Sunday, March 25, 2012

Stakeholders + Engagement

Dozens of times I heard the word stakeholders and I just didn’t pay any attention. When someone mentioned mapping stakeholders, however, I did take note. That interested me. Thinking of stakeholder mapping required all sorts of chewy considerations: Who are stakeholders? What is the nature of their interests in the museum? What are meaningful ways to distinguish among these groups? How could I show their relationship with the museum? With each other? How can a museum engage them in accessible, meaningful ways?

Stakeholders are the people, groups, constituencies, and institutions who are likely to affect or be affected by a museum, its plans, or projects. They have direct and indirect interests and influences on the museum. Whether or not a museum thinks of its audience, partners, board, volunteers, supporters, and community decision makers as stakeholders, it has them and it needs them.

Consequently, a museum’s clear, shared understanding of who it must engage and how is critical to making substantial progress towards its mission and being a recognized and valued resource for its community. Central to this is a museum knowing what it hopes to accomplish by engaging stakeholders.

A comprehensive stakeholder approach to museum planning serves as a platform for stakeholder engagement across the organization. It consolidates and supports a museum’s enduring interests around its community and audience by:
• Placing people and their interests front-and-center with the museum’s interests;
• Integrating internal stakeholders (board, volunteers, staff) and external stakeholders (gate keepers, partners);
• Highlighting the valuable contribution of multiple perspectives and interests towards a shared set of goals; and
• Building stronger connections between the museum and the community, growing the museum’s base, its reach, resources, and impact.

Regardless of a museum’s specific stakeholder groups or how extensive its stakeholder engagement is, this is a relationship-based endeavor with relationships extending in many directions, attended to by human interaction. Connections exist with the museum, among stakeholder groups, and out into the community. Identifying and engaging stakeholder groups require making meaningful distinctions, among groups, relevant interests, and options for engaging them. One size does not fit all.  Finally reciprocity is at the heart of engaging with stakeholders in meaningful ways. An exchange must generate benefits for the parties.
• What does your museum hope to accomplish by engaging its stakeholders?

 Getting to Know Stakeholders
Who are a museum’s stakeholders? They represent the collective expertise, resources, influence, and interest in a museum and the life of its community. They may be its audience, partners, donors, volunteers, staff, trustees, educators, or business leaders. There are easy-to-identify groups like members, and less-than-obvious groups, like national military and law enforcement organizations interested in our next generation of children and youth.

Every museum forms and describes its stakeholder groups in different ways. Stakeholder Mapping, an earlier posting, outlines these steps. The process requires thoughtfully gathering information about what the museum needs to know and learning not only about stakeholders through research, but also from them by meeting and talking with them.  
• How does your museum learn about and get to know its stakeholders?
Stakeholder Dynamics
Once set, stakeholder groups may seem to be fixed and static; they are not. They can and will change over time because the community changes, the museum changes, and stakeholders pass through life-cycle and interest shifts.

Interconnections among stakeholders contribute to mobility among groups. A visitor becomes a member. A volunteer whose employer is a sponsor is also on the board of a partner organization. A scientist becomes a mentor to teens in invention programs. Even bringing stakeholders together who don’t know each other creates new connections. Over time, some stakeholder groups will be redefined, some added, and some eliminated. A museum will find it helpful to revisit and update its stakeholder groups periodically. It may also find it helpful to think of these groups in new ways, for instance, as part of its ecosystem.

Getting to know stakeholders brings in their perspective and the nature and degree of their interests. Is this stakeholder group motivated by the museum’s track record? The audience it works with? Their own activities? Their association or exposure with the museum? Is their interest on the museum’s focus or on its impact? Learning from stakeholders recognizes hopes, expectations, and preferences for intensity of involvement, from “the more the better, please,” to “as needed,” to “not at this time, thank you.”

Listening to stakeholders produces information and generates good will. Listening is the basic tool for uncovering ways to develop accessible engagement strategies for groups of supporters, members, decision makers, educators, the media, and visitors around their interests and availability.

Prepared to Engage
Growing a museum culture that values and embraces stakeholders prepares a museum to engage them in meaningful ways. This culture is open to outside perspectives, multiple viewpoints, honest opinions, and varied but related interests; there is a comfort with information and ideas flowing from top-down and bottom-up.

