Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Intentionality of Building Relationships

WHEN I RECEIVED THE FOLLOWING RESPONSE TO my summer vacation posts (here and here), I just had to share it.  It shows how an organization can take a really good idea and adapt it, and it further proves the point that really good ideas are scalable if people have the imagination to run with it. 

Sally Roesch Wagner is the executive director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation in Fayetteville, NY.  Gage was a formidable force for equal rights and Wagner is the visionary scholar who has brought Gage's work to life and life to the public.  Here's Sally's approach to making stakeholder communication intentional:
I like the idea [of trustees porch conversations] so much that I'm going to propose we think about it as a strategy rather than an event -- that we (board, staff, volunteers, docents) all engage visitors at all of our events in a conversation about what they'd like to see us do, transparent talk about our finances, what we need, see what questions they have, etc.  Then we have a process sheet for after, notes about what was learned.  And then we expand it to outside our events, and develop it as a lifestyle. 
Folks involved in the Foundation are already doing great outreach, talking to people all the time about the Foundation. What the "trustees porch conversations" idea does for me is to open the thought of doing this systematically as intentional conversations rather than ones that just develop. And we can build the intentionality based on the typical conversations folks have; what people want to know about us, etc.  And then we can keep track of the conversations, which will help us with personal recruitment of volunteers, board and committee members. 
AND as we develop dialogue as the language of the institution (as we're doing with a grant from the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, setting up a train-the-trainers program so everyone involved gets trained in the process of dialogue eventually), we can in stages turn these casual conversations into meaningful dialogues which will involve the community in our work on a continual basis.  Sort of a walking "write on our walls."  And I think we can also literally adopt the trustee porch conversations at our Wonderful Weekends - our yearly gatherings.
Also I'm going to send out an email to the volunteers today encouraging a conversation about the language "I serve".  I really like that language, too.  Want to see what it feels like to them and if they buy into it.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation, Part II: "I Serve"

THESE TWO WORDS GAINED EXPANDED meaning for me this summer.  While spending a week at Chautauqua Institution, my vacation companion and I attended a dizzying array of performances, lectures and conversations with authors and staff.  Each was introduced by the Institution's president or senior staffer, who began by introducing themselves to the audience.  In every case -- and I mean every case -- the staff welcomed the audience, said their names and added their titles by saying "I serve Chautauqua Institution as [insert job title here]." 
It was my companion who pointed this turn of phrase out to me.  "Do you hear how they're introducing themselves?" she asked.  She'd picked up on right away.  The more I heard it, the more I was amazed by it -- not just the uniformity in which it was delivered, but by the powerful servant-driven idea behind it.  Obviously, the Institution's leadership made a conscious decision about emphasizing the service aspect of the work and for some of us in the audience, at any rate, it carried deep resonance.
We agreed that it's a perspective that we  just don't hear much in the nonprofit sector when our colleagues introduce themselves or talk about their work.  Yet nonprofit work is service work no matter if it's health care or arts education, and those of us working and volunteering in nonprofits do so in service to an institutional mission and, thus, the audience.
As nonprofits of all stripes struggle to gain ground against seemingly unrelenting economic forces, it seems that now is the perfect time for all of us in the sector to examine why we serve and how we each uphold our institution's mission.

Click here for Part I of What I Learned on My Summer Vacation About Stakeholder Communication

Image:  The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, director of the Department of Religion, kept the conversation to interfaith dialogue within the strategic plan at a Trustee Porch Discussion. The Chautauqua Daily, August 6, 2011.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation About Stakeholder Communication

There's a special place in western New York where life-long learning, spiritual and artistic exploration, and recreation meet.  This place is Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit community now in its 138th year.  When I'm lucky, get to spend a snippet of the nine-week season there.  Each season is programmed with roughly 2,000 events ranging from lectures and classes to performances of all types, art shows, book readings, community events and everything in between.

Chautauqua Institution -- the nonprofit corporation -- is a $24+ million annual operation governed by a board of 24 trustees, employing more than 1,200 full-time and seasonal employees, with a physical plant numbering more than 80 buildings and a ton of recreational areas, and a balance sheet that totes up more than $60 million in assets.  Visitors to the grounds number in the tens of thousands over the course of the nine-week season (late June to late August).  Some of these folks own property on the grounds and they make Chautauqua their summer home.  Others, like me, manage a visit for a few days or a week.  Many others come for the day or for a specific performance or activity.
OK, so much for the set-up.  What I've come to learn over my time at Chautauqua is that pretty much all of the full-time professional staff are constantly in and on view, because they introduce programs, facilitate discussions, squire speakers/performers around, and press the flesh with long-time supporters and newbies alike.  Think of the demands on you at your biggest annual event or program series and multiply that by nine back-to-back, non-stop weeks.  You're surrounded most every day by your trustees, your most faithful donors, and curious first-time visitors.  Everyone wants to say hello to you, make a suggestion, offer a criticism, get directions to the restrooms, engage you in some deep topic that might make your head explode right at that moment or just trip you up.  They're your closest supporters, your allies, your peeps.

How would you take the opportunity of being surrounded by your audience and use it to communicate your organization's mission, intentions, future plans, and tough choices?  Draw them closer? Perhaps get their buy-in?

This summer I noticed for the first time that the Institution's trustees and senior staff held weekly, one-hour conversations on some aspect of the organization's operations with anyone who wanted to show up.  Called "Trustees Porch Discussions", the conversations took place on a long, broad porch of a building near the largest venue, the amphitheater, so there were lots of people strolling by, many of whom stopped to listen.  Each discussion had a focusing topic -- family and educational programming, finances, religious diversity, how speakers are chosen for the lecture platform, or how the institution is marketed (these were the topics this summer).  While staff lead the discussion, the trustees were on hand to add insights and help answer questions.  The audiences ranged in size from 20 or so people to more than 60.

"Trustees Porch Discussions" were augmented by two Board of Trustees "Open Forums" -- one in July and one in August.  These were held in a large public venue right after the trustee's regular board meetings.  Here, larger audiences asked questions ranging from expanding the interfaith community to future restoration/renovation plans for performances spaces, to enforcement of registration for dogs and safety issues of motorized scooters.

I really like the accessibility to staff and board members that these two activities provide and I don't think it's too much of a stretch to think about how similar face-to-face discussions could take place with members, donors and visitors in smaller institutions.  Many organizations use their annual member's meeting or annual report to communicate with stakeholders on the business end of the issues.  Some nonprofits hold board meetings as part of program meetings.  Social media can facilitate the flow of communication, also.  But unless these typical channels are purposely programmed to be conversations about the health and forward momentum of the organization, then they're usually nothing more than glossy one-way reporting.

Is it too much to ask that we figure out ways to reveal more of the challenges of our work, to ask our member and donor partners the same questions we ask at our staff meetings; to debate the pros and cons; to lay the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly on the table? 

Our stakeholders need to know when things aren't working well just as much as when things are.  Most of the time they just need to be afforded an opportunity to know.  After all, they are our partners in the enterprise of our nonprofits.

Images from the Chautauqua Institution Flickr stream