Nina Simon, a Santa Cruz-based social entrepreneur, is on a mission to revitalize our public … [+]
When Nina Simon took over Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History in 2011, it was struggling financially and becoming less relevant by the day, with just 17,000 visitors annually. Nina set about discovering who was coming, who wasn’t, why they weren’t, and what might entice them to join in – to feel welcome, stop by, bring family and friends. In her seven years at the museum’s helm, she flipped the value proposition, increased attendance nine-fold, and stabilized the financials. Now, she’s taking what she learned to the next level as founder and ‘chief spacemaker’ for the OF/BY/FOR ALL network. Ashoka’s Megan Villanueva caught up with her to learn more.
Nina, you’re an electrical engineer turned author and designer of public spaces. Catch us up on your new direction.
Ha! So last year I started OF/BY/FOR ALL, now a fast-growing organization that equips civic and cultural organizations to be more relevant, inclusive, and financially sustainable. We start with a basic question: Do you want your organization to matter to more people? Museums, libraries, parks, symphonies, theaters – they are meant to be for everyone, but when you look at the data on who’s actually participating, who’s visiting, who works there, it’s not everyone. It’s often a narrow slice.
Why is that a problem?
These public organizations have huge opportunities to be vital civic spaces – but only if they are used by everyone. When they are seen as niche or elitist, it limits growth, relevance, and perceived value. People are looking for authenticity when they assess: Is a place credible? Is it trustworthy? Will I belong here? They’re not just looking at a marketing campaign. They’re looking at who’s on the board, who’s involved and what kinds of values there are.
Say I’m heading up a theater or library and I want to grow and diversify membership… where do I start?
You start by doing it – not just talking about it. To do the work, first assess your readiness. Do you have a team that’s ready to make inclusive change? Do you have support from leadership? Do you have some time to put into this? And then we encourage teams to set a vision: What is your best possible scenario in five to 10 years? What communities do you see involved? How do you see your institution showing up in your city? What does the financial picture look like? From there, we help you narrow to one group that is really critical to engage and start there.
Interesting… what are some directions people take this?
I was just in South Bend, Indiana, with one of our 47 partners, the St. Joseph County Public Library. They are spending a lot more time than they ever had before out of the building. They’re going to African American church services. They’re going to Guatemalan markets. They’re spending time in the spaces of the communities they want to engage, stepping out of the institutional frame and into that human relational frame of saying, “I’m not just trying to get you to come to the library. I want to build a relationship that helps you to go where you want to go. We want our institution to be an able partner in supporting you in that journey.”
So you are a catalyst and partner to groups that want to diversify?
Yes. And we’re more switchboard operator than expert. So it’s like: “Oh, you want to do land acknowledgement? Let me hook you up with this Maori organization in New Zealand that does that in a powerful way.” Or, “You want to change your staff recruiting policies? Talk to these librarians in San Mateo.” It feels like a gift to be in the middle of a growing web of changemakers, not just as an inspiring voice, but as a catalyst for action.
Why is your idea important now?
We live in a country where public space is shrinking and being privatized. So parks, libraries, even private nonprofits like museums and theaters have this crucial role to play as civic infrastructure, as gathering places. But that only works if they’re truly gathering places for people from different walks of life. So there’s a connection between democracy, public space, and being able to build bridges with people who are different from us. We need to come together to build communities grounded in trust, not fear.
Who pays for this?
The organizations that want to change. We’re a nonprofit grounded in building a strong earned income engine – 60% of our budget comes from our partners. Why? Because we believe that one of the ways organizations demonstrate commitment to action is to put skin in the game financially. If you say “Oh we really want to include new communities but we have no budget for it,” you’re unlikely to actually do the work. We also believe that the business case for inclusion is strong, that we have a credible case to make to organizations that if you’re committed to doing this, it will pay off in terms of your relevance, your resilience and your sustainability. We are showing that diversity drives dollars.
Give us a preview, by 2030, how will things look?
We’ll see more thriving civic organizations that matter to more people. We don’t believe that every museum or every library or every park will take this kind of approach. Our goal is to create a differentiated niche of standard-bearing organizations that say, “We’re not going to focus on buildings and objects. We are going to focus on people.” Just as B Corp is a niche of the business world that stands for doing business differently, we want OF/BY/FOR ALL to have a similar identity within the cultural and civic landscape.
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