Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Noah's Ark at the Skirball: Art and Experience

Today Orinda Group CEO, John Lamberson, informal learning specialist and professor Leah Melber and I visited an exhibit that I had believed to be a temporary art exhibition. Banners went up around town this spring announcing the new exhibit with close-up shots of gorgeous folk art animals, often made from recycled or re-purposed materials. I love this kind of aesthetic so I was dying to see the exhibit and learn about the artist. Well, it turns out that the artists were primarily a puppeteer and an architect, and what I had taken to be a temporary art exhibition was actually a permanent exploration and discovery center for children. The funny thing is, in the end, I probably enjoyed it even more because of that.

The deep secret of museum professionals, particularly those who go into the field of collections, is that one of the most compelling reasons to work in a museum for us is that we get to touch the stuff. In my days as a registrar and working in collections departments, I routinely (but gently) reminded visitors of all ages to look with their eyes only, meanwhile relishing the fact that I would be going back into storage later to care for the same sorts of artifacts forbidden to the visitors--care that would necessitate the handling of those same objects.

Before we entered the exhibit, a docent gathered a group of us together to explain about the exhibit. One of the children in the group supplemented the docents lecture by informing us, as I'm sure she herself had been reminded countless times, that the art was for looking at, but not touching. The docent smiled and shook her head. "That's true for the rest of the museum, but here in Noah's Ark, we want you to touch everything!" So I could touch the beautiful carved animal heads I had been coveting? Awesome.

Noah's Ark opened at the Skirball Cultural Center on June 26, 2007 after five years of planning and to the tune of $5 million. I believe it is worth every penny. The team assembled to create this three-part experience incorporated specialists from all kinds of backgrounds, including a ropes course expert, a sound effects specialist and, of course, the puppeteer whose found-art animals made me swoon.

The exhibit is divided into three distinct areas: The Storm, The Ark and The Rainbow. In the entryway we were introduced to a motley assortment of uneasy animals including crocodiles with violin case jaws, zebras with organ key manes and an elephant with drums for feet, nervous at the approaching storm.

Descending a staircase, we entered a vast space where we could create the violent storm, turning rotors to power a tornado of leaves, to summon thunder and lightning and to bring the rain that would ultimately float a miniature version of the ark we were about to enter.

In this area was also the outside of the ark itself, only partially built in some sections, so we had a lot of work to do, finishing the construction of the ark with puzzle pieces and loading foam animals up a hand-powered conveyer belt into the belly of the ark. We also discovered that we could manipulate some of the larger animals; turning a crank resulted in the howling of a wolf and there was a giraffe whose head swayed by the swinging of our arms. We were delighted to discover that the puzzle pieces for constructing the ark were kept conveniently in the pouch of a kangaroo.

Upon boarding the ark, we discovered a wonderland of activities with delightful hidden touches everywhere; attention to detail was clearly a priority for the development team. The tasks inside the ark itself mostly consisted of feeding the animals and cleaning up after them. A zoo keeper-esque trash bin on wheels was filled with brooms and realistic looking scat. Faced with a floor full of unique looking piles, one woman stopped and commented, "I have some just like that in my backyard. Not sure if it's the coyotes or the deer." The kids didn't seem to care; they were just happy that they could play with a mess.

The task of feeding the animals was trickier, however, as some of the animals were high up in the rafters, requiring elaborate food delivery systems involving pulleys and tubes and even climbing. This is the area that required the expertise of a ropes course specialist. Despite the fact that we had been assured that everything was designed to hold even the most grown-up of weights, we opted to stay on the ground while the kids climbed rope ladders and skirted along ledges to make sure that the birds and the sloth at the top of the ark got fed.

The final room was largely empty with a rainbow projected on the wall and a lone dove with an olive branch in tow soaring above arts and craft tables back down on earth. 1960s-like "happenings" also occur in the Rainbow room as staff members periodically bring out instruments and invite visitors to join in an impromptu jam session or other communal activities.

Community and interactivity are two of the strengths of this exhibit and, in fact, they are largely the purpose behind it. Many of the interactive elements require cooperation from two or more people. Even the numerous cranks, levers and pulleys--built for durability--are hard enough to require two sets of small hands instead of just one in order to trigger the responses. The sense of wonder and serendipity evident in the faces of the visitors also aids in the shared experience as strangers exclaim to one another about surgical tubing hedgehogs or the fact that there are definitely more than just two rabbits--but you know how bunnies are.

Noah's Ark at the Skirball is one of those rare examples of an exhibit that actually succeeds in uniting aesthetics, interactivity and a storyline. It both edifies and inspires and while it is aimed at children, there is much that adults can appreciate as well. At it's core, Noah's Ark is about people coming together to save themselves, each other and the planet.

