Thursday, December 30, 2010

Spark a Resolution for 2011

SOME THINGS HAVE A WAY OF STANDING THE TEST OF TIME.  That's why I'm dusting off this post from 2009, because I think the ten resolutions I wrote about then still make good very good sense for 2011.  This time around I'd like to emphasize resolution #8:  get comfortable with change.  It's not just a clever catch-phrase anymore.  Today, it's as much about organizational survival as mission impact.

While some folks will shrug their shoulders and say "change happens", others will be proactively using change to generate sparks.  You might think that making sparks is just so much wasted energy, but sparks light fires.  Shrugging change off doesn't even get the match lit.

Head into your office on January 3rd with my list of resolutions or your own and see if you can make some sparks fly.

Who will be your organization's change agent in 2011?  Will it be you?

Photo:  desejo-lhes um santo 2011 - I wish...from Marcos Arruda

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Nonprofit Governance Blogs

I'm so honored to be listed among Debra Beck's favorite governance blogs!  Check out the others on Debra's list:

I'm in great company!  And Debra's blog is one of the best.

Image:  Blogging 101 from martin.canchola

Making it Stick: What Strategic Planning All Comes Down To

JUST GOT OFF THE PHONE WITH A BOARD PRESIDENT who was checking in with me about the planning process his organization was wrapping up with me.  I told him what I had told the planning committee a week earlier at the end of our last meeting together, "Now the hard work begins.  You've got to summon the discipline to stick to this plan you've created."
My advice wasn't just for the planning committee, although they were the only ones in earshot of my parting words.  Planning committees may think all they have to do is create the written document, and while that is the immediate goal, I think they also have the added responsibility (along with staff leadership) to figure out how to institutionalize it at the board level.  This is especially critical if this is the first plan the organization has ever produced or if the organization has previously failed at following their plans.  So, part of the planning committee's follow-through responsibilities include teaching their board colleagues about the issues and conversations that drove the plan, regularly sharing and expanding on some of the new ideas and information that framed planning meetings, cheerleading for following the plan and celebrating when that occurs. 
In fact, the planning committee and I spent time during our last planning meeting talking quite specifically about how to move the plan to the center of organizational life (something this organization wasn't used to doing).   We considered the following tactics and decided they deserved a place in the planning document:
  • make sure that every planning committee member had a leadership role on all standing committees, thus driving the conversation forward with board colleagues and other volunteers in the small group environment of the committee 
  • restructure standing committees and add new ones to deliver on the plan's strategies (in the case of this organization, creation of several new committees and taskforces were identified in the plan)
  • rewrite (or create for the first time) committee and taskforce job descriptions that mirror goals and strategies in the plan
  • focus the first committee meetings of the new year with a thorough orientation to the plan and those areas of the plan for which each would be responsible (this goes for staff, too)
  • build full board and staff meeting agendas around the goals and strategies of the plan, thus reinforcing the plan as the central, guiding mechanism for the organization's work
  • develop an informational dashboard of key measures that will help the board and staff evaluate their effectiveness in working the plan
  • consider a formal review of the plan at the six-month interval, rather than at 12 months (at least for the first year), again to reinforce vision, mission, goals and strategies
When you consider what has to happen to make a plan stick, writing it is the relatively easy part.

Photo: Knock Knock - Sticky Notes from kardsunlimited

Monday, November 29, 2010

Fostering Good Board Ideas

IN HER RECENT BLOG POST "Where good (board) ideas come from", Debra Beck links to a great video (you've just got to watch it) and poses the questions "Do we nurture breathing room and value insights shared amidst the rush to check reports off the agenda? Do we foster opportunities for good ideas inside board members' heads to make it to the surface so they can be connected?"
Thoughts of inspirational discussions and deep-diving into issues that were cut short by a too-full agenda and not enough time came flooding over me as I read Debra's post.  Yes, I've been in those situations and I look back on them with mixed emotions knowing that some great conversations will never be rekindled and some organizational energy was lost.
So, how can we build in time for idea generation, rumination, and synergy at the board and staff levels?  Here are some of my thoughts:
  • It's counter-intuitive, but the space to spark and nurture ideas needs to be planned.  We like to think that idea generation is improvisational, spur-of-the-moment, a random act -- and yes, it often is that.  But, it's one thing to react creatively to a stream of conversation and quite another to take ideas to the point where they might actually put down roots.  If you can pluck an idea from the stream and get it in some terra firma in 30-45 minutes, then do it, otherwise it'll float away.
  • The best ideas are often borne from seemingly opposite perspectives.  That's one of the reasons why board and staff diversity is so important.  An organization can expand its perspectives by making space for periodic or ongoing stakeholder meetups and think tanks.  I see great potential in gathering together a variety of people to focus on idea generation around specific organizational issues -- not committees per se and maybe not even task forces, although they might well function as a task force.  It's the perfect blend of planning and improv.
  • There are organizations (although I don't know any personally) that have "blue sky" committees -- formal groups just for knocking around ideas and creating new connections.  I like the idea, but they'll only work if there's some supporting structure around them that can absorb the best ideas into the organization's culture.
  • The coffeehouse, retreat and salon are idea incubators that many boards and staff don't use enough.  After-hours brainstorming and ruminating are best done in relaxed settings.  Where better than the neighborhood restaurant, a cabin in the woods or someone's deck?  There just needs to be a plan in place to move the good conversation to another level for nurturing.
  • I'm also intrigued by the town hall concept, where a large group of people work on one or more issues with the guidance of facilitators.  What would be gained by the local museum holding a town hall or two a year?  I think a lot.
How is your organization capturing and fostering good ideas?
Photo:  yes and no from *_Abhi_*

