Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Favorite Quotes About Planning (and what they mean to me)

WE'RE ON THE CUSP OF THE NEW YEAR, A TIME WHEN I try to use the next few days to do some reflection and personal mission review and goal setting. Sounds very serious, but I assure you that it's not so much that as it is reinvigorating. Taking a bit of reflective time puts me back in touch with some basic ideas that are foundational to my work and to my outlook on life.

I thought I'd begin the process this time around by sharing some quotes with you that have particular meaning for me:

Eleanor Roosevelt: It takes as much energy to wish as it does to plan. When I first came across this quote, I wrote it right down. It clicked with me, because I've worked with so many organizations whose dreams seemed to far exceed their capacities to fulfill them. Or one person has big, vocal dreams, while everybody else is either not yet in dream mode or is completely clueless. No matter whose dream or how big, without an articulated plan to achieve it, it almost certainly will remain just out of reach. An organization needs both, so why not do both?

Immanuel Kant: The best way to predict the future is to invent it. This is the quote that pops into my head every time I hear folks talk about all the stuff they believe is out of their organization's control -- "our city doesn't recognize the good things we do for it's image", "other organizations won't collaborate with us", "we're destined to second class status because we're a nonprofit", "we'll never achieve the operating budget we really need". Just because you're a nonprofit doesn't mean that you're not steering your own ship. You can consciously shape an organization's future with wishes supported by plans and actions.

Peter Drucker: Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work. I love this quote because it exposes an unvarnished truth: no amount of planning will achieve a desired future unless you're willing to work for it. There are so many nonprofits that go through a planning process just to get that sheaf of paper they can wave in front of funders, but they have no idea how to work that plan to reality (or no intention of doing so). Plans need to include fairly detailed and timeframed implementation steps that begin immediately.

Brian Tracy (motivational coach and author): A clear vision, backed by definite plans, gives you a tremendous feeling of confidence and personal power. This is the payoff! And what a feeling it is to be steering your organization's future rather than drifting along, susceptible to the whims and schemes of others.

Happy New Year and Happy Planning!

Photo: Yeah Happy New Year...Now Who's...from Expatriate Games

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Who Writes a Plan?

IT SEEMS TO ME THAT THE IDEAL PLANNING PROCESS includes many voices along its way from inside and outside the organization. Casting as wide a net as possible for stakeholder opinion and insight can help the plan’s developers frame questions they might never have thought of asking, which can lead to the creation of important criteria by which to filter possible future scenarios. It’s also a way to gain broad buy-in to a final plan, because many people will have had an opportunity to put a point-of-view, an idea, or a warning on the planning table.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

In practice, few organizations are able to take on as much opinion gathering as they or their consultants would like. If truth be told, all that surveying, benchmarking and focus-grouping is time-consuming work requiring as much (or more) coordination as the actual writing of a plan. But it can be so richly rewarding! Organizations that short-circuit this “research” phase of the process, however, go into planning with only internally generated information – necessary, but skewed by the fact that it’s coming from one source.

There does come a point in the planning process when many voices must become one. I believe that transition should begin to occur at some point shortly after the board and staff have had the chance to absorb the external research and generate a number of future scenarios. Many organizations will then turn the process over to a smaller planning team to draft a plan that blends the best scenarios into a cohesive, doable program of action. Some organizations turn the drafting over to staff leadership, while others may turn it over to one or two individuals.

Is there the threat of losing broad support for a plan if it is ultimately drafted by a small handful of people….or by one person? Only if no one else has had a chance to participate in the process at points along the way. The bottom-line success of any plan is that it is cohesive AND doable, and here is where staff and board leadership are critical to its drafting. While built on a broad base of input, the best plans embody focused courses of action on a limited number of strategic targets that have been chosen for their ability to significantly advance the organization toward mission and vision.

