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Category: Museum Magazine
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This article originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Museum magazine. A benefit of membership in AAM. 

The concept of strategic planning has been integral to American business, government and, increasingly over the years, nonprofits. This is certainly true for museums. Witness that a strategic plan with clearly defined goals and timelines for achieving them-is required for an institution to be awarded accreditation by the Alliance’s Accreditation Commission.

Recently, however, management theory has emerged that strategic planning can actually be inhibiting, preventing an organization from being nimble and flexible enough to adapt to a rapidly changing environment.

In the museum field, leaders most often raise this concern when they consider meeting the needs of their community. Following are opinion pieces representing two sides of the debate. What has been your museum’s experience with strategic planning?

The Beauty of Brevity

Institutional plans don’t need to be Lengthy or complex.

By Carl R. Nold

The last decade has been a time of uncertainty for even the best-run nonprofit organizations, including museums. With major financial downturns, new security requirements at home and abroad, increasingly severe storms and natural disasters, and changing support base demographics, only the most nimble of organizations have been able to adapt and thrive. Numerous respected organizations-from the local museum to an internationally recognized urban opera company- have unexpectedly closed their doors.

For organizations striving for sustainability and successful fulfillment of mission, institutional planning is essential. Enlightened management and the accreditation process have long recognized that museums must effectively plan for their futures, or they will not survive the constantly changing landscape of the present.

While the AAM standard for an institutional plan says that “the process of creating and implementing a plan is far more important and beneficial to the museum than the actual plan itself,” in practice, the accreditation staff and commission appear to focus on a rigid format for planning that does not support this statement. According to AAM, an institutional plan must have prioritized action steps, establish timelines, assign responsibilities and identify specific resources. Colleagues report that plans that lack any of these formula elements have been rejected as inadequate regardless of the quality of process followed or of the results achieved. Many institutions applying for accreditation have expressed concern that the rigidity of the current standard is not consistent with current best practices in business or nonprofit management.

Some suggest that the AAM model spends too much time defining a document and gives too little attention to the effectiveness of planning. There is no doubt that institutional planning is a cornerstone of an effectively managed museum and of ensuring fulfillment of its mission. Experience shows, however, that highly detailed plan documents may not be the best approach for all institutions. Especially in institutions of increasing size and complexity, staff turnover is frequent, budgets are museum determined on an annual basis, and fundraising is carefully matched to the interests and schedules of potential donors. Locking in the details of what will be done by whom, when and with what specific funding source is a paperwork exercise that is inconsistent with the enormous flexibility needed for institutional operations. Such a document is frequently out of date within days of completion.

What I suggest instead is an evaluation of the quality of planning. An institutional plan must represent a shared vision, reflecting a common sense among the institution’s leadership of the direction and priorities needed to advance the mission. Any plan developed without trustee, staff and constituent involvement is not an institutional plan. There must also be an implementation process that moves from the big vision stated in the plan to an action plan. The plan must become an integral part of operations at all levels of the institution.

At Historic New England, we created a “strategic agenda,” a document of just four pages that establishes a five-year direction for our organization. It states major goals and areas of effort needed in the planning period for each goal. Each year with this foundation, all staff teams propose projects they believe will advance the agenda in the year ahead. The ideas are evaluated by the leadership team and proposed to the trustees in the form of a “focus and priorities” statement for the year. Following trustee adoption of the focus and priorities, the staff develops an “annual plan,” an internal management document that is a single-year detailed implementation roadmap, with personnel assignments and quarterly deadlines.

In parallel, the trustees approve an annual budget that supports the anticipated annual work plan, and individual staff performance objectives are drafted. At the midpoint of the year, “check-in” reviews are held with staff at all levels, and the work plan is adjusted as needed.

How does this differ from the AAM expectation?

When we adopted the strategic agenda, we could not tell you when specific projects would occur, who would be doing them or where the money would come from. We knew where we wanted to go but were not yet sure then-or perhaps even now, three years into a five-year strategy-exactly how and when we are going to get there. Whether our approach of five-year goals plus annual details would satisfy accreditation requirements is as yet unknown; the experiences of colleagues does not encourage us to think it will. Even so, this is planning that works for us and is meeting the needs of our organization.

During the planning period, we brought the organization to the highest level of membership in its 103-year history. We steadily increased attendance every year of the plan. We adapted to the 2009 financial crisis without staff layoffs. We completed a program of preservation maintenance that was the largest-ever single such investment in our history. All of these activities support one or more goals of the strategic agenda, but in the particularly unstable environment of the last few years, each required implementation steps that surely varied from what we anticipated in initial planning.

Three years along, we consult the strategic agenda constantly as the organization thinks, plans and acts. Hardly any meeting goes by without reference to the agenda, and it is the foundation for annual budgets and work plans. It is the yardstick for evaluation. It is planning that has worked but is not consistent with AAM requirements for detailed planning that require, “for instance … a full-page document with an accompanying implementation plan.” Institutions operating in a highly stable environment, with funding sources fully assured, unchanging staff and little need to adjust as they go along might successfully use such a model.

I would say that few museums meet those conditions. I join with those who consider the AAM requirements to be too rigid, too document focused and out of sync with current best practices in organizational planning.

It is time to reconsider the AAM accreditation institutional planning requirements.

Carl R. Nold is president and CEO, Historic New England, Boston.

An institutional plan must represent a shared vision, reflecting a common sense among the institution’s leadership of trajectory and priorities needed to advance the mission.

The Power of the Plan

Strategic planning is crucial for one historic house museum.

By Susan Robertson

The media today is rife with stories chronicling the difficulties facing historic house museums and historic sites, given the many challenges (and few resources) confronting them: maintenance of buildings and grounds, collections care and marketing demands. At Gore Place, we have overcome these and other obstacles and are moving toward a sustainable future. Our adoption of, and devotion to, strategic planning was the catalyst for this success, and our plan remains our North Star while we chart our own course on how to reach our vision.

