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Big Boards In Big D, But Probably Not For Thee

There was a piece on the Dallas Morning News website about how the boards of various Dallas arts organizations were beginning to focus on greater diversity in their membership and accountability of their staffs.

The article opens by noting that Dallas Summer Musicals parted ways with their managing director months before his contract expired and the Dallas Museum of Art appeared to have a tense parting with their director.

“In the old Dallas,” says Veletta Forsythe Lill, a former City Council member and past executive director of the Dallas Arts District, “a board would have let a guy finish his term,” as in, why not let Jenkins stay eight more months, until his contract expired?

“But we’re living in a new Dallas,” Lill says, “and the new Dallas naturally carries with it a new breed of board member. The new boards want more control and more accountability.”

[…]

Today’s artistic boards veer younger and more corporate, and although older white men continue to dominate, their once-fierce hold — some would say stranglehold — is beginning to wane. Today’s artistic boards are increasingly more diverse, with women commanding a more powerful presence than ever before.

I was happy to see that boards are starting to take their governance responsibilities seriously and are attempting to make board and staff composition more diverse and reflective of the communities they are serving.

As I was reading through the article, I wondered if the boards would possess the will to evaluate how effective they are at executing their responsibilities.

When I see that Dallas Summer Musicals has 146 board members and 40 members on their executive committee, I can’t help but be skeptical about how effective such an unwieldy arrangement can be.

Reading the following, I suspected the membership numbers are largely courtesy appointments for the purpose of fundraising:

Board giving and participation guidelines: $1,000 down payment to be a general board member, coupled with raising at least $2,000 from outside donors. Must be a season-ticket holder. Executive committee members: Must make a $2,500 down payment, raise at least $5,000 from outside sources and be season-ticket holders.

Similarly large numbers appear on the boards of AT&T Performing Arts Center whose bylaws allow up to 70 members, but currently has 55; Dallas Museum of Art which has 73 board members; and Dallas Symphony Orchestra which has 68 members, 20 of which are on the executive committee.

In January I wrote about San Diego Opera which was revived after a stakeholder revolt fought the board’s decision to cease operations. The board membership went from 53 to 24. One of the key issues they identified as having contributed to their inability to adapt to the changing economic and social environment in San Diego was the “Get, Give or Get Off” board membership policy.

The San Diego Opera was one of those organizations where having a large number of people on the board was a function of fundraising. You pay x amount of money and you’re on the board, and no one wants to alienate any of those folk with contentious conversations that cause discomfort. But that is certainly not a good modus operandi for an organization facing the whitewater of the twenty-first-century cultural organization. And, it was not only the business model that had to change but the governance model, too.

Yes, yes, I know everything is bigger in Texas. With a funding model that includes 40 executive board members bringing in $7,500 each and the other 146 board members bringing in $3000 each, Dallas Summer Musicals may not experience issues that require them to be more nimble and responsive.

For everyone else, everywhere else, it is worth considering if a move toward a leaner, more nimble board might be the best course to meet the organizations long term challenges.

For  your listening pleasure, “Big D” from The Most Happy Fella.

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Pretension Is Just A Hoity-Toity Word For Pretendin’

A book with an intriguingly different view on pretentiousness was recently the subject in the LA Review of Books. According to reviewer Barrett Swanson, Dan Fox, author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, thinks pretentiousness gets a bad rap.

Early in his disquisition, Fox wonders why children who investigate the world through “pretend” and “make believe” are seldom accused of pretentiousness, whereas adults who experiment with the liberties of masquerade are inevitably charged with duplicity.

[…]

“So you thought the film you just saw was pretentious, and so was the date you took with you. You thought the food and service at the restaurant where you had a bite to eat after was also pretentious. But pretending to be … what, precisely?” Fox asks. Because there is no Platonic ideal,… “When a person decides that a restaurant is pretentious,” he concludes, “the ‘authentic’ restaurant to which it’s being compared and the values that provide The One True Restaurant with its bona fides are seldom revealed.”

