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Graduate school

“You Have to be Comfortable Being Uncomfortable”- One-Line Lessons on Leadership

I will be graduating from the University of Southern California next Friday with my Master of Public Administration (MPA). I am pleased to report that, even with real-world experience prior to entering graduate school, my skill-set has been sharpened and the items in my professional toolbox are polished. I am thrilled to re-enter the workforce and meld my formal and informal experiences in areas of management, evaluation, economics, communications, strategy, and leadership.

Though I’ve done it before, I generally try not to write about my own personal thoughts and experiences. This is because, as my former Program Evaluation professor says, “a sample size of one does not a significant finding make.” Here– and in life– I am going for significant. That said, I think the lessons I’ve learned in graduate school are indeed significant, and I am delighted to share some bite-sized morsels.

…I’m the type of person who takes physical notes in class. I’m also the type of person who holds on tightly to professors’ well-articulated verbal gemstones about leadership, and I tape them shamelessly above my desk at home. Yes, much like eleven-year-olds reserve space on their walls for Justin Bieber posters, I reserve space for phrases like, “The best way to create change is to take away the barriers to change.” It’s nerdy, but I’m a graduate student (for 10 more days…)

Here are my very favorite one-liner lessons from graduate school. A vast majority are attributed to Dr. Robert Myrtle, my professor of Strategic Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations, but there are other key, formative professors’ words here, too, such as Dr. Peter Robertson and Dr. Donald Morgan). I’ve added descriptions were context is need to strengthen the relevance of the quote.

  •  “People who learn quickly have a competitive advantage”  This was a running theme throughout the program. It is an especially key lesson for nonprofits because they’ve developed a reputation for being slow-moving. What this quote does is place an emphasis on the people. The organization can only change if employees can adjust.
  • “Businesses survive on information, not harmony.” This quote packs a personal message to step out of our comfort zone. Bringing up new ideas, challenging sector boundaries, and asking questions helps organizations and businesses stretch their thinking and gain information. It is through collection of that information that organizations can grow to their potential.
  • “You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable” You have to take risks to be a good leader. The idea here is that if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not growing or reaching. If you aren’t growing and you are running operations in an organization, than the organization isn’t growing either.
  • “People who emerge as leaders are people who can manage change.” one professor reminded us that “nobody is going to change unless they see the need for change.” A good leader, he explained, is someone who sees the need, communicates it effectively, creates buy-in, and manages the change.
  • “Master the little things in relationships, because the unaddressed details– like who will do the dishes– will sink you.” This wasn’t just marriage advice dispensed by a professor. It was strategic management advice (and life advice, too). The idea of a partnership or collaboration sounds dandy in many situations. Unfortunately, our professor explained, many higher-ups leave the details dangling without clear direction as to who takes care of issues and how the partnership should be effectively handled by the organizations. Mastering the details is critical.
  • Treat people like they are valued, and they will be valuable.” This was said in regard to managing and leading teams, though I think it stands on its own.
  • “You must find the option that all parties hate equally.” This is about compromising and coming up with new solutions to meet stakeholder’s needs. Finding solutions that all stakeholders love is not very realistic in the public and nonprofit sectors. Also, if the quote was “you must find the option that both parties like equally,” then you’d never remember it. This quote also plays off of our program emphasis on Getting to Yes, a great book on compromise and creative solutions.
  • “Coopetition is when competitors collaborate” There are over 7,000 nonprofits in Los Angeles alone and many of these organizations have similar missions. Coopetition is a word that comes up a lot in classes in regard to strategically managing resources, but also putting a priority on maintaining a competitive advantage. Nonprofits must be able to both work together to accomplish a mission, and also to stand alone.
  • “Thou shalt not B.S. myself.” Organizational strengths only count as strengths if they are seen in the eyes of customers, donors, competitors, and constituents.  I like this quote, though, because it seems to be true of individual strengths as well.
  • “Social capital builds intellectual capital” In the information age, it takes people and connectivity to generate ideas and intelligence. Social relationships lead to new-age innovation.
  • “You need your followers more than they need you.” Leaders aren’t leaders if they don’t have followers and supporters. Achieving great things takes buy-in and participation.
  • “You get power by giving it away.” Don’t keep opportunity for yourself. Having power often means having opportunities and power to give to others.
  • “We all succeed or none of us succeeds…” This is not a quote from class, but a quote from A Dream For One World by Segev Perets, which we read in a class.  Though it would be an outrageous stretch to say that MPA’s run entirely on public service motivation, the desire to effectively carry out a meaningful mission that empowers constituents was a prevalent and key motivator for my classmates. It was the tie that binded us and a thing that we all seemed to understand.
I’m grateful to have learned an incredible amount of information in graduate school these last two years. These quotes don’t even begin to scratch the surface, but they are quick tidbits that I’ll carry with me into my next professional endeavour.
Posted on by colleendilen in Miscellaneous, Nonprofit Marketing 6 Comments

