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missions

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 right now.

“Are museums perceived as experts – and are they trusted? To what extent?” These are the questions that I hoped to shine a light upon when I requested a topic-specific data cut on cultural organizations from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study. The NAAU is an ongoing study regarding market perceptions of visitor-serving organizations and it currently quantifies feedback from over 108,000 respondents. The resulting data reveal important takeaways for museums today – and specifically underscore an important role that the market expects museums to play. As a heads-up, the data below is cut for the United States market and not only high-propensity visitors. In other words, this isn’t simply “what people who believe in climate change” think about museums.

The data and analysis in this article contribute to several debates taking place in the visitor-serving industry right now from crowd-curated exhibits and the “education vs. entertainment” debate, to implications regarding participation in last week’s March for Science. Knowing how much people trust museums is important information for developing relevant and sustainable organizations. But data reveal that being trusted comes with the responsibility to communicate action and recommend mission-driven behaviors.

Hey museums, you have the superpower of public trust. Like your superpower of being facilitators of shared experiences, you may not even realize the importance of this superpower. Remember: Your organization may declare importance, but the market determines relevance. Here’s what the market thinks about cultural organizations when it comes to credibility, trust, and their duty to the communities they serve.

 

Museums are highly credible sources of information

Aquariums, art museums, history museums, science centers/museums, natural history museums, and zoos are highly credible sources of information. And, as the data indicate, these values aren’t merely “good,” they’re rather fantastic! With values in the upper-seventies, there is a strong level of agreement with the statement “[Entity type] is a highly credible source of information.”

While the strength of the sentiment may or may not surprise you, what is notable are the perceptions of museums as credible sources when compared to NGOs, federal agencies, and even the daily newspaper. Yes, folks, museums are trusted more than the daily newspaper.

The NGO category includes non-governmental organizations that are not museums. The mean values at 64.2 for NGOs and 61.3 for state agencies indicate a relative level of credibility – with perceptions largely influenced by the degree to which the respective NGO or agency conforms to the respondent’s worldview.  For example, no matter what the integrity of the information published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an avowed climate change denier is unlikely to find the NRDC unassailably credible. Federal agencies (with a mean value of 51.4), represent an even more bifurcated public view – which makes sense in our current partisan condition.

These data tie into the never-ending “education vs. entertainment” priority debate within visitor-serving organizations. It’s a never-ending debate because there isn’t a clear winner. Data suggest that cultural organizations need to be both entertaining and educational in order to succeed, though they play different roles in the visitor experience. It’s also a never-ending debate because – although the two may be unstoppable when they team up – the topic has become stupidly polarizing among some industry professionals. It’s divided within some organizations (e.g. education vs. marketing departments) and outside of them (e.g. topic-experts vs. museum consultants). Again, they play different roles, but we really should write a ‘thank you’ note to whomever invented that silly/awesome word “edu-tainment.” (Anybody know his or her address?)

Entertainment value is critical for an organization’s solvency and success, but organizations that veer too far on the “entertainment” side of things risk losing the reputational equity of credibility. And it’s an area in which museums shine.

 

Museums are trusted

Not only are museums viewed as highly credible sources of information, they are also trusted entities overall. This type of trust is not to be taken lightly, and it’s a testament to organizations that stand by their missions to educate and inspire audiences.

This is important information for all museums contemplated in these data, and it is especially worthy of an extra look for zoos and aquariums. Zoos and aquariums are trusted by the market at-large…and rather significantly so. I point this out because it lends context to some of the debates taking place in the zoo and aquarium world regarding captive animals. Certainly, IMPACTS data reveal stark trend lines regarding perceptions of exhibits such as dolphin shows, but the market at large still largely trusts zoos and aquariums to evolve and make value-based decisions driven by their missions. This is not an excuse for zoos and aquariums not to listen up and evolve alongside market perceptions of “right” and “wrong” (to the extent that they may/may not be evolving). It’s the opposite. It’s a reminder not to let people down.

It may be argued that museums are trusted because they employ and/or consult topic experts and thus provide expert content. That might be it, friends! Regardless: Trusted, they are.

