Friday, January 29, 2010

"sustainability does not = doing the same thing"

MY TITLE IS A QUOTE FROM Nelson Layag of CompassPoint, who commented on Rosetta Thurman's post about the future of nonprofit service/professional organizations. The whole discussion struck a chord with me, but that quote just leapt off the screen.  

(The Andy Warhol quote I found on flickr is no slouch either.)

If there's ever a time for nonprofits to seek new approaches and opportunities, I think this is it.  Much of what we've depended upon to sustain us -- audiences, donors, programs, endowments, networks -- are now dwindling or shifting or are far too narrow or shallow.  To approach planning for the next year or two with the idea that more of the same, but implemented with fewer resources, is somehow a sustaining tactic just seems like so much whistling in the dark.....or spitting in the wind.

This morning I read about the perils of a west coast history museum that now, after more than two years of trying to sustain the loss of significant local government funding, is ready to re-envision itself.  "We are paralyzed," the director said the day before a public meeting to announce plans for divesting itself of some of its historic buildings (they operate a history museum, a children's museum, three historic house museums of which one is a farm, as well as other spaces that are rented for functions).  The organization also has in its care a million or so artifacts and a huge archive.  Their public "plan" is to become self-sustaining.  We'll see.

I recall some years ago another museum whose main benefactor said it was pulling the plug if the museum didn't reinvent itself.  The savvy director developed a bold new plan and got the benefactor to buy in (and buy) a complete revamping of the physical space, reinstallation of the collection and new programming initiatives.  The funding, while less, did not go away.  The director's challenge then became sustaining the momentum (which I think is quite different from sustaining the institution or sustainability).

What's one thing you need to do away with that could put your organization on a more sustainable path?

Photo:  Change from estheticcore

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

When Internal Discordance Goes Public

YOU'RE READING YOUR LOCAL NEWSPAPER AND YOU come across this headline "Financial Woes, Board Defections Hurt Arts Center: Former board members question executive director's decisions."  Well, that's a little gut-wrenching (particularly if you work or volunteer in the nonprofit sector, or if you're an ED).

How would you react?  You'd probably dig right into that article, wouldn't you?  Would you also ask yourself what the heck is going on that it's so bad to have made this kind of news?

As you pick your way through the article it becomes clearer that taking the ugly stuff to the press is a symptom of more deeply rooted dysfunctionality.  Sure, we readers can see it in a instant -- the lid's just blown off a whole kettle full of long-standing problems:
  • lack of internal communication (particularly between the board and the CEO)
  • misunderstanding of roles and responsibilities (on either or both the board's and CEO's parts)
  • misplaced or unmet expectations 
  • an "us" versus "them" mentality -- a lack of governance or leadership sharing, sometimes overlaid with suspicion
  • the organization is hemorrhaging red ink (and has been for some time) -- this could also be a symptom, which becomes the tipping point for an explosion/implosion
Don't you think that folks turn to the court of public opinion when they feel they've been wronged and they're not being heard?  In one case it was the fired director who needs to clear her name.  In another it's a board member who hasn't been able to convince enough of her board peers to fire the director.  Or it might be the only way a person thinks his/her concerns will be taken seriously.

Like turning on the lights in a dark room, sometimes moving organizational dysfunction into the realm of public scrutiny can be a good thing.  In the case of one organization, local citizens are now calling for the board (via letters to the editor and op-ed pieces) to engage the community in an honest conversation about the organization's future.  Sometimes it can help release the toxicity from the organization and offer opportunities for new people and perspectives to become involved. 

Sometimes it can have the opposite effect. 

Either way, the organization and its mission gets derailed, because it can't function until the crisis is addressed.

How would you handle an internal crisis that suddenly goes public?

Photo:  Dear Karrth Sair, from Shadow Viking

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Planning and the 'Clear Idea'

I'M GETTING READY TO TALK WITH A GROUP OF BOARD MEMBERS and staff from African-American heritage sites about the importance of planning. My discussion is one small part of a full two-day immersion into all sorts of capacity-building topics. Much credit goes to the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Northeast Regional Office for recognizing the need and pulling us all together.

