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Showing posts from July, 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

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 equa

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 n

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

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

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 Le

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 responsibilitie

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 becaus

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

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. No

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

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