Here’s how well organization types are engaging non-white visitors.
The good news: Cultural organizations are talking about inclusion, diversity, and reaching new audiences. Even a simple Google search reveals innovative programs, strategic approaches, and thoughtful leaders on the scene!
The not-great news: Cultural organizations still have a long ways to go. Attendance is generally not keeping pace with population growth, and data suggest that many cultural organizations are not reaching more people, but instead reaching the same types of people, better.
The fact that nonprofit visitor-serving organizations on the whole have not yet significantly altered the historic visitor profile should probably not be surprising! It makes sense! After all, cultural organizations have been successful in reaching a certain “type” of person for decades. As I mentioned last week, engaging diverse audiences is an ultra-marathon, not a 5k. To make matters worse, some organizations measuring diverse audience participation may not be accurately interpreting their own data.
From where I stand as an insider/outsider, it seems that the industry should pat itself on the back for taking up and prioritizing the important charge of audience diversification, but oh gosh please do not celebrate victory yet.
Before we go much further, let’s acknowledge this: Diverse audiences extend beyond “non-white” folks. Millennials are also diverse audiences that cultural organizations benefit by engaging. Better welcoming those with physical or mental disabilities is also part of the “diverse audiences” conversation. Income-qualified folks with financial constraints that limit their ability to visit are also diverse audiences for visitor-serving organizations. Some people are in more than one of these groups. This article is about racial/ethnic diversity, based upon how visitors self-identify.
Other, diverse audiences are important and they deserve their own data drill-down. Here’s how well cultural organizations are stacking up in regard to representative attendance from self-identified, non-white visitors:
A goal, of course, is to be representative (i.e. the people inside an organization should ideally look a lot like the people outside an organization). According to year 2016 data from the US Census Bureau (the most recently available information), 38.7% of people in the United States identified as “non-white alone.” For those inside of the building to match the ethnic makeup of people outside of the building in the US, then 38.7% of visitation would be from non-white audiences.
The data shared herein concerning participation by self-identified race comes from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study and is even further supplemented with data made possible by Stanford University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
As you can see, none of the entity types indicated here are representative yet in terms of ethnically diverse attendance. Instead of looking at this as a failure, let’s look at it as an important starting point for change. If your organization has its own data on this, you can benchmark it against the industry with the information above. This said, make sure your organization considers the context of its diversity data.
Why does this metric matter?
1) Long-term solvency (business)
This metric matters because nonprofit, visitor-serving organizations need to better engage diverse audiences in order to thrive long-term. It’s an existential need to make diverse audiences into regular, admission-paying attendees. This is because the US is growing increasingly diverse in people who do not “look” like the historic visitor profile. If they keep reaching the same types of people, cultural organizations are certain to face difficulties as their attendance base shrinks. In short, there’s a need to change up who makes up that attendance base. Reaching people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is an important part of this.
Industry insiders tend to react negatively to the word “business” when talking about nonprofit, visitor-serving organizations. However, if an organization cannot keep its lights on, then it cannot effectively carry out its mission or welcome visitors in the first place.
2) Community engagement (mission)
Many organizations have missions or stated values to welcome diverse audiences. If this really is the mission, it’s probably a good idea to prioritize this happening. This is a metric to show how much organizations are truly able to walk their talk on that front.
For organizations that tout “community representation” (at least in terms of ethnicity), this metric is critical. It should be. As a note, though, these are numbers for the United States overall. To find out how well your organization is reaching diverse audiences in your specific region it may be most helpful to consult the data for your community.
On attendance as a success metric
Oh, cultural organization metrics…When they are high, entities say, “Look! We rock!” When they not high, they shout, “It’s a stupid metric!” As it turns out, sour grapes isn’t a popular idiom for nothing.
But maybe there is something to this one…
Let’s be clear: For the long-term solvency of cultural organizations on the whole, this metric certainly matters. To keep our doors open, most cultural organizations will need to get better at cultivating those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds as supporters and funders.
However, just as one’s blood pressure does not tell the entire story of a person’s physical wellness, representative engagement may not tell the entire story of a cultural organization’s wellness. Blood pressure is certainly important, but waist size and cholesterol levels provide a bit clearer picture… and sometimes, a better one.
Bob Beatty of the Lyndhurst Group, a friend of mine within the visitor-serving realm, is a champion for cultural organizations bringing value and impact. Outside of the context of diverse representation, he recently reminded me that value may be a better metric than attendance. I think this is a good point. Attendance is a metric, and it is certainly a meaningful metric for cultural organizations, but it’s not the only one to consider. And perhaps it’s not even the most important! Inside the context of diverse representation, Nina Simon of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History just wrote about her own conceptual struggles with demographic visitation as a key metric.
Attendance matters. Does it matter most? I’m not sure. I’ll leave those of you who are much better suited to adjudicate that debate to decide. I’ll sit here in the corner querying data.
On the topic of representative attendances specifically, remember that not everybody wants to visit a cultural organization. That said, from a data standpoint, there are enough “non-white” people in the US who profile as likely visitors to cultural organizations to constitute ethnically representative visitation. Top profile metrics for likely visitors (those with interest in attending cultural organizations but who have not done so in the last two years) extend beyond race, and include items such as educational attainment, for instance. In the case of racial representation, the “diverse folks just don’t have interest in cultural activities” argument doesn’t hold up. Indeed, that may be the ugliest form of sour grapes of all.
Insofar as attendance matters, getting better at reaching more diverse audiences is critical from a business perspective. If we decide that we’re “okay” with not evolving the historic visitor profile to reach and welcome new audiences, we’ll have to adjust to lower attendance over time based upon the shrinking market size of historic visitors in the United States.
We have great minds leading the way in welcoming more diverse audiences! If there’s one thing that people in this industry have – in my experience – it’s heart and drive.
Now we have baseline data, too.