Home delivery and post office boxes have been the staples of the postal business for a long time. Digital media have disrupted the letter mail industry like all industries, and postal servers have tried to adapt to stay alive.
Canada Post has developed online services, improved its parcel delivery system and all but eliminated door to door delivery, placing community post boxes throughout the country.
I like gettting the mail at home. I resent the off-loading of the cost of delivery to me. I have to go to a “community post box” to get my mail. At my expense in transportation and time.
Those costs used to be what the postage on a letter paid for. A single stamp costs almost nothing but it adds up when there are millions of pieces of mail being handled every day.
We’ve been told it’s not affordable anymore. Even though stamps have more than doubled in price. They are so expensive now, the post office is afraid to put a price on them. The prices change and nobody knows until you have to buy a stamp.
Anyway, picking up the mail the other day, I wondered what it would cost to hire a mailman to deliver the mail in my neighbourhood. I’d definitely pay something for that service, a dollar a day for example.
How many households would you need to cover salary and expenses? 100? 300?
If they have to drive, which they would in this neck of the woods, 150-200 households, so let’s be optimistic and say 200 is not unreasonable for a 7.5 hour day with the usual breaks. Allow gas and vehicle expense of .50/km on a 30 km route, that’s $15. If each household is contributing $1/day, that leaves $185 for wages and benefits. That’s about $24/hr.
For creating employment and a better quality of life in our neighbourhood, not bad at all.
Of course, somebody would have to set it up. And everybody would have to opt in to make it work. Management costs and the politics could make it impossible.
So, in the end, that’s why such things as postal service were not private businesses. It falls to government to do things that benefit everyone pretty much equally. They have the capacity to organize it and implement it universally.
Still, when the logic of “public service” no longer makes sense for many people, in the face of the kind of technological challenges we’re facing now, then maybe it is time for social innovators to intercede, create a new model to achieve the same end.
P.S. – I’m not totally against post boxes. Co-working spaces, for example, could use proper postal service and many currently do not provide it. Another social enterprise idea would be to create private P.O. box services for these public/private hybrid spaces.
Developing independence from the grid and food self-sufficiency are just two of the goals Winnipeger Shaun Loney sees social enterprise solving.
“We can use entrepreneurial tools to solve social problems and environmental problems,” Loney told The Current’s Anna Maria Tremonti.
According to Loney, social enterprises are economic ventures that solve problems while shying away from government funding.
“In Canada, we believe the defining issue is connecting people who most need the work with the work that most needs to be done,” he explained.
Loney co-founded Akki Energy, what he calls a social enterprise incubator, in Manitoba.
“Aki’ is an Ojibwe word for Earth and we’re doing geothermal on First Nations. But we’ve started several other social enterprises through it on many other First Nations in Manitoba,” Loney told Tremonti.
Above quote from CBC website. Loney was on The Current this morning (Nov. 29th, 2016) as part of their series The Disruptors.
Loney has a new book out (and you know how we LOVE books!):
Loney says his new book, An Army of Problem Solvers: Reconciliation and The Solutions Economy, looks at all the different ways the government gets in the way of progress happening and wants to challenge the government to think beyond the colonial past.
“Let’s look at Canada and how it can be in its next 150 years.”
Indeed, on the cusp of the sesquicentennial there is no better time for forward thinking innovation.
“In the age of the Internet, people are questioning why they, the consumers of legal product, should be forced to go to expensive lawyers working in expensive office buildings located in expensive urban centres.”
At Social Enterprise Advocates, we are facing these challenges in some practical and unexpected ways.
The Virtual Office
We joined the Centre for Social Innovation community in Toronto in the fall of 2014 in part to address accessibilty. By paring infrastructure to a minimum, thanks to shared amenities, we kept fees below the national average – with further discounts for CSI community members and friends – while serving a community of people whose work we support and encourage at every level.
