Program Scope Objectives, A Measure of Success

After my talk, half or more of my audience will want to hold or touch the bull snake. (my objective)
After my talk, half or more of my audience will want to hold or touch the bull snake. (my objective)

If you’re an interpreter or guide working on the front-line of an agency, organization or tour company, how do you evaluate your success on a daily basis? Is it the number of smiles you receive, the volume of the applause, the “good job” comments made by your peers or supervisors?

More than a dozen years ago we were training guides in La Paz, Mexico, and we asked them to identify measurable objectives for their programs. Maria Elena Muriel identified exactly what she desired after doing a turtle program on a beach. “More than half of my guests will stay and help clean the beach of plastic bags and trash.” She was asking cruise boat tourists to help clean up a Mexican beach when likely none of them took the tour intending to volunteer for maintenance work. What she found was that the quality of her program and the simple request at the end of it encouraged people who now felt connected to the sea turtles to help clean up the beach. Her ability to get people to think and care had a very direct and measurable impact.

If your purpose is solely to entertain, then many interpretive programs would fill that bill. But if your purpose is to support the mission of your organization then you may want to go beyond entertainment. To measure your success, you may want to include a request for people to do something that demonstrates an attitude shift that takes place as a result of the program. How can you measure success in a single program, guided hike or tour? First you have to identify what behavior is desirable. What will guests do differently if you are effective with your message? Here are a few suggestions for objectives you might have for a specific program, bearing in mind that any one program might reasonably have only one or two objectives.

XX % of my audience will sign up for an additional tour or program

X people will become volunteers in our program

X people will sign a pledge to recycle at home or take part in a conservation effort

XX % of my audience will make a donation of $5 or more

XX % of my audience will take information on future programs or donor opportunities

XX people will stay after the program and ask questions

XX people will sign up for a voluntourism project

XX % of my audience will sign a petition before leaving

XX people will buy a membership before leaving

My guide tips will average XX$ per person on the tour

XX people will buy a book or books I recommended in the program

When I served as director of a non-profit nature center, I always took a stack of membership forms to a public presentation and used magic markers to stripe the edges of the stack with a distinctive series of marks. Then I could ask our bookkeeper to count the number of returned envelopes with two blue stripes on the lower right edge of the envelope. I could compare the results with the total number in the audience. I could test the effectiveness of my appeal for members at every single talk I gave. Our nature center relied on memberships and donations as a major income source and we became skilled at getting them as a result of presentations to civic organizations.

Some people object to having such measurable objectives. They may feel that trying to measure their “art” takes something away from it or that it is enough to be satisfied by the warm fuzzy feeling that they performed well and the audience seemed pleased. But I hope that most interpreters will want to know that they are advancing the cause of their organization. I did not go into this work to be entertaining alone. I want to encourage people to make better choices in how they treat each other and the environment. Those results can be measured, but it means I have to think about how I might measure my success every time I speak or lead a tour. I hope you’ll do the same.

– Tim Merriman

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

4 thoughts on “Program Scope Objectives, A Measure of Success

  1. These types of strategies are excellent–superb actually. As a researcher/evaluator who has worked in this role in both university and public park settings, I have done dozens, maybe hundreds of formal satisfaction surveys of visitors (not just interp) and have learned very little from them. In fact, recent evaluations of survey methodology has suggested that much survey data is misleading. (See Bishop’s The Illusion of Public Opinion and Grave’s Consumerology among many others) Tim is describing behavioral measures rather than what people say on surveys and evaluation forms. In the end it is visitor behavior that makes a difference, not some agreeable statement on an evaluation form. The only behavior actually measured by surveys is how people answer surveys! Doing what Tim suggests–tracking actual behavior, particularly when the visitor is unaware that taking that brochure or signing up for a program, is actually an evaluation, is powerful and valid feedback. And a hell of a lot cheaper than hiring me to do an evaluation!

    1. Thanks Don and Rob for comments. The other piece of this not described in this article is aligning the behavioral objectives with longer term program and organizational objectives in a logic model. When we have these kinds of methods of tracking our progress, we know we are moving toward desirable change. Guessing at it doesn’t work and ultimately programs are cut in hard times when they cannot demonstrate exactly how they make a difference. Tim

    2. Sound advice, gentlemen. In fact, so sound that I will forever view “annoying” surveys and gratuitous handouts differently. Thanks.

  2. Tim- I really like your magic marker metric. It reminds me of a friend who, when signing up for something by (snail) mail, would use a different middle name each time, and then log each in his own notes. Then, when junk mail started showing up with that middle name, he knew who had sold his name to email marketers.
    At any rate, your marker idea is the kind of metric that is just so easy to do in this day and age. It’s something the promotions world does so much better than we do in interpretation. Every brochure, every QR code, every campaign, every exhibit can have its own landing page, its own phone number, even its own code word (‘Call us and ask for Mary’- who doesn’t exist but is associated with a product or experience.)
    Technology is no longer an obstacle in measuring our efforts. As you say, the biggest hurdle now is adopting a mindset that has the courage to stand up to evaluation.

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