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.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Monday Musings: Volunteers and Discrimination

Monday Musings is an occasional series of posts in which I challenge myself to spend 15 minutes or so sharing my thoughts on something I have read in the news, and the story's potential implications.

This article from the Nonprofit Quarterly caught my eye last Friday as it scrolled across my Twitter stream:

Apparently an atheist group in Spartanburg, South Carolina, has repeatedly tried to volunteer at a local soup kitchen that serves the homeless. The soup kitchen's executive director refused their help, saying that as the "organization did everything to glorify God, working with atheists was against their values."

At some level this may be, as the writer suggests, a tempest in a teapot (though may I note the Teapot Museum was slated for North Carolina, not South). And it is certainly possible that Upstate Atheists were courting rejection for the sake of publicity (which they got).

But it made me think, especially when take in conjunction with two other trends. 
Volunteers are, as far as I can tell, exempt from non-discrimination laws governing employment. But just because something is legal doesn't mean it is ethical, nor does it mean it is wise. If nonprofits screen volunteers to ensure their beliefs are in accord with the organization's beliefs, is this simply common sense? Or does it contribute to the erosion of civil (and civic) discourse in the US, deepening our divisions?

And if young people are disadvantaged by not having internships on their resume, do barriers to volunteering with nonprofit organizations (religious or scientific) become barriers to employment? 

So I am wondering whether it is time to rethink the legal and ethical status of volunteers in the US. Maybe volunteering is too important a part of our economy and our culture to exempt it from the protections afforded to paid employees. 

What do you think?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Futurist Friday: Securing the Future

Followers of CFM may have noticed I'm on a bit of a "creepy" streak--from blogging about how museums may start surveilling their visitors, to noting the emergence of computer viruses that can leap from machine to machine via sound

In keeping with this creepy theme, your Futurist Friday assignment for this Day of the Dead is a series of video shorts by Trend Micro, based on the Project 2020 report by the  International Cyber Security Protection Alliance (ICSPA). 

This  web series, set in the fictional European country of "South Sylvania," explores how mobile and cloud based technologies may influence how we work, interact with each other, and what vulnerabilities they may introduce into our world. Well-plotted and well acted, these scenarios are gripping depictions of a plausible future in which we have put too much faith, and entrusted too much of ourselves and our data, to an overarching digital infrastructure. 

I've embedded the first episode below, and you can find all the episodes on the Trend Micro site. (There are five so far--each is about 5 minutes long. Great for micro-viewing--Enjoy! Once the series concludes, we can compare notes.)