Thursday, July 30, 2009


One of the building blocks of nonprofit life is connection to community. The community and its needs are what nonprofits serve; in turn, the community’s support is the lifeblood for the nonprofit’s work. We know that the most successful nonprofits build themselves around addressing unmet needs. They offer programs and services to individuals that ultimately make their communities livable and sustainable.

Believing this, I’m always a little disappointed and frustrated when I meet up with organizations where the community (individually or collectively) is never addressed in mission statements or strategic plans, or consulted with in program development and evaluation, or used as a barometer of shifting trends or as a metric for success. This “dis-integration” from the public may have been the prevailing standard, particularly in the formation of cultural nonprofits, of another century, but it certainly holds no ground in the 21st.

The two big questions every nonprofit must answer are: why is it important that we do what we do? and who are we doing this important work for/with? For many organizations, these two questions seem to be the most difficult to answer.

Some hallmarks of organizational “dis-integration” are:

· board members hail from the same social set, similar professions or neighborhoods (staff and volunteers, too)
· vision and mission statements don’t address the two big questions – why? and who?
· stakeholder voices are not evident in strategic planning and resulting plans
· organizational plans that lack benchmarks for community interaction
· stakeholders have no regular role in programmatic decisions or program evaluation
· no vocalized recognition among board or staff that the community could/should have a voice in the services and programs the nonprofit offers to the public
· the “public” or the “community” is seen and/or treated as a monolith

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Leadership for Difficult Times

In this video, former Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy offers up her short list of “must do’s” for leaders in times of difficulty. She ought to know --- Mulcahy got the company back on firm ground after a failed leadership transition. Difficult times “test the caliber and character of leadership,” she says, adding that the organization’s reputation must be protected at all costs, because “it’s easy to lose; tough to restore.”

Her leadership “must do’s” include:

  • transparency
  • consistency of message over time
  • making sure your words and actions are aligned
  • focus on mission and organizational fundamentals
  • resiliency and believing success can be accomplished
  • stepping up to the plate quickly when trouble arises – don’t sweep it under the rug

Knowing she couldn’t turn Xerox around by herself, Mulcahy said she was “ruthless about asking for help.” And she got it. But she might not have been so fortunate had she not built and maintained her credibility from her “must do” list.

Mulcahy’s advice works equally well for cultural nonprofit leaders.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Weak Board Leader

If you work/volunteer in nonprofits long enough, you'll have the chance to experience a variety of board leadership styles. Looking back over my career, I've probably worked for at least a dozen board presidents (or, should I say, I can remember twelve of them). A couple of them were founders and each stepped aside during my tenure, which in itself was a somewhat daring and fragile moment. Fortunately, in both instances the transition was successful -- the founders were comfortable precisely because their successors were known to them and were not set on making radical change.

Of this group, only a couple had weak leadership skills. By that I mean they personally struggled to focus on the big picture, clearly more comfortable engaging in minutiae or micro-management, or they failed to keep the board focused on the overarching issues. They seemed unable or unwilling to guide discussion, to prod or persuade, to understand the need for structure as a means of communicating needs and divvying up work.

One can argue that such a person should have never been made the leader in the first place. And it's true that a nominating or board development committee that is on the ball would have determined the organization's future leadership needs and would have recruited and groomed individuals to meet those needs. That's an ongoing conversation for this committee.