An interview with the key members of the Noah's Ark development team,* explains the principles behind the exhibit and how they tie in with the Skirball's mission "to explore the connections between four thousand years of Jewish heritage and the vitality of American democratic ideals...[seeking] to welcome and inspire people of every ethnic and cultural identity in American life." The only text in the exhibit consists of a few words in each gallery projected in white light on the floor, urging visitors to "Journey together," which fits the final part of the Skirball's mission perfectly: "Guided by our respective memories and experiences, together we aim to build a society in which all of us can feel at home."

As they say, however, a picture is worth a thousand words. I loved this exhibit but these photos give a better sense of why I loved it so much. Better yet, if you are in the LA area, just go see it for yourself.

* including architects Alan Maskin and Jim Olson of Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, Exhibition Developer Marni Gittleman, Director of Education Sheri Bernstein, Vice President of Special Projects Robert Kirschner, puppeteer Chris Green, Sculpting Department Manager for Lexington Dave Connor and Skirball Founding President Uri Herscher

Monday, November 26, 2007

"Giving is the New Taking"

Trendwatching.com has just released its 8 Trends to Capitalize on in 2008. In Trend No. 1, "Status Spheres," Trendwatching declares that "giving is the new taking" and challenges us to find "one high-profile billionaire who's not deeply into 'giving' right now." This assessment is largely based on the recent Business Week report on the 50 most generous philanthropists.

This is great news, but what happens when the giving trend goes the way of last season's color? How do we effectively transform giving from being the latest trend to being a sustainable and inherent part of life and business?

Perhaps the global investment bank, Goldman Sachs, has already begun this process. They just announced a new donor-driven philanthropy fund, GS Gives, that will initially focus on "the firm's roughly 350 partners who will be strongly encouraged to donate a fixed amount of their compensation."

The article explains that while other investment banking firms also offer donor-advised funds and encourage philanthropy, the funds are usually geared towards clients and not employees. But, as Goldman Sachs Chairman and CEO Lloyd C. Blankfein has stated, 'We know we make a lot of money, and we know that we live in this world and we have a responsibility to give something back.'

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, large companies like Goldman Sachs aren't the only ones making a corporate investment in and commitment to philanthropy. Small businesses such as the Hook and Ladder Brewing Company and ColorMe Company donate a percentage of each sale to charity, while companies such as Sweetriot Inc. donate in-kind services.

Even small, independent makers of handcrafted items are getting in on the act through grassroots groups such as Etsy For Charity.

Hopefully all of this means that giving will stay as ubiquitous as the little black dress.

So That's What the Smithsonian Will do!

Interesting. No sooner had I mused on the possible benefits of the privatization of the Smithsonian when the Smithsonian Board of Regents voted to undertake "the first large-scale private fund-raising effort in the organization's history." The capital campaign will seek to raise $2.5 billion in order to improve and repair its buildings. Not only will this be a departure for the federally-funded organization as the NYT points out, but the plan will also present challenges given recent controversy over corporate sponsorships and "turmoil in the institution's governance."

I, for one, support this move. Since Smithsonian Business Ventures has proved to be more news-worthy than revenue-generating and the Regents are understandably loathe to start imposing admission fees on the museums and it has been shown that the Smithsonian's infrastructure is in desperate need of maintenance, a good old-fashioned capital campaign seems like just what the doctor ordered. I also feel that it is appropriate that in conjunction with this move, the Board of Regents is also currently reviewing the way it handles corporate donations. This should help to ensure that all of the funds raised during this process will best serve the nation's largest complex of museums.

Of course, one wonders what this may mean for other smaller museums of natural history, American history and American art that may also be currently undertaking capital campaigns...

Monday, November 19, 2007

What's the Smithsonian to do?

The Smithsonian just can't seem to catch a break. No stranger to controversies surrounding its exhibitions, or to criticism regarding its relationship with corporate sponsors or partnerships, within two days last week the Washington Post ran two articles about the relationship between the National Museum of Natural History, two of its exhibitions and their respective funding.

In the first article, the Smithsonian was criticized for altering the text of the 2006 exhibit on the Arctic in order to introduce a sense of ambiguity to current theories about global warming and extreme climate change. Some scientists are saying that these changes in the exhibit were blatant acts of pandering to certain members of Congress--from whom the Smithsonian receives the vast majority of its funding.

