Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Christmas Carol for the Collaborative Economy

Subtitle: (St. Entropy has an app for that…)
 
‘Twas the night before Christmas in the Museum’s big hall,
And all through the building soft echoes did fall.
Not a creature was stirring, from microbe to ‘gator—
Not mice, and not people, not one stray curator.
The museum was peaceful from tail tip to snout,
'Cause most of the staff jobs had been parceled out.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care
By Millennials learning that "real" jobs are rare.
The curators were nestled, as was their sad habit,
But they all were gig workers assigned by TaskRabbit®.
And all of the creatures that had been in the cases
Were leased to retailers and other such places.
[Want a real live (dead) polar bear at your reception?
You can have it, no questions--for cash, no exception.
Deer, 'possums, frogs, each exquisitely posed,
For a nominal fee make great party tableaux.]
I was hunched at my desk with Jingle Bells blaring
Counting receipts for the loot from this "sharing"
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I quaked in my boots, my teeth started to chatter.
Away to the guard booth I flew just to see
What images appeared on the CCTV.
There, decked with a giant pink mustache (quite spiff)
Came a miniature sleigh, arranged via Lyft®.
With a jolly old driver, now drawing so near
I could see that his steeds were from Rent-A-Reindeer.
More rapid than updates his curses now came
As he whistled and shouted out dating app’s names,
“Not Grindr, not Tinder! And please not OKCupid.
I just want this iPhone to quit making me stupid.”
And then, in a twinkling, as I turned around,
Down the chimney Saint Nicholas came with a bound.
His eyes, how they glistened; his hair, what a mess.
I knew in a moment he had the wrong address.
“What’s this?” said Santa, waving our master key.
"This can't be the museum I leased through Airbnb®!
It was supposed to have specimens! Curators! Cases!
Instead it's impoverished, and lacking all graces.
You had dioramas. You had stories to tell.
You had magic and logic and that rare old book smell."
"Oh, well," he said, "Your lesson is learned,
"What was given away was worth more than was earned."
Then he pulled from his bag all the stuff we were missing:
Dinosaurs, preparators, even two interns, kissing.
From the dregs of the sack he fished out our director
(Who long had been absent, leased to a collector).
As the poor woman, dazed, looked around her in awe,
Santa leapt on his sleigh and let loose a guffaw,
And, putting his finger aside of his nose
(Not inside, thank goodness), through the ductwork he rose.
And I heard him exclaim, as he rose through the night,
“Take back what you own, and take care of it right!”


--Elizabeth Merritt, Sally Shelton, and John Simmons have never been leased out to anyone, though John did attempt to sell Sally once.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Entrepreneurship in Museums: The Spark!Lab National Network

Entrepreneur, \ˌäⁿn-trə-p(r)ə-ˈnər, (n) “a person who starts a business and is willing to risk loss in order to make money.” While “entrepreneurial” as applied to museums has usually focused on the “willing to take risk” part, in recent years, with traditional nonprofit business models tanking, attention has shifted to encompass the “making money” part as well. The 21st century is witnessing the rise of the “social entrepreneur” —individuals focused on achieving social good, whether through the agency of non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid businesses. Can museums find new ways of making money that also do good? In this week’s guest post Tricia Edwards and Michelle DelCarlo of the The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation describe a project that may fit the bill.

Museum professionals are starting to think about new, entrepreneurial ways of approaching their work, driven by pressure to generate revenue, to compete with for-profit social entrepreneurship, and to create sustainable models of operation. Also, pursuing an entrepreneurial endeavor inside a museum is a compelling idea.

Our entrepreneurial endeavor is the Spark!Lab National Network. Here is the context in which it developed: The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation was founded in 1995 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, under the premise that invention has played – and continues to play – a central role in American history. Our mission is to study and interpret invention and innovation in American History and to foster inventive creativity in youth.

To help us fulfill the second part of our mission (foster inventive creativity), we opened Spark!Lab at the Smithsonian in 2008. Spark!Lab is an innovation lab where kids and families can engage in the invention process, come up with solutions to problems through fun challenges, prototype their ideas, and have creative learning experiences. Spark!Lab is an interdisciplinary space, so we use history, art, science, math, and other subjects to create our activities. Like maker spaces, we provide support for visitors to use their own ideas as inspiration for their creations, but we also encourage them to direct their thinking towards solving problems, like real inventors do.

Shortly after we opened Spark!Lab at NMAH, we began to receive serious inquiries from other organizations wanting to know how they could get their own Spark!Lab. The first few phone calls were flattering and more than a little exciting. But when the calls continued and our floor staff began to relay similar messages from Spark!Lab visitors, we realized we were onto something. It seemed Spark!Lab might be able to fill the needs of communities beyond the Smithsonian, so we began to develop plans to take Spark!Lab outside of Washington, DC, and to create the Spark!Lab National Network.

The business model we developed for the Network involves charging a licensing fee to collaborators. In exchange, they receive licensed use of the Smithsonian, Spark!Lab, and Lemelson Center names and logos; a set of Spark!Lab activities to start-up; all physical materials needed to operate these activities for the first two years; in-person assistance to open; and consultation services for the life of the agreement. In essence, we are franchising Spark!Lab. But unlike a traditional franchise, our goal is to work extensively with Network collaborators to create activities, programming, and initiatives that are unique to their institutions and communities. The hope is that this will make each Spark!Lab a dynamic place that visitors—no matter the museum—want to return to again and again. We strive to turn this aspiration into reality with our first external collaboration at the Terry Lee Wells Discovery Museum in Reno, Nevada.

In for-profit entrepreneurship, profit is of course the bottom line, and if social good is also desired, it is a secondary goal. For us, the main goal of the Network is to create a meaningful impact focused on fostering inventive creativity in youth. However, we also want to sustain our operations, thus the desire to create a revenue stream through licensing. We continually grapple with the most balanced way to fulfill our mission, to serve our collaborator’s needs, and to be savvy entrepreneurs. We continue to ask ourselves tough questions about sustainability and search out ways to educate ourselves about entrepreneurial practices. We’re excited about the future of the Spark!Lab National Network, and about the future of entrepreneurship in the museum field.  

Tricia Edwards is Education Specialist and Michelle DelCarlo is Spark!Lab National Network Coordinator at The Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. You can follow their work at @SI_Invention.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Inspiring a New Generation

 Author Neal Stephenson recently launched the Hieroglyph project, to rally writers to reintroduce optimism into science fiction. That is pretty ironic, considering some of the dystopian visions he has painted of our future. But, as he notes, while dark futures are fun to write about, and film, they don’t motivate people to change. He wants to launch a new generation of creatives to envision worlds we want to exist, and inspire a new generation to “get big stuff done.”

