Why I picked it up: I'm pretty focused on what impact arts and culture has on individuals and communities. So I'll look at any study that examines long-term arts engagement and civic engagement to see if there is any reliable evidence. This new study was only released last week.
What you need to know: Researchers from the University of Lincoln and the University of Kent (UK) wanted to test the hypothesis that arts engagement generates more prosocial cooperation, thus yielding significant societal benefits. They used the Understanding Society sample, which is longitudinal and, crucially, a representative sample of the UK population. With n = 30,476, they can control for a host of sociodemographic factors.
Their questions boiled down to:
1 - Is there a connection between arts engagement and prosocial behavior?
2 - Does that connection still exist when sociodemographic and personality variables are controlled? That is, when the capacity for prosocial behavior and for arts engagement is accounted for.
3 - Is this connection distinctive, or are there other things that similarly affect prosocial behavior?
4 - Does arts engagement create short-term effects, or is it cumulative?
Their results were pretty definitive.
First, yes, no question. Engagement in the arts was one of the strongest predictors of charitable giving and volunteering even stronger than most socio-demographic variables. And when the socio-demographic variables that also strongly affected prosocial behaviors were controlled for (e.g., education, income), arts engagement was the strongest predictor at all levels. So while low-income individuals may generally have lower capacity to engage in the arts and/or engage in prosocial behavior, those that do engage in the arts still have greater prosocial behavior than those who do not. And while high-income individuals may have greater capacity to engage in the arts and/or prosocial behavior, the same rule holds depending on whether they actually do engage.
The results also suggest that the effect is cumulative. The longer individuals engage with the arts, the more prosocial they became. Or, in other words, one museum visit isn't going to make anyone significantly more prosocial. It takes many visits, over years.
They summed up their conclusions in three points:
1 - Arts have an essential role in prosocial behavior, benefiting society.
2 - Evidence indicates that there are significant social and economic gains for investing in the arts.
3 - The most effective investments in the arts are likely those that make arts engagement more widely available across the socio-economic spectrum.
Implications for museums: This is a solid study, using a well-respected longitudinal survey, that should be helpful for making a case to both donors and potential community partners that arts organizations, including museums, can deliver significant impact that is far-reaching.
And the research makes sense to me, as the findings are similar to my own about museum-going and civic engagement: museum-goers are more likely to be active in their communities. I'm mindful, however, that we have to be careful about making judgments about those who are not engaged, and be sensitive about capacity to engage. (See my review of American Generosity for my first thinking about this; you'll see me explore it more in the coming weeks on The Data Museum as well.) Additionally, we need to consider why arts engagement yields these prosocial effects.
Read or skip? Probably skip. But keep the citation handy for approaching community partners to extend reach, and for grant proposals that focus on community and/or impact. The article is short, and most of the method and results sections can be skipped … if you want to quote from it in a grant, head to the summary at the end.
Full citation: Van de Vyver, Julie, and Abrams, Dominic. "The Arts as a Catalyst for Human Prosociality and Cooperation." Social Psychological and Personality Science. August 2, 2017.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
Why I picked it up: It is a rigorous look, on a neighborhood basis, to determine if the presence of culture within a neighborhood enhances social wellbeing and neighborhood health. It's all about impact! Of course I picked it up!
What the researchers were looking for: Two key questions shaped their research:
1. "What aspects of the city's neighborhood ecology are associated with concentrations of cultural resources," and
2. "How is the presence of cultural resources, in turn, related to other aspects of social wellbeing?"
Two concepts come out of this that need examining:
The researchers note early that the ecology of a neighborhood "exerts a powerful effect on the wellbeing of its residents," especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods. This implies an understanding that an individual's social wellbeing is influenced by a neighborhood's ecology, but also that a neighborhood's ecology is healthier when its individuals have a higher degree of social wellbeing. The two things are closely intertwined and highly reliant on each other.
