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Showing posts from 2012

Public History in New York: My Take on What's Facing Us Now

As a presenter at the recent  Conversations In the Disciplines:  The Present and Future of Public History in New York State , a convening of public historians and students sponsored by the History Department at SUNY Albany, I had the opportunity to consider some of the broad issues facing history museums and historical societies in our state.  Some of my comments seemed to hit a nerve with the audience, so I thought I'd share them here with the hope that you'll want to weigh in. I'm just back from a very brief visit and presentation at the Seminar for Historical Administration, a 3-week immersion for history museum leaders co-sponsored by the American Association for State and Local History, Colonial Williamsburg, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and others.  Institutions as large as The Henry Ford and as small as the local history museum in Wasilla, Alaska, participated in the seminar this year.  It was clear that by the time I was schedule

The Creative Power of Five

FOR MORE THAN A YEAR I'VE BEEN COLLABORATING WITH FOUR COLLEAGUES, each of us an independent consultant in the cultural/NGO sector, all of us looking to hone the business end of our work.  We've SWOT'd and career planned together, mapped and graphed our work, and brainstormed solutions to each other's challenges.  We're branching out now with a workshop program encouraging others to take a similar career evaluation journey.  (Our next one is coming up in Burlington, VT next week!) We've also produced a pithy little newsletter together, called "Take 5".  It's our intent is to bring readers bite-sized ideas to get your creative professional juices flowing.  Our inaugural issue suggested readers think about planning execution before launching into planning, explore a trend called ' flawsomeness ', try an activity to think differently about your audience, and most presciently, get your organization's (or your own) disaster planning in o

The Courage Factor

IN PREPARATION FOR A NEW BOOK on history museum leadership that I am co-writing with my colleague Joan Baldwin, we are knee-deep in interviewing leaders across the country.  Our leaders not only head organizations, some of them lead departments (or are departments of one) and others are exerting leadership in other capacities at their museums.  Their ages range from the mid-twenties to the mid-sixties -- newly minted to veteran  museum professionals.   Joan's discovered in some of her interviews that a key element of leadership is courage.  I was fascinated because it hadn't bubbled up in my interviews, at least not in so many words.   So, I decided to ask about it in my next interview. My interviewee agreed.  It first takes courage to decide to be the leader of an institution; to trust in one's abilities to lead others; to articulate a vision even when it might be tough to imagine a future.  It also takes courage to make decisions that have the potential for far-re

Strategic Execution

I'M GOING TO CHANGE MY APPROACH TO CLIENTS who come to me for strategic planning services.  Instead of me assuming that the process of building a plan is the most important part of planning (and of utmost importance to the client), I'm going to start by questioning the organization's ability and commitment to executing the plan once it's finally adopted.  My experience has been -- and I know this goes for other planning consultants, too -- the wheels fall off the plan when the organization actually has to implement what it says it wants to do.  Even when we spend hours creating detailed work plans it never ceases to amaze me that they are poorly used or not used at all. It's often not for lack of desire that organizations fail to follow through on implementation.  How many of you have heard or said, "We think this is important, but...." followed by the list of what stands in the way of execution.  Top responses:  no time, no money, no interest; stuff c

The Marathon that is Board Service

OKAY, I'VE BEEN OVERTAKEN BY THE 2012 OLYMPICS, hence the title for this post.  As I watched the men's marathon today I couldn't help draw some parallels between the long race and my own relatively new service on a nonprofit board.  People who know me know that I'd have trouble running up and down my driveway, but this comparison helps me grasp what I've been feeling lately about living up to my board's expectations even when it was hard for me to do so. Respect:  The first parallel has to do with why any one of us decides to join a board.   Jason Karp writes about marathoning, " Tackling 26.2 miles is a long way to run. Respect the distance and prepare for it. Confidence comes from being prepared."  Most  of us take on board work because we believe we bring some talent to the table -- we have a passion for the cause, our knowledge and skills complement and strengthen those offered by others, and/or we provide access to needed networks and funds.

Board Wants vs. Organization Needs

DOES YOUR BOARD HAVE THE TENDENCY to  solve the problems it wants to deal with, rather than the ones that exist?   This question, written as a statement in Ben Davis' recent coverage of the LA Museum of Contemporary Art's flight of board members in the wake of staff change, accusations of the dumbing down of exhibitions, and financial tightrope walking, has haunted me since reading it. Haunted me because I think that many boards (not just high-powered ones) pay far greater attention to symptoms than root problems, precisely because they're not as messy or as intellectually challenging.  And if you've got a board that minds the clock, root problems can rarely be tackled sufficiently in the space of a one or two-hour board meeting without considerable pre-meeting work. If you've got a board chair who's fond of advancing personal interpretations of your organization's mission or has the boardroom equivalent of attention deficit syndrome, then it's ev

Emergency or Poor Planning?

