By Marissa Hamm, 2022 AASLH Summer Intern

Totaling nearly 300 pages, the STEPS (Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations) workbook can be intimidating to even the most confident history professional. How do you approach this monumental task without immediately becoming overwhelmed? 

Thankfully, many organizations have experienced the initial hurdle of starting STEPS and have shared their advice. Although the way you work through STEPS will be unique to your particular organization, here are some tried-and-true methods to inspire you to get started.  

Form a committee of important stakeholders

The first step (pun intended) in your STEPS process should be creating a committee specifically for this program. STEPS can be transformative for your organization, so it should not be completed by just one person. Rather, all important stakeholders should have input. 

4 smiling people holding printed STEPS certificates.Some organizations have only their board members or only their staff work on STEPS. This can make meetings easier since boards already meet regularly and staff see each other in the office. However, there is benefit to having a mixed committee of board members, staff, and key volunteers. Not only does this variety of participants prompt richer discussion and input, it also helps committee members learn about all aspects of how the organization operates, even if they do not normally work within certain areas of the STEPS workbook. 

Designate a champion 

Once your STEPS committee is created, consider designating a champion to see the process through. This can be as simple as appointing a chairperson or key leader in your organization. This person is in charge of tracking the committee’s progress, and updating any important stakeholders who may not be directly involved with the STEPS committee. 

Another option for a champion is to bring in an outside consultant. The Monroe County Museum in Michigan hired a consultant from the Henry Ford Museum to lead them on multiple STEPS retreats. Members found this method helpful because their consultant had museum expertise that their STEPS committee lacked. 

Some states have field service departments in their state history organizations that specifically help with STEPS. For example, in Ohio, the Ohio History Service Corps places AmeriCorps members throughout the state. These members consult local history organizations and assist with projects that help the organizations advance through the STEPS workbook. Once you enroll in STEPS, consider contacting other history organizations in your area that have experience with STEPS and could offer helpful advice.

Join a STEPS Group 

A great way to start the STEPS process and stay motivated and accountable is to join a STEPS group in your region. STEPS groups consist of five or more organizations that regularly communicate and meet as they work through STEPS. These groups provide a valuable network for problem-solving, training, and any other needs you may have as your organization uses STEPS.

Grassmere Historic Farm benefited from joining the Middle Tennessee STEPS group. Historic Site Manager Tori Mason described their experience with the group saying “Being a part of the group helped us… to stay accountable, work through common issues and struggles, [and] be creative in problem solving. It was a great way for us to meet quarterly and… It helped give us all a stronger sense of community.”  

If there is not a formal STEPS group in your area, consider starting the process to create one, or simply find other nearby museums similar in size to your own that are also embarking on their STEPS journey. Set up informal meetings and lines of communication to have a community to help you through the process. 

Choose a Method for Approaching the Workbook

Evaluate the entire workbook before diving deep into a particular section. 

One approach to STEPS is to skim through the entire workbook first and familiarize yourself with the content. This can also be an opportunity to take note of particular indicators that your organization has achieved or could easily focus on first. 

The McHenry County Historical Society and Museum in Illinois adopted this approach. After enrolling in STEPS in 2017, the museum held a retreat for their board of trustees and created a task force of staff and board members. This task force met once a month to read through the STEPS workbook, and take note of projects the museum could pursue for each section. Then, the task force presented this list of recommendations to the strategic planning committee which integrated the projects into the museum’s three-year strategic plan. 

Work on one section at a time. Choose what is most relevant to the work your organization is already doing. 

A strategic way to make STEPS less overwhelming is to integrate the workbook into what your organization is already doing. The Luzerne County Historical Society in Pennsylvania took this approach. The organization’s executive director reviewed the workbook first and identified which standards aligned with ongoing projects at the museum. The director repeats this process at the start of every fiscal year to determine which standards the museum achieved in the past year, and what areas they can focus on moving forward. 

Other organizations have started with a section that they already excel at, such as Audience or Collections. This method ensures that their initial experience with STEPS is not discouraging, and instead highlights what they do best and how to improve on that before moving to more difficult sections.

Work on the basic indicators for every section first. 

Some organizations have found it most beneficial to advance through the STEPS workbook by level rather than by section. Organizations like The Pioneer Museum in Texas have set goals to achieve all six Bronze certificates within the first three years of being in STEPS. This method can be helpful for seeing progress and achievement across all aspects of the museum at a consistent pace. Many organizations find that they can easily achieve Bronze certificates in some sections with very little change needed. 

As with many projects, getting started with STEPS is often the hardest part. However, once you begin, the benefits of the program will quickly become apparent. And don’t forget to apply for certificates as you advance through STEPS so that you can show your community and potential funders that your organization is committed to improvement!