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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.
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!
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.

Foxes in Wells

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My husband was reading Aesop's Fables to our daughter in the car the other day (on my iPhone; the juxtaposition of ancient and modern was brilliant). Fox in Well.jpgI'm familiar with the big ones - Tortoise and the Hare, Sour Grapes, etc. - but he read one that I hadn't heard or at least didn't remember. It went like this:

Once, due to an unfortunate mishap, a fox fell down a deep well that he was unable to climb out of. Eventually, a goat happened to walk by, looked down the well, and said, "Friend, what are you doing down there?"

The fox replied, "Haven't you heard? There's going to be a great drought and when it comes I will be here where there's water. You should come down, too."

So the goat jumped down the well. Immediately the fox sprang onto the goat's back, and by jumping off his long horns, managed to climb out of the well. "So long, friend," the fox said to the goat as he went on his way.

The moral is, never take advice from someone in difficulty.

Good point. Right now, the nonprofit sector and our economy in general is littered with foxes in wells: institutions led by smart people who somehow weren't paying attention and got into trouble. And before you start thinking I'm being sanctimonious, let me say that we've ALL done it. Perhaps we were hoping something else would happen; perhaps we were concentrating on other things when, bam, there we were at the bottom of a well. (I once fell into an open sewer grate in Chang Rai, Thailand, but that's another story.) The point is, there are a lot of institutions out there in difficulty. How do we view their advice?

The nonprofit sector likes to share success stories, but rarely if ever do we analyze case studies of what went wrong. I've been to many seminars and workshops in which people and institutions tout their smart new approaches, but I can't recall seeing the "a while later this is what really happened" follow up session. After all, the fox could probably have survived for quite a while, albeit thinly: he had access to water and there was probably a rat or two to eat once in awhile. But is that success? There are certainly cases where the people and institutions have received a bailout from a friendly but unwise goat, but did they learn from the experience? We ought to, at least.

So, my thought for the day is threefold: watch out for wells; don't jump in without an escape plan; and look at the whole situation before deciding to follow advice. 
... I learned in English 295. Seriously, you didn't think I was going to say kindergarten, did poser.jpgyou?

OK, true confessions time. I am an English major - and proud of it. (And when I say English major, I mean "English." I took my requisite two semesters of American lit but that was it. I wrote my thesis on the Romantic poets, can you believe it?) My alma mater was old school at the time: we were required to take Critical Theory in order to graduate, and we dreaded it. The professor who taught it was notoriously difficult and loved to hand out D's and C's as a matter of principle. It was a tough subject and I personally witnessed several students cry in class.

We all hated it and wished it would go away. Nearly twenty years later, I'm finding out that it was the most useful class I took in college (I can't really count the bartending certification and basic auto repair non-credit seminars, can I?). Why? Because, as it turns out, the class actually succeeded in doing what it was supposed to do, which was to teach me how to think - well, critically.

For one thing, it gave us a vocabulary of useful words that succinctly describe certain specific concepts, such as "metanarrative," "literary present," "dialectic," and others. I recently posted a comment on Reach Advisors' blog and casually threw out "verisimilitude," meaning the qualities that make something (in this case, a museum experience) seem real, and earned a wry response. I supposed that's to be expected. You see, critical theory went out of fashion decades ago; it was a bit of a coelacanth in my college career and disappeared from the core requirements not long after I graduated.

However, as I've begun paying attention to the swirls of discussion and debate surrounding the future of cultural institutions, museums in particular, I find myself occasionally wandering back in time to a stuffy second floor classroom in Maine and saying, "Oh - so that's what we were actually talking about." Critical theory provides tools and rules for comparing and contrasting rather nebulous things like ideas and stories. I'm discovering that these are useful in my current work.

For example, I just worked on a project in which a group of geographically proximate historical sites are looking to unify their interpretation of a particularly significant time period in the region's history. The answer: create a metanarrative. Somewhere, my former professor is - well, probably not smiling, but at least he's not going to hand me a D today.

Class, do you have any thoughts? I'd love to hear them.







critical thinking: Monthly Archives


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