08 4 / 2014

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(stock photo people looking bored in a meeting)

I’ve been thinking a lot about nonprofit board structure lately. It’s not something we talk about much in the field—other than to complain about boards who don’t do enough, or overreach, or don’t understand their responsibility. And then we observe with outrage (or schadenfreude) when something goes horribly wrong at an organization: “Where WAS the board, what were they thinking?!” or “Who do they think they are?! They clearly don’t understand the mission.”

This week the New York Times published this piece by Paul Sullivan: Before Joining A Board, Size up the Job and the Mission. It has some valuable advice for prospective board members but it also makes a lot of assumptions about who board members are and should be (even just by its placement in the ‘Wealth’ section.) And then this quote:

“‘For every nonprofit, the No. 1 task at hand is having access to funding,’ he said. ‘No. 2 is you have to make sure that as board members you are good stewards of that institution.’”

This made me feel very, very sad. No wonder we have problems in the sector when we think that fundraising is MORE important than being a good steward of the institution. When it comes to boards, we seem to take a lot of things for granted—the size of our board, their role, their terms, who is and isn’t a good board candidate. There are a lot of assumptions masquerading as best practices. I think that board structure is ripe for innovation and reinvention. The truth is, in the realm of organizational change, adaptation, and mission fulfillment the board of directors is one of the most important levers we have. Here are some assumptions about boards that I am particularly bored by:

Bored Assumption #1: Who Makes a Good Board Candidate

Especially when you compare it to changing staff composition, changing your board members is actually relatively easy (please tell me you have term limits.) I’ll be blunt here: if you’re not thinking about how your board represents your community then you’re not building a relevant organization. When we are looking for new board candidates at Springboard there are two criteria:

  1. do you love and understand the mission deeply?
  2. will you energetically represent the organization to your community and your community to the organization?

By making those the only criteria, it means we are intentionally rejecting other criteria including wealth, power, and board experience. It’s not that we haven’t had some board members who are experienced or powerful, but it’s not why we picked them. It also means we are inviting and expecting board members to change the organization with their ideas, their perspectives and their questions.

Bored Assumption #2: What the Board is Supposed to do

The assumption that a board’s primary responsibility should be fundraising is such a given in the nonprofit world that we rarely question it. And we should. I’m not saying that you can’t have a good, engaged, relevant board that also helps with fundraising, but you’re likely going to be more successful on both counts if you are intentional and thoughtful about aligning your requirements for board service with your mission, values and culture.

So what does a board have to do? If you’re interested in more in depth resources about the legal requirements, MN Council of Nonprofits and Guidestar both have good resources. But the upshot is that fundraising is not a legal requirement: being steward of the financial health of the organization is.

What if we thought about building boards that deeply contribute to the fulfillment of the organization’s mission? What if we built boards that understood the guiding principles and values deeply so that they could ask energetic, hard questions that make the work stronger? What if we built boards that made our work more relevant, more useful, more engaged with the community around us? Suddenly I’m not as bored.

23 2 / 2014

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Q: Describe your organization’s outreach strategy

A: We’re going to do an information session(s) about our programs so we can better serve XYZ community.

We’ve all read that answer to that question a thousand times and most of us have probably written it, I know I have.

It makes a kind of logical sense—we really want to serve more people, we really believe in our work, therefore, we should tell more people about our great work so they can have the benefit of our product or services.

But, we’ve made a lot of assumptions already: That the problem is lack of information—if only XYZ community knew about us, they’d want/need/use our product or service. That XYZ community doesn’t have a similar or better product or service already. That people will come to an info session. That we know enough about the XYZ community to find the right people or make our service relevant.

And so “outreach” has become just another in a long line of words that we’ve ruined with our good intentions and bad actions…a word like “service” that puts us in the position of power and resource and doesn’t really do much to make authentic, reciprocal change. And most info sessions are a waste of everyone’s time—sad rooms with small attendance and stale cookies that net very little impact for the organization or the community.

And yet I believe that we need to share and decentralize our resources and I believe there is a need to collaborate across sectors, geographies and cultures to strengthen our work.

So how to recalibrate, rethink, change our perspective and approach?

What if we change the definition of an info session to mean that you are going to spend time with XYZ community learning, listening and gathering information about the assets, opportunities, needs, challenges, hopes and dreams of that community? Information from the community before information thrust upon the community.

