Friday, October 30, 2009

Key Questions for Board and Senior Staff

I'M PREPARING FOR A BOARD WORKSHOP ON ROLES and responsibilities, and we'll be spending a good chunk of time reviewing a self-assessment board members participated in a few weeks ago. The organization's director and I decided to use the self-assessment as the launch pad for a series of discussion questions that we think will encourage board members to dig deeper into how to apply established responsibilities to the institution.

I think they're pretty good, so I wanted to share them with you. Feel free to share them with your boards.
  • How frequently and deeply is the mission used to drive organizational goals and values?
  • What is the role of the executive director vis-a-vis the board in financial stewardship?
  • Besides finances, what are the biggest risks facing the institution?
  • How can interaction among board members be enhanced?
  • Is the needed mix of talent at the board table for now and the next five years?
  • How can the level of information and idea exchange at board meetings be effectively increased?
  • How can the board be more visible to the organization's constituents?
  • What are the one or two factors that are critical to the board-director relationship?
  • What changes in board structure or practices could enhance the organization's ability to fulfill its mission?
Photo: 2008-0625 IAA Board Meeting 067 from Arts Alliance Illinois

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Game Changing the Model

WHO'S READY TO MOVE FORWARD? WHO'S READY TO EXPLORE new and effective ways of addressing the seemingly intractable problems of the arts and cultural community, -- too many of us, too few resources to sustain us all, too many fiefdoms, unpredictably shifting audiences (to name but a few)? Who's willing to dig in deep enough to ensure that new approaches are sustainable for the long haul?

Who are the arts and cultural game changers right now? Here are three that come immediately to mind:

Michael Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, created this year the “Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative,” a program providing free arts management consulting to non-profit performing arts organizations around the United States. The program has put Kaiser on the road to all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, hosting management symposia.

Maxwell Anderson, Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has championed the use of multimedia and networked information to connect museum visitors with collections and promote greater transparency to the field and the public. His advocacy led the IMA to launch, in 2007, the first real-time museum dashboard, revealing over 50 fields of sensitive financial and performance data and soliciting commentary from the general public about the museum's commitment to openness. It is considered a gold standard among museums committed to transparency and accountability.

The Chattanooga Museum Collaboration has effectively proven that major institutions can pool functions and resources for the good of all and the community. The Tennessee Aquarium, Creative Discovery Museum and the Hunter Museum of American Art share common human resources, financial and technology management, as well as marketing -- even capital fundraising. A commitment to enhancing the city's quality of life, coupled with open and forward-thinking by board and staff leaders, has given this partnership resilience and staying power.

Who would you recommend? Yourself?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Developing a Facility? Your Best Advice May Be Just Around the Corner

I'M ALWAYS ESPECIALLY GRATEFUL TO RECEIVE QUESTIONS from smaller culturals that are in the process of creating or expanding their facilities. These organizations often operate with a dearth of information about building and shaping their spaces, despite the fact that there are thousands of organizations who've gone through it and are happy to offer up advice, warts and all.

Without some unvarnished insights and opinions, most of us are susceptible to the shiny object held out in front of us by architects, professional fundraisers, and product vendors. We don't wish to appear ignorant, even if we are. But do we really want to end up with a museum that has too little collection storage space or a performance hall with a too-small backstage area?

Boards of trustees and many staff do get caught up in the immediacy of such projects, often unable or unwilling to think about the long-term consequences of building decisions. The pressure to raise funds and move forward on capital projects even when we might not be quite ready is very real and a heavy, heavy burden. I give any organization tremendous credit for calling "time out" in the midst of a project to rethink it if it truly isn't working or simply isn't "right".

Doing so is generally an expensive lesson. All the more reason to seek as much advice and opinion BEFORE signing that contract! So, for my readers from smaller culturals, I urge you to reach out to colleagues in your community or region to ask for advice -- and to pay for that advice if necessary. Museum curators, gallery directors, stage/facilities managers, conservators, visitor services directors -- these are the folks who know how space must work. They are your "on the ground" experts. And they're happy to help.

Photo: The Boy Builder from doublewinky

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Frozen by Fear

local history museum outlined many of the financial issues cultural institutions are grappling with right now. While programs continue apace by a small and increasingly overworked staff, the director said, "We're close to pulling out of the economic trauma, but it seems as though every time we get close, we fall back." She cited a confluence of issues at the base of which is the simple reality that there just isn't enough operating income being generated from any source to cover expenses.

And like your organizations, this one has cut its expenses as much as possible without laying off staff. That may come next year, however, if the museum fails to address its structural (long term/ongoing) operating deficit, which right now is about $40,000. While some of her board members are beginning to examine the issues surrounding the deficit, these conversations easily become consumed by minutiae. Before you know it the train is off the track. No decisions are made.

The director's response has been to increase grant writing and plan for programmatic expansion with the hope of generating new sources of funding. Nice try. And how many hours a week did you say you were already working? Neither guarantees a return on investment and both require longer time frames for success than the museum has available before the short leash of the deficit will yank it back to expense-chopping mode.

This scenario sounds very much like the typical "fight or flight" reaction most of us have when we're panicked by something that seems to have the better of us. In this director's case, her board has so far taken the "flight" mode. She needs to get them into "fighting" mode. How to do it?

First, you've got to define the problem. Deficit? How much are we talking about? And what's the timeframe in which we need to address it?

Then you've got to define some solutions. Sure, cutting more expenses from an already bare-bones operation is one choice. But what are some other options? Just so happens, this museum will be gearing up for its annual appeal soon. Hmmm....what are some ways to tweak this individual giving activity?

Got a handful of ideas? Next is tasking them out. So what does an annual appeal look like? Who does what and when? Would the board be willing to establish a challenge to donors -- for example, match the first $5000 that gets raised? I'm starting to feel it thaw in here!

