Thursday, August 26, 2010

Poke Your Head Up and Ask

I'M IN LOVE WITH BENCHMARKING.  I love gathering data about organizations, but not simply for gathering's sake.  It's got to be focused information that can help to paint a picture about success (or the potential for success).  For me, benchmarking is a nifty tool that can help to answer two key questions every nonprofit needs to ask: 1)  how can I tell how my organization's doing until I start to compare it with similar or better organizations?  and 2) how can I know all that might be possible for my organization until I know what's out there already?
Benchmarking is one way to get a handle on exactly this type of information.  It can be as simple as sending an email or as formal as making an on-site visit with a laundry list of questions for specific staff or board members.  What you find out can help you to place your organization on the great continuum of organizations like yours.  It gets you grounded and lets you know if your organization is at or near the top of its game, or has many miles to go.  No matter how simple or complicated your benchmarking, here are what I think the overriding factors are to make your benchmarking the most useful for you: 
  • get very clear on what you want to find out.  Unless you want to do just a general overview for comparison, i.e., budget size, number of staff, size of board, extent of programming, etc., make your focus for benchmarking fairly tight.
  • choose organizations based on what you want to find out.  Looking to elevate audience development activities, for example?  Put your thinking cap on and choose benchmarking prospects that do audience development really well.
  •  always benchmark organizations that are at or above your own organization's level (whether it be size or programming sophistication).  Benchmarking organizations that are below your organization's level won't necessarily teach you anything new or help you raise the bar.
  • never benchmark organizations you know are mediocre -- that's a waste of time in my book.
  • develop a list of questions from which to work and stick to them; do this so that you can compare organization to organization (sure, sidebar conversations are great and you may discover something you'll want to explore that you hadn't anticipated, but make sure you cover your primary list first).
  • benchmark across geographic areas and the nonprofit spectrum.  Depending upon the topic of your interest, a for-profit might be a likely prospect.  This is about moving out of your comfort zone a bit to discover possibilities you might not have thought of before.
Bottom line, benchmarking is about poking your head up out of the your own institution's particular hole and taking a look around.  First, you've got to be willing to poke your head up.  And then you've got to ask some questions.  It's an interactive activity, this benchmarking stuff.  So, come on out of the hole and breathe some fresh air!  It can be so worth it.

Photo:  Whack a mole! from catgotti via Flickr

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Nonprofit Trends: Lost in Translation?

STARTING TODAY I'M SPENDING A BIG CHUNK OF TIME shifting the furnishings around in the nonprofit office where I work part-time.  My organization will soon be sharing space with another nonprofit in order to save a bit on rent.  The last time I had to share an office with others was almost 20 years ago and that was with a co-worker.  So, as much as I want to help the bottom line of my association, I'm a little worried about the personal workstyle adjustment I'm facing.
I wasn't surprised, then, when I learned from a group of rural nonprofit leaders earlier this month that workplace sharing and consolidation are trends they're seeing on the horizon.  But, interestingly, no one knew of an organization that was actually doing it.  So far, it's just talk.  Almost in the same breath the group agreed that another trend is the demise of some nonprofits -- indeed, about three cultural organizations in their area were down for the count -- an arts council, an performing arts center, and a sports hall of fame.
None of us, including myself until just now, made a direct connection between the two trends the group cited.  Wouldn't you think that if your organization was witnessing the demise of a nonprofit in your town or region that you'd be all over looking for lessons and putting them into practice?  It seems as though many of us are looking for the lessons, but far fewer are making any type of substantial readjustments.  Perhaps a tweak here or there is enough, but is it?
Is it -- when, almost daily, we are bombarded with tough news from the nonprofit sector?  Is it -- when we're warned that the "new normal" for nonprofits requires a new mindset, an almost complete shift in the way we relate to stakeholders, plan and execute fundraising, and measure our impact?
I fear that for many cultural nonprofits there are far too many that are paralyzed with fear of this uncertain future and by the change that may be required to thrive in it; too many without smart enough leadership who can see the path and help us stumble over it; too many content with waiting it out, to see how the other nonprofit fares before making a move.
I'm heading back to sorting out where my desk is going to go.