Saturday, November 20, 2010

An "Aha!" Moment in Strategic Planning

WHEN DO "AHA" MOMENTS COME FOR YOU?  If they rolled up on your doorstep with unfailing regularity, you'd take them for granted.  They wouldn't elicit an "aha!" at all.  But real "aha" moments, for me at any rate, come after stretches of concerted problem-solving and reflection.  They more often occur as a prolonged unfolding of understanding rather than in one flash of insight.
So it was with a strategic planning committee I'd been working with for months.  Our regular meetings were moving well through the obstacle course of mission refinement, goal development and strategy creation.  But it wasn't until we were buried knee-deep in strategies and tasking that some very forthright conversations started to take place.
As the morning fog lifts from the landscape, this team began to articulate  -- as a group -- that its resources for at least the short-term had to be spent on strengthening its organizational core.  Board and staff development, along with financial management and planning, were without question a top priority.  How will board leadership be chosen?  What is the role of a nominating committee in a 21st century nonprofit?  What approaches can be employed to integrate all fundraising activities?
The animated discussion around these and dozens of other questions was unlike any other meeting of this committee.  Was it because we had moved from the theory of strategic planning into the very real realm of practice?  I think so.  We began to see where and how earlier decisions about mission, goals and strategies would need to be played out.  We began to make concrete connections between all the plan's elements.  But, it didn't happen until now -- now as we near the end of the formal planning process, where tasking strategies challenged us to connect all the dots.  Aha!!

Photo:  AHA from St_A_Sh

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Should Vision Statements Be Impact Statements?

A KEY AND EARLY COMPONENT OF STRATEGIC PLANNING involves a critical review of an organization's vision and mission statements.  Most of the cultural nonprofits I work with have mission statements; few of them have vision statements.  I often refer to mission statements as the articulation of where an organization is now (and its importance for being, serving, and providing a public benefit) and the vision statement as the embodiment of the organization at some future point in time.  Sure, that's what visions are all about, but shouldn't they be about something more?
That's where impact comes in and thanks to practitioners like Hildy Gottlieb and her Community-Driven Institute, the women of the Social Change Divas Daily and others, I really do think that the vision statement must answer this question:  if we consistently meet or exceed our mission, what will be our organization's impact on our audiences and our community?  
Without long-term external impact, what's really the point of your nonprofit?  I posed this question to a planning team last week and they responded immediately and with great conviction that the impact of meeting their organization's mission would result in deeper public engagement on a variety of levels and acceptance by schools as a vital educational resource.  These were very tangible (and achievable) responses, not the usual "we want to be the premier" this or that.  I'm meeting with this same planning team today to continue the impact discussion and I'm can't wait to hear where they take the conversation next.
So, I think it's time for a change of terminology.  I'm attracted to the idea of renaming the "vision statement" the "impact statement".  I think it's vastly more descriptive, both for the organization and for its publics.  The name embodies action and realities that dreamy visions often fail to pin down.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Building the Trust Factor

A MUSEUM STUDIES CLASS IS ABOUT TO LAUNCH A planning process with a local historical society as part of a semester-long project this fall.  As a preliminary activity, one of the students (who is responsible for the outreach portion of the project) and I chatted yesterday about my take on organizational planning.  We covered a lot of ground and a lot of the basic elements of a solid planning process:  vision, mission, where do goals come from?; how much outreach can you suggest an all-volunteer organization do?; as well as the more mundane how much can you devote to this class project when you're a busy student with tons of other claims on your time?
That aside, I encourage my grad student friend to spend considerable time at the beginning getting the board to engage in the emotion-based discussions about why their organization is important, who it serves and what impact it can make on the lives of its audiences, its neighborhood, and its larger community.  These are critical conversations to have early on, because every subsequent conversation about the how's and the what's will flow from them.  Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the why's/who's/impact conversations are the spaces where understanding and trust blossom among a group -- even in groups where individuals have known each other a long time.  It's practically magical and so satisfying to hear someone say, "I've learned so much about us!" or "I never thought about our organization like that before!"
Since my conversation, I've been thinking about how planning can -- and should be -- be a platform for trust-building in an organization.  It's generally not the primary objective of planning, but it you're able to achieve it, it's certainly a whopping big benefit that can play a huge role in implementing the a plan.

Photo:  2005 Focus Groups Yass from NSWRFS via Flickr

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Scalable Recipe for Getting Out of Financial Trouble

THE ARTICLE I JUST READ ABOUT THE COLUMBUS SYMPHONY ending its season just a hair's breath in the black is cause for celebration in many ways.  As symphonies across the country struggle, merge or outright die, the Columbus Symphony turnaround is worth taking a look at.  What was the secret from going from a projected deficit of more than $1 million to a surplus of $200,000?  Were there lessons for the rest of us embedded in the experience?
In a nutshell, here's what symphony leadership did:
  • secured major corporate/foundation support, admittedly much of that was already in the pipeline, but the lesson here is that you don't give up on fundraising in a tough economy, you work the hell out of it
  • secured municipal support -- a tough sell right now, but one likely built on strong economic arguments.  Do you know how much your cultural organization contributes to your local economy? If not, you're overdue in pulling that information together.
  • musicians are now in their third year of pay cuts.  The typical salary for musicians went from more than $50,000 to $35,000.  Ouch.  They also gave up paid vacation this year.   Sharing the pain must encompass managerial and executive staff, too, not just your program staff or the pain you inflict cuts that much more deeply.
  • combined administrative functions like accounting, ticketing, etc. with a performing arts association.  Doing so reduced the symphony's office staff by two-thirds.  More of us have to be on the lookout for cost-sharing opportunities -- it's probably easiest with back-room functions, but there may be lots of synergy to be had by sharing program staff and, hmmm, maybe an executive or two.
  • and speaking of executives, the director of the performing arts association is serving as the volunteer managing director and CEO of the symphony.  Interesting concept, but a lot harder to pull off than sharing ticketing functions.  What could make this work for your organization?  (A tightly drawn job description is one key.)
There you have it, that's the published recipe.  Pretty simple, really.  It's a recipe many can follow.
What's the big lesson here?  Repeat after me:  NO SILVER BULLETS.  That's right.  If your organization is in financial trouble, it probably didn't get there in a day or a week or even a year.  It took a while.  And it will take a while to get out of the mess.  And it will take hard work and, yep, everybody gets to pitch in.
Is it scalable to organizations of varying sizes?  I think yes, mostly.  I think yes, definitely, if you're willing to put the sacred cows on the table along with the more obvious stuff and to accept that the solution, whatever combination of ingredients from the basic recipe you choose to use, will require months if not years of commitment.

