176 posts categorized "Science/Technology"

Donor Dollars Into Dividends: The Past, Present, and Future of Nonprofits Aiding the Private Sector

June 20, 2019

TreeForkIllustrationBleeding plant-based burgers were last month’s biggest financial news. Beyond Meat had the most successful initial public offering of any startup since the 2008 crash, and Impossible Foods raised $300 million in venture capital. Both burgers can hold their own in the meat aisle or a fast food restaurant.

Clearly, there's a lot of money to be made by making meat without animals. So why are nonprofits spending donor dollars to support the industry?

It's no secret that nonprofits have a strained relationship with the private sector. All too often, it falls on us to clean up the messes businesses make — or to stop them from making those same messes again.

But when there's an urgent need for new entrants to transform an industry, nonprofits can play a pivotal role in making that transition happen — and happen fast.

Consider the industry producing antiretroviral drugs (ARV) for HIV. When the lifesaving treatment was first invented, it was produced in small quantities and sold for $10,000 to $15,000 a year. Most patients, especially those in AIDS-ravaged Africa, literally couldn't afford to survive.

To ensure that everyone could access treatment, activists knew they would need a pharmaceutical industry that could make up for low margins by selling in huge volumes. They encouraged new entrants, pressured incumbent companies, brokered purchase agreements, and funded scientific research. Prices dropped a hundredfold in less than a decade.

Today, incumbent energy producers are making fat profits by pushing us to the brink of climate disaster. Producing clean, renewable energy will be an uphill battle as long as existing infrastructure, government policies, and economies of scale make fossil fuels cheap and convenient.

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'Future-Fit' Philanthropy: Why Philanthropic Organizations Will Need Foresight to Leave a Lasting Legacy of Change

April 10, 2019

Future_start_gettyimages_olm26250To be considered transformational, any philanthropic organization should aim for lasting impacts that go beyond their immediate beneficiaries. Yet, in the face of what the UK's Ministry of Defense recently characterized as "unprecedented acceleration in the speed of change, driving ever more complex interactions between [diverse] trends," the longer-term future of philanthropy, and the success of individual programs, are at risk as never before.

Philanthropy is already trying to deliver on a hugely ambitious vision of a better future. Taking the Sustainable Development Goals as one marker, this includes, within just over a decade, ending poverty, ending hunger, and delivering universal healthcare. Progress is struggling to match aspirations: the UN has found that globally, hunger is on the rise again and malaria rates are up due to antimicrobial resistance.

With the accelerating pace of change, new trends are set to bring huge opportunities — and threats — often both at once. Two examples: new technologies in the field of synthetic biology, and the fourth Industrial Revolution. Other trends — climate change, demographic shifts, democratic rollback — may be familiar, but their pace, trajectory, and impact remain radically uncertain.

The trends of the coming ten to twenty years have the potential to reverse hard-won progress, distort the outcomes of interventions, radically change the geography and distribution of need, and outpace the philanthropy business model altogether.

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Weekend Link Roundup (March 23-24, 2019)

March 24, 2019

Robert-mueller-gty-ps-190212_hpMain_16x9_992A weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Communications/Marketing

On the Communications Network blog, Katie Smith Milway, principal at Milway Media and a senior advisor at the Bridgespan Group, and Rick Moyers, director of communications at the Fund for Shared Insight, explore four lessons in effective storytelling they have learned while shepherding a campaign to encourage client feedback as a measurement norm.

Current Affairs

"Thirty years from now, a majority of Americans believe that the U.S. will be less globally important. They believe that the inequality gap between rich and poor will have widened. And they expect that there will be even more political polarization. That future sounds pretty bleak, especially given the fact that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans are at least fairly worried that current politicians aren’t capable of changing it." Fast Company's Ben Paynter talks to Brookings' David Wessel about what can be done to shape a brighter future for all Americans.

Health

On the Robert Wood Johnson's Culture of Health blog, Dwayne Proctor, a senior advisor to the foundation's president, speaks with Yolo Akili Robinson, a 2018 Award for Health Equity winner, about how the stress of being black in America leads to physiological responses that raise the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Nonprofits

Nonprofit Chronicles blogger Marc Gunther continues his series on workplace problems at the Humane Society of the U.S. and concludes that the organization's efforts to hold itself accountable for the actions of its former leader, Wayne Pacelle, are "unsatisfying."

Yes, the doubling of the standard deduction poses real challenges for nonprofits. But the challenge s also an opportunity, writes Social Velocity's Nell Edgington, to embrace — truly embrace — change. 

Can Marie Kondo help you "tidy up" your organization? Definitely, says Nonprofit AF's Vu Le, who then shares ten lessons derived Kondo's method guaranteed to make you more joyful at work.