What they found: Economic standing, race, and ethnicity are the most significant influences on social wellbeing, with low-income neighborhoods, and those with higher percentages of African American or Hispanic residents, having lower social wellbeing and poorer neighborhood ecologies. Economic wellbeing was, overall, the strongest variable towards social wellbeing as it affects a number of other measures in many ways.
But when other factors are controlled for, culture appears to have a positive impact on neighborhood health, particularly in low-income neighborhoods. For example, low income neighborhoods with relatively high cultural amenities also had lower levels of obesity, serious crime, and investigations of child abuse, and increased rates of children scoring higher on standardized tests. There was also "spillover," in that residents in those neighborhoods that don't participate in culture still benefited.
But does culture itself increase social wellbeing? Their ultimate answer was "yes, but …" with notes about methodological challenges. Point is, they rigorously used the best data available, but that doesn't mean data collection across all potential variables couldn't be improved. And for these reasons, they say that culture predicts wellbeing, but they cannot say that culture causes it. Healthier neighborhood ecosystems, which include access to culture, have greater social wellbeing because those neighborhoods have more opportunities for social connection … and culture supports that rather well.
So while as a matter of policy it makes sense to focus on economic wellbeing to address social wellbeing challenges, there is also room for what are likely cost-effective programs that may not directly address economic wellbeing, but have meaningful, and even outsized, impact when it comes to individual social wellbeing and the health of neighborhood ecologies. This can include things like planting trees, greater access to prenatal care, and, of course, culture.
My take: What I find most interesting is the interplay between individual social wellbeing and a neighborhood's ecology. I like how they framed it that way, as it gives me a framework for trends I see in my data as well.
As you will see in the coming months, as I release major research on The Data Museum, individuals who are highly connected to, and engaged, with their community tend to be museum-goers and cultural consumers. Thus, we could reason that if we can boost cultural engagement through museums, those new audiences may be open to a greater degree of connection to, and engagement with, their community, thus improving a community's ecology as well as increasing individual social wellbeing.
And, indeed, my research indicates there is a desire for more community connection among some segments of the population that do not visit museums regularly (or, perhaps, at all). Work can be done here. Really good work. And by increasing access to all ten of the dimensions of social wellbeing, including culture, the long-term outcomes can be tremendous.
The researchers also mentioned a tension between the intrinsic value of culture and its "instrumental influence on other social factors." I have to confess, I have always been thoroughly perplexed by this. One doesn't preclude the other. We can value culture for its own sake while recognizing its broader impact. Just because we find a place of natural beauty that is good for our souls doesn't mean that we can't recognize that that place also has positive instrumental influences on us and our society. So what is culture's problem with this? And, pragmatically, let's be honest. There are some individuals who value that broader impact more than intrinsic one, especially in positions of influence. Fine. Let's find evidence of that broader, more instrumental impact, and share it.
Implications for museums: The researchers didn't discuss museums specifically, but the implication is that if museums want to deliver true, lasting impact, they should consider it via:
Neither of these in any way take away from our core missions of art, history, or science (or some mix thereof), but instead values what those things accomplish in individuals and neighborhoods … when they are done well.
But there is, buried in the report, a call to action. They note that since culture is spread unevenly, with lower-income neighborhoods having fewer resources, it means that "privilege [is] generating more privilege" in wealthier ones. A case right there to make our work more accessible in neighborhoods that are under-served, and delivering out-sized impact when we do so. And let's be practical about it and go to where they are (and not expect them to come to us).
Read or skip? This research is important, so yes, you should read their summary, which gives you their overview in six pages. Feel free to skip the longer report unless you have a particular reason to dig in.
A note on their methodology: The project had three phases:
Full citation: Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert. "The Social Wellbeing of New York City's Neighborhoods: The Contribution of Culture and the Arts." Research report published by the University of Pennsylvania Social Impact and the Arts Project. Released March 2017.
