Friday, February 27, 2009

One Committee Too Many?

The committee.  The workhorse of the nonprofit sector.  What would we do without it?  Today I'd like to ask, what do we do with it?

The lifeblood of the nonprofit is the human capital that steers it, funds it, and implements the program that benefits the public. Nonprofits, by their very nature, are labor intensive -- people connecting with people to benefit people.  

The organizational model of board-committees-volunteers-staff is as old as the nonprofit sector itself.  Although the internal and external environments of nonprofits are radically different from say, just twenty years ago, the basic organizational model has pretty much stayed the same.  As a result, I think that many organizations simply accept the model because that's the way it has always been whether or not it really facilitates work.  This is especially true with committees.

Committees have been the tried and true mechanism for marshaling organizational work and the volunteers that do it.  And most of us know these committees to be either standing (think permanent or continuous) committees or ad hoc (temporary) committees.  For many organizations, there are many more standing committees than ad hoc committees -- think inverted pyramid teetering on that tiny point.

Standard management advice tells us that holding meetings when there's no real business to accomplish is a waste of time.  That goes for committees, as well.  In fact, if there is no clear job to be accomplished, then perhaps there's no reason to have a committee anyway.  Well, duh.
Yet there are thousands of standing committees out there that have a life only on paper -- they may meet but don't accomplish much, they're chronically under-populated, they're the dumping ground for flunkie board members and volunteers, or they just don't meet at all.

So let's think about turning the pyramid right side up with the pointy end at the top.  The standing committees, now fewer in number, reside there.  At the broad base of the pyramid are the ad hoc committees, many more in number, task-specific, coming and going as the work requires.

The basic fundamentals for a solid standing committee system are these:

1.  committees are formed only when there is a need for ongoing oversight, policy generation and review 
2.  every committee has a mission statement or job description that flows from the organization's strategic plan
3.  every committee has a specific set of tasks to accomplish in a given period of time that flows from the annual workplan
4.  where possible, committees are populated with stakeholders as well as board members and attendant staff
5.  committees do not duplicate the work of staff

All other task-specific work gets done by the ad hocs -- temporary teams or work groups that dissolve when the task is complete allowing board and stakeholder expertise to be combined and recombined as new tasks arise.

Photo:  Pyramid Giza 018 by Kaki Bakar


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Quickening Drumbeat of Institutions in Trouble

I've been involved with cultural institutions -- namely historic house museums and historical societies -- all my adult life. Most of these institutions, as most smaller nonprofits in general, live with an ebb and flow of income. Perhaps I should say that most live -- even thrive -- in spite of the ebb and flow of income that is peculiar to nonprofit life.

The best nonprofit leadership is always thinking about tomorrow and how it will be paid for. Building reserves, expanding or fine-tuning income streams, balancing the level of debt or deficit with potential for growth -- these are stock in trade of the nonprofit executive and governing board.

So, now we find ourselves in an environment where the global economic crisis has settled into our communities and found its way to the doorstep of our nonprofits. And it's starting to expose or magnify pre-existing weaknesses in organizational infrastructures. Crises have a way of doing that, whether it's in business or private life.

I think if we were to ask every nonprofit executive and every nonprofit board member where their organization's Achilles heel is, we'd get an answer. We know our weaknesses -- perhaps not to the depth of what we should know about them -- but we know. Times of crisis force us (most of us, at any rate) to own up to what we know. For some organizations, we own up too late.

A week doesn't seem to go by now when we don't hear about another nonprofit in crisis. Opera companies closing, museum exhibitions scaled back, employees laid off; others paralyzed by fear -- no money, no answers. As much as this particular crisis is exposing the weaknesses within cultural institutions, it is also exposing the weaknesses of the agencies that regulate them. Aside from the fact that there is (practically) no government money to assist cultural institutions in trouble, there is not much else either. No apparent expertise to help with restructuring or developing new models for economic stability, no training opportunities, no safety net. We knew that anyway, didn't we?

I feel as though the drumbeat of cultural institutions is quickening...and it's coming to a nonprofit near you.

loneliness by zipildak from flickr

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Obama Signs Stimulus Bill at Denver Museum

I'm amused by news this morning that President Obama will be signing the stimulus package at a Denver museum. After having been voted out of the Senate version of the bill, museums, arts centers and theaters were reinstated to the list of institutions eligible to compete for stimulus funding.  

In a move that has left the museum community shaking its head in disbelief, zoos and aquariums were specifically excluded in all versions of the bill right from the start. Apparently, Washington understands living collections as more akin to entertainment than to scientific research and education.  I guess our lawmakers think that living, breathing animals, fish and plants are too "fun" (like the also excluded swimming pools and casinos) and therefore not worthy of a hefty dose of taxpayer stimulus dollars.   

Ironically, Obama is signing this bill at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, but the animals he'll see there will be of the serious and not fun stuffed variety.  