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Weekend Link Roundup (February 9-10, 2019)

February 10, 2019

Homepage-large-fc-and-gs-are-candid_tilemediumA weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Climate Change

"Someday, perhaps, an entire nation could be powered by renewable energy, but that day is too far off to deal with the climate threat," say Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist in a new book called called A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow. Instead, Goldstein and Qvist tell Marc Gunther, countries should be looking to nuclear as the short-term answer to the problem. For many in the environmental community, that is a non-starter. Gunther explores the dilemma.

Governance

Writing on the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, Kim Williams-Pulfer, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, shares some thoughts on nonprofit boards and the diversity imperative.

International Affairs/Development

On the OECD Development Matters site, Benjamin Bellegy, executive director of the Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support (WINGS), shares his thoughts on how philanthropy can best contribute to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals agenda.

Journalism/Media

Journalism and the news media in the U.S. are in trouble, the traditional business model for news threatened with extinction by the consolidation of eyeballs and ad dollars on a few mega-platforms. Forbes contributor Michael Posner looks at the conclusions of a new report funded by the Knight Commission on Trust, Media, and Democracy and finds that while the report diagnoses the problem well, "its recommendations do not go far enough."

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5 Questions for...Rebecca Masisak, CEO, TechSoup

December 22, 2018

For more than thirty years, TechSoup has facilitated product donations and technical assistance to nonprofits and NGOs with the aim of helping them implement technology solutions that drive social impact.

With the goal of raising $11.5 million over the next three years to sustain and expand that work, the organization recently announced a direct public offering (DPO) through impact investing platform SVX.US. The DPO offers three tiers of debt security investments — risk capital notes, with a minimum investment of $50,000 and a 5 percent interest rate; patient capital notes, with a minimum investment of $2,500 and a 3.5 percent interest rate; and community capital notes, with a minimum investment of $50 and a 2 percent interest rate. TechSoup is the first nonprofit to be qualified by the Securities and Exchange Commission to raise funds through a Regulation A+ / Tier 2 offering.

PND asked TechSoup CEO Rebecca Masisak about the genesis of the DPO, as well as her views on the role of technology in building a more effective philanthropic sector and driving social change.

Headshot_rebecca_masisak_techsoupPhilanthropy News Digest: What was the thinking behind the decision to launch a direct public offering on an impact investing platform? Is there a broader goal beyond the immediate one of funding TechSoup's work and outreach?

Rebecca Masisak: Throughout our history, we've achieved scale and reach with the direct support of NGOs that wanted to use technology to achieve their missions. They have been investing in us — in the form of their administrative fees. The DPO takes that principle to the next level. It's important that those individual organizations from our community have a voice in what we do and have a way to vote — not just with a "like" on Facebook or a retweet — but with an expression of faith that comes with an investment in our DPO.

The direct public offering reflects our belief that TechSoup's stakeholders come from a range of economic backgrounds but share a common belief in the importance of a strong infrastructural backbone for civil society. The DPO enables us to offer a debt investment with interest as an impact investment, not just to institutional funders but also to U.S.-based individuals and smaller organizations in our community, with meaningful but relatively low investment minimums of $50. We want all these stakeholders to play a role in our future, not just those who have a larger budget to invest.

From the beginning, we knew we wanted to work with a platform provider in order to securely manage the investment transactions. We also needed a provider that could specifically support a Regulation A+, Tier 2 Offering in all U.S. states, so we looked at a few different options before making our choice. SVX has a strong track record as an impact investing marketplace in Canada and met all our technical platform requirements. Equally important, however, was that the SVX team shared our values and belief in democratizing access to impact investments. They have become a true partner to us, and I'm confident they will do an excellent job supporting the community engagement we seek.

PND: What has been the response to date from investors and other nonprofits?

RM: We get a lot of questions: Can nonprofits do this? What do you mean I get my money back? Why are you making the minimum investment so low?

This is a new way of doing investment in nonprofits — we are the first nonprofit qualified by the SEC to have this type of offering in all fifty U.S. states — and there are a lot of technical questions. We also know people are curious about how it turns out, not only because they want to see us succeed but also because they're thinking about doing it themselves. We're glad to be in a position to learn for the sector and to share our experience as the campaign progresses.

Since the launch in mid-November, the response has been incredibly positive. This includes those community-level "Main Street" investors who have had very limited opportunities to invest in this kind of security offering before. We see that the ability to invest this way feels empowering. Based on preliminary conversations to date, we also anticipate receiving significant support from larger entities at the Risk Capital note tier and look forward to making some announcements in the near future.

We're excited that other nonprofits have expressed interest in learning more about this approach, and we're committed to sharing what we are learning. We want others in the sector to benefit from our experience and have already started to publish updates on our blog and recently hosted a webinar along with the SVX team and our legal counsel from Cutting Edge Capital.

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5 Questions for… David Egner, President/CEO, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation

November 27, 2018

Established by the late owner of the NFL's Buffalo Bills with more than a billion dollars in assets, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation plans to spend those assets down, with a focus on western New York state and southeastern Michigan, by 2035.