Photo: Hands typing on home laptop...from brownstock

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Organizational Resolutions

AS WE NEAR THE END OF ANOTHER YEAR, I offer up this post of organizational resolutions, which I wrote in 2008. As I re-read them, I think they hold up pretty well for the continuing financial uncertainties most cultural nonprofits face in 2010, although two are particularly salient right now: become financially literate and get comfortable with change.

Financial literacy is more than being able to read a monthly or quarterly statement, although that's a basic skill everyone should be taught. To me, financial literacy is being able to draw conclusions about how the numbers support mission and make an impact on the audiences you serve. That entails understanding how the numbers relate to each other, such as all annual income raised from individuals, as well as what among them are your organization's key financial and operational indicators. Every organization needs to have a handful of key indicators that will help boards and staffs track financial health. The recently released 2009 Museum Financial Information from the AAM Press is a great place to start benchmarking your organization's financial activity.

Getting comfortable with change is the mantra for the nonprofit sector. Economic downturns are important catalysts for strengthening good-to-great organizations, fostering innovation, and otherwise weeding out the herd. While hunkering down to weather out a storm is our default approach, those who do may one day emerge from the trench to find they've been left in the dust. Hunker down as you feel most comfortable, but remain flexible enough to take calculated risks along the way.

Photo: Happy New Year !!! from Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton

Monday, December 28, 2009

V is for Value

"A COUPLE OF BOARD MEMBERS HAVE BEEN ASKING questions recently about the value of our organization. I realize I have to do more than become angry and come up with something that answers the question with a business-based answer."

That was the substance of a recent email from a heritage organization board member.

There are some things in professional life that continue to confound me – even pull me up short – despite the fact that I know they exist. For me, these “professional surprises” run the gamut from an organization’s unwillingness to ask for community input to the downright failure of some boards and staffs to recognize, or understand, that a nonprofit organization’s reason for being is the public benefit it provides. Knowing all that still didn’t prevent my heart from skipping a beat when I read that email.

There it was, the “V-word” (not to be confused with the other problem “V-word” – vision). Articulating the "value" issue plagues many cultural organizations, yet it’s the life-blood of what an organization does. If an organization’s own board members struggle with the “V-word” is the organization doomed to failure? On some levels, I would say, most likely, yes – particularly when it comes to making opportunities and seizing those offered by others.

Part of the struggle resides in the fact that there are many ways value can be measured – educational and economic are two that come immediately to mind. As Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, comments in this post, we might do our organizations a world of good by learning to value them for the reputation, access, and ideas they embody. Brown identifies and defines six values criteria: network, brand, social, knowledge, meaning and monetary.

And in this post, Terrie Temkin makes a strong argument for determining mission impact. How would you take on her challenge?

Another part of the "V-struggle" is slogging work: collecting and analyzing the data that illustrates whatever values or impacts your organization deems critical to delineating its public benefit. But collect and analyze you must or be relegated to vague, squishy descriptions of worth.

So, my emailing board member has some work to do before a case is made that the organization does have a “business based” impact. I suggested that determining the amount of money visitors to the organization spend in the community as a result of their visit would be a place to start. Combining that with how much the organization spends on local goods and services, on salaries and sales tax should result in a fairly impressive dollar amount that no one has heretofore given much thought to.

Photo: Measuring tape sphere (large) from Nick Sayers

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Your Nonprofit as a Wind-up Toy

I SUPPOSE THIS POST MIGHT HAVE SOMETHING TO DO with the gift-giving time of year, or perhaps it's the phone conversation I just had that touched upon the phases of organizational growth. I don't know, but I'm going to put the two together for today's post and see what I can make of it.

I actually want to concentrate on the founding stage of a nonprofit -- those early, heady years of excitement and energy fueled by a gratifying sense that one is creating something important and needed. I got to thinking about organization founders: community activists, groups of friends, lone rangers -- passionate people, all. They have a vision and often the power to make that vision reality. They utilize their networks to accomplish their vision. And they may easily embrace others into their vision or they may not.

