit sector which merges practices with other sectors and approaches each social mission as its own unique battle. This point of view advocates an entirely fresh way of thinking and allows for a complete evolution to something new (if that’s what’s best). For better or worse, this often means taking a lot more risks. Dan Pallotta is a  prime example of a nonprofit thought leader on the left side of the spectrum.

Definitions of the word liberal include broad-mindedness; having political or social views favoring reform and progress, and being not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or tradition.  Though I’m a self-described nonprofit liberal, I don’t always agree with folks like Dan Pallotta.  Ideology reform, however, is at the core of many of my nonprofit beliefs. I believe that:

  • Calculated risks that challenge sector constraints are absolutely necessary and breed progress
  • Publicizing individual nonprofit failures is critical and the benefit to the sector of sharing failures far outweighs individual organization’s potential donor loss for making the mistake
  • High administration costs may be necessary in the future and a sign of competitive, forward-thinking organizations
  • Social change-makers are not just nonprofit workers. Donors and connectors are change-makers as well
  • Business leaders may bring the most innovative ideas to organizations in the future and nonprofit leaders’ skill sets may bring the most innovative ideas to the business world
  • Nonprofits are businesses
  • Social change belongs to all sectors, and intersectoral partnerships– when they aren’t effective market solutions– will be powerful tools for learning and evolution for all sectors
  • Because nonprofits have different missions, they cannot always be grouped together or taught to abide by specific nonprofit management rules
  • We must lower the education barrier for nonprofit management positions
  • Nonprofits must try very hard to attract talent, and that talent will pay off in the end.

More conservative nonprofiteers have their own educated guesses grounded in nonprofit tradition and sector differentiation. And in fact, the conservative ideology has gotten us far. After all, there are over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States- most of which develop and adhere to a more conservative approach because a) it’s tried and true, or b) out of sheer necessity. For one, it’s easier to get foundation funding with low administration costs- and hey, if the system ain’t broken, don’t fix it.

And maybe the system’s not broken… but it can certainly be improved to make organizations more effective and sustainable. This is something both “liberal” and “conservative” nonprofiteers seem to agree upon.

Where do you stand on the nonprofit management ideology spectrum? Do you value the merit of popular nonprofit practices and tradition, or do you believe that the future of nonprofit leadership lies in a more open-minded approach?

*image from ttoes.wordpress.com

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Trends 1 Comment

Museums and Cultural Nonprofits: Social Media Doesn’t Belong to the Marketing Department

Social Media Marketing has become a common practice in the business world, and of course, nonprofits have picked up on the benefits of this kind of marketing, too. More than that, nonprofits are rocking the social media marketing scene.

But in our nonprofit world– which emphasizes the importance of building relationships to secure donors– pairing social media solely with marketing can cause big problems and overlook the benefits available to organizations through this media. Museums, in particular, have a lot to lose when educators, program creators, fundraisers, and even board members or power players say, “Social media? Why, that’s a marketing thing!”

Development Department: social media helps create connections. Social media is mastered by nonprofit organizations because it’s a low-resource way to connect with individuals. While it’s true that word of mouth marketing is the most powerful kind of marketing, and folks on social media share views on organizations through this media, the connections created have the potential to serve as catalysts for donations in the future. Viewing social media as purely a marketing department endeavor means that your museum may leave many connections to go flat because these connections must be built upon (like any relationship) and a marketing department trying to reach a wide audience may not have the capacity to cultivate these individual relationships. Moreover, this relationship cultivation is often thought to be the job of development folks! This is not to say that development must be running social media, but social media (and communications with the marketing department regarding social media) should be important in the development department. One way to get the development department more constructively involved might be for Marketing to hand over a list of folks who have been engaging with the museum through social media, and for Development to follow-up and be sure to cultivate those relationships. There may be opportunities for future funding in these relationships.

Education Department: social media can teach people things. Many museums do a great job of engaging visitors with educational content through social media so that the visitors’ learning doesn’t end when they exit the institution. In fact, this idea of taking the institution home is powerful in building both connections to the organization and to educational content. What happens when the education folks don’t share educational material through social media? An opportunity to continue sparking interest in a topic or idea is lost. What happens in most institutions is that the marketing folks provide the educational content (or at least link to educational content supplied by the education department). This is not a problem– that is, as long as Education is working alongside Marketing to make sure that facts are correct and that cool information is free-flowing. Education must realize that social media can be an extension of the topics discussed at the museum– and a fun way to learn at home! Obviously, to be most effective, educational resources may need to evolve into new technologies and utilize other forms of new media (mobile apps, for example), but social media should be seen by the department as an educational resource offered by the institution, in a sense.

