Balancing Mission with Impact

I follow Max van Balgooy’s blog Engaging Places.  Last week he posted “Rethinking the mission statement” (http://engagingplaces.net/2013/02/19/rethinking-the-mission-statement/) and it caught my attention because I, too, have written about museum mission statements, raising some of the same points that Max raises (see “A Case for Holistic Intentionality” https://rka-learnwithus.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/the_case-for_holistic_intentionality_042007.pdf).  In Max’s words, “most (mission statements) are mild mannered”; I note that museums’ missions are interchangeable as most describe what museums do (“collect, preserve, and interpret” according to Max). But in today’s impact-driven, evidenced-based non-profit world, the work of a museum isn’t as important as the result of a museum’s work—on people.  Max and I have been in touch this past week and we agreed to continue the conversation through our blogs.

Mission Statement Cartoon

Museums may need to change how they do their daily and strategic work as the (funding) environment in which they reside is quickly changing; museums can’t afford to stay stuck in a world that looks inward.  Mission statements, while important, grounding statements for any organization, focus only on what museums do; if museums collect, preserve, interpret, then what is the outward result of this work?  In a city that has a dozen museums, for example, how is that city benefiting from those museums’ assets and staff members’ diligence?  What impact do museums intend to create by doing their work?  What evidence is there that museums are making a difference in the quality of people’s lives?  What might those results look like, sound like?

I grapple with these questions every day as someone who wants to help museums collect evidence that demonstrates museums’ value.  The challenge is, before I can document the ways in which a museum has made a difference in people’s lives, first museums need to take the time to describe (in painstakingly concrete—and dare I say, measurable, terms) what their hard work affords a community.  Thus, I believe that mission statements need companion statements.  In addition to mission statements, I suggest museums also develop impact statements to describe the intended result of a museum on museum audiences—most notably those who live within the community where the museum resides.

Future posts will delve into what comprises an impact statement, but for now, I want to further explain why writing an impact statement is a necessary step moving forward.  Max notes that he hopes to encourage readers to “rethink their mission, vision, and strategy to become more relevant and engaging in their communities.”   For museums to achieve Max’s hope, museums may need to balance their thinking about mission with thinking about relevance and for whom museums are relevant, because it appears that collecting, etc., are a means to an end.  To what greater end are museums doing their work?

In today’s world, museums may need to start thinking about and acting on a much larger purpose—one that adds value for the common good.  Many museum staff members believe that their work already serves a larger purpose; however the connection between a museum’s work and the public good is not always transparent, especially to city and government officials and even funders who opt to support other kinds of non-profits (the Wallace Foundation, for example, no longer funds museums).  To make a difference in people’s lives, doing good work is no longer enough; museums will need to overtly, explicitly, and relentlessly connect the dots.  As museum geeks, it is our responsibility to help others see the value of a museum experience; we just can’t say that museums are great and leave it at that.  We have to back up claims with evidence.  But first museums need to clarify what they will measure.  And that will require debate and discussion among museum leadership and staff about what they hope their museum achieves by doing their work—in terms of the public good.  Museum boards and leadership can no longer afford to remain silent or arrogant about the topic.  If they want their museum to make a difference in people’s lives, they will need to articulate precisely what they mean—and then someone can measure it.

Related Posts

3 Responses
  1. “But first museums need to clarify what they will measure.” Amen! I’ve sat in many a strategic planning meeting that begins with the goal re-structuring a museum’s mission and vision to develop a clearer idea of why we exist, and ends with nothing really changing because we can’t let go of the idea of being everything to everyone. Far too often, we end up in the same ambiguous space in which we began.

    I’m really looking forward to the future impact statement posts.

Leave a Reply