Our presence is now largely “virtual.” We do not maintain a regular office but rely instead on a combination of shared “hot” desks, borrowed offices and meeting rooms that can be booked. We use a cellphone rather than landline. We share office supplies, and faxng and copying costs. Volunteers (DECAs) provide reception services and sort mail. Two listservs are essential tools in engaging the community both socially and professionally.
In 2015, we focussed on serving the CSI communities in the areas of start-ups, estates and wills, and non-profits. This arrangement worked very well; by mid-year however, our outlook expanded beyond the bounds of the social innovator context.
We had been developing ties outside of Toronto that held promise, and over the summer of 2015, we took our law practice on the road, logging some 14,000 kms in travel to and from Toronto and Northwestern Ontario. By September, an opportunity came up to associate with a small law fim, Beamish & Associates, located in Sioux Lookout. The firm serves a very wide catchment area that includes over twenty First Nations communities, as well as the towns of Kenora, Dryden, Red Lake, Ear Falls and Pickle Lake. This is in the district of Kenora, which is the largest, yet least populated electoral district in Canada.
This development is changing the nature of our practice is some important ways. In Northwestern Ontaro, we now do family law and civil litigation in response to the need for this type of service. In Toronto, we continue to focus on “startup law” and wills & estates.
In Northwestern Ontario we are also working more with First Nations people, who make up about 35% of the population. In Toronto, an opportunity arose to participate in a sensitivity-training workshop offered by Bear Standing Tall, with whom I share office space at the Regent Park CSI. That helped me gain confidence in working with First Nations people, while also tieing my northern experience back to my urban law practice.
A year ago, I would not have imagined that it might be possible to stretch a law practice to reach over 1500 kms.
I am hoping that the CSI community will embrace this new reality and continue to use our services.
Our Toronto clients support a more equitable distribution of services insofar as we are working for more diverse and dispersed communities. We also provide services across a broader economic spectrum than many law firms, from aspiring entrepreneurs in Sault Ste. Marie to people on fixed incomes living in downtown Toronto. This is not merely “pro bono” work, it is an integral part of what we do, providing quality services based on need not means.
The noun “avocat” is, en français, the word for lawyer. In English the meaning of “advocate” has been broadened to something more general and active like “standing up for.” In all our work, we “stand up for” our clients in many ways, but we also believe in “standing for” certain things – advocating values and ways of doing things.
Our approach to legal practice values accessibility and client relations. We are open and transparent about what the law can and cannot do for you. We will discuss how the law works and why, so that you are as well informed as possible. Our northern experience is helping us learn new ways to talk about and explain the law.
Lawyers today have an awesome array of tools that promote better quality work, greater efficientcy and effectiveness. Text messaging, email, Skype, all make it possible to work “without borders” but also with a degree of responsiveness that is unprecedented. In the north, tools like video conferencing have become essential in the delivery of medicical and legal services. Necessity is promoting innovation. Which perhaps, leaves us with this maxim, a thought for the New Year:
Innovation does not always lead from the centre, but from where the need is greatest, which may well be on the periphery or margin.
The Canada Council for the Arts publication of a major report on the state of the visual arts in Canada (discussed here) inspired us to look afresh at how social enterprise concepts might play in the arts. This quote from the report was the spark: “[M]uch can be learned from innovative strategies in start-up culture, social enterprise and experimental development; as well as emergent non-profit business models that are being explored across other sectors.”
What are the startup and social enterprise strategies the report is referring to? And what is to be learned from them?
The mantra of social enterprise is “people, planet and profit.” And for both startups and social enterprises, success has to be measurable, producing both social and financial returns for investors and the enterprise.
Social enterprise is defined in this this Reuter’s article as “a business that solves a social purpose.” The article is about the UK’s Globe theatre raising £5m (CAD $7.5m) through a “social impact bond” (SIB) issue.
The UK government has 31 SIBs as of this year, more than there are in the rest of the world combined. A government issued SIB is typically calculated to produce a return on investment in the form of savings on how government is currently doing things. For example, a bond issued to support home care over hospital care, will produce savings in overall health care costs. As performance goals are met, bond holders receive financial returns proportional but not eating up all the savings. Everybody wins, maybe not as much as in the private investment world but enough to make a difference.
For Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, it is not yet clear whether the bond will be designed to produce actual financial returns or is more like philanthropy by a sexier name. But in terms of “social return on investment” or “social impact” the Globe’s impact looks impressive: in the first six months of a 24-month world tour launched in April 2014, 89 performances of Hamlet were staged in 54 countries to approximately 54,000 people.
Taking social enterprise literally
A more literal approach to using startup and social enterprise strategies would be to try them out. There are a host of enterprising things museums do already. To be strategic, pushing toward the triple bottom lines of people, planet and profit, would take just a little tweeking:
Hospitality Industry Training
Typically, services in public institutions like museums and art galleries are “extra.” The primary tasks are to collect and preserve and present artifacts or art. Guests are welcome but secondary to the primary mission. Financing similarly is not tied to the mission. There’s a correlation of course between donors, sponsors and visitor support and the quality of program but it is indirect. No-one buys a curator’s decision to show a particular artist, least of all the public.
All that is fine, but when it comes to visitor services, public galleries have learned that numbers matter and holding numbers requires more than simply delivering great exhibitions in great, well-kept spaces. Increasingly, they are required to pay attention to the “visitor experience.”
Receptionists and docents know just how often they are asked for directions to restaurants or other attractions. Yet, few people working in the arts are properly trained in how to anticipate and respond to visitors. This is the territory of “customer relations,” and “hospitality,” familiar in the travel and accommodation industries. This is not to say that today’s museum goer is not welcomed and helped. They are. And museums are increasingly attentive to, and developing expertise in this area.
At the same time, there is also a need for trained people in the tourism and hospitality fields. As Richard Florida pointed out over a decade ago, the whole economy has shifted toward services. As manufacturing moves offshore and leisure becomes more important for a larger, aging and relatively financially secure demographic, services training is needed.
Museums could strengthen and broaden their public role by focusing on, and enhancing, visitor services. To be able to invest in improved services, an entrepreneurial approach could be taken. Museums could create visitor centres that are a training grounds for tourism and hospitality workers. They would simultaneously get the benefit of the people learning on the job while also producing people with experience and enthusiasm who are 100% more likely to search out or even create new opportunities to put their greeting/hosting/serving skills to use.
Official Guide Training Program
In the UK, Blue Badge guides are among the most respected people working in the hospitality and tourism industry. The training is rigorous: they study for up to two years at university level, taking a comprehensive series of written and practical exams which qualify them to become Blue Badge Tourist Guides.
Art museums already train and use docents, and increasingly are looking at digital audio/media supports for the visitor experience. For sure, digital media are intriguing, for now, but nothing compares to the caring and knowledgeable personal guide. A program that trains people, older and younger, to develop their knowledge and presentation skills to encyclopedic levels would prove its value in two concrete ways: enhancing workforce skill levels but also by adding credibility and respect to the institutions that would employ those people. In the highly competitive tourism marketplace, distinctiveness and quality are prized and hard to achieve.
Started in 1972, the Canada Council Art Bank was as innovative a social enterprise concept as you are ever likely to find. Artists would “bank” their work there, having been paid well for it, retaining a right to “withdraw” it at any time for the same price. The presumption was that years later, the value of the work having gone up substantially, the artist would be able to buy the work back at cost and sell it, capitalizing on the increased market value.
For the Art Bank, the money wasn’t in the escalating price of the work but in renting it out while they held it. Government and corporate offices throughout Ottawa showcased the best work being done in Canada. It was stunning and a model that worked fabulously well for many years, producing surpluses year after year. Eventually, however, the model failed. The vaults kept growing, storage and maintenance costs ever increasing, but the rental market was saturated and redemption was rare. Most Canadian art isn’t worth more than it was the day it left the studio.
Today the Art Bank is still struggling to find its way. But it has created a fine history of respectable failures to learn from. One obvious lesson is that an enterprise that hopes to succeed in the marketplace needs to have the agility to move with it. Failing to change its art acquisition policies when the rental market was saturated (and in fact started to collapse as government cost cutting eliminated rental budgets) was fatal.
