What is our museum’s social impact?

Trying to understand and measure how our museum changes lives in our community.

When the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) first opened its doors, it was considered a “people’s museum,” a place for the city of Oakland to celebrate the art, history, and natural sciences that shape California’s identity. We’ve maintained those deep ties to our community for nearly half a century and have been guided by the belief that when museums are truly welcoming and inclusive, they make a real difference in the lives of people as well as in the health and vitality of a community.

But do we have any proof to back up that belief? Not yet. How can we articulate that proof in a compelling way to our community of stakeholders? We’re not sure. So thus began our work to measure the social impact of the Oakland Museum of California — an exciting but daunting task. As Deputy Director of the OMCA, I lead the museum’s vision for community engagement and social impact. My colleague Johanna Jones is the Associate Director for Evaluation and Visitor Insights and my co-conspirator for this project. We don’t have the answers, but we are interested in sharing our process as we learn our way into measuring OMCA’s social impact in Oakland.

As Lori Fogarty, our CEO, goes to community events where this is a topic of conversation, she often gets asked the question, “So are you a museum or a community center?” and her response is “both.”

This first part of the story centers around our efforts to define our social impact. We anticipate future stories might focus on what we’re learning from other experts in the social impact field, how we’re tracking indicators of our social impact, and what we’re doing with that new data. All of this work is made possible by the New California Arts Fund at The James Irvine Foundation.

First step: defining the “social” in social impact.

In early 2015, we really began grappling with our theory of change: if we did all these things to accomplish our mission (to inspire all Californians to create a more vibrant future for themselves and their communities), what would the difference be? Who would care and who would be affected? How would Oakland be a lesser place if we didn’t exist at all? What are the particular aspects of our city that we can uniquely contribute to? If, as a hypothetical, we wanted to double our reach and impact, what would that even look like? These were big, existential questions to wrestle with — it’s hard to answer “What difference are you making in this world?” Take a moment to ask that of yourself and your organization. As OMCA approaches our 50th birthday, it’s an opportune time to look back on what impact we’ve had and what impact we’re still trying to achieve.

First we had to start putting some guardrails around what we mean by social impact in the first place. We all needed to be on the same page about what social impact is, in order to figure out what our social impact was. We had to decide how social impact was distinct from impact more broadly, and what were the implications from phrases that shared similar language like social justice or environmental impact. Was there a negative social impact that an institution could cause that we should consider?

On staff, we all describe social impact in slightly different terms, but ultimately I think it’s about the positive change you’re able to enact for individuals and groups. It’s not what we do or why we do it, but the effect of what we do. And because we’re grounded in a particular community, we’re defining social impact as local change to people in our surrounding community and, perhaps down the road, the change we affect on people across all of Oakland. But I’ve also come to see the definition of social impact itself as context specific — the boundaries of what you might consider to be the social impact of your organization is specific to your city, your institution, the scale of your work, and your own cast of characters.

As we began talking about how to define and measure our social impact in Oakland, it also became clear that stakeholders needed to understand whywe cared about social impact, why this was worth an investment of our time and attention, and theirs. Over the course of many conversations, three reasons surfaced, related to:

  • Mission. Our mission describes why we exist, defining our social impact helps us answer the “so what/who cares?” questions. This work is helping us expand the possibilities of our mission, making a bigger tent for people who don’t yet think culture is inherently important, but are interested in the substantive change culture can affect on a community. We don’t want to measure our social impact as a dusty academic exercise; the point is to use this work to connect more people to culture and have them feel that culture isn’t just a “nice to have” but instead something vital to their own life and their community.
  • Management. If we can define and measure what our social impact is now, then we have the opportunity and the knowledge to increase that impact over time. We need to know what the end goal is, and which of our activities and practices are leading to better outcomes for that goal, so that we can deliver on those activities more efficiently. The social impact statement gives us a new tool to evaluate when and how we need to change our exhibitions, programs, budget, or strategy.
  • Money. We have a practical need to sustain our organization with capital from more donors of all sorts — small and large, individuals and institutions. We simply need more people to believe OMCA is indispensable to the city of Oakland and we need the language and the data to prove it. We know cultural organizations are important to community and individual well being, but we need to be able to articulate that case in clear and specific ways for people to continue investing in us.

What’s our social impact? An organic, iterative, collaborative approach…

As the small working group focused on measuring social impact gained clarity on what social impact is more broadly and why it was important to us, our attention turned to trying to define our specific social impact via our theory of change.

…with the field.

One place we started was the Americans for the Arts website on Social Impact of the Arts and the U.K. Museums Association site on how Museums Change Lives. Both are compendia of various social impact statements and indicators from lots of different arts and culture organizations. We began researching which other museums were already measuring social impact (and had a hard time finding any other than Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz) and started keeping a stash of reports and articles about how social impact was being measured in cities like Santa Monica or New York City.

…with our staff.

We took all of those indicators, brainstormed a few more, and as a group started sorting them into buckets: which of these are no brainers for OMCA, which ones definitely don’t make sense, and which ones are we intrigued by but need more discussion.

