My work in and with museums has provided me with numerous opportunities to observe the roles and activities of education committees from a variety of perspectives. As a founding board member of the new Madison Children’s Museum, figuring out what an Education Committee should be was a complete mystery. As staff liaison to Minnesota Children’s Museum Education Committee for ten years, I was challenged to find an appropriate match between the work the Committee wanted to do and what staff needed. In my practice of strategic and education planning with many museums, I work with education committees that are also navigating this territory.
Regardless of how individual museums frame their mission and focus, education is at the heart of delivering learning value to their communities. This ambitious task clearly falls under the board’s broad purview and is made easier with a committee appropriately charged with overseeing the museum’s learning interests. If not understood and aligned with these interests, the value of this resource is diminished and can even interfere with the museum’s work.
A well-functioning education committee is valuable at any time, but it is especially valuable when a museum navigates major organizational shifts. For a new museum, the education committee that was instrumental in opening the museum is not the same one needed for the next stage of growth. A museum emerging from a capital project that has doubled its size needs to rethink its education committee. To understand these and other transitions, I have been exploring a stage-based framework for education committees across the life of a museum.
EDUCATION COMMITTEES AS THEY OFTEN ARE
To enjoy long-term success, a museum’s educational work must be relevant to the community, be understood and supported by the board, and be owned by staff. Oversight for a museum’s learning value, practice, and some types of planning are assigned to a board-level education committee, also known variously as program committees or exhibit committees. A museum’s learning focus, expressed in its vision, mission and core values, is delivered through its learning assets, including exhibits, program, and collections.
A museum’s potential learning value is a powerful draw for board members. In new children’s museums, the education committee is often the first to be formed, drawing high interest as a committee assignment and exercising major influence.
Yet, in new as well as more established museums, education committees seem to encounter more challenges and frustrations compared to other board committees such as nomination, finance, marketing and development, about how and when to involve board members. Perhaps factors related to education and informal learning confound the education committee focus and roles.
Learning in museums occurs within a larger context of education, schools, and children’s learning that is being examined and debated publicly and sometimes contentiously. Imprinted with a powerful image of learning in classrooms, many board members are unfamiliar with learning through exhibits and objects in informal settings. In addition, a museum may lack a shared view of learning in its museum. Finally, the same heightened sense of excitement and ownership of a museum’s mission can make it ripe for personal aspirations and agendas.
|The Scream by Munch|
Education committees are often given a broad charge to oversee the museum’s learning interests but without clear guidance. It is not unusual to struggle to define work at the right level between policy and implementation. In fact, an education committee in one museum might approve exhibit concepts and and design. In another, it might review a long-term exhibit plan. An on-going search to find the right balance between involving board members is paralleled by on-going confusion about board and staff work in this area.
In fact, sometimes as more skilled and specialized staff come on board, challenges increase rather than decrease. An experienced staff’s competence managing exhibits and programs and understanding the community may appear to obviate the need for a committee with a strong sense of ownership. When museum leadership assumes that there “should” be an education committee and puts one in place without a clear purpose, role, trouble lies ahead. But when an education committee works well, even if only briefly, it is a true asset to staff, board, and the museum in accomplishing real work.
Not surprisingly, challenges increase with each transition a museum experiences, whether related to leadership, a change from a working board to a policy board, or a growth spurt that occasions a major capital project. Successful museums typically experience frequent transitions, often finding themselves in new organizational territory. Each shift requires fresh insights into its learning value and serving its audience through exhibits and programs. Each shift poses the question of how committees should be structured to support this new work.
In my experience, individual museums navigate these transitions on their own. They manage with various structures and roles for committees and with varying degrees of success. There appears to be no real "best" practice in this area.
To address this common challenge and bring a new resource to the field, I have worked on a framework for the important area of board oversight on learning. The framework is a synthesis of thinking on organizational lifecycles, the practice of several museums, and broad experience in the field. Because all museums pass through stages of organizational development, it is intended to apply to small and large museums of all kinds.
Like humans, organizations grow up, move on, and change with time and experience. Often new organizations are referred to as start-ups, just as some more established ones are considered mature. Recognizing this, management consultant Susan Kenny Stevens has identified seven stages in nonprofit organizational development and developed a lifecycles approach to understanding these organizations.
