Audience Insights: Organizations Overlook the Most Important Clues

Clues for increased satisfaction and visitation are often right under the noses of cultural organizations. I frequently hear executive leaders Read more

Do Expansions Increase Long-Term Attendance? (DATA)

Sometimes it feels like nearly every cultural organization is taking on a major expansion project. But do these projects Read more

Over 60% of Recent Visitors Attended Cultural Organizations As Children (DATA)

You may have guessed it was true – but here’s why this statistic matters. The idea that those who visit Read more

Cultural Organizations: It Is Time To Get Real About Failures

Hey cultural organizations! Do you know what we don’t do often enough? Talk about our failures. It’s a huge, Read more

How Annual Timeframes Hurt Cultural Organizations

Some cultural executives still aim for short-term attendance spikes at the expense of long-term financial solvency – and they Read more

Special Exhibits vs. Permanent Collections (DATA)

Special exhibits don’t do what many cultural organizations think that they do. If fact, they often do the opposite. Read more


Cultural Organizations: It Is Time To Get Real About Failures

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

(Okay. That’s fair…on all accounts.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Failure and learning are critical for success.


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

How Museums Can Use Social Media to Engage Different Types of Learners

*Can’t see the chart because you are receiving this post via email? Check it out here.

Social Media and online engagement helps museums to reach more people more effectively by communicating content in ways that resonate with different types of learners. In this way, social media can be seen not only as a marketing tool, but a method of engagement for community building– and above all, a tool for learning.

Many have likely heard of the three most widely acknowledged types of learners: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. In Dr. Bruce D. Friedman’s book, How to Teach Effectively, he identifies a fourth type of learner: the reader-writer. I have included it in the chart above because I believe that the onset of the increasing popularity of online tools has given this kind of learner a bit more spotlight in recent years. According to psychologists, most people identify strongly with one of the particular learning profiles mentioned above. Though it’s thought that folks have one main learning style, it’s more likely that an individual learns through a combination of these methods, with one or two standing out has the most prominent.

Museums are heaven for kinesthetic learners, but what about other kinds of learners? An interactive museum is an ideal informal learning environment for a kinesthetic learner who retains information and gains understanding through hands-on activities.  It would be crazy to think that museums aren’t, in many ways, heaven for certain kinds of visual and auditory learners as well. But social media and the unspoken call-to-action for involvement that comes with increased social connectivity allows folks to learn from the museum- even when they are no longer at the museum.

  • Visual Learners– These individuals learn best from pictures, videos, diagrams, and visualization. YouTube and Flickr serve as powerful ways to reach and engage these learners from home. Facebook is a secondary tool because it allows fans to be connected to a museum’s YouTube and Flickr accounts. In other words, it allows links to these sites to come from one aggregated place– assuming your museum posts statuses that connect to other social media accounts. Moreover, Facebook allows visual learners to observe a sort-of timeline of organizational happenings. This way of showing a museum’s news is helpful to a visual learner. Museums can reach this audience via social media by updating Flickr and YouTube accounts with content related to the museum or the area it covers.
  • Auditory Learners- These natural listeners would rather have something explained to them than to read it. Want to get their attention? A podcast should work. YouTube can also serve as a powerful platform for engaging auditory learners, and it’s a tool with twice the power when used with folks who are a part visual and part auditory learner. Museums can reach this audience via social media by creating a podcast or explaining inner-workings of the museum or topics of interest on YouTube.
  • Read/Write Learners- These learners like to see things in writing, and many often need to get their thoughts down on paper (or on a computer screen) in order to take reflection to the next level. It seems as though social media is ideal for these learners, as reading and writing are strongly connected to the Internet, and it the primary method of communicating via social networks. It makes sense that these learners would like social media sites like Facebook and Twitter which allow them to read-up on happenings while also providing the opportunity to contribute. I’d guess that most bloggers and blog commentors are read/write learners. Museums can reach this audience via social media by hosting active Facebook and Twitter accounts and maintaining a blog which allows for site visitor contributions.

In sum: while museums are beneficial for kinesthetic learners and other types of learners as well, social media provides an opportunity for museums to engage these learners in a new way. When responsibility for social media is shared among departments within a museum (or content is created in collaboration), the opportunities for spreading the museum’s mission increases. As a side thought, I wonder if for folks there is both a preferred way to learn in general and a preferred way to learn online. For instance, I think even kinesthetic learners have another preference for learning online. Learning from resources on the Internet is commonplace though we frequently have to be wary of our sources. There’s an opportunity for museums to help “own” a chunk of online learning– and social media may be just the key.

Like the photos of kinesthetic learning in action above? The first photo of the Arizona Science Center, the other is from a very cool article about the California Science Center.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Nonprofit Marketing, Trends 3 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