The most enlightened founders know that organizations are living, breathing, dynamic things, with changing leadership and funding needs. These founders understand that someday they will need to let their organizations go. Here comes the toy analogy: Founders have the wonderful job of winding the organization up and setting it on the floor. But they, along with their boards and staff, also have an obligation to make sure the organization doesn't dissipate its energy by running all over the place and getting stuck under the couch.

We can guide the course of organizations just as we can a wind-up toy and we can do it by establishing pathways or boundaries with planning, measuring and evaluating accomplishment, and communicating objectives, success and failure.

I think the wind-up toy might be a pretty good analogy, because most organizations do require a re-wind every so often as they progress along their paths. That's another lesson for another day, I suppose, for founders and young organizations.

Photo: watch him go from girlhula

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Mission Statement Wrestling Match

A CLIENT OF MINE IS WRESTLING WITH REVISING ITS mission statement. And wrestling is a good word for it. Writing a deceptively simple, but truly meaningful, statement is not easy. So many mission statements are mired in the what's and how's of an organization's activities that they barely acknowledge an audience or rarely talk about the whys of their existence. (Hint: audience and the whys of existence are the two most important things.)

I've written (and spoken) a lot about this here. One of the connecting themes to all those posts is about digging deep to taste and savor meaning; to layer in texture and color; to make the statement connect on some emotional level with the people who read it. In fact, the mission statement is not so much about helping the folks within the organization decipher what the organization is, as it's about helping folks outside the organization discover your power and purpose.

Here are some of the words from the image above that came from a mission brainstorming session: "design dialogue", "forge", "nurture", "weave", "enable", "facilitate relationships", "outreach", "galvanize". These are the people words of an organization. These, and other words like them, are the connective tissue that is so often missing in the "official" statements organizations use when talking about themselves.

I'll use my client's example (with names changed, of course) to show you what I'm talking about. The current mission statement is this:

The mission of the Old House Museum is presently to preserve the Smith family home in Our Town, interpret its history between 1740 and 1880 and educate the public.

Really grabs you, doesn't it? The focus is squarely on preserving that old house and talking about its evolution. Oh, yeah -- and educating the public. "Educating the public" reads like an afterthought to me.

So, they're thinking they might want to revise the current statement to this:

The mission of the Old House Museum is to preserve the Our Town home of the Smith family, prominent merchants and heroic patriots, who lived here for many generations, and to engage the community by sharing their history through educational programs and exhibits.

But, frankly, it's just a longer version of what they already have. Would this make you want to visit or become involved any more than the mission statement they already have?

What if the museum were to put the community engagement piece first? What if the mission is about bringing you into the story of how one person, one family, can have an impact on the course of community and country? The dynamic starts to change. Regular folks can start to see themselves in that mission -- you've opened the door to your organization for them.

So, here are three suggestions for revising your lackluster mission statement today:
  • Write a mission statement for the person who doesn't know anything about you.
  • Focus the first phrase or sentence of your statement on your audience.
  • Let readers see themselves in the story of your mission by connecting the whys of what your organization does to their lives.
Can you help my client by redrafting their mission statement?

Photo: Mission Statement Brainstorming from design_bridge_do

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Key Questions" Post Receives Kudos

I'M REALLY PLEASED THAT MY POST, “Key Questions for Board and Senior Staff”, received some high praise from readers at It was voted one of the best ten stories for Leadership in November 2009! is a website sponsored by, a subscription-based blog “for volunteers, webmasters and administrators of associations and nonprofits. We discuss issues and trends in web technologies that help your organization do more with less.”

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Encouraging Board Learning

I KNOW THAT MANY OF US, MYSELF INCLUDED, ARE LOOKING for ways to encourage and maybe even inspire boards to take an active role in their own leadership and decision-making growth. It's not easy.

That's why I thought the following from Hildy Gottlieb, President of the Community-Driven Institute, in response to a question on LinkedIn about board learning was one I wanted to share with you. Hildy's suggestions for creating a board learning environment can be used by organizations of any size, with staff or not.

