Thursday, April 30, 2009

Leadership Transition

If you're planning to attend the American Association of Museums conference in Philadelphia and you're interested in the topic of leadership transition, you might consider coming to the session, "Transitions:  An Ongoing Process of Leadership Renewal", scheduled for Sunday, May 3rd, at 2 pm.  I'm joining Patricia Williams, Interim Director of the Sewall-Belmont House, in what will be, I think, a fascinating discussion about one institution's approach to leadership transition.

Hope to see you there.

In the meantime, if you're looking for leadership transition resources, I unabashedly plug the website of the Museum Association of New York --  You'll also find the audio and PowerPoints from our two recent webinars on the subject.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Cliques on Boards

There's a propensity for like-minded folks to cluster together in group situations. When so many boards are comprised of people who know one another outside the board room (or may be related to one another) clustering  is common....and can be a common problem.  As we strive for greater diversity of board members, those who aren't from the same social or familial circles may find it especially difficult to break into the circle that is the board.

The executive director, nominating committee and board president need to be mindful of clustering or cliques, and consciously work to minimize their effect.  The first rule of thumb is that everyone is diversely, but equally, skilled in the board room -- a tenet that needs to be voiced and modeled at every turn.  It is to the long-term advantage of the organization to institutionalize this democratic vision.

There are several practical ways to minimize clusters:
  • mix up the seating at meetings.  Humans, being who they are, tend to sit with the people they know and in the same locations.  Assign seats much as a savvy hostess would for a big dinner party, making sure that folks who don't know one another sit together and sprinkling the best conversationalists around the table.  Use table cards large enough for all to read -- especially helpful for the new folks to learn names and faces.  If you can, scramble the seating half way through the meeting.
  • build small group discussions into the meeting agenda and assign people to these groups (or have folks count off or look for a colored sticker on their name card).  Who says financial issues are only dealt with by the finance committee?  Or building issues by the building committee? Mix it up in small group discussions!  Your board members will get to know each other better and your organization may reap the rewards of new insights.
  • build in social time for board members whenever and wherever possible.  These are opportunities to kick back and get to know one another.  Board members of an organization I know go out for beer after their meeting.  Other boards incorporate a meal before or during their meetings.
The goal here is to get a diverse group of people thinking and (hopefully) performing as a team. You're the coach.  No spectators allowed!

Photo: deSKOLtrolado

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Too Small to Succeed?

Today's post title is a riff on that oft-heard recession phrase, "too big to fail". A recent meeting about saving an historic property, followed closely by a visit with a very small cultural organization, got me to thinking about the basic benchmarks for organizational success. We're learning more all the time about what it takes to create and grow a successful nonprofit. High on my list are:
  • meeting a real (not perceived) need -- this isn't an ego or power trip
  • having a plan to realize it right from the get-go -- many cultural nonprofits get too much of a free pass on this one from incorporating agencies
  • visionary and unflagging leadership -- preferably from more than one person
  • attracting people to the organization who have access to substantial resources, be it time, money, or people with time and money
  • building a critical mass of supporters (a good, growable base right from the start) -- there are some umbrella organizations that require just that of satellites before the shovel hits the ground
  • a quality "product", worthy of support
Certainly, if these basic ingredients are lacking, an organization surely will fail. Now that I see this list in print, I think the first and last items might be the most important. Big or small, rural or urban, if the organization isn't meeting a real community need with the best possible program (or the best possible raw material to make into a really terrific program), who will care enough to provide the juice to keep it going?

My historic property example has intense community interest, but little financial wherewithal to restore and operate it (actual available cash - $0, but some in-kind). And the raw material for the product is more a local story than the national one supporters think it is. On the other hand, the cultural organization I met is very local, but in the eight years it has been active, it has managed to attract only 20 dues-paying members, and nearly half of them are on the board (annual operating budget - $720). Both my examples are fueled by some big dreams, but both are hampered, in my estimation, by an their inability to articulate the
real need they fill.