What if we made a rule that you have to at the very least spend one night or have a good meal with a community before you could do an info session? Or make a rule that you never do an info session on your first visit to a place? And if you can’t commit to that, then it’s probably time to question whether you really want to work with that community in the first place.

And what if we when we say “outreach” we actually meant just that—to reach out, to stretch with all our might, to open our arms wide, to offer ourselves humbly and honestly in the hopes that we might be useful, but without the assumption that we already are?

We have to start somewhere. Because we know that as we reach out we are completely dependent on someone reaching back to keep us from falling.

21 1 / 2014

update: I also wrote about this experience for The Huffington Post: you can read it here

Recently I was honored to participate in the Aspen Challenge

"Launched by the Aspen Institute and the Bezos Family Foundation, and inspired by the Bezos Scholars Program, participants are empowered to use their imagination, enthusiasm, competitive spirit and sense of global citizenship."

As a part of the Challenge I got to go to Denver and issue a challenge to a group of high school students from the Denver Public Schools (along with several other fantastic people) I was a little nervous about it - I wasn’t sure if high schools students would connect with my work or if an arts-challenge would stand up to all the other compelling issues that were presented. But I came away from the challenge inspired and excited about the future of the arts. And with a deep sense that we should make sure we’re not getting in the way of these bright passionate minds as they take the reins. Here’s a video of my talk, but if you want to be reassured about the future of the arts (or the future in general) just skip ahead to the 17:00 mark and see the great questions these young people had for me:

08 1 / 2014

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There are abundance people and scarcity people. And there are organizations that have abundance cultures and organizations that have scarcity cultures.  I really believe that organizations and people that operate from a place of abundance are happier, more satisfied and more effective. It can feel paradoxical–the more you give, the more you get back. Not in a magical thinking kind of way, but people and organizations who are generous with their time, resources and connections build more social capital and bigger networks, which then results in more time, resources and connections for them. I know this is true in my own work, if there is one thing that I think has contributed most to the success of Springboard in the last 8 years, it is a culture of abundance.

That culture isn’t an accident–collectively we work hard to create and maintain that culture. No one can operate from the abundance place all the time: we all get scared, jealous, protective, competitive and tired. Abundance is a learned behavior–a practice and habit that becomes self-perpetuating over time (and unfortunately, scarcity is also a self-perpetuating habit.) I’m grateful to have many great people and lessons that shape the organizational culture we practice and aspire to have. Here are some of the practices that help me make abundance habitual:

Buy the air conditioner: About 3 months into my tenure at Springboard, things were not going well from a financial perspective. Our very small budget was stretched very thin and our cash flow was…well there wasn’t a lot of flow. My paycheck sometimes sat in a drawer for a while before I could deposit it.  It was also a very, very hot summer. Our office had a single window-unit air conditioner and it was dying a painful death. I was having lunch with our board president and relaying to her how things were going and added, “oh, and it’s really, really hot in the office because the air conditioner is dying”.  Without hesitating she said, “Laura! Buy an air conditioner!” And so I did. I didn’t know exactly where that $200 was going to come from budget-wise, or what it would mean in the long-term, but I realized there wouldn’t be any long term if we didn’t take care of some of the short-term needs, like the need for the staff to not melt into puddles at their desks. And you know what? It worked out. Now that we are an organization with a luxurious 6 window-unit air conditioners, I may not have to worry about cash flow in the same way, but I still use that lesson: investing in the health, safety and satisfaction of the people who make the work is never the wrong decision.

Pick up the check: When you go to coffee or lunch with a colleague, just pay the bill. Social interactions are so much easier when you’re not spending time dividing the check. Your organization can afford the $4.00 mocha, I promise. You can let a community group use your copier without charging them or tracking how many copies they make. Small generosities are an easy way to practice abundance and they really create the foundation of a culture that feels flexible and trusting. I’m all for being a careful steward of resources and rigorous tracking and accounting, but please, I’m begging you, don’t conflate those things with policies and bureaucracies that inhibit your ability to trust yourself or your colleagues to use good judgment. Investing in relationships is part of your mission and should be a program expense.

