Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Innovation + Value

The museum sector would do well to move away from a sense of its own importance to demonstrating the true value it can bring to lives. As cultural networks proliferate, the museum is ideally placed to lead discussion and debate, to create participatory media and develop the role of the active cultural participant.

-- Angelina Russo commenting on Ross Dawson’s blog post, Thinking About the Future of Museums: Fourteen Key Issues, May 22, 2008

This quote really struck me, because it’s where many culturals – not just museums – seem to be stuck. And we’ve been stuck here for a long time, with some noteworthy exceptions. It may have a lot to do with the fact that we excel at great ideas, but drop the ball when it comes to their execution. I relate to that.

The Management Centre recently released an international compilation of studies on innovation in the nonprofit sector. Using a Harvard-developed research model that identifies seven stages of innovation, the compilation finds that many – but not most -- US charities clearly are creative, but falter in rolling new ideas out to audiences. Learning (aka evaluation) from our successes and failures (the last stage of the model) is consistent for just over 50% of US nonprofits. Those numbers are not music to my ears. Are they to yours?

Here are the 7 Stages of Innovation in a nutshell:

1. Ideation: idea generation

2. Integration: cross pollination

3. Information: external sourcing

4. Selection: identifying ideas

5. Support: developing ideas

6. Launch: diffusion and returns

7. Learning: establishing what can be improved

You can read more about them here.

So to come back to Russo’s comment, the museum slice of the nonprofit sector continues to struggle with this notion of its value to 21st century life, or, at the very least, launching it. Ironically, I think we’re in a time when that can be done despite shrinking resources – and perhaps done better than when the funding cup is full. Necessity is the mother of innovation!

Here’s more about Angelina Russo, Associate Professor at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne:

Angelina Russo researches the connections between museum communication processes, multimedia design and digital content creation. She is Chief Investigator on the ARC Linkage research project Engaging with Social Media in Museums which brings together three Australian museums and the Smithsonian Institution to explore the impact of social media on museum learning and communication. Between 2005 and 2008 she led the ARC Linkage (relinquished to the ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation) research project New Literacy, New Audiences which examined the development of user-generated content in collaboration with six major Australian cultural institutions.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Resource Roundup

Here are a few resources I've been tapping into lately. (Unlike the photo, these -- mercifully -- are all available electronically!)

From the Nonprofits Assistance Fund: Recession Risk and Preparedness Assessment

This tool asks you to rank statements in four areas: financial health, financial information, organizational change, and leadership engagement. Here’s an example of a statement: Significant changes in program or strategic direction have been implemented in the past two years.

Each ranking option is weighted with points, which you total up for a quick diagnosis.

Transparency Fuels Competition Video

At academicearth.org you can view short videos on a variety of topics. This one on the lack of business rigor in the nonprofit world features Debra Dunn from Hewlett Packard making the argument that transparency fuels competition and the significant lack of it in the nonprofit sector is the underlying reason why nonprofits are not more sharply focused and successful. Nonprofits are typically not very transparent when identifying and using metrics for goal achievement. Dunn makes a brief, but compelling, case for developing what she calls a “full ecosystem of social entrepreneurship” that will lead to radical transformation of nonprofits.


A host of short videos on a broad spectrum of topics -- all meant to get you thinking. Here's one I recommend: Katherine Fulton's You are the future of philanthropy. In it, she challenges the assumption that philanthropy is only for the wealthy, where the giver and the organization are at the center of beneficence rather than the problem. She explores the democratization of philanthropy -- crowd-driven, aggregated giving -- that is being fueled by online social networks. You'll like the ending.


I've also added some blogs to my list. Check out Elaine Gurian's post titled Museum as Soup Kitchen at Museum 3.0.

Photo: Era Tower by simone-

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Success Happens Here

An article in the May 11th issue of Crain's New York Business ("Made in New York") explores why some manufacturing businesses are surviving despite the economy. It offers up five lessons, which I think have direct application for cultural nonprofits:

1. Be High-End
As the article states, "If you want your company to last, you need a lasting reputation for quality." Cultural nonprofits strive for this -- many say so in their missions; it's time to take stock of your Quality Factor and take steps to burnish it or boost it starting at the front door.

2. Be Local
"It pays to focus on the big, dense...market in your own backyard." Nurturing your local audience, however you might define that, returns dividends in the forms of membership retention, event attendance, and volunteerism, to name a few. Locals are here whether times are good or bad.

