Sunday, May 31, 2009

Measuring Success for Transparent Action

Linda Norris' Uncataloged Museum blog post on transparency in museums is my impetus to knit together my recent post on measuring success with defining what those measures are. Linda points to the Indianapolis Museum of Art as the site of a great dashboard of measures that welcomes public scrutiny.  

In fact, it appears that the museum's dashboard might be the only public museum dashboard -- and it's almost two-and-a-half years old!  The common denominator in all this is museum director Maxwell Anderson, who developed a lexicon of measures to assess organizational health in 2005 -- transparency has been the by-product.

This isn't to say that museums and other cultural organizations haven't been tracking data for many years. It's the focus of the data and what's done with it that is different.  Let's talk about focus first. 

The Indianapolis Museum of Art tracks activities in 13 broad areas of museum operations.  The resulting data is often quite tightly focused reflecting Anderson's view that tracking too broad or generic categories doesn't reveal enough useful information about long-term mission-relatedness or success.  So visitation, for example, is not just an aggregate number (although that exists), but it's also the number of visitors who are members, and it's an interactive map of admissions by zip code. It's not just a listing of the broad categories of the collection, it's tracking the number of artworks out on loan and the number of new works on view in the galleries.

In Dashboard for Nonprofits (Board Café, May 5, 2005), another sampling of measures was listed including:

1.  Program -- Number of first-time clients. Client satisfaction. Volunteer hours. 

2. Finance -- Days of cash on hand. Net surplus or deficit compared to budget. Days after month end for financial statement preparation. 

3. Fund development -- New individual donors. New foundations or corporations. Total non-government revenue. 

4. Human resources -- Performance evaluations completed on time. Staff meeting or exceeding goals in core job functions. 

5. Board of Directors -- Attendance at board meetings. New board members joining. Executive Director performance evaluation completed on time. 

The data are gathered into colorful charts, graphs and images for use by staff leadership and boards.  And this is known as the Dashboard. Dashboards are nothing new to the corporate world and to some corners of the nonprofit world. The basic premise is this:
Board oversight involves more than just reading financial statements, and nonprofit boards don’t always know how nor have the opportunity to provide adequate programmatic oversight. Dashboard reports communicate critical information to your board in a concise, visual, more compelling way. Dashboards help nonprofit leaders focus attention on what matters most in their organizations.
            -- The Nonprofit Dashboard: A Tool for Tracking Progress by Lawrence M Butler

Here's a great example of how dashboards help leaders focus on what matters most:  Kate Becker is vice president of Kaboom, a Washington, DC nonprofit that builds hundreds of playgrounds and recreational spaces each year.  "I don't need a dashboard to tell me that staff turnover is important to look at," Ms. Becker told the Chronicle of Philanthropy in 2006. "What the dashboard does is give us a way to analyze all kinds of data at the same time, and see how workload is affecting our goals for more civic engagement."  That's the key right there.

We know that it's not enough to just collect statistics. But what we collect has to help us answer the big 'cause-effect' questions -- how is this affecting our goals for that.  Anderson has gone one important step further -- he and his team have made much of their data publicly available.  Information ready for analysis and for transparency.  What are you waiting for?

Photo:  Dashboard segment from the Indianapolis Museum of Art website,

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sending Out an S.O.S.

I won't soon forget getting that letter in the mail.  An 80-year old cultural organization was reaching out to members and friends to tell us that its survival was in jeopardy.  It asked for our advice and our financial support.  The first paragraph closed by stating, "Without an immediate and substantial infusion of funds, it appears that we will be required to close our doors while we work to implement a prudent fiscal strategy."

A day or two later the news hit the local papers.  And a week or so after that, the director of another cultural called to say that her board was debating the merits of "going public" with their own financial difficulties.  Some thought it might shake loose more support; others were wary of hanging out the dirty linen....or being perceived as the boy who cried wolf.

Contrast that with a third organization -- vastly smaller than the other two -- that routinely publishes lengthy pleas for assistance mixed with "the-sky-is-falling" warnings in its newsletter. (I guess since it's done routinely, it must not be very effective.)

These three examples have brought me to my short list of what to pay attention to when making the S.O.S. decision: 
  • If people don't know you need help, they can't help.   (So, get over the fear of failure feelings -- those are about you, not the organization.)
  • If an organization waits too long to ask for help, the help that's offered might not be enough. 
  • Asking for help must be twinned with a plan for using that help to its best advantage. (Nobody wants to think that their help is being thrown down a rat hole.)
  • Once you've sent out the S.O.S., you're duty-bound to communicate frequently about how things are going.  (As much as we love cliff-hangers, we do want to know the rest of the story.) 
The saga continues for my three examples.  The first organization has successfully raised some funds, but so far it isn't enough to keep the lights on for the remainder of the year.  The promised "prudent fiscal strategy" has not yet been revealed to supporters, but I've been receiving regular emails and mailings about the status of activities.  I've noticed that the second organization has used recent membership appeals and newsletters to tell its supporters more about its financial challenges and what it's doing to meet them.

