Sunday, December 21, 2008

Ten Resolutions for the New Year

Ah, a new year! A clean slate. A fresh start. An opportunity to set personal, professional and organizational goals to work toward the coming twelve months. I'll leave the personal and professional goal-setting up to you, but I would like to get you thinking about tackling some basic activities that are guaranteed -- yes, I said guaranteed -- to strengthen your organization and renew your commitment to your mission.

Here's my top 10 list of organizational resolutions for 2009:

1. Review your mission out loud at a board meeting or members' meeting. Get some discussion going about what your mission means (or is supposed to mean). Does your activity reflect and support your mission? If it doesn't what do you need to change to bring mission and practice into alignment?

2. Undertake a formal self-assessment of your organization's strengths and weaknesses. This exercise is an excellent springboard for discussions about organizational focus, mission, and practice. If you do nothing more this year than an assessment, you will have created a "to do" list for board, committees, staff and volunteers that could become the basis for organizational activity for a year or more.

3. Review and update your Bylaws. For a lot of boards and staffs, updating Bylaws is a nuisance, yet this document is the fundamental procedural manual by which your organization operates. If your organization is not complying with its Bylaws, you've got to figure out why and then remedy the situation. The remedy may be that you'll be more mindful of following your procedures, or it may be that some procedures may need to be revised or removed. In either case, it's time to align organizational activity to your stated legal documents.

4. Write and approve a code of ethics. A code of ethics can be a stand-alone statement or it can be included in the Bylaws and in other operational policies. Codes of ethics set out procedures for dealing with how an organization maintains the public trust by addressing governing authority (i.e., conflict of interest, relationships with staff and/or volunteers, and working relationships among trustees); collections (i.e., donor relationships, level of collection care and access, deaccessioning); and program.

5. Spend a board meeting becoming financial literate. Talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the current financial information you receive. Provide a basic primer on reading and understanding financial statements, including budgets and audits. What types of financial information do you need that you don't have now? What criteria would be important to identify as a means of evaluating the effectiveness of fundraising and financial management? Do you need to create a multi-year financial plan or contingency plans? Who could help you accomplish something like that?

6. Take a tour of collection storage. Are storage areas secure? Are they clean and tidy? Can you easily get to items stored there? If stored collections are in attics, basements, porches or unheated outbuildings, how are you making those environments better for the long-term care and protection of those collections? Are you meeting your public trust obligations of care?

7. Gather the board and staff to make a top-to-bottom inspection of your institution. That's right -- attic to basement; outbuildings and off-site storage. Everyone needs to know the extent of the physical plan, as well as its strengths, weaknesses, shortcomings, and potential. Once a year, everyone needs to tour the plant. Bring along a camera, too -- photos and videos will help everyone remember what they've seen. Then, when the staff and/or committees in charge of the plant report on its status, you'll have a better understanding of what it is, where it is, and its impact on the organization.

8. Get comfortable with change. Appreciate that a flexible organization is better able to respond to the uncertainties of funding, changing demographics, the demands of audiences and the increasingly watchful eye of government. To keep your organization mentally flexible, plan for the future using a variety of scenarios designed to keep you on your toes!

9. Throw an appreciation party for all the folks who make your organization work (paid, unpaid; top dog and unsung hero). This is the time to share the history, the joy and the sorrows of the organization. It is these stories that cement people to the mission, the place, and to each other. Use this opportunity to build community.

10. Have fun. Laugh a lot -- we're all going to need more than a fair share of humor. Encourage and enjoy the common purpose that has brought you all together. Gracefully bow out if it's no longer fun for you.

Photo: Resolution Layout by { Kathy Marie Perez }

Sunday, December 14, 2008

In Whose Best Interests?

Any nonprofit has a dual obligation:  firstly (and always so), to its constituents -- be they members, visitors, clients, congregants, students, patients, or colleagues -- and by extension, the larger community that sustains it -- and secondly, to keeping itself financially stable, programmatically vital, and future-focused.  Overlaying this for museums and heritage organizations is the equally daunting obligation to their collections, which they hold in trust for the benefit and enjoyment of the public.  In a way, it's a lot like the image I've chosen to accompany this post -- layered, complicated, and right about now, feeling a bit cold and lonely.

It is the first of these obligations that has received great emphasis in nonprofit circles in recent years.  "Nonprofit boards owe their allegiance first to the community and only second to the organization," said Kelvin Taketa of the Hawaii Community Foundation in a 2003 Nonprofit Quarterly article entitled, A Gateway to 21st Century Governance:  Are We Ready?  That allegiance must be assured by active engagement of the people the organization touches, bringing them into the loop on the setting of priorities and program design.