Photo:  Deer in the headlights from T Hall via Flickr

Monday, August 23, 2010

Getting Beyond the "Bored" Meeting

MY AUDIO/POWERPOINT SLIDES TO MY WEBINAR for NYS Arts on how to up the quality quotient for board meetings is available here.

This webinar looks at some basics:  what board meetings should accomplish (and often don't), how revisioning an agenda can provide meaning as well as focus, and how dashboards, breakouts, facilitated discussions and conversation recorders can both deepen and expand understanding.

Illustration:  The Boring Meeting from fourborne via Flickr

Friday, August 20, 2010

Board Recruitment: Still Missing the Mark

LET'S FACE IT -- IF FINDING COMMITTED, DYNAMIC AND FORWARD-THINKING board members was easy, you wouldn't be reading this post.  And I wouldn't have written about board recruitment as much as I have (see here, here, here, and here to list a few of the dozen or so posts I written on this topic).  I'm not the only one writing about it -- there are dozens of articles and book chapters devoted to it and plenty of workshops and webinars (OK, these are webinars I developed for NYS ARTS) available.  I like to think we might be making some headway on understanding that board recruitment is an ongoing process made up of interlocking pieces.  And, indeed, we are.
Nevertheless, I was struck when a nonprofit leader in a focus group I conduct recently declared that, in her community, most nonprofits had no clue what the role of the nominating committee was and no understanding of how important this committee was to the long term health of their organizations.  Several of her colleagues heartily agreed.  This remark had obviously struck a chord with the rest of the group...and it did with me.  This was a community not unsophisticated in nonprofit board work, yet this seemed to be a deep and long-standing issue.  I was disappointed that I had to steer their conversation back to the subject of the focus group -- I would have liked to explore this issue further with them.
So, perhaps we can explore it together here.
I suppose that part of the reason why organizations aren't implementing new approaches to board recruitment is that old habits die hard.  An organization that's been used to tapping recruits from a tight network of friends and associates will likely be reluctant to search too far beyond these networks.  Organizations that condone the pre-election scramble of a nominating committee can become hostages to these committees or the recruits they bring to the board room.  Boards and nominating committees that operate from a mindset that there isn't anyone who wants to join their ranks will undoubtedly fulfill that prophecy (they're the ones who -- with heavy sighs and shrugging of shoulders -- repeatedly re-elect themselves, because "we can't find anyone to replace us"). But, wouldn't you think, that precisely because board work is so challenging boards would be welcoming new approaches to recruitment?

Photo:  On Target from caruba

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

You Get What You Deserve

MY COLLEAGUE LINDA NORRIS AND I HAVE a long history in the trenches of museum administration.  The post is really a tribute to her insight, which is that boards get the directors they deserve and vice versa.  It's a tough philosophy particularly when it refers to a negative relationship.  But, frankly, both of us have seen it played out in dozens and dozens of organizations.  
It reminds me of what another colleague told me about a particular board that hired the same type of director over and over again and could never understand why they had a mess on their hands....over and over again.  What's that old saying? -- insanity is when you keep doing the same thing expecting to get a different result. 
Boards who want to maintain tight control (or Machiavellian control) will generally seek a director they can control tightly.  They'll look for the passive personality, the blank slate, the eager to please.  Boards that embrace challenge with the understanding that it can lead to growth will generally hire directors who will challenge them as well as themselves and the staff.
Controlling executive directors, on the other hand, will work hard to keep their boards at arm's length, perceiving erosion of power -- and perhaps knowledge -- if the board gets too close.  They'll withhold information, gloss over the tough questions, and roundly chastise any whiff of board exerted management (micro or macro).  Executive directors who are willing and able to embrace collaborative leadership -- which may also include some scrutiny, pushback, and a challenge or two -- will seek a board who can hug back.
If someone were to venture a concern about why such an organization isn't moving forward or seems to be living in suspended animation, part of the answer may lie in the fact that someone got what they deserved. 
Photo:  75/365 I wanna tear my hair out from bonus living (away)