Internally, staff and leadership need a shared view of what stakeholders can bring and how these interests align with museum priorities. Involvement by both management and staff is critical for committing resources and implementing engagement opportunities. The presence and accessibility of staff and board members at activities and events walks this talk. Purposeful interactions with stakeholders surface information from and about them that needs to find its way into systems and processes for staff use in making decisions and future planning for the museum. This is a source of information for creating meaningful stakeholder opportunities for involvement.
• How ready is your museum to engage its stakeholders?
Engagement Matters
Across many contexts, expectations are high for engagement that is frequent, accessible, customized, and satisfying. This is no less true in museums where engaged philanthropists invest more than money, volunteers commit valuable time, members give feedback through on-line surveys, and visitors post videos on YouTube.

Authentic engagement has the potential to add another meaning to “friending the museum.” Worthwhile involvement should be the result of good information used in thoughtful ways to appeal to stakeholder interests. Every museum should have an answer to, “what are meaningful ways to engage our stakeholder groups?”

Engagement Options
Real involvement in the life of the museum and its deeper purpose lands at the intersection of a museum’s understanding its stakeholders, what it hopes to accomplish by engaging them, and what is meaningful to them. At its best, it has the potential to reveal the museum and energize the connection between the museum and its stakeholders.

An implicit question is how often to engage stakeholders; the real question is, however, is it meaningful? Once a year is enough if an opportunity holds someone’s attention and is mutually beneficial. Interviewing representatives from stakeholder groups during strategic planning brings their perspectives early in the process while also sharing information on the museum and its commitment to deliberate consideration of its future. Gathering stakeholder groups for listening sessions as a museum rethinks its exhibitions makes room for key perspectives in shape its offerings. As described in Planning Out Loud two museums-in-planning, Tulsa Children’s Museum and Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota actively engage their audience in planning the museum as well as its exhibits.

Channels for engagement are numerous, varied, and continuously invented. They may be incidental, on-going, or one time; formal or informal; for individuals, small groups or large. There’s no end to recycling tested formats like annual meetings or testing new formats like crowd sourcing for an exhibition. Nevertheless, a sound match between a museum’s services, benefits, and events and a stakeholder group’s availability, interests, and motivations is essential. Channels must be programmed intentionally for a mutually interesting and beneficial exchange of information, ideas and perspectives.

Not every set of stakeholders can show up for a two-hour listening session. The annual Halloween party or showcase of children’s artwork can also include opportunities for conversations, recruitment, and information sharing. Anne Ackerson describes the Trustee’s Open Forum at the Chautauqua Institution on her Leading by Design blog; with the moment of the experience fresh and vivid, stakeholder discussions can range across programming, access, or sustainability.

Connecting engagement to a museum’s programs, collections, and exhibits reaches stakeholders where they care. What better input for next summer’s camp topics than from this year’s campers and their parents? Host a Toddler Tuesday and listen to parents of toddlers talk about whether to "tod pods" throughout the museum make family visits easier. Joelle Seligson highlights multiple examples of connecting community members with collections in “Getting Personal” in the March-April issue of Museum.

Placing museum information where stakeholders look and connect facilitates engagement. Recently Nina Simon wrote about the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz (CA) somewhat inadvertently making its planning for upcoming community events public on Pinterest. While trying to facilitate internal communication around program planning, the museum was also sharing content more broadly. The Indianapolis Art Museum is revealing usually behind-the-scenes, insider information by posting a dashboard of indicators such as kilowatt hours/day and fans on FaceBook on its website; multiple years and back-up information comes with a click.

Stakeholder engagement fulfills its potential when it supports museum goals for community engagement and learning interests. These opportunities can happen at a large scale and across a stretch of time. The Grand Rapids Public Museum (MI) created The Grand Race, an interpretive program-scavenger hunt mapped across city neighborhoods that is also a collaborative diversity training program. 