Sometimes the act of imagining something is enough to conjure it into being. Consider all the technologies envisioned by writers long before they actually existed. Arthur C Clarke invented the idea of geostationary satellites for telecommunications back in 1945. In Neuromancer, William Gibson described a worldwide communications network using the Internet, long before the World Wide Web came into being (and Gibson was startlingly prescient about how we would use this new technology, and how it would shape our world.) Star Trek Next Generation outfitted blind engineer Geordi LaForge with a VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement)—now we’re experimenting with bionic eyes that do basically the same thing.

So this is what I pin to CFM’s “Glimpses of the Future” board in Pinterest—snapshots of the imaginings of scientists, artists, designers, architects, technologists, illustrating their ideas for our future world. Sometimes somewhat silly little things (like an iPhone app that generates smells), sometimes dark futures (like Alexis Rothman’s awesome Manifest Destiny, depicting the Brooklyn waterfront a couple hundred years into global warming), but also as many inspiring visions as I can find.

My latest pin falls in that last category:

Copyright pictures : Creations Jacques Rougerie / SeaOrbiter



It’s called the SeaOrbiter, and it’s the vision of architect Jacques Rougerie, who calls it the “Starship USS Enterprise of the Sea.” One hundred and ninety feet from top to bottom, 500 tons, the ship is a mobile underwater habitat designed to house 18 crew in 12 levels, as well as a diving drone capable of descending to 6000 meters to map the seafloor. It is intended for long term habitation and exploration of the ocean at all levels, the first of a planned fleet—one in each of the world’s oceans.

And Rougerie’s futuristic vision? “We must build a new social-economical model for the world, integrating in a responsible and sustainable way the ocean as a main source for innovations and solutions for the planet and therefore as a value of progress. A flagship for this Blue Society, SeaOrbiter also embodies the needs to explore those new resources to benefit humanity and respond to the main challenges of tomorrow.” Stephenson is right--it’s guys like Rougerie (or Jacques Cousteau, when I was growing up) who help people fall in love with the idea of saving the world.

I think it’s interesting that Rougerie invokes Enterprise (and in another place, compares SeaOrbiter to a space station). It seems like we are entering an age when large scale, ambitious exploration is driven and funded by idealistic individuals, rather than governments. Richard Branson and Elon Musk for manned space exploration, and now Rougerie for the ocean. Unlike Branson and Musk, who are bankrolling their visions with their personal wealth, Rougerie is turning to very modern fundraising technique to build SeaOrbiter—running a crowdfunding campaign to raise 325 000 euros to construct the “Eye” (or conning tower) of the ship. So if you feel inspired to help “get big stuff done,” you can support the creation of an Oceanic Enterprise.



Copyright Videos : SeaOrbiter

And keep your eyes open for other bright visions of the future, and see what “big stuff” they inspire you to do.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sold out of science: embracing private collectors in natural history museums.

Is there such a thing as déjà prevu—the feeling of seeing something that you intended to write, but haven’t, yet? This feeling swept over me recently when I read a piece by Mark Carnall, curator at the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in London. Mark’s post on fossil specimens, private collectors, and museums, did a great job kicking off a long-needed debate on the whether it is possible OR desirable for museums to remain aloof from the marketplace, and I invited him to expand on his thoughts in today’s guest post. Thank you, Mark.

In a recent blog post, natural history under the hammer, over on UCL Museums and Collections blog I reflected on the differences between natural history museums’ relationship with collectors, auctions and the ethics of treating specimens as commercial commodities and how other types of museums embrace private and amateur collectors as part of the wider community. In the ‘art world’, you’re likely to find curators, collectors, patrons and donors mingling, networking and collaborating at auctions, through subject specialist networks, international professional networks and academic conferences. In the natural history context, private collectors in general are labelled as being unethical and criticized for taking important specimens away from science.

Fossils, taxidermy, entomology specimens and other natural history specimens have inspired or been a part of art from still life studies from the great masters through to Jan Fabre’s works composed of millions of beetle elytra and the Chapman brother’s puerile inter-species copulation dioramas. However, recently the high profile sales of what in a museum context would be considered natural history specimens have provoked a communal slow shaking of the head and tutting from the scientific community—for good reasons, too. Specimens that command a high price for their rarity are normally of huge potential scientific interest. The perception is that if these specimens pass into the hands of private collectors—who can afford to easily out-bid museums—the specimens are lost to science. Because they aren’t in a public institution, there is no guarantee that studies can be repeated on them to confirm or refute hypotheses. In addition, the provenance and legality of these sales is often questionable in the first place.

However, an important question raised by this response by the scientific community to private collecting is why is it ‘us vs. them’ in the first place? Other disciplines not only tolerate but are enriched by private collectors and enthusiasts. Art auctions and art conferences are attended by curators from all over the world, artists and private collectors. Art and art history specialist networks are subscribed to both by collectors, practitioners and museum professionals. Furthermore, many private collectors are patrons, donors and lobbyists that support art museums and galleries. By contrast, it’s doubtful you’ll find a natural history curator at an auction and in order to join a natural history-related professional network you have to have an institutional affiliation.

I would like to propose that natural history museums stand to gain a great deal by embracing rather than shunning private collectors. First off there are obvious benefits to networking with multi-millionaires who are passionate about natural history. (I think it’s a bit reductive to suggest that someone who splashes millions of dollars on a fossil is always going to be a trophy hunter who couldn’t care less about science). Secondly, sitting on the sidelines and tutting about these auctions after the fact isn’t as constructive as working with auction houses and private collectors. By engaging with the commercial realm, museums can help clean up a notoriously ill-regulated and sparsely policed trade in illegal specimens.

There’s much less robust legislation and awareness of issues around illicitly, illegally and unethically collected material in the realm of natural history than in the world of art. From where I work in central London if you gave me $1000 I could go out and be back in a couple of hours having bought illicitly imported fossils, coral specimens and specimens of wild caught insects and spiders both dead and alive with no questions asked. As recent auctions have highlighted there’s a very poor safety net when it comes to investigating the due diligence and provenance of natural history specimens.(In one recent case covered even by the tabloids, Nicholas Cage’s purchase of a Tyrannosaurus skull was investigated.) The scientific community also falls foul of illicit specimens, resulting in papers on specimens which turn out to be forgeries or illicitly acquired, papers that are then retracted from journals or deliberately ignored by the wider community.