In the second article it was reported that the American Petroleum Institute rescinded its offer of $5 million for a new Ocean Initiative exhibition hall for NMNH. API made the announcement right after the first article had been published (possibly they were afraid of similar backlash?) and just before the Board of Regents were to vote on Monday (today) on whether or not to accept the donation. Two of the Regents had stated that they would vote against the donation, indicating that they were worried that petroleum money would "taint" the exhibition.

It's a tricky situation. On the one hand, the Smithsonian needs a lot of money in order to present exhibitions of the caliber that you would expect from the nation's museum. On the other hand, large sums of money often do require recognition at the least if not outright return on investment (ROI). Then throw in the constant whims of the political climate (since it is a federal agency) and you've got one fine line to walk.

It may be heresy, but honestly it's moments such as these that I wonder what would happen if museums broke away from the nonprofit model. More and more museum managers talk about running museums like businesses (and have been doing so for the past decade or so) and yet everyone still clings to the nonprofit model. As they go through reorganizations and professionalization, are they worried that the coveted 501(c)3 status is the proverbial baby that must not be thrown out with the bath water?

There are a (very) few museums in this nation that have either forgone nonprofit status or have been denied it (the Museum of Sex in New York City was informed by the State of New York that it couldn't possibly have an educational mission and so was denied nonprofit status; personally, I found it very educational) and so far they seem to be doing well. In fact, the International Spy Museum seems to be doing beyond well.

So what would happen if the Smithsonian privatized? Thoughts, anyone?

Breaking News: GlobalGiving Offers a Guarantee on Your Philanthropic Investment!

Wow. The idea is radical to me, and possibly to the rest of the world as well, but CEO of GlobalGiving, Dennis Whittle, announced GlobalGiving Guaranteed late last week.
Starting today, if a donor is not happy for any reason with his or her experience on

GlobalGiving, he or she can get a refund. The refund comes in the form of a voucher the donor can use to give to any other project he or she wishes. (If the IRS allowed it, we would even refund donor's money in cash.) The guarantee will cover up to $10,000 per donor, per year, at the beginning, but we may increase this ceiling if it makes sense in the future.

Whittle points out that when you are unhappy with a purchase at a store, you can return your purchase for a refund or store credit, so why not with your charitable contributions as well? The emphasis of his concern seems to rest with ensuring that donors "be treated at least as well as consumers," but my question is: what about the nonprofits? Consumers can be fickle or suffer from "consumer's guilt" and "buyer's remorse," what if the same thing happens with donors? "Well, last week I wanted nothing more than to help starving kids around the world, but today I realize that instead I should spend my money on food for my own kids, or for starving people locally." On a practical level, doesn't this have the potential to wreak havoc on nonprofit accounting measures?

I like the idea of providing a guarantee for donors that the programs they choose to support will be the most effective and impactful organizations of their type, but, with the sometimes capricious nature of human actions, I wonder if this is the best way to do it.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Freerice.com: Addictive, Yes, But Does it Actually do Good?

Have you ever seen one of those comedic routines in which a character receives a series of individual pieces of information and with each one, the character's expression turns alternately from sad to happy and back again? Well, that is exactly what just happened to me as I read a series of differing sources of information reporting on the legitimacy of one of my favorite, fun charity sites: freerice.com.

Freerice.com is a site that tests your vocabulary and for every right answer, ten grains of rice are donated to the UN's World Food Program. The test is "smart" and adjusts the level of difficulty to fit your vocabulary. Needless to say, I'm not the only one out there who finds the site completely addictive.

I first became alarmed when I read in Philanthropy2173 to "beware: embedded giving is not always what it seems" with regards to sites like freerice.com. But the main point made in that blog post seemed to be that the money made on freerice.com was actually from ads and not really from the "clicks" of the participant. Well, so what? I felt relieved.

But then, I read a post on Read/Write Web that said that the way the advertisers check to see who is visiting them and buying their goods from freerice.com is by using Linksynergy cookies. As the blogger points out, "I have no problem with cookies myself, I like them, in fact - but a quick look around the web indicates that many people find Linksynergy cookies distressing." Oh. I was back to frowning again.

But then I scrolled through the comments and discovered that someone had actually contacted the WFP to check on the legitimacy of freerice because he had wanted to start a Facebook group devoted to it! WFP wrote back to say that freerice was indeed legit, and in fact, just recently published on their website an article about how pleased they are with the results. Whew. Guess I can go back to testing my vocabulary, I mean, donating rice online.

However, to get back to the initial cautionary blog post on Philanthropy 2173, another questionable website is also mentioned in it: iGive.com. Unfortunately, careful looking reveals that Lucy is dead on about this one. iGive is a shop-to-give site that allows you to select

"your favorite cause" as the recipient of funds donated by merchants when you make purchases. Most of the causes run along the line of "my trip to Hawaii," or "Mama needs a new pair of shoes." The site explicitly states "Any cause in the U.S. or Canada qualifies - and 501(c)3 nonprofit status is not required."

