What can Museums learn from nonprofit leadership?

Posted: August 13, 2012 - 09:33 , by royal

Suse Cairns originally published this blog on Museum Geek.  Suse is a PhD candidate at The University of Newcastle, Australia, investigating what networked knowledge means for museums in an age of ubiquitous information.


When you are leading a museum you get lots of advice from all different directions. Some of it is lobbying about specific issues. It often ignores the complexity of running a mission-driven organization, which serves many different audiences with limited resources. And whilst there are mountains of management texts for business leaders, very few of them spend much time on the nonprofit sector. So I felt very fortunate this year to secure a place on the week-long Harvard Business School course for non-profit leaders called Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management. There were around 140 Directors and CEOs in Cambridge, MA for the course, and I was one of only a dozen from the cultural sector. For me one of the main draws of the course was a chance to hear more about the challenges CEOs from charities, independent schools, development agencies and non-profit health care providers were facing now, and how they were adapting to deal with them.

It is not too big a claim to say that the week was one of the most intense learning periods of my life, and I am only now really starting to process what we discussed and think about how it applies to the ROM. But there were many areas that are very relevant for museums and other cultural institutions, and I’m very happy to share and have others help me reflect through this guest blog! I’ll just pick three highlights from the many that I could choose.

Firstly, every lecture and discussion flagged the importance of a clear theory of change. On our first full day Professor Dutch Leonard, one of the course leaders said, think about exactly what you are trying to accomplish, and be clear about how what you do brings about what you are looking to achieve. I think museums often dance around these questions, perhaps because in the past the role of museums wasn’t questioned so much. Now I think we are all trying to answer the question, “what are we trying to accomplish?” If the answer to that question is framed in terms of impact, then the next questions we should ask are about the activities, outputs and outcomes that are required to have that impact. This kind of logic model was used again and again during the week at HBS. (See this Kellogg Foundation guide that usefully outlines the theory of change, and logic models.) While conversations about outcomes are not new in museums, I feel we still spend a lot of time talking about what we do rather than what change we are trying to make, and when we are asked to measure success, it sometimes exposes gaps between the programs we create and the claims we make.

Next, many of the case studies we reviewed looked at the array of different pressures that our various stakeholders put on nonprofits, and in those circumstances how hard it was to avoid fragmentation, and forge alignment of your different activities. Allen Grossman talked about the importance of managing upstream (your funders, donors and those who buy from you), and reinforced that a clear theory of change was a starting point that then led to performance measures, not just to demonstrate to funders, but so that you know if your organization is succeeding. He also spoke about the importance of building leadership capacity, and of creating cultures where measuring impact was seen as important. It feels to me that performance measures are often seen in museums as hurdles imposed by funders, rather than important tools for us to use in assessing our own success. Similarly, while we are places of learning for our visitors and users, we often reduce our own professional development, and don’t invest in the capacity building and culture changes Grossman flagged as important.

The third highlight came courtesy of Frances Frei, whose lecture was something of a revelation for the whole group. Based on her new book Uncommon Service Frances explained that her research had shown that, in order to succeed in customer service, organizations had to trade off being excellent at some things, with being bad at others. She convinced us that the alternative was not to be excellent at everything, but exhausted mediocracy. What a lovely expression! Again and again I hear from colleagues that the reality of working in a museum is not what they thought was the potential, and so that phrase, “exhausted mediocracy” really resonated with me. It is tough to consider being bad at some things when you are a public service, but I think her approach is spot on, and would encourage you to look at her research. How do you choose where to be bad, and where excellent? Frances suggests you ask your audience what is important to them, and concentrate on being excellent in the areas that they say matter most.

Now you might be reading this blog and think, well none of these ideas are exactly new, and I would agree, but I think the clarity the HBS faculty brought to the points they made, coupled with a chance to consider them when away from the messy reality of day-to-day life in the museum made them very powerful. The net effect for me was one of validation. They provided an evidence base through their research for issues that, in less focused form, many of us spend a lot of time talking about, but aren’t always sure how to start changing. This week gave me a lot of material, in a very concentrated form, which I think will help those conversations.

Some think museums and galleries need to more business-like, but in many ways after this course I think we instead need to be better nonprofits, say clearly why we make the world a better place, work closely with our users, and demonstrate the impact we make.

My thanks to the HBS Club of Toronto who, with the support of KPMG, awarded me a scholarship to attend this course.

My thanks also to Suse, for the opportunity to do this guest blog, and for her interest and enthusiasm for all things museum!