See also "Culture and Social Wellbeing in New York City: Highlights of a Two-Year Research Project" for their excellent summary.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
Why I picked it up: Philanthropy is changing rather dramatically, with more donors expecting evidence of impact before making (or repeating) gifts. One outgrowth of this shift is "impact investing," where a donor isn't a donor at all, but an investor … an investor that expects returns both mission-related and financial.
What you need to know: First, the terminology. The Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) defines impact investing as "investments made into companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate social and environmental impact alongside a financial return."
An impact investor would thus look at a for-profit company through the exact same lens as a nonprofit. The investment choice would be the entity that can return the most bang for the buck, via both impact and financial returns.
Now, to this particular report, The Center for Effective Philanthropy surveyed 64 CEOs of private US foundations that give at least $10 million/year. Note, this is not a big sample size, so a grain of salt is prudent. (And it only covers foundations; impact investing is on the rise among individuals with high net worth as well.)
That being said, 41% of respondents said their foundations were already practicing some form of impact investing. That seems like a lot, but when it comes to dollars, it is pretty tiny. The median amount going towards impact investing was less than 1% of program/grant budgets. The median amount of endowment funds being used for impact investing was 2%.
Are you confused now? I had to sort it out as well. The thing with impact investing is that it is malleable. The returns are both mission-related impact and financial. Thus, a proposal for an impact investment could be categorized as a program/grant expense because of the mission-related impact. Or it could be categorized as part of the endowment because of the financial return. Heck, I suppose some foundations could say their investment is in some part both.
The future of impact investing appears to be growth. Foundations practicing impact investing reported that it was a relatively new venture for them, but that they were seeking to increase their financial commitment to it. To date, however, the actual financial commitment of foundations to impact investing is small.
Note: the report also explored negative screening, or the practice of reviewing companies that endowment funds are invested in for red flags in conflict with their missions. Such as an environmental organization choosing not to invest in fossil-fuel companies. To be honest, I wasn't terribly interested in this part of the report and only skimmed it.
Implications for museums: Based on this report, this seems to be something to be aware of, and to consider if you have the right project. Impact investing may accelerate dramatically over the next few years … or stabilize at a relatively small portion of foundation allocations. I'll keep monitoring it and share new information going forward.
What concerns me more, however, is the bigger shift towards impact-based philanthropy. That's when foundations and donors expect far greater evidence of impact than museums have historically been prepared to supply (much less compete on). This trend appears to be accelerating much more rapidly, with far more dollars at stake. For museums to respond they need to invest more in measuring and understanding their lifelong impact on individuals and communities, and how they can deliver that impact more effectively than other choices.
Read or skip? Skip. Honestly, this report was difficult to read. While they took pains to define terms, it still ended up a being a bit of a muddle and I had to work to sort out what they meant. This may, in some part, be a reflection of how new impact investing is. But unless this is something you are seriously considering for your museum, skip. I'll keep looking for better resources.
Full citation: "Investing and Social Impact: Practices of Private Foundations." Research report published by The Center for Effective Philanthropy. Released 2015.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
What is it: Forced From Home is a traveling exhibition created by Doctors Without Borders (MSF, for their legal name, Médecins Sans Frontières) to raise awareness about refugees.
Why I went: I had a lot of questions about this exhibition before I even went with a group of museum friends. Why would a humanitarian organization decide that it was part of their mission to create an exhibition on refugees and tour it around the United States? Is that a good use of their resources? Shouldn't those resources go to help others? Or is there a long-game that they are playing? Do they think that what is, essentially, a museum exhibition, is useful and efficient for continuing their work? If so, how and why?
Quick description of exhibition: I'll be honest. The exhibit itself was solid, but nothing special. A short introductory movie (good), and then several exhibits that essentially took you through a general refugee journey: unexpectedly leaving home; the journey; legal status; refugee camps; medical care at camps; and ending with VR videos. It was logically laid out, and had what my friend Rainey Tisdale referred to as the "material culture" of refugees: refugee tents, a latrine, water jugs, etc. Most powerfully, they had a small raft that many in our group "boarded;" we then learned that typically 40 refugees would cram onto a raft of that size … for a week. Gulp.