By working with private collectors and amateur collectors, museums are uniquely placed to raise the awareness of ethical collecting and hopefully to increase the patronage and support of natural history museums at the same time. In the UK this exact same issue in archaeology has been tackled with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) a reporting and recording scheme now a department of the British Museum. With thousands of amateur collectors, enthusiasts and metal dectectorists regularly finding archaeological material a scheme was needed to record these finds, flag up important finds to the wider community and ensure that key context information isn’t lost. The genius of the scheme is that registering finds generates prestige and collectors are properly credited. The data associated with finds, which is collected and edited by volunteer contributors, is uploaded to the web, the finds digitised, located on a map and the history and context fully recorded and made accessible in a way that puts most museum online catalogues to shame. Furthermore, the finds can then be returned to the collector rather than find its way to an already packed museum store to be discovered in 200 years’ time with a note ‘to be documented’ on it. The scheme only works with the combined effort of professional archaeologists, museums, collectors and volunteers. It builds trust between museums and collectors, raises the awareness of ethical and scientific collection and records all the important data almost at the point of collecting. There is a planned pilot project for fossil finds in the UK.

For natural history museums to thrive and remain relevant we need to shed some of the unfortunate downsides to working as scientists. For too long natural history museums have operated somewhere in the space between the museum and the science sectors and now risk finding themselves seated at  the “kid’s table” in both-- increasingly more distant from modern science and all but absence from discussions shaping the future of the museum sector. Natural history museums have a lot to learn from other kinds of museums when it comes to patronage, and working with private collectors and amateur enthusiasts they have a lot to share, too.

Mark Carnall is the curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL. You can follow the musings of Mark and his colleagues at the UCL Museums and Collections Blog.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Mining Data in Colorado

In the 1850’s, the Fifty-Niners flocked to Colorado to join the gold rush. In 1879, it was silver that drew adventurers to the state with visions of riches. Now the History Colorado is prospecting for a new kind of wealth—data. The museum’s chief operation officer, Kathryn Hill, shares the story of how this new, human-generated resource is enriching their operations.

In 2008, the admissions desk at the Colorado History Museum doubled as the security command center. Next to the security console sat a solitary cash register, used by the daily volunteer to ring up ticket sales for the few thousand annual visitors—primarily tourists and 3rd graders on field trips. Today, visitors to the History Colorado Center encounter paid guest services representatives who sell tickets and memberships via a point-of-sale system equipped with business intelligence software. Since 2008, attendance and membership have doubled, and History Colorado, a brand new 134 year-old institution, has taken the leap into the 21st century.

When the expansion of the Colorado State Justice Center precipitated the relocation of the Colorado History Museum in 2008, we recognized an opportunity to transform the institution and to embrace an audience-centered ethic to inform the new building design, the interpretive plan aimed at serving our community (especially families) and the ways in which we would do business. We made a commitment to improving all aspects of the service environment and to learning continuously about our audiences.

During the planning process, we made two important decisions. The first was to contract nearly all of the auxiliary services—retail, café, catering, guest services, custodial and landscaping—to a single vendor. Service Systems Associates (SSA) won the bid and became our partners in developing a seamless approach to visitor services and in selecting a single point-of-sale (POS) system for all of the revenue generating functions. SSA introduced us to Bright Star Partners, which prompted our second major decision:  to purchase a business intelligence system (BI) to sit on top of the POS.

 According to webopedia, ‘business intelligence’ refers to a single software system that tracks a lot of data that an organization has likely been  previously documenting via several programs. For example, education, membership, development and marketing departments in an organization typically maintain independent databases. The BI integrates those various databases, generating what is known as big data analytics. Where we had previously operated on gut instinct or anecdotal evidence, big data now helps to affirm or challenge our conclusions about visitors. A single swipe of the membership or credit card captures myriad data about who is visiting, whether they’re members or donors, whether they’re coming as families or in adult pairs or alone, and from where. The BI tracks whether those visitors eat in the café or shop in the store, what they ate and what they bought.  

From the outset, the three-way partnership between History Colorado, SSA and Bright Star has been critical. History Colorado’s primary interest in big data analytics stems from our mission to understand our audiences and to serve them effectively through our programs. Because their profitability is tied to our success, SSA has a vested interest in providing high-quality visitor services and in tracking the data to measure their progress. History Colorado and SSA share the expense of supporting a POS administrator, who works on site at the History Colorado Center. Bright Star provides the technological expertise that neither History Colorado nor SSA possesses and has worked with us to articulate our data needs and to configure the system to track and report the data in ways even non-technical decision-makers can easily absorb.

Sitting at our desks, in real time, we can access an array of data that inform our decision-making in a variety of ways. We imagined, for example, that our café would serve as a happy hour destination in a neighborhood long on local-area workers and short on local-area watering holes. What the BI data revealed, after a few short weeks, was a precipitous drop-off of café business after 3:00 PM on weekdays. To draw the after-work crowd, we would have to invest marketing dollars. We decided, instead, to offer the café as a rental venue for private gatherings, resulting is a new, much more lucrative revenue stream. We would have figured this out without BI, but it would have taken us much longer to gather the data, understand the trade-offs and make the decision.

Our advertising agency developed a geographic billboard plan to promote our latest exhibit. We were able to evaluate their map against the information we have about where our audiences live and make strategic decisions about advertising placement. Given the limited size of our marketing budget, we must make every dollar count.

History Colorado is far from expert in data mining. So far, we have exploited the data primarily to inform marketing and guest services. The Dallas Museum of Art uses BI to track audience use of specific exhibits. Business intelligence informs the Tate Museum’s collections use. The experiences of these museums inspire us, as we continue to mine our data in the interest of serving our audiences.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Access: No Longer About Unlocking the Front Door

I've blogged about my brief experience with Google Glass at the Tech@LEAD conference. Turns out @nealstimler loaned that same pair of specs to Nik Honeysett, head of administration at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Today Nik shares his musings on the implications of this new technology, prompted by his 'test drive."

It really is getting ridiculous. We’ve barely figured out iPads, we still regard browsing our museum websites from a desktop as our primary use case and now Google Glass is staring us down. Yes, I have purloined said shiny gadget (thanks @nealstimler). It’s been a while since total strangers have stopped me in the street (or galleries in this case), questioned me about what I’m wearing, and asked if they can try it on. It used to happen a lot, but that’s a different post. With my “recovering technologist” hat on, I’ll say that Glass has that intoxicating feel of new technology that’s going to be a big deal, still a little clunky, but significant. It smells disruptive.

