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Author Archive | Joe Patti

Asking Boards What They Think Of Themselves

A few arts organizations in my community are partnering to conduct an arts listening tour where we will go out into the community and try to get a sense of what the barriers to participation for different groups might be. We met with the outside facilitator today so she could get a sense of what we wanted to do and help us avoid inhibiting honest discussion.

She mentioned that one of her major focuses is non-profit boards and that research on board effectiveness is almost exclusively conducted by talking to the executive officer of the organization rather than the board members. She said if you asked the boards themselves they would probably have a different view about their effectiveness.

She told us this to emphasize the importance of including the people we wanted to know about as listening tour participants rather than asking other groups why they thought people in those demographics weren’t engaged. The need to involve those who were not already engaged in our activities has been at the forefront of our mind since we started planning this project.

Later in the day the facilitator’s anecdote came back to me and lead to me to wonder, how many executive officers ask their board to reflect on their effectiveness. How many boards ask it of themselves? How many discuss the differences and similarities between the directors’ and executive officer’s perceptions?

I know this gets into uncomfortable territory. I actually stumbled into it recently when I mentioned my perception of my board’s decision making process to the board president, citing specific examples. To her credit she thanked me for reflecting something they were too close to see and brought it up at a board meeting.

Not all issues are that easily addressed and not all board dynamics allow for these sort of discussions. Perhaps the first step is to work on changing the dynamics.

If it is true that most of the research about the actions, attitudes and effectiveness of boards of directors is derived from what the organizations’ executive officers say about them, maybe the boards have been unfairly maligned and should be given an opportunity to respond.

(And I know there are a lot of people reading this thinking, no they haven’t and no they shouldn’t, but try to get past that.)

Today being the observation of Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, it is appropriate to think about all of our relationships that seem antagonistic to some degree and make us feel uneasy and fearful about acting to resolve. Not all movements need to be large and public impacting thousands. Sometimes they can be small, private and personal impacting a handful.

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Theatre of Education

There is a lot of conversation in the performing arts about potential audiences not seeing themselves or their stories up on stage. If this is something that concerns you, you may want to take some pointers from a New Yorker article about an immersive play experience in Chicago.

Set in an old school, Learning Curve, was created in cooperation with “fifty teen-agers … drawing on their own experiences, and on dozens of interviews with teachers, parents, administrators, and peers” in an attempt to communicate what it is like to attend Chicago city schools.

Similar to other immersive theater pieces like Sleep No More and The Donkey Show, attendee-participants follow a “choose-your-own-adventure” track through the experience.

Each scene lasts just a few minutes but manages, with depth and candor, to make a serious point about the personal and political stew that is public education.

My track that evening brought me to a chaotic advanced Spanish class, where a flustered teacher fought for control of her students while impatiently accommodating a timid new pupil. A real teacher in attendance remarked afterward, “Yup, that’s exactly what school’s like.” Next, I visited a distracted guidance counselor, who informed me that several of my classes were no longer available owing to budget cuts. “You can thank Rahm for that,” he said, referring to Chicago’s mayor. In another intimate scene, I spied a teacher cheating on standardized tests. When caught, she defended herself. “What am I supposed to do? Let the state slap you in the face and call you failures?” Later, I took this same test, frantically filling in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil while tortured by the ticks of an amplified clock. How quickly that very particular brand of panic returns! But then I assisted in a clever prom proposal, in a janitor’s closet, complete with a guitar and a disco ball, and remembered that, for all of high school’s angst, it provides many small moments of wonder.

While the work was intended to illustrate the experiences of the students, whom the article author terms “silent shareholders,” it engendered “sympathy for the elusive authority figures in their lives” among the student creators. Teachers, seeing students depict them, in turn recognized some of their choices contributed to the stresses their students experience.

Looking at the immersive format in this context, it seems obvious (though it hadn’t occurred to me earlier) that it can be used for more than presenting exciting re-imagined tellings of Shakespearean stories and be a tool for dialogue and social change.

Did anyone in the Chicago area happen to see the show and wants to share their own impressions?

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Volunteering Ain’t Free

Somewhat apropos of yesterday’s post, Non-Profit Quarterly had a post about Phoenix Comicon’s recent decision to charge volunteers to work their convention.