Power Players: social media keeps your organization relevant. Community engagement and community cultivation are gaining more and more ground in conversations and initiatives involving the future of museums. Social media is a step to help do this. Some of the best museums are already onto this fact enough to devote portions of their websites to social media communications. Being active in social media helps break the mental barrier that museums are slow-moving places that idolize the past and have little to do with the present or the future. The current types of social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc) may be trends, but there’s an argument that social media has already changed the way we communicate on the whole. Board members, Vice Presidents, and Presidents may not be doing their organization any favors by letting them fall behind in current communication methods. In fact, social media is generally low resource– why not rise to the top if you can?

Organizations that do not acknowledge the interconnectivity that social media provides among departments may function less efficiently and effectively than organizations that embrace this new way in which much of the world communicates. Social media doesn’t need to leave the Marketing Department (and arguably shouldn’t), but this idea that social media doesn’t play a role in individual departments or the institution as a whole as it relates to the broader community? That, I think, must leave as organizations prepare for the future.

It requires a thought change, or a breaking down of a vertical ladder. In order for social media to work best for museums and cultural nonprofits, then everyone must work together to maximize the resource because it blurs the lines between so many departments. As a whole, businesses are becoming more organic and interconnected. Maybe social media can be the catalyst that brings this kind of organizational change to museums so that we, too, may function more efficiently and reap the benefits of this kind of collaborative culture.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Nonprofit Marketing, Trends 9 Comments

Museum Accessibility: Are Museum Professionals Sending the Right Signals?

Getting this post via e-mail? Click here to see the video.

Check out this video above, which I discovered thanks to Jennifer Souers of MuseoBlogger. Whether you work in a museum or not, it’s sure to bring a little smile to your face– not a warm and cuddly, feel-good smile– but a it’s-funny-because-it’s-true kind of smile. But this little video gives museum professionals something interesting to think about as well.

Sometimes it takes somebody outside of our niche to show us how our tribe/institution/industry is perceived, and this video can provide some insight for folks working in museums and cultural nonprofit organizations. For better or worse, this video shows us how museums and museum professionals are perceived. We must ask ourselves: is this how we want our professions and institutions to be viewed?

Below are some red-flags that emerged for me while watching the video. I’ll call them ‘misconceptions,’ though it could be argued by some that these are not misconceptions at all. If museums are increasingly becoming places for community, let’s make it clear.  If we want folks to be sure these things are misconceptions of museum professionals then let’s do what we can to prove it.

 

Misconception #1: Museum professionals are nothing like normal people. Kim the cat says, “Chances are, the museum people who decide what gets to be put in the museum probably don’t have anything in common with you.” I laughed at this because museum professionals (administrators, scientists, exhibit designers, researchers) often try hard to be accessible to the public, despite their often-vast knowledge of very particular subjects. (High levels of education is what Kim seems to identify as the leading barrier between museum staff and visitor). It’s a funny statement, but it also means that museum professionals, despite their efforts, aren’t doing their jobs right because their professional backgrounds can create a disconnect. Building upon the growing sense of community that museums are currently nursing may improve this, as well as incorporating accessible and engaging on-site professionals that can tell a personal story or two. Lesson: If museum professionals want their displays to exhibit accessibility, then museum professionals must be accessible themselves.

 

Misconception #2: Museum professionals think visitors can’t handle context. Kim says,”Blank walls are good so that the visitors won’t have to deal with too much context or history.” There are some valid reasons why museum professionals keep the walls blank. For instance, to draw attention to the formal elements of the art. However, when a visitor comes across an object and little context is provided, it can produce a negative effect. As the video hints, one effect is the notion that museum professionals draw academic boundaries to make themselves and the objects they display inaccessible. Moreover, in the video Kim points out that museums tell the community what to think.  In this era of new technologies and social media, some museums are aiming to allow visitors to be their own curators. Lesson: In order to increase accessibility, museum professionals should provide enough context that visitors may draw their own conclusions and connect to the object in a meaningful way on their own.

 

Misconception #3: Museum professionals fuzzy up concepts such as value and importance in order to appear authoritative. The video does more than hint that it’s unclear how museum professionals determine importance and value in regard to museum exhibits (namely, deciding what goes into the museum and what stays out). Perhaps professionals are fuzzy in communicating this process because cultural gatekeeping isn’t completely understood on the whole. Kim simply advises museum professionals to use tidy and sharp labels, and only use language that sounds academic, “otherwise, the authority effect won’t be so convincing.” By including enough context, making scientists and historians personally accessible, and allowing visitors to draw their own conclusions in regard to objects, only some of this misconception could be corrected. Lesson: Museum professionals must be communicative in regards to the exhibit design and creation process by explaining decisions that affect how the ‘story’ is presented.