5 Reasons to Always Be Thinking Like a Graduate Student

I’ll be honest: when I left my full-time gig at the Science Center in order to become a full-time graduate student last year, I was terrified by how this change would alter my own viewpoints and how I am perceived as a professional. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be taken as seriously if a majority of my time (the “full-time” part) was spent studying sector management as opposed to actively working in the sector.

Even as I am halfway into my graduate school experience, I can already look back and say that I had a right to be as terrified as anyone undergoing a big change (especially when thinking that my experience might be like this)– but I’d never take back the change in perspective that I’ve undergone for the time-being. I know full-well that by this time next year, the status will switch back and I will return to the full-time working world (oh, the magic of a professional degree; the point is to go back). But I will always understand the importance of thinking like a graduate student. Here’s why:

 

1) It forces you to see the big picture. There are things going on in every industry and the way we do business is always evolving. Currently social media, communication,  soft skills, and Gen Y’s public service motivation are shaking things up in the nonprofit world, but even after those things run their course, there will be something else. When you are a graduate student you see these things– and what’s more: you see their collective effect on the industry because you spend nearly every day piecing together the puzzle. Thinking like this is extremely valuable because it helps you to mentally tackle many sector problems at once, and scientifically, this kind of thinking helps build up solutions more creatively than tackling one at a time– which is often done in a working environment. Thinking like a graduate student in this sense means always keeping an eye on the bigger picture of the industry as a whole, and it will result in creative solutions and a more complete understanding of where your difficulties lie.

 

2) Grad students have built-in microscopes or telescopes. That’s like having science tools built into their brains (for a few years), folks! This is directly related to point #1. People often joke that grad students always think what they are doing is important, even though it’s not. What’s really happening here (and the reason we grad students think what we’re uncovering is so important) is that we have a different perspective. As mentioned above, in professional degrees, we zoom out on the sector. Academic degrees tend to zoom in on a part of the sector. Either way, grad students are thinking in a way that is not common in workplace environments (whether it’s with their internal microscopes or a telescopes). Thinking differently spawns innovation. Grad students see something non-graduate students don’t see (and often vice-versa). There’s terrific potential here. When faced with a problem after graduate school, I’ll strap my telescope back on and see if I can think about things differently.

 

3) It makes you aware of your own strengths and interests. In graduate school, you can pursue your own interests within your degree. Beyond MPA student, I have no role defining my duties in one specific area (I can choose as I go). There is a lot of freedom in these programs to make yourself an expert on whatever strikes your interest. Similarly, in graduate school you must do everything from public presentations, to writing case studies, to leading debates, to drawing graphs to illustrate possible solutions to market failures. You learn quickly where you shine… and also where you stink. The bottom line lesson here, however, is to keep exploring and taking up new challenges in the working world. It may lead you to interesting solutions to problems. And trying new things helps you learn a lot more about yourself and how you handle certain situations– it’s teaching me a lot at any rate!

 

4) It gives you a feeling of purpose (which helps you live longer and makes you better at your job). I have two years while I’m obtaining my degree to challenge perspectives, share crazy ideas freely, and sink my teeth into the sector. I feel a sense of purpose when exploring skills required to improve the sector. Feeling a sense of purpose does more than reduce your risk of getting Alzheimer’s and help prevent depression. It actually makes you live longer. Studies have shown that purpose motivates us to accomplish things and grad students spend two years (or more) devoted to developing their purpose and career goals so that they can work hard for you (or themselves) after they graduate. What can people who aren’t in graduate school do to develop this mindset? Make time to focus on what you are doing and why.

 

5) It keeps you humble. Folks tend to feel like they are improving in their careers based on how many people are reporting to them throughout the years– or at least I felt this way a bit before I came to grad school. Now,  nobody reports to me. I study with a lot of accomplished people and I take classes from distinguished professors. This is humbling. Also, full-time graduate students often take a financial hit to attend school (even if they are employed by the university or working a part-time job– or in my case, both). I’ve worked in hierarchical environments and I’ve started at the very bottom– but being broke, living on ideas, and being surrounded by thought-leaders is every bit as humbling as it is romantic and drive-inspiring. I will strive to keep this perspective and treat everyone as an accomplished classmate, regardless of their background or experience. Good ideas come from everywhere, and there’s no need to get cocky about my own.