There are some interesting things in there to ponder.  Though before I get into the main part of my post, I wanted to note (without having read Fox’s book), that often pretension is based on an authenticity comparison that is anything but idealized — San Diego being the only place to get authentic Mexican food, for example. (Whereas NY is indisputably the only place that makes pizza and bagels worth eating.)

My initial thoughts about why kids can pretend without being dismissed as pretentious and adults can’t get away with it as easily, is due to the fact we don’t feel empowered to call people out as quickly when we get older.

Between being bound by a sense of polite behavior and a growing understanding that there are subjects in which other people are more expert at than ourselves, we don’t feel we have the ability to force people to acknowledge they are pretending something is what it isn’t. Still, because we feel ashamed of our lack of knowledge or ability to deny the reality being asserted, we label it pretentious.

For example, we had no problem as kids recognizing that someone is pretending to be Superman or a dinosaur. We had no compunction about saying pretend bombs, swords and Kamehameha waves missed us or got deflected by our energy shields.

It is more difficult to know if someone is wrong when they make a statement about a performance or visual art work if we don’t have experience in that field. If something tastes awful to us, we don’t know if it is really poorly made or if our palate just isn’t refined. Because we acknowledge the possibility of not having enough knowledge or experience, we don’t have the confidence to yell “Na-uh!” that we did when we were children.

Even if we did and we were right, there may be sufficient number of other people who have agreed to pretend otherwise causing us to feel uncomfortable. We may laugh about wine experts who think the same wine tastes better when it is in a more expensive bottle, but we still feel anxiety about picking out a bottle to bring to a dinner party.

It may actually relieve one’s anxiety to a degree to look at a situation that appears intimidating and decide everyone who thinks a certain way is pretending. It can be liberating to walk among people whom you have decided have subscribed to a certain fiction whereas you have subscribed to a slightly different fiction. Or perhaps, you have decided it would be fun to see how far you can get pretending the same thing everyone else does.

While I think this might be a helpful intermediary step to assuage anxieties, deciding everything is equally meaningless and lacking of value does an injustice to objects and achievements that have actual value.

This isn’t an argument for determining what is objectively more valuable and important than something else. Rather, eventually one needs to acknowledge that there are some things one recognizes as more important and valuable than other things. Others may not agree and that doesn’t bother you. The you five years in the future may not agree with the you of today and you need to be okay with that possibility as well.

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Friends Don’t Let Friend’s Orgs Get Clickbaited

Non-Profit Quarterly had a piece last week about an effort to “help” non-profits that is flawed on so many levels.

An advertising company has created a site, Clickbait For Good which is creating clickbait campaigns for charities, apparently without being asked. Setting aside the fact that clickbait has pretty much peaked and worn out its welcome, the images they are using with their campaigns are pretty inappropriate for the associated charities.

It is unclear if the charities consented to the clickbait headlines being created for them on the Clickbait For Good website. One hopes not.

  • For Love 146 (human trafficking): “She fell for Mr. Perfect. You won’t believe what happened next” (with an accompanying image of a seated young girl in a frilly red dress).
  • For Girls Not Brides (child marriage in places like Bangladesh): “OMG! She is just 16 and she has done things the Kardashians haven’t even thought about” (with an accompanying image of an elite wealthy woman wearing a white dress hiked as high as it will go before being pornographic, exiting the backseat of a luxury car carrying a bag containing her latest expensive purchase).
  • For #Milk4Syria: “The ONE thing you need to know about drinking milk.”
  • For American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: “Exclusive: See what happened only a week after Robin Williams’ suicide.”

I checked the webpage out and indeed the images are as cringe worthy as described-

child bride

Non-Profit Quarterly lays it out pretty clearly why these sort of campaigns do more harm than good when it comes to generating investment and trust.

The problem is that this ill-conceived initiative is likely to aggravate more than inspire. The website should offer charities the option to sign up to decline the offer.

