Building a more self-reliant Smithsonian

Louisville and Nashville Railroad map

Back when I was an undergraduate student at Georgia Tech in the 1960s, my father and I discussed how we would pay for my college education. Luckily for me and my family, Georgia Tech had a strong history of cooperative education—the school would line up a job with a good company and the student would work for one quarter, making enough money to pay for the next quarter of school, and so on until graduation. There are many good things about this option and it worked for me. I was a surveyor for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company out of Knoxville, Tenn., venturing up and down the line from Cincinnati to Atlanta. This hard work, and the travel that came with it, washed a lot of the boy out of me and helped me become a man. I paid much of my way through school, and read voraciously while on the road. I felt good about myself because I was learning to become self-reliant.

In my opinion, self-reliant people are confident about themselves, open to creativity and taking risks, and tend to be future-looking. The benefits of autonomy extend to organizations. This was what I had in mind when I first arrived at the Smithsonian and began promoting the idea that we should seek to become more self-reliant. Of course, saying something is not the same as doing it, but there are many people at the Smithsonian who understand the importance of this idea. As I near the four-year mark in my tenure, it seems appropriate to take a moment to consider how far we have come. The progress we have made will require some extra space, so I ask your indulgence for this unusually long column.

We’re just getting warmed up

Back in 2009 when the storm of the economic recession was raging, we set about developing a new strategic plan. All 1,500 people who were involved in developing the plan chose to forge ahead despite the wind in our face and created a document that was aspirational, focusing on the Smithsonian’s strengths. We recognized that to achieve our goals we had to rewrite the playbook. For example, reliance on federal funding was no longer enough. We needed to find a fresh approach, one that would allow us to weather future storms and continue to invest in the Institution’s future. But more than funding, our plan would require us to focus our investments, enhance our partnerships and become open to cross-disciplinary collaborations. I believe the results we have achieved together are impressive, but to quote Al Pacino, “We’re just getting warmed up!”

Artist's rendering of the interior of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, due to open in 2015.

The four pillars of revenue

It doesn’t matter how many good ideas we have and plans we make if we don’t have the revenue to fund them. We are fortunate that the Smithsonian’s unique status as a federal trust gives us four revenue sources, or, as Special Advisor Alison McNally calls them, “four pillars”: federal appropriations; grants and contracts; Smithsonian Enterprises; and philanthropy (gifts and earnings from our endowment). The three non-federal sources make up our trust budget. In 2010, we recognized that our trust status afforded us the opportunity to leverage both our trust and federal budgets so as to optimize our revenues. For example, by showing potential donors that the federal government is willing to invest in the Smithsonian, donors are more willing to fill gaps and elevate projects to the next level. By demonstrating to Capitol Hill that we are putting our money to good use and being more entrepreneurial, we can grow our federal funding.

Over the period of the strategic plan, from 2010 to 2015, our goal is simple: create a more resilient Smithsonian with a stronger private funding base. We aimed to expand our annual budget from $1 billion to $1.4 billion while reducing federal appropriations from 70 percent to 60 percent of the budget. This meant that the trust budget would increase from $300 million to $560 million, assuming a stable federal budget. A simple goal, but not an easy one to attain.

To reach our goal, each component of the trust budget must contribute. For example, we called for external grants and contracts to double between 2010 and 2015, and thanks to the hard work of our scholars and staff, we are outpacing that goal. Smithsonian Enterprises is focused on increasing its net return to the Smithsonian. Two key growth areas include expanding the number of subscribers to the Smithsonian Channel and revamping direct retail businesses through the Smithsonian Catalog and Finally, we are looking to dramatically increase annual donor giving. It has steadily risen over the last three years—from $126 million in 2009 to a projected $200 million this year, an increase we are confident we can sustain over the long haul. Many things are driving our success in attracting gifts, including creative ideas, dynamic teamwork and a professional approach to fundraising, as well as the hard work and support of our volunteers and friends.

The bottom line is that our trust goals are on track and our federal appropriations have held steady. We are following our strategic plan, and the dividends are paying off for all of us.

Partnerships and collaborations

Our people are passionate about what they do. (Photo by Chip Clark)

One of the grand challenges defined in our strategic plan is to understand and preserve the biodiversity of the earth. This is an enormous task and in order to accomplish it we need partners who share our ideals and goals. We created the four grand challenge consortia to build internal collaborations and external partnerships that provide the framework needed to take on big issues like the preservation of the earth’s biodiversity. With the help of the four outstanding consortia leaders and thanks to a $10 million gift from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, our venture funding supports collaborative initiatives that truly make a difference. The Smithsonian Grand Challenges Award program has provided more than $3 million in internal seed funding, which has led to more than 50 proposals to various outside funding entities, resulting in nearly $6 million in external grants so far. Big projects like Americans All and MarineGEO have already captured the imagination of partners in universities and the federal government.

We also have created formal partnerships and signed Memoranda of Understanding that already have sparked action. A new agreement with the State Department led to initiatives such as the successful Cultural Recovery Project in Haiti and the creation of a mobile app, Amazing Oceans, a free educational resource based on Smithsonian ocean science. An MOU between Arizona State University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute supports new research activities such as an exciting virtual collaboration that allows students in Panama to travel to the deserts of Arizona and those in Arizona to visit the tropical rain forests of Panama. Other formal partnerships with George Mason University, The George Washington University, American University and the University of Maryland are opening new doors for our research, scholarship and education.