These data also provide aid for thinking about crowd-curated exhibits. The market views museums as expert sources of information. While crowd-curated exhibits certainly can be an effective way to engage the public depending on how they are administrated and actualized, they also risk perceptually undermining a museum’s own hard-earned trust and credibility. Engagement is super great! Engagement that results in a greater loss of equity than the payoff (especially when there are other avenues for engagement) is not super great.

 

Museums are not seen as having political agendas

Here’s how these data fit in with the rest: They underscore that museums are seen as factual and impartial – more so than government agencies and the daily newspaper.

Are museums trusted because they are not seen as having political agendas? Maybe, but you can only stick the landing there if you jump to some conclusions. While I am sharing this alongside trust and credibility metrics, I’m not yet certain of the exact nature of the relationship between being political and being trustworthy as it relates to visitor-serving organizations – and neither are you. (If you don’t have data, then you have an opinion. That’s cool, but it doesn’t count here. Mine doesn’t, either.) There’s more to these values – and they are interesting and worth putting on our thinking caps to explore.

“Political” may understandably correlate with having connection to or trying to influence policy. This may be the reason why aquariums and zoos indicate a higher level of agreement with the statement, despite having lower levels of government funding and more earned revenue imperative than other visitor-serving entities. Some zoos and aquariums encourage audiences to vote in a certain direction (e.g. in favor of plastic bag bans). It makes sense that NGOs may have the strongest perception of having a political agenda – they openly do things like encourage people to fight global warming and feed the homeless. Federal and state agencies being perceived as having a political agenda seems to make good sense, too, from where I stand.

Confidence in cultural organizations took a plunge after the presidential election, and it remains low. The New York Times reports that we are divided in terms of consumer optimism: Some of us have great confidence in the economy, and some of us don’t. Unfortunately, those who profile as high-propensity visitors to cultural organizations largely fall in the “don’t” category. The reason for this dip seems to be concern that organizations are not standing by their missions (e.g. science museums remaining oddly quiet when confronted with “alternative facts” concerning climate change, or concern about board members that don’t support an organization’s mission running the show). In sum, this may not be a matter of “being political,” but rather one of integrity.

Indeed, taking a political stand for the sake of taking a political stand seems like it may be mission drift for most organizations. However, recent happenings suggest that when your mission is pinned against a “politicized” topic, standing up for your mission wins. This is illustrated by the data-informed success seen at MoMA when they highlighted artwork by artists from countries impacted by the original Muslim-majority nation travel ban.

Museums are viewed as impartial entities, and this may be because they are trusted to present the facts with expertise. Where things get messy is when an organization’s very mission becomes politicized. Or perhaps more simply: when facts become politicized.

 

People believe that museums should recommend action

This data set is probably the most important. People believe that museums should suggest or recommend certain behaviors or ways for the general public to support their causes and missions. Got that? People think that it’s the job of museums to recommend behaviors. That’s huge, and it’s likely tied to the combined force of the high levels of trust and credibility that these organizations possess.

Consider that recommending action is not the same as “being political.” Recommending things like cutting down on single use plastics (as a zoo or aquarium may advise) or contributing funding for art programs that an organization carries out (as an art museum may recommend), may not be seen as necessarily “political” to the market, but rather seen as an organization walking its talk in terms of supporting its mission. The data doesn’t specifically support museums recommending protesting (for instance). The data support organizations leveraging the trust that the market has in them to suggest behaviors that underscore their missions – which the market perceives not to be innately political.

Museums are becoming forums for community engagement on important issues related to their missions, and that may be a terrific thing. Museums are heroes for their missions, and there’s incredible potential to lead the charge in helping to actualize these missions. That’s an important superpower – and it’s an enormously humbling responsibility.

Museums, zoos, and aquariums are highly trusted to produce and output content and information. They are viewed as expert, factual, and impartial – more so than government agencies and even daily newspapers. The market – which generally doesn’t like to be told what to do in today’s connected world – is even willing to accept prescriptive recommendations from museums.

Museums are experts. Museums can make expert recommendations, and people believe that they should do just that. To shirk this market-determined capability for influence may be the greatest blow to an organization’s mission of all. Data suggest that museums may play a role in leading us all toward a more educated, connected, and inspired world…if they are willing to take up the calling.

 

(Credit: The header photo on this article comes from the Field Museum’s totally watch-worthy #DayOfFacts video.)