I am not sure this is really a scandalous decision given that many outdoor festivals I know have had this policy for going on two decades. The more controversial aspect might be that the Con is a for-profit company that was requiring people to become members of a 501 (c) (7) non-profit for which the Con leadership were officers in order to become volunteers. Many objected that this was a major conflict of interest.

But as the Non Profit Quarterly noted (and as I suggested yesterday), co-ordinating the work of volunteers ain’t cheap:

Finally, for charitable nonprofits, or 501(c)(3) organizations, requesting payment for volunteering is an increasingly popular practice, and one that helps organizations sustain their operations—and, in particular, recruit, manage, and sustain the volunteer workforce they often rely upon. While it can feel counterintuitive for volunteers to pay to serve, the effort required for nonprofits to absorb and deploy a volunteer workforce is significant. As both formal corporate volunteer programs and solo entrepreneurs looking to build up their client base increase, volunteers are a plentiful resource for 501(c)(3) organizations. It’s critical to balance the value these volunteers deliver with the cost it takes to engage them.

Another reason to charge volunteers many event organizers, both for and non-profit, will cite is that it shows investment and provides incentive to actually work their shift. As someone who has run an outdoor music festival, I can attest that there is always a segment of the volunteer base that sign up just to get free admission to the event. According to a re-post of a letter by Phoenix Comic-con’s director, combating no-shows and reining in ballooning staffing was the primary reason for pursuing a pay to volunteer model.  In the last few days, they have re-evaluated their decision to have volunteers register as members of the aligned non-profit.

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If You Give Me More Helping Hands, Give Me More Cash

The idea of mandatory national service gets bandied about a lot, especially during presidential election years. This year it seemed to pop up more frequently due to the proposals for free college tuition being floated by some of the candidates. People were suggesting at the very least those who received free tuition needed to reciprocate in some fashion such as national service in the military, Peace Corps, Americorps, etc.

Last week a discussion held by a local public radio station on the pros and cons of mandatory service came across my social media feed. The host and his guests made a lot of good points about the cons, not the least of which is that people are supportive of the idea for younger people, but when you suggest a mandatory service of even one hour a month for all citizens, there is fierce resistance.

Most of the negative outcomes they mentioned were from the point of view of those who would be providing service. Something they overlooked was the fact that there is expense involved in administering a service program, regardless of whether the participants are being paid or not. This is true whether the service is military or civil. I am going to mostly address it from the civil side, but the basic factors are almost identical. This issue is overlooked pretty much everywhere I could find a national service discussion online.

Supervisory infrastructure, materials, equipment, space, facilities and dozens of other details are necessary if there are any expectations of a meaningful experience with meaningful outcomes from a mandatory service experience.

Mandatory service on a national or even state level can be a boon to the work that non-profits and other service organizations do, but it will require a significant increase in capacity building funding from some combination of governments and foundations. Otherwise having service workers becomes more of a hindrance than a help to an organization.

This issue needs to be raised a lot more emphatically when these ideas are discussed. Otherwise, people will be looking askance at the non-profit sector wondering how it could be screwing things up so badly when they were being provided with the service of 3 million high school graduates every year.

I think it is too easy to equate added labor with industrial productivity and revenue generation and see mandatory service as a boon to organizational sustainability. But very little work non-profit organizations do generates revenue. Being able to teach more children will require more space and instructional supplies. Being able to feed more homeless or elderly will require more food, vehicles and food preparation equipment. Being able to provide health services to people will require more space, medicine, diagnostic equipment.

More capacity to do these things means more money than ever will be spent. Unfortunately, the organizations’ capacity to generate the money to cover these costs probably won’t increase a whit.

The only area in which I could see any sort of return on investment would be in terms of the old WPA type infrastructure projects. If you have people planting trees that can be harvested decades down the road, clearing/creating parks that can be used to generate revenue or gentrify an area to increase the tax base, then you might tie a tangible result to the service. However, a lot of the needed services have intangible results.

So yes, ultimately the nation would be more unified and healthier for having a stronger ethic of service. But getting there ain’t free.

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