Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Couple of Nonprofit Best Practices Lessons From the Real World

If a nonprofit does not put its mission statement first, in all of its operations considerations, it risks losing its way or worse. The following are real world examples that demonstrate why this is so.

Let's say that you and I met because we both donate to a specific art museum. Let's say that you and I grew up in the same city and this art museum is important to each of us so we have supported it over the years. The museum both has a terrific art collection of its own and they regularly host beautiful touring exhibits. You and I each have come to trust the organization. The museum's leadership make excellent operations and management decisions in the best interest of the museum's mission statement goal, repeatedly. You and I, as long time supporters (who, through our trust in the organization and the confidence in its programming track record, donate because we believe in the museum's mission), can trust that the museum's leadership makes operations and management decisions based on the best interest of the museum's reason for existing, its mission statement. We support the museum based on its goals in the community but also based on its reputation and successful track record. The leadership has demonstrated that it is aware of its responsibilities, provides excellent programs: that it understands and upholds the organization's mission, and that it does not get swayed (primarily because the museum's leadership puts the mission statement first in all decision making processes).

How, then, would we feel (as regular and long time donors) if we happened to be supporting the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), which just recently opened the exhibit, Dreams Come True: Art of the Classical Fairy Tales From the Walt Disney Studios. As long time donors we are pleased with the NOMA's mission statement, " The mission of the New Orleans Museum of Art is to inspire the love of art; to collect, preserve, exhibit and present excellence in the visual arts; to educate, challenge and engage a diverse public." (quoted from their own website). How, then, as supporters of this museum would we react if we discovered as is actually the case, about this exhibit (according, in reality, to the NOMA's own director) "that his museum and its curators stood by as Disney employees pitched the presentation and then as Disney "did all the curatorial selection, crated it all up [and] packed it." Director Bullard said his museum "wasn't interested in a general animation exhibition," that is, the museum's only interest was in presenting a single corporation's marketing display at the same time that corporation was launching a major film based in his city (and, not coincidentally, during the holiday DVD-selling, movie-merchandising season)." [Quote taken from Tyler Green's blog, Modern Art Notes' December 11, 2009th post "Disney markets at NOMA: A major museum error"]? Not only did the leadership not do anything, they actually enabled another organization (Disney) to dismantle some of the trust that the museum developed, fostered, and demonstrated in its supporters (volunteers, donors, sponsors, community partners, etc.) over the years. If the museum's leadership had, instead, after Disney's pitch weighed its own mission statement against Disney's offerings (no matter if the exhibit was regarded by the leadership as "actually a result of Katrina, a gift from the Walt Disney corporation..." [quoted from Bullard in Green's interview with him on December 10, 2009]). Does the museum exist to benefit from Katrina or does it really exist to "...exhibit and present excellence...to educate, challenge, and engage..."? Not only did they make a curatorial error, the museum's own leadership placed a question mark in the minds of its lifeblood (its own supporters).

Here's another real world example....

What if you and I, instead, were long time regular donors of the New York Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum? Its mission statement is "...to promote the understanding and appreciation of art, architecture, and other manifestations of visual culture, primarily of the modern and contemporary periods, and to collect, conserve, and study the art of our time. The Foundation realizes this mission through exceptional exhibitions, education programs, research initiatives, and publications, and strives to engage and educate an increasingly diverse international audience through its unique network of museums and cultural partnerships." Even just appearances can damn an organization. The Guggenheim announced in 1999 that it would exhibit Italian fashion designer icon, Giorgio Armani's gowns in its building rotunda. But, to quote The New York Times' writer, Carol Vogel's December 15, 1999 article "Armani Gift to the Guggenheim Revives Issue of Art and Commerce"; "
"What the museum did not acknowledge was that some eight months earlier, Mr. Armani had [sic. then] become a sizable benefactor to the Guggenheim. The size of his contribution has not been disclosed, but one participant in museum meetings at which it was discussed said it would eventually amount to $15 million, an initial $5 million with a pledge to donate $10 million more over the next three years.
"Asked about the gift, museum officials said it was part of a ''global partner sponsorship,'' gift that can go to Guggenheim projects anywhere in the world, and denied that it was a quid pro quo for organizing the Armani show. The show is being sponsored by the fashion and celebrity magazine In Style, in which Armani is an advertiser." [Quoted from the linked NY Times article, above].
But appearances are everything. The Guggenheim did indeed host the Armani gowns exhibit in 2001 amid much discussion (e.g. the press) about whether such an exhibit in light of the contribution was ethical or poor operations on the part of the museum's leadership. Though the exhibit was ultimately critically panned (for not focusing on the evolution of Armani's fashion designs in chronological order, but rather the exhibit was laid out in order based on the color of the gowns), in 2002 the "shit hit the fan", demonstrating the point that I'm making in this blog post. As stated of the then leadership, in The New York Times' magazine's June 30, 2002 post by Deborah Solomon, "Is the Go Go Guggenheim Going Going", "Some charge that Krens has broken faith with art. The critic Jerry Saltz, writing recently in The Village Voice, called for Krens's resignation and went on to say, ''The trustees and board members who helped him twist this institution into a kind of GuggEnron should go as well.''"
What was the fall out of one of the most premier museums in the world placing a question mark into the minds of its long time supporters? Read on. To further quote Solomon's NY Time Magazine article,
"There are many ways to assess the growth of a museum, but probably the simplest is to look at an annual report. The Guggenheim, however, did not publish one last year. Why not? ''They're superfluous,'' Betsy Ennis, the museum's director of public affairs said.
"The museum's endowment has declined in recent years, from $55.6 million in 1998, to $38.9 million at the end of 2001. An endowment consists of savings that produce interest and should not be spent. While donors have continued to write checks to the Guggenheim's endowment, Krens has regularly dipped into it, mainly to cover operating expenses. Records show that $9.7 million was removed from the endowment in 1999; $13.6 million in 2000; and another $13 million last year."
Fundraising was diminished and the organization's ability to pay for its operations expenses through incoming donations decreased so the museum needed to dip into it's 'nest egg', its endowment. This failure in fundraising directly led to the organization's leadership inability to pay the bills, which will further instill concerns in long time Guggenheim supporters of all kinds.
If a major nonprofit like the world-renown Guggenheim museum can wreak such a blunder on itself any sized nonprofit, from start up to long existing can do it to itself, too. The lesson, here, is that any nonprofit's leadership that loses sight of its organization's own reason for existence (even in the face of a large donation) will lose much more, probably, than it gains (and not just in the moment but potentially for years to come, too). Any nonprofit's leadership must always place the organization's mission statement first and foremost in making any decisions for the agency. Any nonprofit's integrity, track record, and reputation is directly related to its ability to raise more and grow, or not. Each time the mission statement is put aside, during decision making, then the fidelity a nonprofit has formed with its existing supporters fades. For more discussion on this topic read The Nonprofit That Understands That Without A Strong Relationship With Its Community, It Stumbles - Is the Nonprofit That Succeeds.

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