 

Misconception #4: The work of museum professionals is about the objects. This video talks a lot about object-worship, and introduces the museum as a place that houses important things. In some ways, this is true– but museums tend to be fueled by ideas, theories, symbols, and a greater notion of sparking and expanding education, rather than objects themselves. This misconception makes sense: museums take great care to preserve and display objects because of what the objects represent. To call a museum a place of things is right- but also wrong. Museums’ missions are most often about ideas, and the objects are meaningful symbols of important stories. Lesson: Museum professionals must emphasize the stories and lessons that objects symbolize or represent– rather than focus on the object itself, as that appears irrelevant (because it’s missing context).

 

Misconception #5: Museum professionals only care about the wealthy. If this isn’t a misconception, then it should be. Kim the cat says, “At first I thought there must be some law against having poor people on a museum’s Board of Trustees, but then later I found out that actually there isn’t any law like this. This is just the way they like to do it.” What’s missing here is an explanation: the Board often secures significant funding, and the wealthy attract other wealthy folks who can give to the museum and help keep its doors open. But with or without the explanation, it’s still a telling and jarringly true statement. Many museums are placing more focus on diversity, and are arguably gearing themselves away from a white, upper-middle class visitor and donor base. There’s a lot of work to be done (3 of 17 of the top 25 most visited museums in the US are run by men. Over half have PhDs indicating that many have similar academic backgrounds). Lesson: In order for museums to connect to communities, it may help to have a Board and staff that match the community demographic. Or rather, having an all-wealthy and homogeneous Board can be off-putting for visitors who do not fit that bill.

 

Misconception #6: Museum professionals are magical masters of time-freeze and corps display. Do museum people fight nature every day, as Kim states in the video? Maybe– and it’s probably not a terrible misconception either. Museum professionals certainly go above and beyond to preserve objects that tell important stories about culture and the world around us. However, this time-freezing becomes wrapped up in Kim’s little paper, “An illustration of how everything in a museum is something like a corpse.” Museums are certainly doing a great many things to remain relevant and to shatter the notion that museums are merely houses for old, irrelevant things. However, the old stereotype lives on. Lesson: Old habits die hard, and despite recent efforts, it will take a lot of collaboration, forward-thinking, and community engagement for museums to break away from past reputations.

But it will be well worth the effort.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments

Let Museums Evolve: A Case Against Brooklyn Museum’s Recent Bad Press

A meet up at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Amy Dreher.

How do you quantify a social mission? The Brooklyn Museum recently underwent a mild media smack-down because they tried something new—and while many outcomes (the most important ones, some argue) were positive, the museum was painted negatively in a recent New York Times article.

I have argued before that allowing nonprofits to evolve to meet (let alone succeed) business goals and compete with for-profit companies requires more than just innovative thinking from within the sector- it requires acceptance from the general public. This is where nonprofits often run into trouble because gaining this acceptance necessitates a change in the way that the public perceives certain nonprofit organizations.

The New York Time’s article, ‘Brooklyn Museum’s Populism Hasn’t Lured Crowds,’ opens with not-so-great statistics: the goal of the museum was to triple its attendance by 2014, but attendance has actually dropped 23% in 2009. A decreased attendance is never good– but to those with an eye to the museum-world, those aren’t the notable statistics in the article. The Brooklyn Museum is actually succeeding in areas where other museums would like to succeed, and is in the position to serve as a positive model for attendance and interaction.

There are two things, in particular, that the Brooklyn Museum is doing well. These are not “attendance is down, but ____ is up” items. Regardless of overall attendance, these achievements deserve positive attention on their own, and the success of these items is being skewed by popular perceptions of what museums should be according to museums’ past reputations, which limits progress for these institutions. Here’s how the museum is breaking barriers:

