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Prodding Sacred Cows: The Mission Statement

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

When I was pulling together the book National Standards & Best Practices for U.S. Museums, I found myself increasingly uneasy with the way that the standards use mission statement as the ultimate touchstone for determining what a given museum should or should not do.

Since my current role as resident AAM futurist gives me license to question the basic assumptions of the field, I’m going to start prodding that particular sacred cow, and see where it goes. I hope you weigh in on the discussion.

I’ll start by saying I totally understand why museums have placed so much importance on mission statements over the past few decades. Three good reasons being:

  1. It establishes a compass direction for all the museum staff and board, combating our all-too human tendency to wander all over the map depending on what prospect looks pleasing at this particular moment.
  2. It creates a flexible framework for applying any standards to our hugely diverse field. One of the core questions guiding the assessment of a museum is “how well does the museum achieve its statement mission?” All the other standards are applied in that context.
  3. It is a public pronouncement of the good we intend to provide for society, justifying our nonprofit status.

The standards loop back to mission repeatedly, for example:

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“The governance, staff and volunteer structures and process effectively advance the mission.”

“the museum owns, exhibits or uses collections that are appropriate to its mission.”

“the museum legally, ethically and responsibly acquires, manages and allocates its financial resources in a way that advances its mission.”

But in my experience, mission statements often act as hobbles, blinkers or excuses, holding a museum back from reaching its full potential and acting in its own best interests and that of its community. Perhaps it’s time to question the central role it plays in our institutions.

Consider this article in which Margaret Coady examines corporate philanthropy. She points out that corporations, by virtue of their size, influence and wealth, have the ability to shape society, acting as “significant catalysts for positive social change.” But she also notes:

“…doing so has traditionally not been a part of a corporate CEO’s job description…CEOs are paid to prioritize delivering the highest financial return to the company’s owners at the expense of all other considerations. Narrowly-defined, this is a CEO’s fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders and it is legally-binding.”

Sort of like a non-profit board member’s duty of loyalty to the mission, eh? Which is also legally binding.

But Coady argues that this narrow definition of fiduciary responsibility creates a false dichotomy. In the long term, tackling social justice issues is actually in a corporation’s best interest. Forgive this extensive quote, but it makes my central case so well:

“…many CEOs are stepping up to a new role inclusive of a concern for societal well-being because they are realizing that the growth path of the business will directly and inevitably intersect with certain social issues. Restricted access to affordable housing, environmental concerns, and a lack of access to water (among countless other societal issues) all have the potential to directly affect the success of a company…CEOs are motivated not only by the rising expectations both inside and outside the company, but also because there is a long-term business benefit to doing so…in this way these leading CEOs are living up to their fiduciary responsibility — but are just redefining that responsibility more broadly and over a longer time horizon. [Emphasis added.] To return the highest profit to shareholders in the future, a company must be part of the solution to societal issues today.”

Whatever the greatest challenges that face our specific communities—food, literacy, employment, immigration, ESL or housing—engaging with these issues is in museums’ long-term business interests. As I’ve remarked before, what is the good of being a great museum in a broken city? Literal adherence to mission may keep us from taking actions needed to heal our communities and create a future in which everyone is able to enjoy the unique benefits museums provide.

Last Friday I was on a panel at George Washington University with Max van Balgooy, founder of Engaging Places and, for many years, director of interpretation and education at the National Trust. Max observed that, in his experience, it is more productive a museum’s staff and board to focus on vision than on mission. How do they want the world to be different because their organization exists? What image do they share of the future the museum will help to create?

The Center for the Future of Museums casts a wide net, monitoring the trends challenging society as a whole, not just our field, because museums are an integral part of our economic, political, cultural, technological and ecological environment. To paraphrase Coady, museums’ “shareholders” are the public, and to return the highest “profit” to our shareholders in the future, we must be part of the solution to societal issues today. Now that is a vision to guide our path to a bright future.

I recommend Coady’s whole article as interesting reading, and welcome your comments, below. Do you think the field needs to revisit our laser-like focus on mission statements? Or just “realize that the growth path of the [museum] will directly and inevitably intersect with certain social issues?” Please weigh in.

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  1. Wow. I find this discussion already amazing. Why do museums feel like they don't or shouldn't have a role in helping impact our societal issues. As institutions trusted by the public, as well as institutions who have a role in learning, how can they not? As Robert Janes, editor of Museum Management and Curatorship writes: “Museums, it is argued here, are one of the few social institutions with vast potential for proactive and effective community engagement.’

    I think mission statements are critical and if it prevents an institutions from taking action in this arena then don't get rid of a mission statement but change it.

    Wayne LaBar
    ALCHEMY studio

  2. @Wayne, Another relevant point about the standards–they leave it completely up to the museum to determine what its mission is. It could be "collecting and interpreting banana peels." Frivolous example, but the standards don't say that missions have to include anything about doing social good or helping their communities. And having read hundreds of museum mission statements, I'm all too familiar with the common trilogy of "collect, preserve, interpret." I see many museums who use this as a boundary, not a starting point. So are we providing a security blanket by saying a) you can pick any mission you want and b) as long as you stick to it, you are being a good museum? If not, does the field start dictating what has to be in a mission statement (daunting prospect) or say there are fundamental obligations to society above and beyond mission? I know many prominent museum practitioners who would say "no" to both suggestions. I hope some of them weigh in to the discussion.

  3. In doing "vision-mission-values" work for many years in the corporate sector, I have learned two things.

    First, most vision-mission formulations are off-key. That is, they either misstate or poorly capture the "real" underlying "soul" of the organization.

    Second, whether well or poorly articulated, organizations can and do hide, dissemble and otherwise ignore the implications of these statements in daily operating mode.

    Board leadership has a critical role is addressing such gaps — what I term "disruptive governance." But often, boards are driving strategic planning exercises and specifically affirm weak or irrelevant vision and mission statements. In short, not much "current" running through Elizabeth's cattle prod metaphor!

    Recently, I have assisted a few organizations where articulating "purpose" has supplanted the tired vision-mission-values triad.

    Wrestling down and articulating an organization's "purpose" can be energizing…it demands a different syntax and connects in a fresh way to the "soul" as above.

    I believe that for museums, struggling with a "purpose statement" gets rather quickly to societal role and civic engagement issues…and the beginnings of an answer to this post's challenge…

    David Curry
    Managing Principal

  4. I was at that panel at George Washington University (part of the Museum Education Program), and I have been thinking about what Max said.

    From my limited experience, it seems that a vision is more of an "outcome" (the desired change in the audience) than an "output" (what we do). Mission statements usually say what the museums DOES or aims to do, while the vision states where the museum wants to GO or where they want their audience to get to.

    Having a destination, rather than a specified road map, leaves an institution more room to decide HOW it's going to get to its goal. Perhaps that is why using a vision for guidance can be conducive to taking important risks and getting involved in social change.

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