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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.
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.
Or not. I haven't decided yet.Dorothy-Lime-Apron_8.jpg

Yesterday a catalog of children's clothing arrived in my mail. It was full of back-to-school buys and that was all expected, but what I was surprised by was how old-fashioned the clothes were. Jumpers. Cadigan sweaters. Knee socks. Mary Janes. Rugby shirts. Pleated skirts. In short, the whole thing looked like a maroon and navy Dick and Jane book.

Interesting, I said to myself. For some time, I've noticed society at large going kind of retro. In 2007-2008 it was like living through the 1970s again. I half expected macrame to make a comeback. Now, in 2009 it's feeling even older. I told you I've taken up sewing in a big way, and a trip to WalMart the other deal revealed that I'm not the only one. What are popular projects? Aprons, of all things, done up in faux 1940s print cottons with ruffles and tight waists. Just the right thing to can your own peaches in or make your own apple pie.

Let's cut to the chase: my thought is that we're trying to recapture some kind of sense of American identity that's associated with thrift, endurance, and focus. I don't believe that we're recreating the 1930s and 1940s in all their details, however - we're proud of the fact that we have an African American president, for example, something that would have been unimaginable then. And of course we're buying smart phones by the zillions and spending way too much time on Facebook. No, we're retooling old concepts in the form of aesthetics, I think.

Does this mean that history and heritage organizations have a new lease on life? Maybe, if they managed to tap into this zeitgeist I'm talking about, and somehow reinvent themselves as "retro" rather than simply old-fashioned. I think they ought to figure out how to attract the kids dressed in those jumpers and rugby shirts, and with them their parents. That's a tricky proposition, of course, and the danger is that this is a short-lived fad. However, I'm intrigued enough that I'm going to keep tabs on this phenomenon and will report back periodically.

If you have you're own thoughts, please let me know!
mission_components.gifToday I worked with a great group of board members of a lineal descendant society that owns a 300+-year-old farmstead. They called me in to help them refine their mission statement, feeling that it didn't accurately reflect who they actually are and what they want to achieve in the world.

Sure, I said. I can help. Mission development happens to be a favorite gig of mine. People are usually pretty positive and eager to be energized. It's great fun when I can help them pull together a few words and bam! all of a sudden they have a focus for the future.

For the past six months, people have been wondering if the current economic downturn is the same or different from anything we've seen in the past. In other words, is this a "business cycle dip" or the next Great Depression? I've told folks that I don't know the answer, only that these times we're in don't feel like anything I've been through in the nonprofit business, and I've been doing this since 1991. But I'm starting to have some glimmers of understanding.

First, mission is essential. We've always said that, right? But mission has come to mean more than just a clean, catchy mission statement. It means offering unique services of value to specific people who will be effected positively in specific ways. It means impact as well as outcomes. You've gotta answer the question, "And why should I care?"

Second, expansion is not the road to sustainability. There is a lot of overlap and duplication in the nonprofit community; this is not good, especially in a sector that doesn't like to talk about competition. If we try to expand and drive another group out of business, we may in fact succeed in killing ourselves as well. The name of the game now is focus, focus, focus.

Lastly, we have to figure out how to keep going effectively, not simply limping along with less. We have to be ready to cut loose whatever's dragging us down, and really, really, really be willing to accept change and roll with it. Darn, that's hard. But it can also be fun.

My group this morning went from a passive, safe, secure, and very private mission statement to one that "opens the door of the house," to quote one board member. Now they're free to walk outside and look around. While I was leaving they were actually cheering - not for me, but for all the hard work they had done, and about the prospect of a brighter future that they have control over.

I was so inspired that I knew I had to formulate our own mission statement, so here it is:

Musevue360 helps nonprofits think critically, plan effectively, and achieve lasting results.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
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!

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. 
A colleague and friend of mine is currently nursing a parent through what is canning.jpgprobably the final illness. As often happens in these situations, my friend has spent a lot of time talking with her parent about the past, about shared experiences, and what life was like for earlier generations of Americans. I was struck by the fact that my friend's parent liked to reminisce about life during the Great Depression - not to recount tales of horror and deprivation, but in a positive way. "People were just decent to each other then," this older person remembers.

Now, I don't believe that anyone longs to be hungry, impoverished, or anxious, but I can definitely see what my friend's parent means about decency. The past six months have seen the media shrilly panicked about The Global Financial Crisis, and I know many individuals and nonprofit organizations are really hurting. I myself am a statistic of the New Economy. However, I've gone from being panicked to realistic: we will all be making do with less. And I've also seen heartwarming instances of people helping each other out. Families are being brought closer; the stigma of joblessness is gone, and nonprofits are not somehow miraculous expected to buck all the major economic trends to turn in stellar financial performance under any circumstance. 

We're also rediscovering "lost" skills. Apparently there is great new interest in things like canning, knitting, and do-it-yourself repairs. I've even taken up sewing, and if you know me you'll know that that's a major accomplishment. It's a very old adage that necessity is the mother of invention, but I'm seeing organizations thinking more creatively about sustainability and yes, survival than they have in years.

What is your nonprofit doing these days? How are you reacting to the New Economy? Are you feeling positive or discouraged? I'd love to hear from you.

At a crossroads

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I was at a meeting recently discussing various heritage organizations and where they were in their institutional lifecycle. Each had issues that were impeding progress, almost all of them involving governance and/or leadership. "You know," said a colleague, "what each of these organizations has in common is that they're kind of stuck at a crossroads."

"That's true," I replied, "and there's a reason why you bury vampires at a crossroads."

Everyone in the room looked at me as though I had just sprouted three heads, or maybe was a member of the evil undead myself.

Now, I may be channeling my inner Buffy here, but the analogy is perfectly apt. According to some vampire lore, you really can't kill these bloodsucking beasts. All you can do is trap them and keep them contained where they can't wake up and harm anybody. A crossroads was considered to be a semi-cursed place that existed out of regular time and space. If you could manage to bury the vampire at a crossroads (sometimes with a stake in its heart) it couldn't escape and the villagers could get on with their lives.

So do you see the parallel? When you look at your nonprofit organization, what is sucking life out of it? Where are you stuck? Can you find a way to leave the "vampire" at the crossroads, choose a path, and move on? If you've learned to think strategically, you can chose the best direction in which to move forward, recognizing that sometimes there is no "right" way to go, only a "not wrong" way.

Supernatural analogies aside, every organization finds itself at a crossroads sometimes. You can get stuck there forever, or you can move on. If you need help getting out, that's ok. Call on your network and see if anyone you know has faced a similar situation. What did they do? Enlist the professionals like us if it's appropriate. Just find a way out.

Have a great weekend! Join me next week for more Muse View.








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