Thursday, May 6, 2010

Who's bored now?

To Kidcity's visitors: I'm blogging from the national children's museum conference in St. Paul, Minnesota...I promise that I'll get back to regular Kidcity news soon!

I just came from a session here at the ACM conference that was so boisterous that it was almost impossible to get a word in edgewise -- which is kind of funny since it's a topic that most people would consider a bit dry.

It was about how to create financial reports for children's museums.

That's probably why Mike Yankovich from the CM of Denver showed this slide of someone snoring...that was right before his presentation was pretty much hi-jacked by people in the room who kept jumping in with their two-cents.

I know some people find this stuff dull, but for this crowd, it was like being in a room full of Star Trek geeks and then Leonard Nimoy shows up to chat.

So what should be measured at children's museums? Is it just about ticket sales and gift shop income? Or how the fundraising does? Or whether there's enough in the bank to make payroll? (ok, that last one IS pretty important.)

And who wants to know this stuff?

My friends in the children's museum field know that I am a fiend for data - where are visitors from? How did this weekend compare to the same weekend last year, and what was the weather? Are we using more paper towels and less Purell? I really love this stuff. Basically, I think you can't have too much information when you are trying to understand why people might choose to come play at your museum.

The folks in this session were my soulmates: at least 5 people weighed in on the question of whether to track the depreciation rate of exhibits. In other words, should you measure how quickly your exhibits are "used up" - and is that a question of whether something needs to be replaced because it's broken, or is it just that your adult visitors might wait to bring their kid to the museum until you are advertising something "new". A few people proposed that it's an opportunity to educate visitors about how repeat visits to the same exhibit are the best thing developmentally for kids. As Concetta from Please Touch Museum in Philly said: "I gotta ask, how many times did you read Good Night Moon to your kid?" (Our exhibits at Kidcity are permanent for just that reason.)

Personally, I've grown to love measuring depreciation - no matter why you need to change an exhibit, you should understand how much of your physical plant you are "spending" every day - and if you let your rate of investment dip below that level, well then you are running a deficit no matter what your bank account tells you.

The springboard for all this conversation was the system that the museum in Denver is using to track their "Key Performance Indicators". They set a goal - like understanding their audience. Then they measure the diversity of their audience in both socioeconomic and ethnic terms - and not just by tracking zip codes. Their method of spending the occasional week asking every visitor to take a survey drew a lot of pointed questions - exactly how do they get a response rate of 70% - that's pretty high. Mike's advice was "keep it short." Their fire truck exhibit is visible from the door, and he said it's like it's a magnet and the kids are made of steel - there's no way that a grown-up is going to be able to answer more than a few quick questions. Also, he found that just explaining that the survey would help the museum do a better job serving its visitors was a motivator. After they've got the data, they compare it to their targets. For example, under the goal of Financial Sustainability, they had goals like "having 90 days of cash on hand", and having a ratio of earned to contributed income of at least 50:50.

By the way, in Denver, with a staff of 42 FTE's, and 269,000 visitors in 10,000 sq. ft. of exhibits, they are claiming the mantle of "most crowded children's museum in the country." Sounds plausible.

As we were wrapping up, Janet Rice Elman, the association's exec director, weighed in with her advice on how to make sure that all the people that need to know the numbers can get them - ACM uses Base Camp, an online system for sharing documents, which lets the association board members easily view all the financial reports, and also tracks who is actually logging on. That helps keep everyone in the same information loop. That's something I'll be looking into for Kidcity.

It seems that a number of us are in pursuit of the Holy Grail - a simple but accurate set of indicators that would give you a real snapshot of the current and future health of your museum. A dashboard that would tell you at a glance - is this bus taking us where we want to go?

On the other hand, though simple is good, I can think of lots of things we don't track very well at Kidcity - how many costumes do we go through in our dress-up room, how many people choose to buy a membership after spending a few hours with us, what kinds of things get in the way of families deciding to come play (I'm not even sure how we'd measure that, but I'd sure like to know!)

In my opinion, the mother of all data points is the number of people who choose of their own free will to come visit your museum, followed closely by how far they are willing to travel. You can have really terrific bookkeeping systems, and impressive grant reports, but if you have to advertise like crazy just to get people in the door, then I'd suggest that it's more important to have a fun and worthwhile museum than great reporting systems. The truth is, it's not an either or choice - if you make the numbers your friend, they help you make your museum thrive by any measure.

P.S. Here's a tip for anyone in the business of making software for children's museums - like Vista, Blackbaud, Explora, and our own PayGo, a Filemaker program. Someone could make a lot of children's museums very happy if they would create a system that actually works well for running the cash register, connecting with the bookkeeping programs, tracking the donors, members and school groups, managing the gift shop inventory, keeping the calendar for parties and events and sending the occasional email blast. Is that really too much to ask? So far, the answer would seem to be yes!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Better than being there (for those of us who can't be)! Thanks Jen, Gina