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Dream Big: the Alliance in an Age of Scale

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
I want to share with you the Alliance’s vision for how museums could play a major role in filling the need for high-quality, equitable early childhood education in the US.
Back in June I blogged about the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change Challenge, a competition that will award $100 million to a single proposal “designed to help solve a critical problem affecting people, places or the planet.”
In that post, I nudged museums to enter the challenge, using it as an opportunity to push your thinking and expand your ambitions. Too often the vision of our field is limited by what we see as a small and finite pool of resources. With $100 M in capital, how could museums make a significant dent in  climate changechildhood obesityfood deserts, the needs of people with dementia, improving STEM education or support for homeless families?
I hope you know by now that I try to practice what I preach, so after I wrote that post, my colleagues and I assembled a team of Alliance staff to tackle the 100&Change Challenge. CFM’s motto is “Because Museums Can Change the World,” and our bet was we could think of some great ways $100M could accelerate that change. Our CEO, Laura Lott, is on the team; as is our new EVP Rob Stein; our Bell Education Fellow Sage Morgan-Hubbard; Ben Kershaw, director of government relations; Kathy Dwyer Southern, AAM’s director of special initiatives; and Megan Lantz, who manages our global partnerships (including the Museums Connect program).  
From the start, we wanted to capitalize on our primary strength: the network of museums that together form the Alliance. Our goal was to present an inspiring vision of the benefits museums can provide to society, identify examples of how museums are already doing great work in small, fragmented ways, and show how the MacArthur funding could unify that work and take it to scale.
We explored a number of ideas: addressing the general decline in trust that is eroding civic discourse in the US; tackling the similar (and probably related) decline in empathy; disrupting the “school to prison pipeline” that commandeers too many of our young people.
In the end, we decided to target the USA’s lack of a comprehensive system of support for pre-school aged children. In 2012, the US ranked 35th out of 49 developed economies in formal early childhood educational enrollment. Abundant research demonstrates the benefits of high quality early education, and early-in-life inequalities have been shown to have lifelong impact on education, employment, earnings, health and overall well-being. But our existing patchwork of support is fundamentally inequitable, with fewer than half of children from families with low socioeconomic status attending preschool. In effect, our segregated early education system perpetuates a segregated society and exacerbates the growing class divide in the US.
Here’s Laura’s video pitch, which was part of our application for the Challenge:
In our application, we made the case that America’s museums can meet a significant portion of the need for high-quality early childhood education. There are many great examples of museums providing a variety of high-quality support for preschool age children and their caregivers. These enrichment opportunities include formal preschools sited in museums, close affiliations with neighboring preschools, infant/toddler friendly hours and infant/toddler friendly spaces and policies.
With over 33,000 museums in the US, distributed across every county of every state, there is huge potential for such high-quality services to serve a significant percentage of the preschool age population. It’s our belief that the greatest limitation of these programs to date has been that they are not financially self-sustaining, and have no mechanism for scaling and replicating to other institutions.
That’s where we had to get creative. Sure, $100M could fund a lot of great museum/preschool services over the six years of the grant. But what then? If we can’t answer that question, we will just add to the graveyard of great museum programs that stop when the funding runs out.
So our proposal is to use the grant funding to create a business incubator to select, mentor and launch over 300 new self-sustaining businesses that draw on museum resources to provide early childhood enrichment.
I’ve blogged here and written extensively in CFM’s TrendsWatch reports about emerging business models for supporting mission-based work. Social benefit corporations combine the strengths of for-profit and nonprofit structures. Social impact bonds provide a steady government income stream to nonprofits for delivering on social good. President Obama’s FY 2017 budget proposal estimated the combined state and federal cost of expanding high-quality early education to all 4-year-olds to be an additional $13 billion annually. Just a fraction of that income stream would enable museums to be ongoing, trusted providers of high quality early childhood education.
Is there a turnkey formula for creating sustainable businesses around museum preschool services? No—hence, the incubator program, which will provide training and mentoring on business practices to museum folk or entrepreneurs from other sectors ready to engage in this work. Data from the National Business Incubation Association shows that participation in incubator training programs raises the survival rate of new businesses from 44 percent to 87 percent. And we’ll be capturing and sharing data on all the programs launched through the incubator, enabling museums to learn from both the successes and the failures. At the very least, by the end of the grant period our 100&Change funding would have created dozens of projects that provide high quality experiences for many preschool age children, and generated good data about what does and doesn’t work. And if they are, indeed, financially self-sustaining, there will be ample incentive to replicate them in other museums.
But our ambitions go beyond that. We not only want to launch sustainable businesses, we want to use the MacArthur funding to build the know-how and experience that would enable the Alliance to continue this work. Our BHAG (Big, Hairy Audacious Goal) is to take what we learn from the work funded by 100&Change to create a social-impact seed fund that would enable us to continue to operate the business incubator, and spawn new projects. We feel we can harness the rise in social impact investment to create and manage a revolving fund that will continue to take the good work of museums to scale.
Sometime in early December we will find out whether we’ve made it past the first round of selection. If yes, we get to tell MacArthur more about our proposal (the initial application had very tight word limits!) If not…we regroup and figure out how to take this idea forward in any case. As Michael Edson has said, lecturing on the challenges facing museums in an age of scale, this is the kind of dream our sector needs to have.
And if your museum entered the Challenge—we’d like to know what big problem you propose to tackle, and how! Please do share via comments, below, or ping me at emerritt at
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