Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Demographic Digging

I'm not necessarily a numbers person (okay, almost every museum person I've ever met says the same thing) but I've found myself increasingly interested in both demographic data and information that can be gained from relatively informal online surveys done by small organizations. Earlier in my career I spent lots of time with manuscript censuses from the 19th century--looking for information like how many barrels of apples did a farm produce, or how many mills were in a community. But now my emphasis has changed.

When doing strategic and interpretive planning, I work with organizations to gain a fuller understanding of their own communities--and I've found that many of us don't actually understand our communities that well. We tend to have our own perspectives and to operate within our own social groups. To combat that, a trip online to the US Census is a great thing.

What can you learn here? Whether the population of your county or city is increasing or decreasing; whether you have a higher percentage of people over 65 than in the rest of your state; that half of the children in your county live below the poverty line; that a substantial number of your community members speak something other than English as their first language. All of those numbers--and many more--can have significant implications for how you think about your museum. What kinds of implications: do you need to put an emphasis on free programming to draw families and children who might not be regular museum visitors? Those over 65 are different than they used to be--but with a big group, it suggests both audience and volunteers. English as a second language speakers: consider how to integrate their history and traditions into your work. If you're a board member or director, set aside some time at a board meeting to really explore the information about the place you live and work.

Where else to look for information? Check out your local tourist agency. They may be able to provide you with visitation statistics from other organizations and the kinds of queries that visitors pose to them. Online surveys reveal attitudes but also some fascinating information. I've had people say that older people will never take an online survey; but in one survey, 92% of the members responding were over 50. Good news for reaching people online; perhaps not such good news for long-term membership growth. Still looking: economic development agencies, school districts and more have loads of information online.

And don't forget--everyone can learn about your organization as well. Guidestar has virtually every recent tax return for virtually every non-profit organization in the United States. What does the 990 tell you? In brief, how an organization makes and spends the money your donors give you.

Image: 1950 census taker, courtesy of the US Census Bureau

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