Muse Vue 360
Who We AreWhat We DoClient ListBlogContact Us
Gentle readers, how the year flies. value_definition.jpg

I've just come off a forced "vacation," courtesy of a freak October nor'easter that dumped a foot of snow on my hometown, and took out 95% of the power. I'm a refugee from the 19th century, coming back into the 21st: four days and five nights without electricity, no land line, limited cell coverage, no email, no social media. Everyone is saying that these events "force us to evaluate our priorities," which sounds like a platitude, but the essence of the sentiment is correct. And the key is the "-valu-" in "evaluate."

In a marketplace where one can find, read, and buy anything, what matters anymore? I learned that keeping warm in sub-freezing temperatures, having light to see by, and bathing regularly do actually matter. I was willing to trade my time and money to have access to these niceties. So were my peers - my brother sent me camping supplies via the Internet in order to help me out, and I was thrilled. When you have most of a tree down in your back yard, a chainsaw is valuable. But it has to be the right chainsaw - the electric one in my garage was doing me no good as long as I was off the grid. In marketing speak, it had no value proposition

So here's the lesson for my nonprofit clients: Have an emergency plan (if you don't, get in touch with me, and we'll develop one together); and know what's valuable in very specific terms about what it is you have to offer your audiences/customers. It doesn't do any good for the staff and leaders of a nonprofit to "know in their hearts" that their organization and its work is valuable. The only thing that matters is whether your audiences/clients/customers instinctively understand your organization's value from their own personal experience. They have to have firsthand experience, a sort of "aha!" moment that will cement their relationship with your organization in their mind.

How can you create that "aha" moment? My suggestion is to constantly measure your organization's services against the marketplace, and look for ways to improve the connection between them and your supporters. The closer the connection, the more value is created. People will support (i.e. volunteer, contribute, pay for) their first priorities first. Logical, right? During the power outage my first priority was to stay warm. My second was to eat. My third was to have light. My last was to have a hot shower. Everything else kind of fell by the wayside.

Folks are stretched to the max right now. Money isn't plentiful, and demands are multiplying. You need to reach out and say, "We're here, we're valuable because..." and the appeal has to match a need in the supporter's life. 

Here's a litmus test: Is what we have to offer the best available? Is it useful? Does it meet a real need in the community(ities) we serve? Is it easy to understand? Is it affordable? Do people want it, or do we have to really fight to get people's support and attention?

Value. It's the only thing that matters right now, and honestly, I don't see that changing. This is the "new normal" everyone is talking about. Get used to it, and change if you need to.

I'm off to start up the chainsaw. Hope you all survived the storm okay! Peace.
So, I had a weird experience this morning: I was at a professional development talk, attended by dozens of people from the museum field. Thumbnail image for peeps.jpgI recognized many faces, and knew many people well, but hadn't seen them in awhile. Yet, when they came up to me, I found I had to work very hard to engage with them, to find something to say other than, "How are you doing? I'm okay; things have been busy." Not exactly inspiring conversation.

I've often said that consulting is a lonely job, but I was experiencing more than simple isolation. Instead, I realized that what I was lacking in common with these colleagues was a frame of reference, a shared subcontext born out of consistent interaction. As a consultant, I move in and out of groups all the time. My interaction with a particular non-profit may last several years, or only for the duration of a short-term project. While I'm working with that group, I'm part of their community. We have a shared context built on give-and-take interaction around some common goals. But that interaction may be limited; they may not want, need, or invite me into the circle of people who make key and/or long-term decisions. Thus I'm a temporary resident in the community, and that's okay. And through the clarity of a lonely lunch, I also realized I'd hit upon a malaise affecting many of the non-profit clients I work with: lack of community.

But wait, you say, we have members. We have visitors and clients. We have volunteers and a wonderful board. We come in contact with lots of people. Aren't they our community?

And the answer is, yes, they can be, but are they really?

In biological terms, a community is a group of living organisms sharing a populated environment. In a human context, we add the concept of a shared system of beliefs, a shared interest in common welfare, and/or a shared identity, preferences, and needs. Groups on Facebook, for example, are often termed "communities," but as my wise husband once said, "Sure, you've got 1,000 Facebook friends. How many of them will lend you money or help you move?"

