Living and Learning with Nina Simon and the Santa Cruz MAH
I can't say I ever thought I'd be doing pushups on the floor of the office during a client visit. But this is the sort of thing that happens when you come to Santa Cruz. It's a place where just about the only behavior that's frowned upon is being boring.
As astute readers of this blog know, at Fractured Atlas we're not just interested in providing helpful business tools to artists and arts organizations - we want to be running a first-class operation while doing so. That instinct led us in 2013 to undertake a pilot initiative to improve the quality of our decision-making called Fractured Atlas as a Learning Organization. The initiative resulted in the creation of strategic frameworks called theories of change for each of our program areas as well as the organization as a whole, and taught us how to estimate uncertain quantities and use math to make better bets on the future. The progress was shared through a series of blog posts which serve as a guide for other organizations that may be seeking to improve their efficiency and effectiveness like we were.
It turns out that the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) is one of those organizations. Under the leadership of former museum experience design consultant and perpetual all-around superstar Nina Simon, the MAH has thoroughly reinvented itself in recent years as a thriving community gathering place with participation at its core. While Nina's first couple years at the helm of the MAH were characterized by lots of energy and some dramatic early success, there was a need for more discipline and consistency around the way that the museum's outcomes were measured. So last year, the MAH embarked on a capacity building process to, among other things, strengthen its internal evaluation and performance assessment protocols. We were asked to assist with this effort by essentially replicating a number of elements from the Fractured Atlas as a Learning Organization process and applying them to the MAH. We worked with Nina and her team to create a theory of change that articulates the philosophical underpinnings of all of the museum's mission programming; a set of recommendations for short-term/ongoing monitoring and performance assessment; a separate set of recommendations for long-term/occasional formal evaluation; and a review of several options for off-the-shelf dashboard software solutions.
So that's all a long way of explaining how I ended up doing pushups with Nina's staff that one Friday afternoon. Somebody had set up a bell in the office, and anytime anyone rang the bell it was pushup time. My carefully calibrated business casual outfit was a little sweaty by the end of the day...but then again, by then I was the one ringing the bell and making everyone else do pushups.
This infectious fun and enthusiasm pervade everything the MAH does - so much so that the standard PowerPoint visual style that we used for our own theories of change was deemed too lame to represent the brand. Ever resourceful, the MAH got an artist to create a rad graphic-novel-style version of it that could be used for sharing externally. So in that spirit, Nina and I figured we'd mix it up a bit by writing separate blog posts about the experience - mine here, and hers on her long-running blog Museum 2.0. For this one, Nina agreed to answer a few questions about her side of the experience putting together a measurement framework for her organization.
Q: Tell us a little about how this initiative came about and why it was important for the MAH.
A little over a year ago, we received a three-year grant from the Irvine Foundation to strengthen our commitment to community engagement. We decided that two of our top priorities were "engagement alignment" and becoming a "learning organization." We wanted to do a better job connecting the dots among our various programs, and we wanted to be more strategic about our goals and measurement. Like a lot of places, we had different criteria for different programs (events, exhibitions, school tours, outreach, etc.). We wanted a way to understand them and make decisions in a common framework.
So we needed a tool to cohere our biggest goals, connect those goals to our activities, and measure our progress. The theory of change was the best option we found to do that.
Q: What was most helpful about the project, and what about it was most challenging?
The most helpful piece—really, the most transformative—was when we collectively agreed as a staff and board on a single impact statement: "a stronger, more connected community." It was a glorious moment when our whole team agreed that that statement-one which lacks the typical language about program content or format-best encapsulates our goal.
The challenges came at the same time. A few folks on our team were disconcerted that one track of the theory of change focused on "empowerment." Everyone was OK with social bridging, but individual empowerment was a new concept. I distinctly recall a trustee saying, "I don't go to a museum to be empowered." Which led into a very real conversation about privilege, who the museum is for, and where creative and civic empowerment have meaning. Ultimately, it took us to a powerful new place.
Q: How are you and your team putting some of the tools and lessons from this work into practice now?
We see the theory of change as both an internal and external tool. Internally, we're using it as a consistent way to frame and evaluate our programs. We're basing new visitor surveys on testing the logic in the theory of change. It's freeing to realize what exactly we want to know and JUST focus our inquiry on that.
Externally, it has been fruitful in some unexpected ways. The best way we use the theory of change is when meeting with unlikely partners to form new collaborations. It's MUCH easier to have a conversation with a social justice organization (or economic development, or social services, or...) about shared goals when we have a document that explains how we connect our cultural work to building a stronger, more connected community. The impact we seek is a big tent that clearly connects our work to goals shared with our prospective partners.
Q: Any words of wisdom for other folks trying to incorporate data and measurement into their decisions?
When you do capacity-building work, it can feel conceptual. Our organization is extremely oriented towards experimenting and doing, and we struggled to slow down enough to do the deep work to build a robust model. We were afraid we might end up with an evaluation plan in a binder on a shelf somewhere.
So we pursued two tracks simultaneously: on one track, we developed the theory of change and some extremely robust tools with Fractured Atlas. On the other track, we started experimenting internally with different ways to measure our work. For us, these two tracks gave us the kind of forward motion that fits our organizational personality while deepening the rigor of the thinking behind it. In the end, we have a model that we feel is defensible and an execution strategy that makes it real.