Why I picked it up: Early this week I came across the annual impact report of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ). Annual reports are common. They share financial statements and perhaps a few accomplishments of the year (not the same thing as impact). This is different.
This is an annual impact report. Real impact. With evidence. I loved it, and immediately started picking apart its purpose and considering why it would be a good idea to emulate. (WCIJ is the impact report I came across doing other research; others exist but they are few and far between.)
What you need to know: As philanthropy continues to shift towards a higher expectation of impact, organizations that cannot clearly articulate and provide evidence of impact will not be sustainable.
This report pulls together why an organization matters into one tidy document. Why WCIJ matters. And why WCIJ is deserving of philanthropic gifts over other organizations that may simply not be as effective. If I was an executive director/CEO or development director, having this at my fingertips with a major donor would be gold. I suspect it is also a fantastic tool for staff morale, retention, and recruitment, as it allows them to point to a clear document of why their work matters.
Implications for museums: In a world where there is so much strife and trouble, museums are in the long-game of improving our communities and world, one visitor at a time. Through our own distinctive medium. If we don't champion that, we have no pro-social or educative purpose (and do we deserve that charitable status then)?
But few people make the connection between museums and changing lives (Michael Bloomberg excepted). Thus, we need to articulate and provide evidence of impact, which is why this example of an impact report is so compelling. It forces us to make our case, clearly and concisely … and then back it up. It also exposes the holes in our arguments, which we can acknowledge and then commit to studying and understanding. And for donors and funders, it enables the long-term connection between meaningful experiences with art, history, and science, and a better community and society. To thrive in the future, we need that too.
Frankly, if your organization cannot put a compelling impact report together, it indicates to me that impact probably doesn't really matter to you. And if a lack of resources to track impact is the issue, maybe putting together this report, acknowledging the gaps in evidence, and instead positioning impact as hypotheses, will help secure resources to track that evidence. After all, with evidence you will know for sure what is working (and what isn't).
Read or skip? Read. It is seven pages. Read it and emulate!
Page-by-page commentary, and how I would adapt for a museum (for those who want the details):
Who We Are (p. 2)
Starts off with a short description of the organization and what they do. They did this concisely and effectively by hitting four main things:
For museums: For a museum, I'd start off by not assuming it matters, but taking time to articulate why. Why does the history of this community matter? Or why does art matter? Play matter? Once I had prepared my answer, I would then ask again "why does that matter?" And how does that mattering make a difference to individuals and communities?
For example, a local history organization might first say that it matters because it helps people understand their community. OK. Why is understanding their community important? Answer that in the report, and place history as a key tool for getting there.
Can you boil down your guiding values to three definitive things you do that do matter? It won't be things like share (insert art/science/history), but things like expand knowledge. Cultivate compassion. Increase understanding. You get the idea.
Then, your reach. If you reach a traditional museum audience (and I'll be blunt here) of affluent, well-educated, white folks, well, that's not going to cut it. Glad you help them (everyone deserves museums!), but you probably don't need my support. But if you tell me how you are expanding your audience, and acknowledge you have to do better (and talk about how later in the report), you'll keep my interest.
And yes, I want to know how you do this. But keep it short here.
Highlights (p. 3)
For WCIJ, they created 8 blurbs that tell us in more detail what they do:
To be honest, I felt like this was too many, and it was a wordy page. Five would have worked better. That being said, it did give me a strong sense of what this organization tries to do based on what they have done in the past year. To be clear, however, that's not the same thing as impact.
For museums: Taking it down to five things, for a museum I would probably share:
Major Investigations (p. 4)
WCIJ broke some major stories in Wisconsin. This shares six via a picture for each and a one-sentence description. Yes, that concise.
For museums: This is where you get specific show off the great stuff you did.
Impact (p. 5)
The most important page of this report. I want to frame it and hang it on my office wall. How their stories really mattered to Wisconsin citizens. And I am impressed by how many they are!
For museums: This is going to be the hardest page of writing your own version of this report. To be truly effective, you have to understand, and share, evidence that what you are doing matters over the long-term. And link it back to your exhibitions and programs. Pieces of this evidence could (and should) come from high-quality evaluation of specific exhibitions and programs, but that typically doesn't convey why the museum methodology is better than alternatives, or longer-term effects. There also needs to be high-quality community research to track long-term impact trends and provide community context. You need both.
Put them together, though, and this one page could clearly make the case of why your museum matters. To individuals and to a community. It won't make the financial support come in by its mere existence, but man would it make raising money a whole lot easier.
Audience Matters (p. 6)
For WCIJ, putting their operations into numbers. How many investigations, how many news outlets picked up their stories, how many readers. It conveys depth and reach.
For museums: This could start with attendance numbers, of course, but I would go further to use data to track how the audience is (ideally) shifting over time in ways to better reflect the community, broadening and deepening engagement. How you show who you matter to.
Investigative Reporting + Art (p. 7)
WCIJ mounted what is, essentially, an art exhibition on water quality and traveled it through Wisconsin. Basically a deeper look at one of their initiatives and how it furthered their work. What I find most fascinating, however, is that they chose a museum methodology to do this.
For museums: This could be a page that also takes a closer look at one major initiative that really mattered (and why).
Financial Information (p. 8)
This is fascinating. It is not the annual report of the organization, with balance sheet, etc. It gives the operating budget, and plainly states that they have a goal of doubling it. And then shares two paragraphs about funding and how it does not affect editorial decisions. It does list some of their largest donors, but keeps it short. The point here is that this isn't the financial nitty-gritty, but instead an acknowledgement of the budget they have to deliver the impact they share. And it is an articulation that the impact is only possible if those donors cannot influence their day-to-day work.
For museums: Go and do likewise. Your normal annual report can (and should) still exist, but the two main outcomes here are different and crucial. Share what your budget is so readers know the resources you have to deliver the impact you have. If the numbers are not in alignment, discuss how that will change. That is, if you have a relatively large budget and little impact to show, talk about how you will focus those resources to deliver more impact. And if you are doing amazing things on a teeny tiny budget, be proud and demonstrate how more resources could extend that impact even further. Additionally given some of the controversy around museum trustees whose political positions are in conflict with either the historical or scientific record, it probably isn't a bad idea to also state that donors cannot influence the scholarship at museums (especially if it is true; please be true).
My final response: Museums are in the long-term impact game. But if we cannot provide evidence of that impact, we are seen at nice but not necessary. Or even fluff. That cuts me to the quick since I know museums have the capacity to change lives (they did mine, after all!).
One thing missing from this report, however, is a failure statement. I'd love to see that included as well. Whether it is a long-standing exhibition or program that simply isn't effective (and you axed) or a new initiative that didn't live up to your expectations, share failures. It tells me you are willing to try new things and to make the appropriate decisions to focus your efforts on what does work. It also tells me that you learn from failure. No one expects you to be perfect.
Finally, I believe in this impact report so much that if you send a draft impact report for your museum to me, I'll be happy to privately comment on it. So do it! (I'm thinking about how I could develop one for my practice.)
Full citation: Report to Stakeholders. Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. July 2016.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the traditional lands of the Duwamish people. I thank them for the care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.