Some cultural executives still aim for short-term attendance spikes at the expense of long-term financial solvency – and they may not even know it.
Annualized calendars reward short-term attendance quick hits, and risk making cultural organizations blind to opportunities for long-term sustainability. It’s a big problem – and it’s one that may keep plaguing us until we get it right…or at least start emphasizing appropriate timeframes that better enable visitor-serving organizations to best achieve financial goals.
It’s an issue of short-term, low stakes vs. long-term payoff for cultural organizations. Annualized timeframes make it very difficult to achieve long-term success because the timeframe is too short to understand market behaviors for most organizations. They may help visitor-serving organizations measure short-term successes insofar as they relate to seasonal attendance, but they aren’t generally aligned with market behaviors beyond seasonality. In short, they are driven by calendars rather than by people and behavior.
Annualized timeframes are calendar-driven timeframes rather than behavior-based timeframes. In order to identify true business successes, we need to understand the most appropriate timeframes within which to measure them. Although annual attendance imperatives may not be going away anytime soon (another ”Its how we have always done it!”), it’s critical that visitor-serving organizations contemplate the damage caused by evaluating goals, successes, missteps, and business practices based entirely or even predominately – on a simple calendar year.
Here are three, critical ways in which prioritizing annual timeframes may be making visitor-serving organizations blind to market behaviors, outcomes related to their own business practices, and opportunities for securing support:
1) Annualized timeframes do not reflect market behaviors
Lets start here. Due to annualized budgets, organizations consider a visit in November or December in one year as distinct from a visit in January or February of the following year. From the market’s perspective, there is no functional difference. However, organizations regularly pat themselves on the back for closing strong at the end of one year, and then reliably panic when 1Q attendance is down the following year. From a visitor’s perspective, we don’t often consider that there may not be a major difference between visiting on December 19 or January 19.
Contemplating market potential and performance in a 12-month cycle doesn’t remotely conform to actual visitation patterns for visitor-serving organizations such as museums, zoos, aquariums, symphonies, theaters, and the like. The average re-visitation cycle for US visitor-serving organizations approximates 27 months as of 2019. Here are visitation cycles broken down by organization types. In other words, 27 months – closer to two years than one – is the average duration between visits to US visitor-serving organizations for non-members. (Keep in mind that this is the average amongst visitor-serving organizations. The visitation cycle for your own organization may be more or less than this timeframe.) Here’s the kicker: Many organizations still don’t even know the duration of their own re-visitation cycle.
Just think about that for a moment. Many organizations are still so inside-perspective driven that they don’t even know enough about their visitors to consider how often they are coming back. This is extremely baseline information for spotting visitation trends and measuring the effectiveness of various audience engagement strategies. We almost exclusively abide by annual timeframes because that’s how we always done it (when we didn’t know better). But we should know better by now. The market is the arbiter of our success.
Certainly, seasonal visitation during peak attendance periods provides some year-over-year insight into overall attendance performance – which makes sense given how important schedule is to the visitation decision-making process. However, this doesn’t simply mean that success can be measured entirely by comparing this year’s spring break attendance to last year’s spring break attendance. Year-over-year comparisons provide insights, but they are not necessarily overall performance indicators. In order to accurately assess performance, visitor-serving budget and planning processes should reconcile with the markets behaviors. Similarly, our key performance indicators should more completely contemplate the market. Year-over-year performance is important – to be sure – but it may be less relevant than considering performance in 27-month intervals (or, your organization’s own visitation cycle).
2) Annualized timeframes hide damaging practices
When we measure success annually, we tend to prioritize attendance-increasing quick hit practices that may risk detrimental long-term consequences. For instance, when we look only at annual attendance, were looking at too short of a period of time to see the long-term risks associated with getting caught up in a cycle of hosting blockbuster exhibits, or even realistically considering the possible consequence of cycling special exhibits on the whole. We may see attendance temporarily spike that year, but this short-term, isolated view neglects to reveal the ways that a blockbuster exhibit strategy may negatively impact visitation cycles the following years. Annual timeframes also mask the damage of discounting admission pricing – a cycle that, once deployed, can take years to correct for organizations.
(Remember: Discounting is a different practice than targeted promotions, and has nothing to do with affordable access programming. Affordable access programming is completely different than discounting.)
Annualized calendars risk hiding bad business practices that would be easily spotted were we to consider their impacts in a more appropriate timeframe (i.e. one aligned to actual visitation cycles). Worse yet, being beholden to a calendar year invites boards and leaders to favor the short-term payoff at the expense of potentially more sustainable, long-term strategies.
3) Annualized timeframes may hinder major donor cultivation
This negative impact may be the most obvious: Chasing short-term development goals – such as year-end annual fund contributions – may come at the potential expense of cultivating major gifts. When development staff are incentivized to meet annual fund goals, they may be encouraged to repeatedly go to the well with mid/major donors instead of cultivating them for even more meaningful (and more impactful) major gifts.
Certainly, cultivating donations year-over-year can serve as a beneficial build-up that may help keep some donors engaged over time, but a lot has changed with regard to fundraising in the connected world in which we live. It may be time to be as donor-driven in our philanthropic goals as we need to be market-driven in our visitation goals. Going to the well may work for select donors with certain giving capacities, but it may be time to realize that this approach might not work for everyone – and it may be a false measure of end-all-be-all success for development staff.
The United States has more Ultra-High Net Worth Individuals (net assets greater than US$50 million) than any other country. These folks are motivated to give based upon who else is giving and how much they are giving. Here is the data. Bigger gifts are more dependent upon board cultivation by peers than phone calls from relentless development staff (which, by the way, don’t work for these donors unless you are aiming for much smaller gifts). Building donor relationships can take time. Those relationships that link up potential donors with board members who can impact giving may especially take time and we tend to give board members the time needed to successfully cultivate these relationships. Why don’t we also allow development staff suitable timeframes that reward them not only for securing year-over-year donations, but also for taking the time and energy to appropriately build more significant donor relationships?
I’m not saying that annual goals are necessarily a bad idea for securing donations. I’m saying that some organizations may be sacrificing more substantial gifts in the long-run by emphasizing rewards for smaller, year-over-year gifts. Relationships with organizations matter to potential donors – and even to potential members. The ”going to the well” strategy is self-oriented and may be less thoughtful and ultimately less beneficial than also realizing that our annualized donor cultivation timeframes may cheat us out of the very thing were after: Meaningful relationships with key supporters.
We aren’t likely to suddenly scrap annual goals – and perhaps we shouldn’t. Certainly, year-over-year performance offers some diagnostic insight into the health and effectiveness of our organizations. But using the calendar year as a lazy excuse not to align our organizational measures of success with a more appropriate chronology is a bad business practice. Annual timeframes are still most important to our internal budget and planning processes but they do not necessarily conform to the external, market-driven realities that make or break our organizations.
Prioritizing annual timeframes may be making cultural organizations blind to some of our industry’s most beneficial and detrimental business practices alike. Ultimately, a reliance on the calendar year panders to inside-out thinking and disproportionately emphasizes measurements that tell but one aspect of a bigger story of institutional vitality. Successful organizations consider their businesses from the outside-in and, thus, plan their behaviors in like chronology with the behaviors of the market.
A 365 day calendar is a terrific way to quantify the Earth’s orbit around the sun. It may be less suited as a measure of an organizations performance.