Clickbait is sometimes clever, often misleading, always distracting, and by definition overpromises and under-delivers. Clickbait patronizes the donor and at best trivializes the charity’s mission. Nonprofits seek engagement and relationships, not mere clicks. View “counts” may pay the bills in the marketing world, but tricking people into clicking on charity content kills trust, which is the coin of the realm in the voluntary sector.

[…]

Charities cannot game trust. Lying kills donor retention. The headlines above are morally indefensible. Clickbait is like learning to smile from a manual. Philanthropy is not grown in a petri dish. Charity is the result of honest human interaction and concern. Charity needs to be honored, not disgraced.

There is definitely fun to be had with click-baity ads, especially if you are spoofing the format to get people to attend a fun event. But to draw attention and support to serious crises, if there are appropriate, effective uses of the format, I have to imagine they can be counted on one hand.

There may not be a high likelihood that your arts organization will be targeted by one of these ads and the potential impact may not be as bad as for some of these humanitarian organizations. If these campaigns are indeed being created unsolicited, a neighboring organization might be grateful if you alert them to an ad that casts them in a questionable context.

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Problems With Non-Profit Work Environment Pushed Into Greater View

This morning, The Atlantic published a story about The Plight of the Overworked Nonprofit Employee that addresses the conflict non-profits face between paying employees well and devoting funds to services.

While this is not a new conversation at all for those of us in the non-profit sector, it isn’t one that is often discussed in the general media. It is good to see the topic getting out there.

The main impetus for this story seems to be the concern many non-profits feel over the new Department of Labor wage rules which won’t allow companies, including non-profits, to classify employees as exempt from overtime payment rules.

Anyone making less than $47,476 salary a year will be eligible for overtime if they work more than 40 hours a week.

The article notes that many non-profit organizations depend heavily on staff classified as exempt to work overtime in order to achieve their missions. They point out the dichotomy “…between the values that many nonprofits hold and the way they treat their own staffs.”

I felt like the article did a good job of illustrating the tension between wanting to do good in communities with limited funding that often has strings attached and the fact that low salaries and long hours often mean employees are only slightly less stressed than the people they serve.

It is one thing to feel indignant upon reading about the double-standard that exists (my emphasis):

Strangely, though nonprofits are increasingly expected to perform like businesses, they do not get the same leeway in funding that government-contracted businesses do. They don’t have nearly the bargaining power of big corporations, or the ability to raise costs for their products and services, because of tight controls on grant funding. “D.C. is full of millionaires who contract with government in the defense field, and they make a killing, and yet if you’re a nonprofit, chances are you aren’t getting the full amount of funding to cover the cost of the services required,” Iliff said. “Can you imagine Lockheed Martin or Boeing putting up with a government contract that didn’t allow for overhead?”

But when you read about how people who assist those experiencing trauma can’t afford to get help dealing with their own trauma, there is a greater sense of urgency that the environment needs to change:

When Roberts arrived, the battered woman clung to her and asked her to listen to a recording of the sounds of fighting and of the woman screaming and crying. Roberts joined her in prayer, helped her move her things to a new apartment, went back to the agency, locked herself in the bathroom, and sobbed. On days like that, Roberts wanted to get therapy, but knew that she couldn’t afford it. “If I had gotten paid for all the hours I was working, even at my base rate, I would have jumped at the opportunity to seek care to make sense of what I’ve experienced on the job,” Roberts says. “But I wasn’t making enough to pay for anything more than my basic needs.”

It should be noted that the Ms. Roberts’ employer forbids people to work overtime, but there was an organizational culture that dissuaded people to take time off or flex their time when the demands of the job went past 5 pm.

As I read the article, there seemed to be a slight subtext suggesting that the new labor laws may force a lot of the issues into the light and lead to reformation. Once non-profits tell government agencies and other funders they can no longer legally accomplish the same things for the old levels of funding, then long overdue decisions will have to be made.

The new salary rules eliminate the margins that allowed non-profits to try to do more with less. While it may be a relief when non-profit employees finally begin to get paid and scheduled appropriately, the communities those non-profit organizations serve may suffer a great deal more before the reality of the situation is acknowledged and appropriate steps are taken.

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