Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Month of Blogging

February will be a month of experimentation here on the Blog. I’m going to try a “Blog a day” format Monday thru Friday, to find out if that schedule is a) useful to you, the readers and b) sustainable (as in, can I keep up that pace?) Today's post looks at why I'm starting this experiment, what I will try, and how you can help.

CFM is largely a child of the Internet. The Alliance launched this "Skunkworks and R&D lab" at the perfect time. In 2008 social media usage was just taking off. providing us with a plethora of inexpensive, accessible ways to broadcast content.

Graph from D. Steven White 

While I can’t claim to have even looked at all of the platforms out there, I’ve tried a bunch. Currently I’m using Blogger for text content, YouTube for video (though less frequently than when we launched), Pinterest for images and Twitter to broadcast links about news, resources and opportunities. I’ve tried some platforms that didn’t pan out. (Vine just doesn’t seem applicable to CFM content. I don’t take enough interesting, topical pictures to justify a CFM Instagram account.)

This year I will be focus on optimizing the use of the platforms CFM does use on a regular basis, as well as trying out a few new platforms (suggestions welcome).

One component of this work plan is figuring out how to optimize the impact of this Blog. I recently posted a summary of what I’ve learned about building blog readership. Now I’m trying to learn more. For example, I found this article, which concludes the optimal number of (good, relevant) posts per week is four. So I’m going to try the following schedule in February:
  • Monday Musings—a short commentary on something I've read in the news (possibly an item from the previous week's edition of our Dispatches e-newsletter), sharing thoughts on the significance of the article to museums.
  • Tuesday reserved for the featured essay—by me or by a guest blogger.
  • Wordless Wednesday—a format I’ve seen, and liked, on other blogs. This will share an “image of the future” from CFM’s Pinterest boards, hopefully though provoking in and of itself, with a link to the source if you want to read more. (Since this is wordless, I’m not counting it towards the “4” post optimum.)
  • Throwback Thursday—another format I’m borrowing from other blogs. Readership of blog posts tails off really fast, even if the content is still relevant. A lot of the CFM Blog traffic is driven by Dispatches or Twitter, and those referrals drop off very quickly—generally within a few days. (Here one blogger’s advice on using Twitter to drive blog traffic.) I am going to pick the “best of” old posts, with a brief note on how they relate to current events.
  • Futurist Friday—a post featuring recommending reading, viewing or listening resources to expand your thinking and fuel your forecasting.
I’ve experimented with most of these formats already: you can catch up with past Monday posts (which I’ve variously called Musings or Musing) and Futurist Fridays. I especially like the Friday posts--they are a fun way to end the week. 

What’s my motivation for this experiment? Build traffic, for one—both increasing the number of readers and cultivating the consistency with which they check in with the Blog. As the Blog is one of the major ways for CFM to spread news, research, thoughts, and opportunities, I want to extend its reach as much as possible.

Second—bolster the Center’s economic viability. I am hoping that, with enough traffic, I can convince a sponsor that having their name associated with the Blog would be good value for their money. That would help supplement the income Alliance members provide to support CFM (here is a post on the CFM business model, if you are curious.)

My metrics will be page hits per month (compared to February 2013, when we had 8,347 visits, 6,272 unique visitors and 11,699 page views), and ripple effects on other social media, such as the number of CFM Pinterest followers (I hope Wordless Wednesday hooks some new users on this format). I’ll report out on these numbers at the end of the month, when I decide which of the formats to retain on a regular or occasional basis, and whether I can keep up this pace of posting!

Your comments about what you value on this Blog would be much appreciated, as well as suggestions regarding content, guests bloggers and format.

Yours from the future


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Spend Some Time Daydreaming the Future

Humans are natural storytellers. That should make my work easy, because the apex of strategic foresight is using storytelling to plan for the future. Futurists call these stories “scenarios,” and while they have a very serious purpose, they work best when they are also compelling, entertaining (and believable) fiction.

This kind of storytelling isn’t a fringe activity either, it is completely mainstream. Many organizations, notably large corporations in industries such as energy, health care or transportation, commission custom sets of scenarios to guide their own planning. Shell has a 40 year history of developing scenarios to guide their decision making. (You can access the Shell scenarios here.) Sometimes external players create scenarios to forecast the future of a major company and its potential impact on their marketplace. See, for example, this set of scenarios created in 2006 about potential futures of Google.

