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Strategic Budgeting: Eight Ideas to Help Finances Power Your Priorities

Category: Alliance Blog
A mechanic inspecting under the hood of a car
If a strategic plan is a sports car, a budget is the engine powering it, says a museum COO.

Every dollar that enters your museum has the power to advance your mission. It can fund your highest priorities, create goodwill with your community, and engage your staff. Why, then, is a single dollar ever wasted or diverted?

One reason is that the budget process in many institutions doesn’t adequately support and mirror the strategic planning process. A strategic plan represents what a museum says it will do. It’s glossy and ambitious. It’s a sports car. But a budget reveals what’s actually under the hood. It’s the engine. And what good is a sports car if the engine can’t power it?

Given this reality, you would think the museum field would invest considerable time and energy into resource management. But do we? Consider for a moment how much time your staff invests in planning exhibitions, public programs, and outreach. Dozens of hours. Hundreds of hours. Thousands of hours. This is only right—these are mission-specific activities; they should be our focus. But how much time does your staff or board invest in planning and maintaining the budget that supports these activities? A handful of hours perhaps—at least for those who aren’t in a financial position.

Now look at a recent staff meeting agenda for your museum. It might include discussions of upcoming exhibitions or new educational initiatives. But it probably doesn’t include a single topic related to budgets or financial issues. The museum field is obsessed with strategy, but we don’t talk about budgets very often.

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How can we change this? Here are a few ways you can better connect your budget to your strategy:

1. Stop leading with numbers.

If your budget discussions are only about numbers, you’re missing an opportunity. Ground budget discussions in priorities and strategy instead. Allow staff and board members the breathing room to really talk about what the coming year holds and what they hope to accomplish in it. What are they concerned about; where do they need more support? Let the numbers follow their answers.

We’ve been putting this into practice at the Chazen Museum of Art. For instance, we recently started a budget planning session by listing off each department’s top three priorities for the year. In that first discussion, we barely mentioned any of the dollar amounts involved in achieving those priorities. Those will come later.

2. Understand what a budget reveals.

If you look at your budget, you should see your strategic plan gazing back at you. An outsider should be able to look at it and understand the strategic direction of the museum.

For example, like many museums, the Chazen has committed to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI). DEAI initiatives are part of every single staff member’s performance plan, so they are now transparent on our budget. We have even started to mark those items so they’re easily recognizable, which creates greater accountability and momentum. While we all hope DEAI will just naturally pervade everything we do, in reality a new direction needs commitment, which means money. If it’s not on your budget, then it means it’s not really a priority. Put your money where your mouth is and use your funding to power your highest priorities.

3. Follow the cadence.

Strategic planning usually starts with a lot of energy. Everyone’s excited and there are regular check-ins and updates. Then the fatigue sets in and the progress reports start to fall off. Pretty soon, no one remembers what’s even on the plan.

Budgeting, on the other hand, has built-in intervals—fiscal year planning, quarterly or monthly reviews, and so on. Its nature is cyclical and iterative. Use these touchpoints to check in on your strategic planning as well. Budgeting can support strategic planning, which often suffers from a lack of a consistency, with its structure and momentum.

4. Zero it out.

Instead of rubber-stamping your budget from year to year, try practicing zero-based budgeting, which begins from the ground up. This way, staff and board members have to reexamine and justify every item before it’s added to the budget. This can be an effective way of shaking out the cobwebs and reviewing where each dollar goes.

You probably won’t want to use this method every year, but it can be a helpful way to reset. For example, after the pandemic, we chose to return to a round of zero-based budgeting to reexamine our priorities. The process can also clarify which of your museum’s expenses are discretionary. The rent might not be discretionary, for instance, but continuing to use dollars for that tired public program is actually a choice.

5. Take a bird’s-eye view.

It’s important to invite senior staff members into the planning process to share their own goals and initiatives, which can build consensus and investment. But it’s even more important for someone to take a bird’s-eye view and bring all of these goals together.

For example, the education department might have an ambitious plan to introduce a new public program, revamp the docent program, and partner with another organization on a new initiative. While all of these things relate to the museum’s mission, they have to be balanced with the curatorial department’s need to extensively document and photograph a large artwork donation. The budget should serve the institution’s highest priorities, which may require adjustments and redistribution across departments.

6. Lead with your goals.

Sometimes we’re led all over the place by generous donors or granting organizations, and this isn’t always a good thing. Yes, we should be agile and open to new opportunities, but it’s easy to be distracted by shiny things and lose sight of our own long-term priorities. If you’re reviewing a grant opportunity to determine what activity you could create to land the funding, you’ve lost your focus. If you’re accepting funding for something that isn’t clearly aligned with your strategic plan, then you should reconsider. Identify your priorities first, stay laser-focused on them, and then find ways to fund them.

For example, the Chazen Museum recently partnered with MASK Consortium and artist Sanford Biggers to launch a collaborative project called re:mancipation. Nearly all of the museum’s funding requests since have been focused on this priority. This also required forgoing grant proposals that were for less important projects.

7. Make hard choices.

Your budget is finite. Your strategic plan needs to be finite as well. Have you ever gotten to the end of a strategic planning process and quickly scribbled something brief in the resources section? “Oh, maybe an existing staff member can just coordinate this in addition to all of the other things they’re doing.”

By the end of planning, we are so invested in our (too numerous) objectives to admit that we don’t have the resources to achieve them. If a new initiative is important, then you have two choices: take something else off the plate, or increase capacity to support it. If you don’t do one of these two things, something will be neglected; it might be your highest-priority initiative, the morale and energy of your staff, or your financial sustainability. It’s better to take something off the plate voluntarily before you lose something more valuable.

Failing to back initiatives with real capacity is a surefire way to fail. Cull, cull, and cull again. Now you’re left with the things you refuse to give up. These are the things that deserve your limited funding and staff time.

8. Invert your strategic plan.

Instead of more and more, see if you can do less and less. Strip away the old initiatives, or the ones that don’t make enough of an impact. Refuse to continue initiatives that take considerable staff resources and time but don’t significantly advance your mission. Dedicate a planning session to identify what you will no longer do. Or better yet, focus on how you’ll bring in more resources, staff, and funding to support what your institution already does well. Grow your capacity, not your initiatives.

For example, the Chazen Museum made the decision to reduce the number of temporary exhibitions it stages, in acknowledgement that they are very time-consuming and resource-intensive. The exhibitions that it does choose to host or create are selected carefully for their impact and alignment with strategy.

Your budget is a powerful driver for advancing your institutional mission and vision. By staying focused on your highest priorities, doing less, and increasing capacity instead of initiatives, you can leverage the budget process to support your strategic direction. Strategic planning provides an important road map for the future of your institution, but don’t forget to check under the hood to be sure your budget can power your journey.

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