But the exhibition, except for the raft, was very generic. It was not the story of Syrian refugees, or Honduran, but instead a generic stage set. This was likely by design, because you cannot visit the exhibition on your own. An MSF fieldworker provides a guided tour of the exhibition. This makes the exhibition personal through that fieldworker's own experiences and stories, which can happen anywhere in the world.
MSF's big goal - empowered empathy: For the exhibition to work, that fieldworker/guide is key. Our guide told his stories, putting a human face on what we read about in the media. He wielded the ability to make it emotional. He bore witness, which is, to my surprise, part of the MSF charter:
"We may seek to bring attention to extreme need and unacceptable suffering when access to lifesaving medical care is hindered, when medical facilities come under threat, when crises are neglected, or when the provision of aid is inadequate or abused."
If I had to boil down the exhibition's goal to just a few words, I would say "empowered empathy." Let's pick apart why that is, and why I think they only succeeded at meeting half the goal.
Empathy. As our guide said, "no one ever wakes up and says they want to become a refugee." It is forced on them. It is a trauma inflicted on them. The guides tell specific, personal stories so we can connect to refugees as people, not statistics. That's why the drowning of three-year-old Alan Kurdi last summer viscerally hit so many of us. Or why the impassive face of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh in Syria was so searing and shocking for us. By bearing witness with their own stories, the guides put a human face on the millions of refugees around the world, and we feel empathy and compassion. That is a mission as worthy as caring for those in need, because without bearing witness, how would the rest of the world know enough to understand or care?
Note, however, that the guide is what made engendering empathy possible. The material culture of refugees that was shared in the exhibition only served to support what was said. Normally, I am opposed to guided tours as a forced march, but this was different. I struggled with why until Rainey observed that "… he was a different kind of docent … chosen based on the life stories and deep knowledge [he] can share, not whether [he was] available to volunteer regularly …" Rainey raised a good point. While a guide at a museum may be committed, and genuinely care about what they are sharing, the interpretation generally doesn't come from lived life experience. They are one or more degrees removed from the content. Not the case for our guide at the MSF exhibition. It was real.
That realness also made another friend, Matt Kirchman of ObjectIDEA, reflect on what it means to financially support MSF. He shared that if he were to do so, "I’m helping people help people. The exhibit experience does not emphasize the largeness of the agency, rather, the close and personal attention of the people in the field." Or, rather, compassion translated to action.
Empowered. Clearly, by bearing witness, MSF wants us to do something about it … to empower us. But here I felt they fell short. I came out feeling far more knowledgeable about the refugee crisis, but did not feel I had gained new information to do anything about it. I wanted them to be more proactive and forceful. To specifically tell us how we could help. Not necessarily a strict fundraising ploy, but specific ways to educate ourselves further, advocate for and support refugees, and yes, give financially. Instead, the experience ended rather abruptly, and fell short in helping us, as participants, follow through with action. (Though to be fair, I am already a donor to MSF, so I didn't stop at their donation table at the end. Yet I wonder how many people did stop.)
So what does MSF get out of this? Bearing witness is part of their charter, but that is only meaningful if creates change. Does this exhibit do that? That is not so clear. In Boston, the primary audience seemed to be groups of students from area high schools. Short-term, the outcomes are likely to not be meaningful for that audience base.
If the long-game is their goal, however, I suspect it may reach enough youth to effect some change in perspective in enough of them to matter. If I were running the exhibition, I'd do something to capture visitor contact information (no, they didn't even do that for any kind of follow-up). Then I'd reach out to all visitors (students and other adult visitors) a year from now and ask about the experience. True, not many would respond, but enough would to capture the exhibition's capacity to change people. Or to find out that if this isn't the most effective way of reaching people after all.