Posted on by colleendilen in Miscellaneous, Nonprofit Marketing 1 Comment

5 Reasons Why I Chose to Pursue an MPA over an MBA

USC's 2009-2010 Officers of the Graduate Policy and Administration Committee with Associate Dean, Carol Rush

USC's 2009-2010 Officers of the Graduate Policy and Administration Committee with Associate Dean, Carol Rush

 

MPAs and MBAs have a lot in common: they are both professional degrees that provide management training by way of economics, policy, statistics, and finance. What made me pick an MPA (Master of Public Administration) over an MBA (Master of Business Administration), you might ask? The MBA is surely a beaten path with many, well known benefits…but considering my interest and passion for museums and nonprofits, an MBA just wasn’t for me. I liked the idea of a professional degree, but an MBA overlooked the defining features in my field of interest. Here’s why I decided to pursue an MPA over an MBA:

 

1) Museums and nonprofits have harder-to-measure outcomes

A defining characteristic of the nonprofit and public sectors is unmeasurable outcomes because the point of most nonprofits is to fulfill a social mission (nonprofit organizations cannot distribute profits). A powerful business is one that can make the most money (measurable). A powerful nonprofit is one that helps more people, most effectively (not-so-measurable). This does not mean that impact assessments are not critical in the nonprofit world and that they are strongest when they include quantitative data. However, to get an MBA would mean overlooking an opportunity to really think about solving problems of nonprofit outcome measurement and would mean focusing heavily on a monetary bottom-line, which is just not a characteristic of the sector. The MPA focuses on social missions while also emphasizing the skills required to obtain funding for an organization, which is much more relevant to my continuing work with nonprofit organizations.

 

2) It’s a problem-solving degree- ideal for an evolving sector

If MBA programs study the market, then MPAs try to solve market failures– and there’s an obvious difference between studying and solving. In the former, it’s been figured out, you’re just learning how to do it. In the latter, there’s a large-scale problem to be solved. MBAs are hired to make an individual company more profitable and there are books on this (lots of them!) with clear rules (“buy low, sell high,” “always be closing”). In contrast, MPAs are hired to take action to lead their organizations in making the world a better place… and our literature is not nearly as abundant and the tone is less certain. Our academic journals are filled with what’s happening right now or what’s happened in the past. This is ideal for the nonprofit sector because need and the way people communicate and connect (securing funding, donors, etc) is always evolving.  There is certainly no better degree in this case, it’s just based on your goals and interests. Considering my interests, an MPA was the way to go.

 

3) My utility function includes public service

This is not to say that my utility function– and those of my MPA peers– doesn’t include income at all (or that the utility function of MBA grads never includes public service), but it is to say that public service drives my behavior more than money, and most likely drives the behavior of my classmates as well. It shouldn’t be surprising that nonprofit CEOs don’t make as much money as for-profit CEOs. On top of that, nonprofits are often understaffed and leaders may suffer from serious burnout. So why would us MPAs put ourselves through that? Because we want to make a difference. For some of us (and I’ll blame my background at The University of Chicago for the sincerity of this statement), we want to solve big problems and aren’t afraid of hard things. Some people might hate to look back and say, “I wish I made more money.” I respect that– and to each, his own. But for me, the most heartbreaking thing that I can imagine saying is, “I wish I made a difference for someone,” or “I wish I spent my life doing something I deeply cared about.” The MPA degree helps me build the skills to accomplish the things that I care about.

 

4) MPAs want to change the world… but we’re not impractical about it

I spend every day with folks who are determined to change the world. Are we starry-eyed and optimistic? Maybe. Too impractical to be effective? Definitely not. These professionals come from top tier institutions, much like the professionals that enter top MBA programs. Moreover, as an MPA, our speakers, mentors, and professors are professionals in policy and the nonprofit sector– rather than bankers and for-profit professionals. If I were to have pursued an MBA, our speakers and mentors would be those who best understand investment banking recruiting and achieving measurable outcomes– which would be much less relevant to me and my interests. Instead, I am surrounded by future foundation CEOs, grant writers, program producers, and nonprofit directors. A frequent happy hour topic for us: how not warm-and-fuzzy it is to work tirelessly for a mission.

 

5) The future: society’s priorities are placing higher importance on social good.