However, the impending arrival of Glass begs the question, how do we keep up with technologies that will significantly disrupt how we deliver content to our audiences? And the disruption isn’t about something new or different, it’s about an addition, an added complexity. Just because Glass is arriving, doesn’t mean tablets are leaving. James Gleick, author of The Information (ISBN-10: 1400096235) said it far more elegantly:

“Hardly any information technology goes obsolete, each one throws its predecessors into relief”

It appears we’re on a three year cycle, iPhone (2007), iPad (2010) and now with Glass we’re already on to a totally different mode for delivery, really different. Responsive design gets us out of the hole for simultaneously delivering content to desktop, tablet and phone, but responsive design will not help us deliver to Glass.

In three years, we’re going from the convenience of a light-weight, hi-res, touchscreen computer with the natural gesture of pinch and zoom, to something we wear instead of carry, command by voice and even wink at to control. We’re competing for the attention of our audiences, and nothing gets closer to our audience or more personal than Glass’ “screen”. The only reason Google is inventing the driverless car is so that we can wear Glass while driving. You think I’m joking? Google’s revenue model is about eyes on ads, ads don’t get closer to your eyes than with Glass, and there’s no greater captive audience than a driver in a car.

So as I learn to interact with Glass, and apply a fake American accent to increase the success rate of my voice commands, it's brought into focus (enough with the puns already) what’s required of us as museums. The organisational simplicity of data and information that Glass requires informs a strategy to survive and scale up in the face of rapidly changing delivery technologies: Ignore the technology and focus on the trend. I’ll invoke Occam’s razor:

A scientific and philosophic rule that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily … the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex … explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities.

("Occam's Razor." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster)

The strategy is simple enough: in the same way that a sound financial strategy says, “look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves”, we need an information strategy that provides for the simplest delivery, because the complex delivery technologies can take care of themselves. It will also let others, who do a far better job of presentation and who are far better equipped to deal with the sustainability issues, worry about the delivery. Rather than packaging our information, using our own resources to wrap it up into neat self-contained bundles, we need to become service-oriented, we need to get into the resource creation business where we provide the data and others provide the presentation. I’ll use two examples from my own institution, the Getty’s Open Content Program and our recent partnership with Khan Academy.

The focus of the Open Content Program is to make all public domain artworks in the Getty’s collections free to use, modify, and publish for any purpose and at high resolution. While we will continue to provide access by wrapping up our collection images in a convenient self-contained, collections-online subsite, so can anyone else. We created the resources, but we’re letting others do stuff with them, and we’ll be releasing more images over time (currently we’re at 10,000). Fortunately we have a Digital Asset Management system that allows us to manage and deploy these resources. But it is not just about images, our plans are to add data to the Program as well.

Our partnership with Khan Academy is where this concept of resource creation really takes off and demonstrates the power of this approach. Our first step with KA is to simply provide access to the video resources we have generated. In much the same way that we create playlists on our YouTube channel, KA has created similar playlists on their platform, but with this partnership we’ve doubled the return on our investment in terms of access—KA has 10 million unique users per month.Our partnership with KA will evolve to create and add more content around these resources, but we can use and deploy these resources anywhere.

The concept is not new. Creating Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to provide access to our collection information and images is exactly the same concept, we just need to extend it from collections information to education, conservation, research, and so on, creating discrete resources, efficiently managed, deployable and accessible that allow  anyone to aggregate, mix, re-mix, extend. Anyone in your museum got the time to add Glassware development to their developer’s burgeoning list of skills and then manage a project to deliver a Glass app? Probably not. Anyone got the time to reformat that descriptive or interpretive copy and add it to Wikipedia? Most likely.

Google Glass is clearly a new technology, but the trend is information delivery. In another three years’ time I could be posting about Google Implant—just another extension of the same trend. If I have done a good job of organizing and setting free my data and resources for Glass, my only worry will be about the surgeon’s blade.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Museums in an Age of Scale

On September 16-17, 2013, an eclectic crew descended on the National Building Museum here in D.C. for “Museums and the Learning Ecosystem: building the future of education”—a convening co-hosted by CFM and The Henry Ford, with the support of the Robert and Toni Bader Charitable Foundation. Attendees represented the whole educational landscape—teachers, researchers, policy makers, activists, students, entrepreneurs, museum educators—and all shared a passionate interest in exploring the future of education, and how museums can play a more vital role. We are working on a paper summarizing the presentations and discussions from that convening—due out 1st quarter next year—but I can’t resist giving you a sneak peek at some of the content as I edit the submissions. Today’s guest post is by Michael Edson, director of web and new media strategy at the Smithsonian Institution. Michael tackles the question of how museums can scale up the good work they do, in order to make a significant difference in American education.

My message to the Future of Education Convening was simple, even stark: if we want to take on the challenge of improving education in America, we’ve got to get big or get out. Half-measures won’t cut it.

Every organization, every discipline, dreams. When we close our eyes we picture ourselves practicing our craft at the peak of excellence: teaching, provoking, spreading joy, having profound impact in our communities. But even dreams have limits, based on our experience of what is possible. Dreams come in different types and sizes. Different scales.

Our industry, museums, forged our dreams in the 20th century when being successful meant having impressive buildings full of experts, big collections, and visitors through the doors. That was our reality, there was no Internet yet, and we could imagine no other type of success. In that world, we dreamt about things like bigger, better buildings, rock-star curators, preeminent collections, and more visitors.

The East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. opened in 1978 with 4.6 million annual visits. It has roughly the same level of visitation today. Is that the fulfillment of a big dream? How you answer that question depends on what you think the mission of that institution is and how you think about scale, but either way, 0% audience growth and incremental improvements in facilities, collections, and staffing over 35 years reveals a question about whether we using the best dreams to shape and prosecute our missions.

The TED conference has served over a billion videos since 2006, the year they started a small experiment to put videos online. They tried it, it seemed to work, so they tried some more, and now they have delivered a billion videos. The TED team didn’t do anything that a museum couldn’t have done—no aspect of TED’s strategy, tactics, or operations require huge teams or huge budgets, and even the TED motto, Ideas worth spreading, is hauntingly museumesque. But their vision, their sense of their role—their responsibility, their obligation—in the world of the 21st century is clear, as is their understanding of scale.

