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