So, go for it!

I have been encouraging boards to actually begin doing their work as learning communities - with generative discussion being a big part of each meeting, focused on the things that matter most - vision, values, making a difference, measuring that difference.

Focusing on the "intentional" part of your question, some strategies I've seen work well.

• Have the generative discussion be the first item on the agenda, to set the tone for the rest of the meeting (and to not get lost in the shuffle) 

• Have the vision and values of the org handed out to every board member at every meeting (yes mission is important, but not as important as vision for the change they want to create, and the values by which they will do their work) 

• Routinely have an agenda item "What do we want to learn?" It doesn't have to be every meeting, but every few months. Let the board discuss what they feel they need to learn - what they wish they knew more about, what would help them be better leaders on behalf of the community's aspirations

• At the end of every meeting, have as the final item 2 questions. 1) What stood out for you at this meeting? What was an "aha" for you? What is the most important / interesting thing we discussed? (this provides reinforcement of the things they learned / explored / discovered together) and 2) What do you want to be sure we talk about next time re: making a difference in our community? 

• Ask the immediate past president to act as "consciousness monitor" or "learning monitor" to gently remind board members when they are straying from the vision and the values in their discussion. 

These are just a few concrete strategies we have seen work. The main ingredient, though, is that the board agree to be an ongoing learning community, always focused on their leadership towards making a difference.

Photo: My Brain in Post-its. from animechix

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Building Cohesion Among Board Members

AS WE WORK TOWARD GREATER DIVERSITY ON OUR nonprofit boards, more and more boards are being made up of people who may not know one another well or at all. They don't run in the same social circles in the community, they may come from a wide geographic area or spend just a part of their time in one community. The result is they may only see one another at your organization.

Moving a group of relative strangers toward a cohesive team requires that each person shifts from an individual to a group mindset where the success of the whole is the goal. Successful teams care not only about the organization, but care enough about each other to ensure that everyone is able to meet their responsibilities. To get to that point, team members need to have opportunities to get to know one another just enough to foster mutual trust and respect. After all, it is just those two behaviors that get groups through stressful, even difficult, times.

So, how can board and staff leaders build cohesion within a board whose members scatter to the four winds after each board meeting, or at the least, have few points of intersection outside of the board room?

This question was posed recently to a board with just this kind of makeup. Here's what the group suggested for itself:

  • Add breaks during board meetings where folks can mingle
  • Offer dinner or cocktails after board meetings to enhance social interaction
  • Meet over dinner or over lunch, again to interject a social element
  • Meet more frequently? (for example, if your board meets six time a year, would eight times a year up the cohesion?)
  • Lessen amount of information on agenda, therefore giving more time for discussion and breaks
  • Relook at how committees are used (are task forces a better way to foster a greater variety of board member interactions?)
  • More assigning of tasks from board discussions for members to work on together (again, a variety of interactions being the key)
The goal here is cohesion, not group-think. Opinion-sharing and healthy debate are key elements of board and organizational vitality. A cohesive group allows for and even embraces differences of opinion because underlying values about the organization's vision and mission are respected and shared.

Photo: Committee Meeting from voteprime

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Importance of Focus Groups to Strategic Planning

THE VERY NOTION OF STRATEGIC PLANNING DEMANDS that one get out of one's skin to view an organization the way others do. There's valuable information out in the landscape about your organization and all you have to do is ask for it. But, frankly, that's enough to send chills through some of the most hardened organization leaders.

Most organizations rely on the survey as a means to collect community input. But surveys are passive things -- they generally only tell you what's written on the page. No chance for follow-up questions. While they're great for reaching a large group, it's really hard to create a survey that gives you much new or really insightful information. Talking face-to-face in small groups also has its limitations, but hold tremendous opportunities for making deeper connections. And since few cultural organizations seize the opportunity to use focus groups in any regular way....or at all....the format is definitely worth exploring, particularly for planning.

