My name is Kari Ross Nelson. I am the Research and Evaluation Associate at Thanksgiving Point Institute and an independent consultant to museums and other informal learning organizations in the greater Salt Lake City area. My team at Thanksgiving Point is the research partner on an IMLS-funded project, Measurement of Museum Social Impact (MOMSI). This post shares background about and lessons learned from MOMSI.
Questions of impact were being raised even before challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and racial and social inequities in the US over the past few years. Those questions are even more critical now, not only due to competitive funding opportunities, but to living true to the core values museums espouse. By developing an open-access toolkit, the MOMSI project aims to help museums of all sizes to assess their social impact and evaluate themselves in terms of service to their communities.
In today’s social climate, many in the museum field feel the need to evaluate their past and current practices and strategize what kind of impact they want to have. In fact, the 2022-2025 strategic plan for the American Alliance of Museums lists “Social and Community Impact” as one of four priorities. When museum professionals talk about making an impact, often they are referring to the educational, economic, and social dimensions. The first two are relatively straightforward to document. Social dimensions, however, are more nuanced. Yet measuring social impact is one way museums can move forward and evaluate how they are (or are not) of service to their community.
At MOMSI, we’re defining social impact as the effect of an activity on the social fabric of a community and the well-being of the individuals and families who live there, and measuring it based on four long-term outcomes: health and wellbeing, valuing diverse communities, continued education and engagement, and strengthened relationships. The project has recruited 38 museums across the United States to pilot an instrument that generates data about the social impact of museums on individuals in their communities, while informing a toolkit (available late 2023) that will increase the capacity of museums to address this need individually in the future.
Recognize that measuring impact is tricky! As with any evaluation, start by defining what you mean by “impact” and your organization’s motivations for wanting to know about it.
Developing a vetted and validated instrument is a complex undertaking. If this is not part of your existing skill set, gather advisors who can guide you through the process, and be prepared for it to take time.
Be prepared to defend your methods choices. There are a lot of definitions of impact, approaches to measuring it, and, as we’ve found, a lot of people who will closely examine your work.
Likewise, be open to critique. Sharing your work at conferences is a great way to get helpful feedback, but be prepared to be pushed to new levels. We’ve dreaded some feedback we’ve received knowing it means extra effort, but the increased validity and earned credibility is worth it (see “be prepared to defend your methods” above!)
- Measuring museum impact and performance: theory and practice: Museum analyst and planner John W. Jacobsen provides the theoretical underpinnings as well as the practical application of measuring a museum’s impact. He presents 1,025 indicators drawn from 51 expert sources, allowing individual museums to consider their own priorities and purposes for measuring impact.
- Measurement theory and applications for the social sciences: Yes, a textbook, but a very useful reference! It begins with a history of measurement, then thoughtfully guides the reader through scale development, item writing and analysis, and reliability and validity, as well as more advanced topics.
- MOMSI Project: The website of the MOMSI project. You’ll find a description of the project and updates on current progress.
I have no doubt many reading this will have additional hot tips and rad resources for measuring social impact. Please share them in the comments below!
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