How Museums Can Better Align Their Systems

Steve Jacobson

Chief Executive Officer

Steve, founder of JCA, has provided systems consulting and implementation services to a number of clients, including Carnegie Hall, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The American Museum of Natural History, New York Botanical Garden, and the National Constitution Center.
June 01, 2023

Last month, I had the good fortune of attending the Alliance of American Museum’s (AAM’s) annual conference in Denver. I really enjoyed catching up with clients, vendors, and other industry insiders (you know who you are!), some of whom I hadn’t seen in three years.  

Conferences like this also afford me the opportunity to meet new people. When I explain JCA’s focus of helping nonprofits articulate and solve their operational challenges around development, membership, and ticketing/admissions, they invariably ask me what the best system is. Like any good consultant, my answer tends to be, “that depends.” No, that’s not a cop-out. JCA is a system agnostic organization, meaning we don’t play favorites. And after over three decades in the industry, I can tell you with certainty that no two organizations have the exact same needs and priorities. As a result, no one system is going to be the right system for everyone. 

That’s why it’s important, before you demo any new systems, to back up and start at the beginning by clearly identifying what your key objectives are. Do you want to better engage your museum’s visitors? Do you want to improve your back-office efficiencies? Do you want to gain more insight into audience behavior? These objectives aren’t mutually exclusive; you may want to achieve all of these—and more. 

Once you’ve laid this foundation, it’s important to do a thorough needs assessment. Given the multitude of museum systems to choose from, it’s important not to lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish. A needs assessment takes stock of your organization’s requirements and gives you an objective framework for evaluating software on an apples-to-apples basis. Without a proper assessment, you might not be asking the right questions or weighing the significance of certain functions and features that actually address your objectives.  

Museums need to manage a number of functional areas that often have different requirements: ticketing/admissions, membership, development, retail, food and beverage, events, marketing, volunteers, programming, education, and finance all have specific needs. While it would be great to have one system manage it all, the reality is that one system can typically only manage a subset of a museum’s functions, leaving other systems to handle the rest. For example, you may find a single system that can effectively manage your ticketing, membership, and fundraising needs, but cannot effectively manage your gift shop or cafe. This becomes a challenge when your goal is to create a 360-degree view of a patron and their data is spread across multiple systems with no easy way to tie it all together.  

In such cases, we like to think of these systems as puzzle pieces that need to be interconnected. Much like a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces can fit together easily when those systems are designed to talk with one another. Conversely, if there’s not a natural fit, it can only be done through brute force with a lot of manual hard work and challenges.  

As you begin to think through a comprehensive plan for addressing your data management and technology needs, think of it as your data ecosystem. Your data ecosystem is a complex network of interconnected systems formed by people, processes, and data. ​Each component interacts with each other and the surrounding environment and plays an important role. It’s important to design your data ecosystem thoughtfully, from the start, by truly understanding your organization’s goals, challenges, and requirements, to find the right solution to meet them. 

Align Your Technology with Your Nonprofit’s Strategic Focus 

A smart approach to transformation always starts with a clear understanding of where you stand today and where you want to go. Our advisory consultants apply decades of firsthand experience working for nonprofits to deliver an unbiased perspective on what actions to take and when to take them. 

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