Friday, April 24, 2015

Book Review - Small Museum Toolkit 2: Financial Resource Development and Management

Here we go, round 2 of the AASLH Small Museum Toolkit. I have to admit that I wasn't really psyched about reading this one. Sure I can write grant applications and deal with budgeting and all that, but it is definitely not my favourite area of museum work. 

This book only has 4 chapters so in a way felt shorter than the first one, and two of these chapters contain a lot of uniquely American content regarding legal issues. Chapter one is all about budgeting and money management in compliance with IRS regulations. Chapter two discusses fundraising but in a very holistic way (two thumbs up). Chapter 3 talks about writing those never-ending grant applications, and chapter 4  reviews legal issues (again very USA-focused so not super applicable). 

Because of the American focus of some of this book, I'm going to skip over those parts and just share highlights of internationally relevant content (ie the info us Canucks can use).

Chapter two was definitely my favourite of this book. I was reading through museum reports recently and there were a lot of fundraisers mentioned, and almost all of them brought in very little money, especially when compared against the time & resources required for the activities. This chapter walks you through a development game plan - assessing the philanthropic culture in your community, making a plan (including assigning duties), and developing a key statement about your fundraising goals. And then comes the part where you start talking to your membership. This is a fantastic section. I've had a few conversations recently with museum board members about their membership numbers and models; basically consisting of an admission that something isn't working any more. And that means it's time to review what we offer our members. Newsletters, free admission, gift shop discounts...we need to take a step back and ask what makes membership to our institution different from other museums & societies. Whatever membership benefits we offer should be reflective of our museum & its unique work. There is a great example in the book of a museum with different membership levels. Each level has a special name connected with the site, and the higher the membership level, the more perks you get. This kind of personalization will take some extra work, but it is a lot more engaging than the traditional "send us a cheque and we'll mail you a newsletter" approach.

This chapter also had some great info on sponsorship, a particularly hot topic in the museum world. I can think of a few examples where I wandered through a museum, saw a big panel or sign thanking a company for sponsoring an exhibit or program, and felt a little dirty. Even if all they did was sign the cheque, I wondered what sort of input/influence they had. We've all read the letter asking museums to break ties with oil companies over the issue of climate change. That's just one example. But this is when our code of ethics comes in handy, and the guidance in this book works for businesses of all shapes and sizes.

As with many things, the key to success is in the planning. No matter how big or small the museum, your board should have a fundraising plan. From endowments to events to government grants, it is the board's responsibility to ensure the viability of the museum. But sometimes people (including board members) are reluctant to fund-raise. Part of what I like about this book series is the admission of such issues. "Simply put, if your board isn't willing to fundraise, you're in a bit of a pickle. But it's not hopeless. The nonprofit sector functions because board members and staff fundraise side by side in their communities, and if you let the board off the hook, the organization is in jeopardy." Yes! A thousand times yes! But as the author said, all is not lost. She goes on to provide ways to ease a board into seeing the varied methods of fundraising and how everyone can play their part. A little education and forthright conversation can go a long way.

The other broadly useful chapter is on writing grant applications. One of the first keys to success is the relationship - "people give to people, not to organizations". I know at first glance this might sound more applicable to other types of fundraising, but it is also relevant here. Foundations are run by people, program officers are get where I'm going with this. You've got to familiarize yourself with the granting agency and program officers; not just the funding guidelines. If you've never written a grant proposal there are some great tips here about how to write your abstract and goals.

I think my favourite section in this chapter is the time management section. Yes we are all really busy and it is hard to carve out time to write grant proposals. But there can be dire consequences if we don't take this point seriously. You need time to research, time to review with the program officer and staff or board members, need time to write the application and develop the budget, need time to just need time.

The message in this chapter (and really in this entire book) for small museums is to not be scared by the process, talk to other museums, look at what projects have been funded in the past, talk to the program officers, and take the time to research and plan your efforts.

Check out my reviews of the other books in the series:

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Book Review - Small Museum Toolkit 1: Leadership, Mission, and Governance

Welcome to my first ever book review series, where I will introduce you to the wonderful resource that is the American Association for State & Local History's Small Museum Toolkit.

I really appreciated that the book kicked off by giving advice on programs and resources to help museums improve themselves. Accreditation and assessment programs are not just about funders ensuring resources are well spent. These standards are a way for the museum to gain credibility in its professional and general community circles. What museum wouldn't want to do that?