Hmm. This doesn't necessarily mean that the site isn't doing what it says by donating proceeds to the indicated causes, but it does raise the question of whether real 501(c)3 organizations really want to be affiliated with a site that will give money to any (non-vetted) cause... For those of you museums currently using iGive, what do you think? Does the fact that just about anyone can establish themselves as "a cause" on this site bother you? Will you continue to use this site, or look into other options?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Beyond Donor-Nonprofit Matching and on to Nonprofit Evaluation

GiveWell is now up and running--or at least in preview mode--the latest, and certainly one of the most complex, in charity evaluation websites. Whereas Charity Navigator evaluates nonprofits strictly according to the financial information reported in IRS 990 forms, which the folks at GiveWell find to be misleading and therefore an incomplete measure of a nonprofit's effectiveness, GiveWell instead acts as a nonprofit granting agency and uses the application process to collect detailed information about organizations.

We review program activities, technical reports, and most importantly, results. How many lives has a charity changed, how has it changed them, and what's the evidence that they can do it again?

The result is that GiveWell certainly is not the most comprehensive of sites in terms of numbers or types of nonprofits (only four agencies are recommended under the Employment Assistance section), however, each of the few nonprofits listed have been hand-vetted with detailed information about why they are considered to be the most effective nonprofits of their kind.

I like this approach because it ensures that nonprofits are treated as individual organizations, requiring a complete analysis, rather than measuring them against one universal metric. I agree with the folks at GiveWell that it is not necessarily desirable to have the vast majority of donations go towards programming--without a solid infrastructure, any nonprofit will fail.

So far GiveWell only has reviews and recommendations compiled for charities that raise incomes (with a focus on NYC), however, upcoming will also be reviews and subsequent recommendations for charities that save lives, improve education, fight global poverty and provide child care.

But GiveWell isn't the only site of its kind, using a different system of metrics than just the 990 to evaluate charities. The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance reports on how well charities conform to the BBB charity standards.

The JustGive Guide "contains over 1,000 charities in 19 categories who meet certain criteria." These criteria include having "received funding from the top 100 foundations," "have reasonable fundraising and administrative costs" and are "recommended by experts."

The American Institute of Philanthropy also grades charities according to the following criteria: High grades go to charities that put
75% or more towards program cost while generally spending $25 or less to raise $100. These groups also receive an 'open book' credit from AIP for willingly sending the financial documents we request.

[Note: the AIP does not appear to list or grade museums.]

Newdea is coming at the issue of nonprofit evaluation from a slightly different angle, focusing on the assumption that the common bond between nonprofits and their funders is the notion of impact.
Through Newdea, the entire philanthropy community can connect, demonstrate, validate and measure the impact of their efforts. For the first time, everyone involved can actively participate in ensuring the same goals. Donors aren’t just writing checks anymore – they have a genuine interest in their investment and in using their influence positively. Charitable organizations no longer have to waste time and resources on operational redundancies, inadequacies and external pressures. Program staff can spend more time on the most impactful work and less time on administrative distractions. And those in need receive more of the help they need and can lead improved lives.

It's a little difficult for me to parse how exactly Newdea goes about doing this, but from what I can see, unlike the other sites where outside forces are evaluating nonprofits, this platform allows nonprofits to submit their own evidence of impact and have direct control over the information being put forth about them.

What is particularly interesting to me, though, about all of these sites is the idea that simply matching donors with potential recipient charities is not enough, that it is crucial to ensure that donations will be put to the best possible use in order to create the greatest good. In theory, I like this idea quite a bit, but I suspect that in practice, there will still be some kinks to be worked out in distilling the perfect way to truly gauge the effectiveness and worthiness of a nonprofit.

My guess is that evaluation sites such as these might not have much use or impact for those donors who already know where they want to give their money--but are using a third-party site simply for the ease of online giving--with the utility in these sites being primarily for those donors who are interested in particular issues but are still looking for a specific agency to fund.

But I could be wrong. Long-time supporters of particular organizations may use at least the larger of these evaluation databases to see how their favorite charities stack up--and from there, they may decide to search for new ones with similar missions but higher ratings.

In that case, I hope that donors will recognize that there is no standardization or one single, proven metric for charity evaluation and that they bear that in mind when they look up their favorite organizations. If you have had a good relationship with a particular organization and are satisfied with what it is achieving, does it matter how one website rates it?