All of these sites have some level of historic designation, such as National Historic Landmark status and/or listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Some are newly formed and others have been around for a while. Almost all of them are small, with operating budgets below $50,000 a year.  They're all important to the histories of their communities and our country, yet I know there are days when they must feel as though they're swimming upstream.

Few have done much, if any, formal planning. By 'formal' I mean writing a plan as a collective activity. A tiny number have very specific planning documents -- a maintenance plan or a marketing plan. What I don't know is if any of these groups tried more comprehensive organizational planning and got stuck or just dropped the idea altogether.

Does this quick sketch of these workshop participants remind you of your organization or an organization you know?

I think I'll try to make a strong case for planning in these terms: if an organization has a clear idea of who it is and where it wants to go, it's in a strong position to attract audience and support -- the two dearest things for most cultural nonprofits. The 'clear idea' can't be owned by one or two people; it must be shared by an entire board and staff in order for it to take root and grow.

So, that's part of the message I'll be bringing along with me these next couple of days.

Photo:  We can only appreciate the miracle...from mangtacio

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Find Me in Alltop's Nonprofit Section

I'm pleased to announce that this blog is now listed on Alltop in the Nonprofit section. Lots of great company there.

Looking for Decision/Performance Measurement Tools? Here's a New Take

Eleanor Adams' report, Towards Sustainability Indicators for Museums in Australia, was released this month offering museums -- and all cultural institutions -- a set of pilot indicators built on a combination of economic, environmental and social factors.  "Whether they acknowledge it or not," Adams writes, "museums are inextricably linked to sustainability principles....However, most museums seem to be inherently unsustainable organizations."

Certainly museums occupy huge environmental footprints, deemed by many directors of large and small institutions as "energy hogs".  But libraries and performance spaces aren't far behind in energy consumption and insatiable need for storage.

How can -- should -- environmental sustainability shape vision and mission (and vice versa)?  They're inextricably linked, right?  Adams gets at this by remixing established programmatic and operational metrics with environmental impact indicators and clustering them around "four pillars of sustainability":  environment, society, culture and economy.  Might these pillars be the essence of cultural organizations?

Here are some of her indicators for the Environment pillar:

Sustainability Goal: To use resources in the most efficient way possible. 
Suggested Core Indicators:  

  • Total energy from non-renewable sources used over 12 months 
  • Total water used over 12 months
  • Ratio of waste recycled to waste sent to land fill in 12 months
OK, that makes sense.  What about some Economy pillar indicators?

Sustainability Goal: To have a balanced and diverse budget
Suggested Core Indicators: 

  • Ratio of Government funding to ‘other sources’ of income 
  • Number volunteer hours worked in 12 months 
  • Ratio of 12 month  growth of collection to 12 month growth of income 
And the Society pillar? 
Principle of Sustainability: Calibre and Diversity of Current and Potential Staff 

  • Number of workers with a PhD in their relevant field
  • Number of qualified applicants for the most recent curatorial opening
  • Percentage of staff involved in decision-making processes broken down into age, sex and cultural or minority group backgrounds
  • Ratio of staff who are within the first 10 years of their career to those within the last 10 years of their career
  • Ratio of paid staff to volunteers
  • Number of staff attending training sessions in regard to the organisation’s sustainability plans
  • Rate of staff turnover
  • Rate of board turnover

If you've made 2010 the year to get serious about developing criteria for measuring your organization's performance, definitely add this report into your mix.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dead Wood: Moving On

MY LAST POST CONCENTRATED ON SETTING the table for addressing the under-performing or non-performing board member.  At any given time, most boards have one or two members who struggle with engagement -- it's a natural part of the ebb and flow of board work -- but if it's a chronic predicament for your board, don't be content to look the other way.  In the long run, it's not helpful to the individual or the organization to do so. 

As Anna Tegen noted in her post here,  board members run out of steam or lose focus.  In Anna's case, she's taking the initiative to find ways to re-engage.  For other, not so self-motivated people, their fate will be in the hands of their board peers to figure what's going on and what to do about it.