The most important lesson of the Art Bank lies in the relationship between collection and marketplace. Many art galleries have rental services but the work they rent is generally not very valuable and not very good. One assumes the reasons, risk of damage, theft, insurance costs. Yet the Art Bank was able to place artwork valued in the 10s of thousands in public and private buildings, often in high traffic areas. Why shouldn’t artworks in museum collections be rented out directly to conscientious patrons, businesses, organizations and local government?
Or how about this even more radical idea? Imagine a dystopian Fahrenheit 451-ish future in which collections are distributed among the people, housed and cared for piece by piece; it would be the “museum” as it started, with the impulse to collect, conserve, study, only distributed and organized as we are able to do now in the 21st C.
The art world has spent the past 30+ years learning not to judge everything from the white European male perspective. Just as barriers to women, black, hispanic, gay and other artists of all kinds fall, perhaps the final frontier of inclusiveness will be opening the doors of privilege to the genre and amateur artist.
It is difficult for art museums to show local amateur artists, except maybe once a year, in hallways. Wildlife artists like Robert Bateman continue to be ignored despite their global popularity. What’s going on? It’s not like the “high arts” can’t handle a challenge. In fact, critical challenge is what the best of the arts are supposed to be good at. As Andrew Hunter, now curator of Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, showed in his early curation-as-art practice, art is liminal, an effect produced at the interstices of place, object, object and encounter, i.e. contextual.
I know it sounds improbable, but the assumptions around things like Sunday (and other genres of) painters warrant testing. There is something so obviously “social” in these practices. And engaging audiences more as active producers than passive spectators can’t be a bad thing. It’s a clumsy idea. It’s unclear where the “enterprise” part might come in. Some amateur work is produced in gallery art classes for which the artists already pay. Wildlife or naturalist artists like Bateman would draw staggering numbers of visitors of course, selling out the gift shops. I have no conclusions in this final example. I’m just throwing it out there. Perhaps you see it more clearly.
The point of this exercise, these four ideas, has been to look at things differently. Social enterprise is about finding ways to accomplish important social purposes in ways no one has thought of before. It’s willing to risk failure for the chance to do something unprecedented and remarkable.
In startup land, there’s a lot of buzz around concepts like “disruption.” Many things that we assumed had to be the way they were, aren’t that way anymore, bookstores for example. This kind of change may not always be good, at least not in the way we have defined “good,” but it is always interesting, which is, as artist Don Judd once said, the whole point.
OneAccessSpace: A Digital Resource for People Affected by Cancer is a new kind of community-based support network. Its founder, Kim Adlard, is seeking financial help at a crucial stage that might be called “enterprise formation.” Please contribute and let your networks know about it too. Some good reasons for supporting Kim and OneAccessSpace are set out below. No doubt you will have your own.
OneAccessSpace is not just a worthy cause, it’s a great example of the very particular and difficult financial challenges to starting a social enterprise, discussed in this post.
How many ways are there to start a social enterprise?
If you want to get something up and running right away, it might be as simple as telling people what you are doing and getting them involved, either working with you, or joining in/signing up, or hiring you for your service or buying your product.
But many social enterprises are ambitious, requiring organization and technology. Yet they often start out as little more than an inspired idea; an observation that something is profoundly missing and an idea of how to fill that gap. But, as we all know only too well, the worthiness of an idea does not guarantee it will find support. Finding support is difficult.
Case study: OneAccessSpace
A case in point is a new venture called OneAccessSpace. OAS will support people affected by cancer. It proposes to do so by pooling the resources (knowledge, experience and talents) of those same people. It’s about empowerment, creating a network and leveraging it. Like my favourite prototypical social enterprise, the Tool Library, OAS is about uncovering/accessing unused or underutilized resources and enabling people to put them to use.