Photo:  Columbus Symphony Music Stand from lottadot via Flickr

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Telltale Signs of Trouble

MY MENTAL LIST OF CULTURAL ORGANIZATIONS ABOUT TO GO UNDER was significantly lengthened this week.  Just yesterday a neighbor told me that a small environmental/ natural history research organization she works with was about to fold.  She was told that the board was casting around for a place to transfer the organization's collections of books, maps, photos and videos (although no one knows exactly where that will be despite the fact that they may have to shut their doors in a couple of weeks).  
The day before that, a colleague called to say she was retiring from her organization and that there's a movement afoot to dissolve it (not her doing).  A third organization has burned through its endowment fund to the point where some board members think it's time to close the whole place down.  
That's all in just the last week.
I've been hearing for a long time that the pace of consolidations and dissolutions in the nonprofit sector would speed up as the recession deepened.  Apart from symphony orchestras and the occasional museum, I wasn't seeing a great deal of evidence of that in the cultural corner of the sector until this summer.  But now I'm wondering if we're starting to reach a tipping point.  The money that's typically in a cultural's pipeline (from government, foundation and corporate grants, usually) tends to keep it lagging behind the rest of the economy.  Maybe now the time has run out.
The fact is, the recession may be blamed for the demise of some of these organizations, but it isn't the sole reason and it's usually not the primary one.  Unless an organization is relatively new and still a bit shaky, many of these organizations got into a fragile state well before the recession can be blamed for putting the final nail in the coffin.  Organizational deterioration can go on for years before it becomes palpable and impossible to avoid. 
But there are dozens of telltale signs (easier seen in hindsight, of course) -- OK, here's the first (baker's) dozen:
  • failing to understand the purpose and role of the organization
  • cutting back on the staff that produce mission-driven programming, and as a result
  • cutting back on programming
  • deferring maintenance on buildings and equipment (that's one of the first telltale signs in my book)
  • failing to file required reports (to the IRS, to state regulators, funders, etc.)
  • failing to follow the Bylaws by ignoring term limits of board members, by-passing membership meetings, sliding by elections, not constituting stated committees, etc.
  • slacking off on producing timely financial reports
  • failing repeatedly to reach a quorum for a board meeting or 
  • reducing the number of board meetings for fear of not reaching a quorum or because the work has no forward momentum
  • giving inordinate power to an executive committee thus marginalizing the decision-making of the full board
  • sporadically communicating with supporters (or not communicating at all)
  • regularly spending more than is earned
  • borrowing from invested funds with the promise that those funds will be paid back
What telltale signs of trouble would you add to this list? 

Image:  Here comes trouble t shirt &...from birdarts via flickr

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Poke Your Head Up and Ask

I'M IN LOVE WITH BENCHMARKING.  I love gathering data about organizations, but not simply for gathering's sake.  It's got to be focused information that can help to paint a picture about success (or the potential for success).  For me, benchmarking is a nifty tool that can help to answer two key questions every nonprofit needs to ask: 1)  how can I tell how my organization's doing until I start to compare it with similar or better organizations?  and 2) how can I know all that might be possible for my organization until I know what's out there already?
Benchmarking is one way to get a handle on exactly this type of information.  It can be as simple as sending an email or as formal as making an on-site visit with a laundry list of questions for specific staff or board members.  What you find out can help you to place your organization on the great continuum of organizations like yours.  It gets you grounded and lets you know if your organization is at or near the top of its game, or has many miles to go.  No matter how simple or complicated your benchmarking, here are what I think the overriding factors are to make your benchmarking the most useful for you: 
  • get very clear on what you want to find out.  Unless you want to do just a general overview for comparison, i.e., budget size, number of staff, size of board, extent of programming, etc., make your focus for benchmarking fairly tight.
  • choose organizations based on what you want to find out.  Looking to elevate audience development activities, for example?  Put your thinking cap on and choose benchmarking prospects that do audience development really well.
  •  always benchmark organizations that are at or above your own organization's level (whether it be size or programming sophistication).  Benchmarking organizations that are below your organization's level won't necessarily teach you anything new or help you raise the bar.
  • never benchmark organizations you know are mediocre -- that's a waste of time in my book.
  • develop a list of questions from which to work and stick to them; do this so that you can compare organization to organization (sure, sidebar conversations are great and you may discover something you'll want to explore that you hadn't anticipated, but make sure you cover your primary list first).
  • benchmark across geographic areas and the nonprofit spectrum.  Depending upon the topic of your interest, a for-profit might be a likely prospect.  This is about moving out of your comfort zone a bit to discover possibilities you might not have thought of before.
Bottom line, benchmarking is about poking your head up out of the your own institution's particular hole and taking a look around.  First, you've got to be willing to poke your head up.  And then you've got to ask some questions.  It's an interactive activity, this benchmarking stuff.  So, come on out of the hole and breathe some fresh air!  It can be so worth it.

Photo:  Whack a mole! from catgotti via Flickr

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Nonprofit Trends: Lost in Translation?

STARTING TODAY I'M SPENDING A BIG CHUNK OF TIME shifting the furnishings around in the nonprofit office where I work part-time.  My organization will soon be sharing space with another nonprofit in order to save a bit on rent.  The last time I had to share an office with others was almost 20 years ago and that was with a co-worker.  So, as much as I want to help the bottom line of my association, I'm a little worried about the personal workstyle adjustment I'm facing.
I wasn't surprised, then, when I learned from a group of rural nonprofit leaders earlier this month that workplace sharing and consolidation are trends they're seeing on the horizon.  But, interestingly, no one knew of an organization that was actually doing it.  So far, it's just talk.  Almost in the same breath the group agreed that another trend is the demise of some nonprofits -- indeed, about three cultural organizations in their area were down for the count -- an arts council, an performing arts center, and a sports hall of fame.
None of us, including myself until just now, made a direct connection between the two trends the group cited.  Wouldn't you think that if your organization was witnessing the demise of a nonprofit in your town or region that you'd be all over looking for lessons and putting them into practice?  It seems as though many of us are looking for the lessons, but far fewer are making any type of substantial readjustments.  Perhaps a tweak here or there is enough, but is it?
Is it -- when, almost daily, we are bombarded with tough news from the nonprofit sector?  Is it -- when we're warned that the "new normal" for nonprofits requires a new mindset, an almost complete shift in the way we relate to stakeholders, plan and execute fundraising, and measure our impact?
I fear that for many cultural nonprofits there are far too many that are paralyzed with fear of this uncertain future and by the change that may be required to thrive in it; too many without smart enough leadership who can see the path and help us stumble over it; too many content with waiting it out, to see how the other nonprofit fares before making a move.
I'm heading back to sorting out where my desk is going to go.