The Options:  Stay, Shift, Off

Of course you always have the option of doing nothing.  But is that really an option?

Once you've had "the conversation", you've got several ways to go depending on its outcome:

board member is under a particular burden that is taking his/her focus off the organization:  you can work with him/her to temporarily relieve assignments and attendance expectations until life settles down; a temporary (six months or less) leave of absence from the board may also be an option; or the board member shifts into some other voluntary capacity or steps down all together.

board member has lost interest in board work:  this requires an examination in both directions -- is the work truly uninteresting or has the board member discovered it's not his/her cup of tea?  The options here are many, I think.  It might be time for the full board to re-engage with the mission (the reason everyone's around the table in the first place) and figure out ways to focus on making mission impact the top priority.  

As Anna is doing, it might be useful to get active in a more hands-on way.  Board work is not the only way to participate in an organization.  Shifting from the board to another volunteer capacity might be just the ticket for a person who loves the mission, but finds board work unrewarding.

board member wasn't the right choice from the get-go:  the fit just isn't there; the relationship never clicked.  Cut your losses, call it a day and don't drag it out.

Your 10-Point Action Plan for Removing Dead Wood

1.  Write a board mission statement

2.  Select a short list of criteria for what makes a good board member for your organization

3.  Write a board job description

4.  Build a board discussion around 1-3.
5.  Seek board approval for 1-3.

6.  Evaluate participation and effectiveness of current board members using 1-3.

7.  Make your list of under-performing/non-performing board members.

8.  Schedule and follow-through on one-on-one conversations with everyone on the list.

9.  Develop a course of action based on the conversation, using some or all of the above options....or options you create.

10.  Use items 1-3 to identify and recruit new talent!

Photo: harvesting dead wood from robertcmccabe

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Dead Wood Continued

MY LAST POST LEFT YOU AT THE POINT OF determining why it's important for your organization to have a fully functioning board. I think that getting very clear on this -- even to the point of writing it down -- as a sort of board mission or vision statement -- will help all board members understand the board's role in leading and protecting a complex system of stakeholders, programs and services. This statement, along with a board job description outlining organizational expectations of board service and the criteria used to identify board talent, form the foundation for evaluation of board member performance.

While some boards are more forgiving of extensive absences or cantankerous behavior, these and other idiosyncracies can ultimately affect effective governance and jeopardize "street cred". (I discuss the absent board member in more detail here.) So, another discussion might have something to do with how much a board can/will tolerate.

These discussions certainly fall within the responsibility of the Nominating/Board Development Committee, and that's perhaps where they should start, but they should continue through to the full board. The very act of discussing these topics at the full board will cause many individuals to re-evaluate their commitment to board service. Some attrition may naturally occur because of it.

The table has now been set to consider easing dead wood into other capacities. I'd love to hear from you about the table-setting discussion you've used to prepare for removing dead wood!

The Conversation
It's now time for one-on-one conversations with your dead wood. Typically these conversations need to come from the head of the Nominating/Board Development Committee or the president. At the very least, the conversation must be held by a board peer. Your first objective is to discover why the dead wood isn't connecting with board work (or the organization in general).

I think the conversation might best be started with an empathetic offering: "We know you've been flat out with getting you new business off the ground, Frances, and you haven't had much time to devote to our organization" or "We know you've had a lot of heath issues this year, Irving." It's important, I think, for the dead wood to know that his/her board peers have noticed the lack of engagement.

The empathetic offering provides an opportunity for the dead wood to acknowledge delinquency, offer to be relieved of responsibility or make a case for staying on. Whatever the response, it's important to always tie the discussion to what the organization/board needs right now. This is not a personal indictment, it's an opportunity to explore why a board member has been unable to engage with the work of the organization.

It may be that any number of issues will surface in the conversation, related and unrelated to the organization. Perhaps the dead wood feels marginalized at board meetings or is feeling over his/her head keeping up with board work. You may be able to discover remedies that could lead to a win-win for the individual and the board.