  • The Brooklyn Museum audience has increased in diversity. Museums have a general reputation for being stuffy places, accessible only to the upper-middle class and above who are interested in displaying their intellect. Museums across the country  have done many things to battle this stereotype, and though it may be far from the truth that museums are now only for the white and wealthy, the myth’s origins often keep folks away. While the Brooklyn Museum’s overall attendance numbers have not sky-rocketed, there has been  an increase in diversity– a highly-sought after increase within the industry. In fact, the article reports that over 40% of all visitors were  people of color, and the average age of visitors is a surprisingly young 35 years of age. The museum is doing something right. It’s the responsibility of other museums looking to increase their number of diverse visitors to gather more information, and perhaps take a cue from this museum.
  • The Brooklyn Museum has increased interaction among visitors and community members. The museum is taking on another stereotype here: the idea that museums should be quiet, serious places reserved for only those who already have a deep interest in art. The article strangely quotes Robert Storr, the dean of the Yale University School of Art, saying, “Star Wars’ shows the worst kind of populism. I don’t think they [the Brooklyn Museum] really understand where they are. The middle of the art world is now in Brooklyn; it’s an increasingly sophisticated audience and always was one.” Ouch! Featured in the article just after the mention of the museum’s younger, more local, non-white audience, this quote speaks volumes! The quote is interesting, because including it assumes that New York Times readers understand that the museum should be geared primarily for that artistically-literate and “increasingly sophisticated” audience (and who is to say the young, the locals, and those of color are not those people).

Moreover, the article somehow uses the museum’s First Saturdays against them. This a program celebrated for its richness of diversity (age, sex, race, background in art). It draws in the community– and even if the general non-Brooklynite public doesnt,  the museum’s director at least  knows how important that is. Arnold Lehman says, “If that environment could be replicated…on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, then I could easily retire and say we’ve succeeded and people think of the museum as a place to be of significance in their lives, not necessarily to see an exhibition.” Lehman is transcending boundaries. He doesn’t want the museum to be a stale place for exhibits, but rather a breathing and living institution that meets the needs of Brooklyn’s true community.

Though we can say “over 40% of museum visitors are people of color” and understand that that’s great, there’s no way to truly quantify the value of diversity– or of community conversation, or personal engagement. Is reaching a more diverse audience (directly related to the mission) more valuable than the number of people walking through the door (directly related to the monetary health of the organization)– a number upon which foundations often use to gauge museum success? There are arguments for both sides.

What is clear, I believe, is that if we want museums (and other nonprofits, for that matter) to continue to grow, culturally feed our communities, and remain forward-thinking institutions, then we must allow them to pursue these goals without being limited by outdated perceptions of institutions of the past. Let’s let them help us grow.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Trends 7 Comments

Employee Drive and Monetary Rewards– Could Nonprofits Outperform For-Profits?

I am captivated by this great video on Dan Pink’s research on what drives people. It’s absolutely worth a watch! Want to learn more? Check out his TED Talk on motivation.

If Dan Pink is right and purposemastery, and autonomy are the three keys to motivation, then I imagine that nonprofit employees should be rather happy and motivated folks because purpose and mastery seem to be built into the sector to an extent. However, this video provides a helpful hint to organizations to keep employee autonomy in mind when preparing for the future. Given Dan Pink’s outline, are nonprofits more primed to be motivation-filled workplaces than private organizations?

I think they certainly could be. Here’s how nonprofits stack up:

Purpose: Nonprofit and museum environments supply this without question. In fact, overall organizational purpose is neatly summarized and an employee’s purpose is to help realize a nonprofit organization’s (hopefully) noble mission in some form. The purpose of the employee may be specialized within the mission, but generally nonprofit work provides a feeling of “doing good” in the greater context of the world. Want a job position with a purpose? A nonprofit is a great place to be.

Mastery: Because nonprofits are sometimes understaffed and employees must take on wide variety of roles, one might assume that employee mastery would be an issue for nonprofit organizations.  For instance, I work for a great but small organization in which I take on significant duties related to marketing, communications, fundraising and development, event planning, and web design— and I’m not even a full-time employee!

In nonprofit organizations, I think mastery still functions because these environments provide several areas of mastery (which may tie into autonomy below), and smaller nonprofit organizations offer employees the opportunity to gain and refine skills. Not to mention, if there’s a talent that you can contribute to the organization, it’s likely that the organization will allow you to summon your skills in that arena.

But autonomy? This doesn’t seem as innate to the sector as purpose and mastery might be. For that very reason, maybe it should be on the forefront of nonprofit leadership literature. Not only does there seem to be a lack of discussion regarding nonprofit-specific employee autonomy, but individual nonprofits do not have the benefit of autonomy afforded by private corporations due to nonprofits’ multiple stakeholders. Aside from being a key motivator for employees, Why is employee autonomy of particular importance in nonprofit organizations? Here are some points that came to my mind when contemplating the importance of the third element in Dan Pink’s motivation trifecta:

