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


Mark said...

Have you looked into Michael Kaiser's new Arts in Crisis initiative at the Kennedy Center? I believe it is designed to offer short-term, immediate assistance to institutions in trouble.

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Thanks, Mark. I understand that Michael Kaiser and his staff have been in heavy demand by cultural groups for assistance.