David Egner was appointed president and CEO of the foundation in 2015, having served prior to that as president and CEO of the Detroit-based Hudson Webber Foundation. A fixture in Michigan philanthropy for decades, first as an executive assistant to longtime W.K. Kellogg Foundation CEO Russ Mawby, then as director of the Michigan Nonprofit Association and executive director of the New Economy Initiative, Egner is using his extensive knowledge, experience, and connections to make the Detroit and Buffalo metro region better places to live and work.

PND recently spoke with Egner about Ralph Wilson and his vision for the foundation and the two regions he loved and called home.

Headshot_david_egnerPhilanthropy News Digest: Who was Ralph C. Wilson? And what was his connection to Buffalo and southeastern Michigan, the two regions on which the foundation focuses most of its giving?

David Egner: Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. was a tremendously successful businessman and the beloved founder and former owner of the National Football League's Buffalo Bills.

The four life trustees he appointed to lead the foundation decided to focus its giving in the Detroit and Buffalo regions — southeastern Michigan and western New York — where Mr. Wilson spent most of his life and was the most emotionally invested. He had called metro Detroit home since he was two, and Buffalo became a second home after 1959 through his ownership of the Bills.

But above all, he's remembered for being a lover of people and of everyday difference makers. We want the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation to be a testament to his spirit, and that ethos helps guide who we are, what we do, and how we help shape communities.

PND: Why did Mr. Wilson, who lived to be 95, decide to structure the foundation as a limited lifespan foundation?

DE: It was a very personal decision. First and foremost, it was born out of his desire to have an impact on everything he touched. Doing so ensures that the foundation’s work will be completed within the lifetimes of the people who knew him best, our four life trustees, and that its impact will be immediate, substantial, and measurable.

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Philanthropy and Cyber-Security  

October 01, 2018

CyberSecurity-796x532With more than a trillion dollars flowing last year from donors and government agencies to grantees in the United States alone, online thieves have discovered fertile hunting ground. In the three years since hackers stole usernames, passwords, IP addresses, and other account data from some 700,000 nonprofits that used the Urban Institute’s online tax filing system, cyberattacks have only gotten more clever, and the stakes higher.

To thwart hackers, organizations in the philanthropy space need to focus on both common security practices and their special vulnerabilities, from the bottom to the top of the organization.

Foundations and nonprofits have the same security concerns as any business, but they also have particular needs based on their mission-driven orientation compared to, say, a retailer or bank. "You often have part-time or volunteer employees, and they like to be helpful," says Mark Walker, knowledge management and technology officer at the Jessie Ball duPont Fund. "And many philanthropic workers wear multiple hats, which means the person responsible for watching over security may not have time to be as thorough as they'd like."

Philanthropy often involves large transfers of money between organizations or people who don't interact daily. That gives hackers an opportunity to trick inexperienced employees who are unfamiliar with how cyber-crooks operate. "They'll contact you with a sense of urgency to act," says John Mohr, chief information officer at the MacArthur Foundation. "If the president of your foundation asks you to wire money quickly, you might not stop to wonder if it's really her."

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5 Questions for...Craig Newmark, Founder, Craig Newmark Philanthropies

September 06, 2018

Back in the mid-1990s, Craig Newmark started an email distribution list for friends that in time would revolutionize the classified ad business. As craigslist evolved into a website serving tens of millions of people globally every month, it also became a sizeable source of revenue for its creator. With his windfall, Newmark in 2016 created Craig Newmark Philanthropies, a private foundation that works to advance people and organizations in the areas of ‎trustworthy journalism, voter protection, ‎women in technology, and veterans and military families.

Earlier this month, Craig Newmark Philanthropies awarded $1 million to DonorsChoose.org to help fund STEM classroom projects in schools where more than half of the students are from low-income households. The commitment also included #STEMStories, a social media challenge designed to bring more attention and resources to STEM teachers and their projects.

PND spoke with Newmark about his philanthropy, the #STEMStories campaign, and the future of journalism.

Headshot_craig_newmark_400x400Philanthropy News Digest: Since you created Craig Newmark Philanthropies in 2016, you've provided support to a variety of different causes, including veterans, journalism, voter registration, women in technology, and education. How would you characterize the focus of your philanthropy?

Craig Newmark: Growing up in New Jersey — in high school, U.S. history class in particular — I learned that in America we aspire to stuff like fairness and opportunity and respect for all. With respect to my philanthropy, we try to advance those values. That may sound simplistic, but from my point of view, everything I'm doing is connected to promoting and defending those values.

PND: How does your recent matching gift to DonorsChoose.org fit in with that ambition?

CN: My connection to DonorsChoose goes back about ten years or so when I met Charles Best, who runs the organization. He explained his organization to me as a form of crowdfunding, which I understood even then. He also helped me understand that teachers don't get the respect and support they deserve and have earned.

The matching gift is designed to make it easier for every American to pitch in. I think it makes sense because a lot of people have a few extra dollars they'd be happy to donate to help fund teachers. Something like 94 percent of classroom teachers have to buy some school supplies out of their own pockets. That's not right. This is a way to show them some respect.

