The Challenges and Opportunities of Institutional Outreach (Part I)
– by Tim Hoogland
In the SHA Wednesday Workshop at the AASLH annual meeting in Louisville, the 20 participants discussed the role of outreach in historical organizations. In separate blog posts Tim Hoogland of the Minnesota Historical Society (SHA Class of ’08) and Stacia Kuceyeski of the Ohio History Connection (SHA Class of ’12) will share insights from their presentations.
Understanding Outreach and Engaging Educational Audiences
In preparing for the 2015 Wednesday Workshop, I reflected on the often used adage, “The best defense is a good offense.” As historical organizations wrestle with the challenges of maintaining (or growing) visitation, building new audiences, generating revenue, and meeting their missions, there are an increasing number of positions housed under the umbrella of “Outreach.” One rationale for this trend would hold that outreach staff would be freed of the confines of a museum or historic site and be able to build layers of audience engagement that do not depend on visitors and tickets. Simply put, outreach staff put institutions “on the offense” in ways that will ultimately support — and defend — the core functions of museums, collections and interpretive programs.
Many of the participants in the workshop shared that their institutions had not engaged in discussions about the definition of outreach or its place in their strategic plans. Thus, the first exercise of the workshop was for everyone to craft a definition. Although my definition continually evolves, here is the current version:
“The coordinated delivery of a program, product, or service to an audience that is not dependent on access to regularly scheduled resources at a museum, archive and/or historic site.”
Although the definitions shared by the rest of the group varied greatly, they used similar vocabulary: Engagement; Service; Connection, Relationship, Inclusion — were all common themes.
In the discussion that followed, it became clear that the core value of outreach was in the creation of relationships as opposed to the focus on transactions that are core visitor metrics. Even with some definition, the boundaries of outreach can be hard to pin down. What’s in, and what’s out? The web? Field services? Public programs on site? Traveling exhibits? Publications?
Whatever the definition or the boundaries you put on it, OUTREACH has become a critical component of the programs of historical organizations as they confront the changing realities of serving their audiences.
Outreach can create opportunities to engage with traditional audiences who have aged out, or opted out, of visitation to museums and historic sites. In turn, outreach can build relationships with emerging audiences and create pathways to deeper connections with your organization.
In my own work with K-12 and higher education here are some of the lessons I have learned:
Outreach efforts must align with mission
Like any endeavor of your organization, outreach has to align with mission. But this may require high level discussions to build common understanding of this alignment and how outreach efforts complement existing programs. The mission of the Minnesota Historical Society has evolved from the idea of “connecting people to history to help them gain perspective on their lives” to the current mission of “Using the power of history to transform lives.” Both of these statements embrace outreach beyond our institutional walls — especially with educational programs.
Develop programs in strategic increments
Building outreach capacity needs to be done in steps. Sustainability will be enhanced with pilot programs that can be grown to scale based on evaluation outcomes, solid funding strategies, and incorporation into the strategic plan.
Evaluate and document
Because outreach programs often take place outside of the “home base” of your organization, it is critical to develop effective evaluation plans and to document your programs with photography, video, and participant testimonials. You need to find compelling means to share the impact, and the “look and feel” of this work with internal and external stakeholders.
Connect outreach programs to a larger social purpose and embrace partnerships
In addition to connecting with mission, outreach programs provide the opportunity for your organization to connect itself to larger challenges in the community, state, and/or nation. Working with partners is critical to this effort as they provide access to key audiences and amplify the impact of your efforts.
“Connect the dots” back to internal partners
Be ready to connect relationships created through outreach programs to other resources within your organization. For example, K-12 outreach programs create the opportunity to build pathways for student and family visitation to the home museum or historic site. Given the challenges of building visitation through traditional channels and social media, investing in outreach relationships can be a cost effective strategy for audience development.
Outreach should have catalytic effects
Building pathways to visitation is a basic example of the catalytic effects of outreach, but the layers of impact grow with sustained efforts. In Minnesota, the National History Day program illustrates how outreach efforts create “ripples” throughout our institution:
- History Day participation has grown from 125 students to 25,000 students, and is the primary connection for MNHS to support classroom history instruction across all regions of the state.
- History Day helped MNHS re-engage with the University of Minnesota and this partnership is building toward the collaborative development of a graduate program in Heritage Studies and Public History.
- The base of 25,000 participants created over 90,000 points of service to students, parents, teachers and volunteers. This places History Day as the “fourth most visited” entity at MNHS — just behind the state capitol.
- History Day engagement led to the successful recruitment of two members of the MNHS governing board…including the past president of the University of Minnesota.
- History Day alumni consistently find staff positions, and service to urban schools helped build the foundation of our Department of Inclusion and Community Engagement.
- The success of History Day allowed MNHS staff to write state education standards for historical inquiry.
And the list goes on…
Historical organizations can be an important catalyst for change on many fronts. Understanding how outreach plays a role in fully realizing the potential of these organizations to add value to their communities — especially in K-12 education — is a challenge worth taking.
Director of Education Outreach Programs
Minnesota Historical Society
Affiliated Instructor of History
University of Minnesota