The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

Measuring Total Impact

By John W. Jacobsen
Excerpted from Dimensions
May/June 2019

A museum aspires to impact its community, audiences, and supporters. In turn, the community, audiences, and supporters receive benefits from the museum. Impacts are the effects desired by the museum; benefits are what matter to the beneficiaries. The distinction is important. Both are end results, or outcomes, of the museum’s activities. Both should be intentional and both should be measured.
Without ways to measure our impacts and benefits, museums will remain unaccountable in a world that now demands accountable results. Museums risk being sidelined, while we ardently believe we are central to the educational, social, cultural, and economic workings of a healthy community. Of course, science centers and other museums have value, but how do we, as museum professionals, measure the impacts and benefits that museums provide their communities? Yes, our STEM learning outcomes are both quantifiable and valued, but we offer so much more. I believe that studying the alignment of a museum’s multiple purposes and its resulting impacts and benefits will yield data that will improve perceptions of a museum’s actual value. Expanding the use of data from tactical operations to strategic decisions informs and supports a science center’s:

• Advocacy and fundraising: Public officials and private donors are increasingly demanding data as evidence of our accomplishments.

• Planning: Data from our track records and our peers inform both what we should be planning for and how much we should expect it to cost and deliver.

• Administration: Leadership uses data to set realistic objectives and to monitor how we are doing, motivating each department’s role toward an overall vision.

Museum administrators need measurements to prove our value and advocate for our institutions, but more fundamentally, we need the right metrics to drive progress toward our goals so that we can improve the human condition and preserve the trust the public has in museums. In a nutshell, we need measurements to make museums better. 
But what kinds of better? That is your choice. This article shares a process for selecting, collecting, analyzing, and applying data that can work for any museum, but the content for any individual museum can vary widely. Every museum is unique, as are its community and the current environment, and there is no one set of metrics that will apply to all science centers, much less all museums. 
 Perhaps science centers short-change themselves when all they do is count and evaluate their STEM learning impacts. Your science center does so much more. Often this “mission focus” has detrimental effects, such as segregating staff and public services into “mission-central” and “mission-supporting” camps. It takes courage to move beyond how you want to change the world to incorporate what your audiences and supporters want you to provide as well. The late museum sage Stephen E. Weil recognized that in the vast potential outcomes available to a museum lies complexity: What this complexity suggests is that, over time, the museum field will need to develop a vast arsenal of richer and more persuasive ways to document and/or demonstrate the myriad and beneficial outcomes that may occur for their individual visitors and have impact on the community beyond. (Weil, 2003, p. 53)
The first step is to determine and prioritize a manageable number of purposes and then identify desired impacts and benefits for each of these. Your museum’s STEM outcomes may remain your top priority, but they will be joined by other purposes that may have been uncounted and unclaimed. For instance, function rentals, blockbuster exhibitions, and evening IMAX films can serve the purposes of providing a community gathering place, increasing tourism, and adding to the vitality of the neighborhood.

What kinds of impacts and benefits do museums have? The White Oak Institute analyzed a database of 1,025 museum indicators of impact and performance (MIIP 1.0 is freely available at www.whiteoakassoc. com/library.html) and found 14 categories of potential museum impacts and benefits.

These categories of potential museum contributions and benefits fall under four impact sectors and include seven categories of public impacts (broadening participation, preserving heritage, strengthening social capital, enhancing public knowledge, serving education, advancing social change, and communicating public identity and image); two private impacts (contributing to the economy, and delivering corporate community services); three personal impacts (enabling personal growth, offering personal respite, and welcoming personal leisure); and two institutional impacts (helping museum operations, and building museum capital) (Jacobsen, 2016).
Some impacts and benefits may show up in more than one of the categories above. STEM outcomes, for instance, appear in serving education because of their impact on schools; in advancing social change for promoting environmental conservation; and in enabling personal growth for improving visitor learning. Most science centers provide some degree of impacts or benefits in most of these categories. All major categories should be measured and counted.

A purpose or goal, if successfully achieved through the museum’s activities, should produce its planned results, which should be observable by tracking predetermined indicators (key performance indicators or KPIs) that are qualitatively and/or quantitatively measureable through data. At our institute, we call this a PIID Sequence, which stands for purposes, desired impacts, indicators of that impact, and data fields.

The weight of an iceberg is indicated by the weight of ice above the water line, but the full weight of the iceberg is a much larger number; so too with impact indicators. In practice, measuring an indicator becomes informative when we are able to measure changes in that indicator over time or compare it to peers. Most indicators work best in comparisons, not as absolute measurements. If a science center’s percentage of teachers booking repeat school tours increases, then the center may be able to claim that professional educators are finding more value in their tours. Of course there may be other reasons why more teachers are coming back, such as competitive pricing, targeted marketing, and ease of transportation. Communicating with the teachers can identify the reasons for changes in indicator data. For this reason, we like to operate by the mantra: “Measure constantly; evaluate periodically.”
Benefits can differ from impacts: A family visiting an aquarium receives the benefit of a quality family experience, while the aquarium’s desired impact on the family might be to heighten awareness of conserving biodiversity. Alternatively, the benefits and impacts can be aligned: New parents bring their toddler to a children’s museum to see her develop and learn with new kinds of challenges; the children’s museum’s mission is also child development. Studying the alignment between a museum’s benefits and impacts may illuminate inefficiencies. Some degree of misalignment may be desirable for strategic or advocacy reasons, but too much may be inefficient and unsustainable.
Once a museum identifies its desired impacts and benefits and selects the data to measure those changes, then it has defined how it measures its success. Continuing to provide the same level of total impacts and benefits, pro-rated for population growth and inflation, should be defined as modest continuing success; growth of those services is victory.
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