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the future

How Nonprofits Use Language as a Barrier to Progress

Inigo Montoya - You keep using that word

Want to be a relevant, digitally engaging, and future-facing organization? You may be starting out on the wrong track. While it seems like a no-brainer, the first step is to actually understand what those words mean…because it seems that many executive leaders and staff members may not.

Before you skim ahead and chalk up these issues to “semantics,” consider that when a term is used incorrectly by leadership within an institution, other members of the organization begin to use it in the same way. When these important – and, definitionally, misunderstood – terms become “cheat” words for industry evolution, problems emerge. At the very least, the organization (if not the industry) is destined to be laggard until we either get the meanings right or someone creates a NEW word to represent the thing that the original word should have meant in the first place.  These matters of “semantics” are misguiding our industry.

Misusing (or perhaps unintentionally “redefining”) important concepts for strategic evolution happens constantly. I see it in my work every day – not to mention in public communications from nonprofit CEOs. Perhaps it’s because I’m a digital native myself, or because I work primarily with Baby Boomers to whom these words may seem relatively new in a contemporary context, or because I’m constantly in the thick of conversations regarding strategic change with my clients…but I find myself consistently feeling like Inigo Montoya (without the cool ‘stache) when words like “relevant,” “digital,” “engagement,” and the “future” come up. Interestingly, it seems that the meanings of these four important words have been jumbled together.

Cheating ourselves by not truly considering the meanings of these words may be playing a role in declining attendance to visitor-serving organizations and their increasingly grim business models. It’s certainly not helping us correct the effects of negative substitution facing the industry.

Let’s dive into these examples. Here are those four words that nonprofits often “cheat” themselves out of by (knowingly or unknowingly) redefining their meanings. In no particular order, ladies and gentleman…

 

1) Relevant (vs. current)

It seems that when someone asks, “How can we make our organization more relevant?” the proposed solutions involve tactics that are current (e.g. utilizing social media, providing analysis of a current event on a blog, or adding a widget to a website). But what if the question was phrased, “How can we make our organization more meaningful to our constituents?” (That, folks, is the true opportunity embedded within the word “relevant.”) When we use or interpret “relevant” to mean “current,” we miss the boat on more important conversations with greater potential to elevate individual organizations and the industry at large.

Being relevant is about connectivity, not content. Connectivity is king. Being current can certainly go a long way in making your organization more relevant to individuals, but promulgating the use of “relevance” to instead imply “current” shortcuts important conversations about how to actually connect with constituents and inspire them to act in the interest of your organization’s mission.

 

2) Engagement (vs. social media interaction)

Without a doubt, fostering engagement is critical for securing support in the information age. The more folks feel a connection with your organization by whatever means, the more relevant (yes, the real meaning of the word) an organization may become. Like being “relevant,” “engagement” is about connectivity. It heightens an organization’s ability to foster feelings of affinity that motivate a desired behavior.

Engagement actually means “to become involved in.” Engagement does not mean, “create a moment of semi-detached, low-level maybe-interest on a trackable social media platform”…so let’s stop using it that way. We miss out on important discussions about impact and strategy (and confuse ourselves by further  contributing to the social media data dilemma) when we reduce “engagement” to simply mean something like “Facebook likes.”

 

3) Digital strategy (vs. technological skillset)

I’ve saved the two most important for last. Industry misuse of the word “digital” may be the entire reason why many organizations aren’t very good at translating it into visits, membership, financial support, or even lasting engagement. Here’s a truth bomb: “Digital strategies” are actually real-life, human-being engagement strategies. As much as many folks working in organizations want to write “all things digital” off to the IT guys (or even the marketing department alone), humans do not think in HTML. Technological skillsets come in handy when deploying tactical, isolated aspects of these strategies. In other words, “digital strategies” are not necessarily about platforms, but about people. So executives should really stop saying, “I don’t understand that” as an excuse for digital illiteracy. This actually translates into, “I know nothing about how to engage our audiences – particularly on their preferred platforms – and I probably should not continue to hold my current position given how remarkably unqualified I am relative to the moment.” The data is pretty unassailable on this front.

Want to dig deeper into this dilemma? Here are five reasons why conceptually separating out “digital” is a problem that is making it harder for nonprofits to succeed.

 

4) Future (vs. present)

Talking about the “future” of organizations may be holding them back. Many industry resources supposedly focusing on “the future” are actually communicating about emerging trends that are happening right now…and when we call them “the future” we do ourselves a grave disservice for several reasons. (For a full run-down, check out this article.) Among those is the fact that calling things that are happening in the present “the future” excuses putting off critical issues, implies uncertainty (even though the data is anything but uncertain), and this misuse of the word also fosters a false and undeserved sense of “innovation” when many organizations are not even keeping up with the day-to-day realities of the world that we live in.

