Behind-the-Scenes with Ki Culture: Financial Sustainability & Climate Change

An introductory note on sharing challenges

The following article is framed in a way that highlights practical challenges and although all the content came from an interview, it is not presented in interview form. The reason I did this is that I believe it’s important to be able to talk about the day-to-day difficulties we face during our projects, the stuff that makes us sigh and want to give up every day - except we don’t. Sharing these experiences makes us all stronger.

I started noticing Ki Culture showing up in an impressive amount of places in 2022. I went to their website and it looked clean and modern. I checked out their Ki Books and they looked so well put together. I read the articles and I listened to the podcast interviews.

Everything looked great, Caitlin is fun to listen to, Ki Futures looked promising and well-thought out.

But I wondered… How did Ki Culture actually start? Not in the idea sense, but in the practical sense.

How is it making its money? How are they paying for this lovely website?

If I were cynical, as some of us have learned to be, how is this being funded? Who is paying for its services? Is it sustainable?

If it’s a for-profit, where is the profit going after it has been made? What kind of challenges is this organisation facing and how is it solving them?

These are the types of serious questions which can break an organisation if the information is not shared transparently. Even if that organisation is doing its best and there’s nothing weird going on.

I wanted to make sure we all knew the answers because I believe Ki Culture (among others) deserves a chance to carry out its mission without us throwing shade around because we are not sure about how something works.

So when I got the chance, I asked outright. How does Ki Culture work? How does it work today and how did it work when it began in 2019? What changed and why?

Here is what came out of this conversation. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

A conversation with Caitlin Southwick, Founder of Ki Culture

Early in January 2023, I was lucky to be able to have a Zoom with Caitlin Southwick, Founder and CEO of Ki Culture.

I will be honest, I was extremely excited about this, having seen Caitlin in several online conferences in 2022 (over 50 by her own count!) and itching to talk to an entrepreneur in culture who decided to tackle the issue of sustainability and climate change in culture head on.

Before we started, I made sure to check out some of her previous interviews and podcast appearances.

I didn’t want to end up asking the same questions all over again, so here we are today, and I have some behind-the-scenes info on Ki Culture which you will not be able to find anywhere else.

Full disclaimer: This is not a sponsored article. I wrote it out of interest because I started seeing Ki Culture everywhere and wanted to know what was up. I wanted to know their goals and, probably like you, I wanted to know where their money came from and how it was being used. So here are some answers!

What does Ki stand for?

In case you have been wondering too, I made sure to ask Caitlin why Ki Culture is named as it is. Let’s see if you guessed it.

[Ki is the ancient earth goddess of Sumerian religion]( She was the chief consort of the sky god An or Anu.

If we go further afield, Qi is also the concept of vital energy in traditional east Asian medicine.

In some circles, Ki or Chi is also the pronoun used for nature.

And I’ll just throw my own in here from my long-ago slightly-remembered Japanese lessons, a ki is a tree or wood. So that applies too!

AI-generated Ki earth goddess by Midjourney.
AI-generated Ki earth goddess by Midjourney.

So the name Ki transcends boundaries. It is connected to earth, to the environment and to our own vital energy - which we could say in a way depends on the earth and our environment. We certainly couldn’t keep going if the earth and environment didn’t support us!

I appreciated this joining of archaeology, ethnography or traditions, and linguistics behind the name of Ki Culture. It transmits the idea that all things are interconnected and that sustainability in culture is essential for our general wellbeing.

What does the Ki Culture logo stand for?

Originally, I thought it was some sort of eye. Then I looked closer and thought it was a section of the DNA helix.

However, the Ki Culture logo is directly associated to the goddess Ki, as it is the cuneiform for “earth” 𒆠.

How do we address climate change with Ki Culture?

Ki Culture embarked on a multiannual four-part project.

  1. Create a survey to look at the current status of climate control conditions the cultural sector. We can’t know what we need to change or how until we know what we’ve got or how we are doing things today. This survey took place between October 5th and December 1st 2022. You can see the results of it here.
  2. Run a conference where all interested parties can discuss and get on the same page. What are we all working for? Are we willing to do it? How will we do it? The International Conference for Climate Change took place in December 2022 and you can now watch the full recording of it on YouTube.
  3. Collect signatures to sign a declaration that will commit to changing climate control conditions. This is currently underway and it’s very challenging! It’s one thing to feel you want to change things and it’s another completely to make the changes. Just like New Year’s Resolutions, no?
  4. The final step of the project is to create a pilot program that walks museums through the whole process of changing loan agreements to be more sustainable and committing to reduce carbon footprints. This step is ongoing and due to launch in March 2023! You may have gotten a recent email about it if you are signed up for Ki Culture’s Newsletter.

How has Ki Culture changed since it began?

Ki Culture began addressing climate change only in museums. However, since then, it has expanded to address the cultural sector as a whole.


Because we are all involved and we have not been communicating with each other as much as we ought.

It’s not just about galleries and museums. We must involve artists, packers, vendors, shipping companies, suppliers, art handlers, foundations, municipalities, etc.