The National Gallery of Art would have to operate for 217 years to have a billion visitors, but is a TED talk as good as a museum visit? Is any online experience as good? There’s a lot of doubt among museum leaders that online experiences can be as authentic, as impactful, as a visit to a museum. But try Googling “TED talk made me cry” and then read “Art Museums and the Public”, a 2001 report by the Smithsonian Institution Office of Policy and Analysis, which concludes,

One of the most striking results of this generation-worth of museum audience studies is that the explicit aims of exhibition planners are rarely achieved to any significant degree. In study after study ... researchers found that the central goals of the exhibition team (which are usually learning goals) were rarely met for more than half of the visitors, except in those cases where most visitors entered the museum already possessing the knowledge that the museum wanted to communicate.

Art historian Beth Harris told me her own feelings about the reality of museum visits,

It isn't this amazing, contemplative, aesthetic, transcendent experience. It’s jostling crowds, it’s feeling hungry, it’s being annoyed by the people you’re with sometimes, it’s feeling disappointed that you can’t have the reaction that the museum wants you to have—that you don’t have the knowledge and the background to get there. I mean, it’s a whole range of complicated things.

Beth Harris, and her collaborator, art historian Steven Zucker, attended the Future of Education Convening. Beth and Steven reach 200 students a semester through the traditional practice of teaching art history in their classrooms, but this semester they’ll reach 2 million learners from 200 countries through their open educational resource, Smarthistory. The Khan Academy, a free, online educational website of which Smarthistory is a part, reaches ten million learners a month. MIT’s Open Courseware project served 100 million people in its first decade and their goal is to reach 1 billion learners in the next ten years.

Our dreams drive us forward. Museums accomplish wonderful things in society, but a billion learners—that’s the kind of dream we need to have.

For a dramatic visual representation of the issues Michael raises in this post, check out the Slideshare presentation The Age of Scale--his keynote for Wikimedia UK GLAM-WIKI conference at the British Library, London, April 12, 2013.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Smithsonian X 3D: Putting 3D to work for museums

Last week I played hooky from writing TrendsWatch 2014 to catch up on one of our 2013 picks: 3D scanning and printing. The Smithsonian X 3D conference featured speakers from around the world sharing the latest developments in this rapidly evolving field. Today on the Blog, Günter Waibel, director, digitization program office, Smithsonian Institution, shares new of the biggest announcement at the conference—the Smithsonian’s launch of a new online digital tool. You can access the full archived webcast of the conference here.



Last week, the Smithsonian announced the availability of 20+ collections objects and scientific missions in an online 3D explorer which allows the public to rotate 3D models, manipulate them and take measurement. In addition, raw datasets of most models are available for educational and non-commercial use, and support further investigation in dedicated software packages as well as 3D printing.

Models include iconic Smithsonian collection treasures such as the 1903 Wright Flyer, the Gunboat Philadelphia, Amelia Earhart’s Flight Suit and Lincoln’s Life Masks, as well as scientific missions uncovering Fossil Whales in the Atacama desert, and a scan of the cave in Indonesia where the Hobbit Man (“Homo floresiensis”) was found. We called the launch event, as well as the ongoing activity, “Smithsonian X 3D” (#SIx3D) because we wanted to evoke the marvel of a 167 year old museum complex going head-to-head with the most cutting edge 21st century technology; and we wanted to state our premise that 3D technology would somehow multiply or amplify the Smithsonian in our ability to execute on our time-honored mission of the increase and diffusion of knowledge.

Smithsonian Secretary Dr. Clough getting 3D captured in the SIx3D Tech Gallery
(photo: Eric Long, Smithsonian)
Holding a 3D print of himself the following day.

We have rigorously tested that premise over the last two years to make sure that we’re not adopting technology for technology’s sake, but because it furthers long-held Smithsonian ambitions. A crucial part of our test was to steep many of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums in 3D technology by asking them to nominate a compelling capture project, and then working with them to explore the implications of the 3D data set. In the course of this exploration, we’ve worked with curators found that the 3D dataset allowed them to see an object with new eyes, and make new discoveries; and with educators who are eager to get museum collection objects into the classroomnot as photographs, but as 3D prints!

This exploration also led us to experiment with a range of capture technologies, from lasers scanning to microCT to photogrammetry, as well as a variety of items that begins to reflect the mind boggling diversity of the Smithsonian’s 137 million object collection. We’ve captured things that fly such as an airplane and a bee; things that swim such as a boat and a whale; and things that walk (or crawl) such as a mammoth and a crab. We’ve captured entire research sites, and (not to brag) an entire SuperNova, courtesy of our colleagues at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Defying easy categorization, we’ve also captured a garment, a chair, a mask, a sculpture, a flower and much more. And, of course, all of these items, being in the Smithsonian collection, have a one-of-a-kind story.


Take a tour of the 1903 Wright Flyer with Peter Jakab, associate director and chief curator, National Air & Space Museum

These one-of-a-kind stories are now more accessible than ever, thanks to the 3D explorer our sponsor Autodesk donated to this effort. The 3D explorer lets the public see an object from all angles; direct three different lightsources to get a better view of details; and use cross-sections to peer into the inside of an object (data permitting.). Moreover, the 3D explorer turns the models into a scaffold for story-telling. Curators, scientists and educators can draw a viewer’s attention to specific details of the model, while helping them understand what they are looking at through short essays and additional visuals. Just like a YouTube video, the 3D explorer models are “embeddable”just grab the embed-code, and you can bring the model to life on your website or blog as we have done throughout this post.

We believe that Smithsonian X 3D projects indicate that this new technology has the potential not only to support the Smithsonian mission, but to transform museums' mcore functions. Researchers working in the field may not come back with specimens, but with 3D data documenting a site or a find. Curators and educators can use 3D data as the scaffolding to tell stories or send students on a quest of discovery. Conservators can benchmark today’s condition state of a collection item against a past statea deviation analysis of 3D data will tell them exactly what changes have occurred. While these use cases appear remarkable and extraordinary today, all of them are substantiated by Smithsonian X 3D projects, and all of them may represent the ordinary museum of tomorrow.