The conversation can also lead to the opportunity of letting go: "perhaps rotating off the board now/at the annual meeting/at the end of the year will relieve you of a responsibility that you've been struggling with." You know, sometimes this offer is just what the dead wood has been waiting for, but has been too reticent to ask for it.

Next Post: Easing Into Another Capacity

Dead Wood from bluevalley_photos

What to Do With Dead Wood on Your Board?

MY POLL ASKED WHAT ONE BOARD DYNAMIC YOU would change this year and the top response was "remove dead wood". For my first post on this topic I'd like to start with two obvious facts: 1) most boards have some non-performing or under-performing board members AND 2) most boards already have mechanisms in place for removing dead wood...or at least the non-attending dead wood. Those mechanisms are found in the Bylaws and perhaps in a board job description.

Few boards, it seems, invoke these mechanisms, mostly out of fear of offending the offender. We end up side-stepping the dead wood, dancing around it, ignoring it, wishing mightily it would go away. Oh, and complaining about it. So, even though the dead wood isn't doing much, it's sapping the energy and focus of many others. (There must be a Law of Physics about this!)

Where to start and how to implement? While removing dead wood is not the most pleasant of responsibilities, it does not need to be -- and should not be -- a negative, "You're fired!" kind of conversation. Removing dead wood needs to come from a clear understanding of what a board must accomplish in order to sustain organizational health and strengthen organizational impact. This is a board and senior staff level conversation beginning, perhaps, in the Nominating/Board Development Committee.

I'll continue this train of thought in my next post.

Photo: wood2.JPG from whiteoakart

Friday, January 8, 2010

What Would Make You Turn Down an Invitation to Join a Board?

THERE'S SO MUCH WRITTEN ABOUT RECRUITING BOARD TALENT, I thought I'd spend a little time thinking about it from the prospect's point of view. Clearly, there are boards where the line is long to get on them. But what would make you turn down an invitation?

Here's a short list to get the conversation started:

You've had no prior exposure to the organization. Your immediate reaction is "did you pull my name out of a hat?" (Is that lady in the picture the head of the Nominating Committee?) Seems as though there must be a hidden agenda at work (like you're rich and once you become a board member you'll pour all your resources into the organization) or the organization is simply looking for any warm body to fill a seat.

The organization doesn't have a good reputation. There's something to be said for street cred. An organization that's floundering may be strengthened by your participation or you may find yourself sucked into a morass with all kinds of legal and financial complications. What are the clues and cues to help you figure out which it will be?

You're a former employee of the organization. You bring baggage -- good and bad. It's an awkward situation for current employees to be governed and evaluated by former employees. Former employees may make terrific subject-matter advisors, but not governors. Draw the line there.

There's no written and shared plan for the future. This is an indicator that resources could be going in many directions with little overall coordination toward an articulated endpoint. It likely means there is also little or no critical assessment tools in place to measure resource effectiveness.

The organization offers board seats as prizes. Do a great job on that fundraiser, get a board seat! Usher for 30 years, get a board seat! Perfect attendance at board meetings, get to be president! The organization's lack of a thoughtful evaluative process for building its board is a detriment (relates to #1).

Who else serves on board. A pretty good indicator of all of the above.

I'm sure there are more reasons, so share your stories!

Mom's name hat from nokapixel

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Change for Your Board in 2010: A Polling Update

WE'RE A DAY INTO MY LAST POLL (SEE RIGHT) AND the responses are clustering in two areas: 1) removing dead wood from the board and 2) using better/different tools to make decisions/evaluate performance.

There are still six days left for your colleagues to cast their vote!

In the meantime, those of you who are in need of tools for decision-making might want to check my posts on taking stock here, here and here.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Poll Question!

IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE dynamic about your organization's board in 2010, what would it be? Take the poll at your right.

And be sure to read my post from January 4.