PND: What's the significance of the #STEMStories hashtag?

CN: The #STEMStories hashtag is something we hope will connect all of the social media activity going on in support of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education] and STEM teachers. The idea is for teachers and their supporters to help each other through social media by flagging and sharing content around that theme.

I'm an old-school '60s nerd. In fact, I was born a few years after Dr. Seuss invented the word in one of his books [Ed note: If I Ran the Zoo]. And I'm biased toward STEM. That's always been my strength. It's what I'm good at, and I feel there needs to be a lot more emphasis on it in our schools.

One obvious reason is because there are a lot of job opportunities in STEM for everyone, including underserved youth. It's a good source of jobs today and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. For example, right now, there are a lot of opportunities for cybersecurity professionals. So, I'd say that STEM is a good career opportunity area for anyone who's good with computers. And #STEMStories is a way to make more people aware of those opportunities.

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Redesigning Online Education for the Global South

July 20, 2018

Logo_PhilUPhilanthropy University was launched in 2015 with seven courses that served more than 220,000 users from over 180 countries. Despite this success, we decided a little more than a year ago to pause the delivery of these courses. How come?

To understand why, it's important to understand how the target audience of Philanthropy University has shifted. We initially designed courses for a broad audience of social impact organizations around the world, from large nonprofits in California to small civil society organizations in rural Pakistan.

By 2017, however, it was clear to us that the way to deepen our impact was by focusing on local organizations based in the Global South — the regions of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania that are generally low-income and tend to be politically and culturally marginalized. To ensure that our courses would be accessible and relevant to that audience, we realized we would need to redesign them.

Understanding the barriers for Global South learners

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) hold the potential to bring a single course to learners across the globe. But studies show that learners from more developed countries disproportionately enroll in and complete MOOCs. Given the seemingly untapped potential of MOOCs, Philanthropy University's Instructional Design team set out to understand the pain points and needs of learners in the Global South and how they access online course content. In an environment where MacBook Airs and Google Fiber are not the norm, could learners access an online course easily?

For example, the original Philanthropy University courses included short video lectures from some of the world's leading experts in capacity building. Qualitative feedback from learners in the Global South indicated, however, that Internet bandwidth constraints interfered with their ability to stream videos, while spotty Internet connectivity made it challenging to progress through the course content. "It was really difficult for me to watch the videos," a learner in Ghana told us. "They did not load. So most of the time, I was just reading the [video] transcripts. It was so difficult…. I couldn't watch them."

To address these technical constraints, we redesigned our platform and underlying technology in the following ways:

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Building a Better World Through Design: Protothon and EY

November 29, 2017

Keep calm and get hackingRecently, more than eighty design-oriented and engineering students from ten different universities as well as professionals from across New York City spent fifteen hours over two days at the NYU Media and Gaming Network (MAGNET) facilities in Brooklyn for the first-ever "Prototyping Hackathon" (ProtothonTM). Sponsored by Ernst & Young LLP (EY), the theme of the inaugural Protothon was disaster relief.

In the U.S. alone, the first nine months of 2017 brought fifteen disasters claiming a total of 323 American lives and costing $1 billion or more each. These figures do not include the devastation Mexico suffered from a recent earthquake and the extensive damage storms have inflicted across Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In the aftermath of major disasters like the ones we saw in 2017, nonprofit organizations, companies, and individuals are eager to extend a helping hand, either by donating money in support of relief and recovery efforts or by applying their core competencies to the situation in innovative ways.  

"Design can save lives," said Domenick Propati, founder of Protothon and an NYU professor. "This Protothon will showcase that premise as teams develop impactful and actionable solutions that can be carried forward to help those impacted by natural disasters."

Participating students sat in on a panel with three people who have worked in different aspects of disaster relief and recovery efforts, attended a UX design workshop, and then broke into teams and spent ten intense hours working to develop innovative and sustainable solutions that addressed one of the many disaster-related challenges voiced by the panel. While the final presentations featured prototypes of the solutions, they all had seen numerous iterations and improvements throughout the day — with feedback from experts in design, disaster relief, and solutions development.

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5 Questions for...Ebony Frelix, Senior Vice President of Philanthropy and Engagement, Salesforce.org

September 28, 2017

The push to ensure that all students receive the high-quality computer science and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education needed to compete in the twenty-first-century economy has been gaining urgency. This week, global Internet companies, foundations, and wealthy individuals announced commitments totaling $300 million in support of K-12 computer science education, including a pledge of $50 million and a million volunteer hours from customer-relationship management software provider Salesforce. That commitment was on top of grants totaling $12.2 million that Salesforce.org, the company's philanthropic arm, had awarded recently to the San Francisco and Oakland Unified School Districts to enhance computer science and STEM education, which included unrestricted funding of $100,000 each to middle school principals.