Photo:  Deer in the headlights from T Hall via Flickr

Monday, August 23, 2010

Getting Beyond the "Bored" Meeting

MY AUDIO/POWERPOINT SLIDES TO MY WEBINAR for NYS Arts on how to up the quality quotient for board meetings is available here.

This webinar looks at some basics:  what board meetings should accomplish (and often don't), how revisioning an agenda can provide meaning as well as focus, and how dashboards, breakouts, facilitated discussions and conversation recorders can both deepen and expand understanding.

Illustration:  The Boring Meeting from fourborne via Flickr

Friday, August 20, 2010

Board Recruitment: Still Missing the Mark

LET'S FACE IT -- IF FINDING COMMITTED, DYNAMIC AND FORWARD-THINKING board members was easy, you wouldn't be reading this post.  And I wouldn't have written about board recruitment as much as I have (see here, here, here, and here to list a few of the dozen or so posts I written on this topic).  I'm not the only one writing about it -- there are dozens of articles and book chapters devoted to it and plenty of workshops and webinars (OK, these are webinars I developed for NYS ARTS) available.  I like to think we might be making some headway on understanding that board recruitment is an ongoing process made up of interlocking pieces.  And, indeed, we are.
Nevertheless, I was struck when a nonprofit leader in a focus group I conduct recently declared that, in her community, most nonprofits had no clue what the role of the nominating committee was and no understanding of how important this committee was to the long term health of their organizations.  Several of her colleagues heartily agreed.  This remark had obviously struck a chord with the rest of the group...and it did with me.  This was a community not unsophisticated in nonprofit board work, yet this seemed to be a deep and long-standing issue.  I was disappointed that I had to steer their conversation back to the subject of the focus group -- I would have liked to explore this issue further with them.
So, perhaps we can explore it together here.
I suppose that part of the reason why organizations aren't implementing new approaches to board recruitment is that old habits die hard.  An organization that's been used to tapping recruits from a tight network of friends and associates will likely be reluctant to search too far beyond these networks.  Organizations that condone the pre-election scramble of a nominating committee can become hostages to these committees or the recruits they bring to the board room.  Boards and nominating committees that operate from a mindset that there isn't anyone who wants to join their ranks will undoubtedly fulfill that prophecy (they're the ones who -- with heavy sighs and shrugging of shoulders -- repeatedly re-elect themselves, because "we can't find anyone to replace us"). But, wouldn't you think, that precisely because board work is so challenging boards would be welcoming new approaches to recruitment?

Photo:  On Target from caruba

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

You Get What You Deserve

MY COLLEAGUE LINDA NORRIS AND I HAVE a long history in the trenches of museum administration.  The post is really a tribute to her insight, which is that boards get the directors they deserve and vice versa.  It's a tough philosophy particularly when it refers to a negative relationship.  But, frankly, both of us have seen it played out in dozens and dozens of organizations.  
It reminds me of what another colleague told me about a particular board that hired the same type of director over and over again and could never understand why they had a mess on their hands....over and over again.  What's that old saying? -- insanity is when you keep doing the same thing expecting to get a different result. 
Boards who want to maintain tight control (or Machiavellian control) will generally seek a director they can control tightly.  They'll look for the passive personality, the blank slate, the eager to please.  Boards that embrace challenge with the understanding that it can lead to growth will generally hire directors who will challenge them as well as themselves and the staff.
Controlling executive directors, on the other hand, will work hard to keep their boards at arm's length, perceiving erosion of power -- and perhaps knowledge -- if the board gets too close.  They'll withhold information, gloss over the tough questions, and roundly chastise any whiff of board exerted management (micro or macro).  Executive directors who are willing and able to embrace collaborative leadership -- which may also include some scrutiny, pushback, and a challenge or two -- will seek a board who can hug back.
If someone were to venture a concern about why such an organization isn't moving forward or seems to be living in suspended animation, part of the answer may lie in the fact that someone got what they deserved. 
Photo:  75/365 I wanna tear my hair out from bonus living (away)

Friday, July 16, 2010

My Webinar: Building Your Board

The June webinar I conducted for NYS Arts titled, Fulfilling a Role or Just Filling a Seat?, is available for viewing and listening here.  

I think it's full of practical tips, many of them I've written about over the last couple of years of Leading By Design, but the audio and my scribbling on the PowerPoint slides lends a certain animation that I simply can't achieve in my posts.

Photo:  Executive Board Room Facility at...from SFO CP

Monday, June 21, 2010

Building a Board Recruitment Program

IF YOU WERE BUILDING A BOARD RECRUITMENT program from scratch, what would you make of it?  I think I'd start with two pieces of information:  a board job description and a criteria list for the skills and attributes I need around that board table.
The job description would give me most all the information I'd need to approach a prospect to discuss board service.  I'd consider it my script for the conversation.  It would include all the expectations my organization would expect of a board member and it would include what the board member could expect from the organization.
The criteria list would be my road map to the people I'd be sharing that job description with.  As I've written about in other posts (here, here and here) it's knowing what I've got to work with and what I need that sets me up for my search of the who's.  Without this data, I could just ask any passing stranger if she or he had interest in joining my board.  I could just paper the neighborhood with that job description and it wouldn't mean a thing.
If I were building a board recruitment program from scratch, I'd also want to think about what surrounds those two pieces of information -- what supports and reinforces them.  They're two pieces of an overarching program that includes several activities ranging from prospect identification to orientation to full engagement of new members into the work of the board.  Each of these activities requires a plan of attack and related materials.  I'd want to have that all thought out and in place.
For example, orientation is an important early opportunity to ground a new board member in the vision, mission and values of the organization.  It requires face-to-face discussion that's best supported with a facilities tour, staff meet-up, and reference manual of all key documents (including organizational documents, policies, financials, strategic plans, contact lists, and program info).
Full engagement of new board members requires that they receive an assignment right away and perhaps some mentoring from veteran board members.
So, here's your assignment:  take a look at your current board recruitment program.  If you were to rebuild it or build one from scratch, where would you start?