I'M A NEW BOARD MEMBER.  I figured after all these years of working with and for boards, and writing about them, too, it might be useful to experience nonprofit life from the other side of the table.  In five short months, the pressures of the duties of care, loyalty and obedience have firmly taken hold.    At a recent board meeting, staff members presented two unbudgeted funding requests for approval.  Both were completely out-of-the-blue, so far as I could tell -- at least I wasn't aware of them.  Just minutes earlier, the board had reviewed and approved the year-to-date operating statement, which already contains an vague amount "to be raised" to cover capital projects beyond normal maintenance.  Acknowledging that these proposals were outside of the approved budget, the staff pressed their cases for the urgency of the two expenditures. Many board members -- myself included -- sat in disbelief that they were being asked to find $50K out of very thin financ

Visioning Your Work

THIS WEEK, THREE COLLEAGUES AND I HAD THE CHANCE TO PRESENT a session at the NYS Museums in Conversation Conference about how we are working together to shape the next steps in our careers.  We began by explaining how the four of us came together: we and one other were actually brought together by one person because 1) she knew that all of us are at career crossroads of one sort or another; 2) when she asked, none of us admitted to having a personal/career strategic plan (yet we're all rabid proponents of organizational planning!); and 3) we all knew one another to varying degrees and she thought we'd make a good group.  We've dubbed our group The Gang of Five.   Since last summer, each member of "The Gang" has reflected on his/her career path and shared those thoughts with the others.  We spent time doing SWOTs on each other (very productive) and we've questioned each others' motives and decisions, offered advice and solutions, commiserated and s

Authentic Strategic Planning

DESPITE TONS OF READILY AVAILABLE ADVICE ABOUT THE WHYS AND HOWS OF STRATEGIC PLANNING, many organizations still engage in planning because someone else told them to do it.  That someone could be a funder, a consultant, a staff leader, a program partner, a board member -- anyone, really, who has the audacity or ignorance to say "money/audience/visibility will come if you have a plan".    Fact is, many of these folks don't particularly care if the plan functions or not, just so long as there's a piece of paper or swell looking PowerPoint to show for it.  The bottom line is if planning doesn't well up from some deep, shared core organizational values, it will be a hollow effort that will ultimately be tossed aside for someone else's shiny, new imperative.  (Did you just hear the thud of the last plan hit the bottom of the trash can?  Or, as the illustration above suggests, it miraculously tumbles like a house of cards, never to be seen again.) The lac

The Powerful Force of a Big Idea

NOBODY CREATED A NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION FROM A SMALL IDEA, PERIOD.  Just think about it:  what museum, artists' cooperative, hospital, school or community garden didn't begin with someone saying "what if?"....and then taking action.  Founders dream dreams and work tirelessly to make them reality.  Those of us who come after founders have dreams, too.  We work tirelessly to take our organizations to the next level by continually trying to raise the impact bar. Big ideas are critical fuel for the nonprofit engine.  They ignite imaginations, attract people (both as workers and as audiences), connect otherwise free-floating dots, and when they fully advance mission impact, they open pocketbooks.  Yet, why is it that many organizations continue to focus on the narrow, the small bore, their finite piece of nonprofit real estate?  Why do so many organizations continue to silo their staff and volunteers, thus removing the spontaneous opportunities for cross-pollination

How's Your Leadership Cred These Days?

The Great Recession is dragging into year four and there's no question it has left most nonprofits staggering as they try to find some equilibrium under the weight of constricted philanthropy, slashed government funding, and the high stakes competition of foundation and corporate support.  Some institutions are finding gold in big name programs or capital projects, while many struggle to manage the spiraling costs of their "if we build it, they will come" aftermaths. Event attendance remains predictably unpredictable.   Yet, core audiences in need of programs and services grow.  While the flurry of staff restructuring (read layoffs and furloughs) may now be subsiding, the reality for many (most) nonprofits is that who ever is left is trying to do a lot more with a whole lot less. So that brings me to the point of today's post:  as the staff or board leader of your nonprofit, how has your credibility held up in the eyes of your staff, volunteers and stakeholders

Organizational Change: The First 90 Days

THERE'S A DISCUSSION GOING ON OVER AT the Strategic Planning for Nonprofits group on LinkedIn about leadership and change management.  So far, the topic is pretty broad and most of the posters are encouraging ways to focus it.  Until now.  One poster, a military officer, weighed in saying that the first 90 days is the most critical for new leadership to make change.  If you let the opportunity go by the boards, you're stuck with what you've inherited.  He writes: The First 90 Days are critical and in most cases can make or break a true leader in the end. The First 90 Days of assuming a leadership position are the times that you are going to affect any real change in the organization, otherwise you have got what you got for the rest of your term.   -- Corey Brown You may be familiar with the "honeymoon" period of a new job.  It could last 6 weeks, 6 months, or a year.  It's the time period when an organization is most forgiving of its new leader. 

A Career Full of Happy Accidents

WHAT'S BEEN THE ROLE OF SERENDIPITY IN YOUR CAREER PATH?  I'm knee-deep in trying to map out new segments of my own career path and, because of that, I was recently asked to write about personal career planning.  So I did what any author who's looking for some inspiration would do -- I reached out to the cultural nonprofit community via LinkedIn for some input.  And here's where serendipity comes in. The second response to my question was about the importance of serendipity -- those accidental opportunities -- to the enrichment of a career. "Too much planning can limit your options," wrote the responder.  Happy accidents can't be planned and that's the point.  I, too, have been the beneficiary of serendipitous career moves that, looking back on them, were completely unknown to me at the time, but in hindsight emerge as important turning points to my career development.  I certainly didn't plan them to be what they ultimately became. Inte