  • Autonomy allows the organization to discover hidden talents and foster innovation. Google is famous for having what they call “20 Percent Time” in which they encourage employees to spend 20% of their work week on a project that is of interest to them, and not necessarily tied to their day-to-day job function. Nonprofits doing this may be able to loop back to mastery here by allowing employees to summon their talents and ideas to contribute to the organization in any way that they desire. This kind of autonomy could help relieve employee burnout while at the same time motivating employees to utilize their mastery in the workplace.
  • Autonomy builds internal trust and commitment. High commitment management— which emphasizes high trust, responsible autonomy, and employee involvement– has been shown to increase overall performance and reduce employee turnover. This is important in all sectors. In nonprofit environments in particular, donor relationships are very important. Reducing turnover could mean reducing a loss of donor relationships when development staff members leave the organization because fewer development employees would be leaving this kind of environment.
  • Autonomy increases productivity. If the purpose of the workplace is to provide an environment where people can do their best work in the best way that they know how, then a successful workplace will be productive. When Jeff Gunther developed a results-only work environment, he found that his employees were actually more productive. It also seems obvious that employees that are more motivated and committed will be more productive.

Autonomy may not deserve more time in the “to-do” spotlight than purpose or mastery, but it seems less innate to the sector and therefore may deserve some brainpower. If anything, autonomy is a powerful tool to be kept in nonprofit leaders’ minds as we move forward and make decisions in regard to organizational culture.

Do you think autonomy is an area where nonprofits may move forward and compete with for-profit companies? Do you think that the nonprofit culture, with some focus on Pink’s main elements, has the ability to provide a more motivating workplace than for-profit companies depending primarily upon monetary rewards?

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Sector Evolution, Trends 2 Comments

Social Media in Museums: The Best Devote Their Websites To It

Museums are placing higher priority on engagement. With the social media revolution upon us and nonprofits’ growing reputations for utilizing social media to build connections and share stories, it’s no wonder museums are turning into community centers. Nearly every museum has a link to Twitter or Facebook these days, but museums are actually doing much more to engage their audiences online.

To illustrate the growing importance of social media as a mechanism for creating connections and increasing community engagement, I’ve taken screen shots of the websites of three of America’s most visited and successful museums. I am highlighting not just traditional social media, but also media that is social (online collaboration, sharing of resources, technology in strengthening the community, etc).

– Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, or the most visited museum of 2009. (Washington D.C.)


  • Social media comes first: Links to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and podcasts are accessible via the Natural History Museum’s homepage. In fact, this was the single most visited museum in the United States last year, and it is also one of the only museums in the top 25 most visited museums that gives social media such a prominent space on its homepage. This is most likely a case of correlation over causation, but if the most frequently visited museum in the country doesn’t put social media icons below the fold, why do so many museums make visitors scroll to the bottom of the page to see them?
  • Mobile applications are front and center: The most prominent item featured on the museum’s homepage is the announcement of a mobile application, MEanderthal, for iPhone and Android that highlights the museum’s Hall of Human Origins. The application is engaging, as it allows you to morph back in time to see what you might have looked like. Not only that, iPhone users can use iSmithsonian for free to get updates on museum happenings. This museum is successful, and places a strong emphasis on both engagement, and keeping up with the times.
  • Engaging community events that educate: This isn’t new for museums; there’s always interaction taking place. The museum is currently celebrating Savoring Sustainable Seafood, which features events that are open to the public and aim to engage the community. The Natural History Museum’s website is devoted to personal connections and accessibility.

– The Getty (Los Angeles, CA)

  • Community building through resource sharing: The Getty’s website doesn’t just supply museum information, it also serves as an online resource in education for parents and teachers. The website has ideas for art activities and lesson plans. Through these efforts, the museum shares it resources and strengthens the community.
  • Collaborative content: It might seem natural for art museums to view one another as competitors for visitors and donors- and perhaps they are- but Southern California’s art museums put their missions to inspire and educate first in the creation of a virtual exhibition. In this case (like the one above), the museum uses technology to build bridges and generally strengthen the community.
  • Blogs as a space for interaction: This popular museum understands the importance of allowing visitors to interact with the museum through blog comments. Moreover, the blog provides readers the opportunity to see what happens behind-the-scenes at the museum. Allowing folks to take a peek behind the curtain make The Getty more transparent, accessible, inviting, and gives a sense of trustworthiness.
  • Calendar of public programs: The inclusion of the calendar reminds website visitors that all the good stuff isn’t just online. In fact, the best stuff takes place within the museum. The calendar is an important inclusion here, as it puts a focus on experience and interaction.