Photo: Tinker Toys from M & J: Character Hunters 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Prospecting for Board Members: Map That, Too!

IN MY LAST POST I WROTE ABOUT mapping your current board.  Let's go to the next step and think about how this same type of mapping can be used to identify skills and attributes needed to add to a board.   Your map might begin with a simple list of these skills and attributes -- a list that is drawn from discussions about your organization's vision, mission and values, from your strategic or long-range plan, from a board self-assessment and/or from writing a statement about what your ideal board would look like.
As I've written about here, this exercise sets you (and your nominating or board development committee) up for moving your search from the "what" to the "who" -- the people who might fill your skills/attributes requirements.
Some of your primary candidates might be found among your members, your volunteers, your corporate underwriters, and any number of people your organization interacts with every day.  But other prospects may be more removed...or not yet known.  Your map might consist of a set of concentric circles, with the inner most circle containing the names of prospects closest to the organization.  Each expanding outer ring contains people with less and less direct connection, but all this means is that you'll have to 1) use a wider network to learn about them and 2) invest in a longer period of cultivation.
Or your map might be a matrix with skills listed on the left-hand column and attributes in headers along the top.  Start filling in the matrix with prospects you know best (a prospect may be listed multiple times depending on how many of the criteria he/she meets -> that's a good sign).  Then move on to names you know less well.  The blank spaces left on your matrix represent the folks you don't know yet and you'll need to expand your networks to identify.
And what about those people you don't even know yet?   That's where the skills/attributes list is key, because it becomes the basis for asking your networks the question "Do you know some who meets these criteria and might be interested in our mission?"  And that's when your organization's network can grow exponentially.

Image:  2010 - February - NodeXL - ssm2010...from Marc_Smith

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"I Can See it Now!": Mapping Your Board

IF YOU WERE TO MAKE A MAP of the to make a map of the diversity, skills, attributes and networks each of your board members brings to your organization's table, what would it look like?  A board's combined talents form a profile that may be well-understood or barely perceived.  And we should all know that what a group thinks of itself may not be anything like what others might think.
For a number of years I've used, and encouraged my client organizations to use, a simple chart to inventory these important elements.  Yesterday, I sat with an executive director and the chairperson of her organization's nominating committee and watched them complete just such a chart.  They inventoried gender, race, age, profession/avocation, skills brought to the organization, how each person is active in the organization, and what each person can help the organization accomplish.
It revealed obvious characteristics (average age is about mid-50s to 60); it also revealed some not-so-obvious gaps, such as the under-utilization of some board members, while others are active to the point of burnout.  Even with the obvious stuff, it didn't quite hit home until it was seen on paper.
It also raised a question or two about why some folks were on the board in the first place.  
More than once the nominating committee chairperson exclaimed, "I can see it now!"  How board member talents fit together and complement each other is one very important byproduct of this exercise.
A quick scan of the chart told us that, going forward, the nominating committee will need to be more strategic about identifying future candidates who can bring several things to the table:  younger, of color, access to new/targeted networks, along with specific skills and/or interests that the organization needs.  
If you haven't done this type of assessment, I encourage you to try it -- it took us less than two hours to do it (including related conversations). 

Image:  The Conference Board Review.  The Identity Recession by Tony Spaeth.  Winter 2010.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Board Recruitment: Look for the What, Not the Who

BOARD RECRUITMENT IS SERIOUS BUSINESS.  Or it should be.  Now more than ever, our nonprofits need engaged, forward-thinking leadership.  Our nonprofits need board members who are willing to use a continual loop of strategy and feedback to define and shape mission, relevance and community connectedness.  To be content with board members who are ONLY interested in slices of an organization's mission is not enough.  Board members have to want to embrace the whole enchilada, because they understand that a nonprofit's impact is more than the sum of its parts.
Nominating or board development committees need to sharpen their recruitment skills to laser-like precision.  Recruitment no longer begins with the question, "who do we know?", but with "what skills or access do we need?"  If you don't know what you're looking for, you're liable to accept any who.  That worked decades ago when boards were merely extensions of wealthy social clubs.  There's no time for that nonsense anymore.
It's time to start making that list.  An organization's vision and mission statements, along with the strategic plan, are pretty much all the tools you'll need to develop a list of skills and attributes your organization needs around the board table.  Use your list to go shopping for prospects by working your networks (and the networks of others) to identify them.
This isn't easy work.  It's never-ending work, really.  But it's the life-force for your nonprofit.

Photo: My grocery cart is filing up. h964 from SouthernBreeze - "God bless...

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Evolution of Storytelling

This video summarizes the power and possibility of arts and culture.  Enjoy it, pass it along.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Oxygen for the Organizational Brain

THIS WEEK, NONPROFIT CONSULTANT MARION CONWAY is running a series of articles on her blog about the importance of board retreats.  She's giving you all the best insight on why to do them and how to do them; she's even sharing sample agendas!  So you've got to check that out.
I consider the board retreat oxygen for the organizational brain.  It provides space and time to breathe and think deeply about the organization's health and well-being.  As I've written elsewhere, the coming together of boards, staff and volunteers can be a bonding experience that can move an organization to new levels of achievement.  And taking time to breathe and think deeply can clear away the cobwebs and refocus everyone on the mission and the impact.
Most regular board meetings just can't do that very well.  With their agendas and often rigorous timeframes, getting the chance to even take a breath, much less a deep one, is almost impossible.  You've got to create separate space for deep breathing.
Lots of boards go on hiatus during the summer months.  I think this could be a great time to hold a retreat -- even if it's just for a few hours around the backyard grill.  It's the chance to take the long view, review options, ask the "what if's" and keep the oxygen flowing.
Photo: Oneness Family Board Retreat,...from cliffkayser

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The New Ventures Think Tank: Why Your Organization Needs One