When individuals and groups get frozen by fear, it's usually because they have no clue about the extent of the problem or the possible solutions and timeframes needed to address it. Information is power. And breaking down big, amorphous problems into bite-sized tasks is like warm breath on ice.

I'll let you know how she makes out.

Photo: Leaf melted into ice from roddh

Friday, October 9, 2009

A Board Self-Assessment Tool to Get You Started

My last poll about board self-assessment attracted thirteen respondents. Six have done or do self-assessments; six haven't; and one intrepid person who admits to needing a bit of help with the whole process.

So, to help get those of you who are interested in self-assessment a bit of a jump start, I'd just loaded a tool on my website that you can use as is, or adapt to best suit your needs.

Here are some thoughts about using it, once you've decided to take the plunge:

  • First, consider the self-assessment as a baseline of information/feedback from the board about how it does its work from the governance and organizational structure point of view.
  • Give the board some time to review the findings and comments.
  • Structure part of a board meeting (or several meetings or a retreat) around discussion of the findings.
  • Focus primarily on areas of greatest discrepancy in responses. Spend some time delving into why some board members rated a statement weak while others rated it strong. Try to clear up discrepancies or reach consensus about them.

Can’t seem clear up discrepancies despite their importance? Make sure these issues are included in your strategic plan as strategies or tasks to be worked on by committees, staff, or task forces.

  • Now focus on those statements rated by the majority of respondents as very weak or somewhat weak. Which statements does the group want to work on to strengthen? Which are not of concern for the group at this time?

Include areas that need strengthening as strategies or tasks in your strategic plan to be addressed by committees, staff, or task forces.

  • Lastly, focus on the strong areas. How can the board use its strengths and attitudes to overcome its weaknesses?
  • Take the self-assessment periodically to see how much progress you’re making. Use the assessment to benchmark successes and to identify areas that need continued attention.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Does the Cultural Sector Need ONE BIG RALLYING POINT?

THIS PARAGRAPH FROM A RECENT post by Dan Pallotta (his blog is Free the Nonprofits) has my head spinning. So, I’m just going to lay it all out there as best I can. Pallotta uses the Apollo space program as an example of a success because it had specific parameters – and resources – for achievement. He doesn’t see either in the current nonprofit sector.

Nearly 100 new nonprofits are created in the U.S. every day — about 35,000 a year — most of them doing the same things as existing organizations wrestling with the same social problems. Over 90% are very small — with less than half a million dollars in annual revenues. In his recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Mark Kramer wrote that, because of fragmentation, redundancy, and the plethora of small organizations "there is little reason to assume that [nonprofits] have the ability to solve society's large-scale problems." I would argue that it is precisely because we aren't committing ourselves to solving society's large-scale problems that we have fragmentation and redundancy.

Kramer continues:

Each nonprofit functions alone, pursuing the strategies that it deems best, lacking the infrastructure to learn from one another’s best practices, the clout to influence government, or the scale to achieve national impact. A majority of the very largest nonprofits that might have the resources to effect national change are hospitals, universities, and cultural organizations that focus primarily on their own institutional sustainability. Collaboration throughout the sector is almost impossible, as each nonprofit competes for funding by trying to persuade donors that its approach is better than that of any other organization addressing the same issue. Very few systematically track their own impact.
This characterization of the nonprofit sector rings true for me on many levels. In New York State, where I live and do most of my work, cultural nonprofits abound. The economy is wreaking havoc with most of them and some will undoubtedly turn belly up (or have already), but that doesn’t seem to be a deterrent to folks wanting to start new ones. Just this past week, for example, I received an email asking for advice about shifting a for-profit art gallery to a non-profit “museum” and a phone call from a fellow who wants to get a group of museums together to occupy a vacant warehouse.

Contrast those conversations with the work of a core group of cultural nonprofits working together to plan a “happening” designed to attract 50,000 people precisely to raise the level of awareness of what each does among the public, business leaders and elected officials in their region. Now add to the mix a rather frustrating discussion at the Center for the Future of Museums’ blog about the definition of a museum.

Is it just me or is there an alarming lack of a clear view as to the place cultural nonprofits occupy in society? We struggle with defining what we do and the impact we make. Our governments are loathe to support arts and culture in any substantial way; nary a state agency (beyond the woefully underfunded arts council, perhaps) can articulate a cohesive vision for the importance of arts and culture to the life of its residents or its economy. Individual nonprofits can’t articulate visions for themselves, either.

Sure, we can say that the strength of the cultural sector is its diversity – there’s a nonprofit for practically every art form, every community, every community within a community. That’s how the sector works best. And, whoever said that cultural nonprofits should have anything remotely to do with solving society’s ills? Stopping hunger or finding a cure for cancer or AIDS is just not the same as opening new ways of examining and understanding the world around us. It isn’t?

Photo: Apollo Lunar Lander Missions from AcuraZine Dan

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Self-Assessment: One Director's Take

A COLLEAGUE RESPONDED TO MY POLL QUESTION on board assessment with an email stating that his board has engaged in annual assessment for the last three years and they're gearing up for their fourth this fall. When I asked him if the assessment process surfaced any revelations, he replied:
Not really, but it provides an opportunity to catch little things early, for folks to air anything quietly that wasn’t big enough for them to say in a forum – and it removes any excuse for not saying something until too much later….
I hadn't thought of assessment quite that way -- surfacing the small stuff, not so much larger issues, but of course it does. The amount of "big" versus "small" issues likely depends on the organization and how frequently assessment is done. For those boards that have never done assessment, the issues could range all over the map, from large to small. Boards that regularly take the reflective pause are most able to manage large issues as well as easily dispatch the small ones, making regular assessment a highly useful management tool.

Photo: Self assessment from illek08