Open Field (Photo by Gene Pittman)
In 2010 the Walker Art Center (MN) opened Open Field and invited the public to gather, set-up, and create and help transform a large green space adjacent to The Walker into a cultural commons. Its purpose: to discover what people see and do in the space. The Walker has various organized projects, local arts organizations have their projects, and the public is invited to use the space for its community art projects. It’s open to all and all for free.

 “Crowdsourcing a Collection” at the Concord Museum (MA) went beyond its walls to bring new perspectives to its collection in celebration of its 125th anniversary. The museum invited 25 guest curators with local, national, and international connections to Concord to select an object from the collection with personal meaning and explain its significance for them. Visitors to the exhibition have also added their voices with stories about how these objects speak to them.
• What does stakeholder involvement look like at your museum?
A thank you is more than free passes or coffee and doughnuts during member appreciation week. When well done, appreciation shows not only that the museum cares, but also that it understands what stakeholders care about. The honor of being asked to participate, having access to collections or museum leaders, invitations to previews, a family photo with the mascot, an interview in a member magazine, and (yes) doughnuts  are all good contenders for appreciation. The final word, however, comes from indications from stakeholders themselves.
• How does your museum express its appreciation to its stakeholders?
While stakeholder involvement may seemingly intensify levels of time, staff, and resources, it also consolidates and manages an existing array of interrelated activities and communications taking place across the museum. Purposefully coordinated, a stakeholder platform for engagement fills gaps, avoids duplications, and smooths wrinkles. It's something staff can look at and work on together. As a platform for delivering value, it is something one of a museum's stakeholders, funders, can support. 

Investing in stakeholders is investing in the museum’s community connections and future. For the museum, activating and energizing relationships with education leaders, the media, and business partners generate good will. For stakeholders, real involvement in the life of the museum and its deeper purpose brings satisfaction, deepens familiarity with, and facilitates talking about the museum. Active engagement can transform a stakeholder’s casual association and good intentions into committed support that extends good will and an insider view to their own networks, and creates an advocate for the museum.
• How ready is you museum to invest in its stakeholders?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Planting for Play

I spent last week in Savannah and Charleston, delighting in the dense vegetation and exuberant growth in the squares, courtyards, parks, and gardens. As I sat back and watched children scoot, dodge, and duck among the plantings and duel with fern fronds, I wondered how yards, parks, playgrounds, gardens, empty lots, and nature centers, might be better planted as places for play.

For most adults, it is impossible to imagine playing outside as children without the hospitality of trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, and flowers for play. My friend Phillip played in a leafy room shaped by the boxwood where he grew up in Maryland. When they were little, the Nissle sisters used the spaces between the foundation shrubs as stalls for their horses. Recently I came across a list of childhood play places remembered by early childhood educators. One from A Little Learning for Two especially caught my attention.

We grew up on a farm, and we had a daisy bush as a big as a small car, and if we crawled inside, it was hollow, like a giant igloo.  We played there so often we wore a deep crater in the dirt underneath, and I loved lying there in the shade looking up through the flowers or reading books.

Under the boxwood, between the lilacs, and around the mounds of miscanthus grasses are the play spaces remembered from childhood, described in environmental autobiographies, and inspirations for books like Roxaboxen. Places planted for play can be found in the small corners of yards, along the fence, at the border of the schoolyard, under the bay window, at the edge of the porch, along the crick or drainage ditch. These might be places in gardens already well planted that wholeheartedly welcome children’s explorations. They may be wild places overgrown with plants that we carefully edit for play. Or perhaps these are now empty places we plant for children’s play and exploration across the seasons.

Towering trees, spreading branches, and a sweep of shrubs provide the highs, lows, edges, and insides defining space and creating a distinct sense of place for play. Children move low, slow, wide, side-to-side, and high as they crawl between, hide under, and climb up into trees and shrubs. Crouching, they explore leafy tunnels and how far they go. They duck into low enclosures created by sweeping branches where they hide, peek out, relish the feeling of being away from others; here they can see others and (think) others can’t see them. In pairs and small groups, children act out favorite stories and weave together new ones; they play games, and form friendships inside leafy huts.
The same branches that droop and provide cover become the rungs of a ladder. Carefully balancing on branches, children discover look-outs with new views of familiar place; and it's a bit unpredictable. Then sitting astride low arching branches, they feel the branch’s movements and work hard to achieve greater bounce. Straddling the boughs and crouching low, children might be racing ponies or riding out a storm on a boat.

