These quotes are not intended as maxims about running cultural organizations – though too many institutions act as if they are.
It’s December! This month is crazy. Organizations are pushing out their final charitable giving requests and I’m scrambling between clients giving annual wrap-up reports. And despite the work craziness right now, many of us will also be doing what we can to spend the last few weeks of the year with our friends and loved ones. That’s the time for excellent company, good books, hot chocolate, warm blankets, and good movies (if you ask me)!
In the spirit of celebrating the upcoming holidays and some much deserved time to relax, let’s do something fun: Here are five, famous movie quotes that summarize how some organizations mistakenly approach their operations.
(My runner up title: How NOT to Run A Nonprofit Organization – With Thanks to Hollywood.)
“If you build it, they will come” (Field of Dreams, 1989)
Technically, the quote is “If you build it, he will come,” for you finicky quote folks – and it’s untrue. It’s especially untrue for visitor-serving organizations. If it were true, no newly constructed buildings would remain massively underused. Having free admission would be a cure-all for engagement (it’s not), and every new program or performance would be filled wall-to-wall with audience members and participants. Cultural organizations from museums to symphonies wouldn’t be experiencing declining attendance contrasted against burgeoning population growth…but they are.
Organizations often assume that anything they “build” is something that the market wants or needs – and that’s simply not the case. In fact, that’s the basis for a lot of the work that IMPACTS does and was summarized quite nicely in an article in The New Yorker, “[IMPACTS Research and Development] helps museums and similar institutions draw more visitors and assess whether a proposed new building or attraction will find enough audience to justify its expense. Usually, the answer is no.” Want a – more often than not – reliable way to increase visitor satisfaction and ultimately attract and retain more visitors? Get smarter about 21st century marketing and communications and invest in frontline staff.
(While admitting this movie has nearly nothing at all to do with the realities of running a visitor-serving organization, this (different) scene really does get me every dang time.)
2) “I’ll have what she’s having.” (When Harry Met Sally, 1989)
It is hard work running a nonprofit organization – so much so that a big part of my job is sharing nonprofit engagement techniques that actually inform for-profit companies! It’s such hard work that sometimes organizations get a wee bit tired and look to broad industry practices to validate their efforts. You might have a problem if someone in your organization has ever held up nonprofit industry benchmark numbers and said, “Look! We’re right in the middle for communication spending compared to other nonprofits!” or “Look! We’re slightly above average when it comes to attracting more diverse audience members!” To be in the middle among a set of organizations that are collectively not doing so great is worse than mediocrity – it’s a prelude to a downward spiral!
Organizations often forget to think critically when it comes to comparing themselves to other organizations and initiatives – and this oversight can lead them to copy bad practices. It leads to case study envy and continuous cycles of re-emerging industry failures highlighted as successes. It helps to be aware of the difference between a good model and a good example, and think twice about what other organizations are doing before copying something or even comparing their efforts to those of your own.
3) “You had me at hello.” (Jerry Mcguire, 1996)
Updated for 2015 and put through the lens of nonprofit audience engagement, this line would read, “You had me at your first targeted ad followed by your three engaging social media posts, your timely response to my question on your Facebook wall, that email that made me feel inspired, and then your timely Kickstarter campaign for your good cause!” Okay, maybe that’s a lot. The point is: We live in a world in which simply announcing presence without establishing a connection makes it difficult to develop true evangelists for your organization and its cause. Connectivity is king.
Creating – and then actively and intelligently fostering – relationships is critical in today’s noisy world. It’s not only about the content and what your organization says in a communication that grabs someone’s attention. It’s also about being worthy of that connection long-term.
(Okay, yes, movie folks. I understand that this context is completely different than the context of the movie. However, the line itself illustrates a key concept that may be helpful for organizations…because it is largely untrue in this context)
4) “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” (Love Story, 1970)
Just…No. You are not Oliver Barrett and your audience is not Jennifer Cavilleri spurting sweet and understanding tears at your mistakes. Transparency and fostering connection is critical for building a strong reputation and attracting supporters. Some people probably would say that they love your brand/organization – especially if you are delivering on your mission – but when you mess up, you need to say sorry.
Look, sometimes organizations make mistakes…but if your organization does something that jeopardizes the trust that your supporters have in you, then you need to make it right. Often, when supporters get upset, it is because an organization is doing something that people perceive as running counterintuitive to its values or stated mission. If you’re doing honest, good work and something just goes wrong, tell the story. Social media is now a major force empowering giving decisions. Now, more than ever, it’s critical to communicate with your audiences when things don’t go as planned, and explain how your going to make it right (and then do the thing that makes it right).
5) “You can’t handle the truth!” (A Few Good Men, 1992)
You can totally handle the truth! Not only that, in our industry, the truth really stinks sometimes. (I believe that the more the truth stinks, the more important it is that we handle it.) If we don’t embrace hard truths, how can mission-driven organizations succeed and build new, sustainable best practices?
A big part of what I do here on KYOB is bust industry myths, and I’ve noticed that my readers are the kind of people who think that the myths that hold our organizations back should be busted. Why put anything in the way of accomplishing great social missions? We can handle the truth because we have to handle the truth.
As the new year approaches, let’s try to keep these famous words on the screen and out of our nonprofit organizations. (Although I acknowledge that select movie lines may be relevant to certain cultural organizations – I know some curators who really do see dead people on a daily basis.)
Remember folks. It’s just a movie.
Photo credit to gobeyondseo.com