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Follow-Up Post to "And Speaking of Giving with Somewhat Ulterior Motives"

As others have said, the "Giving Season"* is upon us! This weekend the New York Times had offered up its mammoth giving section, Democracy in Action published their Progressives Guide to Holiday Gift-Giving and Good Magazine is encouraging "people who give a damn" to "change the world" by subscribing for $20--and 100% of the subscription cost will be donated to the subscriber's choice of one of 12 nonprofits. I think I know what some of the presents I will be giving and asking for will be!

* Britt Bravo has also mentioned it, and special thanks on the heads up about the DIA guide and Good Magazine to Beth Kanter.

Free Digital Tools for Creating 3D Exhibit Plans

A quick heads up for those of you planning exhibits on a tight budget, but who need to show off professional looking plans. William J. Turkel of Digital History Hacks has a post on how to use freely available programs "to create a simple 3D model of an exhibit that you can build into a proposal or presentation." Awesome!

Source: Turkel, William J. Digital History Hacks: Methodology for the Infinite Archive. [Weblog.]

Go Check out the One Post Challenge at Tactical Philanthropy Now!

Sean Stannard-Stockton over at Tactical Philanthropy is hosting a One Post Challenge for the month of November. The deal is that people can submit (philanthropy-related) blog posts to him and, so long as they are reasonable, the posts will be, well posted. The guest blog post with the most comments at the end of the month will receive a $500 "Good Card," the brand new gift card from Network for Good that allows you to donate to your favorite nonprofit through Network for Good.

This is and of itself is neat and worth sharing with everyone, but the anonymous donor from Don't Tell the Donor just made the One Post Challenge a whole lot more interesting by declaring that

If I win, I will give the $500 to the charity named by the most people in the comments to this post.

Wow! So go over to Tactical Philanthropy now and leave the name of your favorite nonprofit in the comments!

(To be fair, I should probably point out that there have been some other incredibly interesting and valuable posts so far as part of the One Post Challenge, including Trista Harris from New Voices of Philanthropy calling for a complete reinvention of how and where foundations do business--getting program officers out in the communities they actually help--and Rob Johnston explaining why GuideStar would be better if it were more like the IMDb, but neither of these posts could win YOU money for YOUR favorite nonprofit!)

The "Bilbao Side Effect"

Just a brief follow-up to my blogpost from last week,Steven Winn has written in the San Francisco Chronicle about the "Bilbao Side Effect." He describes the phenomenon as follows:

To a greater degree than we may recognize at first, and for longer than we expect, new museums are an awful lot about themselves and less about what's inside... By virtue of their own notoriety and splashy drawing power, these high-profile houses have a way of obscuring their presumptive prime function: of displaying art in the most felicitous and revealing ways possible. People come to see the building, in other words, and regard the contents as a secondary concern.

He blames the Bilbao Side Effect for why newly (re)designed museum buildings see such initial success and then start to slump until visitors start to see the reason for visiting as being about the museum itself and not about the grand, new architecture. I don't disagree with him, and this is why I emphasized in my blogpost that it is crucial to invest heavily in marketing the new museum and to establish a unique brand that is not solely centered on the architecture.

But he also makes an interesting point that, especially with some of these architecturally-stunning museum buildings, it can take visitors awhile to warm up to the actual experience of viewing art in the new museums and to feel at home. Again, that is why I am so pleased that sneak-preview visitors to the new DIA have described it as "inviting."

Large-Scale Arts Outreach and Education Program Good News for Los Angeles

In other museum innovation news, the Los Angeles County Art Museum in conjunction with the LA Unified School District has begun a $1-million-a-year initiative, LACMA On-Site, to provide intensive six-lesson art sequences for 18 selected elementary and middle schools in the LA-area over the course of the next four years. Museum officials believe that there are no other museum programs like this one at this scale in the country. This is good news in an era when arts education in public schools has been marginalized.

First Online Impressions of the Newly Renovated and Re-Imagined Detroit Institute of Arts

The soon-to-reopen, newly redone DIA is giving me a reason to want to run to Detroit! Yes, the building has been expanded thanks to a world-known architect, but that's not what I care about. What caught my eye immediately was this:

But the new DIA is not a piece of showpiece architecture. The critical component of the reinvention is how the art is displayed. Instead of relying on traditional art history or chronology to organize the collection, the DIA is experimenting with themes and stories that connect the art to everyday life.

Ah: themes, storytelling, the possibility of interdisciplinary display and, to top it all off: relevance.

But wait, it gets better!