– The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL)

  • INTERACT and creative engagement: The Art Institute of Chicago puts the bulk of its interaction in one place– on its own page off of a tab on the homepage between members and shop. And this page really does include many links to social media, and media that is social. There’s even a My Collections feature that allows users to log-in (a great measurement for engagement) and build their own virtual art collections. Curious Corner features fun and educational online games for kids. A person could spend hours on this interact tab of the website (Truth be told, I may have gotten caught up in it a time or two…)
  • Microblogging may be worth fitting on the page: The museum’s twitter stream is shown on the site. Not only that, the Twitter stream shows pictures of the folks/organizations with which the Art Institute is communicating. Like the blog at The Getty, the use of this social media tool puts a voice to the institution and makes it appear more personable, trustworthy, and transparent.
  • A way to learn more: It’s not new to highlight a sign-up for an organization’s e-newsletter on a site, but the simple act asks the visitor for engagement and lets them know that the organization is an evolving entity with more to say!

If the best of the best museums place a high priority on engaging audiences through media and technology, then there may be a lesson here for smaller museums struggling with whether or not to delve into social media. The key may be to start thinking about the internet as a flexible medium through which to connect with visitors.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Digital Connectivity, Nonprofit Marketing, Trends 8 Comments

A Theory for Breaking Through Nonprofit Sector Constraints

It seems that, without even knowing it, we’re all working together to limit nonprofit innovation.

In the nonprofit sector, risk (an important element in innovation) is stifled due to nonprofits’ need for multiple stakeholder acceptance in order to survive. This makes large-scale change difficult, if not impossible, and the only way that we will solve this is if we put our minds together to think about it.

Let’s take the hot topic of increasing salaries for nonprofit leaders (though we could pick any topic that challenges perceived sector constraints). A nonprofit might seriously consider higher salaries in order to attract high-quality leaders, establish itself professionally, or ensure that competition for the position allows the organization to choose– or continue to motivate– the best candidate for the job.  This could be a great idea. It could work wonders. But questioning sector constraints at all is often much like trying to give a big hug to a hand grenade. Here’s why:

  1. The board and staff will need to approve this risk. In the case of increasing employee salaries, they will consider that every extra dollar given to a staff member is a dollar that could be spent on programming. These immediate stakeholders must believe in the potential of the idea.
  2. Then the nonprofit will have to face the multiple foundations that may no longer award the nonprofit otherwise-much-deserved grants because their administrative costs exceed (or come close to) a percentage set by the foundation in advance.
  3. You have to face the people who don’t understand why you made this change (regardless of its nobility), and the media may tear you apart. Even worse, other nonprofit leaders at The Chronicle of Philanthropy may even give you bad press for trying to take a risk to aid in sector evolution.
  4. Your amount of in-kind donations over the year may suffer because of the bad press– which defeats your whole attempt at innovation because you can no longer afford to pay a higher-than-before salary to your employees… so you are back where you started– but with fewer funds, a lot of bad press, alienated foundation connections, and unhappy employees.

In the private sector, innovation breeds new business practices and monetary success. The system is quite simple: a firm must gather capital to take a risk, take that risk, and if the company makes a profit, they are onto something. Other companies catch onto the company’s new tactic and next thing we know, every company has to be doing that innovative thing in order to continue to stay in the game. The same is true for nonprofit organizations except, in the nonprofit sector, raising capital may mean raising social capital.

 

Please click on the image to enlarge

So what can be done to alter sector constraints in order to allow nonprofit professionals to be innovative in organizational management?

First, double loop learning must take place. Double loop learning occurs when leaders question their own basic assumptions about the world. Single loop learning, by comparison, is the tried-and-tested routine that we fall into when we do everyday things like write grants and conduct meetings– but we also use single loop learning when we devise wages (continuing with the case of nonprofit salaries as our example). We have an idea of what works and we stick to it. Double loop learning, on the other hand, makes us ask ourselves, “Why do we do X? Maybe I should be doing Y.” When we ask this question, possibilities are born.

Second, the nonprofit must be transparent about their new idea and share it among networks. The nonprofit could ask for input via social media networks, get dialogues going with staff members; make everyone (stakeholders especially) aware of the possible benefit of taking this risk. This includes spreading word about the importance of innovation among stakeholders, the public, and other nonprofit groups. Technology is a great mechanism for information-share, and getting brain juices flowing. Who knows? A few other nonprofits may consider the idea and try it out alongside you.

Through this, social capital is created. Spreading the message creates connections. Asking people for their input (even if it’s negative) creates connections. Connections build social capital. Social capital increases overall support of the new practice because friends and community partners can share your idea with their own networks, and become part of idea formation and collaboration.