3. Be Networked
"It's crucial to surviving recession," the article states. Think of your basic networks: your members, your colleagues, your accountant and insurance agent. Think of your programmatic partners, the artists and technicians. Think of your funders and the media. How well do you connect and reconnect these relationships? Is your organization a connecting force or does it wait to be connected to others?

4. Be Lean
"Lean is based on two simple goals: creating the least amount of waste possible and producing only goods and services that customers truly value." This lean philosophy has been around the corporate world since the 1990s, but it's been spreading rapidly through the service sector. Many nonprofits might argue that one of the tenets of our sector has always been 'lean'. In the wake of this recession, though, nonprofits are revisiting the lean philosophy and finding merit in taking stock and understanding their audiences' needs better.

5. Be Nimble
How well does your nonprofit move to meet the changing or expanding needs of your audiences or your community? If a program isn't meeting expectations, can you tweak it or ditch it? Replace it with something new? For-profits that can quickly exploit a market niche have the edge, but it requires confident leadership and a certain amount of fearlessness. Can this apply to nonprofits, too?

These lessons could be the overarching structure for nonprofit strategic planning or business planning. What do you think?

Photo: Success Happens Here by leefly

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Tooting my Horn for Tutelary

You just never know what you'll run into during a morning of blog and newspaper reading. How about Dictionary.com's Word of the Day? And wouldn't you know that today's word is quite coincidentally "tutelary", and apt word for the kind of blog I'm trying to create here.

tutelary \TOO-tuh-lair-ee; TYOO-\ , adjective: Having the guardianship or charge of protecting a person or a thing; guardian; protecting; as, "tutelary goddesses."

My thoughts immediately ran to the nature of trusteeship -- and leadership -- when I read the definition. Even the strongest nonprofits need their fair share of protectors...maybe even a goddess or two. That's what trustees and staff leaders do.

The word "fiduciary" gets bandied about when talking about trustees -- meant in a lot of contexts as SHOULD BE RAISING (MORE) MONEY. You'll see from the definition that the money bit is, at most, implied:


[fi-doo-shee-er-ee, -dyoo-] Show IPA noun,plural -ar⋅ies, adjective

1. Law. a person to whom property or power is entrusted for the benefit of another.

2. Law. of or pertaining to the relation between a fiduciary and his or her principal: a fiduciary capacity; a fiduciary duty.
3. of, based on, or in the nature of trust and confidence, as in public affairs: a fiduciary obligation of government employees.
4. depending on public confidence for value or currency, as fiat money.

When we become the fiduciary, our better selves put on the tutelary mantle.

Photo: 112 little guardians by kalandrakas

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Two seemingly unrelated news items landed in my e-mailbox this month, each describing a decision by a cultural nonprofit to sell all or a portion of its assets. One is on the west coast; the other here in New York state. Both are the victims of their (and their communities’) inability to adequately steward what had been given to them for the benefit of others. These are not isolated events – indeed, we read about them every month and the pace is quickening as more nonprofits search for financial stability in a time when philanthropy seems stretched beyond capacity.

Historic preservation colleague, Donna Ann Harris, sent me this Reuters article about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House going on the auction block:

The 6,000-square-foot Los Angeles estate is being sold by the Ennis House Foundation, which recently completed the initial phase of a stabilization and restoration project after years of decay and damage from earthquakes and torrential rains. In March 2005, it was placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's most-endangered list.

"Our goal has always been to be a good steward of the house," said the foundation's president, James DeMeo.

"We've made a lot of progress, but at this point a private owner with the right vision and sufficient resources can better preserve the house than we can as a small nonprofit," he said, explaining the decision to place the historic home on the market.

Makes sense. It's sort of refreshing to hear when a nonprofit knows when to call it quits, when it knows it can't care for the very thing it's been entrusted to preserve. But it's tragic, too, knowing that, once sold, the public won't have access to this beautiful building.

The Ennis House story follows on the heels of a this story in my local newspaper:

Four 19th-century sculptures will be auctioned by the cash-strapped Troy Public Library to raise money to keep a needed state grant. "We're going to sell assets,'' Mary Muller, president of the library board of trustees, said Monday. The library doesn't want to sell off pieces of art in its collection but now has no other means to cover capital expenses, library officials said. The library must install an elevator by June 2010 in order to receive about $165,000 for the project from the state. The estimated cost to build the elevator is $300,000. The library must raise the remaining $135,000.

"The building has limited usefulness without the elevator,'' said Paul Hicok, the library director. "It is a difficult decision. People get attached to them,'' Hicok said.

When the library opened in 1897, Hicok said, many supporters viewed the facility as a museum in addition to a library. That's when the statues were donated.