What the stimulus could mean for many cultural institutions is likely as diverse as the cultural sector itself.  I suspect it means that some institutions will finally be able to finish capital projects that have been languishing for months or years and many might be able to finally get the upper hand on years of deferred maintenance of historic structures and aging buildings. Then there's energy efficiency projects of all sorts.  All of these projects will keep tradesmen, engineers and architects working.

The additional $50 million to the National Endowment for the Arts means that each of our state arts councils will get a little piece of that -- for some states that might equal an entire arts council budget; for others, it'll be a small bandaid on a large gash.  It all helps. 

So, let's watch the news today to see what's chosen as the backdrop for the president.  An exhibition, some dioramas, a laboratory perhaps, or the museum's auditorium?  I'm hoping he refers to his surroundings and mentions how important museums are to both educational and economic stimulation.

Photo:  Andy Warhol : Dollar Sign (1982) by Marc Wathieu

Monday, February 16, 2009

A Few Basics for Board Recruitment

Like many of you, I'm responsible for working with a board of directors to identify and recruit candidates to board service.  Armed with a dynamic strategic plan, a strong board already in place, and a track record of activity, recruitment to this particular board has never been difficult.  (Tip: you must have these three elements (at least) in place to attract bright, thoughtful people who want to be engaged with your organization.)

Identification of candidates is proving to be especially challenging, though, and it's due largely to some very straightforward discussions the nominating committee is having about what our board needs to look like if it is to support our vision, mission and plan.  We typically recruit for gender, racial/ethnic, discipline and geographic diversity.  We're now also talking about folding additional criteria into the mix to create a balance of emerging-mid-career-veteran voices, specific expertise (finance, marketing, etc.), and leadership attributes.

That sent me to the Web to search for samples of board development matrices.  The matrix is a great starting point for determining who a board already has sitting around its table.  And it's an indispensable tool for a nominating committee to use to identify the additional talent a board needs.  
The criteria from the Center for Nonprofit Excellence's matrix includes: Community Connections - corporate, social, philanthropic, media, professional, etc.,; Qualities - leadership, willing to work, commitment to mission; Style - collegial, visionary, practical; Expertise - accounting, law, technology, etc. 

Another matrix focuses on "competencies" of current board members, i.e., conversant with public policy issues affecting members; involvement and connections with organizations related to mission; knowledge of organization goals and activities; demonstrated leadership role within organizations or in other professional organizations, etc.

A third matrix divides criteria into three major sections -- knowledge, skills, personal characteristics -- each of which includes 7-10 specific attributes, such as "can work to build consensus", "promotes openness and honesty", "knows the organization's current financial position".

That's just three examples.  Head spinning yet?

Here's the take-away:  The person filling a board seat should fill more than a demographic ideal. Competencies and attributes are just as critical to successful board performance.  Many of us learn the hard way that subject matter competencies without group decision-making skills can be just as detrimental to an organization as a board that does not reflect the constituency/community served.

Identifying board candidates based solely on demographic criteria is far easier than identifying board candidates based on their abilities to care about an organization enough to work in concert with others.  Yet, it's necessary to organizational health, don't you think?

And to be successful, a nominating committee needs time to learn about its potential candidates, to assess their attributes, to see if there is a match.  This requires conversation on several levels and it may well require employing a variety of opportunities to engage them in the work of the organization -- attending a board meeting, for instance.  This period of assessment is also a time of cultivation.  It requires a strategy and time to do well.

So, here's where I am with my own nominating committee work:   recasting the board matrix to incorporate competencies, skills and demographics; taking the revised matrix to the full board for discussion and assistance with identification of potential candidates; creating a strategy for cultivation and recruitment; and implementing it through the remainder of this year.  (Tip:  if the nominating committee takes all these steps, the strategy may be good for several years.)

Photo: egg line up by mixtasy

Monday, February 9, 2009

We Can't Give Up - We Can't Give In

It's been a very long time between posts.  I'm not off to a rousing start on my own New Year's resolution to write more, am I?  Part of the reason is that my optimism and resulting clear-headed-ness of the new year and a new president have been overshadowed by the quickening drumbeat of cultural institutions in trouble and their attempts to get themselves out of it.  

Add to that the latest decisions in New York State and nationally to cut museums, art centers, theaters, etc. out of current year's arts funding and the federal stimulus package (at least for now) and it feels like one giant wallop to the side of the head.  One museum advocate said last week in regard to the stimulus language exempting arts and cultural organizations from funding that museums are misunderstood -- we haven't made the case for their economic and educational importance.

Is this really true?  Since part of my life is spent trying to make that case, I find it difficult to believe that we -- collectively -- haven't been able to push that nut farther up the hill.

Sure, it's easy to say that cultural institutions are no funding match for health care, defense, homelessness, and infrastructure.  But once you say that, you're down for the count.  The fact is that cultural institutions do make a difference, do contribute high value to individuals and communities, and are just as worthy of public support. So, that's where my head's been at the last few weeks.  How about you?

We can't give up.  We can't give in.  Call your elected officials today and tell them so.

Photo:Throw A Drowning Man A Brick by alex itin