Signs are pointing toward the need for corporate environments to take on social missions– or at least some corporate social responsibility. Does this mean we might see some MPAs in corporate environments changing up the system in the near future? Perhaps. Consider this: Generation Y, the incoming professional leaders, are said to run on public service motivation. Unlike Generation X, these folks would much rather work for the government than a corporate giant. They want to give back to communities. Moreover, customers are more likely to consume goods that align themselves with some sort of social mission– and communication, transparency, and connection (nonprofit focuses) are beginning to lead corporate environments. In sum, the days of caring primarily about income and individual companies may be coming to a close. In fact, that’s what The Economist predicted for 2010 when they discussed the oncoming decline of the MBA.

When young nonprofit and museum professionals spout their desire to get an MBA because that’s what they think they “should” do, I cringe. There are many incredible reasons to get an MBA and great reasons to get an MPA as well; but I think it’s the responsibility of professional-degree-advocates to know why they are choosing one degree over the other.

Posted on by colleendilen in Miscellaneous 43 Comments

Where are Museum Studies Graduate Programs Going Wrong?

Photo from success.co.il

Photo from success.co.il

Recently, I’ve come across several interesting blog posts about museology/museum studies graduate programs and everything that is going wrong or working against these graduates: they aren’t getting hired, the field is changing, and museum professionals feel like they are working for too little money. You might be thinking that these are problems that many graduates in the country are facing right now, regardless of industry. That’s what I’m thinking, too. But here’s what I find interesting: for one reason or another, significant blame is being placed on the museum studies programs themselves.

And maybe it is a problem with the current programs. After all, this post about the future of museums, by (none other than) the Center for the Future of Museums, even goes so far as to suggest an interesting and alarming solution for current problems facing the museum industry right now: Stop hiring museum studies graduates.

What’s the basis of this disconnect between museum studies programs and museums? How can these graduate programs be changed to improve the attitudes of graduates and help set more realistic expectations? Admittedly, reading up on the field does leave a museum professional (albeit not enrolled in a Museum Studies graduate program) agreeing that some things may need to be changed.

I’ve fallen madly in love with the thought-provoking ideas brought up in this post by New Curator wherein Pete (the author) serves as a strong advocate fighting for the success of recent museum studies graduates. The post contains a lot of great ideas, and triggered dialogue which has spun off into even more great ideas about ways to improve programs. I think the post is most interesting, though, because it offers a peek into the mindset of these none-too-pleased (and apparently none-too-employed) museum studies graduates.

I want join this discussion by throwing a few more ideas into the mix:

  • Perhaps a degree in Museum Studies is something in between a professional and an academic degree, and museum professionals have trouble measuring it against other areas of study

There seems to be some confusion about a master’s degree in museum studies being considered an academic degree or a professional degree– that is, does the degree provide knowledge on academic topics, or is it a degree of the professional development sort? New Curator makes it clear that a master’s degree in museum studies was—and perhaps still is– considered a professional degree by those who chose/choose to enroll in these programs.. and  it appears that in museum environments, professional and academic degree recipients are competing for the same jobs. Pete writes, “I’ve read a few things about the skepticism around academia as work training. My Christ, who let in all these Art History and Archaeology PHDs? They’re practically *running* the place and now there’s the hint that a Museum Studies qualification is unnecessary?” I cannot tell if this means that PhDs are running the museum studies programs or running the museums… but the statement, either way, indicates that PhDs are doing something that is valued by the museums.

Maybe the degree is something strangely in between an academic PhD in Art History and a professional M.B.A/ M.P.A.  Perhaps Pete is onto something when he writes, “The one thing these people [students in museum studies] are being trained in are now possibly not trained? Or not trained enough, as I notice in another comment that museums are made up of too many specialisms.” This could be the problem, in a sense. Museum studies programs may be both too specialized and not specialized enough. These graduates are competing for museum jobs with other program graduates whose degrees are undoubtedly academic/specialized (anthropology, art history, paleontology) and undoubtedly professional (business management, public policy). While academic degrees prepare candidates for curating positions, professional degrees prepare candidates for museum management. Then the question becomes does museology study the management or the content of museums? The degree’s position in the middle of these worlds can be seen as either awkward or as advantageous. Museum studies programs should play this as an advantage. It won’t be easy (there seem to be far more graduates with degrees on ends of the spectrum), but it may be worth it… and it may create a positive change for program graduates.