Then intellectual capital is built as stakeholders become educated on the issue. The more people hear about the issue, the more educated they will become on the need for innovation, or rather, the more accepting they will be when you actually follow through in challenging sector constraints. Lets go back to the example of a nonprofit taking on higher administration costs to motivate employees. If we learn that there’s a nonprofit leadership deficit on the way, then we may be more likely to outwardly encourage and support (or at least understand) nonprofits that are raising employee salaries.

And finally, the innovation is accepted. This does not mean that people will agree with your new (hopefully) innovative practice– but, because of your transparency, they will fully understand why you have challenged sector constraints, and also that you have the best interests of the community you serve at heart. And whether they agree with the idea or not, folks may be more inclined to respect the idea. Foundations may still award grants to the organization, and donors may stick around for at least another year. Who knows? Maybe your active desire to contribute to the sector and your fresh views of management will earn you a few more donors.

This theory is just that: a theory. I do not know how to encourage nonprofits to take responsible risks and challenge constraints that hold them back in serving their mission. I do know that, if the sector means to evolve, nonprofit leaders must begin to think about blazing new trails— and we should think about ways to allow them to do so.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Sector Evolution, Trends 8 Comments

Perhaps We’ve Got it Backward: Businesses Are Turning to Nonprofit Practices

Photo credit to agentgenius.com

More and more for-profit companies are beginning to function like nonprofits– and perhaps for good reason. It seems that nonprofits are becoming less like slow-to-pick-up organizations, and a little bit more like the sector that’s onto the trends.

There’s a lot of talk about how nonprofits gain by functioning more like businesses. Among other things, nonprofits must keep up with the innovation taking place in the for-profit sector, or nonprofits will be weeded out by for-profit competition.  But  nonprofits are not the only ones looking to other sectors for inspiration. In fact, nonprofits have a few things going for them right now that for-profit companies seem to really want:

1. Competition

Companies will need social missions to attract the next generation of customers. In fact, according to a USA Today article, 69% of Gen Yers consider a company’s social commitment when deciding where to shop, and 83% will trust a company more if it is socially responsible– and that’s just attracting customers! Companies will need to step it up a notch if they want to hire new MBAs and MPAs (whom are increasingly socially conscious, by the way). The next generation is civic-minded and cautious in regard to where and how they spend their time. And on top of all this, the human race as a whole is evolving into beings that value kindness.

Companies are already publicly rising to the occasion and deep-rooting their identities in crowdsourced cause marketing. The Pepsi Refresh Project, American Express Members Project, Google Project 10^100, Chase Community Giving, and Target’s Bullseye Gives may be just the tip of the big-companies-crowdsourcing-for-social-good iceberg. Not only are these companies recognizing their need to “do good,” but they are making it a part of their social identity by fostering communication and asking communities to participate in choosing where their money goes. Recently, this has helped for-profits build up legitimacy in yet another area where nonprofits (as opposed to for-profits) are known to shine…

2. Communication-

Nonprofits are said to be kicking private sector booty in building relationships through social media. They have quickly taken up this way of telling stories and spreading social missions. Sure, social media has its serious pluses for nonprofit organizations: it’s generally affordable, it can be done by a volunteer, and site visits and bit.ly clicks are measurable (an often-rare quality for activities taken up by nonprofit organizations). But most of all, social media is a hit for nonprofits because the ability to connect, ignite excitement or empathy, and create and maintain strong interpersonal connections has always been an element of survival for nonprofits– both on the administrative end and in the front lines. The community engagement– as well as individual connections– that nonprofits are often able to summon is an object of desire for private companies in the evolving world. The days of putting a product into the world with an overarching one-way message are coming to an end. During this time, companies will need to steal and ingrain the nonprofit practice of building meaningful connections in order to thrive.

3. Costs

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is credited for saying, “I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.” This could have come out of the mouth of any nonprofit CEO out there. Granted, the for-profit sector has an arguably greater ability to take risks than nonprofit organizations, which have several stakeholders and constraints beyond the budget. Bill Gates proved that scrappiness and frugality were the way to go back in 1976 when he created Microsoft. In fact, Guy Kawasaki dedicates an entire chapter in his book, The Art of The Start, to bootstrapping. In the current economic climate, there’s a need for businesses to reevaluate spending. In this case, it is less that businesses want to be more like nonprofit organizations– they have to be.

Nonprofits are not often thought to be business trend-setters. Perhaps that’s why the nonprofit sector– as a whole– don’t seem to take the time to pat themselves on the back. Right now, nonprofits are onto something. Social missions are in. Personal connections are in. Even endearing scrappiness is in.  Instead of looking longing at the for-profit sector’s freedom and financials when it comes time to allocate resources or cut already-decreased spending in nonprofit organizations, we should take a moment to focus on the sector’s incredible strengths. Nonprofits, it turns out, are teaching private companies a thing or two about how to connect to communities and champion a good cause.

