"I can't see any reason why any of us in this room would spend our time and money serving on a museum board with a few dozen others who aren't generating any significant impact."
- Graduate school classmate of James’s
“Quoting from an argument advanced by moral philosopher Peter Singer, for instance, [Bill Gates] questions why anyone would donate money to build a new wing for a museum rather than spend it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness. ‘The moral equivalent is, we’re going to take 1 per cent of the people who visit this [museum] and blind them,’ he says. ‘Are they willing, because it has the new wing, to take that risk? Hmm, maybe this blinding thing is slightly barbaric.’”
- As quoted in Financial Times Magazine
What has been a quiet movement has suddenly become a public roar. Significant donors are publicly questioning the impact of museums, and philanthropic support of them. Part of what is accelerating that sentiment is a well-crafted argument that is spreading rapidly among numerous philanthropic thought leaders about how supporting museums over other organizations that have a proven impact of saving or improving lives is, objectively, an immoral decision.
This sentiment has become more thanjust a blip, but a movement. It involves donors large and small. And for nonprofits that deliver the desired impact, there is a deep reservoir of funding available, with donors stating that no good idea will go unfunded. It just isn’t coming to museums, and this wave of philanthropic dollars won’t come to museums unless museums develop new ways of measuring and articulating impact.
Philanthropy is one of those really hard topics. It is a critical piece that fuels most non-profit organizations, yet among many museums it is often viewed as one of the hardest variables to control. It is perceived as emotional and fuzzy (and often, among traditional museum donors, it is both).
But when we're asked by museums about various trends that might reshape their worlds, one of the big ones on our list has been a shifting paradigm for philanthropy from a model of 'community support' towards a model of 'impact-driven philanthropy.' While not universal, it's most prevalent among higher-wealth donors who are engaging at a younger age than typically seen by museums. And for them, giving isn’t as much an emotional decision as it is one based on data and facts. It is also a competition where they choose “winning” nonprofits over those who are not performing as efficiently or those that lack the evidence to demonstrate impact.
When we sometimes turn that question around and ask if museums have been seeing this shift, some reply begrudgingly that they are seeing signs of that shift, but it's still elusive and not delivering for them. Others reply confidently that they aren't seeing signs of that shift at their museum and their donor base hasn't changed much.
Why is such a prominent shift elusive to museums, and why have some museums been able to avoid this shift? The answer, unfortunately is pretty easy. Museums tend not to be on the radar screen for this breed of donors. There are two reasons:
- Largely it is because museums simply do not have the data that makes a compelling case for long-term impact, and cannot compete with, for example, the Against Malaria Foundation. (And if you don’t think museums are competing for donors with organizations like the Against Malaria Foundation, think again.) Sure, there is a lot of evaluation data out there, but that is not what these donors are seeking as, to begin with, the time frames are too short and the questions asked don’t help us understand the long-term impact of a museum visit (long-term meaning lifelong). We’re not knocking evaluation – it plays an important role in museums and museum planning; it simply plays a different role.
- It is also largely a generational shift, and those museums that haven’t seen signs of the shift likely still retain an older donor base. But this change will, inevitably, come.
This brings us to the crux of the matter: how can this continued trend be a significant boost for museums? Or, to turn the question around: if museums don’t step up and compete successfully, will this be the end of museums?
We are not going to leave you hanging. Our next post will begin to examine what museums need to do to become competitive in a totally different philanthropic environment, and also will build off of our last post on the attendance slide.
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).