Strategic Planning for Museums and Cultural Institutions

”A year from now, you may wish you had started today” - Karen Lamb

At the end of 2023 we hosted a Strategic Planning for Museums and Cultural Institutions workshop. We've talked to a few directors and want to share their experiences, along with the lessons we've learned from our own planning.

We broke down the workshop into the following topics:

  • Understanding Strategy vs Planning

  • Main Inputs for Strategy

    • Reassing/Refining your Ideal Constituent Profile

    • Your Environment Assessment

  • Working out your vision for the next 3 years

  • How do you win

  • Understanding the financials

  • Quarterly Review and the importance of this cycle

Doing research for the workshop I found two important resources for this part. One article from Harvard Business Review criticizes the planning phase of a strategy. Another article from the same publication tries to explain the difference between the two.

Below is the Harvard Business Review video:

And here is an outline of the differences:

This is a table summarizing the differences between strategy and plantation.Main Inputs for the Strategy

This article outlines the main inputs for your strategy.

  • Ideal Customer Profile & Positioning

  • Environment Assessment

  • The Plan to Win

  • Scenarios and Planning

Your Ideal Customer Profile & Positioning

A key step in creating your strategy is defining and refining your Ideal Customer Profile and positioning. For this, we take inspiration from the great work of April Dunford in her great book Obviously Awesome. Also, if you have not read The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, from Al Ries and Jack Trout, You should.

In her book, she recommends focusing on the people who already love you:

  • The person who talks about your organization

  • The person who feels your passion and supports your organization

  • The person who visits your organization the most

  • The person who is more aligned with the offers of your organization

You may have already done this, but this should be something you do annually or semi-annually. Your organization changes, it grows and it learns. Your environment also changes. 

The first time, it may take you longer, but keeping your constituents engaged will make this process quicker and easier. Make it part of the rhythm of your organization.

Your Current Situation and Environment Assessment

A second crucial part of your process should be your Current Situation and Environment Assessment. We’ve broken down this section into:

  • Existing Challenges

  • Organizational Trends

  • Community Trends

  • Climate Change and Natural Disasters

Existing Challenges:

The point of this exercise is to tackle the issues that are slowing you down. You probably know what they are, and you should be able to ask your direct reports to give you the top 3 main challenges they have in their teams that either:

  • Impact on their ability to perform their work

  • Could significantly improve the experience/satisfaction of your constituents

Get all relevant data that supports these challenges

Organizational Trends:

Your current museum management system should give you all the information you need for this exercise:

  • Decrease/Increase in Memberships?

    • Trend per Membership Program

  • Decrease/Increase in Donations?

    • Trend in Donations Buckets

  • Decrease/Increase in Visitation?

    • Pay attention to peak seasons

  • Decrease/Increase in Programming Income?

  • Decrease/Increase in Rentals and Groups?

  • Decrease/Increase in Shop Purchases

    • Trends in Product Types

Search for areas where the Pareto Principle applies (where 80% of your results stem from 20% of your activities).

Once you have this data, get a little bit into the weeds:

Memberships Income:

  • Best performing level - Why?

  • Worst performing level - Why? Should you cut it?

Donation Income:

  • Higher Donor category increase? Why?

  • Best Performing Campaigns? Why?

  • Worst Performing Campaigns? Why?

  • Number of new Donors? Acceptable?

  • ROI on Fundraising Dept

Grants Income:

  • Number of Grants Applied

  • Funding from grants? Acceptable?

Visitation and Programming:

  • Best performing Events - Why?

  • Worst Performing Events - Why?

Rental Income:

  • Best months for rentals - Why?

  • Best event sources

  • Marketing ROI


  • Best Sellers - Can you do a 10% increase?

  • Worst Sellers - Should you cut it?

  • Best months - why?

  • Worst months - why?

  • Can marketing improve your worst months?

Your Community Trends:

Take a good look at your community, check for any changes, and make sure your institution and what it offers align. Also, a chance to see what works well for other institutions that you can use for your own.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Are new museums opening in your community? Or museums that are closing in your community?

  • What are the trends in your community in terms of demographics that can impact you:

    • Birth and Natality rates

    • Income increase/decrease

    • Marriage and Divorce rates

    • Demographic Distribution

    • Mortality rates

Climate Change and Disaster Recovering:

Please, please do not allow Climate Change to surprised you. A flood or a storm can take you out of business.

  • Is your organization at risk?

  • Do you have the proper insurance?

  • How did climate change impact you last year? Losses? Days closed because bad weather. Any strategic projects that came out from last year’s experience

How do you win?

This is hard because here we need time to think. Try to keep this simple (which is also not easy). Think about all the data you’ve gathered, and try to define the game for the year. Based on all the information you have, here are a few recommendations:

Focus. Double down on your existing strengths, and little by little develop new ones

Think about your existing team and facilities and define:

  • What are your current strengths? How can you expand these?

  • What are the ones you need to get better at, based on the trends you’ve seen at your organization and in your community?

  • What small bets can you make? Things you want to try

  • What section of the population you are not serving, that you could be serving

“If you go to work on your goals, your goals will go to work on you. If you go to work on your plan, your plan will go to work on you. Whatever good things we build, end up building us” - Jim Rohn.

Create your Scenarios and Track your Progress

Based on all the data you have out of your income streams, build a month-per-month scenario on each of your income streams. This allows you to gauge how you are doing. It also allows you to create cost scenarios in case something goes wrong. Even though you can anticipate your cost scenarios, income scenarios can still catch you off guard.

To do this, simply

  1. Build the baseline using last year’s data

  2. Assign percentage for each scenario (for example A is a 60% increase, B is a 30% increase, C is a 10% increase, D is a 0% increase, F is a negative %)

The idea is that once a month closes, you can map it against your forecast and see where you are falling.

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