As for the third organization, well, its newsletter just arrived yesterday.

Photo: Message in a Bottle by Talkingsun

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Different Way of Measuring Success

What's on your top ten list of success indicators for your organization?  I suspect for most of us success has a lot to do with the number of people served -- visitors, members, ticket holders, participants in after-school programs.  Would a balanced budget, meeting or exceeding goal in a fundraising campaign, or growing invested funds be on the list?  

As so many cultural nonprofits now struggle for financial and programmatic equilibrium, are the turnstile and the cash drawer alone sufficient -- or even accurate -- indicators of organizational health and future well-being?  What about the importance of an organization's holdings or its positive impact on society?  Would the quality of your organization's work be a success indicator?  How would you measure it?

Five years ago, Maxwell L. Anderson, the current Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, took on the topic in his paper for the Getty Leadership Institute titled Metrics for Success in Art Museums.  Anderson posits that much of what art museums use as success indicators, such as attendance, membership or the number of exhibitions, are too widely variable for assessing organizational health over the longer term.  Instead, he urges that success indicators must:
  • be directly connected with the core values and mission of the organization
  • be reliable indicators of long-term organizational and financial health, and
  • be easily verified and reported
While Anderson focused exclusively on art museums, he has developed a standard that can be readily adapted to all cultural nonprofits, and probably most all nonprofits.  The metrics cluster around eleven features of an institution's activities, including quality of experience, fulfillment of the educational mandate, institutional reputation, management priorities, caliber and diversity of staff, and standards of governance.

Anderson's list of metrics has new saliency in 2009.  It deserves a (re)visit.  

Photo:  Measuring tape sphere (large) by Nick Sayers

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Crisis and Realignment

There's nothing like a crisis to push an organization toward change.  As much as crisis can pull an organization apart, it can also provide opportunities for renewal, focus and healing.  In fact, crisis is a fairly predictable phenomenon that, as it turns out, is a key ingredient for organizational growth.  I have no doubt that, once we're on the other side of this economic crisis, we'll see many nonprofits emerge stronger, more responsive, and more keenly focused on the impact of their missions because they used this interregnum to realign and plan.   

There are hundreds of books and articles dedicated to coping with, managing or leading organizational change.  (I happen to be a fan of John Kotter's
Leading Change, which is a straightforward prescription for creating an environment in which change is seen as a positive imperative.)  The change agent is usually identified as an individual or a small group of people who see the need for organizational course redirection and who work hard to get enough others on board to tip the scales in favor of movement.  And in this scenario, change is not necessarily born of a democratic process, although its success is almost assuredly rooted in and measured by broad-based support for it.

Over the weekend, I read the following post, which has gotten me thinking about approaching organizational change in a different way:
...the thing that works to make change is not "the best" idea but the idea that is aligned with the gifts, knowledge, experience, experiences (those are different things), imaginations, imaginings, imaging, needs, expectations, and beliefs of the people who have to make it work.
- Ned Ruete, International Association of Facilitators Forum, May 4, 2009
I'm imagining how different the organizational effort might be if the change agenda were largely left up to the "people who have to make it work", no matter whether they're on the inside or the outside of the organization.  Having nothing more than a compelling argument for change as the frame for problem-solving, would a group be able to find solutions on their own without being led to them by the CEO or the board president?  The answer is yes.

And the likelihood that change will "stick" will be greater because of it.

Photo: 51 / 52: Change by -Teddy

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Woman's Work

I was one of about 100 women (and one man) in the audience for a presentation on Women in Leadership at this year's American Association of Museums' conference. Central to the discussion was the persistence of the glass ceiling in the museum field despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the museum workforce is female (and they're the majority of museum volunteers and visitors, too).

Can you believe that the expression 'the glass ceiling' dates back to 1986? (See below for more on that.)

Certainly among high profile museums in the US, the CEOs are male by a ratio of nearly three to one. The tables turn dramatically in mid-sized and small museums, where female directors are routinely found.

The session's panelists agreed that women at the top have a real impact on organizational performance. So far, it hasn't been enough to encourage mid-level women to move up. In fact, many women leave their positions within five years due to lack of career paths within their institutions, lack of mentoring opportunities, and lack of organizational succession planning that could address their long-term professional development needs.

There are many intertwined factors that make glass ceiling discussions complex: salary and pay equity, work-life balance, the scope and content of leadership skills, the methods institutions use to choose their leaders, and the lack of data to inform and measure the field's forward movement.

The lack of gender diversity among museum leaders -- as is true with the absence of any type of diversity within our institutions -- does have a real, consequential impact on institutional relevancy and sustainability. This is the message for our field and our times.

A recent article in the provides this background on the 'glass ceiling':
The expression “the glass ceiling” first appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 1986 and was then used in the title of an academic article by A.M. Morrison and others published in 1987. Entitled “Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach the Top of America’s Largest Corporations?”, it looked at the persistent failure of women to climb as far up the corporate ladder as might be expected from their representation in the working population as a whole. The idea behind the expression was that a transparent barrier, a glass ceiling, blocked them.
Photo: small group women diverse by bioexhibit

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Getting Your Message Out

Lately, I've been knee-deep in thinking about newsletters.  I just spent an afternoon with a client who wants to start a newsletter, so we poured over samples as we contemplated who would receive it, what topics would be covered and how frequently it would be produced.  Less than 24-hours later, I overheard a colleague say that his organization wanted to do a newsletter, but if it couldn't be published quarterly there was no point in doing one.  

