Cultural Institutions: Who are You Missing in Your Strategic Plan?

Photograph by Mike Kotsch


When it’s time for boards of cultural institutions to talk about growth strategy, conversations naturally lead to increasing museum visits, memberships and donations. That is, how can we get current visitors to come back more often (and become members); how can we get culture lovers here more often; and how can we get existing donors to give more? But what’s asked less often—and what I believe to be an essential question—is: What’s going on with the people—including non-culture seekers—who aren’t coming here at all? Are they doing something we should know about? Do they have unmet needs that we might be able to fulfill? The answer is: Absolutely.

Getting to know the people in your community who aren’t visitors/members/donors is just as important as nurturing and growing your constituents. Here’s why:

1. Your target may not be who you think it is. While it might seem like your target is culture seekers and people in certain demographics, the truth is your target is all kinds of people, from millennials to boomers, from nature lovers to beer lovers, all in the same wonderfully rare situation: they have free time. What free time can you capture? The free time people use to go on picnics? The free time they use to attend street fairs? The free time they use to interact with nature? If you understand where people in your area currently spend their free time, you can start to find ways that your cultural institution can fit in. Our work with Newfields (formerly known as the Indianapolis Museum of Art) lends credence to the fact that knowing how people fill their free time can help you identify white spaces for growth. It’s not the only piece of the puzzle, of course, but it will set your institution on the right path toward developing new and more diverse audiences.

The chart below provides a 10,000-foot view of the leisure landscape in Indianapolis, which helped the IMA understand how free time was being used in its region. At the time of our study, cultural institutions made up only 10% of all activities people “hired” when cashing in their leisure-time chips. The IMA sits on 152 acres that contain not only an encyclopedic art museum, but also a nature park, a historic manor, and a greenhouse. Seeing that 21% of Indianapolis metro area activities hired in a year were outdoor recreation confirmed that the IMA had assets beyond art that could be leveraged for growth. The fact that the IMA ultimately rebranded to become Newfields: A Place for Nature & the Arts stems from its broad understanding of Indianapolis’s local leisure landscape.


2. You don’t need to match your offerings to those of other museums. While it’s tempting to compare hours or types of exhibits or programming with other institutions, and then try to offer those things, too, it’s better to free yourself from that sort of we-can-do-that-also thinking. Instead, look to people’s lives for answers. People are trying to make progress in their lives; your institution will be better served to find ways that you can enable that progress. What are local people’s “jobs to be done?” Note that people’s jobs to be done are different than the specific destinations they choose to occupy their free time.

Jobs to be done tap into the deeper reasons people choose the leisure activities they do. The chart below illustrates the difference. You don’t see explicit mentions of water parks or zoos (though they literally make up the backdrop of the chart), but you do see what drives people to choose certain types of places, whether it’s a desire to “Mentally Reboot” or to be “Current and Connected.” In the upper left quadrant, for example, people are looking for “Purposeful Play” and they might choose going on a hike or to the zoo or aquarium… but, as the IMA learned, they might also be up for a round of mini-golf at a highbrow cultural institution (if you would like to learn more about our jobs-oriented segmentation process and how it led to new programming at the IMA—including an artist-designed mini-golf course!—please read this article in Quirk’s Research Magazine about our methodology).

Jobs to be done thinking puts your institution in the shoes of the visitor; Jobs to Be Won™ thinking (our approach to segmentation) is that sweet spot where your job to do be done as an institution (your mission) aligns with the jobs to be done of your visitor. As you can see, jobs thinking maintains a direct link between your mission and your visitors’ motivations—it’s not an endless game of keep-up-with-the-other-institution.


3. Your biggest competition is the obstacles in people’s lives. Obstacles can be physical, situational or mental. Maybe it’s parents who don’t have readily available childcare. Or maybe it’s young people who don’t have a big budget. Maybe the potential visitors are disabled or have a family member with disabilities. Or, maybe the non-visitors are people who don’t feel educated enough about the arts, and thus don’t feel like they will fit in at your institution. The mental obstacle for the latter group could be a limited/inaccurate perception of your institution: They might want to have fun, and cultural institutions are not their idea of fun. This is an obstacle your institution can (and should) address. Your job is to get to know the obstacles/barriers to consideration in people’s lives and find the solutions at your institution (or the right messages to convey those solutions) that have the potential to help people make progress and feel better about their lives.


4. You can find partners in unlikely places when you know what people care about. This may seem like a silly example, but it’s telling. After the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2017, for a limited time, the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago hosted the Championship Trophy, drawing a whole bunch of Cubs fans to its amazing botanical displays. Some of these people would have never stepped foot into a conservatory. Yet, with the draw of that trophy, they arrived in droves. The lesson learned is that if you think beyond your “category,” you may find some unlikely compatriots.

The truth is, cultural institutions, as woven as they are into the public narratives of their cities, practically have a mandate to think outside their “category.” Your institution shouldn’t only be targeted to a niche group of the population—it’s part a larger civic landscape, as tied in with people’s civic pride (and sense of civic ownership and responsibility) as the local sports teams and the local theater companies, and the big-name, locally grown companies and restaurants and universities. Being a true cultural institution means embodying the larger culture of your community, being a place that reflects back to all residents—not just art patrons—what they love about their city. Moreover, by seeking out ways to partner with other beloved hometown institutions, you can make each other stronger.

5. Your potential donors are not necessarily aware of your needs. Up to this point, I’ve focused mainly on visitors, but, naturally, donors play a huge role in the sustainability of cultural institutions. The same principle of getting to know those who don’t visit applies to getting to know those who don’t give. By studying the people who are not giving to your institution, you will understand their motivations for giving… both to the institutions they do support and in general. It’s possible that their motivations for giving would align well with your institutional mission, and they simply don’t know this. Let like-minded donors know that you share a common mission, and they will be more likely to join yours. The tough reality is, if you don’t take the time to learn what drives people to give to institutions other than yours, you will never earn their hearts or their dollars.

A few years ago, Halverson Group conducted a study called The Live and Give Report in our own community of Oak Park/River Forest, and the key takeaways can be applied to other metropolitan areas.

  • Residents say they would like to donate even more, if they had more time/money
  • Residents want to know more about organizations, particularly their needs and impact
  • Sometimes all it takes is to ask
  • Residents give more time locally than non-locally
  • Residents give more money locally to kids-oriented organizations
  • Residents believe that other communities need more help than their own
  • Many don’t realize that local organizations also help those outside of the community
  • Residents want to see proof that organizations are efficient and well-run

Do you see any similarities to issues facing your institution?

The next time you sit down at a board room table and ask the most difficult question of all: How do we flourish for years to come when our audiences and donor base are shrinking, ask yourself two even tougher questions: What places are getting the visits and the donations—and why? The answer to those questions may hold the ticket to your future success.