There are so many key players impacting each other. What’s the point of a museum trying to be sustainable if it thinks its vendors are not providing sustainable alternatives?

One of the most interesting things Caitlin mentions is that during her talks with different actors in the museum world, one of the most mentioned issues to explain difficulties of reducing carbon footprint was that shipping companies did not have sustainable options.

Caitlin then went to the shipping companies and asked them about sustainable options.

They were surprised museums wanted this. Nobody had actually asked them for it. They said if they had known there was demand for sustainable shipping, they would be offering it.

When it turns out, all you had to do was ask for sustainable shipping options.
When it turns out, all you had to do was ask for sustainable shipping options.

So it turns out, the only thing stopping us from getting sustainable shipping was us.

We literally weren’t asking for it.

We may have been talking to each other about it, but we somehow weren’t telling the people who could actually solve the problem for us.

Are we afraid of asking the wrong questions? It seems that many museum professionals have not actually asked for what they want.

Is it because we are used to getting a no for an answer so we’ve given up? Or is it that we mistakenly assume we have no options? I wonder!

Let’s all now go and have a think about the things we want from our suppliers and museums.

  1. Have we actually asked for it?
  2. If not, is it because we think they will say no? Why do we think the answer will be no?
  3. If we know for a fact the answer was no in the past, are we really 100% sure it will be no again? Times change. Let’s ask again.
  4. If it still doesn’t work, let’s talk about it publicly and see why not. Until we make it work. How does that sound?

It seems to have worked for many of the wage strikes in 2022!

How is Ki Culture sustainable in the financial sense?

Another interesting way in which Ki Culture has changed since it began is in its business model.

Ki Culture began exclusively as a nonprofit. This meant it was run almost completely by a dedicated team of volunteers from around the world. This allowed it to create the Ki Books, a free downloadable resource that anyone can get to start off their sustainability journey.

However, this does not mean that an organisation does not have costs and bills that need to be paid every month. So where did that money come from?

I was surprised to know that Ki Culture began with Caitlin’s life savings, a move she does not recommend!

Talk about putting your money where your mouth is, right?

Between its birth in 2019 and 2020, there was only one paid, full-time employee in Ki Culture, and it wasn’t Caitlin. Caitlin was full-time unpaid and has only just managed to begin paying herself a salary in 2023.


  • one paid employee,
  • one free employee,
  • and a small army of amazing volunteers.

For a non-profit about sustainability, this was, ironically, not sustainable.

The original business model had to change. It turns out doing things for free 24/7 with mostly yourself and a group of volunteers just doesn’t work if you want something to grow.

And you know what else turns out doesn’t work very well sometimes? Being a non-profit. Why? What does that mean?

How does a non-profit get money?

Many people have mentioned that Ki Culture should just be all free and, in an ideal world, it would be. I agree.

However, being a non-profit means that you are limited regarding the number of places you can get funds from.

  • You either go to foundations or you write grant applications.
  • You can ask for donations and run fundraisers.
  • You can set up membership fees (but you have to find members first.)
  • You can try to sell some goods and services (but some people will complain that you’re a non-profit in culture so you shouldn’t be charging anything at all.)

That’s it. That’s all your potential sources of money as a non-profit.

All of these mean time - and someone’s salary too, which in Caitlin’s case was her own… for 3 years. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d be able to go many months without a salary, nevermind years.

So anyway, you're a non-profit, so you spend someone’s time writing a project and/or a grant application.

And then you go to a foundation and they hug you for your efforts and give you your money and a brassy medal. NOT.

Turns out you cannot just show up at a foundation’s door who has never heard of you and expect they will give you money for your project.

No, you have to spend the time building a relationship with a foundation before you are trustworthy, which can take years if you do it from scratch. I guess it's the equivalent of asking your first date for a small loan. Can't do it. Not successfully anyway. (Please let me know if you've ever gone on a date that asked you for a loan. Because I want to hear that story.)

Ok, then, what do you need to get a grant other than the actual application?

  • 3 years of financial records or someone to match your grant
  • A project someone else wants to pay for, which is not necessarily the project that you have written.

I have heard many colleagues complain about this second point when looking for grant funding.

You need to do the project that the granting institution wants and fulfil their goals and their quantitative results based on how they wrote their grant guidelines. You know the drill. And if we don’t like it, then we can complain that funding institutions better make some changes… but it’s not our money, so it’s not our call, is it?

And on top of all this, you know what doesn’t have 3+ years to wait for the perfect non-profit funding? Maybe the planet - especially when your non-profit is about climate change and global sustainability.

And that’s basically it.

Since you can also ask people for donations directly, that’s what Ki Culture tried in the beginning.

In the summer of 2020, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, a small crowdfunding campaign managed to get €7,500, which got Ki through the first month.

This might seem like a lot of money for one month, but think of these costs: web development design and maintenance, email listing subscription, digital platforms, social media management, lawyer advisory, accounting fees payroll, taxes, office spaces and personnel salary - because you really want to give people fair living wages too - even if there's only one of them at the beginning.

Oh, and don’t forget you have to spend money to screen/audit your donations too, because you’d better know where that money came from in case the law comes asking.