Growing places change with the day, the weather, the season, and from year-to-year, always suggesting possibilities for children’s play. Bare branches leaf-out into tiny yellow-spring-green slivers, creating the fort along the fence; when the leaves turn bronze or gold and drop, the fort disappears. The sun-shade mix shifts from morning to evening; the morning cool disappears and children take their play deeper into the thicket. New smells come in after a rain and suggest an adventure. Leaves continue to sprinkle water even after the rain ends and inspire an expedition for finding rain-hat leaves. In piling leaves, peeling bark, and dragging sticks, children get nature under their fingernails as well as dirt.

Places planted for play are a virtual studio of natural materials to explore and create with. Where else are children able to explore the wide variety of textures offered by smooth, prickly, and fuzzy leaves? Watch hard, new berries ripen into squishy soft berries? Discover which pine cones are sticky and why? Cover rocks with wet leaves? Experiment with sticks that bend, snap, or float? Examine lichen and moss up close? Find out what it feels like to be buried in leaves? 

Children use their discoveries to transform spaces, put their mark on them, and take ownership. In their place-making, children sweep dirt floors with branches, make beds of leaves, arrange tree cookie furniture, and gather leafy decorations. They alter places they find with their own designs, gathering fallen branches, stacking logs, or propping sticks against one another to reconfigure space. Openings created among trees or shrubs become rooms to live or hide in, and some times to defend. Children often allocate ownership of branches, shrubby hollows, or leafy rooms. Places may be named to affirm solidarity, show ownership of spaces, and refer to shared and favorite stories.

Children’s play in planted areas is their dialogue with that place. Moving among plants, children experience the precise geography and climate of a particular spot, its deep or dappled shade, how water seeps and pools, the freshness deep into the dark growth, the dry carpet of pine needles. Under the magnolia, they find the cool of the thick and enduring shade; they excavate beneath the soft, constant carpeted surface of big leathery leaves. Even gnarly roots radiating from the trunk animate a place and suggest possibilities for play.

Children come first in places planted for play. They might snap a branch, or stomp down the grass; they might leave a blanket or a bowl (that should never have left the house in the first place one might think) outside. This is not the time to scold, protest, remind them that you have reminded them before, or shake an angry finger at them. Maybe if we provide more places planted for play–places that are easy to get to, familiar and changing, and sense-filling–children will joyfully play there throughout their childhood and carry the memories, discoveries, and possibilities into their futures.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Values as Commitments

Institutional values are typically described as the beliefs that guide the behaviors and work of an organization. I’ve written about them before here using that understanding and how values contribute to a museum's set of driving principles: vision, mission, and values.

Often I see values that are a list of words: respect, excellence, accessible. Assets like collections sometimes are listed as values; though of considerable value, collections are not values. Sometimes one museum’s set of values is virtually the same as another mueum’s. In the past year I was asked to be on a team to develop a master plan for an emerging museum. I was sent the RFP and was most surprised to see the values listed were identical, word-for-word, to those I helped develop at Minnesota Children’s Museum in the 1990’s.

Everyday a museum reaches out to and engages multiple stakeholders–sponsors, funders, partners, members, volunteers, and visitors in a wide range of activities. It holds objects in the public trust, develops intellectual property, and manages resources. A museum makes decisions about whether to take on issues that might be controversial. Museums, including smaller museums, are engaged in a constant brokering of priorities. More than five words, even powerful words or phrases, are needed to constantly balance mission and market in a dynamic external context.

Values themselves are complex. They are aligned with personal beliefs, fueled by passions, culturally defined, foundational, and enduring. How can a list of words or phrases stand for the accepted principles or standards of a couple dozen board members and staff? Guide a board in navigating complex, sometimes charged situations, edged with uncertainty? Or shape a robust organizational culture? Virtuous concepts, copied from others and briefly described are quite the opposite of what should be at the core of a museum and what it stands for. 