In some instances, such as a founding board leader transition or when a board leader leaves suddenly, the next best person may be the "caretaker" or "place-holder" leader -- at least for a brief time. This is a situation where every board member and the executive staff need to step up to assist, to fill in leadership gaps, and to ensure that forward momentum is continued. This can be accomplished is several ways, I think:
  • greater input from the executive committee -- a smaller group of board leaders can work with the board chair to develop structure for meetings and board work, and to debrief after meetings to suggest future strategies for guiding the work of the board
  • thoughtful prompting from key board members/staff during meetings to assist the chair in keeping discussion on track and moving decision-making forward
  • frequent communication between the executive and the chair that focuses on tactical suggestions from the executive
An organization can suffer from the benign neglect of a weak board leader, but it doesn't have to if the rest of the "team" understands this is a situation where everyone needs to pitch in.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Dynamic of One

It's amazing how one new participant can change the dynamic of an established group. We're often not conscious of it until after the group has convened, when we're either congratulating ourselves for wisely choosing the new addition or grousing about how things didn't quite click. No matter the outcome, it's best to be aware beforehand that new additions will play a role -- large or small; subtle or bold -- in the interactions and outcomes of group work.

Knowing that a new addition will be joining an established group, it's always useful to lay out expectations and ground rules with the individual in advance. During the meeting, group leaders will need to pay particular attention to providing more background information and insights in order to give the newcomer a chance to "catch up". Group leaders should also be mindful of ways to include newcomers in discussions by actively inviting their perspectives and posing questions for them to answer. A veteran group member can be of great help in shortening the learning curve by "buddying up" with a newbie.

Then there's the newcomer who exerts a negative vibe. How'd this person get on the team? And what can the group do to mitigate the disruption? I think most of the above rules apply, perhaps with a bit more steering exerted by group leaders, who can guide discussion by drilling deeper into issues, by seeking specific decisions from the group or by asking for additional information or deliberation to take place outside of the group. A private follow-up with the newcomer in this instance could bring to light new insights in the group's behavior that will be helpful when planning the next group interaction.

It can be especially hard for an established group to make room for a new addition. If the introduction is rocky, the group may struggle to establish equilibrium again. It will always take some effort for a group to absorb new talent and continue forward momentum -- the trick for group leaders is to facilitate regaining equilibrium as quickly and positively as possible.

Friday, July 17, 2009

I'm Getting Ready for a Board Meeting

The agenda was developed and circulated weeks ago. A revised financial projection for the second half of the year was created and emailed to board members last week, along with a cover email that included several prompting questions for discussion at the board meeting. The final location arrangements were squared away earlier this week. I'll be spending the next couple of days gathering additional materials for handing out and for mental preparation.

I mentally prepare by going through the agenda and visioning the conversation around each discussion item. This exercise helps me to articulate my thoughts, anticipate questions board members might ask of me and it prompts me to bring various types of supporting material along. Sometimes, it even leads to another handout -- an article, graph or factsheet.

Since I believe that board meetings are golden opportunities to solicit opinion, explore issues, and address the needs of our organization's constituents, I work with my board president to create agendas that allow sufficient time for discussion. In fact, I always try to build in an extra 10-15 minutes here and there just for those discussions that go deep or long. I order discussion topics in a logical way with the most pressing items requiring decisions at the top of the meeting; discussions requiring no decisions are placed further along on the agenda.

One agenda construct I have seen, but so far haven't used, is introducing an agenda item in the form of a question. For example, Why is it important to consider raising admission rates? Or, if we expanded our focus on Grade 4 programming, would we not only increase attendance but also raise our visibility for doing so?

I think I like this approach, because with it one can set the direction and tone of the conversation. In doing so, a board's conversation can be focused at a different or higher level, tying in with overarching organizational strategies and criteria -- where it's supposed to be.

I'm getting ready for a board meeting and it requires a lot of thoughtful preparation if I want to ensure that
  • everyone has the opportunity to speak and to be engaged
  • we complete the agenda to everyone's satisfaction in the allotted time
  • discussion is purposeful and moves the organization forward
What getting ready tips would you like to share?

Photo: Summer Conversations by ReyGuy

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Looking Beyond Skill Sets

John O’Neil writes in his post titled Virtues and Character Markings of Future Leaders:

Certain character traits and drives will distinguish those who we need for future leaders. Formal education and "fattened resumes" will be less important than finding and developing the well rounded person who thrives on building robust learning cultures with high performing creative teams.

