On relevance and innovation

I recently read a case statement for funding from my museum. It spoke about threats to arts and cultural organizations such as an uncertain economic future, a decline in federal grants, increased competition for leisure time and visitor dollars, and funders moving from general operating support to project-based grants. These are critical factors facing arts and cultural organizations, and other nonprofits, at this very moment.

The ironic part? The case statement was from 1995.

Nearly 20 years have passed and we’re still facing many of the same issues we did 20 years ago (well, what my museum faced 20 years ago. I was learning fractions in 5th grade).

At a Breakfast of Champions a few months ago, Laura Zabel said, “Successful organizations considered [the Great Recession] a crisis of relevance, not a crisis of funding.” Our work has to be relevant to survive economic downturns, funding trends and changing demographics. It has to speak to people and make a tangible difference in the world around us.

Here’s the thing: We don’t determine our own relevance. If we’re relevant, people will use our services and funders will connect with our mission.

We also don’t get to decide if we’re being innovative. Many organizations strive to be innovative. Many of us think we’re doing innovative work when we’re just doing good work.

True innovation is more elusive than just throwing the latest technology in the middle of our existing work. It speaks to relevancy in unique ways, shaping the way we consider what’s relevant and what’s not. Innovation is like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, “I know it when I see it.” A few examples include:

But let’s not conflate and collapse relevance and innovation entirely.  In a time of increasing food insecurity and budget cuts to food stamp programs, the simple act of feeding people remains incredibly relevant.

So how do our organizations stay (or become) relevant? There’s no easy one-size-fits-all answer. Striving for innovation and relevance must be an institutional priority: top-down, bottom-up, across all levels and departments. We have to keep an ear to the ground and critically evaluate our work. And when I say critically evaluate our work, I mean it. We have to ask ourselves the hard questions and answer those hard questions with honest and scary answers. And from those scary answers, develop a truly terrifying, outside-of-my-comfort-zone, get-shit-done action plan. And then go and do it.

Dr. Bob Kelso, chief of staff at my favorite hospital, Sacred Heart, says, “There are no magical fixes. It’s all up to you. So get up off of your keister, get out of here, and go start doing the work…. Nothing in this world that’s worth having comes easy.”

How do we face a crisis of relevance? Or a crisis of innovation? What hard questions do you need to ask yourself?

Full disclosure: Brandon Boat, one of YNPN Twin Cities’ board members, is co-founder of T2P2. But as a civics nerd, I’m totally impressed with their work outside of knowing Brandon and Tane.

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