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

Monday, October 13, 2008


The October 2008 briefing at focuses on how businesses can think about providing their customers with  “genuinely interesting and unexpected benefits and privileges that will delight some or all” of them.  Trendwatching calls this PERKONOMICS, and for a growing number of businesses, it goes well beyond access to a fancy airport lounge.

PERKONOMICS: A new breed of perks and privileges, added to brands' regular offerings, is satisfying consumers’ ever-growing desire for novel forms of status and/or convenience, across all industries. The benefits for brands are equally promising: from escaping commoditization, to showing empathy in turbulent times. One to have firmly on your radar in 2009. 

The museum industry has the ability to offer some pretty great perks, and some of the tried-and-true ones include behind-the-scenes tours, access to exhibitions before they open to the public, shop discounts and passport programs.  And then there’s fast-lane admittance for members to blockbusters at many major art museums and convenience parking for hybrid cars at The Wild Center in Tupper Lake. 

What perkonomics are at play at the board level, in committees, or among staff for that matter?  Despite the fact that people say they serve and work in this field for the “work itself”, would applying perkonomics to these segments result in greater diversity of boards, staff and volunteers, and higher levels of performance?  If an organization’s leadership could deliver consistently on rich idea generation leading to quality decision-making using the lenses of vision and mission to provide focus, wouldn’t that be a pretty good starting point? 

Photo:  1 AM at the Museum of Science and Industry by Kim Scarborough, Flickr 

Friday, October 10, 2008

Big Picture - Little Picture

I spent yesterday with an enthusiastic yet mired board and director of a small heritage organization. After doing a quick round of strengths/weaknesses about the organization, it became clear that many (most) of the weaknesses stem from one, big absent strength -- a clear vision and mission. Equally telling, no one noted that anything even approaching a long-range or strategic plan was a strength (they have one, too!).

Here's a short list of this organization's symptoms (aka weaknesses):  can't seem to focus; can't seem to follow through on what plans there are; poor internal communication; committees don't function well or at all; uneven or weak leadership, etc.  You get the picture.  A  list like that can undo the good intentions of any board member or director.

So, what to do?  Well, you can certainly start to address the symptoms.  But they are symptoms after all -- the underlying problem is still there.  So, I encouraged the group to take a two-pronged attack:  1) work on strengthening some of the weaknesses a little at a time and 2) make time for some heartfelt discussions about vision and mission.  Let those discussions then become the platform for a comprehensive planning process that looks at the entire organization, not just one or two pieces of it.

And break work into small, lucid tasks.

It's a start.  And it works.

Photo:  il puzzle della vita by NaNa [supergirl]  flickr

Monday, October 6, 2008

Boards and Financial Uncertainty

I’ve been carrying around a letter to the editor that I ripped out of the May 26th issue of Crain’s New York Business.  The letter by Chief Executive Gordon J. Campbell of the United Way of New York City is topped by this headline:  Nonprofit Boards Aren’t Piggy Banks:  Trustees Have Broader Duties.  It was written in response to an article about how nonprofit boards in NYC are scrambling for deep-pocketed trustees to help organizations weather this climate of financial distress.

Much of the grousing I routinely hear from executive directors is about how their boards aren’t raising enough money no matter the financial environment.  This is a long-standing complaint.  There are a lot of board members out there who don’t give much – or at all – in the way of personal financial gifts nor do they actively work on behalf of the organization to seek financial gifts from others.  One prevalent response to this state of affairs is, “I give of my time.”  And yes, that, too, is important.

As the letter-writer so aptly pointed out, “…the concept of nonprofit boards as essentially serving the function of a piggy bank overlooks the broader duties required for effective governance, including reviewing the organization’s mission, providing long-term strategic planning, articulating smart policy choices, maintaining constant fiscal vigilance and partnering effectively with executive staff to diversify funding streams.”

Deep-pocketed or not, every person around the board table bears a financial responsibility to the organization in the way of personal giving, financial oversight and shepherding of resources. 

(Looking for a board member job description?  The paragraphs above make an excellent starting point.)

Campbell concludes his letter, “If board members have been prepared to govern well – through governance training, new member orientation and group self-evaluation – a board is likely to be in a strong position to navigate through stormy financial times.  A nonprofit’s health, effectiveness and sustainability do not rest on emergency infusions of cash alone.”