This is equally true for board and staff leaders of cultural organizations as we continue to navigate funding deficits and audience shifts. Our searches for staff leaders is often long on skills sets; for board leaders, the search includes skills and networks. But what about “critical virtues and character markings”, as O’Neil suggests?

Here’s his list:

Well Balanced and Ethically - Centered

Familiar enough with your own strengths and weaknesses and able to address vulnerabilities. Understanding that “rules matter, but behavior around the rules is more important.”

Passionate Learners

Openness to the diversity of ideas – good, bad and ugly – indicates a certain forward-thinking person. “They will read widely, use social nets wisely. They will help fill the organization with learning-motivated people with diverse interests and backgrounds. The richness of learning contracts will be reflective of the organization's cultural richness and competitive advantages.”

Humility and Integrity

“Good leaders are humble. They know that success brings a dark bag of hubris, ego inflation, power games. To fight these ever-present threats future leaders must continually offer and accept fresh learning challenges that are sufficiently stiff to guarantee some failure. It is in proper failure that higher order learning can flourish.”

Coaching and Mentoring

“The best leaders are natural teachers and coaches… They enjoy helping others learn and grow. They are also equipped to play the larger role of mentor, helping with those aspects beyond skills that involve character formation and wisdom.”

Brave and Discriminating

“The very best of the future leaders will carve out fresh trails with new metrics of success, dynamic transparency, and error-embracing learning. They will enjoy the risks that lead to learning. They will be discriminating in their own learning journeys. Always striving to do the brave and right things under pressure. Always working to have a life in harmony.”

What other critical virtues and character markings might you add to the list?

You raise the bar when you decide to use some or all of these virtues/markings in your next search for board or staff leadership, but given the lackluster leadership so many organizations suffer, isn’t it worth the effort?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Current and Former Employees on Your Board

I believe strongly that the core of governance is informed oversight. In order to do this well, a board must balance a clear understanding of mission and program with the discipline of ongoing objective evaluation. A board must be able to know when to exert leadership, when to seek and accept leadership from executive staff, and when to seek and accept outside expertise.
But, above all, a board must act to the best of its ability to preserve the well-being of the institution with which it has been charged.

There must be a clear line drawn between those who govern and the governed. Boards frame the mission, determine compensation levels, approve human resource policies, evaluate the director, often take some role in the hiring process of key senior level staff, and set benchmarks for organizational performance.

When current staff are elected to their boards it removes the clear line and truncates the ability of boards to objectively fulfill their most basic fiduciary responsibilities. These staff are both governors and the governed. Where's the sense in that?

I'm also uncomfortable with former staff serving on boards. Even the best former staff members can have a stultifying effect on current staff. Former staff are a tangible tie to the organization's past and they can have a way of dampening future-focused perspectives. There will always be some board members who will routinely look past the current staff to seek the expertise of former staff members, now their peers. Why would any board sabotage their current staff in this way?

I also think that electing current or former staff to a board sends a public message that the board is unable or unwilling to reach beyond its innermost circle. The best boards are diverse and representative of the organization's community and constituencies. They reach out for talent, not in.

Great former staff can certainly make terrific contributions via committees and task forces, but keep them off the governing board.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Less (Abstraction) is More

“Sustainable is a crappy vision; it’s a negative vision.” That was Peter Senge’s, author of The Fifth Discipline and director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, message to participants at the Americans for the Arts gathering last month in Seattle. Why is sustainability a negative? It’s because, he says, when we hear sustainable, we hear “surviving.” If someone asked you how your marriage was going, you wouldn't proudly say it was sustainable, he pointed out.

As a big-picture guy, he tried to get the audience of hundreds of arts administrators to shift out of economic crisis mode, and reconsider the arts (the act of creating, not the category The Arts) as a basic human activity.

