Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Are Participant Demographics the Most Useful Single Measure of Community Impact?

Let's say you want your organization to be rooted in your community. To be of value to your community. To reflect and represent your community. To help your community grow stronger.

What indicator would determine the extent to which your organization fulfills these aspirations?

Here's a candidate: participant demographics. If your participants' demographics match that of your community, that means the diverse people in your community derive value from your organization. The people on the outside are the ones coming in.

We use participant demographics as a core measure at the MAH. At the MAH, our goal is for museum participants to reflect the age, income, and ethnic diversity of Santa Cruz County. We compare visitor demographics to those of the county. We use the county census as our measuring stick. We set our strategy based on the extent to which we match, exceed, or fall short of county demographics.

Is this overly reductive? Possibly. There are at least four arguments against it:

Serving "everyone" shouldn't be the goal. I understand this argument, but I think it's suspect when it comes to demographics (especially income and race/ethnicity). Organizations can and should target programs to welcome different kinds of people for different kinds of experiences. But should those differences be rooted in participants' race or income level? Would anyone say with a straight face that it's OK to exclude people based on the color of their skin or the balance in their bank account? I don't think this holds up.

People are more than their demographics. I agree with this argument, but in my experience, it doesn't invalidate demographic measurement. For years, we focused at the MAH on non-demographic definitions of community, seeking to engage "makers" or "moms seeking enrichment for their kids" as opposed to "whites" or "Latinos." I believe that there are many useful ways to define community beyond demographics. BUT, when we actually started measuring demographics at the MAH a few years ago, we saw that we were engaging the county's age and income diversity... but not the county's ethnic diversity. How could we credibly argue that this wasn't a serious issue for us to address? Was it reasonable to imagine that Latina moms didn't want enrichment as much as their white counterparts? When we saw our race/ethnicity mismatch with the county, we started taking action to welcome and include Latinos. We changed hiring practices, programming approach, collaborator recruitment, and signage. Taking those actions led to real results, helping us get closer to our participants matching the demographics of our county.

Participants matching your community's demographics is insufficient. This is an argument I'm still grappling with. It's an argument advocating for equity instead of equality. Many cultural resources are disproportionately available to affluent, white, older adults. So, to advance equity, your organization should strive to exceed community demographics for groups that may be marginalized or excluded from other cultural resources. This argument encourages organization to strive for a demographic blend that over-indexes younger, lower-income, more racially diverse participants. This argument is also often linked to related arguments that changing participant demographics without addressing internal demographics of staff and board is inadequate and potentially exploitative. I'm torn on this too. In my experience, you can't effect community impact without internal organizational change. But the internal changes are a means, not an end. I wouldn't use internal indicators to measure whether we succeeded in reaching community goals. 

Attendance is not the same as impact. I'm torn about this argument too. On the one hand, showing up is not a particularly powerful indicator of impact. You don't really know why the person showed up or what they got out of the experience. On the other hand, on a basic level, attendance is the clearest demonstration that someone values your organization. They're only going to invest their time, money, and attention if they think they'll get something worthwhile out of the experience. Attendance may not be a signifier of deep impact, but it is the clearest way that people tell you whether they care or not about your offerings.

What do you think? Are participant demographics a worthy bottom-line indicator of success? Or is another measure more apt?

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