Museum Boards as Advocates

By Kathleen Watkin

MAS Museum Advisor

As we are all well aware, each Museum has its own unique history, culture and mission and therefore its own views regarding advocacy. Whether your Board of Trustees are veteran advocates or newbies to the game, Advocacy must begin with an honest conversation in the boardroom; a conservation about the museum’s mission mandate, goals and visions for the future.

What follows is a guide to help your Board of Trustees to start a conservation on your organizations rights to advocate and help your museum to grow.

Step One: A Shared Vision for the Future

Your museum has chosen the Board to meet the specific needs and missions for the museum’s future. Part of this shared responsibly is to create a vision of what the world would look like if your vision is achieved. It is important that the Staff and Board Members ask themselves the following questions:

  • Is the Board in agreement with the museum’s vision for the future?
  • How would your museum and community be different if this shared mission is achieved?
  • Are your current strategies the fastest or most direct path for achieving your share vision? If not, what would it be?

Step Two: The Museum in the Community

Your museum is not simply a building to hold a collection; it’s part of a larger environment and ecosystem in which it must operate within. Understanding your community’s ecosystem and how your museum fits into the larger community is an essential part of advocacy. Have your Staff and Board Members ask themselves the following questions:

  • How does the museum work for and with the community to address the challenges that citizens face?
  • How does the work completed in the museum affect the broader issues and challenges facing the community?
  • Does the museum have any strategies in place to actively address these issues? If not, how could the museum change to support the community’s issues?

Step Three: Identify the Opportunities and Threats

As all museums are well aware, change in the community, funding sources and changing policy and governance can both positively and/or negatively affect the museum’s ability to achieve its missions and goals. Identify and understanding the opportunities and threats affecting your museum is a key step to building an advocacy strategy and to ensure that your board is ready to help implement advocacy. Have your Staff and Board members answer the following questions:

  • What are some of the external factors that have positively and/or negatively impacted our work in the past? How well did we as a board anticipate them before they happened? Did we try to stop or soften the results of the negative ones? Did we rally to support the good ones?
  • Are there policy changes that would dramatically improve (or threaten) our ability to fulfil our mission? If we could advance our mission more effectively by changing one law, public policy or public attitude, what would that change be?
  • Do we have candid conversations about the reality and reliability of our governmental and public funding?
  • As we – as a representative of the heritage community- actively engaged in conversations with decision makers about the policies or decisions that directly or indirectly affect our work and place in the community? Why or why not?

Step 4: The Board Members’ Contributions

Each Board Member bring their own unique background, passions and influences to their board service that can be used to powerfully accelerate your museum’s advocacy strategies. Understanding your board’s network and spheres of influence can help you map how each board member can help. It is important that the staff and board members ask themselves the following questions:

  • Do you regularly discuss the implications of public policies and funding to the museum’s mission?
  • Does your museum have an established public policy? If so are the board well-informed about how to best support it?
  • Does your board have leaders who can speak to and connect with a board cross-section of the community in support of your work?
  • Has the Board Members received training and guidance about how to engage effectually in advocacy efforts the enables them to represent the museum’s mission and work in confidence?

Step 5: Make Advocacy a Part of Your Board’s culture

A true cultural changed happens when advocacy became integrated in the ways that the board thinks, makes decisions and measures its own success. Have your staff and board asked the following questions:

  • Is a degree of advocacy a part of every board member’s job description?
  • Do we have goals for advocacy work that allow us to assess how well we are doing?
  • Is the board recruitment strategy aligned with our public policy and the connections or influence what will ensure our success?
  • As we- as an cultural institution- actively participating in coalitions and organizations how are we helping to advance our advocacy strategy?

For more information about the role of Board Member’s as Museum Advocates see the American Alliance of Museums and BoardSource’s publication “Stand for Your Mission: A Discussion Guide for Museum Trustees.”

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