Call them what you will -- focus groups, community conversations, town halls, meet-ups -- these opportunities to explore public perceptions about an organization often reveal insights that can have substantial impact. Imagine re-visioning a key programming component or a whole mission based on community input. What could be more pure, more close to the public benefit our organizations purport themselves to be?

When designing a strategic planning process, I think community conversations are best done at the very beginning as part of a broad research phase that looks critically at both inside and outside of the organization's four walls. However, they can also stud the process at various stages to gain input on the plan as it evolves.

No matter what, these discussions ought to be focused on questions that are critical to the organization's future, such as opportunities for collaboration, what shifting demographics mean to traditional programming, or how can income sources can be grown or redeployed to meet stakeholder needs.

One small cultural organization held an astounding six focus groups as a ramp up to its planning. Staff and board members spoke with town leaders, business owners, parents with young children, other nonprofits in the community, educators, and representatives from a civic group for people of color. The chairman of this effort noted that it was a lot of time to organize the conversations, but what was learned far outweighed the work that went into them. And the good will that has now been generated because of this outreach couldn't have been gained any other way. This group sees the long-term benefit of continuing these conversations, and I hope they will.

You can gather small groups of stakeholders together to talk about almost anything. Test reaction to your current mission statement, ask for help solving a problem that's been kicking around for a while, get some feedback about what future exhibitions, plays or concerts folks would like to see or participate in. Noodling around with a new program idea? Ask potential program users if you're on the mark.

Your commitment to the conversation is to ask meaningful questions and act on the responses.

Photo: 2005 Focus Groups Yass from myrfsphotos

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Templates are the Enemies of Innovation

NOT MY TITLE, BUT A GOOD ONE DON'T YOU THINK? It comes from this article in Fast Company by Dev Patnaik on how the The Rotman School of Management is restructuring its MBA program based on developing business leaders who are well-grounded in multiple disciplines (including strategic and creative problem-solving). No wonder then that one premise held by the school’s dean is that “templates are the enemies of innovation.”

Hmmm.....templates. My world is littered with them. I'm always searching for them to use as examples, to shine new light on old dusty topics. But, think about it: templates are meant to provide a standard output, whether it's that envelope up there in the image or a policy statement. In the organizational context, it’s so easy to copy or spin someone else’s work, even if it’s not quite the right fit. Yet, one of our oft-stated mantras is “don’t reinvent the wheel”; when someone or some organization has already gone down that road, why should we? Templates aren’t all bad, but how do we know when to use them, when to hybridize them, and when to start from scratch?

When to Use Them

Templates are very handy for hammering together routine, systematic or non-"creative" work, particularly if it needs to fit within a larger, profession-wide context, like cataloguing specimens or music scores. Some solicitation (donor responses forms come to mind) and “how to” (such as how to sign up for a class at the art center) materials fall into this category. These are materials that may need very little or no organizational interpretation.

When to Hybridize Them

Templates become less helpful for drafting policies and procedures, mission or vision statements, planning documents and the like, where the results should fit an organization’s personality like a glove, not a hand-me-down. Their purpose can help to underscore professional practice with guiding language or in raising issues not thought of, it’s true. We need to resist the temptation to simply "fill in the blanks" without understanding the consequences of such actions on the longer term health and operational capacity of our organizations.

When to Start from Scratch

When it comes to approaching a challenge, a problem, or an opportunity from a fresh vantage point, the template is too bound up in someone else’s perspective to be useful. Templates in these contexts often act like blinders, limiting exploration and creativity. They can be especially detrimental in the long-run to organizations that circumvent the creative process by using them. Development of particularly meaning and value-laden narratives, innovative services or products, reinvented ways of accomplishing work may receive a kick-start from the examples of others, but they deserve an unimpeded space for experimentation.