Employ the reckless yes: I can’t remember who said this phrase at Springboard first, or where it came from. But I love it and now use it frequently. Sometimes, just say yes and see what happens. Say yes, because it’s easier, or say yes because it seems like the right thing to do, or say yes because it might pay off later, say yes because you can. Obviously, we can’t say yes to everything, but sometimes a collaborator approaches you and asks you to work on an exciting project with them and you just say yes. You have no idea how you’re going to pay for the work or where you’re going to find the people to do the work, but you know the work is important and so you say yes.

Trust your gut: So much of this is about developing your own barometer for when to buy the air conditioner, or pick up the check or commit to a big, bold reckless yes. Pay attention to your intuition about people and opportunities. You know when a partnership is going to feed your work and when it’s going to suck you dry. Pay attention to what feels right. I know that when someone calls Springboard and is super excited about a program we’ve created and wants to adapt that program for their own community it feels right (and much more fun!) to just give them anything I can to help them. And it feels wrong to hold up that exciting, momentum building conversation with a talk about what they should pay me for my information.

I still fail at being generous all the time. Sometimes that well-meaning informational interview just feels like too much to give in a busy week. So sometimes abundance has to be mean grace and forgiveness for ourselves—the recognition that we’re never going to achieve perfect generosity nirvana…that we will always make some decisions based on fear or fatigue. The trick, I think, is to find a spot on the abundance end of the continuum and then work at pushing ever further in that direction.

Let’s have coffee soon, ok? I’m buying.

03 1 / 2014

Here’s my recent talk at the ArtsFwd National Innovation Summit:

Artist/Community/Reciprocity: Helping Communities Ask More From and For Their Artists

13 11 / 2013

In Minnesota we are lucky to have an organization called GiveMN that supports year round giving to Minnesota’s non-profits and also pretty much started the Day of Giving trend. Here are the reasons I love, love, love them:

1. It makes MN’s awesome generosity and spirit of collaboration visible.
2. It makes me feel like together we can support all kinds of amazing work happening in this state.
3. It is a simple elegant tool that has made it possible for small organizations like Springboard for the Arts to accept online donations in an easy, user-friendly way all year long.
4. It has made it possible for the 200+ fantastic projects in Springboard’s Incubator program to have their own giving page and own their message, build their support base. You can check them out here
5. When people support those 200 fantastic projects all on the same day it amounts to this amazing collective action that makes me so optimistic about people’s desire to support independent artists. Last year they raised over $100,000 from over 1,000 people in one day!
6. I love seeing people get silly, get earnest, get creative about the causes they believe in.
7. Dana Nelson is going to swim with sharks and school principals.
8. The school pages! No more selling wrapping paper and weird frozen cookie dough!
9. At tax time all I have to do is get my giving report from my profile and it has all the info I need right there…also looking at all my giving in one place makes me feel good about MN all over again.
10. It’s a super fun day to eat lots of donuts and make weird videos and injure your finger from constantly refreshing your page!

18 9 / 2013

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It’s 4:00am. I am awake. I can’t sleep. I am thinking about arts organizations. I am trying to be optimistic. I am failing. I am mad that I am awake thinking about arts organizations.

I try to put my mind back at the Dinner-vention, a convening I had the honor of participating in a few weeks ago. A group of us came together at the invitation of Barry Hessenius and Shannon Daut to try to address the question:

What would a new movement around the arts look like?

I love this question. I love its assumption that the way forward is about organizing and movement building. We got to have this conversation in the beautiful and inspirational setting of Djerassi Artist Retreat – a setting that invites metaphor about ecosystem and forests and creative foment.

We ended the conversation with a discussion about where we are all seeing inspiration from artists and projects that are working. I felt optimistic, I felt like everything is going to be fine, that there are energetic, creative people working on amazing projects that connect people deeply to our common humanity, that challenge our assumptions and give people safe haven for expression. We’re fine. Art and culture are not in trouble. Some of our delivery systems are. That’s how I started my briefing paper and at Djerassi I knew that to be true. I knew that, like the seedlings in the forest, creativity is all around us, growing, taking root, stretching for the sun.

And now back at home I feel frustrated. I still believe the seedlings of this movement are there, I still believe they are reaching for the light. But there are some big trees blocking the sun, using a lot of resources, inhibiting growth.