A community is your peeps. Your friends. Your people. The ones who got your back, who will lend you money or help you move. It's more than geography; it's more than numbers; it's about love, the kind of binding affection for something or someone that ties people together and provides a foundation of experience and values that in turn become the platform on which new experiences and interactions are played out. Communities are maintained through constant interaction and sharing, scanning for dissonance, and reacting to it.

Because I am active in many roles in my life - mom, non-profit consultant, novelist, etc. - it's a challenge to maintain communities in all of them. And Facebook and the like aren't enough: many of the same people I found it difficult to talk to I keep tabs on via social media all the time. No, it's about real conversation, and doing things together.

So what's the lesson for the non-profit world? I'd apply my husband's litmus test: how many of your donors, clients, volunteers, board members, and other "communities" would lend you money or help you move? That's really what you want them to do, right? Donate and take time out of their own lives to do something at your organization's request? Who's your peeps? How well do you really know them? Do you know if they love you? Hint: loving you involves more than pressing "Like" on Facebook.

Yeah, I thought so. I have to work on maintaining my communities, too. I need to find more opportunities for face time, patient listening, joint experiences. I see my fellow novelists in my writing group on a weekly basis, so I know what's going on in their lives. It's natural to become absorbed in whatever and whomever is right in front of you. But neglecting the outliers means the "inner circle" grows smaller and tighter. Pretty soon you start to wonder who those people over there are, anyway. And then you find yourself wondering why they don't give the way they used to, or volunteer in the ways you want them to, or come to your events, or renew their memberships, or bring their friends.

Peeps got each other's back. Make a point of finding out in a sincere way what your communities want and need. Interact with caring. Show them the love. It's work, and the interacting will probably redirect your priorities, challenge your assumptions, and change your organization in a profound way. But it's work that you have to do, or you may find yourself eating your lunch alone.

So, peeps, tell me: what are you up to these days, anyway?
Happy holidays, gentle readers! I hope you've had a productive 2010, and wish you all the best in the new year.

To start the year off right, run, don't walk, and sign up for a Google account. Sure, you get free email, free chat, and many other things, but if you work for a history organization, the best thing you get is a Library and the Google eBookstore.

As you know I happen to write fiction, and have been following with some interest the turmoils of the publishing industry, which likes to blames its struggles on the emergence of epublishing, ereaders, ebooks, and every combination thereof. To be honest, I think the publishings powers that be simply have a business model that no longer works, regardless of the status of electronic publishing. Ebooks currently represent well less than 10% of the titles being sold, so clearly they aren't to blame for money troubles. And, until last week, I really couldn't see the advantages of ereaders over print. But in about 10 minutes, I changed my thinking, at least in the arena of historical research. How? I discovered the Google eBookstore.

Love it or hate it, Google is a huge market force that you need to be aware of. And Google has announced a really audacious goal of digitizing every book. That's right, every one. I realize that goal is a moving target, and I imagine Google does too, but dang, they have put a lot of power behind it. And with relatively little fanfare, they've rolled out the eBookstore, which I kind of knew about, but never visited until I stumbled there last week.

Here's the scenario: I am currently working on a project to create a series of "character cards," actual printed cards with a biographic profile on one side and an image on the other. I've spent most of a year tracking down portraits and representative images. Last week I went to the Connecticut State Library with my project director, who is an experienced historical researcher (great place, by the way; I highly recommend it). We found one portrait in a book, but I wanted a digital version, so later that day I looked for it online. 

To make a long story short, I wound up at the Google eBookstore. I've known about Google Book editions of historical texts for awhile, but I hadn't realized that Google had gathered them together in the eBookstore. That doesn't sound too amazing, does it? So, why am I trespassing on your valuable time to tell you about it?

Two words: "killer app." For those of you who regularly or occasionally need to search for a historical figure, a name, a family, a place, or pretty much anything, Google has digitized and key worded literally thousands of out-of-copyright historical texts and put them in the eBookstore for free. That's right, $0, zip, nada. And instead of downloading them, you can "purchase" the book and put it in your Library, where you will have access to it from anywhere, forever. That means you can't lose it if your hard drive crashes, or your office burns down, or if you forgot to bring it to a meeting. (This is called "cloud computing," by the way.)