"I know this will become more of a destination for me," said Elaine Minkin. "The ambiance and the vistas are just so inviting, and the explanations of the art are very understandable. "

"Inviting" and "understandable"--usability and accessibility--yes, these are exactly what not just art museums but all museums should be striving for, and I'm excited for the city of Detroit that it sounds like their art museum has achieved those goals!

DIA leaders say they have tried to do everything possible to enhance the visitor experience.

Again: bingo! Visitor experience is key, and I hope that beyond just re-interpreting the art, the DIA has also invested in training its floor staff and any staff that may interact with the public that this is the case.

Many of these strategies are standard in special exhibitions, but no other American museum of the DIA's size and stature has invested so heavily in enhancing its permanent collection to reach out to the public so directly.

And I hope that that will change! Kudos, DIA!


Friday, November 9, 2007

Ron Paul Demonstrates the Power of Online Fundraising

I'm not here to speak about politics; this is neither the time nor the place to discuss the relative merits or disadvantages of Ron Paul as a political leader. But I do want to talk for a moment about his absolutely amazing fundraising feat on November 5 and what it could imply for the validity of the use of social media and online efforts for fundraising campaigns.

The Christian Science Monitor reports:

On Monday, an independent effort by Paul backers raised a stunning $4.2 million for his campaign, nearly all of it online. At the rate Paul is going, he will have a fourth-quarter funding total that rivals or even surpasses the top-tier GOP candidates.

Now how the heck did he do that? Well, it is true that "Paul backers tied their Nov. 5 fundraising effort to Guy Fawkes Day – which commemorates the day in 1605 when the British mercenary tried to blow up Parliament and kill the king" and has most recently been brought to the attention of the public through the 2005 film "V for Vendetta," starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving, but it's also true that "Paul had established a formidable Internet following even before Tuesday's fundraising coup."

The LA Times reports:

He has substantially more supporters on MySpace and Facebook -- two social networking sites -- than any other Republican. His videos have been viewed more often (nearly 5.9 million times) on YouTube than those of any other candidate, of either party.

Like many Internet advances, this week's fundraising bonanza was powered by Paul supporters rather than by his paid campaign staff.

Yep, that's right: viral marketing and person-to-person campaigns can be effective. Ron Paul seems to be the proof. Last week he was the longest of the long shots for the Republican nomination, but, thanks to Monday's efforts, commentators now believe that Paul's credibility has been enhanced and that the media should take him seriously. I'll be curious to see how other candidates respond, if at all, and I hope that nonprofits are paying attention!

Thanks to the tip off about this incredible story to Don't Tell the Donor.

Technology Training for Museum Development and Membership Professionals?

A recent post over at the Archives and Museum Informatics site regarding the "Museum Studies Programs: That Was Then, This Is Now" session at last week's MCN conference got me thinking about the way technology is taught in Museum Studies programs and whom those tech classes are really directed at? I know that technology (databases, information management, digital imaging, etc.) are necessary skills for museum collection managers/registrars and education staff, but increasingly the use of Internet technologies, including but not limited to social media, is very pertinent to the work of development and membership officers as well. Enough time has passed and enough has changed in the world since I was a Museum Studies graduate student that I honestly don't know if MS technology classes are addressing the needs of future fundraisers or not. Is social media being taught as a form of fundraising? Is e-philanthropy being discussed? Are the relative merits of Facebook as a fundraiser or MySpace for membership activities being discussed? Does anyone know?

If You Build It, Will They Come? Maybe If You Market It!

A recent article in the New York Sun ponders the oft-voiced question pertaining to museum expansions: if you build it, will they come? The answer, as evidenced in the article, is more often than not, yes, initially, but afterwards no. A new wing, a new building, even an entire new museum in and of itself is no guarantee that visitors will come flocking--any marketer will tell you that. When considering a major capital project, it is crucial to:

-- Have realistic estimates for the construction costs and timeline. Almost every building project goes over budget and over time, but the more you can keep those overages to a minimum, the better.

-- Develop realistic projections for future attendance and revenue, being careful to assume that in the first year there will be a boom followed by a big dip in attendance in the second and possibly third years, with attendance leveling out after that.

-- Invest in a strategic marketing plan. The novelty of the new wing/building/museum may be enough to draw the crowds in the first year, but you have to be prepared ahead of time for what happens when the newness wears off.

-- Consider your overhead costs. It is a big mistake to assume that the most expensive part of a capital campaign is the campaign itself. How much extra will be required by your budget to maintain the newer, larger space? Will more staff be required? What are the hidden costs associated with the new wing/building/museum?

-- Be aware of market constraints and considerations, both in terms of what the market looks like when you begin the project and what it may look like when the project is finally completed. If your new building opens right as a recession hits, or at the same time as a dozen other new cultural attractions in your town, these market factors can have a devastating effect on the success of your new building, regardless of how much planning you have put into it.

