Documenting Your Work
Effective evaluation and advocacy is dependent on good documentation of many different facets of your organization. We begin with some basic documentation strategies. The goal of this section is to suggest ways in which information about your organization can be collected and organized to provide you with relatively quick and easy access to long-term core information about your organization to draw upon in answering a variety of questions in different settings, from the boardroom to the press room.
The Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) documents its work using public art as an organizing tool to address contemporary issues. The SPARC website contains photographic portraits of SPARC’s mural projects, as well as video segments and national coverage. SPARC also offers a virtual tour of its building, a former police station and prison that SPARC reclaimed for the arts. Such virtual tours can be an effective tool for conveying the revitalizing potential of a site that has been converted to cultural use.
People are especially drawn to images and stories of regeneration. You should look to include before and after images if all groups in the community would agree they represent community improvement. You should collect items in a variety of media to demonstrate that your work has resulted in rehabilitated buildings, cleaner streets, community garden projects, murals, or festivals. If you provide programming in the local schools, keep track not only of the number of schools and students served, but also examples where teacher lesson plans have been changed because of your programming. If you have played a role in community planning processes for improved mass transit or parks, take photographs or video of the process and take notes that can be assembled into reports of the process, not just the outcomes. If you are working to ameliorate continuing problems in the community, document the evidence of those problems as best you can so that advocacy audiences can visually imagine how the benefits of your work will be reflected in the community.
Real Art Ways, a multidisciplinary contemporary arts organization in Hartford, Connecticut, posts a wide selection of articles on its website.
Many organizations document their visibility and impact with copies of news coverage they have received. This strategy is useful to portray the fact that you are well integrated into your community and doing work that is significant enough that the editor of a newspaper is willing to commit valuable space to your organization. It is always helpful to be able to quote from newspaper articles when describing the economic and social impact of your organization.
Depending on the size of your organization, you may want to dedicate staff time to the clipping of print coverage or hire a clipping service if the volume and breadth of news coverage warrants it.
MASS MoCA, a contemporary art center that opened in 1999, has more than 20 indexed three-ring binders of news clippings going back 12 years before the museum actually opened, ranging from skeptical editorials in the early days to the laudatory reviews of recent years, and even local mentions that may include only a photograph and caption. This historical perspective has been an invaluable resource in demonstrating the perseverance of the museum in overcoming long odds and the success of marketing strategies. Staff regularly incorporate these articles for advocacy and planning purposes.
You should also consider maintaining a database of advertising purchases by your organization. For each ad placement, you should record the date(s) it appeared, the cost, the focus of the message, the primary zip codes served by that media outlet, and the estimated circulation or audience measure for the particular publication or program in which your ad was placed. This has obvious utility for your future marketing plans, but it also can be important data (along with the press record) for evaluating your organization’s role in drawing tourists, driving growth in the media industry, and shaping a positive image and identity for your community.
An organization’s economic impact is sometimes most easily understood in terms of how much money it brings into the neighborhood and how that money gets spent. Surprisingly, many arts managers would be hard-pressed to explain how their budget has evolved over the past 10 or 15 years, but such changes can speak volumes about an organization’s growing impact and serve as critical data input for more complex quantitative analyses.
We suggest you look in your files containing past Audited Financial Statements (if your organization conducts an audit) or IRS Form 990 filings (if your organization doesn’t conduct an audit but is a 501(c)3 nonprofit required to file with the IRS) (http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/f990.pdf). Create a system for having key financial information readily available for analysis going back as long as possible (20 years is ideal if your organization has been in existence that long). This is the type of project that can be undertaken by an intern.
There are several options for systematizing the information. The best choice is to enter key revenue and expense data from the audited financial statements or the appropriate data from each year’s Form 990 into a spreadsheet with each additional column representing a new year. Once in the form of a spreadsheet, the data can be more easily distributed and viewed for analysis purposes.
Less preferable options include scanning the statement of operations and the balance sheet from each year’s audit or Form 990 to create pdf files that can be kept together in electronic form. As an alternative, you could photocopy the pages and maintain an accessible folder containing them for each year available, which could then be provided to an analyst (on your own staff or an outside expert) upon request.
Isn’t my organization’s Form 990 information already available at Guidestar? Yes, several of your Form 990 filings can be accessed in digital form for free at www.guidestar.org. Additional years can be accessed if you are a fee-paying subscriber, but even these only go back so far. Also, the most recently digitized data on Guidestar tends to be about two years old. The picture provided from Guidestar is an incomplete one, and you are better off assembling the data internally for easy reference, especially if you conduct audits of your financial statements and can work from audit reports instead of Form 990 filings.
Audit formats vary significantly. You will have to use your judgment about what information to record and what information to leave out or condense. Your objective should be to capture the major income and expense categories, and the major asset and liability categories.
Most arts executives find that their operating budget formats differ considerably from the audited financial statements or Form 990 formats, and many grassroots organizations aren’t even required to file a Form 990. It is recommended, then, to maintain a file of year-end actual expense and revenue budgets in the format you use for tracking operations throughout the year. When making economic impact estimates, an analyst will sometimes find it helpful to consult both formats to better understand the allocation of resources.
An arts organization’s economic impact is sometimes examined through the lens of the people it employs, in which case it can be quite helpful to maintain a spreadsheet recording some basic information on your past and current employees. To the extent that you are able to do so, we recommend that you assemble the information contained in the following table (going back 5 years if possible):
This information has multiple potential uses. The number of full and part-time employees is often used in economic impact analyses. In addition, an awareness of the number of volunteers can help an organization articulate the programming or projects that might not otherwise be possible without volunteer efforts.
Every arts administrator would appreciate having more audience data but knows that the desire for data must be weighed against the cost required to improve box office staffing and equipment. There is also the potential inconvenience or annoyance to visitors in asking them to spend longer at the box office and provide more demographic data or other personal information.
If you are ambitious about data collection, you can use a number of different ticketing software options to collect the full street address of all (or most) of your audience members, as well as the dates they attended, the number of people in their group, membership status, and the broad age-range of the group members (adult, youth, senior, etc.). This information has obvious marketing and fundraising value, but can also be put to excellent use in economic and social impact analysis.
Many organizations choose not to invest in the staff and software necessary for such detailed data tracking as described above, but instead track the zip codes of visitors and count the number of visitors coming through the door each day. Such data are not as burdensome to collect and still allow evaluators to draw conclusions about the cultural tourism impact of an organization, as well as characterizations of the diversity of the neighborhoods from which visitors are drawn and with which the organization is building linkages.
Whether or not you undertake detailed visitor tracking or zip code collection on an ongoing basis, we recommend that you consider conducting periodic visitor surveys to document your audience. There are many ways to go about implementing a survey project, and we recommend finding appropriate partners to assist in such endeavors. We discuss this further in the Partnering section of this toolkit.
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