Are there some nonprofits that are just too small to succeed? Definitely. As for my examples,
time will tell the tale, I think.

Image: Hue Gradation by krisheding

Friday, April 24, 2009

Merger: A Few More Thoughts

My last post focused on merger as an organizational growth option, not a last-ditch attempt to survive.  Sadly, it's often not considered an option until too late.  But it, along with its cousins collaboration and partnership, ought to be in every nonprofit leader's lexicon.  How does it make it into the ongoing conversation?  Here are a couple of thoughts:

Every year, as an organization is evaluating or updating its strategic plan, part of the conversation should focus on where the organization is in terms of its "life cycle" and what its options are for continued health.  I think this kind of discussion goes hand-in-hand with planning, but it could be a stand-alone conversation, as well.  It may be a conversation that begins at the staff level, but at some point it must migrate to the board level.  Institutionalizing such a conversation is one way to enable people to become comfortable with the fluctuating-- and sometimes inscrutable -- dynamic that is the nonprofit environment.  

If approached this way, merger isn't relegated to an end-of-life discussion.  Just as some for-profits merge at the height of their success, so too can nonprofits.  Does it happen much in the nonprofit world?  I don't think so.

I hope that all of us approach collaborations with our eyes wide open based on a well-thought out list of pro's and con's that have been reinforced with many stakeholder conversations.  A similar list needs to be developed for merger.  We should keep that list in our back pocket against the day we might need to use it.

Photo:  Merger by ahswan

Monday, April 20, 2009

Merger is More than a Survival Tactic

Just like the daffodils in my garden this spring, a few stories about nonprofit mergers can be found offering bright respites from the reams of gloomy headlines about cultural nonprofits in trouble.  

The Boston Globe's April 15th story about the successful merger of two social welfare organizations made the point that the notion of merger seems to be a relatively new concept in the nonprofit world.  From my vantage point, merger is generally not an option to be found in the toolkit of most cultural nonprofit leaders.  As the Globe article rightly points out, mergers tend to be seen as a sign of failure; nonprofit leaders worry that mergers mean loss of autonomy or identity.  Indeed, one Globe reader summed up the distaste many have for merger, "Social service agencies can more typically be combined without anything essential being lost; arts institutions exist to fulfill a certain artistic vision, and combining two similar size groups usually means one vision endures and the other doesn't."  I would argue, however, that all one has to do is listen to those affected by hospital mergers, for example, to know that vision or essence is alive and well across the nonprofit sector. 

The big first stumbling block to even contemplating merger as an option, as the Globe reader unwittingly underscored, is the emotional baggage people carry for the nonprofits they've founded, loved, worked for, given money to, or used the services of - it's "theirs", they "own" it; don't touch it.  I'd like to think that if we could somehow see past the me/mine mentality to the larger issue, which is often how can we keep our services affordable, our art collection accessible, our musicians employed -- in other words, continue the healthy growth of the organization -- merger becomes a logical tool to meet or rejuvenate vision and mission, not an ogre that kills them.

Because so many of us in the nonprofit sector fear merger, it's often contemplated too late in game. An organization that's blown through its money, has physical assets in poor condition, lost or is losing core staff or volunteers, and/or has cut back its program to the barest of minimums is an unattractive merger candidate in most anyone's book.  In fact, if an organization has gotten itself into this abyss, one has to question whether it deserves to survive.

There are many examples of organizations working hard at working together only to back away from taking the merger plunge.  In some cases, it was a good decision to back away, not so in others. Likewise, there are others that have worked (like the two in the Boston Globe article) and have worked well.  

On the whole, I think a good merger can be the harbinger of organizational renewal and revitalization -- just like those daffodils -- and not the endgame. 

Photo:  And the daffodils look lovely today. by brynmeillion

Friday, April 17, 2009

New Poll Question

If you scroll way down, you'll see a new poll question on the right.  It's a spin-off of yesterday's post and it asks you to describe your board recruitment process.