Politics: An exhibition on refugees could have easily gone political. Especially given events in Mosul over the past week and the bulldozing of "the Jungle" in Calais. It is a hot, political topic globally. Yet MSF managed to avoid politics completely. Instead, it was about witnessing and presenting a human story. In some ways, despite emotional content being presented, it was presented neutrally. That is an impressive feat, and one that museums could model instead of their general tendency to avoid these topics altogether.
Should you go? Yes, absolutely. It is in Pittsburgh now, and headed to Philadelphia soon. MSF plans to take a few months off and start up again on the West Coast (so they told me). When they reach Seattle, I plan to volunteer so I can learn more about how people actually responded to the exhibition … and because I support MSF.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com. (Note: I don't intend to regularly review exhibitions; this was an exception because of how this exhibition originated.)
Why I picked it up: Early this week I came across the annual impact report of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ). Annual reports are common. They share financial statements and perhaps a few accomplishments of the year (not the same thing as impact). This is different.
This is an annual impact report. Real impact. With evidence. I loved it, and immediately started picking apart its purpose and considering why it would be a good idea to emulate. (WCIJ is the impact report I came across doing other research; others exist but they are few and far between.)
What you need to know: As philanthropy continues to shift towards a higher expectation of impact, organizations that cannot clearly articulate and provide evidence of impact will not be sustainable.
This report pulls together why an organization matters into one tidy document. Why WCIJ matters. And why WCIJ is deserving of philanthropic gifts over other organizations that may simply not be as effective. If I was an executive director/CEO or development director, having this at my fingertips with a major donor would be gold. I suspect it is also a fantastic tool for staff morale, retention, and recruitment, as it allows them to point to a clear document of why their work matters.
Implications for museums: In a world where there is so much strife and trouble, museums are in the long-game of improving our communities and world, one visitor at a time. Through our own distinctive medium. If we don't champion that, we have no pro-social or educative purpose (and do we deserve that charitable status then)?
But few people make the connection between museums and changing lives (Michael Bloomberg excepted). Thus, we need to articulate and provide evidence of impact, which is why this example of an impact report is so compelling. It forces us to make our case, clearly and concisely … and then back it up. It also exposes the holes in our arguments, which we can acknowledge and then commit to studying and understanding. And for donors and funders, it enables the long-term connection between meaningful experiences with art, history, and science, and a better community and society. To thrive in the future, we need that too.
Frankly, if your organization cannot put a compelling impact report together, it indicates to me that impact probably doesn't really matter to you. And if a lack of resources to track impact is the issue, maybe putting together this report, acknowledging the gaps in evidence, and instead positioning impact as hypotheses, will help secure resources to track that evidence. After all, with evidence you will know for sure what is working (and what isn't).
Read or skip? Read. It is seven pages. Read it and emulate!
Page-by-page commentary, and how I would adapt for a museum (for those who want the details):
Who We Are (p. 2)
Starts off with a short description of the organization and what they do. They did this concisely and effectively by hitting four main things:
For museums: For a museum, I'd start off by not assuming it matters, but taking time to articulate why. Why does the history of this community matter? Or why does art matter? Play matter? Once I had prepared my answer, I would then ask again "why does that matter?" And how does that mattering make a difference to individuals and communities?
For example, a local history organization might first say that it matters because it helps people understand their community. OK. Why is understanding their community important? Answer that in the report, and place history as a key tool for getting there.
Can you boil down your guiding values to three definitive things you do that do matter? It won't be things like share (insert art/science/history), but things like expand knowledge. Cultivate compassion. Increase understanding. You get the idea.
Then, your reach. If you reach a traditional museum audience (and I'll be blunt here) of affluent, well-educated, white folks, well, that's not going to cut it. Glad you help them (everyone deserves museums!), but you probably don't need my support. But if you tell me how you are expanding your audience, and acknowledge you have to do better (and talk about how later in the report), you'll keep my interest.
And yes, I want to know how you do this. But keep it short here.