We think of the launch of Smithsonian X 3D as yet another step towards a new contract between the Smithsonian and the world which moves us beyond just letting people see (but not touch!) towards sparking interaction, creation, and learning by doing. It looks like we struck a nerve. In the 5 days after the launch, the new 3d.si.edu website received close to 100,000 unique visitors, which equaled the number of unique visitors for the Smithsonian homepage during that same period, while a 30% longer average visit duration and a 50% lower bounce rate testify to how engaging this content is. We had a total of 35 million impressions on Twitter for “Smithsonian 3D”, with 16 million accounts reached on the two days of the Smithsonian X 3D conference. Adam Savage of Mythbuster-fame led the charge by tweeting to his over 1 million followers:



Some of the initial uses of the data we’ve made available for download seems to suggest that we are reaching the younger audience that museums traditionally have difficulty withwitness the posts on i09 (convenient tagline: “we come from the future”), where one excited comment includes a new rendering of one of the Smithsonian models we released, placing the Wooly Mammoth back in its ice-age habitat.

Posted the day after Smithsonian X 3D launched, this renders the Wooly Mammoth
back into its ice-age habitat.

To learn more, please check out some of the Smithsonian X 3D videos, which bring many Smithsonian voices from curators, researchers, educators and conservators into a conversation about 3D in museums.

You can read more about the Smithsonian Digitization Office here, and follow the authors of this post via Twitter. Günter Waibel is @guwa, Adam Metallo, 3D program officer, digitization program office, Smithsonian Institution (@3D_Digi_SI), and Vincent Rossi, 3D program officer, digitization program office, Smithsonian Institution (@3D_Digi_SI).

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Risky Business: tackling the securing challenges of technology

 Focusing on the horizon, as futurists do, can distract us so much that we risk tripping over what is right under our feet. The truth of this statement was brought home to me recently by Steve Keller, founding partner in the Architect’s Security Group, at the Lemelson Center’s Inventing the Surveillance Society symposium. As Steve pointed out that day, the potential of the emerging technologies we discussed (facial recognition software, eye tracking, biomonitoring) can distract us from considering the attendant risks. But before we even tackle this future, we need to play catch up with the technology we’ve already integrated into our museums. Today on the blog, Steve gives you a heads up on the tech risks that may trip you up in the near future.

Security consultants and engineers who work almost exclusively with museums have seen many changes in security technology over the past thirty years. In "the old days"—the 1990's, that is—life began to get complicated as museums started using computers to run the alarm and access control systems. The computers in use before then generally were proprietary to companies like Honeywell and ran on proprietary operating systems. But in the '90's, museums began to use off-the-shelf PCs running DOS or Windows. This made museums vulnerable to hacking, viruses and other cyber security threats because, unlike the early systems by Honeywell and Johnson Controls, virtually anyone could learn how to attack these systems from anywhere in the world.

The problem with technology is that it changes so rapidly it is difficult to keep track of the negative effect each change might have on security. As far back as Windows 95, programmers added “Easter Eggs” to their work—features visible only to programmers who saw the actual program code. Windows 95, for example, had a hidden flight simulator. In spite of backlash from the government and consumers, Easter Eggs continue to be found in most business software. Why do people question the integrity of software that had hidden features? Well, how do we know what else might be hidden in there that might make us vulnerable to a hacker. Could someone build a back door into your alarm system by adding it to Windows?

Picture from My Biggest Complaint
When a museum builds a computer network that may contain a hundred or more computers, each of those computers becomes a doorway into the whole network. If your alarm and access control systems use that network, then anyone with a password to your system and to the network can interfere with your security. How many times have I found a password into the network taped to someone's computer screen or on a Post-it in their top desk drawer?
  
This is just a small part of the problem. Each of these “doorways” is also a way for viruses to be introduced into the network. While good virus protection software can detect most threats, new viruses are being introduced weekly and until the software "catches up", we are all vulnerable. Other threats to your security systems include denial of service attacks where someone intent upon breaking in to the museum without being detected can overload the network with nonsense data until you literally shut it down to stop the threat. Shutting it down is exactly what the bad guys want.

My point is that museums no longer have the luxury of just buying an alarm and access control system. Consideration must be given to providing a dedicated network for it that can be protected, and isolating it from the internet so the only way to access that network is from the security control room.

Another threat is the trend of transferring ownership of all servers to the IT department and moving them to one location under their care and control. I feel that control of the physical server should remain with the security department and that it should remain in the security control room.  After all, who in the organization has the knowledge and access to commit the perfect billion dollar heist? If the IT manager decided to rob a museum, not only would we not know who did it, we wouldn't have any idea whatsoever how it was even done. I no longer worry as much about a dishonest curator or registrar because what they can haul away is pocket change compared to the damage an IT employee can do without proper controls.

Some institutions are using virtual servers and others are migrating their data to "the cloud," and this introduces other risks.  Have you seen "a cloud"?  It is generally a large shipping container packed with servers, each running virtual servers, located in a parking lot somewhere in the world--often India. That doesn’t provide the type of control of the security system that makes me, or your fine arts insurers, comfortable.


As we add useful new features to our security systems, we also add problems. I recently saw a system that puts help icons on the desktop of every employee’s computer. One icon is a panic button that they can use to alert security of a problem. Another customizable icon can tell Security you need paramedics because you are having, say, a low blood sugar event because you are diabetic. These systems are fantastic.  But they cause headaches as well because now the security system computer is storing previously private and protected human resource information like the fact that you have diabetes or a heart condition.

Today security is a high tech and complex field that is changing quickly. Only a small percentage of it still involves security officer management. Museums need a comprehensive plan to manage the changing security environment that identifies and neutralizes risks posed by technology. Security is like an iceberg. What you see above the water is the easy part.  It’s what’s hidden below the surface can cause you real problems.




Thursday, November 14, 2013

Why “Free” Isn’t Always a Good Thing

The charitable sector is going through a period of painful self-examination about the unintended side effects of well-intentioned philanthropic efforts.

TOMS, the popular “profit for good” shoe company that donates a pair of shoes to a needy child for every pair bought, has come under fire for dropping an “economic bomb on local industry” by effectively suppressing the business of local cobblers. US international food aid is criticized for destroying local farming communities. Some commentators even question whether domestic government aid programs are, essentially, subsidizing industries that don’t pay a living wage.

It’s getting to the point where some wonder if the best solution to social problems associated with poverty is simply giving money to poor people. GiveDirectly is trying out this concept in Kenya, and so far their rigorous evaluation of impact of their work looks pretty good.
I’ve begun to think about the unintended side effects of philanthropy in the cultural sector. It seems like funders give lip service to sustainability, yet many funders dole out money in a way that undermines efforts to create services with sustainable business models. Philanthropic support can damage the overall ecology of nonprofit finances by subsidizing underpriced services (like professional education) and lowering museums' price point for buying these services. This makes it hard for service organizations (like museum associations) to build self-sustaining, high performing programs that charge a fair market price.