Photo: envelope template from fishbowl_fish

Monday, November 2, 2009

Why Do You Care? Making Personal Connections to Organizational Mission

I FREQUENTLY USE THIS INTRODUCTION/ icebreaker at board-staff retreats and it almost always results in a new level of mutual understanding and respect: I ask participants to talk about why they care about the organization and want to be a part of it.

Emotional connections to the importance of the organization and to its mission are often revealed in heartfelt ways. Participants revel in newly discovered information about each other. Boards and staffs rarely allow themselves the opportunity to talk in such a way, yet their underlying desires to play a part in an organization are, in fact, the connective tissue that holds the enterprise together. It's a worthy thing to share.

This activity is also a great pick-me-up for those times when a group has just plain run out of steam. It helps bring the energy level up, because it asks people to get in touch with what they deem is personally important.

This discussion is also an effective opening to the creation of vision and mission statements or review of existing ones. Boilerplate or overly clinical statements don't pull people into the work of the organization -- personal stories about why people care do.

Photo: Why Care from Dogtrax

Friday, October 30, 2009

Key Questions for Board and Senior Staff

I'M PREPARING FOR A BOARD WORKSHOP ON ROLES and responsibilities, and we'll be spending a good chunk of time reviewing a self-assessment board members participated in a few weeks ago. The organization's director and I decided to use the self-assessment as the launch pad for a series of discussion questions that we think will encourage board members to dig deeper into how to apply established responsibilities to the institution.

I think they're pretty good, so I wanted to share them with you. Feel free to share them with your boards.
  • How frequently and deeply is the mission used to drive organizational goals and values?
  • What is the role of the executive director vis-a-vis the board in financial stewardship?
  • Besides finances, what are the biggest risks facing the institution?
  • How can interaction among board members be enhanced?
  • Is the needed mix of talent at the board table for now and the next five years?
  • How can the level of information and idea exchange at board meetings be effectively increased?
  • How can the board be more visible to the organization's constituents?
  • What are the one or two factors that are critical to the board-director relationship?
  • What changes in board structure or practices could enhance the organization's ability to fulfill its mission?
Photo: 2008-0625 IAA Board Meeting 067 from Arts Alliance Illinois

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Game Changing the Model

WHO'S READY TO MOVE FORWARD? WHO'S READY TO EXPLORE new and effective ways of addressing the seemingly intractable problems of the arts and cultural community, -- too many of us, too few resources to sustain us all, too many fiefdoms, unpredictably shifting audiences (to name but a few)? Who's willing to dig in deep enough to ensure that new approaches are sustainable for the long haul?

Who are the arts and cultural game changers right now? Here are three that come immediately to mind:

Michael Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, created this year the “Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative,” a program providing free arts management consulting to non-profit performing arts organizations around the United States. The program has put Kaiser on the road to all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, hosting management symposia.

Maxwell Anderson, Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has championed the use of multimedia and networked information to connect museum visitors with collections and promote greater transparency to the field and the public. His advocacy led the IMA to launch, in 2007, the first real-time museum dashboard, revealing over 50 fields of sensitive financial and performance data and soliciting commentary from the general public about the museum's commitment to openness. It is considered a gold standard among museums committed to transparency and accountability.

The Chattanooga Museum Collaboration has effectively proven that major institutions can pool functions and resources for the good of all and the community. The Tennessee Aquarium, Creative Discovery Museum and the Hunter Museum of American Art share common human resources, financial and technology management, as well as marketing -- even capital fundraising. A commitment to enhancing the city's quality of life, coupled with open and forward-thinking by board and staff leaders, has given this partnership resilience and staying power.

Who would you recommend? Yourself?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Developing a Facility? Your Best Advice May Be Just Around the Corner

I'M ALWAYS ESPECIALLY GRATEFUL TO RECEIVE QUESTIONS from smaller culturals that are in the process of creating or expanding their facilities. These organizations often operate with a dearth of information about building and shaping their spaces, despite the fact that there are thousands of organizations who've gone through it and are happy to offer up advice, warts and all.

