About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Electra Data, Griggs Building, 1957. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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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7 Responses to Data for Dollars

  1. Mary Warner says:

    David – You ask the most complex questions. It’s hard to respond to them on the blog because they take so much thinking. While we may not be commenting, we certainly are reading your posts and giving them serious thought. It’s important to have someone asking these tough, long-view questions about the field.

    Reply

  2. Endorsement of effort by peers or superiors might be the best motivator for contributors. It didn’t hurt us to see MHS staff attend presentations on our collection. Comparing our shop to Mary’s shop isn’t as strong a motivator. Compelling stories from the collection seem to make a difference. Moving from volunteer staff collecting things to professional staff interpreting things has slowly drawn attention from supporters and funders. Building relationships has taken time, but has been highly effective.
    It seems the measures are “soft.” I struggle with every grant application to word them in concrete, tangible ways.
    Endorsement of effort by peers or superiors might be the best motivator for contributors. It didn’t hurt us to see MHS staff attend presentations on our collection. Comparing our shop to Mary’s shop isn’t as strong a motivator. Compelling stories from the collection seem to make a difference. Moving from volunteer staff collecting things to professional staff interpreting things has slowly drawn attention from supporters and funders. Building relationships has taken time, but has been highly effective. It seems the measures are “soft.” I struggle with every grant application to word them in concrete, tangible ways.

    Reply

  3. Claudia Nicholson says:

    Merlin – I like your sentiment: “Moving from volunteer staff collecting things to professional staff interpreting things . . .” That’s exactly what is happening here, and it is hard to explain sometimes–even to die-hard supporters who don’t get the difference.

    Reply

  4. Cathy Walters says:

    Why should it be collected:Plainview Postal Book 1867-1884-Reads Landing Muesum for a family historian,area history-Priceless ! I’m not finished with it nor have I yet sat down to look at Plainview’s midwife book.I hope due to roof that these are still there & were just moved for safty,these and others should be tracked with-in building,they should be copied so others can have or on-line so it can be had by all. What if my big mouth raving about this caused it to get stolen-if this ends up being the case-I will never forgive myself-it is so vital-so rare ! Like I said many of this small places have something of value to state,county-& us family researchers. The need is great! They can only do so little-like trying to keep building in re-pair .(from Aug 5 1990)Ludwig Mitzner of Plainview recived Nov.23 1878 211 marks & 27 Bfqs?=$70.17 from his father-inlaw Carl Fedder of Wischin,Prussia(kreis Kolmar Posen,Germany).August Stoltz between June 12-16 recived from Wm Ziebarth out of Wittenburg station,Brooklyn Station & Green Point Station $204.00,through the Amerland & Co.(Wagon hauling Co.?)I only got 2 more entries of family in that book-I yet to finish going through.Fall of 2010-zip !

    Reply

  5. Mary Warner says:

    Merlin – We compare our shop to every shop, not just MHS. Small organizations can have good ideas, too, although we don’t ever try to copy what other places are doing in terms of projects and events. We do, however, see how organizations navigate administrative and curatorial tasks. If someone is doing something more efficiently than we are in these realms, why would we continue to do it the hard way?

    As for the collection of cold, hard data to prove the worth of museums, while I understand that objective measures of usefulness are most appreciated by legislators and the business community, why is subjective measurement not as valued? This is a society-wide problem. We’re supposed to make rational decisions based on quantitative data all the time, as though that data explains everything. I have a problem with that.

    Humans are not solely rational creatures. We make emotional, irrational decisions all the time and we tend to connect to organizations for soft, squishy reasons, like good customer service. How do we quantify relationships? If we start looking at our donors for the amounts of money they give, we are no longer in an authentic relationship with them and they’re going to know it. How long would you remain a member of an organization if all it did was look at the size of your wallet?

    Reply

  6. Claudia Nicholson says:

    I’m with Mary on the data to prove our worth question. It has driven me crazy for my entire professional career, because what we do doesn’t seem measurable in numbers. The number of people who visit the museum or who see our exhibits just doesn’t convey anything of the experience of visiting our museum or taking a tour.

