As I am gearing up for a strategic planning project, I have been thinking about some of the usual planning steps and how they might be charged to do more work both as a part of the planning, as well as in moving the museum forward.
Every museum has stakeholders whether or not it recognizes them, serves them well, or enlists them in the life of the museum and community. Stakeholders are the people, groups, constituencies, and institutions who are likely to affect or be affected by a museum, its vision, plans, or projects. Not every museum is deliberate about identifying, understanding and engaging its stakeholders; some approach stakeholder engagement in a generic way, without considering stakeholders and their interests in relation to the museum and its interests. This is a missed opportunity.
Along with many museums, over the years I have expanded my view and appreciation of stakeholders, ways of engaging them, relating that engagement to the museum’s long-term strategic interests, and integrating stakeholders into the museum’s culture.
Especially when a museum anticipates significant change, careful examination of its stakeholders is critical. Strategic planning is an opportunity for a museum to think realistically and deeply about its stakeholders as it sets its future course. In preparing for a major expansion–an addition, renovation, new construction, or relocation– a museum must think about expanding its stakeholders and how to activate them around its vision. Finally, a stakeholder engagement audit advances a museum in becoming more magnetic like the museums described by Anne Bergeron and Beth Tuttle in Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement. In all these situations, a stakeholder engagement audit involves the museum in listening and responding to and being inclusive of its closest partners.
Stakeholder Engagement Audit At-a-Glance
A stakeholder engagement audit is a deliberate process for studying the individuals and groups across the community who share the museum’s interests and value its work and how it involves them. Strictly speaking, this is not a plan, but it does guide planning and decisions across the museum. Through gathering information, identifying common and consistent themes, and framing initiatives, the audit assists the museum in activating a stakeholder community around a compelling idea with positive outcomes.
Each museum has its own particular emphasis for a stakeholder engagement audit: widening its circle of stakeholders, better understanding community organizations, becoming more relationship based, or sustaining involvement. Depending on how formal or extensive the audit is, it can be done by an in-house team, strategic planners as part of their scope, or a firm specializing in this work. And, whether a museum takes this on in a big or small way, doing it is more important than doing it in a particular way. Conducting a stakeholder engagement audit addresses four broad questions.
• How does the museum currently view its stakeholders and how does it engage them?
• Around what significant, strategic idea does the museum hope to engage its stakeholders?
• What can the museum learn about its stakeholders to serve them and enlist their interests?
• How can the museum move forward by activating a stakeholder community?
How does the museum currently view its stakeholders are and how does it engage them? A practical starting step is developing a current and realistic picture of the museum’s stakeholder engagement. This background work looks at the stakeholders, both internal and external, who are engaged with the museum and benefit from its efforts. Board, funders, members, and visitors usually lead the list, but there are also partners, policy makers and gatekeepers. Push for 360º engagement. Stakeholders with shared interests who don’t (yet) fit in an obvious group can be carried forward: advisors or research partners from past projects or vendors and service providers with related interests. Capture regional and national as well as local stakeholders.
As part of identifying current stakeholder groups, the museum will also note how it currently serves and engages them through events, activities, communication, benefits, etc. Keep track of these along with opportunities for increasing their involvement at each step. Typically, this set of discussions shifts between what the museum currently does and what it could do in the future. The museum may gain insights in exploring what stakeholders of peer organizations look like–a museum of comparable size in its city or another city. This can introduce fresh perspectives including new ways to look at, cluster, and engage stakeholders.
In wanting to activate a stakeholder community around a compelling idea, a museum must explore the significant idea–or ideas–around which it currently engages them. Typically this is the mission, a slogan, or what the museum considers to be its brand. Often this conversation reveals that the museum lacks clarity around the set of ideas and what it represents or it has a limited way of talking about them.
Around what significant, strategic idea does the museum hope to engage its stakeholders?
Most museums know that its stakeholders are motivated by its focus, track record, the population it serves, or personal relationships with top leaders. But most museums are not clear about what, in particular, this means given its community, mission, audience, and peer institutions.
Clarity about its own public value precedes communicating it and aligning around it. A compelling, strategic idea that is more than a slogan serves the stakeholder audit directly; it is also critical in making the museum’s case for support, coordinating messages internally, writing grants, hiring the right staff, and achieving museum-wide alignment.
Perhaps memorable and succinct, a tagline is generally not sufficiently compelling to activate and engage groups of stakeholders. It neither lends itself to a powerful agenda nor gives the museum traction to be a catalyst for action. Generally museums must look deeper into what they bring to their communities that others also recognize and value. A compelling idea is often located at the convergence of: the mission and vision with which it currently engages stakeholders; emergent opportunities pursued with greater rigor; and community priorities.
A helpful discussion at this point focuses on how the interests it shares with stakeholders could be more focused and relevant. Stakeholder interest might be framed around: strong families; learning through play; connecting art and the creative processes; transformative experiences through art; children’s potential; or authentic experiences related to place.