 

These “matters of semantics” are playing big roles in the progress (or lack thereof) of nonprofits and visitor-serving organizations. My hope is that by identifying these “cheats” we may open our minds (and our mouths) to having bigger, more meaningful conversations about the future of our own organizations and nonprofits at large.

 

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 colleendilen in Big ideas, Community Engagement, Museums, Nonprofit Marketing, Nonprofits, Public Management, Social Media, Technology, The Future, Words of Wisdom Leave a comment

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

Marketoonist- Risks

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

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

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

Here’s why:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

4 Valuable Online Resources for Museum Futurists. No…Right Now-ists.

There are six practices of high-impact nonprofits, according to Crutchfield and Grant’s findings in their book, Forces for Good. One of the central six? Nurture Nonprofit Networks. It means share knowledge (grow the pie, work together for change…) Knowledge sharing is a practice that nearly all of the world’s most impactful nonprofits have in common.

Nurturing networks and spreading best practices is one of many things that sets the nonprofit sector apart from the private sector, and it may be one of the biggest differentiations. You won’t catch Thomas’ English Muffins freely giving away the secret to their “nooks and crannies” just to bring the entire world (competitors included) one step closer to creating the perfect English muffin. If they can’t do it, they don’t want anyone else to do it. But nonprofits will put themselves out of business if it means bringing the world one step closer to a common goal.

People are becoming a bit like organizations as individuals build personal brands and play important roles in information dissemination to advance social change. A museum must be conscious of its brand and the professional advantages supplied by the institution. But a museum should not overlook the more personal/professional advantages that can be leveraged when museum employees have the tools they need to connect and engage with other professionals If nurturing nonprofit networks creates high-impact nonprofits, then certainly nurturing nonprofiteer networks leads to even higher-impact nonprofits.

These are four basic online resources for arming museum professionals with the social technology tools needed to embrace new media and encourage both sector transition and innovation:

 

1. MUSEUM 3Museum 3 is a nonprofit organization dedicated to exploring the future of the cultural institution sector. Since it began in 2007 as a social network, Museum3 has grown to almost 3000 members from across the world. In 2010 Museum3 incorporated into a not-for-profit organisation. This has allowed us to plan for extended services including conferences, masterclasses, public talks, new partnerships and new cultural products including podcasts and vodcasts.” One of the reasons why I think that this site is so cool is because it’s international. Talk about sharing the knowledge.

 

2. MUSEUM-ID: Another cool connecting site is MUSEUM-id, which is also run through Ning and called an “ideas exchange and social network for museum professionals.” Let’s not go nuts here- neither of these social networks is booming with the activity of your Facebook or Twitter feed, but when you consider that these social spaces exist to exchange ideas with similarly-interested professionals, the spaces are pretty darn cool and extremely useful.

 

3. MUSE TECH CENTRAL: How did I find the leads for so many of these innovative museum social technologies? I started out on Muse Tech Central. I adore it. Muse Tech Central is the Museum Computer Network project registry and it’s a gold mine of museum inspiration. It’s pretty simple, too: it is a list of new and ongoing technology-based projects taking place in museums.

 

3. CFM’s RESEARCH ROUND-UP: Recommending AAM’s  Center for The Future of Museums to museum futurists (right now-ists) is like recommending Mashable for a social media fan; it’s been done and you probably already know a lot about it. Yes, the blog is awesome… but have you checked out their Research Round-Ups? They have everything from academic findings to news articles to essays to commentary. It’s a great complement to the weekly Dispatches from the Future of Museums that you can sign up to have arrive in your inbox, but I don’t see the Research Round-up celebrated as frequently. Knowing what research has been uncovered can be a powerful tool for your museum. Why reinvent the wheel? It helps to take a look at what we’ve figured out thus far.

 

Getting involved in these networks and checking out these websites probably shouldn’t replace normal social media activities like engaging professionals in your network on Facebook and Twitter- but it’s a great start and a terrific complement to those efforts. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that keeping an eye on these resources will keep you smarter than the average museum social media guru. Not to mention, they’ll keep you thinking, questioning the future, and preparing for new ways to engage audiences online.

*Header image from The Nonprofit Quarterly

Posted on by colleendilen in Community Engagement, Leadership, Management, Museums, Nonprofit Marketing, Nonprofits, Social Change, Social Media, Technology, The Future, Words of Wisdom 1 Comment

5 Ways That Social Media May Replace NYC as the Center of Creative Development

Elizabeth Currid's book, The Warhol Economy, discusses the elements that produce NYC's one-of-a-kind creative industry. But what if these elements don't belong only to NYC anymore?

I let out a laugh when I saw last week’s Onion article, 8.4 Million New Yorkers Suddenly Realize New York City A Horrible Place to Live. It seemed especially silly to me, as I’d just finished Elizabeth Currid’s, The Warhol Economy- a book that identifies the unique characteristics that have made NYC an international mecca of creative production. Despite the fact that the book raves about the benefits of NYC’s unique environment for artists and the career development of creatives, the Onion article got me questioning the future of this city.