There are big organizations that are not relevant, not fulfilling the public trust, not serving their purpose. And they are using a lot of resources…money, yes, but even more than money, they are the organizations that people think of when we say “art” and that’s what bothers me the most. The Minnesota Orchestra has spent over 13 million dollars in the last year and produced no concerts. The Ordway Center has chosen to produce Miss Saigon for the third time, knowing that it would hurt and provoke our community. These are the organizations that represent us in the public’s mind, if we are lucky enough to be in the public’s mind at all.

I know that these two situations are surely more complicated than I understand. And I am reminded that at the Dinner-vention, Clayton Lord wisely reminded us that it is an easy trap to blame the big institutions for our problems, and indeed it is easy to sit on the sidelines and lob spitballs at the big guys.  But in these two examples I simply cannot reconcile the practical and metaphoric implication of their actions with organizations that are interested in a new movement around the arts.

So, I’m laying awake trying to find the levers of change.

Leadership.

At the Dinner-vention Devon Smith boldly called for “death panels” for organizations that are no longer relevant. This is an appealing thought experiment, but pretty quickly we arrive at the “who would be the decider?” question, which is impossible to resolve. Additionally, I know first hand that reinvention is possible, that organizations can identify their crises, not just as financial crises, but as crises of relevance. You can find your way back to the core of the mission. And if you use existing infrastructure, you can start delivering something of value to your community much more quickly, without reinventing wheels, with much less waste in the system.

We should be particularly wary of talk of a crisis when it is emanating from flailing leaders who wish to distract attention from their mistakes.Alex Ross, music critic at the New Yorker

Reinvention takes leadership. In talking with Nina Simon about her experience of leading an existing organization back to relevance and vitality and comparing it to my own experience, one common thread I see is that at the moment of organizational crisis there was a board, or at least some board members, who were able to see the challenge clearly. To go beyond the challenge of the finances and to see that reinvention was necessary and possible.  To seek out the leader who could not just raise some new money, but who can lead the organization back to its purpose.

Money.

I hate talking about money. I feel like all too often it’s a scapegoat for other problems. I hate it when we give up our agency to funders. And even at the Dinner-vention, several sentences began with “Well, first we need funders to…” But I can’t ignore that money is a powerful lever. And if an organization isn’t fulfilling its mission and creating public value, and it isn’t doing the soul searching necessary to change, then money is one way (and sometimes the only way) to force change. And, frankly, barring a financial incentive or disincentive there are many organizations that have no desire to change. I’m tired of waiting for organizations to see what is in their long-term self interest (meaningful connection to their community, awareness of their context, authentic engagement of diverse demographies) and have to accept that change may only happen when we force it to be in their short-term self interest.

For the most part, I think the market works pretty well at this for small and mid-sized organizations, certainly for my own organization there were funders who pushed us to the hard questions. Who said (in a loving and supportive way—this is Minnesota after all) “this is your last chance.” Not exactly a death panel, but a change panel. And at a small organization, it really only takes one foundation or donor to press that change. At larger organizations, this doesn’t really happen, or if it does there are enough other funding streams that it is easier to ignore. So if we want our large institutions to change, it will take coordination and it will take guts. The guts to not just convene another community conversation on diversity but to make our dollars contingent on an organization’s responsiveness to the community around them.

Artists.

At the Dinner-vention, Marc Bamuthi Joseph asked us “Should all arts organizations be run by artists?” To that I say simply, yes. Or at least we should try. More artists should lead organizations, more organizational leaders should consider their work art.

“we have to stop training artists and arts leaders in isolation”  

-Deborah Cullinen, executive director Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

We need to embrace the creative process to build creative organizations; the iteration, the rapid learning from failure, the never-finished, never-satisfied nature of art creation needs to be a part of how we build the movement and the mechanisms that deliver the art. So, please, let’s stop training administrators and start training builders, makers, challengers and dreamers.

And artists? Let’s step up. I know you’re tired. I know it sounds nice to just “focus on the art” but the conditions for artists aren’t going to improve until we start leading. All of the most creative and vital organizations I know are run by artists – they may not all feel the permission to identify themselves as artists (that’s a rant for another day) but they all possess the creativity, the capacity for thinking differently, the zeal for collaboration and the just-try-it-and-see-what-happens attitude of an artist.

Just do.

I would love for all organizations to have access to visionary leadership, financial incentives and creative infusion at the same time. I wish there was a magical solution that moved the sector forward all together all at once. But that’s not how the forest works.