Reading stories of the future helps get you in the habit of thinking on a longer time frame, scanning for information and identifying important trends and events as you read the news. Spending a little of your important daydreaming time inhabiting potential futures equips you to create plans that:
  • Encompass an appropriate vision for what the organization wants to accomplish
  • Identify appropriate long term goals
  • Don’t rely on vulnerable assumptions
  • Are flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances and embed appropriate contingencies
Exploring scenarios helps you to understand the potential consequences of crucial decisions. Stories, for example, might help you discover the downside to creating a 10-year master plan for an expensive new building on a site that will be flooded with increasing frequency, as sea levels rise and storms increase in frequency and severity.Stories might help you understand what kinds of collections, the museum needs to build to serve the needs of a community with rapidly changing demographics.

Some people are beginning to recognize that strategic foresight, including scenarios, may be the future of planning.  I’ve compiled a small but growing list of museums that used forecasting as a basis for planning at their museums, for example,
  • The Museum of Northern  Arizona, which is helping the community of Flagstaff navigate demographic, environmental and economic upheavals.
  • The Valentine Richmond History Center, where  director Bill Martin led the museum through  a planning process addressing four themes identified by their forecasting.

These organizations have, for the most part, used CFM’s trends forecasting, notably the TrendsWatch reports, to frame their discussions. There is a small, but growing literature of museum-specific scenarios (You can find some in CFM's Tomorrow in the Golden State: Museums and the Future of California, and others in the archives of the CFM Blog.) 

However, there are some excellent scenarios created for sectors tangentially related to museums that have offer lessons for our field.

Scenarios for the Future  of the Book  (2012) was created for the Association of College and Research Libraries. It presents four potential futures:

Consensus (meaning their forecasters thought  this is the most probable future) in which books have largely been digitized, tablet readers rule, and printed books are legacy objects valued by scholars and collectors.
Nostalgic (meaning their forecasters preferred this future, but thought  it unlikely to happen) in which e- books turn out to have  been a fad, printed books are less expensive and more popular than their digital equivalents, and print-on-demand technology empowers self-publication. “Books are the new business card;  to be taken  seriously, clients want to be given a copy of the book you’ve written.”
Privatization of the Book: in which personal libraries of physical books are status objects for collectors and the social and economic elite. While digital works are more readily accessible, print copies are preferred.
Printed Books Thrive: a future in which digital and print publications amicably share the market.

These scenarios give the staff of libraries very specific, plausible visions of what the future might be, and context in which to make strategic decisions about space, staff, time and resources. That, in turn, can help overturn assumptions about what “library” means, and opens the door to envisioning new roles. (Such as the role outlined in this great post about a library pushing the boundaries of “library” identity.)

Another very well-done set of scenarios is Learning in 2025 by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation. This forecast presents a variety of resources (including some very well-done videos interviewing education professionals of the future). At the bottom of the main web page you will find a set of scenarios grouped together as “The Learning System of 2025,” presenting 4 stories of potential futures: 
  • A Vibrant Learning Grid
  • A National System for Global Competitiveness
  • Learners Forage for Resources
  • Schools are Centers of Resilience

You may recognize these scenarios as the inspiration for my own riffing on the museums and the future of education. I highly recommend you read these stories of potential futures, and see how they may lead you to question your assumptions about the what “museum” means, and open the door to envisioning new roles. Enjoy.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Why You Don’t Want To Be Nice

I’ve been using this graphic in talks lately

when talking about successful financial models for museums. The point being that if your organization provides experiences or services that are addictive or essential, or better yet, both, you have the foundation for a successful business plan.

“Essential” encompasses stuff at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid: food, shelter, sleep, human relationships.

If you need an example of “Addictive,” consider the Massive Multiplayer Online Game World of Warcraft. Could people live without it? Presumably. But as a species we’ve already spent, collectively, over 6 million years on the game, so evidently we don’t want to.

Somehow, as clear as this classification scheme seems, the conversation often veers off track when I ask museum staff to slot what their organization offers into these two categories.