Partnerships drive many important and creative efforts:

  • the World Bank and the National Zoo-led Global Tiger Initiative;
  • the 2013 Human Genome Exhibition produced by the National Institutes of Health, Life Technologies and the National Museum of Natural History;
  • the collaboration between the Department of Defense and the American Art Museum to provide art education for military dependents around the world;
  • the acquisition of the Shuttle Orbiter Discovery spearheaded by NASA and the Air and Space Museum

—and those are just a fraction of the great things going on. Partnerships and collaborations allow us to do the big, aspirational things we proposed in our strategic plan. By reaching out to other colleagues and institutions, we create a more vibrant Smithsonian that can make a global impact.

Staff at the Natural History Museum with a giant squid prior to its installation in the Sant Ocean Hall. (Photo by Chip Clark)

Investing in people

The members of the Smithsonian family are a wellspring of dedication and creativity, serving the American people with their scholarship and expertise in art, science, history and culture. That is why we also are investing in our people. One good example of this investment is the Palmer Leadership Development Program: Each year, 25 people have the opportunity to cross-train in areas completely different from their own field of expertise. Class members have the opportunity to meet and form relationships with colleagues from other units, gain a more holistic understanding of the entire Smithsonian and develop leadership skills by learning new roles. The PLDP is a fantastic opportunity for personal and professional growth and prepares its participants for bigger and better things.

To implement our groundbreaking programs and care for our national treasures, we need remarkable people. The generosity of donors has enabled us to endow three director positions and three curator positions in the last year alone, as well as retain some of the most talented people in their fields, including Nancy Knowlton, Sant Chair in Marine Science at the Natural History Museum; Associate Director of Education and Public Programs Judy Gradwohl at the American History Museum; and SIGeo Chair Stuart Davies of STRI. Renowned and respected professionals such as these enhance our ability to do important research and bring prestige and scholarship to the Smithsonian. The federal dollars that would have gone to fund these and other positions can be reallocated to important areas such as digitizing our collections, enabling outreach to new audiences and enhancing our ability to reach learners of all ages.

Investing in places

Specimens in storage at the Museum Support Center in Suitland, Md. (Photo by Chip Clark)

We are also dedicated to providing our staff, volunteers and visitors with state-of-the-art facilities. Right now, we have $1 billion worth of new construction and renovation underway—40 percent is funded by private support. The National Postal Museum’s new 12,000-square-foot gallery scheduled to open in 2013; the upcoming renovation of the dinosaur exhibition at the Natural History Museum; the renovation of Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City; the stunning new National Museum of African American History and Culture that will open in 2015—none would have been possible without sizable donations. Investments in new science facilities at the Environmental Research Center, the Conservation Biology Institute and STRI will create the capability to do next-generation research. This investment in our facilities is a powerful example of strategically leveraging our federal and private funds for greater impact that we can see every day. It is exciting to imagine the Smithsonian that will exist when all of these projects are complete.

Investing in programs

In addition to all of the people and facilities that are benefiting from enhanced philanthropic input, charitable giving is driving a variety of programs important to our future. The National Zoo’s giant panda program got a much-needed infusion of capital with a gift by David Rubenstein that will help fund conservation efforts in China, train professionals and educate the public about the plight of the panda. Gifts from the Sloan and MacArthur Foundations provide funding for the Encyclopedia of Life project which recently surpassed 1 million web species pages. Gifts from Bob and Arlene Kogod are supporting the efforts of the Assistant Secretary of Education and Access Claudine Brown, who is working in conjunction with the Grand Challenges Consortia and its teams, to create new pan-institutional educational initiatives such as Americans All and Water Matters that will allow hundreds of thousands of people to participate using new digital sharing platforms. The Gates Youth Access grants endowment is driving a new wave of projects that allow us to reach new audiences, particularly young people who have not traditionally been served by the Smithsonian. These education and access efforts mean that the Smithsonian is now reaching learners in all 50 states—a message that resonates with donors and members of Congress alike.

Investing in our treasures

Reaching young learners is a critical part of the Smithsonian mission. (Photo by Chip Clark)

Collections lie at the heart of Smithsonian’s educational and research programs. The 137 million objects in our collections that are entrusted to us are essential to the Smithsonian experience. Our challenge is to care for each artifact so that it will be passed on to future generations. Federal funding is crucial to this effort; more than $300 million has been spent in the past five years to build new collection facilities such Pennsy Drive and Pod 5 in Suitland, to renovate and improve other spaces, and to bolster the Collections Care Fund for our most critical collections needs. But private funding is invaluable as well, notably for the creation of new state-of-the art collections and archival spaces for Phase II at the Udvar-Hazy Center and Cooper Hewitt. Our investments in collections care have been substantial, but there is still much work to do. Scott Miller, Deputy Under Secretary for Collections and Interdisciplinary Support, is leading the way to help us preserve our artifacts for the enjoyment of our descendants.

Looking ahead

Our 2010 strategic plan charted a course towards a new, revitalized and more self-reliant Smithsonian. We are making exciting progress towards our ambitious goals through the team effort of our talented staff and volunteers. We can take advantage of our unique federal trust status to optimize the leverage between our federal appropriations and our private funding. Our investments are making a difference and will provide an even greater payoff by allowing you to work on truly remarkable and groundbreaking projects that you are passionate about. It is exciting for me be a part of an institution with such unlimited opportunity on the horizon—thanks to you.

Posted: 31 May 2012
About the Author:

Wayne Clough served as the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution from 2008 to 2013. He oversaw several major openings at the Smithsonian, including the Sant Ocean Hall at the Museum of Natural History and the reopening of the American History Museum.

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