That was 2003.  As 2008 draws to a close and the global economy plummets, constituent accountability and organizational stability have become quite starkly drawn for the nonprofit sector, with assets held in the public trust clearly hanging in the balance.  What do we make of food pantries with empty shelves, colleges with half-empty classrooms, museums with bare walls?  Is nonprofit governance ready for this?

At your next board, staff, volunteer or members' meeting try asking and talking deeply about these questions:  To whom is our organization accountable?  Does the organization govern and program to preserve its institutional interests?  Or does the organization govern and program in the best interests of its community?  How does the organization shepherd its human and financial assets to meet these interests?

Conversations like this help an organization develop aspirational, operational and ethical parameters that empower it in good times and bad.

Photo: Winter landscape by Cedric_MountainDwellerVie...

Friday, December 5, 2008

Problem-solving as a Deliberate Process

Action Learning/Research is an approach to problem-solving that was pioneered more than 60 years ago by social-psychologists, and it offers pathways for the 21st century nonprofit to explore issues more deeply and implement decisions based on the findings of these explorations.

One pathway for problem-solving involves seven steps that require 1) an understanding and differentiating of information types; 2) delving through symptoms to get at root causes, which may then lead to important discussions of organizational values; and 3) developing criteria for impartial evaluation of potential solutions.

The seven steps are:

1.  Identify the problem or issue.
2.  Analyze the problem:  is it an isolated issue or is it related to other problems?  Who is affected by it?  How is it handled now?
3.  Describe the problem in measurable, impartial terms.
4.  Look for root causes and causal relationships by asking "why?" at least five times.
5.  Develop alternative solutions, evaluating each against predetermined criteria.
6.  Implement a decision.  Anticipate the downside of decisions.
7.  Measure results.

Most of the time, we're dealing with the symptoms of much deeper problems.  For example, inactive committees, late budgets, or stalled fundraising efforts generally stem from larger organizational issues.  While we may have a gut feeling about the source of a problem, following a systemic pattern of resolution, such as the seven-step model, offers an objective approach for boards and staff that facilitates decision-making and change while maintaining a level of organizational equilibrium.

Organizations that commit to problem-solving as a process that is both consultative and reflective create many opportunities to surface values and passion -- the "big picture" stuff that is necessary for meaningful decision-making, and ultimately, change.  Organizations that are willing to ask "why?" five times stand a better chance of getting to the heart of their visions, missions, and values.  Board members and staff become co-learners, working together to inquire and to collect data, question assumptions, give and get feedback, and plan, implement, and evaluate courses of action.

While some problem-solving and decision-making does not require this approach, clearly policy and criteria development benefits from it.  

How might you incorporate the seven-step model into the leadership work you do?  
Think about how you would need to restructure meetings in order to support the model.  Think about the time frames you might need in order to accommodate it, knowing that more time will be spent in the researching, learning and reflecting phases.  Think about how much ground you may gain be focusing on root problems, not just symptoms, and how, in doing so, you can articulate shared visions and values that can form the platforms for future decision-making.

Photo:  Lightbulb by minxlabs

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Governance Courage

Linda Compton, President and CEO of BoardSource, opened this year's Board Leadership Forum by citing a variety of implications this economic crisis will bring to nonprofit work.  She offers this challenge, as well:
So, now, more than ever, we need courage as nonprofit leaders, as our organizations look to us for the way through these challenging times. Now is the time for board members to ask the courageous questions:  How do we respond to the new financial environment? How can we continue to carry out our mission? What changes do we have to make? And how can we best position ourselves to be ready when the recovery comes? 
You can read her entire message here.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Required Reading for All Trustees and Directors

When it comes to stepping up to the plate, it doesn't make any difference if your institution is a small-budgeted organization running on volunteered energy or a large and complex cultural entity -- nonprofit boards and their leadership staff are responsible for the financial health of their institutions.  That they be held accountable for this basic tenet of nonprofit governance is what the LA Times art critic Christopher Knight's "open letter" to the board members of the Museum of Contemporary Art is all about.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy states, "Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Knight — who notes that in 1998 the museum operated with a $50-million endowment, now rumored to have shrunk to $7-million — says the trustees “must call an urgent board meeting, gather round the table, pull out your checkbooks and calculators, and stay in that room until you have cobbled together at least $25 million.” He suggests this act be followed by budget cuts and the crafting of a new strategic plan."