  • Unemployment is not unique to museum studies graduates right now, and placing graduates in full-time jobs is a difficulty that graduate programs of all varieties are facing

Museum studies graduates seem to be frustrated about their inability to get museum jobs, despite the fact that their education has groomed them to take on valuable roles within these environments. Pete writes, “The bitter taste in the museum student’s mouth was that what they thought was professional development is now considered almost useless to their future compared to the gamble of the job market or the gamble of obtaining a useful contact.” He goes onto say, “Of course, it’s criminal to take their money, hand them a piece of paper and wish them luck with a handshake. Too many graduates from the full taxonomy of museum studies courses are having to compete in the job market lottery. And it is a lottery. The most basic entry-level positions into the museum world are now getting TONS of applicants. This is a sad state of affairs.”

But this is happening everywhere. Some nonprofit organizations have seen a 1600% jump in applicants in this year alone because of the economy.  Financial firms have even spotted increased occurrences of applicants spouting lies on their resume in order to stand out from the still-growing crowd. It’s rough out there right now; it’s rough for all of us.

Moreover, shouldn’t a well qualified and passionate museum studies grad/museum job candidate be excited that more people are looking to spread the missions of museums? Don’t we evolve by integrating new people and new ideas? Though I’m specializing in nonprofit management, I’m always thrilled to learn of corporate leaders making the switch to the nonprofit world!  As museums are more and more becoming places for community engagement, doesn’t the argument that museums should only be hiring those with formal training in museum studies seem unnecessarily polarizing between the academic world and the public sphere? Museums need to be able to relate to the community; they need to employ diversity. The Center for the Future of Museums has a good bit about it in the previously mentioned article.

“You want to have an excellent Museum Studies program? Guarantee jobs.” Yes. If every graduate is guaranteed a job, then that program is producing exceptionally creative industry leaders, and everyone might consider enrolling in this miracle program, perhaps even making all other graduate and professional degrees obsolete. I agree with The Center for the Future of Museums in their most recent post: this kind of thinking is less about museum studies programs specifically, and more about a certain conception of or assumption about the U.S. Education system.

Many people might let out a laugh if someone claimed that it was the duty of the institution to make all business degree recipients into CEOs. While that may be the ultimate goal of someone getting their M.B.A. is it the responsibility of the institution to take them all the way there? No. The candidate must display ambition, creative thinking, and nurture experience. Getting a food handler’s permit gives you the opportunity to handle food– not the right to handle it. Degrees do not entitle you to anything. You have to do some work to get there. I like this post on the topic. And a typical museum studies graduate doesn’t seem so angry.

I am delighted by the creative ideas that have come from this discussion. New Curator has great ideas for recruitment, such as turning museum studies programs into headhunters and establishing a “museum milkround.” Some are even talking about museum workers unionizing.

  • Maybe the answer involves evolving to meet the changing needs of the community.

This argument traces to the basis for the Center for the Future of Museum’s potential solution to stop hiring museum studies grads. The article begins by discussing the need for diversity within museum studies programs. The post goes on to say, “We are entering an age in which people don’t just want to be lectured to by experts, they want to contribute and curate their own content. In this environment, curators may evolve from being lecturers and authors to being moderators of discussions and editors of content. This requires a different set of soft skills, and calls for a different set of training. Is this something that can be provided at the graduate level in an academic environment, or is it best learned (and consciously taught) on the job?

These are great thoughts. From focusing on soft skills, incorporating social media in the professional development of museum studies students, and creating/ maintaining strong partnerships with institutions, these programs should be preparing for the future and living in the now.

  • Consider wages in regard to the nonprofit environment in which you are working.

I’m not sure how closely museum studies graduates study other kinds of nonprofit and community organizations/ institutions, but the notion that museum studies grads are surprised to learn that they might not be paid much shocked me. I don’t buy it. And if it is true that there’s significant surprise here, I think a simple and positive change-of-mentality might be a solution: Don’t work in a museum for the money. Work in a museum for the mission.

Many museums are public or independent nonprofit organizations, and nonprofit organizations are actively trying to deal with the issue of low wages— especially in regard to some of the newest grads– members of Generation Y, a generation that values work/life balance and often values time and mission over money.

On the issue of wages, New Curator writes that museum studies grads’ work is “something just above slavery. Work hard for an indeterminate amount of time and maybe the industry will maybe reward you. The current model for improving museums through new blood is the same as parents controlling children with Santa.” But wasn’t all of the old blood new blood at one point? And if you’re doing something you love, isn’t it a little bit more worth it?

I’m glad to see the ongoing dialogue about the profession, the industry, and the programs. I’m thrilled to have this peek into the concerns of recent grads and potential museum studies students. I have no doubt that these conversations will lead to an improvement. After all, according to Thomas Edison:

Restlessness and discontent are the first necessities of progress.”

Posted on by colleendilen in Trends 26 Comments