I've also got one to assemble for my association this week.

Judging from the number of hard-copy and electronic newsletters my association receives each month, it would not be an understatement to say that they continue to be the communications backbone of most nonprofits.  These little bundles offer insights about an organization's work, build cases for support, promote programs, and acknowledge the involvement of the community.  They are the prolific example of how organizations "reach out and touch someone", even as they migrate from the mailbox to the Internet.

As with any form of communication, we need to know for whom our words are intended and what we hope to accomplish with them.  Is it too obvious to say that an organization's newsletter must help accomplish its mission?  Should it help to open new relationships with audiences as well as deepen existing ones?  Can it extend the impact of an organization's program and values?  

In surveying about a dozen newsletters for my client meeting, I looked for answers to my questions. Here's what I found topic-wise (in descending order of frequency):

1.  every newsletter surveyed promoted upcoming programs and recapped others (these included calendar listing and sign-up forms; in-depth discussions of key education and collection activities)
2.  almost every newsletter included a message from the CEO or board chair, which most often was the opportunity to make the organization's case for support
3.  many newsletters contained sidebars with the lists of trustees/staff, contact information, and acknowledgment of major donors
4.  a membership form (important to include since newsletters do get passed along or sent to nonmembers)
5.  acknowledgment of recent donors/welcome to new members
6.  announcement of grants and honors
7.  articles on related subjects
8.  board member/volunteer profiles
9.  wish lists
10.  updates from committees
11.  mission statement
12.  interviews with stakeholders

As I write my own newsletter this week, I will be keeping this list in mind.

Photo: The joy of making a beautiful newsletter by Alex Leonard 

Saturday, May 9, 2009

When Planning Won't Work

We've all read and heard about the importance of planning as a tool to harness focus and energy. We plan in our work lives and we plan in our private lives.  For some of us, the structure of a plan -- knowing the next steps and the next steps after that -- is comforting.  

Shortly after 9/11, I  had the opportunity to facilitate a number of discussions among arts organizations about the impact of that tragedy on their work.  Almost all of them were experiencing greater numbers of visitors to performances, gallery shows and exhibitions.  Many were overwhelmed with this new interest...this desire to replace fear with the transformative beauty of art and culture.

Those organizations that had rediscovered their footing said they did so because, just prior to 9/11, they had been engaged in planning.  They had been weighing various scenarios of their growth and development.  They developed responses that were helping them cope with audience demand and reconfigured funding.

Fast-forward to today:  one of those arts organizations has come full circle.  It is financially fragile, without staff, and barely hanging on.  A very small group of board members (and one in particular) hopes to breathe live back into what had once been a lively, but never really secure, haven for artists.  "We need to regain our equilibrium before I burn out," says the burned out board leader, "We need a plan."  Sounds good, except for one telling thing:  it seems as though this person may be the only board member ready/willing to invest in planning.  So far, two planning meetings have been cancelled, and it's unclear if a plan will ever be created.

Something important is at work here.  First, planning for the future -- even the short-term -- is very difficult (if not impossible) if an organization is preoccupied with survival.  Planning for a better future just doesn't make sense when you don't think the organization has much of one. It's really important to first put out or tamp down the fires that threaten to engulf an organization.  Only when that is accomplished can folks take a deep breath and start to see past the present.

So, this organization has some decisions to make right away, but planning isn't one of them.

Photo:  confusion by Nanayof2

Monday, May 4, 2009

Board Recruitment Process Poll Results

The informal poll running on the blog lately asked readers to characterize their board recruitment processes.  The poll follows up on my posts about board recruitment herehere and here.

Here's the breakdown:

33%   Loosey-Goosey:  informal and sometimes unpredictable
25%   A Last-Minute Scramble:  could be anybody's game
41%   Targeted:  we know who we want and we work hard to get them
1%   Multi-layered or Rigorous:  a full-blown, vetted process

The good news is that 42% of respondents put their recruitment process at the structured end of the spectrum.  A structured process matches institutional criteria to individual skills, which, in turn, fulfill mission, values and vision.

Nearly 60% of respondents, though, put their recruitment efforts at the unstructured (or nearly so) end of the spectrum.   An unstructured process may seem the more user-friendly for some; it can be anxiety-producing for others.

I suspect that a larger polling sample would even out the percentages between structured and unstructured, likely tipping the balance toward the structured end of the spectrum.  But, I do think that there are many nonprofits that struggle with board recruitment, give it short shrift or simply dismiss it altogether.   If your organization falls into one of these categories (and you want to do something to address it), here's a great resource by Hildy Gottlieb to share with your board to get the discussion going.

And this article is one of the most carefully laid out discussions of the recruitment process that I have seen.