While the following descriptions are brief, recognizing our own organization or others in one of the 7 stages is easy.
• Idea: Community need sparks a founding idea
• Start-up: Beginning operations enjoy high passion while systems lag
• Growth: Demand exceeds systems and capabilities
• Mature: Reputation for steady, relevant, vital services
• Decline: Lose touch with audience; low funder confidence; declining attendance; weak financials
• Turn Around: At a critical point to reinvigorate programs, recapture market and organizational viability
• Terminal: Lost the will, energy, or reason to exist
According to Kenny Stevens, organizations build capacity across 5 areas: programs, management, governance, financial resources, and systems. Diagnostic Characteristics typical of the capacity areas for each stage help place nonprofit organizations into one of the 7 stages. The predictable tasks and challenges most organizations face in moving to the next stage in each capacity area are Performance Outcomes.
In any stage-based approach, progress is not necessarily steady, forward, or coordinated. A two-year old museum with a new 20,000 square foot facility might be in the idea stage for systems, the start-up stage in governance, and the growth stage for programs. A museum could enter the decline stage directly from the start-up or growth stage. Stages last varying lengths of time for each museum and varying times for different types of organizations. The idea stage for museums is often 5-7 years while only a few years for a community arts center.
No matter which stage a museum is at overall, moving from one stage to the next requires strengthening its current position and increasing organizational capacity. The lifecycle challenge is to achieve balance or alignment among the five capacity building components.
Different demands on an organization at each stage translate into different demands on a board, as well. For instance in governance during the start-up stage, board members have a personal connection to the mission or to the founder. To move into the growth stage, however, the board must move beyond “friends” and recruit outside professionals who bring increased expectations for performance. During the growth stage, committee structure, officers and recruitment processes are established. By the beginning of the mature stage, the board is a policy-oriented board that sets direction and leaves management to the director and staff.
Extensions of the board, board committees–including education–must reflect the shifts in the organization. An excellent education committee for a mature organization will be a disaster for a start-up. It will never get off the ground. Conversely, a museum will have trouble moving from start-up to growth stage or growth to mature if its education committee stalls in the idea or start-up stage. To move forward, requires a fit between the museum’s lifecycle stage and its education committee profile.
EDUCATION COMMITTEES ACROSS LIFECYCLE STAGES
This framework for education committees reflects shifts across Kenny Stevens’ 7 lifecycle stages drawing, in particular, on 3 of the capacity areas: governance, programs, and systems. Each lifecycle stage is described briefly, accenting the characteristics salient to the committee’s work across 7 attributes: committee status; focus, decision-making; meeting schedule, supporting resources; and typical challenges. In this framework, decline, turnaround and terminal have been combined into two stages: decline-turnaround and decline-terminal.
Idea Stage: Recognition of a community need brings together a small group of committed people around a founding idea. The challenge of this stage is to mobilize others and convert an idea into action.
Committee Status. A small working group of originators giving shape to the museum by defining its learning focus and responsible for developing its learning assets such as exhibits and programs.
• Focus. The museum’s learning value, its focus, approach, and target audience in the context of its mission and the offerings of area museums, recreational and cultural offerings.
• Decision Making. Develop and recommend broad learning goals, content, approach or content, and audience to the full board, if one exists, or adopt it in lieu of the board. Review and endorse for board approval: exhibit topics, concepts, phase documents, designs. Screen and recommend consultants, designers, and fabricators to the board for contract.
• Membership. Founder(s) and founding board members. Membership may be broadened over the course of this stage.
• Meeting Schedule. Frequent but not regular meetings, often in response to external requirements such as meeting with funders or city officials.
• Resources. Friends, family, local educators, and artists; other museums, museum associations, and professional groups. Museum planning consultants or exhibit designers may provide targeted expertise or play a major role.
• Challenges. Defining a compelling, relevant focus that attracts broad interest; communicating the museum’s learning value to stakeholders; serving audience interest rather than committee interest; recognizing that expertise and resources exist outside the originating group and accessing them; developing standard processes and procedures; documenting exhibit decisions and processes for future reference.
Start-up Stage: In the beginning stages of operation, a museum's program offerings (including exhibits)
tend to lead while systems lag. Passion and personal commitment continue to run high, but the museum
must build a durable organization.
Committee Status. A working committee created by the board responsible for oversight of the museum’s exhibits, programs, and other learning assets.
