How to Measure a Program’s Success

How do we measure whether our programs are successful?  This is an often repeated question that Museums and other nonprofits ask

The answer cannot be solely based on attendance numbers.  If that were true, at the Chucalissa archaeological site we would flood the plaza area and put in a water slide.  Although obviously not a credible or appropriate consideration, the point is that we are not just trying to get more people in the museum door.

The answer cannot be based solely on increased revenues either.  If that were so at the C.H. Nash Museum, we would not have a policy of free admission for special events and we would not limit our museum store sales to quality products relevant to Native American and regional traditions.

Can we measure a program’s success by how well it fits the mission statement of the institution?  A reasonable response might be “Dude, can you operationalize that measure?”  And yes, I think I can –  or rather, show you someone else who has done so.  A few months ago I wrote about Robert Janes’ Museums in Trouble World.  In reading the book I came across the article “Measuring Museum Meaning: A Critical Assessment Framework” by Douglas Worts published in 2006 in the  Journal of Museum Education (31(1):41-49).  Wort’s Critical Assessment Framework (CAF)  incorporates the cultural attributes or values of a typical museum mission statement.  Like mission statements, the CAF does not rely on quantitative measures such as number of  participants, or amount of revenue, but on the assessment of the cultural values, quality, and nature of the museum or outreach program.

Worts (2006:41) notes:

Isn’t it odd that museums – one of society’s principal institutions dedicated to culture – do not measure their success or impacts in cultural terms?  Attendance, revenue, objects accessioned, exhibits mounted, and publications published are some of the measures that museums use to asess their operations.  But, it can be argued, none of these are cultural indicators. They do not reflect on the cultural needs, opportunities, or well-being of the community.  Nor do they offer insights into the cultural impacts of museum operations on individuals.  What these measures do offer is some insight into the activity of museums as institutions – as nonprofit, corporate entities.  Exactly what this has to do with the cultural health of individuals or communities is a good question.

The CAF approach to programs is based in the interrelationship at the individual, community, and museum levels.  Some of the criteria considered include:

  • Individual Level – generates insights, stimulates curiosity, develops a sense of place, increases responsible action, encourages personal reflection.
  • Community Level – addresses relevant issue with the community, acts as a catalyst for action, stimulates intergenerational actions, links existing community groups, engages a diverse public.
  • Museum Level – empowers and transforms all involved, includes multiple perspectives, engages different learning styles, acts as a catalyst for partnering community organizations, integrates scientific, local, and traditional knowledge.
The article concludes with a checklist for measuring a program’s performance on these criteria.
I am struck that these criteria flow directly from the typical archaeological organization or museum mission statement.   Consideration of these criteria on the same level as attendance and revenue figures seems critical as we take our institutions into the 21st century.  I have yet to see a mission statement that speaks directly to revenue streams or attendance figures.  Although not to be dismissive of these concerns, they are not why we exist.  Rather, they are key to our ability to continue living into our mission.  But, revenue and attendance should not be the tail that wags the dog.
How do you measure your program success?

  3 comments for “How to Measure a Program’s Success

  1. July 28, 2011 at 1:56 am

    Thank you for honouring me by using my image, and also for at least attempting to provide an attribution for your use of my image! Google has changed its image search function recently and it is now very easy to find images that have been used from my flickr stream. You are the only one of hundreds who has used that image and respected the request for attribution. Many thanks!

    And as an archaeologist, your article makes a very good point.

    • July 28, 2011 at 2:12 am

      I appreciate your comment and apologize for the less than legible url. I just realized that when I scaled down the image the text became pretty illegible. I will correct it in the next day or so.



      • July 28, 2011 at 2:21 am

        It is truly not a problem, and the url is in the link to my name now, so you dont need to worry! Thanks again though.

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