Me: “What do you do that is essential?”
Staffer: “Arts education.”

Well ok, I wish we lived in a world where people worked art into their household budget right up there at the top with buying enough groceries for the week, and getting shoes for the kids to go to school with. But I think we don’t. (Otherwise we wouldn’t have needed a national campaign to try to convince the public of the need for arts education.)

Granted, “essential” is a tough one for our field to tackle. Museums don’t usually think of themselves as social service agencies, though some tackle food deserts, run soup kitchens (of a sort), even provide a neighborhood laundromat. I suspect our most promising pitch for casting ourselves as essential community resources focuses on our role as educational organizations. But in conversations on education, museums are referred to, dismissively, as places for “informal” learning, so that argument isn’t a sure fire winner, either.

The fact is, most of what museums do we hope will be addictive--creating a desire so intense people are willing to allocate scarce time & money to scratch the itch. Sometime, unfortunately, the itch they scratch is our passion to create a particular exhibit, program, building or whatever.

I admit that categorizing everything as either “addictive/essential” generalization oversimplifies the world. Let’s make the exercise a little less “either-or” and redraw the figure as a scale

To figure out a workable business model for anything a museum wants to support, first place it accurately on this spectrum of “essential to addictive.” Probably most things won’t be either as essential as sleep or as addictive as WOW—they’ll be somewhere in the middle.

You know what’s dead smack in that middle? “Nice.”

The worst place to land is “nice.” Nice gets a pat on the head. Nice is what gets cut first when funds from any source are short.

So how come museums end up creating so much nice stuff? How come we so often we have the luxury of scratching our own creative itch? Maybe because nonprofit economics are different, in a significant way, than those governing for-profit business plans. Nonprofit income isn’t a simple line from producer to consumer. It’s a triangle, with the third player being people or organizations willing to underwrite that transaction. Funders may think that consumers ought to want, or need, the experience, good or service a museum is providing, whether or not the consumers in question agree.

If a funder’s assessment is inaccurate—the consumer doesn’t think what the producer offers is addictive or essential—that funder isn’t doing the museum any favors in the long run. Their support may merely encourage the museum to invest resources in something that is fundamentally flawed. Something “nice.”

How can we avoid bad decisions that are premised on funders’ presumptions about what people ought to want or need? One radical approach is to eschew prescriptive solutions altogether. Some people are proposing that the best way to fight poverty, for example, is to just give cash to poor people. That approach is even coming out well in some real world tests.

If the US, instead of creating an elaborate system of food stamps and housing assistance and head start, etc., etc., emulated the proposal recently floated in Switzerland and simply provided adults with a minimum monthly income, what would they spend it on? How much income would a family need, on average, before they started to budget for things that museums provide? Great question, to which I wish I had the answer.

For now, since museums are buffered by government and philanthropic support, it can take years, or decades, of slow economic decay for them to find they have put together a bundle of offerings people don’t want, or need, enough to pay for.

So try a bit of brutally honest introspection next time you tackle organizational planning. Put a line up on the wall, with “Addictive” at one end and “Essential” at the other. Start pinning your products, services, programs where you think they belong. Make sure you have some people in the room (on staff or outside recruits) who bring a fresh eye and fearless skepticism to critique the placement of your tags. 

And everything that lands on “nice?” Take a hard look at what it costs you to provide these nice things, and rethink whether they belong in your plan at all.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Interpreting the Future of Art Museums

I’ve blogged about the emergence of new kinds of positions in museums over the last decade. This week, four leaders in interpretive planning from the Nelson-Atkins, Denver, and High art museums as well as the Detroit Institute of Arts share an evolving conversation about one of these new roles, and invites you to weigh in.

Last year, on the day prior to the Alliance’s annual conference, a group of museum educators met to discuss a position that is slowly gaining ground in art museums—that of “interpretive planner.” All of us were engaged full-time in the conceptual development of visitor experiences in our museums, and as we discussed our work and our changing museums, we realized that on some important levels, we were responding to the work of CFM! 

In the early nineties, general museum practice, particularly in science and natural history settings, shifted to a team approach to exhibition development. The makeup of the team varied from institution to institution, but in all cases a broad range of staff were involved in deciding which stories to tell and how to tell them. Generally, in these settings, such work is referred to as exhibition development. For some reason, this move to a team-based approach did not spread to art museums (with some notable exceptions). Today however, we are aware of approximately thirty art museums that have adopted this team-based approach, and added the associated position, interpretive planner, to their ranks.