Like the Tool Library, OneAccessSpace is challenged when it comes to revenue models. The people it aims to empower are not in a position to pay user fees, or if they must (as they do in the case of the Tool Library) they have to be modest to be affordable, too modest to alone support the operation.
Yet, the Tool Library is surviving. In fact, it’s thriving. It’s just too good an idea to fail.
Millions of tools lying idle in hundreds of thousands of basements and garages is just too obviously wasteful and a library an equally obvious way to put them into “circulation.” So people continue to donate tools and the founders of each tool library continue to wrangle money out of wherever to keep their operation afloat while the media builds up their story, their user group/memberships grow and those who can help figure out how. In time, patient persistence will pay off in stable revenue streams, some combination of multi-year government funding, corporate sponsors, private donors and user fees.
OneAccessSpace is somewhat different. It is not just a great social enterprise idea but addresses a pressing social and health issue. Tool libraries aren’t indispensable but OneAccessSpace could be. People affected by cancer are often in critical situations, requiring supports of all kinds, not only medical.
“When you look at the full impact of cancer, loss of practical supports, loss of employment, financial security impacted, it becomes pretty scary. And often people are too unwell to do much to about “fixing” things and land in the realm of living under the poverty line.
This happened to me, this happens all of the time. But this crisis is rarely talked about and slow at getting addressed.
Thankfully, waves are starting happen with studies being released and the beginning of some media attention
Unfortunately, with the increase of cancer diagnosis rate, I don’t see this getting better.
People are going to need help. They need help now. And I want to help…and can!
My project focuses on linking people to needed practical supports, which most often are free.
OneAccessSpace is driven by cancer survivors and those who support us. It is my hope that OAS will get to a place where we can pay people for working on the project as we grow our community. There will be many opportunities for this and a plethora of passion and skills to cultivate within the cancer survivor community. Working with OAS, and often this will mean within a modified capacity because of recovering from illness, will enable people affected by cancer who have lost employment and financial stability cobble together some income amidst all the loss and chaos.
The model lends itself to true social purpose enterprise….lifting vulnerable people up.”
Connecting person to cause
Kim reveals compelling underlying reasons that we can all relate to more personally, failures or gaps in support networks that make things worse just when the going gets toughest. No one these days has not been touched by cancer. I relate personally because a friend of mine died of cancer this year. She had managed to keep it at bay, despite all odds, for eight years through a revolving carousel of treatments. Finally the options were exhausted and her body couldn’t cope with the last treatment. For most of the eight years, she was able to work and needed to because the financial support she had was meager. But as she grew more frail, she wasn’t able to work, so on top of the stress of illness, she had to worry about paying the rent and putting food on the table for herself and her 16-year old son.
I’m sure my friend Marta would have loved OneAccessSpace and, as an accomplished documentary script writer, researcher and editor, would have been a keen and valued contributor. OneAccessSpace would have helped her through her participation to find support as support became both more critical and elusive.
OneAccessSpace is a cause worth supporting. It’s too early to know how it will all work but Kim has the skills and experience to figure it out and the patient persistence any social enterprise requires. Building something that introduces new ways of doing things isn’t easy, especially in areas like health where we would rather assume “the system” is the best it can be and will look after everything. It requires continuous effort, enormous emotional investment but also practical, financial support, just like the very people OneAccessSpace is striving to support.
OneAccessSpace is an online initiative that fostering empowerment by facilitating knowledge, supports and communities amongst people affected by cancer.
OneAccessSpace is a first-stop online resource that helps people affected by cancer connect to the support they need while helping us realize our own capacity.
By culling information on services and resources across all cancer communities, OneAccessSpace serves as a first access point to springboard further action.
The components that make up OneAccessSpace are:
• A searchable database of supports and resources across all cancer communities
• A community sharing space which includes articles written by cancer survivors, our support people and wellness professionals showcasing healing-based strategies and experiences.
• An engagement listing which includes special events, educational, volunteer and advocacy opportunities
• OneAccessSpace can be used as a model in other communities with people affected by cancer managing their own local operations
The spirit of OneAccessSpace is proactive community engagement guided by compassion and care.
