A recent post from the Future of Museums folks about The Future of History Museums
made some suggestions about improving the field by cultivating certain audiences, and truth be told, it was mostly excellent. Dan Spock’s suggestion that Baby Boomers needed to be cultivated as donors seemed like the “thing that didn’t belong.”
Right off the bat, I should warn you that my ears are up like an Irish Setter’s seeing a shotgun whenever anyone’s generation is mentioned. I’m old on the scale of Gen X. Being an older Gen X dude, I see some of my work in the field of museums as a bridge builder and while frustrated at times, I bear little in the way of real ill will against Baby Boomers. Let’s get that out of the way, too. One of the reasons I’ve been at all lucky enough to work in the magical kingdom of museums is that I have learned to speak the language of the Baby Boomers and understand what makes them tick. Mostly they want to be forever young and be seen as cool. They want to leave a legacy of visionary change. Unfortunately, this love of youth they have has stunted my generation’s growth. Here I am at a respectable age, once considered middle age, until a Baby Boomer decided 50-70 was middle age, leaving me…where? When I was a kid, middle age was 35-55. So what happened?
Cultivating Baby Boomers or any other group as donors is more complex than you may think. There are many facets to a robust development effort in any museum. You want membership, high level donors, corporate support, foundation support, program support, bequests, angels, government support and admission dollars. When you talk about cultivating any particular group, your challenge is identifying what it is they see as the benefit and making a connection with a real human relationship. For many institutions cultivating Baby Boomers is a done deal. Baby Boomers are the Trustees, the heads of the corporations, a great influence upon family foundations, high level donors of passion, and angels. Baby Boomers are the people who are approaching these philanthropists, their generational peers. It’s already happening. It’s not enough, and the appearance is that the long term prospect of successful development efforts depends mostly on something else. So what is that? Is it us? I don’t think so.
Gen X folks are unlikely to be on a level playing field with Baby Boomers when they join boards or reach the Executive Director/CEO/President level of an organization. We simply do not have the means to give at a level that commands respect. In a culture of give, get, or get off, we aren’t holding our own. If we gave according to our means, “until it hurts” like we ask people to do, our contributions wouldn’t make a dent in the widening fault line of an organizational budget. Leadership, then, escapes us. We think it’s us, and there’s something fucking wrong with us. There’s something no one appreciates about Gen X, and it may be that so few of us have achieved a level of financial well-being befitting people of our awesomeness.
I have sat in a thousand development meetings, and nearly all of them have had the same familiar desperation. One I was at fairly recently was an ungodly early meeting on a cold motorcycling morning with an uber smart Millenial in charge of the food. As I sat there with no donuts, only some sort of things made out of sticks and twigs, I raged and raged inside. I was hearing the same things, the exact same things, now for ten years except now there weren’t even fucking donuts. One of the Baby Boomers from the committee started in on the “we need to find a Champion” tune. In Pennsylvania anyway this always leads to the name dropping of several famous people, Kevin Bacon, Gerry Lenfest, and Taylor Swift. If I had a nickel for every time I heard the name Gerry Lenfest, I’d be a one man development MACHINE. There were still no donuts here. Not a one. Kevin Bacon and Gerry Lenfest are obviously decent, generous fellows who contribute time and money to culture in Pennsylvania, but does anyone here know them? No. It’s like wanting a donut. I had this thought, “What about me? I’m a champion, goddammit.”
I am a champion. It’s simply not enough because I am nobody. I don’t think I’m nobody, but I know a lot of people do. What proof do they have that I am someone? None. Have I given enough to any cause to have a brick or a placard with my name on it? Is there a hospital wing with my name on the outside of it? All the other pieces are there. My head is full of the music we all must sing advocating for culture, museums, heritage, and the arts. My numbers are good numbers. You want data, I have data. Yet data is not enough. There’s an entire movement that seems to believe data is the last thing you want. You have to have passion and some kind of superpower it seems. Passion is easy when you’ve been in the field a while. We get to do things nobody much gets to do. I’ve seen enchanted things in my career, and it is one of the things you swap for affluence when you sign on with non profit museum work. I am passionate, but none of us are getting rich here. That’s what makes the power work like fuel with the spark of passion and the oxygen of passion. And that’s part of the problem. That’s what makes me nobody.
As part of my work day, I look at museum job openings across the U.S. on a weekly basis. It seems that leadership and development positions have just plain gone weird on Gen X. There was a job search going on a while ago at the Smithsonian Museum of American History after Brent Glass’ departure. There was a simultaneous search for a head of the museum studies program over at American University. I took both the job postings and looked at them side by side just out of curiosity. Here were two high profile gigs in the same town. Both job adverts demanded a high level of education, something I’ve been too busy working and raising kids over the years to achieve. Both job adverts were for big jobs, management, fundraising, and all the other bells and whistles. The short sighted nugget was that the American job was only a year’s worth of non tenure track job, yet both of these positions demanded experience, proven abilities, and a subtext that Gen X need not apply. There was something about the number of years in the field that just edged us out of both. And who wants these jobs? They need people who slightly resemble the last person who held the office. They need someone who can poop rainbows. A unicorn that poops rainbows would be ideal.
Cultivating Baby Boomers is the status quo. Far too much of it is being done, if you ask me. Baby Boomers won’t be here forever. Gen Y is going to be where it’s at in fundraising by the time I get my pink slip or resign. What are they going to want? How much are they going to be willing to give? You’d best get started.