In the course of ten minutes, while I was Google chatting with a friend, I "bought" more than two dozen titles, most of which are quite rare. The Jonathan Trumbull Papers. The Public Records of the State of Connecticut, 1636-1776. The Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, vol. 12, 1898. Family Letters of Samuel Blatchley Webb. Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, vol. 13, 1911. History of Montville, Connecticut, 1896. Letters of Life by Lydia Howard Sigourney, 1866. Even an article in The Auk, the magazine of the American Orinthological Union, written by my great-grandfather in 1887. And the list goes on....

What's even more remarkable is that each of these epubs in keyword-searchable. So, gone are the days of poring through these books looking for names, places, and dates. I can do it all in Adobe Acrobat in a matter of seconds.

The upshot is, I'm completely hooked. The Google eBookstore is like drugs for the history geek - one try, and you're an addict forever. I'm not sure what this means for the future of research libraries. I mean, I'm proud of my new Connecticut State Library research pass, but I'm not sure how often I'll use it, especially as Google marches forward in its goal to own the written word. I'm also not sure what this means for the future of specialized research training. I'm thinking there will always be a need for a few, highly trained experts, but the power has definitely shifted to the people.

Go check it out, and let me know what you think. I'm predicting you'll be like me - an instant addict. Happy new year!
Yes, it's been far too long, gentle reader. I know. It was a good summer, though. And now, despite the continued warm weather, it's definitely fall, and that means it's time to ponder the upcoming grant proposal season.calvin-essay-writing.gif

Most every September since 1991 I have been faced with fall deadlines. This is the last spurt before year-end giving, and also the beginning of the new year's agenda. So, inevitably, there are two or more proposals that have to go in by November 1 or thereabouts. (Really, I have been doing this for almost twenty years. I'm a lot older than I look.) Just last week, I submitted a request, and I've been thinking about how much has changed since I started writing grants. 

My very first grant, written when I was 22, was to the Institute of Museum Services (now called IMLS), requesting $150,000 for general operating support. Does any of you remember those grants? They were a nightmare. Twenty-five pages, single-spaced, quarter-inch margins, and you had to use a ruler to make sure your text would fit into the spaces provided for each question. I believe there were something like 20 questions, each of which had point rankings. The grants were supposed to be rewards for good performance, meaning strict adherence to "standards" established by AAM's Accreditation Commission, and were given out to the top point winners until the money ran out. Thus pretty much only the top 1% of museums nationwide ever received a GOS grant. We won't debate whether this was fair or appropriate; the grant program no longer exists in this form, and much has changed in the museum field since then. My point is, these grants were monsters.

I also recall a request to NEH's Preservation and Access Division that ended up being something like 30 pp of text plus more than 100 pp of appendices. Can you imagine? And each of those pages had to be consecutively numbered. Because the appendices were mostly photocopies of other documents, we had to number them by hand. (Quick, write "65" in Roman numerals!) We had to submit something like 20 copies. That's 2,600 pages, or over five reams of paper, which presumably perished in a landfill somewhere.

By contrast, last week I submitted a request in which I was asked to explain the nature of the request, the need, the timetable, and the intended outcomes in 2000 characters including spaces and punctuation. (For those keeping track at home, that's about 75-100 words, max.) The funder kept us all honest by using a PDF with a limited field - once you reached 2000 characters, you couldn't type any more. No tricks with margins or font size. Total paper count: 51.

I also submitted a request online, using a fill-in form. Some of these answers were limited to 20 characters or less, and the heart of the request was limited to three short paragraphs (probably 250 words). Total paper count: 12, and that was only because I always print a file copy. More and more, I'm finding these types of grant proposals are the norm, and the multi-page essays are fast disappearing. I've even had one where I had to summarize the request in 20 words or fewer.

What's changed since the last century? Is it that funders are simply busier, and don't have time to read? I suppose, but my secret belief (well, not so secret anymore!) is that they never read those monster grants, not completely. Maybe the staff did, but not the reviewers. In the case of the GOS grants, I'm certain that they skimmed the narrative, looking for key terms and statistics (relative humidity, number of linear feet, percent of collections on exhibit, percent of collections cataloged, etc.), ranked those, and otherwise relied on the reputation of the requesting institution. What else could they do?

Now, there are definitely those that descry the sea change. They struggle to craft a beautiful grant narrative, and feel disheartened when they can't possibly do justice to their request in 2000 characters (that grant was a challenge, believe me). I remember someone wailing to me, not that long ago, about a grant narrative being limited to seven pages: "Seven pages! I haven't even warmed up in seven pages!" (Seven pages single-spaced is roughly 5,000 words, by the way.) Or, they write too much, and try to edit down to fit, and feel unsatisfied with the result.

