Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Do You Empower People to Take Action? Thoughts on Zoos and Charity:Water

Last week, I learned that ninety-six elephants are killed every day in Africa.

I learned this at a conference for directors of American zoos and aquaria (I was there to give a talk). I was blown away by these zoo directors' collective focus on a singular mission: ensuring the survival of animal species worldwide. The whole day was spent in passionate discussion about research projects, international crises, and serious, cost-intensive efforts for zoos and aquaria to take action to improve the fate of elephants and other species at risk.

I would guess that most people have no idea that this work is happening at zoos. I certainly didn't. I had a vague sense of how conservation fit into their educational missions, but I didn't realize the extent of the direct advocacy and activism happening every day.

And so, rather than talking about community participation in the context of zoo visits, I asked these directors: how can you involve your 180 million visitors in this important conservation work? How can you invite them to participate alongside you to save species?

In museums (and zoos), we frequently stop the conversation with visitors when it comes to action--especially political action. We give people content and then we say, "you decide." This may make sense in strictly education institutions, but it is ridiculous to stop there in organizations that are already engaged in activist work. If you are taking action to save species, why not invite visitors to join you?

We often stop at the educational message out of a sense that it gives visitors agency to do what they want with the information provided. But that means we also stop ourselves from inviting visitors to join us in the work that matters most. It devalues their potential contribution. It robs them of the opportunity to make a difference--and robs us of the opportunity for increased impact and change.

A clear example of this can be found in the difference between the 96Elephants campaign and that of charity: water.

The 96Elephants website is a dramatic educational site created by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the zoos and aquaria in NYC. The site provides a powerful statement about the slaughter of elephants in Africa, supported with rich media and educational text. But when you get to the part with the call to action, there are two things you can do:
  1. "explore the crisis" by reading more about elephants and humans on the site
  2. sign a pledge to avoid ivory products and encourage a moratorium on ivory products
These are not exactly life-changing actions.

In contrast, check out charity: water, a non-profit that works to ensure safe drinking water for people around the world. The homepage has three prominent options: 
  1. sponsor a water project (which involves making donations of $6,000 - $20,000)
  2. start a fundraising campaign 
  3. learn about the water crisis
It's no accident that only one of these three is a "learn" box. The first two are opportunities to immediately get involved, either by donating money or raising it. charity: water is incredible at empowering regular people to make a difference. You can donate your birthday to raise funds for clean water. You can track exactly where what projects your money supports. Paul Young, the Director of Digital at charity: water, explains: “We are trying to build a movement of passionate people who are going to form a relationship with us for years…. We want our donors to be advocates. We want them to share content, we want them to feel really connected to their impact and we want them to represent that to all their friends and family.”

A lot has been written about how charity: water stands out online. Just surf through their beautiful site and you'll see how they empower people as participants in raising serious funds for their cause.

Zoos have an entry point that charity: water lacks: the visit. Zoos have millions of visitors--millions of people who care about animals, who are interested in them, and who show up to learn more about them. Some of those visitors, looking at the majestic African elephants, are ready to take action to ensure their survival. They are ready to do more than learn about the crisis and sign a petition. If charity: water can do it for drinking water, surely zoos and aquaria can do it for animals.

Fundraisers often say that "it's an honor to be asked." This can sound disingenuous. But it's true. When we invite people to share our greatest passions, when we invite them to support our most important work, we empower them to be meaningful, powerful participants. That's what building a movement is all about.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Quick Hit: Upcoming Talks on Leading Change

Let's say you want to transform an organization. What's more effective: drastic change with incremental progress towards that new vision, or incremental change that builds a new vision?

I'm prepping for a week of talks to museum, zoo, and library folk, and this is the question that is driving some of what I plan to share. Note: if you are in NYC area or Toronto, I have FREE talks in each - see bottom of this post for details. Preparing talks is always a great opportunity to reframe my thinking about what's going on in my work and how it might be relevant to others. And this time, since a couple of the talks I'm giving are explicitly for directors, I'm thinking about leadership and institutional change.

In thinking about some of the changes that have happened at our museum in Santa Cruz, I've realized that they were predicated on setting a clear, big vision first, and then incrementally moving towards that goal. When I write it down, that sounds like a pretty obvious approach. But change doesn't always happen that way. Sometimes there's a new direction but not a known destination. Sometimes an organization noodles with change in many areas and finds itself wobbling into a new place entirely.

Here's my hypothesis: while a top-down approach may seem autocratic, it can be incredibly inclusive and democratic in implementation. When there is a very clear, explicit vision and goals, many people across an organization can become leaders in the change. When the vision is clouded or the goals uncertain, you are stuck with a "I know it when I see it" approach to change that may leave people frustrated or mystified as to how they can make a difference.

I'm struggling with this now as we embark on our next phase as an organization--one with more distributed leadership. That distribution hopefully means more collective ownership. But if we don't do it right, it could also possibly mean more confusion, and, paradoxically, less participation.

I remember talking with a director of a large public radio station about many innovative things happening at his organization. "But you know," he said, "when I'm really honest, I realize that most of these ideas ultimately come from my desk." When I heard that, I wondered if everyone in his organization knew what his vision was for tremendous work. I wondered if he was articulating it clearly enough for others to bring brilliant ideas forward. I wondered what I could do to avoid that kind of feeling.

When I see projects at my museum that I'm proud of, more often than not they are things I have very little to do with directly. They are projects led by staff members, volunteers, and collaborators who are infused with our vision. They can make magic and scale up our impact because they know what we are trying to achieve and they want to be part of it.