Plans are important frameworks for overall direction and strategy – but, as the saying goes, no plan survives first contact with the customer…
So we are really talking about culture here: that people within an organisation feel the ability to spot, develop and pursue opportunities (in line with the mission), to take and be comfortable with risk (and reward), to be creative and problem-solve, to be flexible and responsive in their approach. – Nick Temple, Social Enterprise UK
Some of us are prone to making big plans and then not knowing where to begin while others plod along without knowing exactly why or where they’re headed. Neither approach serves us very well. But “starting where you are” is actually very challenging.
Part of the reason it’s so challenging, I think, is that there often isn’t much to work with at the beginning when a social enterprise is not much more than a powerful feeling that something needs doing that either isn’t being done or isn’t being done well enough.
But somtimes, we have more to work with than we realize. For example, I had a very nice experience this past week when a colleague visited my new enterprise work site. As I explained my hopes for the project, I found myself focusing on the complications, obstacles in the way of getting to the bigger vision. After I finally exhauted myself, he just smiled and said, Look around you, you are not just occupying this space but “activating” it already. You’re doing just fine. Keep going.
I had to admit then that a lot has been happening. There’s movement every day. It may be tiny increments and not always be tangible but things like conversations that spark insight into your purpose or a new take on how you’re doing things, or meeting new people who may turn into essential supporters, allies or partners down the road are a vital part of any business’s development.
Resources are generally thin at the beginning of any project. To build them up, you need more than good ideas and good will. You need to look at what you’ve got like fuel. Good experience directly relevant to your project establishes your qualifications. Do something with it. Anything, no matter how small. This will demonstrate not only what you want to do but also that you’re committed.
My friend showed me that it’s important to get your feet wet. If people see that you’ve waded in and haven’t found it either too cold or too hot, it doesn’t matter so much what you say or if you say it well or poorly. You don’t have to convince anybody. Your actions speak for themselves. And they’re likely to respond with what you need whether that’s for them to jump in with you, throw you a line or lend you a boat.
A lot of people are saying that the key to sustainability in the non-profit sector is entrepreneurship. Centres for social innovation (CSIs) are popping up like mushrooms and “social enterprise” is all the buzz among granting agencies and foundations.
Closer examination reveals a lot of fuzziness around the term “social entreprise;” it means very different things to different people.
For some, entrepreneurship is a generic term associated with energy, innovation and commitment. It’s about drive and the ability to build organizations or even whole movements. Without doubt one has to be a go-getter to champion important causes, often swimming against the current, and have fantastic networking and organizational skills to make real progress. The Ashoka Foundation favours such an all-encompassing approach, defining Susan B. Anthony as an entrepreneur for her tireless work establishing the equal rights of women.
For others however, entrepreneurship sticks closer to its business roots; it’s about applying business principles and methods to the social, non-profit, field. Charging admission, running a gift shop, perhaps creating your own products, are traditionally part of the non-profit mix of self-generated revenue, and the entrepreneurship here lies also in managing these functions in terms of cost and return, applying business measures and keeping them profitable, etc.
Yet another interpretation, sees social enterprises as businesses that have a distinctively social purpose. Examples on the Ashoka Foundation website include the Montessori school system and the first school for nurses set up by Mary Montessori and Florence Nightingale respectively. It is not necessary that they are profitable or profit-driven; they can be otherwise supported (by the state, individual or corporate patrons, etc.).
Yet for others, entrepreneurship is a precise business term. It means starting and running a business, an enterprise. The word “social” in “social entrepreneurship” means that the business is run by, within or under the umbrella of a social, non-profit, organization and revenues support the social mission of that organization. “Some have advocated restricting the term to founders of organizations that primarily rely on earned income – meaning income earned directly from paying consumers.” (ref: Wikipedia “social entrepreneurship”)
I favour the latter definition. To my way of thinking, the broader interpretations of “social entrepreneurship” confuse things. They seem to be intended more to make the non-profit sector sound better, more exciting, or more like the business community to which it must increasingly turn for support as state funding diminishes and the more traditional forms of patronage become obsolete.