Remember what I said about flash fiction? It's extremely brief, 50-1000 words, and must contain all the elements of a complete story: a protagonist, a conflict, and a discernible plot that leads to an outcome or resolution. Every word advances the story; there is no need or space for "throwaways." These new grant proposals are essentially "flash exposition": an agency, faced with a need, is trying to benefit a certain audience or clientele in order to achieve some end. I've become a proponent of this approach. If I can't sum up the grant proposal in a single sentence, answering 1) who we are, 2) what we need, 3) for whom, and 4) what we plan to accomplish, I haven't thought through the request enough yet. And I'm incredibly thankful that I took a course at the local community college that covered flash fiction!

Is the novel gone as an art form? No. But I do feel that the 20-page grant proposal is a dinosaur. I'd encourage all the grant writers out there (and that's pretty much everyone these days, isn't it?) to embrace the new paradigm: rather than "start long, cut to short," start short, and stay short. I've gotten as much money from a three-sentence letter as I have from a multi-page proposal, on numerous occasions.

Is it hard? Damn straight. Is it different? Yes, it's exercising a different perspective on writing. Is it worth the effort? Definitely. I'm going to predict that we don't have a lot of choice here. I submit about 2-5 grants per month these days. The new paradigm is here to stay.

'Nuff said. Good luck, everybody!
You know by now that I am a geek, an English major, a technophile, and an increasingly passionate advocate for nonprofit social networking. I am an independent consultant; I'm also a mom. But what am I really, in the essence of my being? I'm a novelist.flashfiction1.jpg

I've actually written four novels, but the first three I don't choose to recall except perhaps in bad nightmares (no, you can't find them on the Web!). The fourth I'm quite proud of, and am currently pitching for publication. I've started on the sequel, too.

I recently took a class called, "Get Published: From Pen to Paper" that purported to teach me the mysterious ways of the publishing world and hopefully increase my chances of landing the elusive book deal. Part of the class was devoted to writing exercises, which are like other forms of exercise (read, "hard work"), and we avoid them just as much. I thought, "I write all the time, probably 1,000 words a day or more, so why should I need to exercise?"

At the same time, I was working on a project to reinterpret the Governor Jonathan Trumbull War Office in Lebanon, CT. It's a tiny museum with an enormously important story. The client wanted some kind of interpretive panels on the wall (more on that in another post) that provided a baseline story, but did not distract from the recreated interiors and reproduction artifacts (again, more on that later). Our original plan was three 38"x48" panels with 500 words each. By museum standards, that's not a lot of text.

But then I discovered flash fiction, the art and craft of telling a complete story (protagonist, conflict, and resolution) in 6-500 words. In class, we were working on the low end of that scale, 20-150 words. Dang, was that hard. I'm still not good at it - my novel is nearly 160,000 words - but over the course of the class I started to see an effect not just on my fiction but my professional writing as well.

Remember those exhibit panels? I reduced one of them by 90%. It went from three 80-word paragraphs to one paragraph of 60 words. Wow. The others slimmed down, too. I think we probably have a total of 600 words on the wall now, maybe less. With some great pictures, they look fabulous.

Here's the point: writing exhibit labels should be exactly like writing a short story. The emphasis should be on narrative, rather than fact, centered on a key individual or group of real people, with conflict and outcome. Too often we in the museum business try to "educate" or "inform" the visitor. Look, they're at our museums for fun! They want to be entertained and engaged; they want to know the people from the past in the same way they get to know a character in a story. Just like the fiction writer, we need to show, not tell.

Show, not tell.

See? It works. Come to the exhibit opening on June 12, 2010 and you can see for yourself!
So, how are you doing on your resolution to finally keep up with this social media thing?karma_police.jpg

I'm behind, of course, but the spring is always busy. However, I wanted to share a story with you that might convince you of the value of investing time in blogging. 

Let's face it: blogging is the most time-intensive form of Web 2.0/3.0 content generation there is. Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter are pretty quick. (That's part of the reason why I recommend Facebook if you do nothing else.) I've talked to professional P.R. and media consultants, and they all roll their eyes when it comes to finding the time to blog. Why? Despite the huge proliferation of word-based media, writing is still darned hard.