The article doesn't examine these factors in the success or failure of museum expansions, but rather just looks at the fact that, in the ten years since the hugely successful opening of the Frank Gehry designed Museo Guggenheim Bilbao there has been a "museum-building boom" although none of the other museums have seen the success of the Bilbao.

The article cites the incredible continued investment on the part of the Basque government in the Guggenheim Bilbao as part of a larger regional economic development plan as well as the fact that it was "the first extraordinary-looking museum building" as possible reasons for the Bilbao's success where other museums have failed, but I would argue that there may be another factor at work here as well. The Guggenheim brand.

The Guggenheim has been a world-famous museum ever since the original Frank Lloyd Wright building opened in New York City in 1959. It is no accident that when the "newly rich countries," such as the United Arab Emirates, decide to "rent names, collections, and expertise of Western museums" that they turn to the famous: the Louvre and the Guggenheim.

A well-established brand is a definite factor in a museum's ability to draw a huge crowd, but where some museums slip-up is in the assumption that world-class building by a big-name architect automatically creates a brand with sticking power; that just isn't enough in itself. Never forget: marketing, marketing, marketing!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

More on the Topic of Nonprofit Executive Compensation

A very thoughtful post on nonprofit executive compensation over at Philos Anthropos where it is pointed out that the median (as in, the half-way point) income for nonprofit executive directors is $42,000. Yikes. It's even worse for you museums out there: the median income for executive directors of arts and cultural organizations apparently is $31,000. In some areas of the country, that is barely enough to make ends meet.

But wait: an examination of the cited source data shows that these numbers are from 1998! What's more, there is no indication as to whether or not unpaid or volunteer executive directors were included in the study--that would certainly skew the median salary.

Still, the premise of the post validates a feeling that I have that for the most part, the vast number of small nonprofits do not have adequate executive compensation, in contrast with the relatively few nonprofits out there with ridiculously over-compensated executives. And I don't appear to be alone in this gut-feeling. According to a GuideStar poll, 54% of respondents did not think that nonprofit executives are compensated fairly. Of course, this ambiguously phrased statement could go in either direction, meaning that respondents could either feel that nonprofit executives were unfairly under- or over-compensated, but the GuideStar article does go on to state that about half of those respondents specified that they felt that many nonprofit executives were under-compensated.

Now, if that many people feel that the executives are under-compensated, what about those nonprofit staff members at the lower levels...?

...And Speaking of Shopping for Charity

Buy Less Crap is encouraging people to donate directly to The Global Fund, Gap's recipient charity from their (Product) Red retail campaign, rather than spending money on clothing as a round-about way to donating to the cause.

Trent Stamp, president of Charity Navigator, an online charity evaluation service, has also recently spoken out about Gap's (Product) Red initiative, and in particular their new (2 Weeks) t-shirt. He points out that this latest campaign, which promises that for every t-shirt purchased, two weeks worth of antiretroviral medication will be supplied to an AIDS sufferer in Africa, will essentially be donating about $5.60 from t-shirts that cost $28 each. By instead donating all $28 of your dollars directly to the Global Fund, you could instead supply 10 weeks worth of medication instead of just two.

This makes economic sense to me.

However, given recent insights into some of the potential motivations behind acts of charity, I wonder if ultimately people would be more likely to buy five (2 Weeks) t-shirts rather than just giving $28 directly to the charity? By buying the t-shirts, the donors have a tangible reminder of their charitable act, something to make them feel good about their actions every time they wear the t-shirts. They could even give the extra t-shirts away to friends or family, making themselves feel even better about their altruism and having a tangible reminder of their good deeds not only when they themselves wear the t-shirts but also when their friends and family members do. Whereas giving directly to the charity once will soon be forgotten. I could be wrong, but if my understanding about "giver's greed" and the neurological effects of giving are at all on target, ultimately the Global Fund could gain more through their alliance with (Product) Red than just by having donors give directly. I'm not sure, I'd have to see more recent actual numbers and, as was mentioned a few months ago in the Beyond Philanthropy blog, not enough time has passed yet to see if this actually will be a viable business model for creating a sustainable source of revenue for a charity.

Monday, November 5, 2007

And Speaking of Giving with Somewhat Ulterior Motives...

Well, okay, actually the ulterior motive here is also giving, but of a different sort. I'm talking about charitable giving as a form of gift-giving for family and friends. This can take the form of making a donation in honor of a loved one or of shopping for a loved one at a store or on a website that then gives at least some portion of what you spend to charity. There may be other forms that giving for the sake of, well, giving can also take, and you can be sure that if there are, someone responding to Britt Bravo's current Net2ThinkTank question will blog about it!

