Finding Funds For Niches

Found any funding lately? We are like other niche museums working to safeguard big ideas, frugally hunting for the right partners who aren’t constrained by convention. Maybe we can help each other.

Except for windfalls and fortuitous serendipity, funding new ventures starts with a seemingly forlorn search. Funders have resources and goals, but look to others to do the work. Founders have the passion for the work, but not necessarily the funds. The broader the idea, the easier the search. The narrower the idea, the more reasons to find help about how to find help. Welcome to the world of finding funding for the History of Computing in Learning and Education Virtual Museum (HCLE).

Some ideas are obvious and global. Memorials for wars, archives for art, libraries for personages, all have people who felt passionate about them. Their establishments required massive fundraising campaigns, but that’s also because they could expect to reach massive audiences. Intense emotions are behind the Vietnam and World War II monuments. Pivotal artists like Picasso or Ansel Adams have a core of patrons from which to draw. Presidential libraries count on dedicated constituents to build impressive facilities.

Some ideas are just as vital, yet easy to overlook. HCLE aims to help everyone understand how he or she learns. More particularly we highlight how computing has changed that process. Within the last few decades we have new tools to help us learn, and yet there’s no museum, archive or website dedicated to preserving and understanding that history of these innovations or their implications — except HCLE.

Our Virtual Museum sits at the overlapping boundaries of history, computers, computing, education, and learning. It’s unconventional because it is virtual.MW2014 Lightning Talk slide 2 And it covers an epoch that is within living memory but easily forgotten by young scholars. There are plenty of natural and national history museums. Computers are finally being recognized as historically significant, with increasing traffic to computer history sites as proof. Computing, as contrasted with computers, as a museum focus may not be as obvious, yet playing vintage games online is growing in popularity. Education, a fundamental activity in all our lives, has very few museums commemorating it. Museums do educate us but rarely invite us to step back and reflect on the process. Learning, that process which changes the individual (as compared with teaching or schooling), in both formal and informal settings, is more often assumed than studied. If there’s a museum of learning, please tell us about it. Virtual museums are so new they have yet to be reflected in the government funding (though we are hoping to help change that with the Online Museum Working Group.)

As we said in our Lightning Talk at the 2014 Museums and the Web conference:

  • Funding a museum about one topic is hard.
  • Funding a museum about two topics is harder.
  • Funding a museum about three topics is hardest.

As we approach funders, we encounter computer advocates who aren’t much interested in education, education advocates who are interested in tomorrow’s technology but not yesterday’s, software enthusiasts who are only passionate about games but not what the player learns from them, proponents of each major topic who realize the major topic isn’t covered well enough and therefore are less inclined to support the work at the boundaries where the overlaps live.

As a result, we must have many more conversations with organizations that aren’t focused exactly in our hybrid field. We hope to find enough common ground to fit into their agendas or to convince them to adjust their organizational borders.

Established museums have, almost by definition, established funding. The initial hurdles have been cleared, and while funding may change, there’s a history of sustained performance, an audience, and direction. If one funder leaves, another may be identified through association. Almost every non-profit has a tenuous future, but momentum helps. New institutions like ours are especially challenged.

We are like many niche, small, and new museums. Our momentum may not be as impressive because momentum is mass times velocity, and no matter how fast we work, we don’t have much mass behind us. We can’t demonstrate the sustainability of our future because we’re still creating our present. We’re doing as much as we can with what we have. We are frugal by necessity, doing a lot with very little, relatively speaking.

Frugality and efficiency are not key criteria for funders. They may be fine criteria ideologically, but in reality the criteria are more bureaucratic and historic. Conventional grant processes ask for information that is reasonable, except in proportion to the size of the organization asking for the funds. Large and small grant proposals take almost the same amount of scarce organizational resources to complete. A five page proposal sounds simple, yet if it asks for historical financial reports, several negotiated commitment letters, detailed program plans, while adhering to strict formatting, then a small museum can be so overwhelmed that all the day-to-day museum work must be postponed for days or weeks while proposal writing is going on. The process is nearly the same for a grant of a few thousand dollars as it would be for a few hundred thousand dollars.

As frustrating as a niche’s search may be, it is encouraging to know that diversity provides possibilities. Unconventional ideas do succeed. Take an entertaining look at some niche museums in a recent Mental Floss video about weird museums. Almost all of them found funding though probably through unconventional means.

Ironically, the History of Computing in Learning and Education actually touches on a trending topic: EdTech, Educational Technology. Billions of dollars are being spent on technology for learning, both inside and beyond the classroom. People and organizations are trying to solve problems in, and change the future of, education and learning through the use of hardware, software and communications technology. Unfortunately, these people often fail to look back at the problems of the past and previous attempts at solutions.

We sit at the periphery of many topics, as do many niche organizations. We’re working towards funding by talking to as many of our neighbors as possible. If you can think of some person or organization to contact, please pass along their contact information. And, if we can do the same for you and your organization, please contact us. The best resource we have is each other.

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