1. It takes uninterrupted time (who has that?)
2. You have to have something to say.
3. You have to make yourself do it, rather than anything else.

Now, I'm an English major, as you know. I've completed a 160,000 word novel, and have started on the second. I frequently write 10-pp grants in one or two days. So if I find blogging challenging, you can be it actually is. So ease up on yourself a bit about that.

Here's why you need to blog: A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a colleague with whom I worked on a project two jobs and seven years ago. I hear from him once or twice a year via LinkedIn, and that's about it. But he needed help with a major client, and came to me, saying, "I read your whole blog, and you're the person we need to talk with." I did, and we had a great conversation, and there may be some future collaborations.

Now, I didn't realize my colleague had been reading my blog, but clearly it was a major factor in why he approached me for the project. Interestingly, it wasn't the specific topical content of each of my entries that convinced him. It was more that he had insight into how I think and work. (Remember that point; we'll be coming back to it.)

So, let's deal with the three reasons we all have difficulty blogging.

1. Uninterrupted time. I get this one - I have small children, remember? Frequently I can't even get in the shower or use the bathroom without a visitor. Fortunately, there are physical solutions. Turn off the phone (OMG! OMG! OMG!). Or at least, put it on silent. That's why you have voicemail, after all. Don't answer your email - for half an hour. Shut the door if you have one.
2. Something to say. Another colleague of mine recently remarked, "Whenever I start a project, I have to remind myself that my first ideas aren't sh---y." I laughed, but I know what he means. It's very easy to think that one is called upon to come up with an idea as revolutionary as string theory or Keynesian economics, and to feel entirely unequal to the task. Truth is, there isn't a lot that's new under the sun anyway. Blogging is about being authentic, rather than authoritative. Remember my story above? I didn't get the call because my blog entries deserve to be recorded as part of the greats of Western literature. I got the call because they were enough to convince my colleague that I was smart and likeable. So take a little idea and run with it. That's enough.
3. Making yourself do it. This is hard if you're an avoidance person. But blogging is actually a lot of fun, when you loosen up and use your authentic (see above), real voice. I tend to blog without editing, other than a quick spell check and read-through to be sure I've caught typos and stupid errors. Schedule in the time if you have to. Just do it.

My larger point is that good blogging is basically giving out free advice to your clients and customers. If you come across an interesting article, have a great idea in the shower, or hear something in passing, chances are the people you work with and/or serve would like to know, too. The more you give out, the more likely you are to get back. Quality counts, too, but the first step is simply to do it. It's karma.

So get out there and have fun! Can't wait to hear from you.
OK, see, I get it! It's been a LONG time since my last entry. Why? I got busy, of course.

Let's tally up my excuses:
3 grants due November 15
1 grant due December 1
Totaled my car (oops)
Playing catch up in January
5 grants due in February (four done, one to go)

That's a pretty full list. Any of it sound familiar? We in the small shop have a lot to do, and of course we all still have family obligations as well. And yet, we KNOW perfectly well that we have to find the time to blog, to update our profile on Facebook, launch an email newsletter, and maybe even tweet.

So, now that we're well into the new year, let's make a resolution together: somehow, we are going to find the time to do this new media thing. Here are my thoughts on how those of us who are always trying to do a million things at once can manage. 

1. Set achievable goals. I started out thinking I would be able to blog weekly. You've seen how well that's worked for me! Instead, I am going to set a goal of monthly posts, with more frequent updates on Facebook. Instead of trying to find an hour a week, find ten minutes.

2. Schedule the time for new media, just as you would any other appointment or task. I'm starting to think that this stuff is as important, maybe more so, than some of the tasks that we've always considered essential. Yes, you still need to work on that grant, but maybe you don't need to do something else.

3. Pick what's going to work for you and your audiences. You don't have to do everything. If you're trying to decide where to start, I'd suggest a Facebook page for your nonprofit. It's free, and doesn't take much time to set up. Also, every page looks pretty much the same, so you don't have to worry about competing on design and "flash." Your board will be impressed, and you can decide where to do from there.