In 2021, Ki started offering paid training courses, which helped it get through the year, but it was pretty clear that this was simply not growing fast enough, so Caitlin began investigating.

What happens if you become a for-profit company instead?

As it turns out, a bunch of other options open up… think startup money, angel investors, venture capital, regular investors, government programs for small businesses, accelerator and incubator programs, etc., etc., etc.

Once people know you intend to actually make money somehow rather than just spend it, they are more willing to give you theirs. Imagine that!


*Investors, when you become for-profit... okay maybe it's not that easy, but still easier than grants.*

Fine. Lesson learned. Ki Culture has decided to become 2 legal entities in order to be able to support itself without having to rely on rare grants, unknown foundations and screenable donations:

  • Ki Culture will remain a non-profit entity. It includes the Ki Books, which are free to download. It also includes all of its social accounts and all the advocacy work for sustainability.
  • Ki Futures is the necessary for-profit side which will fund Ki Culture. It is a coaching and training program for organisations seeking to implement sustainability into their practice. Ki Futures charges organisations for an extended network of both coaches and peers to help an institution achieve sustainable practices. The coolest thing about it? The price you pay actually depends on your carbon footprint today, so the better you get, the less you will pay over time until you reach your goals. Ki Futures includes access to the network, to peers with example cases of how they managed different problems so you can emulate them, and to an online platform for interaction. (This all costs money to maintain, as you well know. Developers are not cheap.) As it is, the price you pay as an institution is only €1500 a year in exchange for 10 participant seats in the program. The bigger your institution, the less such a sum should honestly worry your budget.

Why is change scary?

One of the most interesting things that came up in my conversation with Caitlin was after I asked what the biggest BUTs were when she encouraged institutions to sign the declaration or join the Ki Futures program.

Was it money? Is it “too expensive”?

Yes and no.

The first BUT is always money. However, the larger the institution, the more money they are likely to save by joining the Ki Futures program. After an initial investment of, say, $20,000 to implement some changes, a large, established institution can literally save** hundreds of thousands of dollars per year** in energy bills. (See this recent New York Times article for an example.) So it can’t be money for the big places, really, can it?

What about the small institutions? Yes, for them it can certainly be money. They can’t afford it - but then again, their carbon footprint is probably way smaller too. They can probably make good improvements by making small, conscious changes.

What is another BUT? Turns out, it’s not an excuse as much as it’s just bureaucracy - the number of people who need to see something before a decision is made. The number of people who need to review, approve, sign, and stamp before anything can be bought or sold or moved or opened or closed. (I've had to sign to be reimbursed for items less than a couple dollars before, so I know what I'm telling you.) Small institutions don’t have this problem as much.

And another big BUT? The good ol’ “Who else is doing this?” We don’t want to be the first to jump into the pool just in case everybody else decides that pool was gross and we shouldn’t have done that.

Can we afford to be ostracised by our peers?

Can we afford to be criticised by the public?

It’s much harder for a smaller museum to be a pioneer in making changes than it is for a big museum. It might be harder to weather a fall if you're small.

So the feeling can go along the lines of, if the big museums are doing it, it must be right, so we should/could do it as well! Right?

So here we are. Trying to help the smaller institutions get the funding and resources they need and trying to get the bigger institutions to move past the committee stage.

It’s hard work, but it’s slowly coming along.

Where can someone start with Ki Culture?

This depends.

Are you just an individual looking to learn more about sustainability in culture?

Then your best bet is following on social media to keep up with the latest events, signing up for the newsletter to get info directly into your email inbox, and downloading the free Ki books.

Are you working for an institution?

You can start with the same steps as the interested individual, particularly with downloading the Ki books, which have actionable tips on how to start making changes at your institution today. This is also free. You can also start finding out whether your institution is interested in making significant improvements.

Are you an institution with a serious commitment to making big foundational changes?

Then you can sign the declaration, get some commitments down and join Ki Futures! Your involvement will encourage smaller participants to start making changes too. You can even decide to sponsor institutions around the world who can’t afford to start off by themselves.

Where can I learn more about Ki Culture?

You can of course check out their official website.

However, like I said, Caitlin participated in over 50 conferences in 2022, many of which are now online to watch. Examples include NICAS, ICOM-CC Metals Conference, AICCM annual meeting, ICOM Triennial in Prague and the NEMO conference, among others.

If you’d rather listen, she has also spoken in various podcasts since 2019 such as the Green Museum and Stories for the Future.

How can I contact Ki Culture for partnerships and interviews?

If you are interested in talking to Ki Culture for a partnership, an interview, a podcast or any other purpose not directly related to becoming a participant in Ki Futures, you can contact Communications Director, Nur El-Mahrakawy at [email protected].

Thank you

I would like to thank Nur El-Mahrakawy and Caitlin Southwick from Ki Culture for giving me this interview and for being so open and transparent about how Ki Culture works and what its biggest challenges are. It was delightful talking to both of them and exchanging our thoughts on how change happens in our strongly institutionalised field.

If you are interested in writing an article with me about your group, institution or project, please reach out to me through my contact form! I will be happy to discuss and help you share your content.

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