When COVID-19 hit the United States and Canada, and museums began to realize their shutdowns would extend from weeks into months, a story about a World War I museum in Kansas City, Missouri began to circulate.
The story of the museum keeping its staff employed by redeploying them to transcribe documents was shared widely among the museum community, and was then picked up by nationally recognized news agencies such as CNN and Forbes.
While the story was certainly a relief from the pandemic headlines, many in the museum community were left wondering: How the heck did they “do it”? We weren’t surprised the museum found other work for its employees—as there’s always work that can be done remotely. What we wanted to know was how the World War I museum could afford to pay its employees to do the non-directly revenue generating work of digitization and transcription.
Upon reviewing several interviews given by leadership at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, I’ve determined that there are three key actions they took to ensure they could retain and pay staff during this COVID-19-induced emergency.
1. Financially Prepare for an Economic Disaster You Can’t Predict
Leadership prepared the museum for what they described as “a catastrophe it could not predict” (in this case: a pandemic-induced economic disaster) ahead of time.
National World War I Museum and Memorial CEO Matthew Naylor gave an interview with Forbes.com in an article published on May 25, 2020. The article explains:
As with any crisis, the best time to prepare for it is not as it is happening. Naylor has been preparing his institution for the financial crisis his industry now faces for years. That preparation came in many forms from cautious revenue projections, annual questioning of department heads about where cuts could be made if projections weren’t met, and several years’ worth of revenues exceeding expenses allowing the institution to build cash reserves.
As Naylor explains to Forbes: “One of the challenges that the nonprofit sector faces across the board is having sufficient working capital. We have worked hard over a number of years to have what we thought was an appropriate level of working capital in order for us to weather storms.” But how much working capital is “sufficient”? The Forbes article reports Naylor “arrived at 180 days of unrestricted working capital accessible and available. The museum began the year with 155.”
The importance of preparing for an economic disaster is something I’ve written about previously (Economic Disaster Planning for Museums) and this case study helps reemphasize how important prior financial planning is. Unless a museum is large and/or wealthy enough to have an endowment or mega-reserves, its staff, executive leadership, and board should be focused on preparing for economic disaster events. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of resources available to reference—a ponderous phenomenon given our most recent economic disaster was just 12 years ago: 2008.
2. Determine How Much You’re Willing to Lose
As early as February the National World War I Museum and Memorial leadership identified COVID-19 as a threat and it immediately began to generate financial impact forecasts. The finance team and the board worked together to determine how much money they were willing to burn through.
As Naylor states in Forbes: “We already have a lean team and so in order for us to serve our audiences, I really wanted to preserve the staff. I worked with our finance team to figure out how we could do that and then with our board to reach an agreement about how much (money) we’re willing to lose.”
Forbes reports (as of May 25, 2020) the museum anticipates a loss of more than $2 million in revenue as a result of being closed. Naylor confirmed with Forbes that despite this staggering revenue loss, the board still support his plan not to cut staff.
3. Cross-Train and Re-Deploy Your Staff
In several articles Naylor reports that he values his staff and, in the early weeks of COVID-19, he prioritized keeping his staff by brainstorming and implementing ways they can work remotely. One such opportunity was the digitization and transcription of documents within the collection. The work helps to bolsters online holdings, increases collection accessibility, and offers staff enrichment by providing cross-training experiences and an opportunity for staff to become more familiar with the collections.
As of an April 1, 2020 CNN article, the 10 member staff has been able to digitize more than 100 documents (letters, diaries, and journals).
As with any disaster or emergency, prior planning is crucial to success. While it’s too late to prepare for the disaster we are currently experiencing, it’s critical that we take notes on what was successful in the field and how we can replicate it once we’re back on firmer ground.
Rachael Cristine Woody
Consultant, author, and blogger Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management, grant writing and the future of museums for a wide variety of clients.
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