One place where those wanting to support museums can shop is Shop for Museums. (That is, if they don't want to shop at a museum gift store, which is another great way to support a museum and buy fantastic presents for everyone on your list!) For a broader range of nonprofit options, you can try eBay's Missionfish, Freepledge, or iGive. You can support free trade and support the charity Social Action for Association and Development when you shop from the free trade clothing store, Tam and Rob.

If you are more interested in giving donations in honor of your loved ones, you can try Global Giving or Give Meaning to support grassroots projects around the world, or Changing the Present, a site specifically set up for giving philanthropic gifts, such as an adopted tiger, or school clothing for a young girl in Africa. The site even has specific gift recommendations according to how much you want to spend or what family member you are "buying" for.

Philanthropy 2173 blogger Lucy Bernholz also has ideas about gifts of giving.

"Giver's Greed:" The Result of a Biological Imperative?

A recent article at the Huffington Post entitled "Giver's Greed" has me feeling kind of down. The gist of the article is that often donors give in order to make themselves feel better, hence their emotionally-based rather than logically-based donations don't necessarily end up actually benefiting anyone, or come with stipulations and restrictions that can hinder the overall effectiveness of what the nonprofit is trying to accomplish.

The author gives the examples of people wanting to give food donations to victims of the recent Southern California fires--despite the fact that what those affected need is money to rebuild rather than food--and of teddy bears sent to Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami where the climate resulted in the plush toys becoming disease-ridden and had to be destroyed.

But museums face these issues as well. Most museums are well aware of how much easier it is to fundraise for a new exhibit or a new wing rather than for such mundane expenditures as overhead, collections care and daily maintenance. Similarly, most grants are for specific programs rather than for upkeep and overhead--to the point that sometimes the potential for funding can drive programs, rather than the other way around.

This is only part of what I find disheartening. The other part is that this article points out the down-side to what earlier in the year I had thought was something great! This spring, studies were released that showed that giving/altruism hits the brain in the same way that sex, food and drugs do, namely causing pleasure.

Despite some bloggers opinions that giving should be about the people in need rather than about the donors, I personally felt heartened by the studies, even chiming in during a session on Fundraising 101 at the Mountain-Plains Museums Association conference this past September in Fargo, ND to mention that one more reason why museum development officers shouldn't be afraid of "The Ask" was that giving literally gives people physical pleasure, so by asking them for money, we are essentially offering them the opportunity to experience pleasure.

Furthermore, according to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, "giving leads to a healthier, happier life."

To me, all this sounded like a win-win situation. Fundraisers, who may sometimes be shy or apologetic about The Ask, now could feel even more secure about doing their jobs, while the evidence pointed to donors benefiting in tangible as well as intangible ways.

But this article has brought me back down to earth and reminded me that because giving is about meeting some sort of basic, primitive, pleasurable human need, it is also subject to human selfishness in some of its less productive forms. Still, now I wonder how many causes would be supported at all if there wasn't any neurological benefit associated with giving?

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Theory-Practice Divide

A few months ago, Nina Simon of the Museum 2.0 blog posted her concerns about the legions of museum studies graduates currently flooding the museum job market. The resulting comments were impassioned--both in favor of the training provided by advanced degrees and against. Now it appears that a similar topic is being discussed in the broader realm of nonprofits. With more than 250 programs nationwide specializing in some form of nonprofit management, nonprofit marketer and blogger Jeff Brooks is worried that "the theory-rich academic approach to life" will not adequately prepare those entering the market for reality. The discussion in the comments section of his post are definitely worth a look.

Museum Makeovers in the News!

Last week's opening of the new modern wing at the Prado Museum was big news.

But that's not the only makeover going on in the museum world!

The venerable Hermitage in St. Petersburg will be making a major update to its collections and its permanent exhibitions by including a room dedicated to the Saatchi collection.

Take a sneak peak at what's in store at the new California Academy of Sciences! And in particular at its "green facelift."

Here's more information on five major museum makeovers.

Meanwhile, the aquarium world is also seeing its fair share of changes and updates.

The Florida Aquarium is planning a new tech-oriented exhibit that will allow visitors to upload videos, download podcasts and learn through state-of-the-art digital media.

The New England Aquarium is also planning a new exhibit, one that will use seals and sea lions to help teach kids about childhood fitness. The development of the new exhibit is being funded by a grant from the New Balance Foundation.

And the drought taking hold of the southern states has resulted in the world's largest aquarium having to make water cutbacks in the name of conservation.