BRAINSTORMING SESSIONS HAVE A WONDERFUL WAY OF invigorating people.  It's exciting and, yes, liberating to contemplate future accomplishments, even if they're too lofty to achieve.  Cultural organizations are full of creative people with lots of ideas -- big ideas, too -- but few have a structured means of capturing them and funneling them into workable actions.  This is especially true when it comes to developing earned income strategies.  Beyond the typical mix of nonprofit fundraising activities, who's routinely minding the store when it comes to creating opportunities for long-term self-sufficiency beside the director?
I recently met with the executive committee and director of an historic site with a massive physical plant.  Almost three-quarters of current income comes from earned income and much of that is from for-profit activities, such as apartment rentals and lease of space to for-profit business.  Their efforts to come up with ideas for income-generating ventures is an ongoing conversation that could be considered sporadic or unfocused due, in part, to a lack of time and talent to devote to such efforts.  How could that be remedied?
Many for-profit businesses devote big money for research and development in an effort to remain competitive and profitable.  R & D is more often a by-product in the world of cultural nonprofits, the result of an immediate problem in search of a quick, inexpensive solution.  But, what if we could create a think tank that met regularly to brainstorm, research and evaluate self-sufficiency ventures?  Why couldn't a committee made up of various talents come together to do this for your cultural organization? 
You may have heard or read about the importance of a "blue sky committee", a group just focused on the big picture what if's.  I'm dubbing my think tank the "new ventures committee" to not only contemplate the what if's, but to also assess project feasibility and identify venture partners and funders.  It's groups like these that will help keep nonprofits flexible and in tune with the needs and trends of their external environments, as well as make substantive contributions to the bottom line. 
Photo:  All Blue.... happy blue sky!  from Andreza Pinheiro 

Friday, April 16, 2010

Executive Committees Walk a Fine Line

WHEN I READ THIS TWEET "The only board members who like the exec. comm. are the ones who are on it!" I had to admit I agreed with it.  Afterall, what's the point of serving on a board if all the important and interesting discussions and decisions are had by a few leaving the rest of us to suffer through report meetings?  Who wants to be just another pretty rubber stamp?
Executive committees walk a fine line.  Typically consisting of the board's officers, they are often indispensable in times of crisis.  Big organizations with big boards quite rightly find that smaller "steering" committees serve important oversight functions.  In this instance, the make-up may go well beyond officers to include committee chairs and others (and the size of a steering committee could be as large as a small full board).  But as a routine decision-making body acting on behalf of the full board, an active executive committee can alienate or isolate the rest of its board.
I have worked for and with many organizations where the full board meets every other month or quarter and the executive committee meets on the intervening months.  Or where the executive committee AND the full board both meet every month -- how's that for duplication?  Any one of these scenarios begs these questions:  If there's so much board work to be done that the executive committee needs to meet just as often or MORE often than the full board, why isn't the full board meeting more frequently?  Or is the executive committee working on a specific crisis or issue that was not assigned - or could not be assigned - to another committee or task force?  The distinction is very important and must be made clear.
And then there's the issue of burn-out.  Meeting after meeting, particularly if duplicative, is such a waste of energy and talent.  Since great board members are seemingly hard to come by, why intentionally overburden them?
If your executive committee is a stand-in for full board meetings, making decisions that a full board should be making, stop the practice for a few months to see if it makes any difference.  If work gets backed up, that's an indication that the full board needs to be meeting more frequently.  If your full board meetings become more engaging, then you've become the beneficiary of "less is more".  Who wouldn't love that? 

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Meaningful Outside

I JUST FINISHED READING THE REPORT from two focus groups conducted by one of my cultural clients.  This client, like many of my clients, had never talked with constituents in quite this way before.  It's funny that a concept so basic to the for-profit world is so largely overlooked by the nonprofit world -- at least in the cultural corner.  
I've even had clients tremble with fear at the thought of talking to stakeholders about what their nonprofit does.  In one case, a client was barely able to identify a group of "non-member" community leaders to invite to a focus group.  Despite all the talk about how the current economy is forcing nonprofits to rethink their work and their relationships, many, it seems, remain in a curious bubble of isolation.
The two focus groups in question raised a wide array of perspectives about my client -- a lot of it good; some of it critical.  Some of it, I'm sure, is well known to the client.  Others of it might be complete revelation.  Each group offered suggestions for creating or strengthening community connections that ran the gamut from working more closely with the Chamber of Commerce to offering affordable family oriented special events.  The specificity of their suggestions will be helpful when the time comes to act upon them.
Another client met for the first time with a group of nonprofit leaders in its community and found a fertile ground for possible future collaborations.  Community conversations held by a local children's museum resulted in several new representatives joining the planning team.
In each instance, focus group participants were encouraged and pleased that an organization was reaching outside its four walls to tap into the meaningful outside.  After all, no nonprofit lives in isolation of its external environment.  Now that the hurdle to the outside has been successfully jumped, the organization must live up to the expectation that it will act on what it has heard.

Photo:  Streets Ahead Week of Action focus...from Hillingdon London

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Younger Minds Attract Younger Audiences*

IF "YOUNGER MINDS ATTRACT YOUNGER AUDIENCES" isn't your institution's mantra, you should seriously consider making it so.  Not just for staff and volunteers, I'm thinking this needs to be your board's mantra, too.  That's particularly true for well-established, highly structured cultural organizations presenting traditional programming formats. You know these organizations; you may work or volunteer in one.
While we read about the graying of audiences for some cultural activities, I'm wondering how gray the board and senior staff are.  Do you think there's a distinct correlation?  
Younger minds do more than attract younger audiences.  They keep the cobwebs at bay.  They help us question accepted practice and remix familiar elements to make new connections.  And they are the fundamental bridges to our organizations' futures.
Some organizations utilize "junior boards" for folks under 40 to try out their chops.  If you shine there, you'll get to move up to the "grown-up board" someday.  Some organizations create "junior committees" primarily to foster under-40 philanthropy (their activities always look like a lot more fun than the grander, big-money affairs). 
In big, bureaucratic institutions these mechanisms undoubtedly have a place for training, mentoring, and shaping next generation leadership.  But for most culturals, there's a pressing need to bring younger minds to the board room today.  It seems that few, though, have any inkling how to do that.  

