Monday, 6 February 2012

Building trust

Image taken from the article Sixty museums in search of a purpose in The Art Newspaper
Last summer, in one of the sessions of the fellowship at the Kennedy Center, we did a very interesting exercise. We participated in a sort of brainstorming regarding certain projects the DeVos Institut for Arts Management should get involved in. The criterion was not the interest of the projects themselves. They all were. But not all of them fit in the Institute´s mission, which is to train, support and empower arts managers and their boards locally, nationally and internationally. Just that. Clear, concise and complete, as all mission statements should be.

A concrete mission statement is the basis of every stategic plan. In the manual Strategic planning in the arts. A practical guide, written by Michael Kaiser, the author identifies six elements that should be considered when defining an institution´s mission. I consider three of them to be basic, applicable to all cases: the product/service; the audience; the geographic scope. Kaiser also mentions repertory and education, but I don´t think they are applicable to all cultural institutions and, anyway, they are part of the broader product/service definition. He also refers to quality, in the sense of the level of performance desired, but I believe that this issue is mainly related to our capacity (and obligation) to be realistic when defining our mission´s three basic elements.

It was very interesting to read András Szántó´s article Sixty museums in search of a purpose, where he analyses the mission statements of 60 american art museums. Apart from a semiological analysis, he raises questions like: “Should a mission describe what a museum is doing, or what it should be doing? Is it about tangible goals to which institutions are held accountable, or platonic ideals to which they merely aspire? Should a museum’s mission offer an inventory of assets and activities, or will it work best as a crystallisation of core principles? How will it reflect a museum’s take on cultural progress, audience demographics, funding sources and technological opportunity?”.

Going back to what I said before, a mission statement must be clear, concise and complete. Coherent, as well. It may not allow for different interpretations; it must be easily remembered (and ‘recited’) by all employees as well as external ‘customers’ (audiences, partners, sponsors); it must refer to all the areas in which the institution develops its activity; and it must be coherent, because it must make sense and be realistic. Thus, I would say that the mission should not be limited to what is actually being done, but it should also refer to what an institution realistically aspires to, in the short or medium term. And it shouldn´t be an exhaustive list of the concrete actions to be developed in order to reach the announced objectives (this should be part of the strategic plan). I had previously touched on this subject, in the post Vision, mission, strategy, where I was suggesting the reading of the mission statements of the Gulbenkian Foundation programme “Descobrir” and of the Casa da Música Education Service. They are still two of my favourite, mainly because of the choice of words and the vision they both transmit. Nevertheless, if we asked the people who are working to make them come true, would they be able to repeat them?

Writing a mission statement is not an easy task, should we want (and we must want) it to meet the above mentioned requirements. Fulfilling it is equally, or even more, difficult. There is a need for discipline, persistence. But, is there another way of tracing a clear path, following it (without unnecessary and/or harmful deviations) and evaluating our success? Following our mission is also a guarantee for an efficient and effective management of human and financial resources. And finally, an advantage in the creation of a distinct identity in the market; in other words, the definition and fulfillment of the mission are a branding instrument.

In this sense, I stronlgy recommend the article The cure for the not-for-profit crisis. The authors maintain that the decrease in the value of donations for not-for-profit sectors (such as the social and the cultural), registered in 2010, did not affect all institutions the same way. They talk of a “crisis of coherence”, of the lack of a strategy that connects the mission of some (many) institutions to their ability to deliver a specific service. Those who suffered the most from the decrease in donations were actually those that were more versatile in terms of mission and objectives (often in order to please possible sponsors). On the other hand, those which demonstrated that they had and followed a clear mission, which orientated their whole activity, which allowed them to demonstrate coherence and rigor, have not felt the same impact. A clear mission, coherence and rigor build trust. And, quite probably, the wish to ‘be part of’. Is this a surprise?

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