Photo:  Piggy Bank 1 - S5isPiggyBank_1by Daniel Y. Go , Flickr

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Futuring: Not Just a Game

"The difficulty in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, but to respond with yesterday's logic." -- Peter Drucker

The American Association of Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums is asking the field to help it “build a picture of museums in 2019 and explore how the field can help society respond to the challenges we face” using Superstruct, the world’s first Massively Multiplayer Forecasting Game. 

To receive e-mail alerts from the Center for the Future of Museums about the museum-specific storyline in Superstruct and to keep it up to date on your game activities, contact AAM at

To read more about the game visit To receive e-mail alerts from IFTF when Superstruct launches on September 22, e-mail

Futuring underpins anticipatory leadership and management – skills that are increasingly critical to organizational survival and success.  Futuring needn’t been far, far in the future, it can focus on the next 3-5 years and, thus, inform current planning efforts.

Shortly after 9/11, I had the privilege of facilitating a series of focus groups for NYS Arts that brought arts leaders from across NYS together to discuss the impacts of the attack on their organizations.  For many months after 9/11, arts and cultural organizations were experiencing increases in their audiences as people sought solace and respite in galleries, concert halls and theaters.  While no arts organizations could have forecast a terrorist attack, those that had recently gone through strategic planning said they were better prepared to meet the needs of audiences post-9/11 than their counterparts, who hadn’t been thinking in any structured way about the future.

James L. Morrison and William C. Ashley in Anticipatory Management (1995) advise that organizations "must become more forward looking to deal effectively and systematically with an increasingly turbulent environment. . . . This turbulence has the potential to either destroy or offer new opportunities." They caution leaders to "constantly check for gaps in the way management thinks things are and the way stakeholders perceive them to be."

Here’s a step-by-step guide to getting your organization into futuring:  Journal of Extension:

Futuring:  it’s not just a game; it’s a way of life.

Photo: Crystal Ball Gazing by shubhrajit_c, flickr

Saturday, October 4, 2008

How Large a Board? NYS Museums and Heritage Organizations Weigh In

For the last month, I’ve had a poll running on this blog asking folks to note the size of their nonprofit boards.  The overwhelming number of voters (80%) chose the 11-20 member category.  Ten percent have a board with ten or fewer members and 10% have a board with 21-35 members.

This mirrors the results for the 2006 annual reports submitted to the NYS Education Department by chartered museums and historical societies.

Of 801 institutions reporting boards of trustees, the average board size was 12.   Forty-one institutions reported board with more than 25 people, ranging from 26 members to a high of 63.

In prior years, the number is almost the same.  In 1998, the average size was 11.

Paul Stewart, who serves on the board of the Albany, NY-based Capital District Underground Railroad Workshop, wrote, “Some organizations seem to like small boards and some large boards. What is the difference in what they accomplish? What other dynamics are there?  …it is clear that having the minimum actually hampers what you can accomplish. I'd like to get a sense of what those with larger boards can do and the difficulties they encounter with larger groups of people. I know from my own experience that it causes quorum problems, you experience the drag of those who don't step to the plate, and when some board members promise to do things and don't follow through it can be very painful.”

It seems to me that the size of an organization’s board ought to reflect and support the organization’s mission and vision and be large enough to oversee or carry out the strategic plan.  A statewide or national nonprofit may very well have a far larger board than one serving a highly focused service or service area. 

For example, the Greater Hudson Heritage Network is a regional museum service organization whose board currently stands at 22, but has plans to grow it to 24.  “We like a board this size since we want regional representation as well as varied professional expertise and advocacy skills to reflect work in a varied, broad museum and history community,” write Director Tema Harnik.  “Small committees seem to function well, in lieu of a smaller board-- it's in committee work, discussion, and recommendation that I see the most participation and "individual accountability."  Trustees like to step up to the plate when they can offer their ideas, not just listen to reports at a Board meeting.”

Paul’s questions about size affecting effectiveness touch on basic issues of group dynamics and group structure – people coming together to get work done have great potential, but their effectiveness as a team requires active planning, management, and communication on the part of the board and staff leadership.  The larger the group, the more necessary these three ingredients become.

Graham Millar of the Tonawanda-Kenmore Historical Society and Museum sums it up best: “Our board is large enough to share tasks, small enough so that we don't have to beat the bushes for reluctant board members.” 

Photo: gavel by TalkLeft, flickr