Skip to main content

Frozen by Fear

A CONVERSATION TODAY WITH THE DIRECTOR OF A
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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

4 Nonprofit Resolutions for 2021

Even though 2020 will technically be in our rear view mirror soon, its ramifications will be with us for years to come. Make no mistake, there's a lot of work to do. So, here are my four really tough, but really important, resolutions designed to lay some solid groundwork for doing your best work in 2021. Aren't you glad there are only four? If you're interested in my resolutions from previous years, take a look here  and here .

4 Strategies to Pivot and Lead Through Disruption

Organizational Resiliency in This Crucible Moment

I am currently working with two colleagues from the cultural and heritage fields to think and write about organizational resiliency in times of upheaval and ambiguity. We believe resiliency in this crucible moment requires, first and foremost, nonprofit organizations activate equity and inclusion by embracing it as central to all their internal and external work. It begins when organizations commit the time to examine their own historical roots and practices as a critical step to ensure they “live” their most meaningful missions, visions, and values. Resiliency requires many organizations also renegotiate what it means to be valuable to their communities. The traditional idea of “value” has changed and is changing, and recognizing the extent to what our communities really value is key to being wanted, needed, and, thus relevant. All organizations must retool their financial mindsets, taking a hard look at their current financial realities and realigning the costs of doing business with