Earlier this month PND spoke with Ebony Frelix, senior vice president of philanthropy and engagement at Salesforce.org, about the organization's model of giving back 1 percent of equity, product, and employee time; its focus on equality in education; and the importance of expanding access to computer science education for tomorrow's diverse workforce — especially in a sector in which women and people of color are underrepresented.

Ebony_frelixPhilanthropy News Digest: This is the fifth consecutive year that Salesforce.org has provided financial support to schools in San Francisco and the second year it has done so in Oakland. What results are you seeing thus far in terms of enrollment in computer science courses specifically and overall curriculum quality in general?

Ebony Frelix: We know that computer science in general is essential in today's job market and it's imperative that students gain the technical skills they need to be successful in the future. Our goal is to provide opportunities for underrepresented youth in the communities where we live and work to gain exposure and experience in computer science that will help them become college- and career-ready. Ultimately, we believe this will lead to a more talented, skilled, and diverse workforce.

In the San Francisco Unified School District we've given $7 million this year and $21 million in grants to date. Over five years we've seen the enrollment of girls in middle school computer science classes go from nearly two hundred to more than thirty-eight hundred, and of underrepresented student populations from less than one hundred to more than thirty-eight hundred. What that means is that computer science enrollment now mirrors the San Francisco community, with women and underrepresented groups making up nearly half of the students. We also funded twenty-four hundred hours of math content coaching, and we've cut the percentage of students repeating Algebra I in half, from 51 percent to 23 percent, and we hope to see that number continue to drive down. We've also seen a drop in D and F grades in math classes, from 18 percent to 12.6 percent.

In Oakland, we've given $5.2 million this year and $7.7 million in grants to date. We saw an enrollment of nine hundred OUSD middle school students in computer science classes in the first year alone. That was very encouraging, and what was really neat was that those computer science classes are 45 percent females, 38 percent Latinos, and 29 percent African Americans, again closely aligning to the district as a whole. What's even better is that 80 percent of those students received either an A or a B in computer science.

PND: Through the Principal's Innovation Fund (PIF), this year's awards include grants of $100,000 to middle school principals in San Francisco and Oakland. How are principals using those funds?

EF: We like to think that principals are like the CEOs of their schools; they know best how to address the unique needs of their schools. We often hear from principals that failure is not an option, things like "We can't spend money on things that don't work," "We can't take a chance with the district's money." The PIF allows principals to try things and experiment with what works, and then share those learnings with the district. That way we can avoid potentially making a district-wide faux pas with funding or with a program that may not be successful.

We know also that, with a limited budget, principals haven't been able to modernize their schools to align with a twenty-first-century workplace. So if you go into a classroom, they look like they did decades ago — the teacher at the front of the room, the kids sitting in rows, facing the teacher — and that's preventing students from learning in a collaborative workspace. Principals can use the PIF to redesign the classroom, to create a twenty-first-century environment where students are able to learn at standing desks, couches, or pillows; move tables around; have LCD screens all around them. You don't know where the front of the classroom is versus the back of the classroom, because it's flexible. That's a really good way for students to learn, and it also mirrors the workplace they're going to be entering.

In addition, students continue to enter middle school far below grade level, so teachers are faced with having multiple grade levels within one class and having to provide differentiated instruction. Principals are using the PIF to hire additional staff to teach different levels within a multi-tiered computer science curriculum as well as to teach engineering, animation, and robotics courses. And they can implement online personalized learning programs to address the needs of each student and create lesson plans to bring them up to grade level.

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Disrupting the Traditional K-12 Model

September 19, 2017

Computer_classI remember my fourth grade classroom outside Seattle: rows of plastic desks with uncomfortable chairs that inevitably had old bubble gum stuck to the bottom. My teacher sat at a larger wooden desk in front of a large chalkboard, every inch of which was often covered. I remember hurrying to copy all those math equations and English homework questions into my notebook before they were all erased.

You will not be surprised to hear that my kids' teachers rarely use chalk. Students today will never take notes on paper or have to remember what had been on a long-erased chalkboard. These changes have affected not only the way teachers teach and the way students learn, but also the way classrooms and teaching tools can be designed to optimize teacher effectiveness and student ability.

I've noticed two tremendous opportunities in the disruption of the traditional K-12 model — trends that are helping educators reimagine the classroom and how they teach, and reshaping the student learning experience. The first is the imperative to democratize digital skills; the second is the increasing potential of personalized learning and approaches that put students at the center of education.

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NMAAHC and the Museum of the Future

August 07, 2017

In my previous post, I shared details of a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, during which I had the opportunity to meet with Rhea L. Combs and Jon S. Goff of the museum’s film and photography program. With the help of Combs and Goff, I also was able to connect with a number of staff in related areas and quickly came to appreciate that another important dimension of NMAAHC — really, the key to its identity — is technology and the way, today, it has been integrated into exhibition design, audience engagement, and the extension of a museum's programs beyond its walls.

