Skip to main content


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


Popular posts from this blog

Nonprofits and the Public Trust: No Excuses

Periodically, social media is ablaze with comments from nonprofit leaders bemoaning the fact that their organizations are too small to keep up with a seemingly overwhelming amount of professional and regulatory standards. While one may hear less outright complaining from big nonprofits when they turn a blind eye to the importance of standards, ethics, and the public trust, chances are we'll be reading about their transgressions in the headlines.

Whether nonprofits flaunt the public trust due to ignorance or by design, the performance expectation for all nonprofits -- no matter their size, discipline, or resources -- is grounded in the fact they have been incorporated to perform a public service. They have entered into a relationship with the public that fulfills a need for which they receive benefits in return. Chief among these benefits is tax exemption for mission-related activities and the opportunity for donors to make tax-deductible contributions. When a nonprofit honors its…

Why You Need a Personal Board of Directors

Today I'm meeting up with my career planning posse. We call ourselves the Gang of Five and we've been meeting periodically for about six years to share our career challenges and aspirations, our plans; seek and offer advice, support, and the critique as appropriate. The Gang is my personal board of directors, who collectively and individually I can call on when needed. As a result, I've advanced my thinking about my career journey, if nothing more than to make it far more intentional.

Earlier this summer, I got to talk with my friend and colleague, Greg Stevens at the American Alliance of Museums, about career planning. The result is this interview, published at Alliance Labs. Greg is a terrific proponent of career planning and development -- not surprising since he's the Director of Professional Development at AAM and the co-author of A Life in Museums: Managing Your Museum Career. Whether you work in museums or some other type of cultural institution, check out the …

Nonprofit Board Resolutions for a New, Uncertain Year

I've written about resolutions for nonprofits before (see the infographic and read more here), but this year -- especially this year -- nonprofit boards will be put to the test in the face of civic dissonance, uncertain government support for education, arts, history, and science; and the continuation of dramatically shifting demographics.

So, here's my short list:

Know your organization's mission cold and I don't mean memorize the mission statement.  I mean deeply and fully understand the impact your nonprofit makes to those who benefit from the work you do. Understand how you meet the need, how you excel at doing so, and why that's important.  Be able to tell the stories about your organization's impact to anyone.

Get up to speed on what real governance is all about.  Set goals and success measures, exercise oversight, consider the future (a lot), strategize pathways to success, and keep at it.  Good governance is intentional and sustained.

Be the partner your …