The Nonprofit Imagination

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You would expect the Canadian Museum of Civilization – 150 years old and Canada’s best-visited museum – to have a large budget for acquiring artifacts. It doesn’t, but it wants one, reports the Ottawa Citizen. So the museum plans to do what practically any nonprofit organization would to raise money: host a gala. Proceeds from the museum’s September costume ball will be used to establish an acquisition fund.

This well-tried method of fundraising is a good example of the short-term thinking plaguing nonprofits: a type of event geared to luring-in people and separating them from their cash. But how do galas benefit nonprofits over the long-term? Attendees dine, dance, then dash, and all too quickly forget what they were supporting. Will they come back to support subsequent galas? So many similar events are held annually – including 10K races, lotteries, or ribbon sales – these events have lost their power to hold people’s attention.

The public image of nonprofits is of organizations perpetually cap-in-hand. No wonder: desperate for money and scrambling to be noticed, fundraisers doggedly pursue formulaic and unmemorable events – anything, it seems, except figuring out how to stay meaningfully-connected with the people who are really interested in their work.

Donors feel tapped out. Even marketing consultants – the ones who undoubtedly propose such tactics in the first place – question the efficacy of conventional marketing practices. Chip Walker, an American advertising executive from Energy/BBDO, told the National Post “we focus so hard on interrupting people and trying to be different that we’ve ceased to say anything they actually care about.”

One of the museum world’s leading thinkers, the late Stephen Weil, once wrote that becoming a successful museum has two requirements: accomplishing mission, and converting public goodwill into actual support. In 2005, however, Statistics Canada reported that a paltry 3% of museums’ earned-revenues come from memberships. It’s a troubling figure because it suggests that what museums are saying isn’t compelling enough to keep visitors connected to their work.

If museum managers want to pass Weil’s test, and want more people to contribute financially to their organizations, they need to convince more of the people who walk through their doors that staying connected provides a meaningful and valued experience.

But how can they convert initial public interest or goodwill into actual support when poor communication is the norm?

Spurred on by advocates like author Jim Collins, nonprofits are slowly beginning to accept branding. They know brand awareness removes hurdles to explaining themselves and helps them reach diverse audiences. They understand possessing a recognized brand name removes doubt, builds trust, and establishes emotional connection. And, in a country where nonprofits rely so heavily on government largess, they know brand-name status will protect them: says Collins, “anyone seeking to cut funding must contend with the brand.”

While many nonprofit managers recognize these truisms, many of these same people unfortunately believe brand recognition already exists, and believe the public widely understands – and is willing to support – their mission. It isn’t, and they don’t. There are, however, interested and thoughtful potential audiences for what nonprofits want to talk about.

But in the chase for dollars, nonprofits stumble over how to engage them effectively. Instead of focusing on “the ask,” nonprofits need to do a better job at “the tell.”

Robert Janes and Gerald Conaty, editors of Looking Reality in the Eye: Museums and Social Responsibility, comment that museums’ addictive preoccupation with money, instead of meaning, undermines opportunities to promote their unique strengths and abilities. Museums, says Janes, the editor-in-chief of Museum Management and Curatorship, “have become so enthralled or controlled by corporatist values and culture as consumption, that none of them are paying attention to their own distinctiveness.”

The solution to achieving the museum’s significant brand promise – to influence attitudes, opinions, and values – is neither glittering buildings designed by celebrity architects nor blockbuster exhibits originating from other museum collections. Just watch: a year from the time their doors officially re-open, when attendance starts to wane, Toronto’s “Big Six” cultural organizations will discover lavish spending on bricks and mortar hasn’t been the magic formula for renewal.

What counts – what builds the brand – is what’s inside: their own collections. The solution to a museum’s “how-to-brand” conundrum, Janes believes, is to be “intrusive” about transmitting the collection’s stories so the museum becomes widely known for its unique ideas.

Limiting museum managers’ marketing outlook is the sector’s traditional focus on programming for people who walk through the front door. The visitor should be the center of the museum experience but, writes Joe Cappo in his book The Future of Advertising: New Media, New Clients, New Consumers in the Post-Television Age, museums need to communicate anywhere target audiences ask to be engaged, not just where audience numbers are greatest.

In other words, redefine “visitor” and provide intellectual experiences to people regardless of where they live. If museums follow Cappo’s advice to “create communities rather than mailing lists,” turnstiles won’t’ matter and they’ll be on their way to achieving Weil’s definition of success.

Nurturing a widespread community, however, is only possible if museums become proactive about expressing their meaning and value through knowledge products that connect people to the cause.

Winning organizations will articulate their leadership by putting branded content into play, making connections and building community along the way. Such mission-connecting activities might range from books, to magazines, to documentary films, to video games. Branded content magazines, for example – targeted publications aimed at particular market segments – are the kind of compelling and inspiring objects museums need to reach out, attract attention, and sustain long-term relationships.

These are the tactics that eventually lead to memberships and philanthropy and, ultimately, to the sponsoring institution receiving a disproportionately larger share of donations than their competitors. True, not everyone becomes a member, not everyone makes a donation. That paltry 3% of earned revenues coming from memberships might be acceptable, however, if a significant portion of the other revenues were generated from mission-connecting activities.

Unfortunately, branded content at most museums usually means t-shirts, fridge magnets, and postcards. When sales of these items rise, managers trumpet the increase in earned revenues but conveniently overlook the fact that little has been communicated.

Only by cultivating audience interest in the organization’s work, keeping them connected, and building durable attachments will those people come to believe in the museum’s capacity to deliver on its mission.

In 1888 the National Geographic Society claimed its purpose was “the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.” How many people actually visit the Society’s museum in Washington? Very few, relative to the number who are closely connected to its work via Society magazines, books, and television shows. At the National Geographic Society, turnstiles don’t matter: their knowledge products do the real work of allowing explorers – real or imagined – to see and understand the world.

Branding is management’s central task. The awareness, support, and sustainability nonprofits crave will emerge only if meaning is effectively communicated. Brands are not the by-product of new buildings or galas, rather they are the by-product of proprietary knowledge. Strong brands emerge when content capitalizing on unique knowledge is used to promote the museum experience beyond its four walls.

Ongoing, substantive communication is one of the few dependable ways nonprofits can improve their odds of marketing in a fragmented marketplace, and it’s where they need to channel scarce resources.

If nonprofits patiently nurture their communities with branded content, there will be dividends.

Then they can celebrate with a dinner party.

(Originally posted in Knowledge Marketing Watch, 8 June 2006)

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