Planning is a proposal-writer’s best friend. Planning, summit-style, is a great example. If you’ve ever dreamed of the opportunity to bring multiple minds to bear on a big project, perhaps this article will encourage you and others to just do it.
The museum field is often a little ADD: its institutions love to try out new ideas, but they often forget to build concepts and experience into a body of information to use and reuse. Like many non-profit institutions, museums have become habitually reactive due to the sheer effort of remaining solvent. Stepping out of the daily slog to do some long-range thinking and planning is hard for them and for most non-profits. But here’s a case in which mini-summits are manageable and have powerful lasting effects.
An institution convened a public symposium about historic structures, and included, in the symposium, a planning session on its particular structure. The planning participants were leading practitioners in historic preservation, whether as consultants or as staff of related institutions. Museum staff and board members attended. The discussion concluded that the building in question, a key feature to the site, was an integral part of the property’s infrastructure, if restored would play a vital role in maintaining the property, was an important feature for the community as well, that in its current condition it was a safety hazard, and that it must not be allowed to be lost “as a result of deferred maintenance, negligence or abandonment”.
The participants’ conclusions and quotes were excellent third-party endorsements of the project. Their strength was their clear illustration of the project as support for the institutional mission, taking the argument for funding beyond features to benefits for the institution, the public and the field. The museum was able to raise the $475,000 to restore the building.
Very recently, just a year after the restoration project was complete, the museum convened another summit, this time on pursing National Landmark Status for the entire property. The large group of summit attendees was made up of representatives from national and state agencies with interests in this question and the property; staff of similar properties in the region; the proposal-writer; and museum staff and board, including property and collections mangers, and educators. The meeting began on-site for introductions, moved into a tour of the property, and ended up at a nearby historic property for lunch and continued discussion. A helpful mini-grant from a community funder paid for consultants’ time and travel, and in-kind support from the caterer helped with the group’s meal.
Again the full day discussion addressed not just the National Landmark Status question, but how such status would benefit the property, the organization and the field. The first part of the discussion established shared levels of understanding among participants. Then the tour and subsequent discussions explored the appropriateness of Landmark status, identified important historic concepts and themes, and articulated the importance of status for the institution. There was great emphasis on the relationship of Landmark status to the institution’s mission, and not until the group could comfortably articulate how mission and status fed each other, did the group agree that status was an appropriate goal. Side conversations during lunch led to ideas for media spotlight opportunities to promote the site, new potential funders, and offers to help in the process.
The group concluded that the process of developing the application for Landmark status (a lengthy, highly complicated, and very sophisticated process) was itself important for the future performance of the institution. The application would become the basic interpretive document for the property and an important tool in planning decisions. The board members left the meeting with a clear understanding of how and why to recommend the project to the rest of the board; the staff understood why to proceed, how to start, how long it would take and how much it would cost. The proposal writer left the meeting with the theoretical underpinnings for the case, quotes for proving the case, and contact information for collecting support letters and answers to technical questions.
Much the way a retreat focuses and energizes a board, this type of summit can focus and energize participants for important projects. These convenings also create relationships, and shared knowledge and interest that extend beyond the intuition’s nuclear family, to outside supporters and allies.
Not every project requires a summit, but every one of major significance financially, or programmatically, can surely benefit from one. The ripple effects of meaningful engagement with your staff, board and supporters can make all the difference in creating your institution’s future.