As a toolkit for small museums, the content in this book is pretty familiar. While we work museums of all shapes and sizes, the majority of my work happens with the smaller organizations - museums that only have one or two staff members. We always brace ourselves when we hear that the key staff member of a community museum is leaving. It can either mean great things or terrible things. As the author puts it, "bad leadership can quickly undermine a small museum, but, on the other hand, a small museum can soar with good leadership." The key message here is that leadership is a critical component in museum operations, both at the staff and board level.

One of the things that really jumped out at me was the chapter on mission and vision. As the authors point out, many museums have mission statements that say the museum "will collect, preserve, interpret...", and a lot of museum professionals were raised on this mantra. I can honestly say that I've been in school classes, workshops, and other environments where people started laughing over the similarity between mission statements from vastly different organizations. I'm pretty sure that we don't want people laughing at our mission statements. This article went on to say that a museum's mission statement needs to set the strategic direction of the organization, accept fiduciary responsibility for all aspects of the organization, and act as a vehicle to connect with community. Does your mission statement do that?
Taking this one step further, I think every museum needs to take this paragraph back to its board:
"If you already have a mission, you must ask yourself these questions: Do we have the right mission? Is it understood and fully supported by all members of the governing authority? Is it understood and supported by all members of the staff? Is it understood and fully supported by the key stakeholders? Without a discussion about mission, and ideally vision, it is impossible for an organization to arrive at appropriate strategic goals for the next, say, three to five years. And without a serious group discussion about mission and vision, unacknowledged issues, disagreements, and contrary viewpoints will continue to sleep comfortably beneath the surface, causing an array of issues and not a clue as to their cause."

The chapter on do-it-yourself strategic planning is one that I think a lot of museums could benefit from. All too often I hear people express concern over long-term planning for small museums; that it would be too demanding to expect volunteers to put in that extra work (more on that in a minute), and the organization can't afford to hire a consultant to do it for them or guide them through the process. As the author notes, at its core, a strategic plan is just good project management. It is a lot easier to achieve your short & long-term goals if you have a map or chart that everyone can see and support; that keeps things focused and on target. The readiness table is a nice way for any group to ask themselves if they are really ready for planning discussions or if they need to do some other homework first. I also appreciate that the author reminds people about potential stumbling blocks and the need for people to be very forthright in discussions. The exercises and tips for convening meetings and managing change are reminders that any potential issues need to be addressed head-on or they could sabotage your efforts.

My other favourite chapter was on the relationship between the board and the director. One of the key pieces in this chapter was a little table that outlines the differences between a board member and a volunteer. This is a discussion that has come up in recent meetings and there are definitely different opinions on the subject, so I geeked out a bit on the clarity and concise nature of the author's statements. Basically, board members are responsible for the organization while volunteers assist with its operation. Not every volunteer votes at board meetings or evaluates the director or analyzes various reports or determines what should be accepted into the collection. That is above and beyond the typical volunteer; board members have accepted serious, legal responsibilities. Your typical volunteers on the other hand, will help by giving tours or running the gift shop or tending the gardens or doing database work - all important tasks but not exactly legally binding. As soon as someone agrees to be a board member, they have taken things up a notch. Asking them to assist with planning and policy development isn't being too demanding; it is just part of the job they agreed to do.
This chapter also includes great info on how the board can best manage its resources and build on successes. And that brings us back to the beginning of the book - assessment. Not only do staff need to be evaluated on a regular basis, but the board needs to evaluate itself - individually and as a group. As the author puts it, "performance is critical to the health of the museum". So again I ask, what museum board or staff wouldn't want to ensure the organization was as healthy as possible?

So that's it for book 1. As you can probably tell, I really, really liked this one. Looking back, this might be less of a review and more of a highlighting of info, but whatevs. You should read this book.

Want to hear about the others in the series? Check these out:
Book 2: Financial Resource Development and Management
Book 3: Organizational Management
Book 4: Reaching and Responding to the Audience
Book 5: Interpretation: Education, Programs and Exhibits
Book 6: Stewardship: Collections and Historic Preservation

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Museum Database Lessons - Part 3

Remember in a previous lesson post I talked about proper field usage? It's time for a serious talk about descriptions.
There never seems to be a happy medium with this field. It's either blank, or full of information. Unfortunately, all too often when it's full it includes information that should not be in it. This field is for the physical description of the item, as though you're telling someone over the phone what it looks like. That's it. It is not the catch-all field.
Don't include the location of the item, that goes in the location field.
Don't include information on condition and conservation treatments. That goes into the condition field. And while we're on that subject, whoever wrote down on the harmonica record that it was in good condition because it "still plays"?! Gross!!