 

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:

 

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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, IMPACTS Data, Myth Busting, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 7 Comments

People, Planet, Profit: Checks and Balances for Cultural Organizations

It’s a time of change and evaluation for cultural organizations – and that’s a good thing.

The societal current condition in the United States is bringing to light several challenging – and likely incredibly beneficial – fundamental questions about cultural organizations, including who we are and what we stand for. Are these necessarily the same questions that we would have chosen to confront at this moment of our own accord? Probably not…but, confronting these (perhaps inconvenient) challenges may be long overdue for many cultural executives and board members.

As I wrote last week: We’re not political organizations – but we are social and cultural organizations – and we exist in the prevailing context of what is happening in the world around us. Negative substitution of the historic visitor is taking its slow toll on attendance numbers, and visitor confidence is low right now. (I know, I know: Select organizations are experiencing modest upticks in attendance – but, in general, these modest increases are not keeping pace with population growth. Adjusting for population growth can be a bummer that can turn our “increased attendance party” into a “pity party.”)

It’s time for a check-up. It’s time to ask ourselves some difficult questions in order to make sure that our organizations are prepared to tackle strategic issues that may or may not confront our organizations during periods of change. It’s time to make sure that we are prepared.

Enter: Colleen (hi there) and some brief thought-fuel informed from conversations with colleagues over the last few weeks as we revisit visitor-serving organization basics, explore strategic plans, and challenge fundamental questions at a moment in time when knowing who your organization is and what it stands for is critical.

 

The triple bottom lines for cultural organizations

In order for us visitor-serving organizations to “work,” we generally need to master three, key areas that serve as our triple bottom lines as nonprofit organizations: People (community), Planet (mission), and Profit (or, more accurately, revenues). Our success depends upon all three of these core areas of people, planet, and profit, and we’re only as strong as our weakest core area. Each “bottom line” category may spawn some interesting – and likely beneficial – strategic conversations:

 

 

Profit (Revenue)

Revenue aids your organization in cultivating visitation and building community, and is necessary for investments in your mission. Hold the cringe, mission-focused folks! If we cannot keep our doors open and be financially sustainable, then we cannot fulfill our purpose. Revenues make it possible for us to pursue our missions. We need to care about solvency. Some organizations are more dependent on the gate while others are more dependent on grants and government funding. Regardless of how your organization keeps its lights on, less money usually means less mission delivery.

Questions to consider: What if grants and government funding become less available? Does your organization have enough market appeal and business strategy to exist on its own? After all, the market determines our success, regardless of how we keep our doors open. Are we approaching access opportunities in a way that is most beneficial to our solvency? It’s an important time for organizations to understand access basics and reconsider their engagement funnels. In a simplified nutshell: Likely visitors attend your organization by paying your optimal admission price; likely supporters visit by way of membership or donor groups; and lower-income and other under-served audiences visit by virtue of your organization’s investment in targeted access programs.

Relevant context: Contemplating these opportunities and how they relate to your organization (for starters), can help channel discussions about how your organization keeps itself afloat. While nothing has happened yet, funding from NEA, NEH and other government-supported sources may be in peril. Additionally, US-based institutions may benefit by remembering the difficult situation recently faced by many museums in Europe when austerity measures reduced government funding. While we may not ultimately lose significant funding and government support as a sector, it would be irresponsible to not consider these possibilities and what they would mean for our organizations. No matter how your organization keeps its doors open (admission revenues, donations, government or foundation funding, endowment dividends, etc.), now is a good time to do a check-in and play the “what if?” game.

 

People (Community)

People keep our doors open and also make our missions possible, as many organizations have missions that revolve around people and communities. The need to be welcoming has never been greater for cultural organizations because our historic audiences are leaving the market at a higher rate than they are being replaced (a phenomenon called negative substitution of the historic visitor). Many organization types are confronting challenging negative attitude affinities, meaning that people don’t feel that these types of organizations may be “places for people like them.”