Without some unvarnished insights and opinions, most of us are susceptible to the shiny object held out in front of us by architects, professional fundraisers, and product vendors. We don't wish to appear ignorant, even if we are. But do we really want to end up with a museum that has too little collection storage space or a performance hall with a too-small backstage area?

Boards of trustees and many staff do get caught up in the immediacy of such projects, often unable or unwilling to think about the long-term consequences of building decisions. The pressure to raise funds and move forward on capital projects even when we might not be quite ready is very real and a heavy, heavy burden. I give any organization tremendous credit for calling "time out" in the midst of a project to rethink it if it truly isn't working or simply isn't "right".

Doing so is generally an expensive lesson. All the more reason to seek as much advice and opinion BEFORE signing that contract! So, for my readers from smaller culturals, I urge you to reach out to colleagues in your community or region to ask for advice -- and to pay for that advice if necessary. Museum curators, gallery directors, stage/facilities managers, conservators, visitor services directors -- these are the folks who know how space must work. They are your "on the ground" experts. And they're happy to help.

Photo: The Boy Builder from doublewinky

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Frozen by Fear

local history museum outlined many of the financial issues cultural institutions are grappling with right now. While programs continue apace by a small and increasingly overworked staff, the director said, "We're close to pulling out of the economic trauma, but it seems as though every time we get close, we fall back." She cited a confluence of issues at the base of which is the simple reality that there just isn't enough operating income being generated from any source to cover expenses.

And like your organizations, this one has cut its expenses as much as possible without laying off staff. That may come next year, however, if the museum fails to address its structural (long term/ongoing) operating deficit, which right now is about $40,000. While some of her board members are beginning to examine the issues surrounding the deficit, these conversations easily become consumed by minutiae. Before you know it the train is off the track. No decisions are made.

The director's response has been to increase grant writing and plan for programmatic expansion with the hope of generating new sources of funding. Nice try. And how many hours a week did you say you were already working? Neither guarantees a return on investment and both require longer time frames for success than the museum has available before the short leash of the deficit will yank it back to expense-chopping mode.

This scenario sounds very much like the typical "fight or flight" reaction most of us have when we're panicked by something that seems to have the better of us. In this director's case, her board has so far taken the "flight" mode. She needs to get them into "fighting" mode. How to do it?

First, you've got to define the problem. Deficit? How much are we talking about? And what's the timeframe in which we need to address it?

Then you've got to define some solutions. Sure, cutting more expenses from an already bare-bones operation is one choice. But what are some other options? Just so happens, this museum will be gearing up for its annual appeal soon. Hmmm....what are some ways to tweak this individual giving activity?

Got a handful of ideas? Next is tasking them out. So what does an annual appeal look like? Who does what and when? Would the board be willing to establish a challenge to donors -- for example, match the first $5000 that gets raised? I'm starting to feel it thaw in here!

When individuals and groups get frozen by fear, it's usually because they have no clue about the extent of the problem or the possible solutions and timeframes needed to address it. Information is power. And breaking down big, amorphous problems into bite-sized tasks is like warm breath on ice.

I'll let you know how she makes out.

Photo: Leaf melted into ice from roddh

Friday, October 9, 2009

A Board Self-Assessment Tool to Get You Started

My last poll about board self-assessment attracted thirteen respondents. Six have done or do self-assessments; six haven't; and one intrepid person who admits to needing a bit of help with the whole process.

So, to help get those of you who are interested in self-assessment a bit of a jump start, I'd just loaded a tool on my website that you can use as is, or adapt to best suit your needs.

Here are some thoughts about using it, once you've decided to take the plunge:

  • First, consider the self-assessment as a baseline of information/feedback from the board about how it does its work from the governance and organizational structure point of view.
  • Give the board some time to review the findings and comments.
  • Structure part of a board meeting (or several meetings or a retreat) around discussion of the findings.
  • Focus primarily on areas of greatest discrepancy in responses. Spend some time delving into why some board members rated a statement weak while others rated it strong. Try to clear up discrepancies or reach consensus about them.