The Healthy Side of Conflict

I REMEMBER WELL A MEETING WHERE A COUPLE of board members engaged in a passionate exchange that left some of us around the table lamely floating compromises and the rest of us merely spectating. While it was a tough discussion (and tough to sit through), it remained "gloves-on" and civil. It was just tough, but in the long run, I think necessary.

A few months later, this same board convened by phone, and with some new members on board. The topic that had caused the previously heated discussion, was now dealt with calmly and strategically. The meeting concluded with a plan of action to move us forward.

A group dynamics expert would be able to pick apart what worked and why in a hot minute. Here's my non-expert take:

At the first meeting, the topic hadn't been discussed previously as thoroughly
by that particular group of board members. The focus of the discussion was on recapping past actions and evaluating whether the "right" decisions were made. There were some board members new to the conversation and they had lots of questions, which put veterans of the issue on the defensive. Lesson: new voices in an old conversation will have a lot of questions about what's gone on before. New voices also bring new perspectives to past actions. As a group, how far do you backtrack through decision-making and to what end?

The second meeting had new voices, too, but the focus of the discussion this time around was moving forward, not looking back. The discussion required problem-solving skills, not butt-covering ones (personally, I see these two skills as completely different, don't you?). The new voices came with new approaches that happened to help move the discussion forward really well. Did being on the phone instead of face-to-face help or hinder? Most people will agree that face-to-face is usually better, but in this instance it didn't seem to matter much.
Lesson: even though there was some summarizing of the issue for the new folks, the emphasis this time was on moving forward and the board members were ready for it. Framing difficult issues prior to discussion is really important.

I think the second conversation also worked better for the folks who'd been at both meetings precisely because a difficult, air-clearing conversation had already been had.

Last night I watched the first installment of PBS's new documentary,
This Emotional Life. One of the group dynamics experts noted that conflict is inevitable when groups of people come together, whether it's a group of friends or a board of directors. If the group tries to sweep conflict under the rug -- ignore it or smooth it over -- the chances are very good that it will reappear more intensively at a later time, so best to deal with conflict right away when it's small and manageable.

Addressing conflict in a healthy way is one way groups grow. It can deepen relationships and commitment, also.

I don't know if my board example did much right in handling this particular conflict -- it was really the first time this board had experienced conflict in a very long time. But, I think the group regrouped in a positive way that gives me a sense of confidence for their future discussions.

Stay tuned.

Struggle (Chess I) from Shyald

Monday, January 4, 2010

What Would You Change This Year?

NOW THAT WE'RE ALL STARTING TO REFOCUS IN EARNEST after the New Year holiday, here's a question for you:

If you could change one dynamic about your cultural organization’s board in 2010, what would it be?

Would it be something major, like a change of board leadership? Or some small tweak to what you already do that could have a big impact over the course of the year?

Whether your board elections are right around the corner or months away, it's always a good time to talk about the leadership needs of your organization. Seems to me that the first quarter of the year is as good a time as any to take stock of the coming year's challenges and determine the organization's resources to meet them, including leadership skills. It may be that certain challenges will be best handled by committee members or junior staff, rather than the board president, a committee chair or the director. What needs to happen to allow everyone to "own" a leadership role in your institution?

Thinking of tweaking instead? Here's a thought: what difference would it make if you were to call a couple of board members every month for a one-on-one chat about the organization? Could be just an update; could be seeking advice; could be posing a question for which there may not be an answer (at least not a ready one).

Or what about using a consent agenda to open up time at your board meeting to talk about current and future issues or challenges? Or developing a dashboard of really useful metrics that can help board and staff track mission impact?

Photo: Meeting Checklists from drv1913

drv1913 writes: One part of my job is to coordinate monthly, public meetings for three boards of directors. Each board serves a different purpose, and there is a LOT of work that goes into getting ready for each meeting and a LOT of work to be done after each meeting. I created detailed checklists for each board so that I remember everything that needs to be done. These also come in handy on the rare occasion that someone needs to cover for me.

Here is the second sheet for one board and the first sheet of another. I print off the next month's checklist after each meeting and use those to jot down that next month's agenda items throughout the month.