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April 2009 Archives

I recently read a very good entry on the Museums 2.0 blog in phoenix.gifwhich the author discusses the pitfalls of achieving sustainability. Now, every nonprofit I that I'm working with has included sustainability in their list of goals to achieve. I'm sure yours probably has, too.

Why is this? Well, sustainability sounds virtuous in its own right. If we're "sustainable," the implication is that we don't have to cater to the whims of scrutinizing donors, or fall prey to the periodic undulations of the stock market index, or worry about fewer people buying our product. Sustainability hearkens a bit to the old Gilded Age mentality of "pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps," or in slightly more contemporary parlance, "making it on our own." Doesn't that just sound All-American, complete with flag and apple pie?

In the blog post I mentioned, the author says that museums too often mistake sustainability for success. It's somehow enough to limp along on an endless journey, rather than sprinting to a finish line. That which does not kill us makes us stronger, but it can also make us tired, bored, bitter, cranky, and resentful.

You see, I have this idea that perhaps we as nonprofit leaders are deep down slightly embarrassed or ashamed that our business models are fundamentally built on welfare. The handout. The free ride. Perhaps the constantly pleading for funds that every nonprofit is required to make is somehow, somewhere inwardly humiliating. After all, the (occasionally demonized) for-profit world is required to sell or die. Quite simple, really, and there's no pang of guilt when a better product comes along.

So we (the nonprofits) try to salve our own wounded pride by making sustainability a goal. After all, we like our jobs. We want them to last. We have families with expenses just like everyone else. And again, we really, really like our jobs. Of course, we want to be there for our communities too, doing important, needed things for the greater good. If we can just achieve the elusive "sustainability" benchmark, people will admire and respect us, and maybe  those pesky, inquisitive donors won't ask us so many questions about our programs.

But, is sustainability the same thing as success? I don't think it is. Success is achieving your mission in the best way possible. For many museums as well as many nonprofits, true "sustainability" is an unachievable goal, because it's a rare program offering that truly pays for itself. Most programs require periodic infusions of cash in the form of gifts and grants.

And that's ok. I'm here to say that donors, both organizational and individual, really want to help and feel that they're making a difference in the world. We as nonprofits exist as much to enable their philanthropy as to serve our customers. More effective than pursuing "sustainability," I think, is for museums and nonprofits to instead pursue entrepreneurism. In other words, seek the funding where you can get and for what you can get it, without qualms. Ask for the amount you need, and be prepared to explain what the outcomes and impact will be. Don't hesitate to shut down programs that are no longer performing up to expectations, even if they are long established or popular with certain constituencies - if they don't advance your vision for the organization, they're dragging you down rather than helping. And finally, be prepared to accept that your organization may have a life cycle that's drawing to a close. It can be hard to let go, but it's much better for something new and exciting to be born from the ashes than to hang onto something old and tired.

Thoughts, anyone? Let me know.

DIY or Not?

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Hello from a long hiatus of entries! My apologies for the gap; we were experiencing technical difficulties all around, meaning I've been sick and various computer-related issues have cropped up. But enough of that. Let's talk about your nonprofit.

A question that nonprofit organizations frequently ask, or ask themselves, is, "Do we really need to hire outside expertise for XYZ project? Can we do it ourselves faster, better, and more cheaply?"

That's a really great question - and the answer is, "It depends." (I wish I had a nickel for every time I've said that!") Basically, opting to DIY or not is matter of making choices. These can be simplified into the following series of questions:

Do you have a lot of time? If so, then you may wish to explore doing it yourself. If you're in a hurry, employing outside expertise may be the best way to maximize efficiency. Be aware, however, that the process of locating the right people to help you also takes time, and if you're right on deadline, doing it yourself may be your only option.

Do you have the needed skill set on staff (including your volunteer pool)? Here I mean the people who really know what they're doing, who have the necessary training and temperament for the job. If not, how difficult is it to bring the people you do have at your disposal up to speed? If you need technical or legal expertise that isn't on staff, stop here and go hire someone. The same is true with trade skills such as plumbing and electrical work. It doesn't pay to mess around with legal liability, health and safety issues, or other critical areas (such as technology) if you aren't really sure of what you're doing.

Do you have or can you find the financial resources needed to hire outside professionals? You may be surprised to find that this isn't the first question to ask. The reason is that your top goal should be getting the job done, rather than saving money. I'm assuming that this project, whatever it is, is strategic and important. If it's not, forget about it for now. Your resources of time, energy, and funding are too stretched already to be thinking of "wouldn't it be nice" projects. If you don't have the money on hand to hire someone, finding it may be easier than you think. Most funders understand the need bring in expertise, and you may have the makings of a great grant request here.

Are you willing to compromise on quality, redirect resources from other projects, buy needed tools, and/or put in extra effort to make the project happen in-house? The graphic above effectively illustrates the kinds of choices that you may have to make in order to be successful doing something yourself. If you need satisfactory but not outstanding results, by all means consider doing it yourself. Do you have staff that are underutilized? They may be very happy to learn new skills and take on new responsibilities. Do you simply need to buy some special software or other equipment that you will use regularly? These may be good investments in the long run. On the other hand, it's not smart to buy expensive tools that you're only going to use once.

Finally, could your project benefit from a second opinion? There's a reason why doctors aren't supposed to treat themselves or their family members. Being too close to something can limit your perspective and impair your judgement. Sometimes what your project really needs to be successful is an outside viewpoint, even more than a specialized skill set. It's near impossible, for example, for an executive director to successfully lead an organizational assessment. He or she is simply too wrapped up in daily concerns, occasional disagreements with the staff or board, and a personal agenda to be able to truly step back.

Now, I now what you're thinking - I'm the consultant, of course I'm going to say hire someone from the outside! In many cases, such as those I've outlined about, doing that is the best option. In others, DIY is the way to go and I will tell you so. My goal is to help you make the smartest decision given your individual circumstances. There is no "one" right choice,

Have you had experience with DIY consulting? I'd love to hear about it, and your fellow readers would too. Please share your story with us, and thanks!








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