Sound familiar?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Get into Turnaround Mode

I’ve added another blog to my list after discovering it for the first time earlier this week.  Balancing the Mission Checkbook is written by Kate Barr, the Executive Director of the Nonprofit Assistance Fund in Minneapolis, and she covers a broad range of leadership topics, but particularly focuses on financial management issues.

Here’s an excerpt from one of Kate’s October 2008 posts where she suggests that nonprofits ought to address this period of economic uncertainty in much the same manner as they would address an organizational turnaround – that is, boldly, with a plan and with determination to follow it.

Brandeis University Press has just published The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations by Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.

A short excerpt from the book is available from The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Kaiser offers ten basic rules for every turnaround:

1.  Someone must lead

2.  The leader must have a plan

3.  You cannot save your way to health

4.  Focus on today and tomorrow, not yesterday

5.  Extend your programming planning calendar

6.  Marketing is more than brochures and advertisements

7.  There must be only one spokesperson, and the message must be positive

8.  Fundraising must focus on the larger donor, but don’t aim too high

9.  The board must allow itself to be restructured

10. The organization must have the discipline to follow each of these rules

Photo:  San Francisco Freeze at Powell & Market by navid j

Sunday, November 9, 2008

It's Nice to be Nice to the Nice

Beth Kanter is one of a handful of authorities who’s actively engaged in using social media in the nonprofit arena and writing about it daily on her blog.  I encourage you to check out her Beth’s Blog, which is jammed packed with great information and ideas, especially if you’re unsure or even skeptical about the place of electronic networking in your institution.

Beth recently blogged about the Center for Nonprofit Excellence Annual Conference, where she presented a couple of sessions.  Her take on the conference keynote is valuable for all nonprofit leaders:

The keynote was from Bill Toliver called "It's nice to be nice to the nice."  Some key takeaways:

Your nonprofit can't continue to do a good job if it’s doing an average job of doing too many things. Nonprofits have a moral obligation to the highest quality work.

Change your concept of what a campaign means.   Is there a better way forward?  You need to blend the best practices of marketing and social movement building.

Understand the difference between a database and a base of support.

Build a community around your nonprofit brand:

  • We must start putting our tireless values above emotion-of-the-month or campaign-of-the-year.
  • We must build a database of committed marathon runners, rather than emotional sprinters
  • We must help people see beyond the “what” and start looking at the “why”
  • Are you raiser of funds or agents of change?

Let's look at how social change happens

  • Social change only happens one way - Nothing ever changes until somebody motivates a critical mass of the right people to commit to that change.
  • Are you that somebody or are you looking to the right people or are you just doing the same old thing?
  • How many people do you need to reach a tipping point?  What sort of commitment do you need?  How to motivate people to sustain the level of commitment?

What must we do to be the catalyst?

  • Don't hide behind your elevator pitch
  • Understand your constituents belief system
  • Put yourself in the heads of the donors
  • Is there a solution to it?
  • What will you do with my money?    

Photo:  Tate Modern members room art4 by sara~

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Managing Change: A Few Random Thoughts

How to make change without turning off the volunteers?  That was a question posed at the recent annual meeting of the Western New York Association of Historical Agencies in Buffalo.

Since we humans generally tend to be change-averse creatures, I think that's a good starting point when considering how to approach change within organizations. Whether it's changing the paint color or the exhibits, the annual fundraising event or the number of standing committees, recognize from the outset that some folks will be down-right unhappy (and others merely perturbed).

It's imperative to embrace those affected by a change with the process of decision-making and/or solution-finding.  Why?  Well, obviously, the more ownership a person feels in a decision, the more that person will support it.  And ownership is about having some sense of control.  Many people opt out when they feel they have no control over decisions, over change that is affecting them.  

Easier said than done, however.  Any decision involving stakeholder input will take longer to reach, simply because of the logistics of getting that input (not to mention in what new directions that input could take the process).  Knowing what change decisions require what kind of and how much stakeholder input is a leadership attribute worth developing.

Board and staff leaders have a responsibility to develop a change process that includes the folks most affected by it.  And to do so fairly soon in the process. While final decisions generally rest with leadership, the fact that others have had opportunities to participate in the process -- and are kept informed about the process -- are critical ingredients to keeping most everyone on board with the outcome.

That brings me to the notion of keeping people informed.  Certainly, there's such a thing as too much of it (just read my previous posts), but not enough of it is equally harmful.  Remember, nature abhors a vacuum.  Folks will make up information if there's no real information (or not enough of it) available.  When no one is talking, that's when the rumor mill fires up.