Nmaahc_separate-but-not-equalThis includes things like interactive exhibits, touch screens, livestreaming of events, and much more. As I visited  various galleries, for example, I encountered an impressive number of items, many of them digitized; the museum is committed to sharing the majority of its collection with the public rather than keeping it in storage. I was also struck by how all the exhibits I saw were beautifully enhanced by digital technology, including one wall of objects that delighted a group of teens as they took turns touching images and uncovering additional information on everything from baseball memorabilia to pop culture couture.

In Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age (78 pages, PDF), former secretary of the Smithsonian G. Wayne Clough notes that the institution has committed to digitizing millions of objects in its collection and anticipates that the initiative will make the collection more accessible in ways we can hardly imagine.

As Clough explained in a 2013 interview on Smithsonian.com: "In the past, the creative activities were entirely behind the walls of museums and collection centers. The public only got access through labels in exhibitions, which told them what we thought. Now, in this new world…, people are going to be engaged with us in a conversation, not a monologue."

Museums established prior to the digital age have had to rethink their collections and reconfigure space to accommodate these developments, but NMAAH's long lead time has been an advantage in this regard. Although Congress voted to establish the museum in 2003, African- American veterans of the Civil War first proposed the idea for a museum devoted to the African-American experience in 1915. Founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III, whose career as a historian and curator includes several previous Smithsonian positions, arrived in 2005 with a staff of two. (The museum employs nearly two hundred people today.) The museum itself didn't open until 2016, but Bunch and his small staff launched its first program in 2007, embracing technology and partnering with other Smithsonian museums, including the National Museum of American History (which hosted the photography show I wrote about in my previous post), in 2009.  

In a Smithsonian magazine article marking the museum's opening last fall, Bunch elaborated: "Rather than simply plan for a building that would be a decade away, we felt that it was crucial to curate exhibitions, publish books, craft the virtual museum online — in essence, to demonstrate the quality and creativity of our work to potential donors, collectors, members of Congress, and the Smithsonian."

 "Black Culture and History Matter," an article by folklorist Kirsten Mullen in The American Prospect, emphasizes this point: "The NMAAHC is the first major museum to 'open' on the web before its physical structure is even built."

A PND On the Web profile of the museum earlier this year praises its "standout" website; director Bunch credits early support from IBM for the site. (IBM has contributed more than $1 million to the museum.) The PND profile notes that the site allows visitors to access collections and exhibits, and highlights a section for educators, a mobile app, and the Many Lenses initiative, which features staff at several Smithsonian museums discussing personally selected objects in their respective collections.

With thousands of objects, programs, and exhibitions to manage, the museum has done a marvelous job — and should be credited — for the amount of material  already on display and the many points of access to those materials provided to the public. Even so, as I consulted the website for information on the museum's many areas, projects, resources, and exhibitions, I sometimes found it difficult to navigate the volume of information. (To help readers of this article, I've included links throughout.)   

Even before it opened, NMAAHC could take advantage of the Transcription Center, the Smithsonian-wide project mentioned in my previous post. In his 2013 interview, Clough anticipated a future in which a museum would "crowdsource its research," an experiment the Smithsonian had just launched with the center. Fully operational now, the center has mobilized a corps of nearly nine thousand digital volunteers from all over the world who have transcribed more than two thousand projects using their own computers and broadband connections. The volunteer transcriptions are reviewed by center staff and then posted on the Web, where they can be accessed by researchers and the general public.

Laura Coyle, collection manager and head of cataloging and digitization, tells me that since the museum joined the transcription initiative in 2015, thirty-four collections or items in the NMAAHC project have been transcribed. As an example, the James Baldwin collection, with a hundred and twenty-four pages of material, was completed thanks to the efforts of forty-three volunteers.

Another project is focused on indexing and transcribing the archives of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, which was created by the U.S. government after the Civil War to address the problems of the four million formerly enslaved people and hundreds of thousands of impoverished white people living in the South; there are nearly two million letters, reports, contracts, and other documents related to administration of the bureau. Preserved by the National Archives, the materials are now being made accessible to the public. NMAAHC’s "Freedmen’s Bureau Project" includes a partnership with FamilySearch International, which has indexed the material to capture names and dates, allowing people to search for ancestors. With the assistance of the Transcription Center, the museum also is in the process of transcribing bureau documents.

 "So far, we've made available all thirty thousand records of the Assistant Commissioner for North Carolina," Coyle tells me. "And we're continuing to process and prepare the remaining records for transcription and will eventually make available the entire Freedmen's Bureau collection online and through the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center at the museum."

In addition to the transcription work, NMAAHC has created at least a minimal digital record of all thirty-seven thousand items in its collection — photographs, documents, and artifacts. To date, more than eight thousand images are available online via the Collection Search page. And later this year, the museum will expand access to its film and video collection (which at the moment is only available via YouTube), making it viewable directly through the museum's website.

"Because so much is possible through digitization," says Coyle, "it makes all the other things we do possible: our website, our prints and publications, our exhibits, our mobile access. And we were able to do everything right from the start."

I ask Coyle, who has a degree in art history and worked at the National Gallery of Art and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington prior to joining NMAAHC in 2010, if her education and experience prepared her for the opportunities, and challenges, of the digital age.