By the summer of 2016, we had narrowed down to a shorter list of potential ideas that might be in our social impact statement and hosted a convening of 15 staff members with a facilitator to navigate through a series of exercises:

  • Mapping the assets of the museum as an employer, educator, convener, collector, inspirer, expert, and gathering space
  • Interrogating and synthesizing previous audience research like a neighborhood mapping project that was focused on understanding the specific needs and values of different pockets of our surrounding community
  • A “vote with your feet” response to five major idea clusters of potential ways OMCA could deliver on social impact (from “museum as angel investor” to “museum as artist co-op,” offering everything from “workforce development opportunities” to “hope and transcendence.”)
  • Wordsmithing some of the recurring themes: Does this phrase roll off the tongue or sound like museum jargon? Could you imagine saying that OMCA has this impact on our community with a straight face in conversation with a museum visitor or board member? We’re not trying to achieve world peace, let’s not pretend like we are.

…with our board.

As we got closer to a short list of phrases and ideas for our social impact statement, we facilitated a board retreat to ask them questions like:

  • What worries you about these phrases?
  • What are new opportunities you can see for our work with these phrases in mind?
  • What questions do these phrases raise for you?
  • How are these phrases different from our mission/vision/goals?
  • Does it seem possible for OMCA to directly influence the behavior of our community?
  • Are we modeling this behavior? Inspiring it? Implicitly encouraging it or explicitly causing it?
  • How far afield are we having an impact? Our downtown Oakland neighborhood? The greater Bay Area region? All of California?

These questions brought to light powerful and constructive conversations with our board. At one point “tolerance” was an idea we were exploring — whether we were trying to foster tolerance or acceptance, empathy or caring. While tolerance is a common enough phrase for people to be familiar with, it didn’t carry the right tone or message. It’s the “dominant” culture that tolerates the “non-dominant” culture in a problematic power structure. And who were we, as an authoritarian voice of an institution, teaching people to tolerate? Caring has connotations of healthcare and social services, but that’s a double edged sword; we want healthy communities but is the purpose of our work to improve physical or mental health? Spoiler: no.

At another point, the conversational exercises helped us realize not everyone shared the same understanding of what equity is, or what an equitable city might look like. We tried lots of definitions, analogies, and visualizations on for size. “Equality gives everyone a seat on the bus, anywhere they choose to sit. Equity ensures there are bus lines where people need them most.” “Equity is a fair and appropriate treatment based on individual needs rather than group identity.”

All of this conversation sent us back to the drawing board to gather more research and new ideas for describing what impact we think we have in clear, succinct, measurable terms.

…with our community.

We’re starting to test some of these initial ideas for phrases that might be in our social impact statement with museum visitors by asking them to develop their own language. For a recent exhibit we asked, “OMCA wants to create exhibits that are interesting, entertaining, and about important issues. What do you think about that?” In another case, we video recorded visiting young adults and their teachers responses to questions like “What is equity? What role does arts and culture play in a more equitable society? What role should OMCA play in your community?”

And then we just let the visitors talk. We don’t need to score them on a rubric or create a formal evaluation tool; we’re interested in the vocabulary they use to describe the museum, our work, our place in the community. And the good news is we’re hearing positive reactions from community members about the idea of a museum as an appropriate and necessary forum for discussing complicated social issues.

As Lori Fogarty, our CEO, goes to community events where this is a topic of conversation, she often gets asked the question, “So are you a museum or a community center?” and her response is “both.” Which is an uncomfortable place to be in sometimes. Some people might feel left behind in the conversation about the inherent value of our collection of objects and expertise, and others might feel we’re not going far enough to make change in our community. We’re learning to live in a state of discomfort while we find the balance that’s right for us, in our city, with our capabilities and resources.

We’re getting ever closer to a social impact statement.

The process is far from finished; we’re continuing to road test these ideas with internal staff and our community of stakeholders, but we have a working draft of our social impact statement:

OMCA makes Oakland a more equitable and caring city.

How would we know that was true? With evidence that:

  • Visitors recognize that their stories matter.
  • Visitors feel a sense of welcoming and belonging.
  • Visitors have a strong connection to their neighbors.

One idea we find ourselves returning to often throughout this process is that we have financial sustainability as one goalpost, social impact as the other goalpost, and that every program and activity we undertake needs to fall somewhere between them. Walk the halls of OMCA offices, peek in on our staff or board meetings, and you might just catch one of us making the goalpost hand signal as a shorthand for debating the role social impact should play in any given event or how we build and sustain this work for the long term.

Up next: More conversations and research.

We’re spending the remainder of 2017 continuing to clarify these indicators of our social impact — we’re soliciting more and deeper feedback from our community members, we’re convening experts in the social impact field, particularly those outside of the arts to share their perspective, and we’re conducting additional research on how other organizations are measuring concepts like empathy, wellbeing, relevance, and more. Look out for a new story in the fall that shares some of those findings.

After we lock down the social impact statement and the indicators we believe are evidence of achieving that impact, we’ll move on to developing a structured process for measurement — specific tools we’ll use on-site and/or in the community to gather data. We’re just at the early stages of thinking about how to report that data back out to our staff, board, and community and internalize those insights to actually change our activities and practices when needed.

And, of course, as we continue on this journey, it may turn out that where we end up in 2018 or 2020 is a quite different place from what we’re thinking right now. We believe we’re on the right path, but all of the conversation and research and testing is meant to challenge and strengthen our ideas.

So if you have resources, ideas to share, or questions I hope you’ll add them to the comments or reach out to me directly. We’re excited to find a community of like-minded arts organizations and other social impact organizations who are also exploring these ideas.

This story is part of a publication on Medium exploring how arts organizations are adapting to reflect the changing demographics of California, engaging with their communities, and becoming more resilient organizations as part of the New California Arts Fund at The James Irvine Foundation.