Chances are you'll always lose someone to change.  The folks who can't get on board with a change are not going to be happy staying anyway, so it's best to let them find a new relationship with your organization or find another organization.

Avoiding change for fear of losing volunteers or staff should not be the sole criteria.  Change is first and foremost about making better, stronger organizations.

Photo:  Editorializing on change by jcgr

Friday, October 31, 2008

Organizational Darwinism

I'm off to Buffalo today with my Museum Association of New York hat on to attend the annual meeting of the Western New York Association of Historical Agencies. New York State is unusual in that it has four regional museum associations that primarily serve the history community -- historical societies and sites, history museums, archives, municipal historians, and related organizations and individuals. Two of the four associations have been around for several decades. I think the difference they've made in terms of capacity-building for the small and mid-sized organization is palpable.

One of the sessions I'm participating in at this meeting is called "Getting Your [Organizational] House in Order", and I have an opportunity to talk about the types of policies that small museums need to have in place.  I've decided to structure my remarks around Alice Korngold's  article on, which I wrote about in an earlier post (October 25, 2008).  As Korngold emphasizes, times of economic crisis require organizations to get their houses in order, particularly at the leadership level.    

In addition to having or having up-to-date policies such as bylaws, codes of ethics, and personnel policies, I'm also going to make a case for setting criteria for board skills, for planning, for job descriptions at all levels (paid and unpaid), and for evaluation.  These are all part of an organization's infrastructure that allow it to do its best work.

In the nonprofit realm there's an organizational darwinism at work fueled by too few dollars, lack of understanding of audience needs, poor or nonexistent planning, and sloppy resource allocation.  It becomes most apparent in times of crisis, when many stressors are in play.  And this current economic crisis will, no doubt, be the undoing of some, forcing mergers or bankruptcy.

Here's a good discussion question to have periodically:  If we were to go out of business tomorrow, would anybody notice or - perhaps more importantly, would
anybody care?

Photo:  open closed by © Michael D'Amico... 

Monday, October 27, 2008

Saying Goodbye is Never Easy

Asking a board member to leave.  Where does your organization draw the line on behavior that would precipitate a request for resignation? 

Most nonprofits have attendance rules in their bylaws.  I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about the impact of the chronically empty board seat and the insidious damage it can do to group dynamics and the ability to effectively govern (September 3, 2008).

Beyond that, what else?  Criminal behavior, certainly. 

What about the large, often gray area in between lack of participation and malfeasance?  And how are such dicey situations best addressed?

A recent real-life example involved a board member independently taking staff to task regarding the intellectual content of an exhibition.  In doing so, this individual not only overstepped the universally accepted board role, prevailing scholarship was also called into question.   While the staff held their ground, it became clear that the actions of the board member were a significant embarrassment to other board members and to senior staff.

What happened next fails to happen more often.  Knowing that this incident and this individual held the potential for serious long-term impact on staff and board morale and knowing that it could impinge on future board recruitment and funding, the board and staff leadership chose to exercise mutual accountability and organizational conscience.

The board member was asked to leave.  But not before communication with all board members individually was made by the president and director, with a case that was carefully documented and well argued.  So, while it might have taken too long as far as staff were concerned, it did happen quickly enough to be able to directly connect the consequences with the actions.

Why is it that we often find it easier to dance around the problematic board member?  We cajole, we isolate, we give slack to?  Is it the money we fear losing?  Or is it some imagined institutional reputation we fear will be soiled in the court of public opinion?  Or are we just exercising our natural inclination to avoid conflict?

Saying goodbye is never easy.  Nor should it be.  Being prepared to do it, though, is critical.  So, make sure your institution’s Code of Ethics is up to snuff.  Also, that Nominating or Board Development Committee I talk about so much on this blog might engage in some scenario planning that addresses what constitutes crossing the line and how it might be handled.

Photo:  EXIT 4 by kagedfish

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Information for Decision-Making 101

In his 2005 book, Blink:  The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell examines the balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking and concludes that truly successful decision making is a balance between the two.   As in Gladwell’s other bestselling book, The Tipping Point, there are many insights and lessons for the nonprofit leader in Blink.

Take the decoding and sorting of information, for example.  Having a deep knowledge of a topic, combined and honed with experience, allows some people to make seemingly snap interpretations or decisions.  Nonprofit leaders are expected to decode and sort an increasing array of nuts-and-bolts organizational information as well as possess subject matter expertise…and perform these skills in the shifting landscape of social and economic change. 