Some of the key social and economic qualities that have made New York City so successful as a place for creative and cultural career development have been (and, I would guess, will continue to be) replaced by online social networks. “Every generation has its own neighborhood,” Zac Posen said of NYC to Currid during an interview mentioned in the book. I predict that for Generation Y, and perhaps increasingly for the generations following us, that neighborhood will not be Chelsea or the West Village. It will be online.

Here’s how social media and online networks match up to the key elements that secured NYC’s reputation as an international center for creative development:

 

1. Low economic barriers to entry in the community

Utilizing social media is catching on quick, and is a relatively cheap endeavour. The rise of New York City as an international hub of creativity also arose from low barriers to entry. Namely, the recession of the 1970s created cheap rents that allowed artists to focus more time and energy on their artwork instead of taking up second jobs to make ends meet. Artists bought up low-rent spaces in many of the same neighborhoods, resulting in communities of creatives with a little more time on their hands and getting a little more bang for their buck. All you needed then was a little bit of money (to afford rent), something to say, and the ability to relocate to New York. In order to enter an online community today, the barriers for entry are even lower. You don’t need to move to New York. You just need a little bit of money (to afford a computer) and that same something to say.

 

2. Production with no real regard for economic growth

There are more than 900,000 blog posts put up on the Internet every 24 hours. Why do we blog? The answers may be shockingly similar to those of “why do we make art?” Some people blog for emotional release or to create a connectedness with the world. Some people blog to make money, but a lot more people (including myself), blog to create symbolic capital. In other words, to gain or maintain regard as a professional in the field you’re writing about. (I utilize my human capital to discuss social capital on this blog to build my symbolic capital! Yes, these are the things your brain comes up with when you are in grad school…) In fact, according to Pew Internet and American Life Project, to make money is the least common reason why people blog. The main reason? Creative expression. Social media and online expression share the same emotional (and similar economic) fuel that drives NYC’s creative community.

 

3. Utilizing and building weak ties

In her book on NYC’s creative economy, Currid cites the work of Dr. Mark Granovetter who has published significant studies on the importance of “weak ties.” He found that the ties that were farther away  from us (versus our close-knit friends) were most influential in creating success. People with the most weak ties are in the greatest position to “diffuse innovation.” While having social exchanges with random folks on the street in New York City does create weak ties, it’s much less hard to imagine how social media promotes these kinds of relationships. Also, social media makes it easier to track weak ties. One needs only to check their @replies on Twitter to get a good sense of the weak ties they’ve created. Social media is a large network of these weak ties. And more than that, they are more easily tracked and weak ties can more easily grow stronger through social networks than meeting someone on the street in NYC- a method that has worked for generations before.

 

4. The ease of peer review and access to gatekeepers

Listen to the story of any great artist in NYC and they will tell you the stain of people that they met that helped them get to the top. In NYC, there are places where ‘the cool kids’ hang out. There are places to see and be seen. It’s not a stretch to say that there are a hierarchy of sites upon which bloggers and social medialites aim to be mentioned or linked. My boyfriend’s startup sees a greater rise in visitors when it’s mentioned on Mashable than when it’s mentioned on a random blog. The higher the site is on the totem pole, the more likely your work is to be seen by gatekeepers- key people in your industry with the power to aid you in achieving success. This is the same way it works in posh nightclubs, bars, and museum events in NYC. The reason online interactions may have the upper-hand? They are remote.

 

5. More creative people leads to economic productivity

You don’t need to be in New York anymore to have access to the most influential gatekeepers, or to get attention for your cause or story. The game is changing. In New York City, the above factors created ideal conditions for the spread, sharing, and development of creatives. Similarly, on web, the above factors create ideal conditions for the spread and development of creatives– but also for non-creatives. In a sense, New York just got bigger. Now it’s the entire world. Or rather, anyone with a computer or access to the library.

Social media networks have other advantages that NYC (or any physical location) lacks. This may change our idea of location as ideas are spread freely with no regard to physical region. For instance, time plays a different role. You don’t have one chance to hand over your business card- as you might when running into an ideal client on the street that you may never see again. You can send a message (or respond to that message) at your leisure. This may lead to more strategic communications. Also, places with more people see more economic activity, and for that very fact, it is a good idea to know what’s happening online.

*These five points are based upon select points in Currid’s The Warhol Economy: How Fashion, Art and Music Drive New York City. Check out the book to learn more about how they relate to NYC’s economy and social structure.

Posted on by colleendilen in Arts, Big ideas, Blogging, Book Reviews, Social Media, Technology, The Future, Uncategorized 2 Comments

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 Education, Generation Y, Graduate school, Leadership, Management, Museums, Nonprofits, Public Management, Public Service Motivation, Social Change, The Future, Words of Wisdom 43 Comments