Highlights (p. 3)
For WCIJ, they created 8 blurbs that tell us in more detail what they do:
To be honest, I felt like this was too many, and it was a wordy page. Five would have worked better. That being said, it did give me a strong sense of what this organization tries to do based on what they have done in the past year. To be clear, however, that's not the same thing as impact.
For museums: Taking it down to five things, for a museum I would probably share:
Major Investigations (p. 4)
WCIJ broke some major stories in Wisconsin. This shares six via a picture for each and a one-sentence description. Yes, that concise.
For museums: This is where you get specific show off the great stuff you did.
Impact (p. 5)
The most important page of this report. I want to frame it and hang it on my office wall. How their stories really mattered to Wisconsin citizens. And I am impressed by how many they are!
For museums: This is going to be the hardest page of writing your own version of this report. To be truly effective, you have to understand, and share, evidence that what you are doing matters over the long-term. And link it back to your exhibitions and programs. Pieces of this evidence could (and should) come from high-quality evaluation of specific exhibitions and programs, but that typically doesn't convey why the museum methodology is better than alternatives, or longer-term effects. There also needs to be high-quality community research to track long-term impact trends and provide community context. You need both.
Put them together, though, and this one page could clearly make the case of why your museum matters. To individuals and to a community. It won't make the financial support come in by its mere existence, but man would it make raising money a whole lot easier.
Audience Matters (p. 6)
For WCIJ, putting their operations into numbers. How many investigations, how many news outlets picked up their stories, how many readers. It conveys depth and reach.
For museums: This could start with attendance numbers, of course, but I would go further to use data to track how the audience is (ideally) shifting over time in ways to better reflect the community, broadening and deepening engagement. How you show who you matter to.
Investigative Reporting + Art (p. 7)
WCIJ mounted what is, essentially, an art exhibition on water quality and traveled it through Wisconsin. Basically a deeper look at one of their initiatives and how it furthered their work. What I find most fascinating, however, is that they chose a museum methodology to do this.
For museums: This could be a page that also takes a closer look at one major initiative that really mattered (and why).
Financial Information (p. 8)
This is fascinating. It is not the annual report of the organization, with balance sheet, etc. It gives the operating budget, and plainly states that they have a goal of doubling it. And then shares two paragraphs about funding and how it does not affect editorial decisions. It does list some of their largest donors, but keeps it short. The point here is that this isn't the financial nitty-gritty, but instead an acknowledgement of the budget they have to deliver the impact they share. And it is an articulation that the impact is only possible if those donors cannot influence their day-to-day work.
For museums: Go and do likewise. Your normal annual report can (and should) still exist, but the two main outcomes here are different and crucial. Share what your budget is so readers know the resources you have to deliver the impact you have. If the numbers are not in alignment, discuss how that will change. That is, if you have a relatively large budget and little impact to show, talk about how you will focus those resources to deliver more impact. And if you are doing amazing things on a teeny tiny budget, be proud and demonstrate how more resources could extend that impact even further. Additionally given some of the controversy around museum trustees whose political positions are in conflict with either the historical or scientific record, it probably isn't a bad idea to also state that donors cannot influence the scholarship at museums (especially if it is true; please be true).
My final response: Museums are in the long-term impact game. But if we cannot provide evidence of that impact, we are seen at nice but not necessary. Or even fluff. That cuts me to the quick since I know museums have the capacity to change lives (they did mine, after all!).
One thing missing from this report, however, is a failure statement. I'd love to see that included as well. Whether it is a long-standing exhibition or program that simply isn't effective (and you axed) or a new initiative that didn't live up to your expectations, share failures. It tells me you are willing to try new things and to make the appropriate decisions to focus your efforts on what does work. It also tells me that you learn from failure. No one expects you to be perfect.
Finally, I believe in this impact report so much that if you send a draft impact report for your museum to me, I'll be happy to privately comment on it. So do it! (I'm thinking about how I could develop one for my practice.)
Full citation: Report to Stakeholders. Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. July 2016.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
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