Coast redwoods can reproduce by sprouting from the root crown, stump, or even fallen branches; if a tree falls over, it will regenerate a row of new trees along the trunk, so many trees naturally grow in a straight line. Sprouts originate from dormant or adventitious buds at or under the surface of the bark. The dormant sprouts are stimulated when the main adult stem gets damaged or starts to die. Many sprouts spontaneously erupt and develop around the circumference of the tree trunk. Within a short period after sprouting, each sprout will develop its own root system, with the dominant sprouts forming a ring of trees around the parent root crown or stump. This ring of trees is called a “fairy ring”.  – Wikipedia on Sequoia sempervirens or California Redwood

Ecosystems are always in flux, always changing, regenerating, dying, sprouting. There is so much comfort in that. All we can do is do the work. All I can do is make the work I am called to make, to try and fail and try again to embody the values I hope to see in the world.

The sun is coming up. I am calming down.

“We can build a movement for things that make us happy. And we can get people to go there too.”Margy Waller, senior fellow, Topos Partnership

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09 6 / 2013

-Athena Kildegaard, from her opening poem at the Rural Arts and Culture Summit

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In partnership with the Center for Small Towns, Springboard hosted the Rural Arts and Culture Summit last week. In my completely biased opinion, it was awesome.

There are great round-ups and posts proliferating all across the interwebs, which in itself, is a testament to the networks created and ideas that sprouted. To be honest, I’m still a little overwhelmed by all the amazing people I connected with and experiences I had and I don’t feel quite ready to distill them into pithy summations. Bluegrass jams. Poetry floating in the breeze. Stories of commitment and creativity. I think I’ll let them roll around for a bit. Maybe I’ll write some more when they settle.

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One thing I know is that I want to find more ways for these conversations about identity, investment and place to happen between urban and rural communities so that we might develop a deeper understanding of the many, many ways we share the same challenges and combine the creative and thoughtful strategies into an even more powerful force for change in the places we love.

My main job at the Summit was saying thank you. Thank you to the creators, collaborators, inspirers and leaders who made a magical 3 days possible. Thank you to some amazing funding partners (especially the McKnight Foundation, MN State Arts Board, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Forum of Regional Arts Councils) who invested in this creative exchange. Thank you to our gracious and fun hosts at the University of Minnesota, Morris. And, as I said in my opening remarks, thank you to Michele Anderson - a person who inspires me daily with her love of place, commitment to true collaboration and ability to get sh*t done.

The day after I got back, I stopped by my parents’ house and was gushing about the Summit, tripping over myself trying to fill them in on everything that happened. My dad said, “It sounds like you’re not too worried about the future of rural America.”

Nope, not a bit. 

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15 5 / 2013

We’re in the thick of end-of-the-school-year celebrations, recitals and performances at my house. It’s rare that I don’t get at least a little choked up during the curtain call of any performance, add kids and it’s pretty much guaranteed. When it’s my own kid? Well, I’m a goner.

As I found myself streaming tears after an elementary school performance of The Lorax last week—a performance where about 1 in 20 lines were audible and I had to peek through a forest of parents to catch a glimpse of my daughter’s arm—I realized that part of this emotional reaction is sentimental, and part of it’s parental, and part of it is the endorphin cloud and anxiety release that comes at the end of a show. But mostly it’s the clapping.

Arts education has myriad benefits. For me, one of the most important is that performing provides an opportunity for us to gather our children and applaud them. Every kid should have the experience of standing in front of a room of adults and hearing them clap. Growing up is filled with anxieties and challenges and it demands persistence and bravery. Curtain calls give us a chance to say: you’re doing great, keep going, this collective community of people have gathered in this room to celebrate you, your risks, your growth, your voice. Well done.

Take a bow, kiddo, we’re here for you.

(it’s a good photo, right? you’ve now seen about as much of The Lorax as I did.)

01 5 / 2013

the big picture: laura zabel on art’s new roles in the community

I always love when John Spayde writes about our work. He has a real depth of understanding and level of nuance that really resonates with me. In this nice feature on The Line, he manages to cut through my excited talking and hand waving and make sense of what I’m trying to say.

http://www.thelinemedia.com/features/laurazabel050113.aspx