Values are expressed in various (and sometimes irrelevant) ways. 
  • Words: Respect; Civic-mindedness; Integrity
  • Statements: We value each person.
  • Definitions: Excellence: we deliver the highest quality products and services in all endeavors, from research publications to exhibitions and educational programs.
  • Word search: Partnerships, Learning, Ambition, Collections, Excellence, where the first letters of a museum's value together spell a word: PLACE, CHILDREN, etc.

In these sets of values, brevity and cleverness overwhelm the serious role that values play. The more I see values expressed this way, the more I think the current approach is inadequate. Occasionally I see values expressed more like a promise: We improve our ability to interpret the Western experience by collecting and researching associated art and artifacts. That’s more how I think values can be helpful.

Unfolding Values Across the Museum
In organizational and strategic planning and planning frameworks where articulating values is called for, commitment statements have the broad shoulders and great arms capable of doing a museum’s serious work. Commitment statements are what an organization, its board, staff need to explore trade-offs, use resources wisely, be operationally effective, be admired in the community, and stay on track to make a difference.

These statements are a museum’s core values as a sense of the obligation or responsibility to fulfill its mission and unfolded across areas of the museum. They are expressed in key relevant organizational and situational contexts in which they are likely to be evident. In place of a relatively basic community or valuing community, three, four, or five perspectives on valuing, honoring, or serving community are expressed. 

When being a good steward of museum resources is a value, commitment statements can consider the kind of resources a museum is stewarding–financial, collections, or human; to what end; and over what period of time. Adding such dimensions accommodate the nature of a value, illustrates how it’s inevitably expressed across many facets of a museum, and provides guidance to staff and board’s actions and decisions.

In planning the Early Learning Village (ELV) Louisiana Children’s Museum and its partners chose to develop a set of commitment statements. This approach supported the active collaboration among multiple partners and their ambitious vision to change life outcomes for children in the greater New Orleans area.

Guided by six commitments, ELV’s first value could have been expressed simply as valuing children. Instead the first statement expresses an overarching intention: We play an active and varied role around children in the greater New Orleans area, the Gulf Coast, and Louisiana. Four supporting statements express a view of children as strong and full of potential; reflect an understanding of the challenges facing too many children; an aim to serve children from every background; and priority areas such as healthy development, play and family learning where the ELV intends to be active. Their second commitment goes beyond a typical value about serving the community.  

Our work to understand, reach, and serve the community and our audience begins long before we see them at our door.
  • Our commitment to being accessible to families begins with our location in City Park.
  • We are willing to do the groundwork to learn about the children and families we hope to serve, their needs, interests, and expectations.
  • We are responsive to considerations in reaching families facing multiple challenges and finding ways to remove transportation and cost barriers.
  • We listen to parents and children to discover what attracts and interests them.

The ELV's other commitments articulate how it partners to bring resources to improving children's healthy development; integrates learning into all aspects of its work; focuses on essential experiences for children; and uses a long-term perspective to manage  financial, environmental, and human resources. These examples illustrate what commitment statements are able to accomplish that a brief list of values cannot. A set of commitments:
  • Highlights the interplay of internal and external contexts–for instance, the community priorities on which a museum intends to focus;
  • Acknowledges related responsibilities and precursor actions such as the groundwork needed to learn about the community;
  • Recognizes the multiple meanings of a value, such as learning–learning for the audience, the organization, families;
  • Allows a value, such as health, to be embedded in multiple commitments, like stewardship, strong communities, or children’s optimal growth and development; and
  • Highlights supporting behaviors and actions that will be required such as considering future interests in allocating human, financial, and environmental resources.

Admittedly, developing a set of commitment statements is more demanding and time consuming than developing (or adopting another museum’s) values. Adopting another museum’s values, while unintentional, truly misses the value of values. It sidesteps discussion, deliberation, and making hard choices. An exchange among board members and staff, hopefully lively and sometimes heated, pushes at the museum’s understanding of the values it is committing to. This is what builds a museum's capacity and prepares it to truly live by them.

If values are to be authentic and effective, effort, tested beliefs, and even sacrifice are required. That doesn’t seem to be too much to expect of the beliefs for a museum that wants to matter or, perhaps, to be indispensable.