Why are interpretive planners becoming more common in art museums now?
  • Increasing sensitivity to visitor expectations. The museum field as a whole is becoming more sophisticated about what visitors want, and art museums are following that trend.
  • Diversifying demographics. As CFM has documented, our country is becoming increasing diverse. Current minority groups, which collectively will soon become the majority, often do not have museum-going as part of their culture. It is critical for museums to understanding how to build a sense of welcome and accessibility for broad audiences, from the choice of exhibition theme and message, to the options we present to visitors for engaging with our objects and ideas.
  • Dramatic shifts in what society expects from education. As we move to a more democratic, learner-based era in which individuals can access information anywhere, museums must create a broader array of products for learners to choose from, allowing them to be the leaders in their own learning.
  • A growing sense that art can be a source of cross-cultural understanding. This encourages museums to develop opportunities to inspire civic dialogue.
  • Changing expectations of authority. Audiences are less interested in the anonymous voice of the museum, and increasingly interested in multiple perspectives of both experts and their peers.
  • Changing attitudes about the importance of creativity as a vital “21st century skill.” Suddenly, art museums have a strong argument for relevancy: art museums are great places to demonstrate, invite, and promote creative thinking and creative problem solving.  
  • The increasing role of technology in the museum experience. The integration of technology into our everyday lives, and hence into visitor’s engagement with the museum, forces us to rethink both the delivery of information and the opportunities for new relationships with information.
  • Deconstruction of the dominant narrative. Art museums are finally acknowledging their collection and installation choices create a narrative, one that is perceived as unobtrusive but tailored by and to members of the dominant culture. Becoming more democratic involves being comfortable with integrating community input into exhibition development decisions, an advocacy role which is often taken on by interpretive planners.

In response to these changes, art museum educators with expertise in free-choice learning, visitor motivation, cultural attitudes, physical and cognitive accessibility and modes of response and participation are beginning to take a leadership role in the shaping of visitor experiences in gallery spaces. At this moment in time, most such staff work under the title of “interpretive planner.” It is up to us to determine how this position develops in the next decade.

Here are a few of the points our group discussed in Baltimore regarding what art museums need to consider as the position of interpretive planner grows, develops, and becomes institutionalized:
  • The impact on organizational structures and resource allocation.
  • The creation of interpretive planning documents and processes.
  • The importance of a shared understanding of the role of interpretive planning. Is this a moment in art museum history when interpretive planning is really getting defined and codified? (While retaining flexibility, of course!)
  • Where do we find the necessary training in interpretive planning and trained practitioners? There is currently no one academic credential or work experience that prepares folks for this work—it's highly interdisciplinary. People who currently hold the position of interpretive planner have generally apprenticed and are usually self-trained.
If you’re are working as a full-time interpretive planner in your art museum, and would like to participate in our second annual gathering, at the annual meeting in Seattle, please contact any of the authors listed below.

Judith Koke
Director, Education and Interpretive Programs
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

Heather Nielsen
Associate Director of Education, Master Teacher, Native Arts and New World
Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado

Jennifer Czajkowski
Vice President of Learning and Interpretation
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan

Julia Forbes
Head of Museum Interpretation and Digital Engagement
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia

Friday, January 17, 2014

Futurist Friday: Robots for Humanity

Yah, I know, I know. The last "Futurist Friday" was about robots, too. But this is too interesting to pass up.

I've written about instances in which robots are replacing human labor. But as I read more, it seems like the more interesting promise of robotics is how technology will supplement and assist human work.

One awesome example of realizing this potential is "Robots for Humanity"—a collaboration dedicated to pioneering adaptive robotic tech to help people with disabilities navigate the world.

Your Futurist Friday assignment: this 10 minute video—a TED talk by quadriplegic Henry Evans in which he demonstrates how robotic assistance enables him to shave, play soccer and even fly. (And, combating the current prejudice against drones, watch how a little flying quadrotor robot helps Henry expand his world.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Another Way to Split Nonprofits

Last Thursday I blogged about a potential "dark future" in which the nonprofit field fragments, as society and policy makers come to view "social service" and "cultural" nonprofits as fundamentally different beasts. (Doug Borwick continued the discussion on his blog, Engaging Matters. I encourage you to wade in there, or in the comment section below.) 