"The big evolution," claimed Senge, "is when the arts became The Arts, an abstraction. Abstraction leads to objectification and then marginalization. Art is a thing. A museum is a symbol of that." And the arts become marginalized because you can or can't afford the things we know as Art.

Yes, the arts can show us a new way of living, but we felt that Senge was subtly emphasizing that many of The Arts will not. Senge kept circling art used as a verb--creating versus the thingness summed up by "creativity."

He qualified the problem-solving mindset that came up with sustainability with the creative orientation that asks, "What are we trying to create?" (Dinosaurs, in their way, were probably very interested in sustainability.) Any arts organization wants to matter, to be relevant, but our impression is that Senge isn't betting on any whose relevance is primarily theoretical or abstract. For him, the arts matter if they arise from how we actually live, not from how we like to think we live.

-- From Seattlest, June 19, 2009

That leads me to Red {an orchestra}. Red was a newly minted and vibrant Cleveland-based orchestra I discovered when putting together a workshop on audience development. I was intrigued by how Red used puppetry, art and the audience to create a musical experience. Red was not an abstraction. Red embraced the audience with every multi-media performance. Red asked Clevelanders to write music for it to play. Red walked the talk of creation….creating all the way….creatively.

So, I revisited Red {an orchestra} for this post only to find that it has gone out of business after six exciting years. There’s an old blog that’s still online and the news articles noting its downfall. Red didn’t die for lack of creativity or an audience. It appears governance and management faltered – issues we can explore in future posts. And it seems as though the community wanted to come to the rescue had it had known of the orchestra's predicament. The public death was sudden.

Red's short-lived success was the real deal. But sustainability stopped the music.

Despite my Red digression, I do agree with Senge. Nonprofits aren't about just getting by.

So what is your organization trying to create? Build your strategic narrative around it.

Photo: 213-366b {create:art} by amp'ed (these signs are on a fence at a high school in Cleveland)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Crafting Your Organization's Story as Strategic Narrative

The military and the corporate world increasingly employ a tool to help gain the upper hand, be it in war or in snagging more market share. It’s a tool that is particularly well-suited for nonprofits, as well. The tool is called the “strategic narrative”.

Military expert Michael Vlahos describes to journalist Kaihan Krippendorff that strategic narratives in the military context are considered to be "compelling storylines which can explain events convincingly and from which inferences can be drawn." Or alternatively, “an interlocking framework of ‘truths’” that explain how a conflict came to be, where it is going, and how it should be argued and described.

Why are they so important and why should cultural nonprofits care about them? As Krippendorff explains, the answer is simple: everybody wants to win…and everybody loves a winner. A compelling strategic narrative, which is, in effect, storytelling, has the potential to draw audiences and keep them coming back for more. The story or stories that lay out an organization’s directions or desired future become an easily accessible way for audiences to grasp institutional goals and the rationales behind them.

Traditional conceptualizations of strategy have tended towards notions of fit (“How might we fit into this or that environment”), prediction (“What is ahead? Where will we be then?”) and competition (“How might we ‘rule the roost,’ survive within the ‘pecking order,’ or gracefully ‘chicken out’?”). In contrast, a narrative view of strategy stresses how language is used to construct meaning; consequently, it explores ways in which organizational stakeholders create a discourse of direction (whether about becoming, being, or having been) to understand and influence one anothers’ actions. Whereas traditional strategy frameworks virtually ignore the role of language in strategic decision-making, a narrative approach assumes that tellings of strategy fundamentally influence strategic choice and action, often in unconscious ways.

-- David Barry and Michael Elmes. Strategy Retold: Towards A Narrative View Of Strategic Discourse. 1997.

Where Barry and Elmes describe strategic narratives as a type of metaphorically-rich fiction that “stands out from other organizational stories, is persuasive, and invokes retelling”, I’ll suggest that the best, most useful strategic narratives are not pie-in-the-sky word pictures. They are in fact, grounded in reality. This is key. Just as with any type of strategic planning, strategic narrative is born of an organization’s relationships to its audiences and to their wants and needs.