See if this (generic) example sounds familiar: a nonprofit gets a three-year grant to deliver professional training to its sector. And the training is free! For three years—then it goes away. (Nowadays, funders rarely underwrite a program indefinitely, and they rarely are willing to step in to provide continued support for programs developed as signature projects by other foundations, unless the recipient organization can put a significant new twist on it.) Sounds great, yes? For the people and organizations benefiting from the training, maybe. But meanwhile, that three years of “free” has helped to create a market in which people are unwilling (and farther down the road, unable) to pay for that same service.

My personal experience is with the museum sector, but as I work more often across sectors, as I share content we’ve developed through CFM, I can’t help but notice how messed up our economy is, even relative to other nonprofits. People who work in museums have such a low price point for things like professional courses and professional conferences, that it is really difficult for the organizations supporting the sector (local, state, regional, national) to build robust, effective, sustainable infrastructure to deliver these services. I wonder how much of this is due to the constant influx of small bits of funding that temporarily support programs that are great while they last, but can’t stand on their own non-subsidized legs.

Museums might argue they simply can’t afford to pay the true cost of a sustainable educational program. To which I would respond that there are lots of necessary things nonprofits aren’t usually factoring into their business plans because they think they can't afford them. Reform activist Dan Pallotta argues this includes competitive salaries, adequate marketing budgets, and funds to invest in growth. Jesse Rosen, president & CEO of the League of American Orchestras, feels that for his constituents it includes building sufficient financial reserves to support risk taking. To this growing list I would add professional development, especially if museums are going to diversify their hiring to recruit people who may have little background in nonprofits in general, or museums in particular.

If professional training is really valuable, and essential, then the business model for museums needs to include generating sufficient funds to pay for it. And if one or six or a dozen organizations have a steady income stream from satisfied consumers paying a fair price for these services, they ought to be able to ramp up their programs, and help make the programs cost effective and affordable via efficiencies of scale.

These musing are just one line in the mental sketch I am trying to draw of the changing shape of museum financial models and the nonprofit economy as a whole. How does our dependence on unpaid interns, and volunteers, affect museum salaries? How do museum salaries affect who we attract into the sector, and how they shape their own benchmarks of success? How do our personal benchmarks for success affect our expectations for the impact, scale and scope of our operations? And how does our collective impact, scale and scope, in turn, determine who is willing to fund us, and their attitudes towards the nature of the nonprofit sector?

Meanwhile, my message for funders is: think about the effect your funding has on the system as a whole, not just the direct benefits of this program per se. Are you damaging the nonprofit economy by subsidizing underpriced services? And for museums seeking funding, I ask you to look at the flip side of that question: will the funding you seek create a good, one-time thing, or will it enable you to create or build out a program or service that can eventually stand on its own in the marketplace, without a funder's subsidy?


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Choosing Roles: Can we advance action AND enhance experience?

In the course of my ongoing quest for stories of how museums make the world a better place, I met Douglas Meyer, a consultant who’s worked with a variety of nonprofits in the U.S. and internationally. For example, teaming with the firm of Bernuth & Williamson, he has worked with The Nature Conservancy, World Resources Institute (WRI), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), as well as agencies including the National Park Service and USFWS. Doug feels I have, on occasion, been unduly pessimistic about the choices museums face when it comes to being activists (for the environment or other issues). This week, he shares some research that bolsters his position.

Last year, in a post on this blog, Elizabeth asked museums, "Would you rather be loved, or would you rather save the world?" That is a question that none of us would like to answer for our organizations. Thankfully, it may be a choice that none of us have to make.
Recently, I worked with The Ocean Project on research that suggests “loved” vs. “save” might be a false dichotomy. As part of our ongoing look at public opinion on ocean issues, including the problem of ocean acidification, our partner, IMPACTS Research, surveyed a representative sample of the U.S. population, primarily online, and we then compared those results to on-site intercepts, gathering a random sample of more than 3,500 visitors to nine aquariums and three science museums. With reference to the question of being good or doing good, what we found was striking in two ways.
  1. Not surprisingly, we found that the public's interest in a mission-related issue seems to spike during their visit. Concern about ocean acidification, for example, was notably higher in the on-site intercepts than in the online survey, even when the comparison was to those in the online survey who had visited an aquarium, zoo or science museum within the last twelve months. At the risk of oversimplification, not only are visitors self-selecting in terms of being interested enough to come into a museum, they are especially interested while there.
  2. Here is the shocker: how much visitors wanted to help. Our research focused on promoting personal action (rather than political advocacy). We knew from the public opinion survey and other research that visitors trust zoos, aquariums and museums on mission-related issues, but we wanted to go beyond that. And what we found in the on-site intercepts was truly inspiring—across the sample and almost without exception, visitors expressed both trust and appreciation for information about how they could help address a mission-related issue. They agreed overwhelmingly with the statement, "Learning how to help conserve the ocean and its animals makes this a better place to visit."   
In our view, these two findings help make the case that museums can inspire visitors to take action on mission critical issues, and do so in a way that visitors will appreciate.   
As the next step, The Ocean Project is asking for help in putting this research to the test. We recently issued a request for proposals, with funding available for aquariums that are interested in leading local or regional campaigns or initiatives to advance ocean conservation solutions.  It would be great to see aquariums and other museums continue to work together on these projects.  Please take a look at the RFP, and also send me examples of efforts that have both inspired visitor action, and enhanced visitor experience. Let's see if we really can help save the world, and be loved for doing so!
I am encouraged to see the results of Douglas’ research! The question I raised in my original post (Choosing Roles: Facilitator or Advocate?) was whether taking an activist stand on a contentious issues (climate change, gun control, abortion) alienates certain audiences to the extent that it precludes the museum being a “safe space” for dialog and learning (a goal many museums list in their visions and plans). What do you think? Can museums both be advocates on hot topics while retaining the trust of population as a whole? And if not, which would you choose?



Friday, November 8, 2013

Futurist Friday: Cloud Robots

Actually, the term is "cloud robotics" (machine-to-maching learning between robots over the web). But "cloud robots" sounds way cooler.

In any case, your Futurist Friday assignment, this 5 1/2 minute video "Why We Love Robots" from the YouTube series "Future Starts Here." (I look forward to catching up on the earlier episodes, too.)





