Friday, May 7, 2010

Mental Floss

To Kidcity's Visitors: I'm in St. Paul, Minnesota for the annual children's museum conference. I'll be back to blogging about regular Kidcity news soon!

The annual ACM conference has never failed to serve up at least one Really Big Idea that sustains me long after I've returned home. One year, they engaged Jim Collins to talk about how his "Good to Great" philosophy could help children's museums develop their focus on their core mission, and I'm still carrying around the card with my hedgehog concept that I jotted down as he spoke. Another year, Greg Mortensen made us all examine whether we have really stretched ourselves to equal the importance of our purpose when he described his journey of building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan with "Three Cups of Tea". And I will forever be grateful that I was in the room back in New York City in 1999 when Neil Postman blew the lid off any ideas I'd ever had about education when he listed the "Five Things we Need to Teach our Young" (which is inexplicably not available online, but was published in Hand in Hand, Vol. 13, #2.)

Here's one more for the list: after this morning's presentation by Dan Pallotta, author of "Uncharitable", I will never see my work and the tools I can use in the same light. He argues that we've set our whole non-profit sector up for failure, even though-- paradoxically -- we already know how to make it thrive.

The methods that make companies like Apple, Coke or Disney so huge, are the very methods that we won't allow our "helping" organizations to use. And isn't it more important to be successful in saving the world than in entertaining it?

He notes our obsession with evaluating non-profits by the size of their overhead. Although that produces pithy ratings about "how much of your donation actually goes to the cause", it doesn't measure whether the organization is doing a good job or having an impact. He asked us to imagine walking into a shoe store and saying: show me the shoes with the lowest overhead! Yet that's often how we make our choices for much more important issues.

Specifically, he pointed out five strategies of the for-profit world that we deny non-profits:

•can’t use money to attract leadership talent
•can’t advertise on the same scale
•can’t take risks trying new sources of revenue
•can’t take the long term view by spending cash now for a return years down the road
•can't raise money through the stock market

This guy was just genius. You have to read his book, or at least look at his website, because these ideas are inevitably going places.

Actually, I've encountered genius twice today, and it's not even noon.

I spent breakfast wandering around the convention hall where the various exhibit designers peddle their wares...which I usually find to be an underwhelming experience. Fortunately there is the occasional exception: I was rendered absolutely speechless (well, at least incoherent) by the images of the Noah's Ark exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center of Los Angeles, particularly of the animals that were fabricated from found materials by Lexington, a fabrication and design firm.

The craft, the whimsy, the bold re-imagination of form, and the flat-out invitation to play - this is just the kind of unique, artist-driven work that would be the best business choice a children's museum could make. In these days of multiple museums (at Kidcity, we've got 5 other children's museums within 30-minutes drive, plus a new state-sponsored science museum), how can the same old laminate and label philosophy of exhibit design cut through the clutter. The answer is art. That's not just about aesthetics and core values -- those are just bonus -- it's also the business insurance you take out against the very real possibility of a cookie-cutter neighbor scooping up your visitors. Walking away from their display, all I could think was "When are people going to realize that you always go to the Dunkin Donuts which is closest to the exit?"

I wish I had a more eloquent way to express this, but here's the thing: I just get so excited about encountering excellence in any field. Dan's book, a twisted giraffe sculpture, or the perfect hotel we have in St. Paul - somehow we don't have a word for this sort of stellar entrepreneurial spirit. I actually feel a sense of grace in it's presence - and it's worth the trip.

(here's the pig sculpture that drew me to the Lexington booth in the first place - how cool is this!)


Anonymous said...

Jen, love your blog! As a member of the children's museum community, I couldn't agree with this post more. "Nonprofit businesses" focus too much on the first part of that label and not nearly enough on the second, and that's true at every level of the organization far beyond those five big business points you listed there. I hope we can get our collective act together to broaden and deepen our educational impact.

Just a point of order, Lexington did help with the Noah's Ark exhibit (which is quite wonderful), but I've heard them pretty consistently inflate their involvement in both the structure (which they didn't design) and the animals (on which they only helped). Christopher M. Green is the artist and puppeteer primarily responsible for those wonderful animals. I hate seeing him get shorted.

Good luck helping Kidcity be the best business it can be!

Jen from Kidcity said...

Dear Anon @ 8:34 am,

Thanks so much for your comment! And especially for the note about the Noah's Art design - I tried to be clear that the animals were "fabricated" by Lexington -- it's a process and dividing line that are a little foreign to me since our ideas, construction, development and fabrication are all wrapped up with each other. I'll be googling more about that exhibit design process and the artist -- the scale and the materials are just awe-inspiring.

Come back and read soon!

-Jen Alexander