Before we explain how and why this process works for us, a little background is in order. Gore Place is an early 19th-century historic house museum and farm located nine miles west of Boston in Waltham, Massachusetts. Christopher Gore was a leading Federalist, a Massachusetts governor and a U.S. senator.

The Gore mansion, built in 1806, is a 21,000-square-foot, Federal-style brick mansion. Gore’s wife Rebecca and a French architect, J. G. Legrand, designed the mansion. Gore Place Society was founded in 1935 to save and preserve the high-style residence.

For the first 60 years, the members of Gore Place Society took excellent care of the mansion and assembled a frame furnishing collection (now including more than 6,000 objects) to tell the story of the Gore occupancy. By the late 1980s, however, membership growth was stagnant, and the trustees were finding it difficult to keep up with maintenance costs.

In 1994, a new executive director suggested using strategic planning to provide a direction towards the upcoming bicentennial celebration of the mansion. It was clear, however, from the first discussion that the overriding concern was for the future financial stability of Gore Place. For too long, a small endowment had been used to cover emergencies or unavoidable needs. Gore Place needed to plan for the future with a focus on the entire estate, not just the decorative arts collection, and an understanding that we had to assure that the museum had the financial resources to carry out the whole mission.

That first plan had 33 goals with strategies but no tactics, costs, etc. The current plan has only three goals: 1) strengthen and broaden our financial resources to assure the museum’s ability to grow and fulfill its mission; 2) create and promote an enhanced sense of place and history; 3) be a visible and valued museum. Each goal has three to five strategies, and there are multiple tactics. Additional pages outline the strategies, tactics, responsibilities, costs, measures and timeline. We find this format provides a very user-friendly guideline to assist the museum in making decisions. We feel free to adjust our strategies and tactics to changing conditions or discoveries. After all, we are interested in the results of our efforts and the plan is only a tool. We review the plan annually, and every three to four years the museum repeats the entire process using outside facilitators and interviews with trustees, staff, members and nonmembers. We are fortunate to be able to take advantage of the excellent facilitators provided at a modest cost by Executive Service Corps, a resource for not-for-profit agencies.

So what kind of progress have we made during the last 20 years? For a small site, we had, and continue to have very ambitious goals. Initially, we knew that as good stewards, we had to stop deferring maintenance on our historic buildings (a 1793 carriage house, an 1806 mansion and an 1835 farm manager’s cottage) and put them on a regular maintenance plan. To date, we have completed $1.8 million in work on the mansion that includes exterior brick and chimney repairs, new gutters, a complete new electrical system, new furnaces and heat circulators, first-floor interior storm sashes, and a whole-house fire detection and mist suppression system. All the funds necessary were raised through grants and individual donations. At the same time, we have completed lengthy architectural studies inside the building to better understand the Gore story. The studies have revealed fascinating evidence of the existence of central heating and a hot water shower, previously unknown this early in New England. Each year we complete more projects within the mansion such as reproduction carpets and window treatments. Future projects for the mansion include replacing a missing staircase and adding a public restroom on the first floor.

The next major capital project ($1.7 million) is to move the 1793 carriage house to a new dry foundation (it was moved in 1965 and placed in a wet area without a foundation); replace the wood shingle roof and gutters; restore the interior to the Gore era to display two recently restored carriages and a sleigh; add heat and suppression; and build a small accessory building for bathrooms. The necessary archeology is completed.

Planning and fundraising are underway.

At the same time, we cannot forget the interest that had been identified by the first strategic plan in the landscape and farm. The farm is actively producing both animals and crops for sale at our farm stand and for distribution at community food pantries. We now have a summer intern farm-training program as well as many activities for the community to meet their local farmer. The farm cottage has a new roof and is on a regular maintenance schedule. Future plans include a new period barn to accommodate both animals and visitors and a farm precinct for interpretation.

That first plan determined that Gore Place would need many new generous supporters if we were to accomplish our goals. We also needed to become a key part of our community. So we set about growing the membership by presenting activities to encourage membership and visits. We now have more than 1,200 supporters on our rolls and an annual fund goal of $92,000. The tiny endowment mentioned in the first plan is now a robust financial resource for the museum, providing $300,000 a year from a 4.25 percent draw. Our volunteer program has grown from a few friends to more than 100 active volunteers who help us in all aspects of our operations. Our annual Sheep Shearing Festival last spring had 17,000 visitors. An event of that size is not possible without many volunteers.

Strategic planning is not the only tool that we use to guide our activities, but it has certainly proven to be a valuable and critical tool for Gore Place over the last 20 years. It organizes our thinking. It allows for voices both inside and outside the museum to be heard. It disciplines us to think about costs and who will lead various initiatives. It demonstrates to all our supporters that we have a business-like method of operation that takes into consideration all the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that we may face. It attracts supporters to join in the momentum and enthusiasm. It assures prospective trustees, who are successful in their own careers, that they will be joining a professional organization. And, over the years, the good planning and leadership at Gore Place demonstrates that even a small historic site can take on very ambitious plans and be successful.

There are other tools that we use. That very first strategic plan in 1994 called for Gore Place “to undertake self-examination for the purpose of accreditation consideration,” a process that continues to be an excellent tool for the museum. We also use outside investment counsel for our portfolio management; we require that all projects, no matter how small, have a budget; we strive to have each program earn at least $2 for every $1 spent; and we budget depreciation. But it was strategic planning that started Gore Place moving forward into the 21st century and it will be strategic planning that continues to move us forward and keep us all on the same page.

Susan Robertson is executive director, Gore Place, Waltham, Massachusetts.

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