4. Do less with less. If you have scarce time and resources, you can't do more. You need to cut back. Sounds obvious, but somehow we've all fallen into this belief that somehow we can achieve more with the same resources. The U.S. government reports huge growth in corporate productivity in December 2009. That means that people in the workforce are being pushed about as hard as they can be. I'm sure you can relate. From the "non-essentials" list that you created from Part 1 of this post, pick one thing to drop. There's your 10 minutes to work on new media.

5. Find some part of new media that you enjoy, and make it a priority. This is one I have to remember myself! Somehow we always manage to find the time to do things that we enjoy, whether it's working with clients, talking with donors, checking our email, or watching TV. If you resent a task, you won't push to get it done.

I have some other thoughts, too, mostly having to do with mobile devices and the role that they will play in our work... but I'm saving that for next month. Really. I promise.
Okay, yes, it's been awhile since my last entry. What's my excuse? I've been busy, of course. And in thinking about that, it occurred to me many of you out there are in exactly the same position I am: you know you should be blogging, emailing, tweeting, etc. but you think, "Yeah right. Who's got the time? I'm already trying to do it all. How can I possibly add one more thing to my to-do list?"
Well, you do have a valid point. In my "other" (non-professional) life I'm a mom of two kids aged 4-1/2 and almost-2. Just getting them fed, dressed, and where they need to be everyday is an exercise in minute-by-minute time management. I know I'm not alone; we all have families of one kind or another and multiple demands on our time. Throw in a job and - whoa! It's crazy. 

In the case of many non-profits, there is only one paid staff person, or maybe only one full-time person, and he or she is often only (technically) part-time. What I've found as a consultant is that it's harder to manage part-time work than full-time work. (For those of you full-timers who are currently scoffing, I say: walk a mile in our moccasins sometime.) Look at it this way: we only get paid so much for a certain number of hours, but sometimes things take longer than expected (I call it "project creep"), and often there is no set schedule of when you are "on the clock" and when you aren't. It's hard to say to a board chairperson, "I'm sorry, it's Tuesday so I can't talk to you until tomorrow," or, "I'm sorry that the roof is leaking, but I've already gone through my hours this week," or, "Yes, that's a great funding opportunity but it's too bad the proposal is due on a Friday because I don't work Fridays."

So there you are, lonely non-profit staffer, incredibly well-intentioned but already hopelessly behind, and here I come along saying, "If you haven't jumped into new media to promote your non-profit you'd better do it quick or risk being left behind." And it's not just me: check out this issue of Guidestar's monthly email newsletter (you'll have to create a login but it's free). What do you do? Do you cover your ears and run into a corner (very tempting sometimes, I know)?

I wouldn't advise that option. First, take a deep breath. Ok, now let's talk. We're dealing with two givens here: on the one hand, you already have way too much to do; on the other, I'm telling you you've got to jump into this pool at some point. Impassable dilemma? I hope not.

It's true that you probably cannot add more to your workload. Whenever you're doing one thing you're not doing something else (probably many things, actually). So the answer to how you fit new media into your workload is simple, really: you have to give up doing something else.

"But but but" I can hear you (and your board?) stammer. "Everything we do is important and critical." Is it really? Now is a great time to look hard at what you are spending precious staff hours on, and to sort those things into boxes labeled, "Critical - we would close down without it," "Important to somebody," "We have no choice, we have to spend time on this because...." and "We've been doing this pretty much forever." Notice that I didn't ask you to evaluate the efficacy of the activities. We'll talk about that later.

Now, sort out the same list of activities, only this time label them by audience - who is benefiting? Clients/audience, board, staff (paid and volunteer), and whomever else.

Finally, sort the same list into two categories: those activities that directly support your non-profit's bottom line, and those that don't.

You'll end up with a small handful, maybe two or three things that emerge as absolutely non-negotiable top priorities. Are "communicating with donors, raising funds, and providing direct services to our clients" on that list? Probably. And these are all activities that new media can help you with.

What about the rest? Can you give up doing something, or do it in a simpler way, in order to allow yourself more time on the mission critical stuff?

All right, I feel your pain at this point. You go do what you need to do, and come back soon for Part 2 of this post.
2008-00619-doctor.jpgOkay, so I know I'm taking my life in my hands on this one, but I think it's time I say something about the issue of healthcare, since everyone else seems to be doing it too. Let me begin with the usual disclaimers: I'm no healthcare policy expert; I'm not trying to get tons of flame emails; yada, yada. But here goes.