Enjoy and have a great weekend!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What Does Your Board Recruitment Process Say About Your Organization?

This post is prompted by an email sent to me by my colleague Linda Norris, the inquiring mind behind The Uncataloged Museum.  The email included a link to a Craig's List listing from a nonprofit in search of board members.  The listing states, in part:
Board Members will commit to meeting once every 2 months. They will be involved in decision making and guiding the direction of the organization. They will assist in fund raising events by establishing committees to plan particular events and initiatives. 

Please respond by email with a little bit about yourself, where you live, and what interests you about [name of organization].  To learn more, visit [organization's website address].
  • Location: Hudson Valley, NY
  • Compensation: Volunteer Work
  • This is a part-time job.
  • This is at a non-profit organization.
Actually, that's pretty much the entire listing.

It got me to thinking that despite the listing's brevity, it speaks volumes about the culture of this organization. Indeed, this is a relatively new nonprofit founded and led by a visionary Gen Y woman. In fact, she named her nonprofit after herself -- which should give you a good idea that she is the singular driving force of her small organization.  Her vision for her work takes a very pragmatic, get-it-done, grassrootsy approach.  The Craig's List approach to board member recruitment fits the age and style of the founder and the nonprofit work she's doing, as well as the energy-level of a new organization. 

Contrast her example with some of the stuff I've been writing about on this blog, such as talent matrices and recruitment planning....stuff I believe is about consciously designing leadership for the long haul.  Sounds pretty rigid when compared to our Craig's Lister.  

What does your board recruitment process say about your organization?  

Photo:  pod meeting by Esthr

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Oops...That Was a Bad Decision!

Have any of you been part of or observed bad board decision-making?  

I'm a great believer that there is wisdom in group decision-making -- it takes more time, sure -- but it's usually more informed and creative than decision-making by an individual. So, the mere thought of a board making a collective bad decision (and bad can run the gamut from just plain ill-informed to downright criminal) leaves me to wonder about the underlying dynamics of the group, as well as the ability of each member to put the well-being of the organization before all else.

Having said that, I think that bad decisions get made when the will of one or two board members overrides the concerns of the others or when a majority of board members have mentally or physically 'checked out' of the discussion.  These are examples of group dynamics at their poorest.

Bad decisions also happen when the information board members receive is of poor quality or is incomplete.  Since it's difficult, if not impossible, to know every nuance about every issue that comes before a board, members ought to be aware of what is not known as well as what is. Knowing what one doesn't  know puts what is known in perspective.  That helps better decision-making.

Of course, not all issues/decisions are equal so understanding which ones have the greatest consequences for the organization is critically important (and a critically important leadership characteristic).  Otherwise, the attention of a board and its staff could be diverted toward superficial or trivial matters that are better handled by others (committees, staff members or volunteers, for example).

Photo:  Which way? by .Leili

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I Want to Serve on a Board (But No Board Seems to Want Me)

I can recall a handful of times when I was directly approached by a person asking to serve on the boards of institutions where I was on staff.  It always caught me off-guard.  I guess it's because that somewhere along the line it was instilled in me (or maybe just implied) that one waited one's turn to be asked; that one's talents would be recognized and thus, sought.  As a result, I'm always a bit wary of the person who openly declares their desire to serve on a particular board.

Some of my reticence comes from knowing that there may be many criteria in use by the nominating or board development committee -- criteria that an eager volunteer may or may not meet.  The organization may be at a point where its current board needs to stabilize for a bit before adding new members or the current board might actually need to shrink in size.  The organization may have decided to wait on adding board members until its strategic plan was completed, knowing that the plan would surface new or different leadership directions.  And then there's the organizational culture with which board recruits need to mesh.   These are all factors that may be well understood internally, but may not cross the mind of the wannabe.

