Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Selling a Product vs. Building a Movement

Do you consider yourself an "activist" for your organization, avocation, or art form? I've been increasingly turning to that word as a descriptor for the mixture of advocacy, passion, and action that I try to bring to my work. For me, it's a more comfortable term than something like "evangelist," which just feels like boosterism. I feel like I'm on a mission, and I know a lot of colleagues feel the same way.

I've always thought of this activist stance as a behind-the-scenes thing, something that might be useful in talking with professionals in the field, but not necessarily with visitors. Sure, I admire cultural organizations that have a strong mission to change education or diversify access or transform the role of art in everyday life, but I'm an insider. It seems wonky and possibly confusing to talk strategy with visitors. It's a distraction from their experience at our venue. Visitors care about us because we provide enjoyable, enriching, creative opportunities for them. Who's really going to read the fine print to find out why?

The election season, as well as a recent research study on museum membership, has change my perspective on this. A national election is the ultimate participatory project. Everyone of a certain age is in on it, and for the most part, the folks putting on the show want everyone to be engaged. There are multiple potential levels of involvement available. Advocacy groups of all stripes fall over themselves to give you opportunities to get involved, fight the good fight, fund the need, defeat the bill.

When you are part of a cause you believe in, you get incredibly invested. When you hit a personal goal that helps a larger effort, you feel like a real contributor. As Jane McGonigal has written, "the chance to be part of something bigger" than yourself is one of the four things that make people feel happy and fulfilled. With the exception of work and sports fandom, opportunities to be part of something bigger is in short supply. Election season stirs it up and makes us all remember how energizing it can be.

This is especially true for young adults today ("millenials"), who exhibit many of the same attributes of the World War II "greatest" generation--increased civic engagement, optimism, sense of communal purpose and responsibility, and conformity to group norms. Consider this recent study about the perceived benefits of membership in an aquariuam, referred to as a "visitor serving organization" in the chart below. As Colleen Dilenscheider reported, young people were MUCH more "cause-oriented" in their reasons for membership than their older counterparts:

This research and the post-election buzz is making me think differently about how we invite people to be involved with our organizations. Why AREN'T we asking visitors to join the fight for arts education? Why WOULDN'T a science museum engage members in the crusade to draw clear lines between science and pseudoscience? Why not build a grassroots movement to define the most effective ways we can make our communities stronger?

I realize as I write this list that we do invite certain people to participate in these conversations, but not our onsite audience. I talk a lot about the "why" behind our work at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History when I'm with donors, at conferences, or presenting at Rotary Clubs. I know that these folks care a lot about building strong communities and that it's intriguing and exciting to discuss how that might be driven by a cultural institution. These conversations are the basis for institutional partnerships and much of our funding. But they don't happen on enough levels with enough people to be accessible for broad involvement and shared activist energy.

For some reason, when it comes to talking and engaging with the people who are already in the door, we clam up about core messages and focus on selling them tickets to the next event or exhibition. This has two negative effects:
  1. It blocks our most engaged participants from getting involved in the most important work of the organization. If what we really are working on is building social capital, why are we hiding that? Why not give visitors ways to advocate and act to help advance our goals? Why not restructure our marketing and community engagement efforts to more closely model successful campaigns and activist movements?
  2. It creates a disconnect between the "why" and the "what" that may weaken institutional progress. Imagine a theater company where the leadership talks publicly about diversity and access but there is little evidence of it on site. Is the organization really doing what they talk about, or is it just lip service? If we create "reasons" for the work we do that are different in different contexts, we're losing energy and diluting our ability to get the most important work done.
Granted, I know that people still want the great experiences that our organizations provide. They don't want to go to the aquarium solely to learn how to save fish. But when we invite them to get involved in the work that drives us, about which we are most passionate, we create incredibly powerful advocates and partners in our cause. That's what's sexy and exciting about what we do. We need more tools to open it up.

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