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Networking with a Purpose: StEPs Groups Help Small Organizations Take a Leap Forward

by Cherie Cook, AASLH Senior Program Manager, on

It’s called StEPs (Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations) and it is AASLH’s entry level assessment program for small- to mid-sized history organizations. Introduced to the field in late 2009 after an IMLS grant funded its development, there are now almost 1,000  organizations across the country using StEPs as a structure for identifying needed changes, planning for the future, and working to achieve national museum standards.

Shortly after introducing StEPs to the field eight years ago, AASLH began encouraging the formation of StEPs groups or “communities of practice.” “But how are groups beneficial in a self-study program?” you might ask.

The answer lies in feedback AASLH received from museums and historic sites that tested the StEPs workbook. As we wrapped up work back in 2009 to develop StEPs, I talked by phone with most of the 47 pilot sites to collect feedback about their experience testing the StEPs workbook. Testing had taken place in six states (Alaska, California, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio and Texas) and two regions (New England and Mid-Atlantic) with five or six pilot sites in each location paired with a service organization.

Although this group arrangement served us well for the purposes of testing, we knew it was an artificial structure given that organizations enrolled in the real StEPs program would be on their own using a self-study format. What I heard from numerous pilot sites, however, was that their experience of being part of a community of practice was highly valued. For some, it was central to their StEPs experience.

That’s me on the left during my field service days in Oklahoma. On my left is colleague Glenda Galvan from the Chickasaw Cultural Center, Ada, Oklahoma.

The more I thought about the pilots’ feedback, the more sense it made especially as I recalled my days of traveling Oklahoma as a field services advisor for the Oklahoma Museums Association and Oklahoma Historical Society. During those five years of crisscrossing the state, I visited many small museums in rural areas where volunteers, board members, and staff (if there was paid staff) had little contact with other history organizations so networking as a way to problem solve and learn new ideas was infrequent at best.

Combine a lack of networking with the absence of locally available training materials and programs (not many small public libraries had specialized books about collections care, writing exhibit labels, etc., and few local colleges or universities offered courses on operating a museum) and an organization could find itself very isolated.

Then combine isolation with the reality that often paid staff and probably 99% of volunteers and board members come to museum work from other professions and jobs and you have a recipe for little growth and even stagnation unless leaders are especially assertive in learning what they need to know about their new work or governing duties. Certainly state and regional museum associations, field service programs, state historical societies, and other agencies offer top-notch technical assistance and training opportunities, but not only do these services vary widely by state, but unfortunately there are plenty of small history organizations that do not avail themselves of these resources.

Map of AASLH member organizations enrolled in StEPs.

Getting back to the StEPs pilots, they told me they valued being a part of a StEPs group because it offered:

  1. An opportunity for regular networking,
  2. Shared learning with other adults,
  3. Validation and empowerment from the realization that other museum organizations faced the same or similar challenges and concerns, and
  4. A mechanism for accountability that expected and encouraged progress.

Elizabeth Wood from Stonington Historical Society in Connecticut spoke to these very benefits when she reported, “This program [StEPs-CT, described below] has been an amazing journey and speaking as a first time executive director, it has given me direction, professional context and standards, and a network of like institutions that share many of the same questions and quandaries.”

When I first wrote about StEPs groups in 2014, they were still in the early stages but we were already seeing exciting accomplishments by these communities of practice. Here’s an update on several groups:

  • In Connecticut, StEPs-CT is currently accepting applications for a third class set to kick off in February 2018. Sponsored by Connecticut Humanities and the Connecticut League of History Organizations with the Connecticut Historical Society, the program has led an impressive 47 community organizations through StEPs since 2012. StEPs-CT offers professional development, facilitated conversation, and mentorship opportunities. Organizations that complete the two-year program receive exclusive access to competitive grant funds. At last count, StEPs-CT organizations had earned 150 StEPs certificates―33% of all certificates awarded nationwide! More importantly, results include revitalized mission statements, updated and improved policies and procedures, strategic-based plans for moving forward, and re-invigorated staff and board members. The Essex Historical Society is an exciting example of the meaningful accomplishments happening in Connecticut.

The Essex Historical Society has earned Bronze certificates in all six StEPs sections.

  • StEPs for Ohio is an initiative of Ohio History Connection. The OHC Local History Office partners with AmeriCorps workers to offer workshops, webinars, and one-on-one consulting to help local history organizations with their work in StEPs. In August 2017, StEPs for Ohio completed its first full year and received funding for another year. The funding supports the work of seven AmeriCorps members located throughout Ohio. In their first year, the AmeriCorps members helped organizations earn five bronze, silver, and gold certificates and moved other organizations farther down the path to earning their first certificate. Read about the Cleveland Gray’s experience in the project as its Armory Museum created more effective policies and procedures and improved its interpretive and strategic planning.
  • Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area in Kansas and Missouri is working with the Kansas Museums Association to form a StEPs group. FFNHA also offers grants for its partners to enroll in StEPs.
  • In western Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley History Network, a consortium of history organizations in Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties is hoping to secure funding in the coming months to start a StEPs group.
  • AASLH received funding from the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee to work with five history organizations from 2012-15. Read about Grassmere Historic Farm’s experience using StEPs to gain solid footing as a historic site located within the Nashville Zoo. Although the grant project has officially ended, the group of five organizations continues to network and meet.

Tori Mason from Grassmere Historic Farm offers this advice: “Find small museums in your area that are interested in working on StEPs too. Go through the sections together. It’s great camaraderie! You don’t feel so alone, and tackling problems and projects together is very rewarding.”

Does you organization make an effort to network? If not, you may be surprised how reaching out and making contact with other historical societies, museums, etc., can be life changing for an organization of any size. If your organization is not yet enrolled in StEPs, read more about the program and consider how it might help your organization take a leap forward with better policies and practices, educating board members and volunteers about best practices and standards, and setting meaningful goals.

If you represent a state museum association, state historical society, humanities council or other entity consider lending your support to starting a StEPs group in your state.

Let me know if a StEPs group has formed in your area.

I’m compiling a list of other ways StEPs is being used across the country and will post it soon.