Can’t seem clear up discrepancies despite their importance? Make sure these issues are included in your strategic plan as strategies or tasks to be worked on by committees, staff, or task forces.

  • Now focus on those statements rated by the majority of respondents as very weak or somewhat weak. Which statements does the group want to work on to strengthen? Which are not of concern for the group at this time?

Include areas that need strengthening as strategies or tasks in your strategic plan to be addressed by committees, staff, or task forces.

  • Lastly, focus on the strong areas. How can the board use its strengths and attitudes to overcome its weaknesses?
  • Take the self-assessment periodically to see how much progress you’re making. Use the assessment to benchmark successes and to identify areas that need continued attention.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Does the Cultural Sector Need ONE BIG RALLYING POINT?

THIS PARAGRAPH FROM A RECENT post by Dan Pallotta (his blog is Free the Nonprofits) has my head spinning. So, I’m just going to lay it all out there as best I can. Pallotta uses the Apollo space program as an example of a success because it had specific parameters – and resources – for achievement. He doesn’t see either in the current nonprofit sector.

Nearly 100 new nonprofits are created in the U.S. every day — about 35,000 a year — most of them doing the same things as existing organizations wrestling with the same social problems. Over 90% are very small — with less than half a million dollars in annual revenues. In his recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Mark Kramer wrote that, because of fragmentation, redundancy, and the plethora of small organizations "there is little reason to assume that [nonprofits] have the ability to solve society's large-scale problems." I would argue that it is precisely because we aren't committing ourselves to solving society's large-scale problems that we have fragmentation and redundancy.

Kramer continues:

Each nonprofit functions alone, pursuing the strategies that it deems best, lacking the infrastructure to learn from one another’s best practices, the clout to influence government, or the scale to achieve national impact. A majority of the very largest nonprofits that might have the resources to effect national change are hospitals, universities, and cultural organizations that focus primarily on their own institutional sustainability. Collaboration throughout the sector is almost impossible, as each nonprofit competes for funding by trying to persuade donors that its approach is better than that of any other organization addressing the same issue. Very few systematically track their own impact.
This characterization of the nonprofit sector rings true for me on many levels. In New York State, where I live and do most of my work, cultural nonprofits abound. The economy is wreaking havoc with most of them and some will undoubtedly turn belly up (or have already), but that doesn’t seem to be a deterrent to folks wanting to start new ones. Just this past week, for example, I received an email asking for advice about shifting a for-profit art gallery to a non-profit “museum” and a phone call from a fellow who wants to get a group of museums together to occupy a vacant warehouse.

Contrast those conversations with the work of a core group of cultural nonprofits working together to plan a “happening” designed to attract 50,000 people precisely to raise the level of awareness of what each does among the public, business leaders and elected officials in their region. Now add to the mix a rather frustrating discussion at the Center for the Future of Museums’ blog about the definition of a museum.

Is it just me or is there an alarming lack of a clear view as to the place cultural nonprofits occupy in society? We struggle with defining what we do and the impact we make. Our governments are loathe to support arts and culture in any substantial way; nary a state agency (beyond the woefully underfunded arts council, perhaps) can articulate a cohesive vision for the importance of arts and culture to the life of its residents or its economy. Individual nonprofits can’t articulate visions for themselves, either.

Sure, we can say that the strength of the cultural sector is its diversity – there’s a nonprofit for practically every art form, every community, every community within a community. That’s how the sector works best. And, whoever said that cultural nonprofits should have anything remotely to do with solving society’s ills? Stopping hunger or finding a cure for cancer or AIDS is just not the same as opening new ways of examining and understanding the world around us. It isn’t?

Photo: Apollo Lunar Lander Missions from AcuraZine Dan