Will we – or have we – become inured to it all? As one more nonprofit jettisons collections, buildings, programs, staff, or drops from sight all together will we note the loss for a little while….or at all? Could that be true?

Top Photo: Ennis House by L.A. Places

Bottom Photo: landing (at the Troy Public Library) by Alissao

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Cultural Entrepreneurship and the Culture of Bright Ideas

Imagine spending a day thinking and talking about cultural entrepreneurship and what makes a cultural entrepreneur. I got to do that yesterday as part of a grant-funded project to design a new professional development opportunity for mid-career museum professionals. The discussion was wide-ranging and energetic as veteran cultural entrepreneurs questioned, debated and explained their own and each other's approaches to teaching and living entrepreneurship.

One fundamental characteristic that all agreed upon was that entrepreneurs -- whether in the cultural, social or business sector -- are always looking for opportunities to capitalize on and to solve problems in ways that will meet and extend mission. As one participant said, "It's about opening doors and windows in the box that is our organization. It's our job to open a window, then open another window, then another."

This conversation touched upon some interesting "opening windows" resources that I wanted to share with you. The first is the Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI), organized by the Creative Education Foundation , a non-profit membership organization of leaders in the field of creativity theory and practice. Here's what CEF says about itself:
Every day principles fostered by CEF programs are helping someone, somewhere in the world develop new products, make business operations run more profitably, restructure organization and agencies to become more effective and less encumbered, reinvigorate economies, make improvements in our schools, revitalize communities and replace ineffective methods and systems with new, more workable ones.
It offers a 2-day Next Idea Creativity Conference in the Berkshires each fall "where you can "Design the Next Phase of Your Life", get your "Next Big Idea", "Renew Your Creative Spirit", "Discover Your Passion", make "New Connections", and learn tools to help you "Self - Actualize"." I'd like to go.

Among the many resources the group shared were two book titles: William Duggan's Strategic Intuition: The Creative Spark in Human Achievement (Columbia Business School) and Roger von Oech's A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative ("the best book...gets you to turn things around to look at them in different ways," said one).

There's more to come and I'll keep you posted.

Photo: Bright Ideas by jnconradie

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Free the Nonprofits

I come to a lot of new information and ideas late. And so it is with Dan Pallotta, the author of Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential, a book that takes a hard look at how society constrains the work of nonprofits and how the people who work and volunteer for nonprofits constrain themselves.

Pallotta's got an interesting story of his own -- I'll leave you to discover it -- that has undoubtedly refined his perspective. In any case, I find it refreshing, particularly now.

He's also the author of the blog Free the Nonprofits and he's a keynote speaker at the October 2009 Arts Council of Indianapolis' Next Audiences Summit.

Here's an excerpt from his May 11th blog post entitled Re-Thinking Charity:
We have two rulebooks — one for charity, one for the rest of the economic world.

We let the for-profit sector pay competitive wages based on value, but have a visceral reaction to anyone making a great deal of money in charity. We let people make a fortune doing any number of things that will harm the poor, but want to crucify anyone who wants to make money helping them. This sends the top talent coming out of the nation's best business schools directly into the for-profit sector and gives our youth mutually exclusive choices between doing well and doing good. It is not sustainable, let alone scalable.

We let Coca-Cola pummel us with advertising, but donors don't want important causes "wasting" money on paid advertising. So the voices of our great causes are muted. Consumer products get lopsided access to our attention, 24 hours a day. Charitable giving has remained constant at about 2% of GDP ever since we've measured it. Charity isn't gaining market share. How can it if it isn't permitted to market?

Another choice morsel from his June 1st post Are MBAs Good Fits for Nonprofits?:

It is time we made concessions of a different sort — first, that the presence of personal economic aspiration does not mean a person has no love in their hearts; second, that we don't know what great contributions could be made to this world by allowing people who have such aspirations to pursue them while they simultaneously pursue the work of social transformation; and last, that before we go unilaterally building litmus tests for moral fitness, we ought to ask those we are trying to assist who they think fits, and what concessions they are prepared to make, as they look into the voids of extreme poverty, breast cancer, AIDS, and the other things.

His voice is an important one to add to the mix.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

On the Brink - One Nonprofit's Story (Right Now)

My conversation with the director of a small museum was disheartening. The institution is staring at closure before year's end. The director continues to explore all possible options -- from fundraising to merger to closure -- but admits any option other than closure will take longer to accomplish than there is time on the clock. Most disheartening of all is the apparent inability of the board to pull together to raise some money. And, we're not talking millions, at least not for the short-run. Less than a couple hundred thousand would plug their operating shortfall for the rest of the year and buy them the time to nurture some of those longer-term options. On some levels, a sort of organizational paralysis seems to have set in.