So I'm planning to use these talks to encourage people--especially directors--to articulate clear, powerful visions. To fight for those visions, support people who want to further them, and protect those people from detractors. I'm not sure this is the best way to lead institutional change. But it's a way that has allowed our work to get out into our community quickly and powerfully, often without having to touch my desk at all.

If you happen to be in New York/New Jersey or Toronto, I will be speaking:
  • JERSEY: Monday January 27 at Seton Hall at 7pm in the Walsh Library, Beck Rooms. I don't really know where that is, but I'm sure we can all figure it out. No RSVP required.
  • TORONTO: Thursday January 30 at the Textile Museum from 4-6pm. This is a more informal talk/dialogue. They can only fit 70 people, so you must RSVP to
I look forward to traveling, speaking, and learning with you in the next week.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Teenagers, Space-Makers, and Scaling Up to Change the World

This week, my colleague Emily Hope Dobkin has a beautiful guest post on the Incluseum blog about the Subjects to Change teen program that Emily runs at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.

Subjects to Change is an unusual museum program in that it explicitly focuses on empowering teens as community leaders. While art, history, creativity, and culture are the vehicles for that empowerment, the teens involved spend a lot of their time with activists, civic leaders, and social psychologists. They describe themselves as "a group of chronic doodlers who dig music, embrace creativity of all kinds, and are determined to not only make our community better, but want to get other teens involved."

Emily's post shares three things Subjects to Change has taught her about youth and community leadership. I want to return the favor with three things this project brings up for me.

Community-building/engagement is related to but not identical to content engagement. Subjects to Change isn't an art club or a history group. It's about empowerment and community leadership through art and history. One of the reasons Emily took this approach was based on what we saw in the ecology of teen programs. We heard from youth program leaders at museums who struggle to keep teens engaged despite a huge amount of committed resources. We saw a lot of intense hand-holding and not a lot of youth ownership. In contrast, when we looked at the programs we admire most locally, they all are fundamentally focused on youth as leaders and changemakers in their own lives and community. Whether they are using skateboarding to grind out child hunger or changing their own fate through farming, we saw teens taking agency and being leaders in ways we hadn't seen in arts organizations.

This meant really stripping back to our mission in developing this program and being willing to let the teens lead us in some unexpected directions. For example, they are planning a series of teen nights at the museum, complete with art activities, history exploration, youth bands, etc., but themed around community issues like "public safety" and "gender representation."

I'm completely curious as to whether their peers will actually want to come to a museum on a Friday night about public safety. I'm a little amazed that this is happening at the museum at all. It's hard to imagine a staff member pitching a public safety-themed event and everyone feeling like it is a good idea. But every step of the way these teens have shown that the issues they care about are compelling to lots of people (of all ages) in our community, and that they are ready to do meaningful work to engage people around those issues.

Scale is still a challenge for co-creative work. Subjects to Change engages fifteen teenagers. Many are having a life-changing experience, but still, it's fifteen people. How do we scale this impact to reach more people? This is a chronic problem of in-depth co-creative projects. In many museums, these tend to be youth-focused projects. In lean years, it's hard to justify focusing so many resources on a small group.

Watching these teens do their work has expanded my thinking on the issue of scale. If these teens truly become community leaders through their work with us, they will extend their impact beyond themselves. They are forming partnerships in the community, developing events to reach more teens, and developing content for general museum events. We are already seeing a difference in the makeup of our audience on the nights that these teens are involved because of their attendant communities.

This makes me realize that a leadership-focused program is fundamentally different than one that focuses inward. A city council, for example, is necessarily small and consumes a ton of resources. If outreach and community leadership is the meat of the program, maybe the scale problem isn't as big an issue as I had previously thought.

Space-making is magic. I've written before about Beck Tench's beautiful framing of how "every risk-taker needs a space-maker" to clear the path for experimentation. Emily's generous first line of her blog post makes me realize that this concept of "space-making" is bigger than just supporting risk-taking. It's about making space for real change to happen, and to grow, throughout an organization and a community. I am starting to wonder how we could take this lens to more of the work we do, both as managers internally and as facilitators of community experiences externally. Space-making may be the ultimate strategy for scaling up.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Most Popular Part of our Weekly Museum E-Newsletter

It's not what you think.

It's not a great photo of people enjoying the museum. It's not a witty description of an upcoming event. It's the wishlist.

At any given time, we are on a hunter/gatherer mission for an upcoming project at our museum. Right now, we're looking for wood chips for a creature-making workshop. Last month it was cardboard boxes for a collaborative opera. Last summer it was beach chairs for a history exhibit.

When one of these needs arises, we approach it in a simple way: we ask people. About once a month, our weekly e-newsletter includes a request for humble items. It's not uncommon for someone to bring in a trash can full of wine corks or to load up a bike trailer with cardboard (OK, his blog post about it was a special touch).

The wishlist is the most responded-to part of our e-newsletter. On one level, this seems kind of preposterous. We provide plenty of intriguing content about exhibitions and events and the thing people click on most is the request for bottle caps.

But on another level, the wishlist is the most participatory part of the newsletter. It's the one part that begs a response.

One woman came up to me last Friday night at the museum to say: "I love reading the wishlist. I am always curious to see if I have some junk that could be useful, and then I like wondering what you guys are going to do with it."

When she said this, I realized that what we thought of as a thrifty practicality is actually a great symbol of our participatory, inclusive ethos. Being a participatory museum means looking at every person who walks in our doors as someone who can contribute meaningfully to the institution. It means making the path to participation clear, easy, and fun. It means turning their contributions into magic.