Today I found this story in my Twitter feed, courtesy of Nonprofit Quarterly:

Large Hospitals and Universities in NH Targeted by Proposed Tax Change

Apparently Representative David Hess (R) has introduced a bill into the state legislature that would eliminate the business tax exemption for nonprofits with more than $2 million in income, as reported in their IRS 990 statements. The income from this additional revenue would be used to lower the overall tax rate for state residents. 

The press coverage specifically mentions hospitals and colleges. But by my calculation, some museums would be covered as well-- the Currier Museum of Art and Strawbery Banke, at least.

Maybe this proposal won't go anywhere (though being from that state, on my mother's side, I am not entirely sanguine about that). But even if the bill dies, the way it frames the debate is a signal of change. The NPQ article cites supporters of the initiative as feeling that large nonprofits don't pay for their fair share of public services. Small nonprofits are, by contrast, characterized as "ma and pa," "community based" enterprises. 

So we have yet another way to divvy up the nonprofit sector into worthy and unworthy (of tax exemption). Hess' schema is particularly disturbing because it implicitly equates "small" with "poor and deserving" and "large" with "profitable and greedy." Even if he is going after big nonprofits because, after all, that's where the money is, the effect is to stigmatize them as being somehow more like commercial enterprises than their smaller kin. Even if (as Dan Pallotta points out) making and spending large amounts of money results in more and better good for the community. 

My head hurts. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Too Fast to Go Slow

Jane Addams Hull-House Museum is one of three museums enrolled in the third round of Innovation Lab for Museums—a MetLife funded program offered by EmcArts in partnership with CFM. Hull-House has long been a hotbed of experimentation, a prime example of the 2.5% or so of our field who are innovators. In this guest post, interim director Lisa Junkin Lopez previews Hull-House’s  “half-baked idea” that will come to fruition in the lab: the Slow Museum Project.

Oh! do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch. -Jane Austen

I look at the clock as I sit down to write. It is 3:39pm and, this being Chicago in December, through my window I can see a fiery reflection of the sun beginning to set. I have been trying to write this post since 9am, but work has been busy. My time was spent helping to plan a community art workshop for a program next week, discussing concepts for a new exhibition, addressing HR matters, giving a director’s tour, welcoming new contractors to the museum, and reviewing a catalogue proof. I say this not to boast about my busy schedule, but to suggest that yours may look just the same. I believe that most of my colleagues in the museum field find themselves in a race against time each day, struggling to cross items off of a never-ending “to do” list. In a busy work environment where it feels like there are never enough resources to go around, how do you find the time to reflect? To innovate and dream?

Museum visitors have a similar problem. We see them daily, buzzing through galleries, checking off their “to view” lists, hurrying to see one more Impressionist drawing, one more ancient tool. Professional literature tells us to maintain visitor interest with rapidly changing exhibitions, media and technology, participatory activities and cafés. But do these solutions create better museums? When museums actively compete with the entertainment industry, do our visitors find time to reflect, innovate and dream? Aren’t these activities the ultimate goals of a museum visit?

At the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, we are beginning to question the notion that museums and their workers should attempt to “keep up” with entertainment trends. We are critical of quick fixes that seek to capture visitors’ fleeting attention. At the same time, we reject the static, velvet-roped model of the past, uncomfortable with its elitism and irrelevance. We wonder, what would it mean to fully embrace the notion of a museum as a transgressive site of leisure, recreation, reflection and respite from the busyness of life?

Thanks to the Museum Innovation Lab Grant from MetLife, we have the privilege of devoting a year to this question. Six staff members and four community partners (an urban farmer, a museum and education activist, an artist and DJ, and a restorative justice practitioner) are experimenting with slowness. Together, we hope to determine what a museum would look like if it slowed down its own activities while encouraging profoundly pleasurable experiences and meaningful relationships.