Stereotypes about board service -- good, bad, and downright ugly -- seem to prevent so many boards from looking beyond a fairly short radius of known quantities.  This is particularly true when it comes to looking for younger minds.  These boards need to do two things immediately:  1) quit repeating that under-40's don't have time for board service, and 2) quit saying you don't know anyone.  All great boards are fed by far-reaching, complementary networks, and age is one of them.
If you've made an honest attempt to attract younger minds to board service and come up short, I submit that you need to rethink your organization's expectations of board service and its mission.

Photo:  Visitor Video Competition from Brooklyn Museum

* Carol Vogel.  "The New Guard of Curators Step Up".  New York Times:  March 13, 2010.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Working Together Doesn't Just Happen

I'M THINKING ABOUT TWO GROUP EXPERIENCES I'VE ENCOUNTERED IN RECENT DAYS: one is a planning team for a professional development program and the other is the board and staff of a historic site that has entered a new phase of independence.  Both groups are in the throes of creating something new; both have many voices around the table.  But, one experience has been a struggle at almost every turn while the other was a high-energy, highly focused (even fun) effort.  How come so different?
Group work is shaped by several common elements, but how they're addressed and tended to can lead to quite different -- even deleterious -- results.  
Who's at the Table:  Anything you read about effective collaborations underscores the importance of having all the major stakeholders at the table.  It's incredibly important to take the time to put this group together and to give them an opportunity to get to know one another.  That's especially true when you've got a disparate group who come from divergent sectors or backgrounds.  Barring all the potential positives of a "team of rivals" approach, personality does play a critical role here, as well.
We know that with many start-up projects, the group that develops them tends to be fairly homogeneous and "like minded".  That is largely the case in my examples.  The group that's struggling is made up of cultural sector leaders, most from one industry.  In this case, homogeneity has not been, so far, a predictor of success.  The seemingly more successful group at this point is also quite homogeneous with very little economic and social diversity.  Their struggle is to become more diverse and less "club-like".  Would that also help the struggling group?
Focus of the Work:  Both groups have relatively focused agendas.  The struggling group's focus is to create from scratch a high-level professional development program for a specific audience.  Over the course of the work, many twists, turns and false starts have made some stakeholders question the focus.  Considerable time has been spent rethinking the focus and stakeholder roles.  Continued ambiguity of focus and outcome is sapping the group's energy, enthusiasm and sense of ownership for the project.
By contrast, the high energy group is not quite developing something from scratch.  The focus for this group is tangible -- it surrounds them everyday in three-dimensional form.  They "own" their focus both literally and figuratively.  While they aren't building their project from scratch, they must continually break new ground in order to thrive and they must make some key leaps in institutionalizing their roles and responsibilities to be successful for the long-term.  
Leadership of or Within the Group:  The leaders of the struggling group suffer from professional attention deficit syndrome.  Their plates are too full, their commitment too splintered.  They pay the most attention to the project when a deadline is looming or when team members complain.  When group members have attempted to exert leadership, it has not been well-received.  Lack of leadership continuity can be a breeding ground for second-guessing, splitting into cliques, back channel discussion and decision-making, and drifting apart.
The high energy group has strong, long-tenured and respected leadership.  But leadership within the group, particularly at the committee level, is uneven.  And burnout is always a concern.  This group must figure out ways to push leadership deeper into its ranks to build a bench for succession while thoughtfully widening their circle to include more diverse representation.
Communication:  What is true collaboration without it?  Our struggling group example is plagued by a lack of regular communication.  Misunderstandings result in the voids.  Despite the fact that this project is now more than a year in the making, many on the project team are strangers -- colleagues, yes; friends, not so much.  I find myself saying that I'm having a hard time "falling in like" with the team.  Part of that I am convinced stems from a lack of opportunity to get to know one another.
When I met with the high energy group, the first thing I was told was this group had just been together the night before for dinner at the board president's house.  They talked animatedly and laughed a great deal as they gathered for their meeting with me.  They agreed that their internal communication was frequent and informal and this will need to change somewhat as it grows.
This brings me to a book I find continually useful: Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith's The Wisdom of Teams (my copy is from 1999).  The authors identified six overarching characteristics of high-performing teams and I refer to them whenever I reflect on teamwork.  They are:
  • the team is relatively small in number (generally less than twelve)
  • team members bring complementary skills to the table (too much homogeneity can lead to "group think")
  • the team has a common and clear purpose with a
  • common set of specific performance goals
  • the team agrees on the approach to the work
  • team members are mutually accountable for their performance
Photo:  artomatic huddle!  from mofo

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Building a Plan Layer by Layer

LET'S TALK ABOUT SOMETHING THAT'S THEORETICALLY very simple:  the architecture of a plan -- you know, that written thing that's supposed to help guide your activity.  It doesn't matter if we're creating a plan to manage a project or a plan to reinvent an institution, the architecture of it ought to be pretty much the same.  In its most basic, stripped-down state, a plan is a hierarchy of information, built up in layers like the foundation of a house.  

The "house", which the foundation supports, is the result the planner is seeking to achieve.  For the project manager it's completing an activity on time and on/under budget.  For the institutional re-inventor it's about articulating and achieving a new vision or a renewed mission. 

I typically use three different kinds of informational layers in building a plan:  1) broad overarching goals shaped by mission and understandings of external needs and realities; 2) sets of focused activities that, over the life of the plan, will achieve goals; and 3) specific individualized action steps, or tasks, to accomplish activities.  These three layers go by a number of names, but the key is that they form a hierarchy of information -- broad ---> focused ---> specific and individualized -- that I believe is critical to building a foundation strong enough to hold the house we envision.

