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?

No comments:

Post a Comment