Good things always come from introducing new language, new ways of talking about what we do. The introduction of terminology like return on investment (ROI), profit and loss, measures and milestones brings clarity to non-profit management, while also making it easier to show potential partners, sponsors and supporters what it is that an organization does.
I hope to follow up this post with some good examples of some different kinds of social enterprises. In particular I will be looking for examples of real businesses operated by non-profits in order to generate income to supporting their social purpose.
The American Association of Museums recently changed its name to the American Alliance of Museums.
What’s in a word? Quite a lot as it turns out. From the AAM’s website:
“The change from “Association” to “Alliance” may seem simple, but it embodies the organization’s primary mission as it grows into its second century.
“By definition, an alliance is an entity forged for the mutual benefit of all,” said Meme Omogbai, chair of the Alliance board of directors and chief operating officer of the Newark Museum in New Jersey. “That is the essence of the new American Alliance of Museums – to re-ignite an organization into one whose aim is to benefit all: our museums, the individuals who work in them and the communities they serve.
“With the adoption of the Alliance strategic plan in 2009 – dubbed ‘The Spark’ – the organization systematically surveyed the range of its membership to determine how it could best serve America’s museums. This feedback informed an entirely new museum membership structure and a new Continuum of Excellence. Details for both the three-tiered membership structure and the Continuum of Excellence are available on the new Alliance website (www.aam-us.org).
The new museum membership structure reflects the Alliance’s belief that it needs to be more inclusive. Uniting the field is a priority. Among the changes they have created a basic membership tier designed for the thousands of smaller institutions in the U.S. to “pay what they can,” mirroring the inclusive policies and practices of museums large and small to promote community access and build audiences. They have also created what they call the Continuum of Excellence, a mark of distinction obtained through accreditation. This process has also been designed to encourage wider participation, with the goal of both building membership and promoting the credibility of museums generally to both government and the public.
In my view the most profound impact of the name change is in the word itself. “Alliance” presumes an agreed upon agenda serving common interests. It’s an active word. Allies do things. They have loyalty, a common purpose and they work together where they have a common goal. For associations, while they may do exactly that in practice, or aspire to, the word “association” is much more passive, bureaucratic sounding. It conveys credibility via status (“Look, we’re an organization!”) instead of action.
The AAM name change is an excellent response to shifting economic and political forces. American museums, like others in the arts and culture sector, need to strengthen their presence, which requires better, more professional and effective advocacy.
In Canada, associations in the arts face challenges that name changes alone cannot address. After a period of unprecedented government support over the past five decades – the exception being that terribly dark period in the mid-90s – representative associations in Canada have grown in number and size. Within the past few years however, the federal government has been rolling back its support. Through the Canada Revenue Agency, it has sounded warnings about active lobbying, casting a shadow across a role that many associations, and in particular their members, assume to be their primary purpose. The federal Department of Canadian Heritage last year de-funded the Canadian Conference of the Arts, whose historical raison d’être was to advocate on behalf of the arts. Last year the Department also reconfigured how it supports the Canadian Museums Association, moving them from operating to project-based funding, forcing them to run harder after less money.
Both moves suggest that government wants to get out of the business of funding representative organizations in the arts. They may well be looking for comparison at other industries where it is much more common for businesses and individuals to finance their organizations out of their own pockets. Notwithstanding the policy pros and cons of change in government’s approach, it is a model worth considering: independent financing gives representative organizations a degree of autonomy that is both liberating and energizing. Members expect to their organizations to get them somewhere when they are personally paying the fare.
But government funding is only one, and possibly the least, of the challenges facing Canadian associations today. The Canadian Society of Association Executives recently sent an email with the provocative subject line: Will Your Association Still Exist in 5 Years? The email was announcing a new publication, Road to Relevance. While changing an association’s name is not likely to be included among the five strategies for relevance identified in the book, becoming more effective by actively aligning communities of interest in the way the AAM is doing, must be.