For many people this is a tough hierarchy to understand, let alone master.  Countless organizations consider a list of tasks, untethered to goals or a mission, as a plan.  But a list of tasks is nothing more than a "to do" list, which can lead an individual or organization in any direction if not informed or kept in check by the informational layers above it.  Here's an example of one organization's "goals" for a five-year period:
  • develop a website
  • develop job descriptions
  • review personnel policies
  • clean out the basement
  • organize filing system
  • collect email addresses of members
Are these really goals?  They are so specific, so obviously boundaried in scope, that they clearly support some larger -- although not articulated -- directions or overarching mission that they really belong in the third layer of information.  It's a lot easier for people to get their heads around tasks, it seems -- and why not? -- many of us live out our daily lives in the form of "to do" lists.   But, if we are ever to accomplish the meaningful stuff of personal or institutional life, we must have the "house" and at least the first layer of information clearly in our sights.

So, here's a thought -- a relatively painless, low-tech, and maybe even fun way to review the construction of your plan:  gather a group together (ideally board members and staff), give them a bunch of colored index cards (one color for goals, one for sets of focused activities, one for tasks) and ask them to dissect your current plan according to those three layers of information.  When everyone is finished, sort the cards by color on a big table.  What emerges?  Will you be changing the colors of some of the information?  After you've done that, what information gaps are you facing?  How will you fill them?

Photo:  Index cards  from redspotted

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Audience Development: Not Just a Marketing Issue

THERE ARE TWO COMPETING REALITIES IN PLAY for arts and cultural organizations that don't seem to be destined for resolution any time soon, and they both have to do with audience.  The first is the fact that for many traditional cultural activities, audiences and volunteerism are declining.  The second has to do with a perpetual lack of resources most arts and cultural organizations dedicate to ongoing audience development, retention and loyalty-building. 

The American Association of Museums' reports in its Museum Financial Information 2009 that museums with separate marketing budgets dedicate anywhere from 2 percent to 8 percent of annual expenses, depending on total organizational budget, to promoting attendance, memberships or products.  The lower end of the range likely doesn't include personnel.  Bottom line:  museums spend on balance $1.29 per visitor per year to get them in the door, on the membership rolls or purchasing from the shop.  

The Theater Communications Group tracks similar data in its Theatre Facts surveys.  The 2008 survey reports a range of 10.8 percent to 12.6 percent of total operating budget spent on marketing/customer service/concessions (including personnel).  However, Joy Zinoman, founding artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre, notes, "A relationship to your neighborhood, the idea of theatre being very tied to a place, is a very different notion.... That costs different money and has different implications.”  

Most of us tend to think of audiences as those who show up.  Indeed they are that, but they are more than that.  Despite the current economy, which has sliced marketing budgets and staffs at those institutions fortunate to have marketing budgets and staffs in the first place, paying attention to the care and feeding of audiences is more often an after-thought than a top priority.

Chad Bauman takes on this question for theaters here and here in his blog Arts Marketing.  The comments to these posts are good reading, too.

Arts organizations lacking the expertise of marketing staff are left to their own devices to think about audience development and many just don't or can't.  Too busy with mounting productions, exhibitions, classes or festivals, the last questions asked - if asked at all - have to do with audience engagement and communication.  As Bauman and some of his commentators note, often programming is established without input from the folks who are charged with marketing it, much less without input from potential consumers.

The health of arts and cultural organizations surely depends on its audiences,  not just to fill seats, but for long term personal connection as board members, volunteers and donors.

Photo:  I Am The Audience from vaquey

Friday, February 26, 2010

What the Health Care Summit Was Not: Four Tips for Holding Difficult Meetings

I GOT SUCH A BAD VIBE from watching snippets of President Obama's Health Care Summit that I almost had to avert my eyes.  This was a train wreck in more ways than one and I'd like to take up some blog real estate to focus in on some very practical aspects of the meeting that, frankly, occur a lot in nonprofit board and staff rooms all across the country.

1.  Room set-up:  I immediately focused in on the fact that all 37 participants were seated around a hollow square configuration of tables.  This way, everyone could see everybody else.  Name tags were prominently displayed on the tables in front of everyone's place.  Certainly, when you're trying to encourage discussion, everybody needs to be facing each other.  Yet, the group was large enough that the folks on the ends would not have been able to see the face of a speaker in the middle of a their row.  A really big round table would have been much better.

The meeting room at Blair House seemed exceedingly small and the table space each participant had assigned to them exceedingly cramped.  Sure, behind the legislators were rows of staffers and camera crews, but still I winced to see folks jostling mounds of paper in too small a physical space.  As it was, the folks sitting across from each other were fairly far apart, while at the same time they seemed to have none of their own elbow room.

I just can't imagine being in that space, around that table for hours on end.  In those bamboo ballroom chairs with little pads on the seats, too -- uncomfortable without regular breaks!  Undoubtedly, the group got up and moved to other spaces for lunch -- maybe even for breaks.  But I keep asking myself how could the space have been configured differently to promote more real discussion?

2.  Group size:  Any meeting advice book tells you that you have to have all the stakeholders in the room to make something happen.  In this instance, I doubt the group could have been smaller, but I'm also wondering if the group dynamic would have been helped by the participation of some nonpolitical stakeholders.  Would their voices have helped to cut through the worn rhetoric?

I've always found that fresh knowledgeable voices can often help a group to move beyond old arguments. They can help to balance the loudest voices, too.

3.  Moderator as Participant:  I was also struck by the fact that the president tried to wear two hats at the summit -- he tried to be the moderator for all while at the same time be a partisan participant.  As a result, I think the process of discussion really faltered, because no one without a stake in the game was really moderating.  As a result, he cut folks off, challenged their points of view and didn't really work overly hard to push for finding mutual ground.

Any time there is as a consequential issue on the table, it's best to call in a non-objective third party to focus on process to move the group forward.  That lets all the stakeholders fully participate.

Besides, a partisan moderator really sends the message to all that the discussion isn't likely to be very objective.

4.  Agenda:  If you're attempting to bring two sides closer together, each side must have a role in developing the agenda -- at the very least in developing the outcomes or objectives of the meeting.  With partisan disagreement so high - so volatile - on this issue, perhaps the best agenda might have been one the participants built together as the summit took place.

The summit was designed to be the Kabuki theater that it turned out to be -- scripted, formal and unsuccessful at unlocking new interpretations or understandings.  If you've got a Kabuki theater playing in your nonprofit board room, perhaps these rethinking these four elements will move your discussions forward in positive new directions.

Photo:  Meeting in Progress - 8th April2009 from Sven1976