In our last post, we explored the new shift in philanthropic priorities, and our fears that museums are simply going to be left out of new opportunities for funding while existing opportunities disappear. It is a fearful prospect.
But it doesn’t have to be.
One of the biggest challenges we see, to be absolutely blunt, is that museums really, really stink at making a case for themselves. When asked, they tend to borrow arguments from other fields or make statements that they just cannot back up, such as:
- We are economic engines! Honestly, if this one really stuck, museums would be well-funded. But it doesn’t stick and other businesses, nonprofit and for profit, can make this case much better.
- We educate people! OK, yes, museums do, but so do schools, parents, extra-curricular activities, etc. Why are museums better at this than other methods? (And no points for anecdotal evidence.)
- We inspire people! Two words: who cares? Inspiration doesn’t mean a whole lot. What people do with that inspiration, now that is what matters. Do you have that data for me? (And remember, no points for anecdotal evidence.) Didn’t think so.
So let’s look at a totally different example and see what it can tell us. James recently saw a presentation by someone who had worked for the Gates Foundation and the White House, but now serves as CEO for a non-profit single-sex school system serving at-risk youth. What was particularly interesting about his presentation was the title and focus: "The Making of Americans." It wasn't about test scores, getting kids into college, or politics. It was about a higher calling. A higher calling that succeeds and gets the support it needs from impact-driven donors.
While that higher calling resonates for some and not with others, that's likely to happen for any institution. But it's a bold higher calling, with the data that proves you are effective at fulfilling it, that garners support that enables success.
What is your museum's higher calling? Is it something people care about? How is it that you can deliver it better than anyone else? And how do you measure the long-term outcomes to understand how effective you are at achieving that higher calling? Only when you figure all this out, put together a strategy that works, and back it up with the data to show your effectiveness, can you begin the task of expanding your pools of funding and competing successfully for new philanthropic dollars.
The thing is, however, unless you are sitting on an extremely well-managed and fat endowment, you have no choice but to figure this out. Otherwise, obsolescence is likely ahead for your beloved museum.
These types of questions have become obsessions for us, and we'll be sharing snippets from some of that work and thinking over the coming months. The types of topics we may try to release on this blog include:
- Identifying problems with and opportunities to improve theories of change and logic models
- Building more meaningful linkage between theories of change and intended impact
- Assessing why creating a real strategy (which should not be confused with the strategic plan) is so challenging for most museums
- Identifying the power that museums really deliver
- Proving the difference museums make . . . and building a true case for support for museums, not one that is unproven or borrowed from others
We believe museums are important, and that with the right questions, research, thinking, and hard work museums can break out of the downward cycle they are in, both in terms of philanthropy AND attendance. We also have our own research-driven hypotheses that we think, with continued research and testing, may help give us a much stronger sense of the unique contributions museums make to communities and society (and that those contributions are valuable and fundable). Additionally, our clients are beginning to test some of our hypotheses and seeing positive results. While we don’t, by any means, have this nut cracked, our goal is to help museums crack this nut and thrive in the future.
What do you think? Simply click on “comments” below to share your thoughts (and if you are reading this from your e-mail subscription, go to our blog to comment).