Robots, like jet-packs, are one technology where our expectations consistently outrun our actual performance. But now robots are really starting to come into their own. They are being taught to care for the elderly and assist doctors. We have even robot jellyfish for military surveillance.

In museums we have robots helping conservators, acting as museum guides, and telepresence robots serving as physical avatars for school groups making "virtual visits."

Today's discussion question: if you could issue a challenge to a robotics lab, what would you most want a robot to do in your house, or in your museum?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Museums in the Future: A View from Across the Pond

I was originally going to feature the report “Museums in a Digital Age” from Arups’ Foresight + Research + Innovation thinktank in a Futurist Friday post, but I try to confine the recommendations in that series to short bites of reading or viewing that can be consumed during lunchtime or a break.

At 40 pages, this report doesn’t make that cut, but it is well worth settling down with for a longer read.

The report explores three major trends: Content diversification, immersive experiences, and sustainable & open spaces. Many of its observations echo the themes CFM has explored in the last two years of TrendsWatch, and it is interesting to see a fresh take and different perspective on the same data.

Arup projects that museums will diversify their content in response to:

  • A rising desire among audiences to shape their own cultural experiences (“Collaborative Curation”)
  • Shifting cultural attitudes about what topics or issues are important and relevant
  • The DIY/Maker movement and attendant technologies like 3D printing that let visitors get their hands on museum materials (digitally speaking)
  • The opportunity for museum to become “curators of experiences” that extend beyond the boundaries of traditional exhibits or programs, or beyond the walls of the museum itself.

The report notes the rise in immersive experiences, including hybrid mashups of physical and digital environments. It points to:

  • The blurring of identity between formerly distinct formats such as museums, libraries, shops, restaurants, galleries.
  • The interplay or competition between physical and virtual experiences
  • The potential for data collection and analytics to create “smart environments” that provide interactive & personalized experiences
  • The ability of museums to use mobile technology to untether their content from a particular place and time.
Sustainable & open spaces looks at museums' role in placemaking in our increasingly dense and urban world, including

  • The need for climate-ready design, responding to forces ranging from energy conservation to the role of museums in stewardship of animals or ecosystems threatened by climate change
  • The rise of green design
  • Museums as a place to integrate new communities into the social fabric of a city
The second section of the report focuses on future audiences. Most surprising, to me, was their tagging of the “expanding global middle class.” Having heard so much about the endangered middle class in the US, I was interested to learn that according to the UN, the global middle class will expand to 3 billion people by 2020 (mostly in developing countries—that makes sense.) The report also notes the need for museums to identify the needs of niche (“target group”) audiences, such as providing expanded hours to serve working professionals who may want to hit the museum after a long day at the office.


In addition to their own trends forecasting, Arup challenged students at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London to describe how specific UK museums have adapted to the future in 2040. The resulting scenarios describe how:

  • Kew Gardens becomes a place of temporary respite from a toxic mega-city
  • The Victoria & Albert Museum, its collections depleted by massive repatriation, becomes a travel & tourism guide and international affairs ambassador in an increasingly globalized community
  • The Wallace Collection, along with the rest of society, largely migrates into the digital realm
  • The Freud Museum, in the spirit of its namesake, becomes a provider of mental retreat and therapy (I wonder if the docents will be licensed psychoanalysis?)
I hope this summary intrigues you enough that you read the whole report. 

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Fourth Sector

The second flight of “Test Pilots” is winging their way through the CFM Digital Badging project. Besides helping the Alliance test the potential of this form of microcredentialing to serve our members, and providing some training on strategic foresight as applied to museums, I had hoped the course might generate some good content to share on this blog. And it has! This week’s post is a “story seed” created by CFM Council member (and test pilot) Angie Kim. This seed is the kernel of what could become a longer, more details story of what I think is a very plausible future.

Date of this scenario: 2025

Trends observable today, and a plausible future event, that could lead to this future:

Trend 1: Government support of social issues continues to decrease.

Trend 2: Private philanthropic support continues to underfund pressing social and humanitarian issues relative to personal-interest giving (such as for arts and culture, medical research, and higher education).

Trend 3: Triple bottom-line private enterprises continues to grow in number and in strength making corporations that operate for the social good both popular and commercially viable

Trend 4: Wealthy, young business entrepreneurs from the technology industries have emerged as leaders in the nonprofit sector, with an interest in applying capitalistic, entrepreneurial strategies to fixing social problems.

Event: All 50 states recognize triple bottom-line, social benefit corporations and yet-to-be-tested litigation uphold directors’ ability to prioritize social and environmental good over earning profits.

Story Seed: The Fourth Sector: 2025


Since the 1950s, the number of nonprofits in the United States has exploded, with well over 1 million 501(c)(3) public charities today. Despite this number, not all nonprofits and their issues are supported equally. The majority of private philanthropic support has gone to private-interest areas, such as elite universities, arts and culture, and medical centers, and not to helping the poor or to solving environmental issues (The Center on Philanthropy & Google, 2007). Exacerbating this problem is the unabated decline in government support for social issues. Consequently, the nonprofit sector is no longer seen as the space for solving social problems, such as poverty, hunger, homelessness and climate change. Instead, for-profit commercial enterprises that are incorporated as multiple bottom-line businesses have emerged as powerful agents of social change.

Although these businesses donate time and money to social causes, their charitable activities have far less impact than their enterprise ability to marry consumer spending with positive changes in such areas as sourcing of sustainable materials and humanitarian improvements in their production chain that protect natural resources and lift workers out of poverty. Commercial enterprises that unleash the power of capitalism on solving social problems has become so effective that new investment classes are being invented that further secure financial resources in this socially responsible marketplace. Unlike the nonprofit system that depended on the voluntary actions and behaviors of donors, the private enterprise market of consumers and investors are able to ‘move the needle’ on social issues like never before.

Here are five discussion questions Angie suggests you use to guide a conversation, in a museum or other organization, about this scenario and how it might inform your planning:
  1. Is the nonprofit sector the best sector for solving social problems? Why or why not?
  2. How should nonprofits respond to the evidence that the sector does not do enough to solve social problems?
  3. How can nonprofits set aside their individual competitive needs in order to strengthen the overall sector’s ability to ‘move the needle’ on certain issues?
  4. Is the emergence of commercial enterprises that operate for social good a positive or negative development for nonprofits? In what ways, and why?
  5. In what ways might nonprofits be so shortsighted in their visions for the future that they miss the opportunity to be the leading sector for social change?

I also recommend this recent post by Angie on her own blog, Private Foundations Plus, that explores related concepts in greater depth.