Thursday, September 23, 2010

Building the Trust Factor

A MUSEUM STUDIES CLASS IS ABOUT TO LAUNCH A planning process with a local historical society as part of a semester-long project this fall.  As a preliminary activity, one of the students (who is responsible for the outreach portion of the project) and I chatted yesterday about my take on organizational planning.  We covered a lot of ground and a lot of the basic elements of a solid planning process:  vision, mission, where do goals come from?; how much outreach can you suggest an all-volunteer organization do?; as well as the more mundane how much can you devote to this class project when you're a busy student with tons of other claims on your time?
That aside, I encourage my grad student friend to spend considerable time at the beginning getting the board to engage in the emotion-based discussions about why their organization is important, who it serves and what impact it can make on the lives of its audiences, its neighborhood, and its larger community.  These are critical conversations to have early on, because every subsequent conversation about the how's and the what's will flow from them.  Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the why's/who's/impact conversations are the spaces where understanding and trust blossom among a group -- even in groups where individuals have known each other a long time.  It's practically magical and so satisfying to hear someone say, "I've learned so much about us!" or "I never thought about our organization like that before!"
Since my conversation, I've been thinking about how planning can -- and should be -- be a platform for trust-building in an organization.  It's generally not the primary objective of planning, but it you're able to achieve it, it's certainly a whopping big benefit that can play a huge role in implementing the a plan.

Photo:  2005 Focus Groups Yass from NSWRFS via Flickr

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Scalable Recipe for Getting Out of Financial Trouble

THE ARTICLE I JUST READ ABOUT THE COLUMBUS SYMPHONY ending its season just a hair's breath in the black is cause for celebration in many ways.  As symphonies across the country struggle, merge or outright die, the Columbus Symphony turnaround is worth taking a look at.  What was the secret from going from a projected deficit of more than $1 million to a surplus of $200,000?  Were there lessons for the rest of us embedded in the experience?
In a nutshell, here's what symphony leadership did:
  • secured major corporate/foundation support, admittedly much of that was already in the pipeline, but the lesson here is that you don't give up on fundraising in a tough economy, you work the hell out of it
  • secured municipal support -- a tough sell right now, but one likely built on strong economic arguments.  Do you know how much your cultural organization contributes to your local economy? If not, you're overdue in pulling that information together.
  • musicians are now in their third year of pay cuts.  The typical salary for musicians went from more than $50,000 to $35,000.  Ouch.  They also gave up paid vacation this year.   Sharing the pain must encompass managerial and executive staff, too, not just your program staff or the pain you inflict cuts that much more deeply.
  • combined administrative functions like accounting, ticketing, etc. with a performing arts association.  Doing so reduced the symphony's office staff by two-thirds.  More of us have to be on the lookout for cost-sharing opportunities -- it's probably easiest with back-room functions, but there may be lots of synergy to be had by sharing program staff and, hmmm, maybe an executive or two.
  • and speaking of executives, the director of the performing arts association is serving as the volunteer managing director and CEO of the symphony.  Interesting concept, but a lot harder to pull off than sharing ticketing functions.  What could make this work for your organization?  (A tightly drawn job description is one key.)
There you have it, that's the published recipe.  Pretty simple, really.  It's a recipe many can follow.
What's the big lesson here?  Repeat after me:  NO SILVER BULLETS.  That's right.  If your organization is in financial trouble, it probably didn't get there in a day or a week or even a year.  It took a while.  And it will take a while to get out of the mess.  And it will take hard work and, yep, everybody gets to pitch in.
Is it scalable to organizations of varying sizes?  I think yes, mostly.  I think yes, definitely, if you're willing to put the sacred cows on the table along with the more obvious stuff and to accept that the solution, whatever combination of ingredients from the basic recipe you choose to use, will require months if not years of commitment.

Photo:  Columbus Symphony Music Stand from lottadot via Flickr

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Telltale Signs of Trouble

MY MENTAL LIST OF CULTURAL ORGANIZATIONS ABOUT TO GO UNDER was significantly lengthened this week.  Just yesterday a neighbor told me that a small environmental/ natural history research organization she works with was about to fold.  She was told that the board was casting around for a place to transfer the organization's collections of books, maps, photos and videos (although no one knows exactly where that will be despite the fact that they may have to shut their doors in a couple of weeks).  
The day before that, a colleague called to say she was retiring from her organization and that there's a movement afoot to dissolve it (not her doing).  A third organization has burned through its endowment fund to the point where some board members think it's time to close the whole place down.  
That's all in just the last week.
I've been hearing for a long time that the pace of consolidations and dissolutions in the nonprofit sector would speed up as the recession deepened.  Apart from symphony orchestras and the occasional museum, I wasn't seeing a great deal of evidence of that in the cultural corner of the sector until this summer.  But now I'm wondering if we're starting to reach a tipping point.  The money that's typically in a cultural's pipeline (from government, foundation and corporate grants, usually) tends to keep it lagging behind the rest of the economy.  Maybe now the time has run out.
The fact is, the recession may be blamed for the demise of some of these organizations, but it isn't the sole reason and it's usually not the primary one.  Unless an organization is relatively new and still a bit shaky, many of these organizations got into a fragile state well before the recession can be blamed for putting the final nail in the coffin.  Organizational deterioration can go on for years before it becomes palpable and impossible to avoid. 
But there are dozens of telltale signs (easier seen in hindsight, of course) -- OK, here's the first (baker's) dozen:
  • failing to understand the purpose and role of the organization
  • cutting back on the staff that produce mission-driven programming, and as a result
  • cutting back on programming
  • deferring maintenance on buildings and equipment (that's one of the first telltale signs in my book)
  • failing to file required reports (to the IRS, to state regulators, funders, etc.)
  • failing to follow the Bylaws by ignoring term limits of board members, by-passing membership meetings, sliding by elections, not constituting stated committees, etc.
  • slacking off on producing timely financial reports
  • failing repeatedly to reach a quorum for a board meeting or 
  • reducing the number of board meetings for fear of not reaching a quorum or because the work has no forward momentum
  • giving inordinate power to an executive committee thus marginalizing the decision-making of the full board
  • sporadically communicating with supporters (or not communicating at all)
  • regularly spending more than is earned
  • borrowing from invested funds with the promise that those funds will be paid back
What telltale signs of trouble would you add to this list? 

Image:  Here comes trouble t shirt &...from birdarts via flickr