In Historic Reversal of Policy, Met to Start Charging Admission Fees

Branding is just as important for nonprofits as it is for private enterprises. In today’s marketplace, nonprofits are up against stiff competition from a variety of industries for consumers’ attention, and effective communications are nearly impossible without a public identity that your constituents can understand and recognize.

One major U.S. institution just reversed perhaps its most notable policy, and the price its brand will pay in the long run is uncertain.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (more popularly known as “the Met”) has been free to the public since the 1970s – that is, until now. Organizational leadership has announced that non-New York residents will now have to pay a $25 fee to enter.

Residing inside a publicly owned building, the Met is the largest art museum in the country, and its nearly 50 years of pay-what-you-want entry fees contributed to its international stature and cemented its identity as a truly democratic cultural resource.

During a visit in September, I participated in the pay-what-you-want system and gave the Met $25. In theory, visitors who can afford this recommended fee offset the cost for others who cannot readily pay. Some critics suggest that the museum did not effectively communicate this concept over the years.

Museum officials have cited two trends that led to the policy change: the last decade has seen yearly attendance sore by three million, while the percentage of visitors donating the suggested amount has plummeted by 46 percent. Additionally, the institution has struggled with mismanagement (its director Thomas P. Campbell resigned in ignominy last year), and it tackled its massive deficit only after receiving an $80 million gift from the estate of the late Herbert Irving, the largest gift the Met has ever received.

That life-sustaining donation, however, went toward stalled projects, such as a massive expansion planned for a contemporary art gallery. None of it was earmarked for subsidizing visitor access to the storied museum.

Arts and culture writers have pointed out that the change in policy diminishes the Met’s fame and character. Writing for the New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz argues that accessibility of the museum “is an ethical mission, and an especially important one in a city that feels more and more closed.” Considering NYC’s increasingly prohibitive cost of living, the introduction of admission fees at the city’s historically free world-class museum does seem like the end of an era.

The art critic Roberta Smith from the New York Times specifically criticized the policy’s differentiation of visitors: “It divides people into categories — rich and poor, native and foreign.” Long billed as a shining example of equal access, the museum’s somewhat confusing admissions policy now separates visitors into different groups.

What these writers make clear is that this policy change marks a turning point in the museum’s history. Once, the Met was accessible, democratic, and open; now, it is like any other museum, a reality even more painful considering that its building is publicly owned.

There are no easy solutions for the Met’s woes. Perhaps the greatest takeaway from the situation is a cautionary tale: prioritize your organization’s key objectives and brand-affirming practices and proactively communicate them to the community and your audiences. Organizations will find themselves suddenly entering periods of change, so best to plan ahead and craft an effective messaging strategy for when difficult decisions need to be made.

Authenticity is the Key to Effective Nonprofit Branding

Image courtesy of Edgethreesixty Branding

An organization should ask itself everyday: does our brand reflect our identity? If the answer is anything but a solid “yes” it is time to institute change – fast.

Knowing who you are is the bedrock of effective communication. Everyday dispatches – including visual materials, internal and external communications, solicitations, call-to-actions, invitations, and annual reports – must project your organization’s brand and channel the key components of its identity succinctly.

Here are some informal case studies that demonstrate a variety of branding weaknesses.

The Philadelphia Orchestra demonstrates value by leveraging the name of its all-star music director. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s name has become a stamp of approval on the orchestra’s communications materials, signaling a central role in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s public identity.

This is an interesting take on branding, albeit a somewhat short-sighted one. While the institution’s mark will stay the same, the music director will change over the years, thereby leaving the impression that the orchestra is most powerful and impactful with a “name” associated with it.

Another case study: the Please Touch Museum.

The institution’s trademarked name fails to convey its identity clearly. Originally located in Center City Philadelphia, the museum is now situated in Fairmont Park in a renovated historic building. Please Touch Museum’s current tagline which focuses on this geography, leaving its purpose in the dark. Using hyper-local terms alienates out-of-town tourists, decreasing the likelihood of them exploring this gem of a museum.

If the organization’s leadership wishes to reach a broader audience of families and donors in the greater Philadelphia area and establish the museum on national and international levels, it should consider revisiting its branding to underscore the experience visitors can expect. “Please Touch Museum® where kids learn through play,” is one fitting example.

Let’s look at one last case: The Salvation Army. The international humanitarian organization’s motto is “Doing the Most Good,” and the group maintains a commitment to “meet human need without discrimination.” There have been – however, a number of controversies over the past 15 years, including firsthand accounts of LGBQT individuals facing discrimination when seeking services from The Salvation Army. By directly contradicting its stated mission and ethical practices, this discrimination obviously does not mesh well with its public image. Critics of the organization have used the evident irony behind this brand to underscore the organization’s perceived hypocrisy.

Since accusations of anti-LGBTQ discrimination emerged, the organization has taken strides to improve its treatment of gay and lesbian individuals. Transgender people, however, are still frequently discriminated against and experience difficulty obtaining temporary housing through The Salvation Army. As long as the organization does not live up to its brand, critics will still be able to use it against the group, diminishing its effectiveness and preventing it from pursing its mission.
The most important component that could improve these brands: authenticity. Authentic branding and a clear understanding of organizational identity are key to developing a strong base of followers, donors, and patrons.

Turning 25: It’s a Big Deal for Nonprofits

The twenty-fifth year may not seem like an essential milestone for nonprofits, but it is a critical juncture at which many organizations either begin a slow march toward decline or pivot toward new, more effective ways of doing business.

To survive (and thrive) during this transitional point, organizations should look at these three things:

I. Leadership

II. Branding

III. Delivery

I. Leadership.

Who is in control? Is the organization’s founder still at the helm, or is a senior staff member who has been there for more than 10 years in charge?  After twenty five years, fresh perspective is essential for growth. Celebrate the visionaries who have organization so far, but bring in a leader who has the growth mindset and energy to make positive change.

II. Branding.

A clear, fresh brand is critical to reposition an organization and its image in the communities where the organization exists and which it seeks to influence. Step outside of the organization and look through the eyes of public. What does the nonprofit’s image, communications, mission statement, and overall aesthetic look like? Ask yourself what this impression means and how it impacts those who receive it. There are numerous companies that specialize in branding. A worthwhile investment for a nonprofit is to work with an outside firm that doesn’t see things through the same lens as the staff or board of directors. A fresh perspective will allow the organization to expand beyond its current branding limitations.

III. Delivery.

Take this moment in the organization’s history to look at delivery. How are the programs delivered? How are you acquiring the constituents you serve? What is the impact? Is the impact what is most needed in your target communities at this time?  Often, there are better ways to deliver your product. But it requires the courage to break the norm and change the organization’s processes, procedures, and staff.

Reevaluating leadership, branding, and mode of delivery can set your nonprofit up for positive change that invigorates donors, funders, community members, and those served by the organization. How will your organization evolve?

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