Article by Mallory Hanson

For many small- to mid-sized history organizations, it can be challenging to find assessment programs that suit their needs. The American Association for State and Local History provides a solution with their self-study, self-paced assessment program, known as the Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (StEPs).

The over 1,000 organizations enrolled in StEPS review their policies and practices through a workbook, online resources, and online community. The program encourages organizations to benchmark themselves against national museum standards. The program is divided into six sections: mission, vision, and governance; interpretation; stewardship of collections; stewardship of historic structures and landscapes; audience; and management. Within each section, organizations assess their current practice as Basic, Good, or Better. Each time organizations achieve all the performance indicators for a section level, they earn certificates at the Bronze, Silver, or Gold levels. After institutions earn Gold certificates in every section, they graduate from the program.

The Johnston Historical Society is currently using the StEPs program to inform its policies and processes. The Society began the self-certification process at the recommendation of Jerome Thompson, retired State Curator and valued contributor to many Iowa historical groups. After the Board researched the StEPS program, it recognized the program met the organization’s needs. John Brown, board member of the Johnston Historical Society, says, “We saw it as a way to show our members and donors that we were serious about having a quality historical society.”

In the past three years, the Johnston Historical Society has completed all 6 Bronze certifications and are half way through the intermediate Silver certifications. The organization has seen many benefits as a result of the StEPS program. It has demonstrated to the City government that the Society is an asset to the community. The StEPS program has helped increase attendance and has helped attract larger donations. Additionally, it has inspired board members to see themselves as part of a growing and improving organization.

Throughout its experience with the StEPS program, the Johnston Historical Society has learned many lessons. Differing levels of historic preservation knowledge and experience proved a challenge at the beginning of the process. The StEPS program helped fill this gap and improved the Board’s knowledge. The institution found that the museum’s prior boards set the organization up for success. Their commitment to using best practices lead to many of the beginning certification requirements already being in place.

For organizations interested in using the StEPS program, Brown offers some advice. He states, “Board commitment is a requirement.” The StEPS program is a long-term project that requires several years of work. For a small volunteer-run historical society, it will be a 5 year or more process. Having board members fully dedicated to the program is an essential for success. Brown also recommends sending a press release to celebrate each certificate. The press releases demonstrate to the community the organization’s commitment to best practices. We commend the Johnston Historical Society’s efforts and look forward to hearing about their continued work.

Mallory Hanson is a graduate of Simpson College, with a BA in history and is a graduate student in Museum Studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program of the State University of New York at Oneonta.