"This job did not exist when I was in school," she says. "Museums started using digital tools to manage collections when personal computers became widely available in the nineteen-eighties. With the advent of the Web in the nineties, museums realized they could share their collections and stories digitally, but no one was quite sure how to do this. We just couldn't imagine all the ways digitization would be a part of our lives.  Now, of course, actual and virtual visitors expect museums to offer a variety of digital experiences. But we still don't know what the digital museum will be in the future. NMAAHC was committed to digitization from the start and remains committed to the digital museum concept, wherever that takes us."

Coyle tells me that when she came on board, "It was just me working in this area. Everyone was focused on building the collection and building the building."

Today, her staff of nineteen includes specialists in cataloging, record creation, rights and reproductions, digital assets management, and photography. Rounding out the "Digi Team" are the five media digitization and preservation staff working in the Digitization Media Center. All together, the team produces catalog records and images for internal and public platforms; reformats audio-visual materials; manages digital materials and intellectual property rights related to collections; responds to requests for collection information; and oversees publication projects.

"My team is a service organization within the museum," Coyle says. "We work with the curatorial team and participate in the creation of digital content for various platforms. That's essential for online and traditional exhibitions, collection research, and publications." For instance, of the nearly twenty-five thousand photographs in the museum's collection, a digital archive of more than sixty-three hundred photographs is now accessible through the website.

But keeping up is a challenge. "Digitization is time consuming and costly," says Coyle. "At this point, only 25 percent of the museum's collection is well cataloged, imaged, and online to the public — our definition of fully digitized. And we're continuing to collect, so digitization will always be a little behind. Cataloging is also an ongoing process and we can always add more information. People expect a lot in this area, so we want to meet the demand as much as we can."

Meanwhile, demand is growing. In the first three months of this year, for instance, 319,000 people visited the museum's Collection Search page. "We know that people are searching our collection online" says Coyle. "And we'll be collecting more analytics to learn more about what visitors do once they get there."

The Digi Team also manages the Collection Stories feature on the website, where NMAAHC staff are invited to share their response to an item in the permanent exhibits. Coyle chose the dress worn by Carlotta Walls ("Dress for the Occasion") on the historic day in 1957 when Walls helped integrate an Arkansas high school as one of the "Little Rock Nine." An image of the dress, digitized along with related photographs and documents, appears there and is also available through Collection Search.

"That dress made a mighty impression on me," Coyle tells me, "and I was really honored to meet Carlotta Walls LaNier, who donated the dress to the museum."

Collecting the Collection

One of the defining qualities of NMAAHC is its process for acquiring material. Collecting began a decade ago, and director Bunch has described the task of starting a collection before a museum even opens in various interviews. In a 2016 Washington Business Journal article, he shared some of the details of his own family history, what led him to become a historian, and some of the experiences that helped shape his vision for the museum.

"I thought the best thing we could do," Bunch said in that interview, "was to use African-American culture as a lens to understand what it was to be American. This was not a museum for black people by black people. It was a museum for resilience, for optimism."

He then related a story about the first item received by the museum, the result of a serendipitous meeting with an Ecuadoran man, Juan Garcia, who subsequently donated a canoe seat carved a century ago by his great-grandmother, who lived in a community of escaped slaves — an encounter that impressed upon Bunch the presence and history of Africans throughout the Americas.

"That artifact helped me frame the museum as a global museum, not just an American museum," he told the Business Journal. "That was transformative for me."

But not all items came to the museum that serendipitously. In the 2016 Smithsonian.com article mentioned above, Bunch shared the concerns he felt in those early days.

"Maybe it was the curator in me, but what worried me the most was whether we could find the stuff of history, the artifacts that would tell the story of this community," he said. "Some of the early plans for the museum de-emphasized artifacts, partly out of a belief that there were few to be collected and technology could fill any void. But I already knew that even if you have the very best technology, a tech-driven institution would fail. People come to the Smithsonian museums to revel in the authentic."

Bunch reflected on his experiences, over his career, with "community-driven collecting," including reaching out to African-American families and securing gifts "over a cup of tea." And he spoke eloquently of the urgency he feels to find and preserve these artifacts.

"I believed that all of the twentieth century, most of the nineteenth, maybe even a bit of the eighteenth might still be in trunks, basements, and attics around the country. I also knew that as America changed, family homesteads would be broken up and heirlooms would be at risk. We had to start collecting now, because the community's material culture might [not] exist in ten years."

With support from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the museum created "Save Our African American Treasures," a program designed to appeal directly to communities and surface those forgotten items stashed away in attics and trunks while at the same time educating people on how to preserve family photos, documents, and artifacts. That approach continues, although as the museum's staff has grown to include professional curators, the approach to curation and the collection has shifted.