• Focus. How exhibits and programs serve different audience groups; how offerings relate to schools; partnerships that can add learning value; increased staff capacity for consistently smooth operation of exhibits and programs after opening.
• Decision Making. Review and endorse policies such as collections, access and inclusion, and evaluation for board approval.
• Membership. Six-to-eight board members; appointed for specific terms to coordinate with museum milestones. Ensure on-going community and education perspectives through membership or as advisors.
• Meeting Schedule. Meetings may change to frequent and regular schedules soon after opening if the committee was highly involved in exhibit planning. Move to a monthly schedule.
• Resources. Staff liaison: the museum’s most senior education manager with back-up from executive director. Other museums. Content or community advisors for exhibit or program review, expertise, or resource identification.
• Challenges. Less involved in exhibit and program decisions; understanding boundaries between board and staff roles; transitioning to longer-term thinking; pushing appropriately for smooth operations.
Growth Stage: Mission, exhibits, and programs have taken hold, but demand and opportunities
exceed capacity and resources. To keep up, the museum grows through small, planned steps or a major
expansion. But frequently, growth just happens. This period requires focus and efficiency.
Committee Status. A standing board committee described in the by-laws and charged with growing the museum’s long-term learning value.
• Focus. The museum’s learning value to the community and its deliberate growth; audience groups and how they are served; maturing systems that help grow value and impact.
• Decision Making. Review for staff implementation and endorse for board approval: staff proposals for priority issues embedded in the strategic plan, multi-year exhibit schedule, and learning or exhibit master plan; review opportunities for evaluation, research and their implications. Does not choose exhibit topics.
• Membership. Six-to-eight members well-grounded in museum vision and strategic priorities; 4-6 board members and 2-4 community educators with varied backgrounds. All appointed by the committee chair for staggered 2-year terms. Members understand governance roles; carry out their duties in the best interest of the organization.
• Meeting Schedule. Six-to-eight times per year coordinated with organizational processes.
• Resources. Staff liaison: museum’s most senior education manager with back-up from executive director; task forces (finite term, focused) on high-level issues; access targeted expertise; other museums.
• Challenges. Building staff capacity and credibility internally and externally; focusing on organizational priorities rather than individual interests; balancing pursuit of new opportunities with developing consistent quality.
Mature Stage: An established museum operates smoothly and has a community reputation for
consistently relevant and high quality services and experiences. It knows its audience and its audience
knows the museum. A leader among its peers, its challenge is to stay renewed, vibrant, and in touch with
its audience and community
Committee Status. A standing committee described in the by-laws, charged with advancing the museum’s long-term learning interests and relevance.
• Focus. Learning interests as strategic interests; reflecting changes in the community; options for deepening learning experiences.
• Decision Making. Review for staff implementation and endorse for board approval: large-scale efforts or initiatives, master plans, multi-year exhibit and program schedules, projects that require fiduciary risk. Serve as a sounding board for new initiatives and appropriate but potentially controversial projects.
• Membership. Six-to-eight members: 4-to-6 board members well grounded in organizational vision, strategic priorities, and governance roles; 2-3 community or educational representatives. All appointed by the board chair for staggered 2-year terms to carry out their duties in the best interest of the organization.
• Meeting Schedule. Four-to-six meetings per year.
• Resources. Staff liaison: museum’s most senior education manager with back-up from executive director; task forces (finite term, focused) on high-level issues.
• Challenges. Staying renewed: remaining audience centered, being current and responsive to community issues and visitor expectations; balancing being locally relevant with being active on a regional or national front
Decline-Turnaround Stage: A typical setback in a difficult external environment or a series of
disappointments can start a museum into a period of decline at any lifecycle stage. As a result, a museum
may lose contact with its audience or lose funder confidence. If a board takes decisive action and meets
the challenge, it can turn the museum around. This requires a fundamental re-focus on mission and
market; it may also involve major restructuring or management, program, finances, operations, and marketing.
Characteristics of the education committee during the decline stage reflect whatever stage the museum is in as decline sets in. During turnaround, the education committee would very likely be reformed and refocus its work to reflect new priorities or structure depending on the nature and source of the decline. If a turnaround is successful, a museum may find itself in a startup or growth stage with a corresponding education committee profile.
