Sunday, September 4, 2011

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation About Stakeholder Communication

There's a special place in western New York where life-long learning, spiritual and artistic exploration, and recreation meet.  This place is Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit community now in its 138th year.  When I'm lucky, get to spend a snippet of the nine-week season there.  Each season is programmed with roughly 2,000 events ranging from lectures and classes to performances of all types, art shows, book readings, community events and everything in between.

Chautauqua Institution -- the nonprofit corporation -- is a $24+ million annual operation governed by a board of 24 trustees, employing more than 1,200 full-time and seasonal employees, with a physical plant numbering more than 80 buildings and a ton of recreational areas, and a balance sheet that totes up more than $60 million in assets.  Visitors to the grounds number in the tens of thousands over the course of the nine-week season (late June to late August).  Some of these folks own property on the grounds and they make Chautauqua their summer home.  Others, like me, manage a visit for a few days or a week.  Many others come for the day or for a specific performance or activity.
OK, so much for the set-up.  What I've come to learn over my time at Chautauqua is that pretty much all of the full-time professional staff are constantly in and on view, because they introduce programs, facilitate discussions, squire speakers/performers around, and press the flesh with long-time supporters and newbies alike.  Think of the demands on you at your biggest annual event or program series and multiply that by nine back-to-back, non-stop weeks.  You're surrounded most every day by your trustees, your most faithful donors, and curious first-time visitors.  Everyone wants to say hello to you, make a suggestion, offer a criticism, get directions to the restrooms, engage you in some deep topic that might make your head explode right at that moment or just trip you up.  They're your closest supporters, your allies, your peeps.

How would you take the opportunity of being surrounded by your audience and use it to communicate your organization's mission, intentions, future plans, and tough choices?  Draw them closer? Perhaps get their buy-in?

This summer I noticed for the first time that the Institution's trustees and senior staff held weekly, one-hour conversations on some aspect of the organization's operations with anyone who wanted to show up.  Called "Trustees Porch Discussions", the conversations took place on a long, broad porch of a building near the largest venue, the amphitheater, so there were lots of people strolling by, many of whom stopped to listen.  Each discussion had a focusing topic -- family and educational programming, finances, religious diversity, how speakers are chosen for the lecture platform, or how the institution is marketed (these were the topics this summer).  While staff lead the discussion, the trustees were on hand to add insights and help answer questions.  The audiences ranged in size from 20 or so people to more than 60.

"Trustees Porch Discussions" were augmented by two Board of Trustees "Open Forums" -- one in July and one in August.  These were held in a large public venue right after the trustee's regular board meetings.  Here, larger audiences asked questions ranging from expanding the interfaith community to future restoration/renovation plans for performances spaces, to enforcement of registration for dogs and safety issues of motorized scooters.

I really like the accessibility to staff and board members that these two activities provide and I don't think it's too much of a stretch to think about how similar face-to-face discussions could take place with members, donors and visitors in smaller institutions.  Many organizations use their annual member's meeting or annual report to communicate with stakeholders on the business end of the issues.  Some nonprofits hold board meetings as part of program meetings.  Social media can facilitate the flow of communication, also.  But unless these typical channels are purposely programmed to be conversations about the health and forward momentum of the organization, then they're usually nothing more than glossy one-way reporting.

Is it too much to ask that we figure out ways to reveal more of the challenges of our work, to ask our member and donor partners the same questions we ask at our staff meetings; to debate the pros and cons; to lay the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly on the table? 

Our stakeholders need to know when things aren't working well just as much as when things are.  Most of the time they just need to be afforded an opportunity to know.  After all, they are our partners in the enterprise of our nonprofits.

Images from the Chautauqua Institution Flickr stream 

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