As Vlahos said in the Krippendorff interview, "The relationship between customers and the corporation needs to be something more than manipulation by the corporation to get what they want. It has to satisfy their vision of what they are and what they want to be.”

Importantly, Vlahos contends that a corporation’s narrative needs to be in harmony with that of the greater civilization. A business’ actions become the posts of its story, and a company needs to show that ultimately this fits with where the community at large wants to go.

The example Vlahos uses from the corporate world is the competition between Microsoft and Apple. While Microsoft remains the marketplace’s 800-pound technological gorilla, Apple has a legendary loyal (but considerably smaller) following. Apple attracted those followers with a strategic narrative built on the classic underdog story – a story of hard work and determination that eventually leads to success.

So, let’s apply the tool to cultural nonprofits. Do you think the lack of a strategic narrative that ties into where the community at large wants to go is a fundamental reason why so many culturals are still considered the wards of the white glove class? That when push comes to shove the arts are cut from public education because they’re not viewed as essential? That when a cultural stands at the brink of closure, it’s expected that deep-pocketed supporters will provide the bail out?

Krippendorff offers up these four prompting questions to get you thinking about your organization’s strategic narrative:

The strategic narrative plays a role within the company and outside of the company. Ask yourself the questions below to see how you can craft a narrative that your employees and your customers can support.

1. What is your company’s narrative?

2. How does your company’s narrative fit the broader cultural one?

3. Is the narrative closely associated with your company’s leadership?

4. How can I share our narrative to inspire others?

In searching for examples of nonprofit strategic narratives, I did come across one listed as such: St. Leo University, Florida. Let me know how well you think it meets the criteria for strategic narrative.

Photo: The Plan by abbyladybug

Friday, July 3, 2009

Fiscal Stress of Nonprofits Measured in National Report

The Johns Hopkins Listening Post Project is monitoring in a systematic and timely way what is happening to nonprofit organizations in the Unites States. In a report released late last month, the majority of US nonprofits in the study report experiencing some level of fiscal stress. Except for arts organizations, the stress level of sizable majorities of organizations at present are “minimal” or “moderate”.

However, 40% of US nonprofits are reporting this stress is “severe” or “very severe”. Particularly hard hit are theaters and orchestras (half to three-quarters of them are in this category) whose heavier reliance on donations saw the worst revenue losses. By contrast, only 29% of museums are reporting severe or very severe stress, putting them with educational institutions at the lower end of the stress spectrum. Museums continue to report strong general audience visitation, an indicator of their importance to the public in times of economic and emotional hardship.

Nonprofits in the $500K-$3M budget category are reporting the highest levels of fiscal stress.

Substantial numbers of organizations in the study are taking a three-pronged approach to mitigating their financial stress:

Intensified Fundraising

For cultural organizations this is focusing largely on expanding individual and foundation donations, asking for smaller gifts from more diversified pools of potential donors, and reseeding endowment funds (one campaign is asking every member to make an endowment gift of $18.69 – 1869 was the year the organization was founded – if successful, $10,000 new dollars will be added to the fund).


Cost cutting measures are being augmented with energy conservation activities and expanding collaborations that look to share services, facilities and expertise.

Expanding Entrepreneurial Activities

For cultural organizations these activities are focusing largely on ramping up marketing and funding advocacy efforts. Instituting new fees and raising existing fees for services are also in the mix.

And what about those nonprofits reporting minimal stress? What have they been doing to protect themselves? Here are the top five responses:

  • Maintained a conservative management approach – 73%
  • Have strong community support – 41%
  • Have extraordinary board or staff – 39%
  • Increased demand for services – 32%
  • Engaged in effective strategic planning – 32%
Photo: Zoom by Still Burning

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Meeting Mojo

Meetings, it seems, are the stock in trade of organizational life. A centuries' old managerial tool that has changed little in format, except for the presence of electronic gadgets and the digital or telephonic presence of far-away participants. As much as some folks would like to get away from them altogether -- paring down frequency and length of time spent together -- the fact remains that organizations are comprised of two or more people and communication among them is what gets things done. Whether you call it a conversation or a convocation, it's still a meeting.

