Recently I was asked to review a museum’s planning work as part of their preparation for a major organizational transformation. The basics were in order for a small, young organization. They have a basic set of driving principles, a vision, mission, and values and a good understanding of their audience. They also have articulated some sound learning ideas and strategies that relate to being a strong and useful partner to area schools.
Of the pieces they have, however, the weakest is their vision. A set of cheerful strings of superlatives, the vision could describe the dream of any museum from Anchorage to Miami. This piece, I noted, was exactly the piece they most need to be ready for the journey ahead: to be a relevant and robust museum firmly aligned with their community and its priorities. How else will they be confident of attracting support? How will they be assured that what they plan to bring to the community is relevant and valued? How else can they choose among very attractive, and certainly, competing alternatives? How else will they know whether their use of resources has served them and their community well? How else will they be confident about their long-term organizational health?
A less-than-adequate vision statement is not unusual among museums, but this can place a museum at a serious disadvantage. Even if a museum is not about to change its physical footprint in size or location, it does need to pay attention to its community footprint.
A museum at any stage of development undergoing a major organizational change needs a deliberately developed expression of the deeper purpose it fulfills for its community, a vision. For that matter, a museum navigating tough economic times or intent on being a recognized and valued community asset–in short any museum–needs such a vision.
Last year I wrote about externally focused vision statements that my wise and knowing strategic planning partner, Andrea Fox Jensen, had introduced to me. In contrast to the familiar vision statement placing a museum at the center, this kind of vision projects a museum’s vision out to its community. Looking outward, the vision focuses on the positive change a museum hopes and believes is possible for the community it serves. Its vision of change engages with a specific aspect of a better future that matches the museum’s own long-term interests. Perhaps it is a more vibrant community, increased social cohesion, greater civic engagement, or improved quality of life.
Readers thirsty for harder-working vision statements have found their way to Re-visioning Vision Statements in large numbers. Good vision statements, (even just examples) are hard to come by; externally focused ones require an even longer search. Gradually, though, I do notice more vision statements looking outside the walls of the museum, past everyday activities, and beyond a reputation among peers. One I recently came across from The New Children’s Museum (San Diego, CA) envisions a community with a vibrant artistic and cultural life in which all children and families share the joy of being active participants.
Assuming an outward perspective opens up many possibilities. One is a more obvious connection between the positive change a museum hopes and believes is possible for the community it serves–its vision, and what it intends to do to contribute to that change–its impact. This connection is closer than it might at first appear. In her blog, Leading By Design, non-profit governance and leadership consultant, Anne Ackerson, posed the question, “Should Vision Statements Be Impact Statements?” She also asks, Without long-term external impact, what's really the point of your nonprofit?
Changing perspectives places familiar elements in a new light. The shift can challenge cherished assumptions and initiate changes that, if not fundamental, are major. As a museum broadens its view to encompass its community, it will also see itself and the community in a fresh light and find new ways to relate to and be integrated with the community. Placing itself on the local learning, cultural, and social landscape will spotlight strengths, suggest new relationships, surface opportunities, and point to areas of change.
Three basic features involved in connecting vision with impact work solidly together: know your community, connect assets, and describe the change.
• Know your community––People, priorities, players. A solid understanding of a community may come from many sources, but it must include the voices and perspectives outside the museum walls, from leaders, citizens, thinkers, critics, and friends. Listening to and learning from the community and from studies and reports identifies community priorities, challenges facing residents now and the vitality of the community in the future. In imagining the community if these challenges were resolved, the museum begins to envision a future for the community that is bold and positive but, with stretching, is possible. Where these challenges intersect with a museum’s long-term interests and its strengths are areas in which a museum can have a role in making a difference.
• Connect assets––the community’s with the museum’s. Framing a museum’s impact relies on connecting and building on strengths, tangible and intangible, its own with the community’s. A community’s assets might be stories of pulling together during a flood, a sense of pride as a regional hub, strong neighborhood centers, or a history of welcoming new immigrants. A museum’s assets might be its site or location; trusted after school programs in neighborhoods; expertise in evaluation; or being an easy partner with long-term alliances. Areas in which strengths engage firmly and productively with community challenges and priorities are areas a museum can be active in focusing on change.
• Describe the change–both short and long-term. A vision of the positive change the museum believes is possible for its community comes into focus; the museum assesses its own capacities for contributing to this change; and the museum begins to picture what the changes look like near and long term. What will be different for this audience group, for this neighborhood; how will the readiness gap help shrink the achievement gap; how will new arrivals be less isolated or seniors more engaged? how will the museum change in 5 years? In 10 years? In pursuing such questions deliberately, a museum defines outcomes, gathers information, and adapts its programs and services to better serve its audience, community and itself.
Hard Work Ahead
Developing an externally oriented vision statement aligned with community priorities and focusing on intended impacts takes time, diligence, smart resources, and collective effort. This is especially true with the initial shift to a view to the community and its priorities. The extra work required to shape such a vision, however, is worth it. Fresh insights, new relationships, and efforts and resources focused where they matter most is just too important to leave to good intentions.