Featured Listening Post | The Henry Ford

By on November 18, 2010

This post is one in a series of Featured Listening Posts highlighting Listening Post Project participants employing innovative strategies and techniques to address the key challenges we have analyzed in recent Listening Post Soundings.
The Henry Ford was formally dedicated by its founder Henry Ford and his friend and mentor, Thomas Edison. Opened in 1929 as a school, this Dearborn, Michigan institution is a National Historic Landmark that tracks 300 years of American history and innovation and serves more than 1.6 million visitors annually. The Henry Ford holds 26 million objects and documents including such icons as Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, Henry Ford’s Quadricycle, the world’s oldest steam engine, and Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House.

Your organization started a website devoted to innovation, oninnovation.com. Why did you develop this website? What are the benefits of it? How do you measure its effectiveness?
In 2008, The Henry Ford began a new oral history project, Collecting Innovation Today, to capture the stories of today’s innovators, people dedicated to changing and improving the world and the way we live. The subjects have included household names, like Bill Gates and Martha Stewart, plus people like “green” architect William McDonough and Dean Kamen, inventor of products, such as the Segway, the iBOT and the portable insulin pump.
In 2010, The Henry Ford created and released to the public, OnInnovation.com, a content-rich educational initiative and website. The newest version of the site takes the video content to a new level in our free Innovation 101 curriculum which is designed as a 5-part module for students in grades 6-12.
In addition to featuring “iconic” innovators past and present, we are also featuring “grassroots” innovators and makers in our new America Invents section of OnInnovation.com. Here we invite all makers to share a glimpse into their workshop, garage or studio.
As for measuring results we use Google Analytics to understand website traffic patterns, and we are constantly updating the site to reflect what we learn. Measurement is an ongoing challenge, but starting with the intention to measure launches the iterative process that leads to better results over time.

Can you describe some of the other innovations developed by the Henry Ford Museum?
There is a saying on our campus at the entrance of Greenfield Village: “Everything of significance we do in partnership with others.” One innovative partnership which began in 2009 was making a commitment to host Maker Faire Detroit on our campus in July 2010. Maker Faire, the world’s largest Do-It-Yourself festival, began in the Bay Area.
When their organizers came to us to host the Maker Faire of the Midwest on our campus, we eagerly took on the challenge. Hosting this contemporary celebration of makers and tinkerers made perfect sense to us given the tinkering roots of our founder Henry Ford and his mentor Thomas Edison. While Maker Faire was very different from anything we have ever hosted on-site (including rockets, crazy go carts, fire-spouting inventions), we learned so much from our partnership with our Maker Faire colleagues.

Our survey found that key barriers to adopting innovations are lack of funding and lack of growth capital. How did your organization move beyond these barriers to adopt innovations? What can other nonprofits learn from your experiences?
While funding is always an issue in non-profits, our President was committed to making this project a reality. With the support of our Board of Trustees we used internal funds to jump start the project—with the understanding that we will be pursuing earned revenue opportunities and diverse philanthropic support in parallel with our product development process. Sometimes it takes a leap of faith followed by aggressive pursuit of external support.

How could other nonprofits adapt your innovations to fit their organization’s needs?
While the Innovation 101 curriculum was designed for use in classrooms, we also think the curriculum is well-suited for professional development and training in the workplace. The Innovation 101 curriculum focuses on:

    What is Innovation?
    Process of Innovation
    Keys to Innovation
    Traits of Innovators
    Innovation and Intellectual property rights

Our video library also features hundreds of hours of searchable video content so that you find a video clip for your own presentation, training, speech, etc. These assets are designed to be shared and incorporated to spur conversations that matter.

What is your opinion on the White House Office of Social Innovation? How could it improve the situation of nonprofits?
Our own efforts and outlook at The Henry Ford are very much in line with the founding principles of the White House Office of Social Innovation:

    Focusing on Results.
    Bottom-up solutions.
    Broadening Participation.
    Shared Responsibility.

Has your organization experienced any other major changes over the past few years? If so, why?
Being located in the Detroit metro area we have certainly seen and felt the dramatic changes happening in the state and national economy. While our on-site visitation numbers have held fairly constant we, too, have experienced the impact of the economy in many ways. Even so, we remain focused on the future and even formed our new vision statement for our latest strategic plan around innovation.

Vision Statement
The Henry Ford will be a nationally recognized destination and force for fueling the spirit of American innovation and inspiring a ‘can-do’ culture.

Now more than ever, The Henry Ford is committed to fueling the spirit of American innovation and igniting a “can-do” culture among a new generation of thinkers and doers, sparking progress and encouraging the development of talent and promotion of human potential.
Despite the challenges facing our state and the nation, we at The Henry Ford believe that museums must do more than inspire visitors. We must be an integral part of the culture change needed to spur innovation and fuel our economy in the decades ahead.

What do you think is the most pressing issue facing nonprofits like yours right now?
Some of the most pressing issues we face are continuing to diversify our revenue streams and measuring our impact on both on-site and online visitors. We’re also in the process of digitizing our massive collection which is a decade-long effort that requires massive resources and cross-disciplinary efforts.

What is the most rewarding part of your job/being part of the organization?
I often tell people that I have found my dream job. The Henry Ford is a place like no other. When I lived in Chicago I had no idea that it existed, so I love to spread the word about this American jewel. From the Rosa Parks bus in Henry Ford Museum to Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory in Greenfield Village, visitors can experience American history in an immersive, engaging, and fun setting. It’s a fascinating time to be working for a museum that is also trying to figure out how we can provide amazing experiences to online visitors as well.

What do you find to be most valuable about participating in the Listening Post Project?
We participate as a Listening Post because we feel that it’s an important platform for nonprofits like ours to have a voice in issues of national importance.