Evaluate to Advocate: Gathering Data to Tell Your Story

Read parts one and two of the advocacy series.

Scrabble tiles spelling the word data.

By Sean Blinn, Programming Director, Heritage Trail Association, Bridgewater, NJ

In previous posts about advocating for your museum we looked at the importance of advocacy with local government, and about how those governments are structured (so you know who to talk with). The next question to consider is how to tell your museum’s story, and what information can help tell it.

Anyone who has ever worked on a grant report can attest that governments make extensive use of statistics. Why is this? Governments have a limited amount of money, and requests for funding often exceed the amount of money available. Statistics are the data government uses to help decide how to allocate resources (people’s tax dollars) and show the public that there is a valid reason for spending money on a particular project, such as a new museum exhibition.

Statistics can help museums tell their own success stories in a way that is easier for governments (and other funding agencies) to understand. If a $50,000 grant helps a museum contribute $500,000 to the local economy, governments will usually see that as a wise investment. If that same grant money is lost in a failed project, governments may be less likely to support similar projects (or that museum) in the future.

Even aside from spending and other financial considerations, statistics are easy to understand. They can form the central part of a thirty-second summary or one-page description of your museum, its mission, and its programs. They are essential numbers to have and analyze for your site.

Start with the easiest data points to gather. The museum may be gathering these already:

  • Number of visitors per year
  • Number of child visitors per year. Separate this out as a subset of the total.
  • Number of schools and school groups served per year.
  • Web site and social media traffic.

Children playing at a museum.

Look beyond the obvious. Think creatively and move beyond basic visitor counts. If your museum runs special programs, you might have numbers for:

  • At-risk children attending your programs.
  • People who attend the museum’s senior citizen programs.
  • Program attendees from economically disadvantaged families.
  • Literacy programs.
  • Teachers who attend training workshops run or hosted by your museum.
  • Programs your museum runs in schools, libraries, or other community venues.
  • Opportunities for free admission.

This isn’t an exhaustive list. Think about what your museum does, then think how to attach a number to it. Think broadly and creatively!

A museum is also part of the local economy. If your museum spends any money on staffing, it is a job creator: list how many jobs the museum creates, whether part-time or full-time. The money the museum spends on supplies supports local business, so get that information, too. AAM has a lengthy report on museums as economic engines, and a summary overview as well. The most important element is to be able to attach a number to as many aspects of your museum’s work as possible.

A future blog post will help explain what to do with this data, once you have it gathered. For now, focus on the question “How can we measure our successes?”