We hypothesize that a slower approach to museum practices could dramatically increase JAHHM’s intrinsic value by producing a) more meaningful visitor experiences and community partnerships and b) increased reflection and evaluation of the museum’s work, ultimately resulting in a more sustainable and effective institution. Experiments could involve meandering choose-your-own-adventure unguided tours; an artist-made reflection room with meditative and musical components; playful, participatory visitor evaluations; incorporating slowness practices such as poetry-writing, kickball or communal eating into all public programs; staff recess; and more.

Traces of Slowness

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. -Milan Kundera

Image 1: Map of slowness by Slow Museum Project 
team at our first meeting.

What exactly is slowness? Our team has devoted hours to this question alone, but one of our most exciting initiatives in the past year has guided our thinking on what a slow museum experience could be. An ongoing project at JAHHM is Alternative Labeling, wherein artists are invited to select an artifact from the museum’s collection and create a label in their artistic medium. The project asks, “Can a common museum label sensually engage us, inspire revolution and reform, or provide pleasure and comfort?” In 2012, artist Terri Kapsalis published a 40-page prose-poem as the alternative label for Jane Addams’ travel medicine kit. The logistics of this piece created serious problems… how could we expect visitors to read such a long label? Our staff responded by inviting visitors to spend 30 minutes reading the poem in Addams’ bedroom and serving them a cup of herbal tea. The resulting participatory experience provided a unique space for prolonged engagement and reflection, which we had never before accomplished.

Image 2: Participant response to Tea Experience

As we continue our work, we have identified intellectual and activist lineages to guide us. These movements will be the basis of our research and inquiry as we proceed:

The Slow Food Movement:

The Slow Food movement is a global revolution that opposes the consumption of empty, cheap calories in fast food as well as the abysmal conditions under which it is produced. Advocates argue that fast food culture is unsustainable and must be literally and figuratively slowed down, allowing eaters to rediscover pleasure in food and the communal experience of eating. The movement asserts the necessity of taking the time to thoughtfully source ingredients and to advocate for all workers in the line of production, resulting in a transformed food system from farm to table. These ideals are deeply inspiring to JAHHM staff, which for nearly six years has organized programs about Slow Food.

The fight for play and leisure:

The residents of the Hull-House Settlement advocated for an expansive definition of citizenship and human rights that included access to leisure and play as critical modes of learning, socialization and freedom. Serving a working-class immigrant community consisting of more than 24 ethnic and racial groups, Hull-House founded Chicago’s first public playground and offered play-based progressive education, while simultaneously fighting for labor rights such as weekends and the eight-hour workday. We look to two Hull-House residents for their innovative work in these areas: Neva Boyd, a leader in the modern play movement who wrote more than a dozen books about games and emphasized the importance of recreation for all people; and Viola Spolin, who invented improvisational theater and believed that improvisation teaches individuals adaptive skills for overcoming difference.

These historical themes are the focus of a new exhibition at Hull-House opening in May 2014, entitled Rec Room. This yearlong exhibition will make direct connections between Hull-House’s history of play and leisure advocacy and similar movements in contemporary society.

Restorative Justice:

Restorative justice is a process and a movement to collectively identify and address wrongdoings between individuals and within the criminal justice system. This practice allows for all parties who have a stake in an offence, often including the greater community, to be a part of healing and restitution. It is intended in part to increase empathy and communication across lines of difference. Our education staff has trained in restorative justice practices over the past year and we believe that as a museum dedicated to America’s first woman to win the Nobel peace prize, the Hull-House can be an active part of Chicago’s peace building efforts. Our growing interest in restorative justice has also led us to consider mindfulness meditation and other sacred practices as possible resources.

Lingering Questions / Questions on Lingering

Certainty is a prison. - Billie Tsien

In this early stage of the project, we are faced with a number of tangled and paradoxical questions:
  • Is slowness meaningful when it is mandated by an institution, or does it become oppressive?
  • How do lenses of race, class and gender affect our visitors’ understandings of slowness?
  • What is the relationship between slowness and pleasure? Between slowness and control?
  • How can our staff complete this project in a way that doesn’t add extra work to our busy schedules?
  • How should we assess slow programs in the museum?
  • Is there a risk of dogmatic thinking or teaching as we experiment with and promote slowness?
  • Is it truly possible or desirable for our visitors and staff to slow down? What might we lose in slowing down?