The challenge for CEOs, particularly in the instance of board members who may not possess deep knowledge or experience about the organization for which they serve, is to provide just enough of both to increase the quality of decision- making.  Gladwell notes, “…in good decision making, frugality matters.”  Overloading decision makers with information makes picking out identifiable patterns harder. 

Given the fact that we often overload our boards, our staffs, and ourselves with reams of data, opinion, and extraneous “information” it’s no wonder that many boards and executive staffs get bogged down.  So, if decision-making takes a balance between the head and the gut, where’s the balance between the right amount and too much information? 

On the practical side, most organizational consultants and time management experts concur that all information needs to be triaged into one of three categories:  1) stuff that really helps good decision-making happen by framing topics and allowing identifiable patterns to be seen and analyzed, 2) stuff that’s nice to know and could be useful at a later time, and 3) just stuff.   Rule of thumb: The quantity of some stuff is almost always directly related to its lack of usefulness (think junk mail).

So, before you send out the next packet of “information” to your board before its next meeting, triage it.  Ask yourself if the material remaining in your category #1 will truly help decision-making.  What would make it better?  Graphs or checklists instead of dense narratives?  A short article or blog post to frame an issue?  Would adding a brief staff presentation or tour at some point during a meeting help to build a board member’s experience, thus adding to their decision-making skill-set?

And, despite humans’ extraordinary abilities to make snap judgments, Gladwell urges we slow it down a bit, “…even the giant computer in our unconscious needs a moment to do its work.”

Photo:  we are making decisions by alphalim 

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Boards and Financial Uncertainty Redux

Alice Korngold's blog entry -- The Market's Toll on Charitable Giving -- offers up a short list of straight-shooting recommendations for boards to take to heart, especially during tough economic times.  I think you'll agree that her list makes for an excellent standard no matter the external environment.  I've added a couple of action steps to each to get you thinking about how you might move forward.   

Boards matter now more than ever before. You must get your board in order. This is no time for foot-dragging with board members who do not bother to attend board meetings, make contributions, or ask others for money.  Actions:  kick your Nominating Committee or Board Development Committee into gear -- ask them to do some serious analysis of who's bringing what to the table; review and revise trustee job descriptions; set aside time at board meetings or in a retreat to discuss issues of board member commitment and engagement.

Now is the time for boards to sit down with the CEO, make sure the organization has a compelling mission (the reason you exist, the value you add), make sure the organization has a compelling vision (where you are taking the organization in the next few years), and determine how you will achieve success – strategically and financially. The CEO’s role is critical in providing the expertise to prepare the board for this conversation.  Actions:  schedule a board-staff retreat ASAP and start developing an agenda for it that focuses first on mission and vision.

Boards need to be comprised of people from diverse backgrounds and networks in order to ensure a full and rich understanding of the needs and interests of the community, the creation of a robust strategy, and a powerful case for support. If board composition needs to be strengthened, attend to this, and build the board.  Actions:  Scramble your Nominating or Board Development Committee by appointing board members (and possibly other stakeholders) who are committed to acting on this recommendation. At your next board meeting, charge this committee to use this recommendation as part of its criteria for identifying board talent.

Every board member needs to be involved productively in helping to accomplish the vision and advocating for the organization among his or her networks. And every single board member must make a contribution that is personally generous!  Actions:  Board and staff leaders must model this behavior before they require it of others.  Board and staff leaders need to set a schedule for one-on-one conversations with every board member regarding levels of involvement and personal giving.   This is a recommendation that requires conversation, not assumption.

Board meeting agendas must be focused on key organizational and strategic issues - what has been accomplished since the previous meeting, what needs to get done in the march towards the vision, and what is needed from the board. (Good preparation is key to good board meetings.)  Actions:  For your next board meeting, make it your goal to have standard reports in writing and distributed in advance.  Restructure board agendas to focus first on issues requiring idea/strategy generation or problem solving; leave items requiring no action to the end -- or include them in a consent agenda.  Put your vision and/or mission statement(s) on your agendas and order board discussion around them.

The CEO must be excellent – a highly effective professional, who is expert in the needs of the community and the work of the organization, and effective in building relationships with key constituents and funders.  Actions:  Make the criteria in this recommendation some of the key elements of your CEO's job description and annual review.

Excellent board leadership is also key – a great board chair who is the role model for board members, along with good board officers and committee chairs.   Actions:  What leadership skills does our organization need going forward ought to be a board-staff discussion that is made actionable by the Nominating or Board Development Committee.  And for a quickie test of the water:  ask yourself if your current board chair is a role model for board members AND senior staff.

Photo:  337/365: The Big Money by DavidDMuir