Not easy stuff. The current financial condition of this organization has been in the making for a dozen years. Some poor decisions were left to fester against hopes for a brighter tomorrow. Course corrections were too little and often too late to make a significant enough impact. Each year of deficits only increased the momentum toward disaster. The question on the director's mind now is 'Is it too late to pull this organization back from the brink?"

This is organizational change writ large. It's disorganized and punctuated by a mix of reactions. What I see from my seat on the periphery is a board and staff that may be trying to manage this change in different ways and at different rates of speed. If you were to ask the director, the board is not moving fast enough to address a cashflow so tight it squeaks. The board seems unable or unwilling to accept the reality of a greatly truncated or dissolved mission -- and many of its members are bitter. Board members may feel that the director isn't doing 'enough' (whatever that may be) to lead them out of the forest. Staff may be feeling helpless or abandoned (and certainly in fear of losing their jobs). I can only imagine the stew of emotions -- anger, guilt, fear, numbness, confusion.

These responses are typical and most likely critical to what could, should and hopefully will come next -- reframing and reorganization. Without them, there is no crucible in which to forge a transformation.

Here's a helpful matrix from from Peter de Jager, a change management consultant, who encourages organizations to examine the level(s) of control they have over change as a way of reframing the discussion and beginning a reorganization process:

In Reality we have no control

In Reality we have control

We Believe we have no control

Type I.a

Normal Grief Cycle... and we work through it.


Type I.b

Normal Grief Cycle... and we work through it.


but... we can miss opportunities, some minor, some huge.

We Believe we have control

Type I.c

Very frustrating -unrealistic –

doomed to failure –


Type I.d

Empowering –

Life affirming –

stimulates growth –

the stuff of heroes –

Very Healthy

Photo: teetering on the edge by Dr H

Friday, June 5, 2009

Fix It or Ditch It?

Without question, the common denominator among most -- if not all -- of the nonprofits I work with is that they carry a heavy load of organizational activities.  Staff, volunteers, money, and space are stretched to their limits.  The programmatic calendar is full.  The school buses are lined up at the door.   A public expectation has been created that must now be met again and again.   The load is getting heavier. Let's hope the bottom doesn't drop out.  

Does this picture look familiar?  A common trait across the nonprofit sector is that institutions, particularly smaller ones, tend to take on a fair amount of work without first determining its costs and its benefits. The heavy load gets heavier and no one wants to dump any of it.  How do you choose?  Here's what I hear: 'Wouldn't someone be offended if a program, procedure or policy were suddenly jettisoned to make way for something new?' or 'We've been doing this activity so long that it defines us' or how 'bout the dreaded 'This is what we've always done (or how we've always done it)!'

So now get a mental picture of your organization's human and financial resources.  Think of them as the dinner plate that holds all the lovely programmatic and administrative food.  The size of the plate is determined by the amount of human and financial resources -- and time -- your organization has at its command.  Now, start adding the mission-related activities to the plate.  Bet it's getting full.  Don't forget to add the non-mission-related stuff you've gotten sucked into.  Now your plate looks like it's gone through the smorgasbord line a couple of times.

If you've been reading this blog for a bit, you are aware of my posts about developing criteria by which to measure sustainability and success.  Hopefully, you've mined some nuggets that may be gold.  Here are a few more really basic thoughts that might help you decide what to keep on your plate and what to take away:
  • make an inventory of what's on your organizational plate and share that with your nonprofit's decision-makers (frankly, I think I'd share it with everybody -- you all share the plate).
  • using your mission and strategic plan as a guide, take one set of your organizational activities on that plate, such as special events, exhibitions, elementary school programs, etc., and sort them into three big piles:  Meets Mission, Fix to Better Meet Mission, and Ditch.
  • focus on the Fix pile.  Chances are you can't fix all at once so create a couple more criteria to filter the fix pile down to one or two you can reasonably work on in the next 6 months or so. (In fact, a timeframe like that could be a filter.)
  • develop the rationales for ditching the Ditch pile.
  • too many Meets Mission activities?  What filters can you apply to winnow that pile down? (check here and here for some help)
  • think about ways to make your plate bigger.
  • acknowledge that any new item added to the plate means something that's already there needs to come off.
  • maintain this discipline.  You get the gold star if you do.
Photo:  thumbs up, thumbs down by Donna Pinciotti