I invite you to weigh on the project and our lingering questions. Does your museum encourage activities that you consider to be “slow?” Are there traditions that you recommend we turn to as we continue our investigation? How do you personally find time for reflection as you complete your work?

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Dark Futures: Nonprofit Fragmentation

I wanted to start the year on a positive note, I really did. But I find myself writing about a middle-of-the-night worry, instead.

What gave me nightmares? Not a bad dinner, unfortunately, but a steady diet of sobering news. I spent most of November and December reviewing CFM’s scanning from last year in order to draft TrendsWatch 2014.  I identified 6 very interesting trends (which I look forward to sharing with you soon—no spoilers!), but something else swam up from the murky ocean of information: a projection, and a rather scary one, too.

It suggests a dark future I think is quite possible, given the way the world is going: a future in which the US fundamentally rethinks nonprofit status.

This shift could encompass, for example, revisiting what kinds of organizations are granted exemptions. The topic is already in play as people struggling to pay their bills note that the PGA, the NFL and nonpo hospitals that are indistinguishable from their for-profit kin are all tax exempt. Starting down that path could result in legal and regulatory distinctions between nonprofits that provide basic social services, such as health care, housing, food assistance and job training, and cultural nonprofits. The former, taking on responsibilities being shed by cash-strapped governments, are earning the gratitude of local, state and federal policy makers. The latter are increasingly being characterized as amenities that serve the interests of the wealthy, and therefore undeserving of broad tax payer support.

Museum concerns about threats to the charitable deductibility of gifts would pale in comparison to the prospect of becoming second class nonprofit citizens, if we are allowed to remain tax exempt at all, in such a scenario.

What are some of the signals that make me think this future is possible?

The tangible financial benefits of nonprofit status are already eroding. Phil Katz and I wrote in TrendsWatch 2012 about the increasing number of ways that municipalities are squeezing income from nonprofits—such as Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTS), service fees and licensing costs. This trend has built up steam in the last two years. While the push to get funds from nonprofits originally focused on the big players—universities and hospitals—the Mayor of Reading, Pennsylvania recently asked any and all nonprofit property owners to help the city out with cash. And it is increasingly clear that the “voluntary” nature of PILOTs is coming into question. In Scranton, Pennsylvania the City Council played hardball with nonprofit property owners, threatening to withhold city approvals regarding permits needed for property improvements, etc. if nonprofit property owners didn’t pay up. In Providence law makers have interpreted legislation in a way that essentially makes PILOTS mandatory.

But I am also seeing a basic shift in attitudes towards the nonprofit sector, a split in how policy makers and donors regard nonprofits. This ranges from the rhetoric in Congress, which lumped zoos & aquaria in with casinos and golf courses as unworthy to receive stimulus money, to the halls of academia. Princeton professor Peter Singer has been on a roll lately, promoting his thesis that donors have an ethical imperative to do the most good possible with their charitable giving, contrasting the good accomplished by a $1,000 donation to a museum’s capital campaign with using those funds to reduce the incidence of trachoma in third world countries. This would merely be irritating if Singer’s only audience were undergraduates in his ethics courses, but Bill Gates recently gave an interview in which he adopted Singer’s philosophy in toto. Referring to the theoretical choice to donate towards a new museum wing rather than on preventing blindness, he said “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.” Gates, as the second richest man in the world, who in 2010 made world’s largest single charitable donation (for childhood vaccines), can be presumed to be a thought leader in philanthropy. What if the (false) dichotomy between curing blindness and supporting arts & culture catches on?

Lester Salamon, director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins University, has noted the increasing drift in the identity of and attitudes towards the nonprofit sector, and has written thoughtfully and at length about the forces buffeting our field. Salamon outlines three potential futures for the sector, but none encompass the darkest possibility that I outline above. In the rosiest of the three, the Renewal Scenario, “nonprofits engage in a concerted effort to re-think the role and operations of civil society, with the goal of achieving a new consensus regarding the sector’s functions and relationships with for-profits, government, and the public.”  Salamon thinks this future is both desirable and attainable. I sure hope he is right. But we, as a field, need to take action to make sure that “renewal” is more likely than fragmentation.