At the same time, the stories of Naomi Long Madgett, the poet who donated the films of Rev. Jones to CAAMA (see my earlier post), and Carlotta Walls LaNier, who donated her dress, are echoed over and over in the larger collection. While many items in the NMAAHC collection have been purchased, many more have been donated by people whose fervent desire is to see the preservation of their family history.

According to Michèle Gates Moresi, supervisory curator of collections at NMAAHC, the vast majority of the items in the collection have been donated. "I don't have a current count of the total number of people who have donated artifacts to the museum," she said in an email exchange, "but last summer, when we organized a special event for object donors, we had a list of more than sixteen hundred." An estimate of the value of all the artifacts donated does not exist, but the donated material is quite possibly the museum's most valuable asset. In addition, many individuals have stepped up with monetary donations; as of the end of the first quarter, the museum had a hundred and sixty thousand charter members, some who had given substantial amounts, and many more who had donated what they could.

(The generosity of donors is a consistent theme in studies of African-American philanthropy. A recent PND article points out that "African-American households tend to give more of their discretionary income — as much as 25 percent more — to charitable causes than white Americans; that figure increases as African Americans move into the ranks of the wealthy.")

A Great Convener

In Lonnie Bunch's interview with the late Gwen Ifill shortly before the museum opened, the PBS NewsHour co-anchor, in reference to a series of racial incidents around the country, stated, "We are at a crossroads in our country." Bunch agreed with her characterization and expressed his conviction that NMAAHC could play a positive role in moving forward as a society. 

"Our job is to create a space that, through dialogue and exhibitions, can make America better," he added. "We expect this to be one of the most diversely visited places in the U.S. In surveys, 75 percent of white Americans said this is a story they want to know as well. I hope this museum will continue to evolve, continue to change, because it really has to be a place that is the great convener."

Since I attended my first NMAAHC exhibition (the 2009 photography show I mentioned in my earlier post), I've been looking forward to seeing the finished museum. Even at a time when interest and scholarship about the African-American experience has flourished, it has not always been easy to learn about that history and culture. NMAAHC redresses that gap; its film and media programs in particular are reaching audiences on a deep emotional level, and the integration of technology in almost every aspect of its operations has greatly enhanced its impact. The museum's collection and the way it is presented affirm an African-American identity, as was always the intention. But the museum also succeeds brilliantly in advancing the mission crafted by its founders and articulated by Bunch: "To tell the story of America through an African American lens."

Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. Check out her other posts for PhilanTopic here.

Weekend Link Roundup (August 5-6, 2017)

August 06, 2017

Sam-shepard-in-winterOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

African Americans

We begin with this week's startling statistic. According to the Pew Research Center, one out of four black Americans have faced online harassment because of their race or ethnicity.

Arts and Culture

On the James Irvine Foundation blog, Leslie Payne, a senior program at the foundation, asks: What does it mean to participate in the arts today?

Education

On the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, Jen Wilka, executive director of YouthTruth, reports  on key findings of a survey of more than 55,000 high school students that asked them how prepared they feel for life after high school.

Here on PhilanTopic, Alexis Morin, co-founder and executive director of Students for Education Reform, reports that a survey of first-generation college students conducted by her organization found that the majority of them feel unprepared for college.

And in a post for the Hechinger Report, Nicole Dobo shares key findings from Time to Act 2017: Put Data in the Hands of People, which argues that while the use of data in formulating education policy has evolved for the better, parents and teachers still find it difficult to get access to that data.

Immigration

The last time the federal government tried to slow the legal immigration to the United States by adopting a merit-based system was fifty years ago — and Lyndon Johnson was president. Alana Semuels reports The Atlantic.

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Weekend Link Roundup (July 22-23, 2017)

July 23, 2017

Our weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Climate Change

According to the best-case scenario — a drastic reduction in greenhouse gases across the world — 48 percent of humanity will be exposed regularly to deadly heat by the year 2100. But "[e]xtreme heat isn’t a doomsday scenario," writes Emily Atkin in The New Republic, it's "an existing, deadly phenomenon — and it’s getting worse by the day. The question is whether we’ll act and adapt, thereby saving countless lives."

Puppy_with_fork_hiResCommunity Improvement/Development

In a Perspectives piece on the MacArthur Foundation website, Tara Magner and Cate A. Fox discuss how the foundation's newly appointed Chicago Commitment team is beginning to think about its work to make Chicago a more connected and equitable city, and the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

Education

After twelve years, the Moody's Foundation has dropped its sponsorship of the Moody's Mega Math Challenge, a national math modeling competition for high school juniors and seniors, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, which runs the competition, is looking for a new sponsor. Forbes associate editor Alex Knapp has the details.

Environment

According to a new report from international environmental NGO Global Witness, two hundred environmental activists were murdered in 2016, more than double the number who lost their lives defending the environment just five years ago. And the violence continues, with more than a hundred activists murdered in the first five months of this year. On the Skoll Foundation website, Zachary Slobig talks with Global Witness' Billy Kyte about the  “culture of impunity” that is enabling these gross violations of human rights.

Continue reading »

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    — Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

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