One of the things that I keep seeing is internal, administrative info in this field. And since it's a public field, this means that people checking out NovaMuse are stumbling upon records that say "Catalogue worksheet is missing" or "Donor didn't sign gift agreement until 2007". Not only does the public not need to see this, but it makes the museum look sloppy. Do you really want to advertise that the museum lost some paperwork or didn't bother to get paperwork signed when they should have? No, you don't. This is why we set up CollectiveAccess with an administrative page. Whatever is on that page is internal use only and will not appear online. Take advantage of this. If dirty laundry needs documenting, make sure it is on the admin page.

I know, it seems ridiculous that people could mess up this field, but it happens more often than you'd think. First I'd like to say that various is not a colour. You will never buy a box of Crayola crayons and find that one is labelled "various". Enter a quick list of colours focusing on those most prominent, ie blue, red, yellow, orange. That's all you need to do. Don't explain which part is which colour. You just need to document that if you're looking for the item you're going into storage and looking for something purple instead of yellow.

Spelling Counts
How have I not already mentioned this?! This is probably one of the biggest problems in data entry work.
While these sometimes bring some much-needed laughs to the office, sweather, gic=n, Hong Knog, and the many ways that people try to spell photograph are all incorrect and make the museum look bad.

Yup, back to the media files again. Maybe someone was just trying to be efficient, but every once in awhile I come across a group of records that all have the same image attached. Let's say the object is a book about the tide tables. The record clearly reflects the details of this one book. But the museum has a number of these books from different years and so laid them out together and took one photo. Then they attached this one photo to all 12 tide table book records. Wrong. Bad! Each book should have been scanned & attached to its particular record. They aren't all identical - condition, publication date, colour, style...totally different. If you need to find a particular one, having a group shot attached to your record is no help at all. So let's stop doing that shall we?

Subjective Language & Insider Info
We could also call this thinking community vs. worldwide. The NovaMuse audience spans the globe. Literally. So when someone in Rwanda is checking out the funny looking Canadian artifacts they might not understand some of the terms or nicknames we use. And at some point in the future your museum's staff or volunteers might not understand them either. We need to be thinking long-term about these things. Yes it might feel like you are over-explaining something, but statements like "this house is located where the Flynn family used to live" just won't make sense to everyone. So put yourself in your audience's shoes. Read through your documentation and ask yourself if someone on the other side of the planet will understand it, or even just if your successor will understand it.

Museum Immortality Syndrome
That brings me to another point. I can't tell you how many times I've visited museums and asked about an object, only to be given a wonderful and detailed explanation by the curator. "Wow!" says I, "that's so cool I want to share it online so other people can hear this story!" Then when I look up the object in the database, I'm disappointed to discover that none of those great details are in the database. Sigh. Okay folks, this is going to get morbid for a bit. I hate to break it to you, but you won't always be working at the museum. And you won't live forever. I'm not sure if keeping this info in your head seems like job security or you just don't see the point in writing stuff out that is safely tucked away in your brain, but it's time to stop thinking that way. When I joke that we need to download your curator's brain, what I'm really saying is that it's time for you to step up and improve your documentation practices.

Staff & Volunteer Training
The final point I'm going to make should have perhaps been my first. For some odd reason, a lot of museums hand over the keys to their databases when new volunteers or summer students show up. This might work out all right, except that all too often there is little or no training involved and these well-meaning new workers end up making mistakes that require creating more work rather than alleviating the burden on other staff/volunteers. I can't say how many times I've logged in to check one thing and ended up seeing information being added incorrectly...added by someone new who just didn't know they were making mistakes. They end up feeling frustrated that they need to go back and fix all their work; something they know could have been prevented with a bit more information up front. Nomenclature 3.0, CollectiveAccess tutorials, the basics of work requires specialized knowledge & training. We say that we are educational institutions, so why don't we focus some of that education internally? Let's all make a pact that new staff and volunteers will only start working on cataloguing and the database when they have been given real training and have proven their understanding and competency. After all, isn't that how it works with other jobs?

Well that's it for this series. I really hope that I don't have to revisit these lessons. If you want to go back and check out the earlier posts, here there are:
Database Lessons - Part 1
Database Lessons - Part 2