Questions to consider: Who and what matters most to our organizations? Whose opinion do we care about: Emerging audiences upon whom our future depends, or the sensitivities of unlikely visitors who might be put-off by science or culture? How do we mobilize people and communities to serve our missions – and, when it comes to cultivating communities during periods of conflict and social division, what roles do we play? At our core, cultural organizations are hubs of human connection. That is our superpower. To what extent do we nurture our community and provide a space for discussion, and to what extent do we avoid this very role for fear of polarization? Is inaction also an action? It appears to be. Do we truly welcome all, or do we welcome only certain audiences? It’s time to be honest about this.

Relevant US context: It’s been reported that we are currently a nation divided and hate crimes have increased. Now may be a time when cultural organizations are called upon to stand up for emerging audiences, and, in the process, cultivate them as attendees and supporters. Some organizations are already defending communities, though those are still tending to be the organizations whose participation is logical (i.e. the Holocaust Museum). If social polarization continues, it may be likely that all kinds of visitor-serving organizations will need to fight harder against appearing unwelcoming.

Ours has perhaps become a Protest-of-the-Day society where a pithy hashtag defines the movement of the moment as folks figure out how to organize to make their stances known. This risks reaction – or, even worse, inaction – from cultural organizations frightened by the perceived risks of audience alienation. However, what we sometimes fail to recognize is that our efforts to remain impartial may be discordant with our missions – and may risk alienating the very people most likely to engage with our organizations. Consider the below data from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study that organizes the US public’s intent to visit a cultural organization by their belief that climate change is mostly due to man made activities.:

What these data suggest is that a person who strongly believes in the science indicating man’s role in climate change is 1.76x more likely to visit a cultural organization in the relative near-term than someone who denies man’s role as a primary contributor to climate change. In fact, the data suggest that persons who don’t believe that man is responsible for climate change are generally less likely visitors to cultural enterprise – which makes sense: If one doesn’t believe in man’s role in climate change – or even in the science of climate change – then why would one waste their time and money visiting a natural history museum, aquarium, zoo, science center, or science museum where science plays a central role in the organization’s mission and programming?

We live in an era of incredible personalization, and this increasingly means self-selection. Significant portions of the public choose to engage with activities and information sources that conform to their existing worldview. As the public becomes less omnivorous in its consumptions, organizations risk becoming unappetizing to people by choosing the bland middle ground.

 

Planet (Mission)

Our missions are the reason for our existence. They motivate people to visit and support, and they also bring people together. Nearly all cultural organizations have missions that revolve around people (educate, inspire), and some also go beyond this to include messages of conservation or preservation. Having a mission doesn’t just make us feel good. Organizations that highlight their missions financially outperform those marketing primarily as attractions. An organization being perceived as “walking its talk” is critical for success.

Questions to consider: What are we doing to make the world better? How? Will we have the courage to take a stand for our missions? To what extent are we willing to honor our missions, and what trade-offs are we willing to accept to defend our missions? Will we have trouble with our board? Will would-be donors be upset if we pursue our missions? Will our board members support our mission even if it contravenes their personal or professional preferences? (Which, of course, begs the question of if we should have board members who disagree with our mission in the first place?) Do we have any conflicts of interest that fly in the face of our mission? How can we resolve these conflicts?

Relevant US context: Science and culture are being politicized. Though we are not political organizations, there are choices to be made that may risk politicization. Some things that we protect and cherish as part of our missions may be threatened by government actions, including access to the arts, climate, oceans, animal species extinction, and even fundamental aspects of education. Nonprofit organizations have missions, and it will be important for organizations to have honest conversations at a board and leadership level about dedication to the mission.

 

For organizations to thrive, they need to have all three elements of people, planet, and profit in-check. Much of the change that could be triggered by possible policy changes would have been inevitable. Cultural organizations need to reach new audiences. In an increasingly transparent world, we need to be asking hard questions. These challenges and changes may not be “bad” at all! To the contrary, if anything, these changes may simply speed up the necessary evolution of the visitor-serving industry.

Again, it all comes back to people, planet, and profit. To quote School House Rock talking about our three-ring government, “Everybody’s act is part of the show and no one’s job is more important. The audience is kinda like the country, you know, keeping an eye on their performance.” Regardless of your political leanings and policy preferences, now is a good time to take a look at how your organization manages its people, planet, and profit – the checks and balances that ensure your future vitality.

 

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:

 

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

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Financial Solvency, IMPACTS Data, Nonprofit Marketing, Sector Evolution, Trends 1 Comment