David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Even in better times local historical organizations can struggle to find compelling ways to express the urgency and importance of what they do in order encourage strong giving.
There are a number of ongoing projects to develop data sets that can be used as benchmarking tools for historical organizations, sometimes within a broader scope of arts and cultural heritage. However, the field has traditionally encouraged organizations to benchmark their progress against themselves, rather than compare to other organizations. Thus these projects seek the ability to compare across institutions.
To get money, many organizations first need to prove that they are responsible stewards of the money they already have. Technical Development Corporation’s paper Getting Beyond Breakeven shows some of the financial ways in which a cultural nonprofit can lay the groundwork for sustainability. One must be careful, though, with this report not to extend capitalization to the collections held in public trust.
Other financial studies have looked at specific kinds of financial support. For example, The Center for Effective Philanthropy studied General Operating Support (GOS). It found that while GOS is the single most desired kind of funding, GOS seems to work best when it is “at least six figures and multi-year.” Since funders typically do not tend to grant multi-year commitments, and $100,000 or more per year is a lot money, GOS probably won’t be a priority for many providers.
Others seek to delve deeper, beyond just the need for money to show the worth of investment. The Pew Charitable Trust’s Cultural Data Project is a “powerful online management tool designed to strengthen arts and cultural organizations.” Seemingly, though, CDP’s focus is on arts organizations that are similar in some ways to history organizations, but that perhaps do not match historical organizations as closely as some would prefer.
The Institute of Museums and Library Services began a Museum Data Collection project with a report in 2005. The focus of this is tends to be on much larger museums in more regional centers. Thus the Mid-America Arts Alliance undertook a six-state study (which included historical organizations) in its report, Hidden Assets: Research on Small Museums. This report acknowledges, “Small, rural museums fill an important role in their communities. They often are the only cultural assets in their towns, but despite this role, they tend to lack the resources to sustain or improve their facilities, operations, and collections.”
So this drive to find key indicators of success that should inspire stronger giving is nothing very new, but the many efforts seem to have hard to compare findings.
After looking at these various studies, there are four concerns that come to mind:
- None of the studies really make a compelling argument as to why data should be collected in the first place, beyond generic statements like “we should” or “we need to be prepared for the future” or something similar. There are no case studies to show that data has made a cultural nonprofit more stable.
- Relationships Matter. None of the studies discuss the importance of maintaining a proper balance between the inherent advantages of being nonprofit and emerging business practices. Also, none of the reports look beyond business to find commonalities with other kinds of cultural institutions.
- Since nonprofits are mission driven enterprises, and if data is to support arguments about the effectiveness of those missions, these mission statements need to be revised in such a way that the public can instantly understand qualitative outcomes based on metrics.
- Lastly, with nonprofits examining themselves to develop data sets, it seems as though perhaps the field should develop experts that would be able to objectively look at readings to interpret the data, similar to the reason we all see a doctor about our more serious medical conditions as they arise.
Key indicators of success probably would need to show relationship between income and fixed costs, engagement of supporters, rate at which new ideas are acquired, strength of the diversity of income, and relationship of the organization’s product to its self-defined service area.
What kinds of data would be the most useful to you to inspire supporters to give, and why? Is it appropriate to change the field from one organization measuring against itself to making broader comparisons? Are there an inherent problems with this kind of effort that could deprive organizations of funding?
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