    But foundations and other funders (including big-money individuals) seem to be searching for the equivalent of a sales figure, in order to decide to fund us. “Number of people served”,for example, and we might as well be McDonald’s.

    The alternative is to do a ton of surveying (if it is good) to measure the impact of a visit on a universe of people that we don’t necessarily have the ability to follow up with. How do I find a casual visitor later to ask them if they remember anything of their visit? Is anyone going to let me survey Cub Scouts a month after their visit?

    I prefer always to tell a story or two about someone’s response to the museum, as a way of conveying its impact on one visitor. But honestly, the response to the place is going to be as varied as the visitors.

    There are certainly bits of data that will tell a savvy businessman/woman that we are not long for this world, or could certainly be using contributed dollars more efficiently. But for the vast majority of our donors, they are giving for all of the intangibles that Mary describes.

    I can tell you a figure that I looked at that might impact my willingness to give: after the earthquake in Haiti, I donated money to a world relief organization. Recently, news reports stated that many charities raised a ton of money for Haiti, and some had spent only a fraction of what was raised there so far. I looked at what the organization I had donated to did, and their percentage of spending was below 50%. Unless they spend more of the money contributed specifically for Haitian relief in Haiti, I would be reluctant to give them more. So maybe it does matter if we collect restricted dollars, then decline to spend them which might matter to some donors. But, if I give money for general operations, and they spend it for that, I’m fine.

    I wish you good luck in identifying any metrics that will say something useful about our work.
    I’m with Mary on the data to prove our worth question. It has driven me crazy for my entire professional career, because what we do doesn’t seem measurable in numbers. The number of people who visit the museum or who see our exhibits just doesn’t convey anything of the experience of visiting our museum or taking a tour. But foundations and other funders (including big-money individuals) seem to be searching for the equivalent of a sales figure, in order to decide to fund us. \Number of people served\,for example, and we might as well be McDonald’s. The alternative is to do a ton of surveying (if it is good) to measure the impact of a visit on a universe of people that we don’t necessarily have the ability to follow up with. How do I find a casual visitor later to ask them if they remember anything of their visit? Is anyone going to let me survey Cub Scouts a month after their visit? I prefer always to tell a story or two about someone’s response to the museum, as a way of conveying its impact on one visitor. But honestly, the response to the place is going to be as varied as the visitors. There are certainly bits of data that will tell a savvy businessman/woman that we are not long for this world, or could certainly be using contributed dollars more efficiently. But for the vast majority of our donors, they are giving for all of the intangibles that Mary describes. I can tell you a figure that I looked at that might impact my willingness to give: after the earthquake in Haiti, I donated money to a world relief organization. Recently, news reports stated that many charities raised a ton of money for Haiti, and some had spent only a fraction of what was raised there so far. I looked at what the organization I had donated to did, and their percentage of spending was below 50%. Unless they spend more of the money contributed specifically for Haitian relief in Haiti, I would be reluctant to give them more. So maybe it does matter if we collect restricted dollars, then decline to spend them which might matter to some donors. But, if I give money for general operations, and they spend it for that, I’m fine. I wish you good luck in identifying any metrics that will say something useful about our work.

    Reply

  7. Nothing personal to anyone, and I mean that with the utmost of sincerity, but I wish we would stop using academic gobelty-gook like “metrics” or “performance based evaluations”. While it might make sense to those who do nothing but spend their entire day crunching data, when I hear those terms it reminds me of the “new math” I had to learn when I was younger. After all hubub, 2 plus 2 still equaled four.

    Again, absolutely nothing personal here 🙂
    Nothing personal to anyone, and I mean that with the utmost of sincerity, but I wish we would stop using academic gobelty-gook like “metrics” or “performance based evaluations”. While it might make sense to those who do nothing but spend their entire day crunching data, when I hear those terms it reminds me of the “new math” I had to learn when I was younger. After all hubub, 2 plus 2 still equaled four. Again, absolutely nothing personal here 🙂

    Reply

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