Committee Status: A board task force appointed by the committee or board chair for a specific term or outcome.
• Focus. A sharpened focus on learning in support of an affirmed or revitalized mission; the museum’s learning value to its audience.
• Decision Making. Review staff work and make recommendations for staff implementation as appropriate. Assess current educational products and services; regularly review exhibit and program performance information; evaluate current and new educational and partnership opportunities. Adjust exhibit, programs, and projects to reflect new thinking, priorities and structure including program or project termination or redirection.
• Membership. Three-to-five board members who have internalized the need for change.
• Meeting Schedule. As necessary during a defined time period.
• Resources. Staff liaison: a turnaround manager or senior education manager. The museum’s executive director who was at the helm during the decline stage is typically not the leader suited to oversee a turnaround. Outside consultants with targeted expertise.
• Challenges. Regaining focus on learning and audience at the appropriate scale for a fragile organization; retaining staff morale; willingness to make difficult decisions; coordination with other board task forces.
Decline-Terminal Stage: The same setback in a difficult external environment or a series of
disappointmentscan lead to a terminal, rather than a terminal, stage. When a board fails to face the
crisis or the crisis is too great for the museum's capacity, it is at the far end of the lifecycle with few
options. Without the capacity or reason to stay alive, the museum calls it quits.
Characteristics of the education committee during the decline stage will reflect whatever stage the museum is in as decline sets. As the board works through the terminal stage, education committee work is likely to be assigned to a subcommittee or absorbed into the board’s work to acquit itself of its legal and fiduciary responsibilities.
Committee Status. A board subcommittee or designated board members.
• Focus. The board’s programmatic, project, and partner obligations.
• Decision Making. Disposition of exhibits to another museum or organization; determining status of program grants; assuring execution of grant monitoring reports; assuring open, honest communication to program partners.
• Membership. A small group of board members willing to execute the museum’s responsibility in an honorable manner.
• Meeting Schedule. As needed to complete the work.
• Resources. Staff liaison may be unavailable; if possible, the most senior educational manager or executive director.
• Challenges. Honest communication; avoiding blame; being respectful of the museum’s past.
It’s never too early or too late to align an education committee with its lifecycle work. With existing dynamics, personalities and precedents and with many demands on museum leadership’s time and attention, this is no simple task. A framework profiling an education committee across the lifecycle is a tool with a shared and positive view of what a committee can be and do for the museum and those responsible: the executive director, board chair, committee chair, and education director.
Change can begin with diagnosing where a museum is in its lifecycle. Kenny Stevens’ book is an excellent resource for this. The lifecycle summaries described here are also a starting point allowing a quick comparison between an education committee’s current structure, composition, and focus and another lifecycle stage. At a glance this can point to manageable changes in promising areas such as a committee chair, membership recruitment, framing agendas, and shifting vocabulary.
Understanding the arc of change over the lifecycle is necessary for real change. Across stages for each attribute there is movement from internal to external, from details to the big picture, from doing to policy. Each part of the profile reflects the nature of these changes.
Committee Status evolves from personal, informal and ad hoc to organized, professional and long-term.
• Focus changes from exhibits and programs to the museum’s learning role and impact in the community; from short-term to long-term thinking; from a staff-like focus to a board focus; and from internal focus on specific exhibits and programs to an external focus on audience and community.
• Decision Making evolves from making specific decisions to review of direction for staff implementation to endorsement of staff work for board approval.
• Membership of the committee shifts from personal connections for recruiting members to board appointment of members; from an all-museum member committee to one with several community members with diverse perspectives.
• Meeting Schedule decreases in frequency reflecting reliance on annual processes and staff expertise and work.
• Resources change from generalist to specialist; from board to staff; from learning-on-the-job to accessing targeted experience.
• Challenges shift from building learning assets to leveraging learning assets.
These shifts tend to be true in both small and large museums. Even in a small museum in which committee members need to occasionally take on staff roles, members must shift mindsets from implementation to policy as a committee during the growth and mature stages.
Changing education committees is about organizational growth and development. Whether the shift to a new profile is greater or smaller, it involves change–in mindset, capacity, resources, direction, or patience. It takes time and shared effort. When, however, an education committee begins to inhabit its appropriate profile, the effort shows. The committee, and through it, the board becomes a greater asset in increasing the museum’s learning value to its audience and community.