When I was a non-profit executive director (yes, I was) the absolute WORST, bar none, part of my job was the annual negotiation of the health insurance package. Now, my agency actually had - woo hoo - six, count e'm, six employees paid to work 30 hours a week who could thus qualify to be on our plan. I know many, many non-profits who have far fewer than that. Our group, however, was so small that our rates were astronomically high. You see the law in the State of Connecticut essentially required any insurance company that wished to sell health insurance in CT to offer small group policies. Sounds good, right? Wrong! The giveback to the industry was that the small group rates were set by the Insurance Commissioner, and so there was no meaningful competition. Every year I would have our agent shop around, and every year the rates were within pennies of each other. And, the increases from year to year were huge: 22% one year, 15% the next, 20% the next, etc. My employees complained bitterly, especially since the agency could not afford to contribute much to the cost. The staff bore the full brunt, essentially. At one point, I had a staff member who was paying over $900/mo for a family plan WITH A $10,000 OUT OF POCKET DEDUCTIBLE. Her take home was around $400/mo after insurance. Her family basically had to pay $20,000 a year before anything was covered. And this was five years ago. Can you imagine what it would be now?

I've been listening a little to the healthcare debate, and rarely does this issue come up. People talk about employer-based insurance a lot, and they either don't realize or don't seem to care that many, many non-profit employees don't have ANY option from their employers, because the agency is too small and/or too poor to offer it. Many non-profits treat their staff as contractors for this reason. Giving tax breaks for offering health insurance doesn't apply to non-profits either.

So, whatever side of the debate you're on, just remember that there is a significant and very valuable component of our society out there - the non-profit workforce - that I suspect is very underserved by the health care system. Remember them, and let's see what we can do to help them.
So, many of you know that my career has mostly been spent working with arts and culture nonprofits, particularly museums and historical societies. Only recently (within that past six months) have I had more regular contact with human and social service nonprofits. At first, I was a bit hesitant to enter this arena; I thought it might be vastly different, and my 18+ years of experience would simply evaporate. To my relief I found that while there are differences, many, many of the same issues come up regardless of what type of nonprofit agency I'm dealing with. (Another consultant friend of mine says, "No matter how different a project seems when you start it, they all end up being the same project in the end.")06944X-mission-money_matrix.jpg

There is one notable exception however, and that is the area of grant proposals. To wit: I am currently working on a proposal for an historical society to request $2500. The narrative so far stands at eleven single-spaced pages, plus attachments, and the program officer is asking for more. It's taken me about 12 hours of consulting time so far, and will probably come to 15-20 hrs altogether. At the same time, I just finished a proposal for a social service agency requesting $5000; it was a three-page fill-in form plus attachments. It took about 8 hrs of consulting time all told. The first proposal will need six copies, and the second just two.

So what's the point? Simply this: the arts & culture field is too much in the habit of making long and torturous arguments in order to convey concepts such as objectives and impact. In the human and social service arena, things are more concrete, direct, and outcome-focused. Part of the reason is obvious: it's very hard to quantify the impact a museum program has on its participants, for example. We can't hold a yardstick to someone's head and determine that they are smarter going out than when they came in, whereas a soup kitchen can count the meals provided. However, I've learned that social service agencies don't necessarily quantify results either. Desired impacts can be much more nuanced than simply the numbers of people served, and focused on goals that apply to broader society. The difference is, these kinds of agencies are 1) more comfortable with the whole idea of describing impact, and 2) are quite good at expressing succinctly what it is they do, whom they do it for, and how it makes the world a better place. Apparently, the funders who are receptive to their requests know this, and construct their applications accordingly.

I think the human service agencies have a real competitive advantage in this respect, and I suggest that arts & culture organizations become much more comfortable with thinking of themselves as outcomes-driven. Really, it's not that bad. I guess the reluctance has been due to the fact that when one starts discussing the actual impact of the museum or historical society on its audiences and broader society, the question inevitably arises, "Are we actually making an impact at all?" I've been in board rooms when that question comes up, and everyone says, "Yes, of course," but then no one can articulate the impact. This is a major warning bell for the long-term survival of your institution. 

There are ways to pick apart that question in order to tease out the answer. They start with truly understanding what the organization's current market identity is, and what its unique competitive advantage is - what I call the essential difference. Have you thought about this? I'd love to hear from you.








Join Us on Facebook Follow Us on Twitter