Realistically, most museums will refine this focus throughout the audit process itself: starting with an idea, framing questions for stakeholders, listening for what’s important to them, and following themes and threads. If a museum is fortunate, this work will continue beyond the audit because more staff will be attuned to big, resonating ideas that connect with stakeholders.
What can the museum learn about its stakeholders to serve them and enlist their interests? Now, get ready to listen to stakeholders and think about the relationship between them and the museum.
Individual interviews and facilitated conversations incorporate stakeholder perspectives and convey the museum’s willingness to listen. While there is no set number or mix of interviews, clearly, not all interviewees should be insiders-board, staff, and good friends. Varied perspectives and voices, including outliers, generate the rich information and new insights capable of providing strong direction. Typically these interviews are not confidential so interviewers can be selected based on warmth, clarity about the purpose and message, and good listening.
Face-to-face interviews and group conversations are opportunities for understanding how the museum’s strategic idea resonates with stakeholders; whether it is clearly expressed; and how it is meaningful to them. The museum will also hear how stakeholders see themselves as partners; who they view as other stakeholders and why; how much engagement they are interested in; what a fulfilling relationship involves; and the degree and source of the museum’s credibility in its area.
Organizing and distilling information from the interviews occurs in successive steps, looking at groups and approaches; themes; strengths and challenges. Forming stakeholder groups is more than sorting by demographic or external attributes. It involves finding and articulating meaningful distinctions among groups related to mutual interests, shared connections, and preferences for engagement so the similarities within and differences between the groups are easier to see and plan for.
Clustering stakeholder groups by internal (staff and board) and external stakeholders (i.e. visitors, members, community-based partners, civic leaders, donors, media, peers, gatekeepers) is a good first sort. Readiness to play with clusters, however, helps find meaningful groups and a manageable number. Interview material and the museum’s strategic idea for engagement are sources tools for customizing groups around relevant and specific interests. For instance, every museum has enthusiasts, but a museum may find designating enthusiasts for the riverfront is helpful.
Interviews also reveal recurring themes such as a lack of clarity about the museum’s strategic idea, other community priorities, perception of the museum’s track record, concern about advocacy, or interest in the work of peer institutions. These themes can add definition to stakeholder groups, inform communication, or help shape engagement.
In effect, the interviews have tested the museum’s strategic vision and how compelling and clear it is for the stakeholders it hopes will invest in it with interest, time, and resources. This feedback should guide the museum in strengthening the idea, making it more tangible or relevant, or sharpening intended outcomes.
How can the museum move forward by activating a stakeholder community? Museums typically view stakeholder engagement as broad categories of involvement supported by a variety of activities and events. Participation occurs through visiting, volunteering, and attending events; learning through training, web content, or accessing resources; sharing through word-of-mouth, media coverage, or social media; support through funding or endorsing; and networking by opening doors, or social media. While stakeholder involvement very likely presents itself as these activities, activating a stakeholder community is more than assigning stakeholder groups to types of involvement.
Developing a strategic-level framework can help the museum consolidate the audit’s information and insights and integrate it into its work. The framework also helps build alignment among its strategic idea, approaches to serving and enlisting stakeholders, and the internal capacity needed to support stakeholder engagement. A framework might include:
An institutional statement of the museum’s strategic idea around which it intends to activate stakeholders. This becomes helpful in messaging to stakeholder groups.
A working definition of stakeholder engagement. Consistent with the museum’s strategic idea, it also identifies what stakeholder engagement helps accomplish for the museum, and highlights characteristics of the museum’s approach to stakeholder engagement, such a: relationship-based, interactive, reciprocity; etc.
Three-to-four stakeholder initiatives for serving, engaging, and enlisting stakeholders. Initiatives focus on how the museum will activate engagement: opportunities it will provide; how it intends to build and sustain relationships and retain stakeholders; and the benefits it hopes to give and receive. One initiative may involve multiple stakeholder groups.
A logic model for each initiative to lay-out activities, resources, and short and long-term outcomes. A logic model also helps adjust the museum’s internal capacity to support, implement, and monitor stakeholder engagement considering: needed expertise, responsibility for implementation, coordination, communication channels, digital resources, etc. The logic models become action plans for stakeholder engagement and tools for monitoring progress.
Just More Work?
Is an audit just more work or does it put a museum ahead strategically? Museums can’t do well for themselves or their communities without investing in their stakeholders. Any time a museum focuses on its stakeholders thoughtfully, from a variety of perspectives, and in the context of long-term interests, it will be better off. There are other benefits as well. A stakeholder engagement audit can give a sense of how large and active the museum’s base of support is; surface new questions to explore about its stakeholders; identify new stakeholder groups; strengthen relationships with stakeholder groups; and identify stakeholder activities to drop because they are not valuable.