So, what's the harm in making one's intentions known? Consider that there are a very few boards where seats are sought after; the vast majority of nonprofit boards suffer for lack of talent.  Why wouldn't an organization want to cast a wide net?

Understanding that there is risk involved for both the seeker and the sought seems to me to be an important place to start.  For the seeker, a board appointment is not unlike a job search.  If one is serious, it seems logical that knowledge of an organization through hands-on voluntarism would be essential.  Knowing where one's skills match the organization's needs, and being able to articulate that, is another key ingredient.  Letting members of the nominating or board development committee know of your interest in serving can be helpful.  But, understand that your name might enter a pool of candidates and that it could take some time to be considered for board service.  Understand, also, that the call may never come.

For the organization, the process and the criteria by which board candidates are identified and selected ought to be as transparent as possible.  Transparency affords the opportunity to cast the widest net.  Process and criteria should be discussed openly in board and committee meetings, in membership communications, in any forum where the organization talks about voluntarism (newsletters, websites, etc.).  Don't have a process?  My advice is to develop one ASAP or continue to run the risk of electing anyone who may or may not be interested in board service.  (I think it's been proven thousands of times that people hate to say "no" to a worthy nonprofit even when they should say "no, I'm not a good fit."

Photo:  make your choice by orangejack

Friday, April 10, 2009

I Know I've Had a Successful Board Meeting When....

Those of us who work with and for boards inevitably amass a pile of good, bad and ugly meeting stories.  We could write a book!  Today, though, I thought I'd focus on the positive aspect of board meetings and try to answer the rest of the 'I know I've had a successful board meeting when...' sentence.  I hope you try to answer it as well and send your thoughts along to me.

I know I've had a successful board meeting when 
  • the bulk of our time together is spent on strategizing how to gain the greatest impact from our work, and
  • everybody (or nearly so) gets the opportunity to participate
I've come to this conclusion because I've sat through some (alright, many) meetings where the agenda is not much more than a series of updates given by one or two people (including myself!). Those meetings tend to be pretty lifeless and, frankly, don't make good use of the talent, insight and intelligence of the people around the table.

My successful board meeting takes some effort to accomplish and I have to admit that, as a director, I don't accomplish it every time.  But, here's my short list of ingredients that I think ought to go into making the meeting both substantive and lively:
  • keep the verbal reports of past activities to a minimum.  If you must talk about past activities, couch the discussion in the form of an issue to be resolved or simply ask how the activity can make a greater impact.
  • introduce topics on the agenda in the form of questions.  For example, instead of a building committee report, ask something like "Should a cyclical maintenance plan be developed to help us stay on top of the property's needs?  If so, how can we make it a useable and user-friendly plan?"  Instead of a report on the number and type of visitors, why not a look at a graph of visitation over several years and ask the question "What trends do we see in visitation and what are their impacts on our work?"
  • prep some board members to talk.  For example, when you call or email Mary, say "Mary, because you've been working with the membership program, I know that you've got some insights to share about it.  I'm going to ask you at the board meeting to say a few words about what you're seeing."
  • discuss with the board president beforehand how best to facilitate discussion. I try to address this with my board president when developing the meeting agenda.
  • view every meeting agenda as a clean slate.  Sure, there are reoccurring items, but don't consider the agenda as a rote list of reports (you know, same list, different date) --  it can be so much more than that.
  • consider mixing up the activity.  Now here's an interesting idea -- break into small discussion or work groups for a portion of the meeting.  This strategy gets people off their duffs and interacting with others whom they may not know well (or at all).  It encourages everybody to engage and talk (larger groups don't encourage that so well).  And it offers the opportunity for ideas to take shape.
OK.  This is no small task.  But if you buy into the need to shake things up at your next (potentially boring) board meeting, try just one or two of these suggestions. See if you notice a difference.  If you do, ask the group if they do, too.  Changing board habits can be glacial -- but, it will never happen if the first small step isn't taken.

Photo:  LAPS board meeting at CSUN by ms sherwood