National Standards & Best Practices for U.S. Museums

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Leadership and Organizational Structure

Standards Regarding Governance

  • The governance, staff and volunteer structures and processes effectively advance the mission.
  • The governing authority, staff and volunteers have a clear and shared understanding of their roles and responsibilities. 
  • The governing authority, staff and volunteers legally, ethically and effectively carry out their responsibilities.
  • The composition and qualifications of the museum’s leadership, staff and volunteers enable it to carry out the museum’s mission and goals. 
  • There is a clear and formal division of responsibilities between the governing authority and any group that supports the museum, whether separately incorporated or operating within the museum or its parent organization. 

Purpose and Importance

Good governance is the foundation that enables the museum to succeed. The effective operation of a museum is based on a well-functioning governing authority that has a strong working relationship with the museum director. Together, the governing authority and director set the direction of the museum, obtain and manage the resources needed for it to fulfill its mission and ensure that the museum is accountable to the public. These expectations apply to all museums regardless of governance type, structure or name.

Implementation

The governing authority fulfills the basic responsibilities of nonprofit governance by: determining the organization’s mission and purposes; selecting the chief executive and supporting and assessing his or her performance; ensuring effective organizational planning and adequate resources; managing resources effectively (including exercising good stewardship of collections and historic structures, if applicable); ensuring that the organization’s programs and services advance the mission; enhancing the organization’s public standing; ensuring legal and ethical integrity and maintaining accountability; recruiting and orienting new members of the governing authority; and assessing performance of the governing authority. For museums that have remote governance, these responsibilities may be spread out along a designated chain of command. In such cases, responsibilities must be clearly assigned to particular positions. For museums with joint governance, these responsibilities may be partitioned between different entities. See below regarding national standards in these situations.

Standards for Museums With Joint Governance

In museums with joint governance, in which the basic responsibilities of governance are shared between two or more groups (e.g., a city and a private, nonprofit organization, or a university and an advisory board), or when a separate entity provides resources vital to the museum’s operation (e.g., land, collections, building, staff), the standards require that the museum clearly identify all the groups that are engaged in governance or provision of these vital resources, and the responsibilities of each group. These relationships should be detailed in formal, written documents (e.g., memoranda of agreement, memoranda of understanding, operating agreement).

Documentation

As evidence that good governance practices are in place and to demonstrate that the museum is meeting the Characteristics of Excellence, museums should have the following documents: mission statement; institutional plan; articles of incorporation, charter, enabling legislation or other founding document; bylaws, constitution, will or other documentation under which the museum is governed. If the museum has a parent organization, it should have documentation regarding the importance of the museum to the parent, expressing its commitment to support the museum (e.g., resolution of permanence passed by parent, parent organization’s bylaws or organizing documents, memorandum of understanding or management agreement between the parent and the museum). Museums should have documentation of operational relationships with other organizations integrally connected to the museum’s governance or operations (e.g., written memorandum of understanding or other type of formal agreement) and evidence of delegation of authority for operation of the museum to the museum director or the equivalent position.

Standards Regarding the Composition of the Governing Authority

A governing authority is expected to: cycle in new people and new ideas; reflect the diversity of the communities it serves; provide opportunities for external input so that the governing authority is accountable to those communities; and ensure that members of the governing authority are evaluated on their performance and nonperforming members are cycled out. There do not have to be term limits for the service of members of the governing authority, though this is one method traditionally employed by museums to achieve these goals. 

When it is not possible to control these factors within the governing authority itself (e.g., museums within parent organizations, those with remote governance or those that are government-governed), the museum needs to find other ways to accomplish the goals outlined above. This may include establishing supporting groups as needed to assist with governance (e.g., advisory boards, auxiliary groups, community boards).

Standards Regarding Delegation of Authority

All museums should have a director or the functional equivalent, part time or full time, paid or unpaid, to whom authority is delegated for day-to-day operations. Furthermore, the governing authority, staff and volunteers should have a clear and shared understanding of their roles and responsibilities. 

Purpose and Importance

Having clear delegation of authority means that the governing authority understands the main areas of its responsibility. Those areas are to collectively determine mission, set policies for operations, ensure that charter and bylaw provisions are followed, plan for the institution, approve budgets, establish financial controls and ensure that adequate resources are available to advance the museum’s mission. 

Delegation of authority leads to effective leadership and organizational structure by creating clarity about the distinct roles of governance and management; this clarity allows each to focus on the work they need to do. There is communication and collaboration but no duplication of effort. Since the governing authority has appointed a director (or equivalent position) with the expertise to run the museum, it should allow the director to perform his or her responsibilities without interference. 

An unencumbered line of authority allows the institution to achieve more. It promotes good use of resources, including time. The director has the authority to act independently and oversee the day-to-day operations while the governing authority uses its time to make decisions that steer the institution. Staff at all levels should be clear about the chain of command.

Documentation

Documentation of the delegation of authority may be found in the bylaws of the institution, the formally approved job description of the director (or equivalent position) and, to apprise all staff, is often stated in the institution’s staff handbook.