I owe a thank you to Dr. Peter Robertson, a professor of organizational behavior within USC’s School of Policy, Planning, and Development, for raising an eyebrow and saying, “I think in the future businesses will function as nonprofits,” when I spoke nonchalantly about nonprofit evolution to private sector practices during a recent meeting.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Trends 5 Comments

When Art Museum Directors Talk Trash, Everybody Wins.

Directors at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (Max Anderson) and the New Orleans Museum of Art (John Bullard), after a series of playful trash-talking, have made public bets on who will win the Super Bowl this weekend… and they bet famous works of art.

"Ideal View of Tivoli", 1644, by Claude Lorrain, Which NOMA will loan to the IMA if the Colts win the Super Bowl.

JMW Turner's The Fifth Plague of Egypt, 1800, which the IMA will lend to NOMA if the Saints win the Super Bowl.

The wager: If the Colts win the Super Bowl, the New Orleans Museum of Art will lend Claude Lorrain’s, Ideal View of Tivoli, 1644, to the Indianapolis Museum of Art for three months. If the Saints win, on the other hand, the Indianapolis Museum of Art will lend out Turner’s The Fifth Plague of Egypt, 1800.

 

But it doesn’t matter who wins the Super Bowl this Sunday. Anderson and Bullard are winners in spreading their missions either way– just because they made the wager. Here’s why this bet is a step forward for museums in terms of mission and community engagement (and the reasons are cooler than you think):

 

1) The bet will build community and mix popular cultures.

Makes sense, right? Being a sports fan builds a sense of community; it’s something that a group of fans come together to care about. The art directors’ bet piggy-backs the art museum culture with the sport-watching culture, which is one of passion and identity. And why shouldn’t communities feel the same sense of ownership and connection with their city’s art museum as they feel with their city’s sport teams? Anderson and Bullard are demonstrating pride in their cities by making the wager, and aligning themselves directly with the members of the community- all of whom are also hoping for a win on Sunday. Anderson and Bullard are saying that the museum cares about a win just as much as the rest of Indianapolis and New Orleans do- and they’ll put their money where their mouth is. In turn, the community knows that folks representing the IMA and NOMA will be gasping, cheering, and shouting their lungs out along side them as they are watching the game; it’s a powerful thing. On the first day that the Lorrian is on display at NOMA (or Turner at IMA), a local will stand in front of it and say, “We won the bet!”

 

2) Scientifically speaking, the bet lights up the brains of art-lovers.

… but not in the way that you’re probably thinking. Many museums have missions to educate- and this public wager does just that. Of course, you learn a thing or two about art while looking over the give-and-take that led to the final wager (I certainly didn’t know that the Indianapolis Museum of Art owns a farm). Interestingly, a 2008 study from The University of Chicago finds that spectators’ brains light up when talking about sports, and their language skills are improved. According to the article, “the region of the brain usually associated with planning and controlling actions is activated when players and fans listen to conversations about their sport.” Most obviously, the bet encourages museum-fans to watch their city’s team (if only for hope of gaining a Turner or a Lorrain in their town) and art-lovers are exposed to this benefit. Or at least I will be, as I was neutral about the outcome of the Super Bowl until I realized that I will be in Indiana in the Summertime…

 

3) The bet makes art aficionados biologically happier.

To non-sports fans, the bet may seem silly– but sports fans are less prone to depression than those disinterested in sports. Gambling also increases dopamine levels in the brain, making fans– of the museum and the teams–happier. It’s a welcome change of pace, especially since human beings are hardwired to avoid conflict and we usually think of museums as on the same team. This is not to say that art museums should go betting works of art left and right, but it is to say that the friendly competition is an exciting and healthy change for museum lovers. After all, scientists credit social competition for human beings’ increasing brain-size. So thanks for keeping us happy, Anderson and Bullard– and for expanding our brains.

 

4) The bet has sass- and so do museums.

This wager makes Robert Smithson look silly for saying, “Museums are tombs, and it looks like everything is turning into a museum.” Well, at least the first part looks dumb. Case in point: check out these trash-talking (friendly) tweets. Anderson and Bullard challenge the notion that museums are cold, static, outdated, and lifeless places. These museums have attitude, and they are acting in regard  to current real-life situations. As for the last half of Smithson’s quote, it seems that everything is turning into a museum– or more accurately, museums are turning into places for everything… like friendly community-building wagers.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Trends 5 Comments