4 Kinds of Capital Needed for Adaptive Change

What kinds of investments must arts and cultural organizations make when pursuing adaptive change processes?


This is the fifth installment in the Chicago Chronicles, Rachel Bergren’s reflections on her experiences with the Lincoln Park Zoo in the EmcArts New Pathways program.

Sourcing innovation

Workshop #5 in the New Pathways program focused on “sourcing innovation.”  For me, this session brought all of the pieces together, revisiting topics covered in previous workshops, while also combining concepts to offer new insights into innovative practices. Workshops 1 through 4 presented the background and theoretical building blocks of innovation, while Workshop 5 presented the complete innovation toolbox, focusing on the nuts and bolts that make innovation processes towards adaptive change possible.

Shallow investments rarely pay out

One of the themes in this session that really resonated with me is that in the non-profit world, we often make shallow investments on the front end, yet hold onto unreasonably high expectations regarding the outcomes. Sometimes this means developing programs on a shoe-string budget, but it can also mean that we lack other valuable benefits such as interdepartmental support, or allowance for the time it often takes for new ideas to get off the ground and “stick.”

For example, an innovative new program is unlikely to be successful if there is insufficient support from the marketing and public relations teams, or if it’s labeled a “failure” because it doesn’t sell out during its first run.

Why, then, are we always surprised and disappointed when new initiatives fall flat — even when we know they were under-supported and under-funded?  Why do we continue to kid ourselves that this time, things will be different? Why do we read pages of reviewer comments when purchasing something as trivial as a new coffee maker (OK, maybe that’s not a trivial purchase), but when investing in innovation to advance the mission of our beloved organizations, we hesitate, holding those purse strings tighter than ever?

There is no doubt that we face many financial challenges and harsh realities in arts and cultural organizations. In a recent Wall Street Journal column entitled, “Why Can’t We Sell Charity Like We Sell Perfume?” columnist, Dan Pallotta wrote, “Long-term solutions require investment in things that don’t show results in the short term.” Mr. Pallotta’s piece is an important reminder to non-profit managers, philanthropists and individuals making charitable contributions, that wise and thoughtful investment in high quality “ingredients” on the front-end will yield far superior and satisfying results in the end.

So, what is the “stuff” of innovation? If innovation resulted from a reliable recipe, like the one you might find for cookies on the back of a package of chocolate chips, what would the ingredients be?

Richard Evans, President of EmcArts and facilitator for this workshop, presented four primary categories of capital needed in a recipe for an innovation process. Investment in each of these categories is necessary for the innovation equation.

Money matters

The first thing I typically think of when I hear the term “investment” is money or the financial capital necessary to fund our activities, whether they be day-to-day activities or brand new endeavors. It is true that innovation often requires a financial input, but financial capital is more comprehensive than dollars and cents. It can also include new business models and the strategies for attracting and raising alternate forms of financial support.

People matter more

One of those expenses often comes in the form of people, which constitutes another essential ingredient for innovation—human capital. Human capital can be described as the people, roles, skills and experiences needed to advance innovation within an organization.

The two remaining ingredients of innovation are closely related to human capital. The first is sometimes referred to as intellectual capital or knowledge capital. This ingredient can be summarized simply to “what we know,” in the form of data and information, which is often obtained through informal and formal research and evaluation activities, including the exploration of alternate approaches and new models.

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” — Benjamin Franklin

The fourth and final component is social capital. Social capital refers to the valuable and beneficial relationships and bonds we share with others, including individuals and organizations. Like knowledge capital, social capital is inherently people-centered, further magnifying the importance of making wise and thoughtful investments in human capital.

Leaping into innovation

The topic of this workshop was especially timely for Lincoln Park Zoo’s education department, where we have recently launched a brand new, $3 million initiative to advance understanding about how people learn in informal environments and ways that zoos, aquariums and museums can most effectively engage our audiences for a lasting impact. The Hurvis Center for Learning Innovation and Collaboration is a comprehensive learning institute that will achieve this overarching goal through innovative programming, collaboration, and thoughtful evaluation and research.

As we are in the early days of the Hurvis Center’s existence and in the midst of excitement and a flurry of activity, the New Pathways Workshop #5 was well-timed and thoroughly relevant. Admittedly, it was also slightly terrifying because it revealed new insights and led to my tentatively wondering, “Have we included all of the essential ingredients in the planning and launching of the Hurvis Center?”

I am pleased to report that the Hurvis Center has a strong foundation for innovation, having followed the innovation recipe through significant investment in each of the four categories of capital investment. Certainly, not all areas are as equally developed, but with generous financial and moral support from the zoo and our funders, we are assured that the necessary financial capital will be available. Furthermore, we have recently filled all of the staff positions created by this ambitious new endeavor; the Hurvis Center team is exceptionally well qualified and perfectly suited for each of their respective roles. Building on their individual expertise and professional networks, as well as the zoo’s reputation as a global leader in science and research, we are well on our way to establishing and enhancing the center’s knowledge and social capital.

We invite you to follow the growth and development of the Hurvis Center. Dr. Leah Melber, Senior Director for the Hurvis Center and author of the center’s official blog, “Museums Uncharted,” provides timely updates about the work of the center, while also facilitating rich dialogue among thought-leaders in the field of museum education. Be sure to follow along!

[Header image by Robert Mankoff, from The New Yorker.]

Rachel Bergren is Lincoln Park Zoo's Vice President for Education.