And most agree there's room for improvement (why else would there be so many books, articles and blogs devoted to them?). Here's one more. Gretchen Rubin offers up fourteen tips for running good meetings with a rundown of the basics -- start on time/end on time; send out an agenda beforehand and stick to it; be specific about action items -- and she throws in a big dose of etiquette while she's at it. For board and staff leaders: work hard to draw people into the discussion; for everyone: don't undermine others, and take blame and give credit where and when it's due.

Allow for some short breaks for people to check emails and voice mails. Otherwise, they'll be doing that not so surreptitiously on their handhelds. This brings to mind a phenomenon that's getting some bandwidth on facilitation listservs and blogs: the rise of commentary taking place via handhelds among meeting participants about the meeting they're in.
As one lister noted, "I am aware of the thinking behind digital natives which suggests they are able to multi-task in ways digital immigrants (people like me...on the other side of 50...well, 35 really) are not. On the other hand, side meetings of any kind can be a problem for a couple of reasons: Because individuals may be missing bits going on in the main group and because you may be missing critical thinking from a side meeting which is not getting to the entire group."
It's the last nugget that we all should be really concerned about. Whether it's an electronic side meeting happening in real time or the "parking lot" meeting that happens after the meeting, these are conversations that impact the efficacy of the official face-to-face discussion. Not just because they can contain demoralizing grousing, but because they often contain a lot of really good ideas and solutions that could benefit the rest of the group. Let's think about how we can move the best of side meetings into the mainstream conversation.

Photo: Graph of a typical business meeting by dgray_xplane

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Board Orientation: It Begins with the First Conversation

How well does your organization orient its board members to their work? I know organizations that do a great job of it and organizations that have never given it a passing thought. Stop and ponder this for a moment: are people born with the expertise to serve on a nonprofit board?

Then how does one acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to be an effective board member? I suspect that many would say that they learned by watching others and doing the work assigned to them. All well and good, I suppose, if we simply want board members who rubber stamp the leader’s decisions. Now stop and ponder this: the nature of nonprofit work and funding is increasingly complex due to any number of things, including increased professionalization, greater scrutiny from government, regulators and funders, heated competition for audience and dollars, and relentless escalation of fixed overhead costs. This is the nonprofit world as we now know it. It is not for the faint of heart.

What ways can board and staff leaders help lessen the steep (and getting steeper) incline of this learning curve?

It certainly begins with an orientation to an organization. Those organizations that do provide formal orientation programs for board members usually do so after they have been elected to the board. I’d like to suggest that orientation really starts at the first contact with an individual to discuss board service. This initial conversation is framed by a forthright explanation of wants and needs of the organization. Every subsequent conversation with a candidate will explore aspects of the organization in more depth and will be supported with all kinds of material, from the board job description to the strategic plan. It is all orientation.

Pre-board election orientation is critical to separating willing, engaged candidates from those who are unable to serve or unskilled for the task. I like doing indepth orientation sessions with candidates before election, because I think it gives both the person and the institution the opportunity to say “not the right fit”.

What are some of the elements of an indepth orientation session? Here’s my list:

  • Top-to-bottom tour of the nonprofit’s facilities with staff, leaky roofs and cramped work spaces as well as the beautiful lobby
  • An honest, no-holes-barred sit-down with board and staff leadership to discuss mission, program, finances, planning; organizational strengths and weaknesses; governance challenges; successes and failures -- this is your opportunity to lay it all on the table
  • A review of the board job description
  • A notebook or CD of supporting material
  • Plenty of opportunity for Q & A
  • A deadline for decision
Photo: Brújula | Compass by [parapente]