Edge of the Box Coaching & Consulting

5 07 2011

“We live our lives in action, and being on the edge is an exhilarating way to experience life in motion.”

Edge of the Box Coaching is for arts leaders and organizations who are ready to embrace change and build the kind of organization that they’ve always imagined.

My coaching program is designed to help you to reinvigorate your organization and reignite your passion to lead.

I coach arts leaders, along with boards and staff, in:

  • Vision
  • Communication
  • Building Audience Connection
  • Identifying “The Gift”
  • Cultivating Change
  • Challenges of Leadership
  • Developing a Strong & Supportive Coalition

Leadership Redux

6 02 2013

Recently I introduced the idea that the way we’ve structured nonprofit boards of directors doesn’t work.

In fact, most nonprofit directors haven’t given much thought to the structure of their boards but rather follow a system that has been laid out before them, by either their last nonprofit  or the former leaders of their current organization.

Yet we hold tightly to these outmoded systems, convinced that they will work with just the right mix of individuals— the rank and file board members committed to mission and ready to roll up their sleeves and perform the tasks of the board and the influentials, those with money, reputation, power, and prestige.

Our boards don’t work for many reasons, two of which I’d like to discuss.

#1. The categories of rank and file and influencers no longer exist in a way that sustains nonprofits. Our worker bees are tired; they’ve done this before and are starting to wonder what’s in it for them. They’re moving away from our organizations and starting their own businesses, participating in Kickstarter campaigns, orrallying their friends on Facebook to support Race for the Cure or charity: water. They know what their value is and they want to make sure that their hard work results in something tangible and rewarding. And our movers and shakers are just trying to keep up with what they need to do for their own projects and businesses to survive in an unpredictable economy.  They’re being more strategic about how they spend their time, their most precious commodity, and would rather write you a check and be done with it than sit through endless committee meetings spinning their wheels. They were marginally useful as board members in good times, not worth pursuing in the current climate.

#2. We’ve created unwieldy structures that have hamstrung our ability to evolve. Nonprofit organizations need to operate with a certain amount of fluidity, to be able to respond to a changing environment, where the means of communications we employ, the way we raise money, our audiences, and the relevancy of our programs must constantly be examined and refined.  Boards that meet infrequently, respond slowly to our communication loops, and fear making bold decisions due to an outmoded sense of fiscal responsibility seldom act with the alacrity or vision required to be transformational. Even in crisis they act slowly, sometimes doing what needs to be done to right the ship, rarely to set a new course.

The individuals are not to blame. The organizational structure is. 

In my next post, I’d like to explore a different way to look at leadership and the role of the board of directors.






Best Laid Plans

24 01 2013

Earlier this month I submitted two very different grant proposals for two different clients.  When I hit the send button, I was happy to see both grants disappear into the ether, complete and concise. What we sometimes forget once our grants are winnowed down into the precise number of pages (12 pt. font) requested, are the many hands and minds that have gone into formulating The Proposal.

In both of these proposals, a number of smart and experienced arts professionals helped to shape the project for which funding was requested. They met, talked, negotiated, hammered out details, and each added pieces that both elevated and deepened the project. Too often we forget this part of the process. Someone has a kernel of an interesting plan, and as she begins to spread this idea among staff and colleagues something wholly new takes shape.

Conversations begin, debate crops up, new people are invited into the process, others weigh in. Collaboration, in its purest form, is taking place. And usually, at the end of the day, something completely different has come about.  A public arts project is transformed into a forum for community engagement; a technology project becomes a means to shape a struggling neighborhood.  

I’m excited about both of these projects, as I have been about many grant proposals I’ve submitted in the past. Nothing is more invigorating than bringing innovative minds into a planning process. But I’ve also learned that a good grant submitted does not always translate into a funded proposal. The floors of foundations are virtually littered with good intentions.

And here is the hardest part. All of these great projects, some of them truly transformative, have no legs without these grants. How many times have I seen projects that I knew would absolutely revitalize an organization and change its future direction die without an infusion of grant money.

We expect so much of our organizations, to be relevant, to react quickly to a changing environment or demographic but we must realize that sometimes our lack of change does not imply a lack of trying. Good ideas—brilliant ideas— are out there waiting to be born.  Some are waiting on the desks of funders right now. What will happen to them is anyone’s guess.

The Worst Job in the World

14 11 2012

The job description reads as follows:

Highly skilled individual of high net worth wanted. Must possess expertise in finance, human resources, revenue generation, marketing. Must show evidence of personal connections (friends and family) also of high net worth and willingness to share such connections for organization’s profit. Expected to work long hours, attend lengthy evening and weekend meetings, be asked for advice that is seldom heeded, raise money, and risk potential damage to reputation by staff, press, and the general public. Organization must be number 1 priority. No salary or compensation offered.

This, of course, is a description of the typical nonprofit board member position. This, of course, is never shared with the potential recruit.

Instead, we take our candidates out to lunch, share with them a glass of wine, and politely ask them if they’d be interested in a board position. We say we value their expertise, their special insight and love of our work. Because they already make a generous annual contribution, we don’t discuss this in the detail. We assume they’ll continue to give, and as board members, they will obviously be compelled to give more. We handle the subject of fundraising with discretion, or even obfuscation. “You don’t like to fundraise? We understand. I’m sure we can find some other way for you to participate.”

When they grudgingly agree and show up for their first board meeting, they’ll be welcomed by friendly faces; we’ll answer their questions politely: don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of things soon.

And six months later, we’ll wonder why they’ve missed a couple of meetings, failed to read the financial statements we mailed to them this morning, never increased their annual gift to the level we’d expected, and didn’t follow through on solicitation calls to their wealthy friends.

Could it be, once again, we’ve chosen the wrong board member.

(Part One in a series of entries discussing the problems facing nonprofit arts boards and what we can begin to do to change things.)

Never Underestimate the Element of Surprise

30 10 2012

October is the perfect month, a golden time when the best of art and sport collide to create an embarrassment of riches. Should I attend the opening of a new opera or stay home, hunkered down on the coach watching Game Four of the World Series? This week, San Francisco celebrated by lighting its civic and arts buildings in orange to commemorate the astonishing ride to the top of the San Francisco Giants.

And so to celebrate the magic of October, I’d like to dedicate this blog to just one of the ways that art could – and should – imitate baseball. And to do that, I’ll have to bring you back to the intense drama of the last out of the 2012 World Series.

Sergio Romo, the Giants small but mighty closing pitcher, was facing the American League’s best hitter Miguel Cabrera, with 2 out in the bottom of the 10th inning. Romo had Cabrera down by 2 strikes, only one more needed to clinch the series and take home the prize.

Romo is known for his amazing slider, his best pitch, almost unhittable this season. He’d thrown four of them to Cabrera, all of which he’d either fouled off or missed and so it was inevitable that Romo would throw that pitch to win the game. His All-Star catcher, Buster Posey, called for the slider, Cabrera was waiting for the slider but Romo never threw it. Instead, he trusted his gut and threw a completely different pitch. He threw a fast ball. A not very fast fastball. A completely hittable fastball.

But Cabrera never hit it. He watched it pop easily into Posey’s perfectly placed glove. A strike. No swing. End of game. End of World Series.

Romo beat the best hitter of the year by catching him off guard.

And that’s the point.

It’s easy to stick to what we do best, to offer what we’ve always offered because that is what people expect, that is what they pay us for. But the price we pay is complacency, within ourselves and with our audiences. If our offering doesn’t change, people eventually lose interest and we can lose our edge. That doesn’t mean that we need to take a huge risk every time we put something out before our audiences. Like Romo, our audiences and our supporters pay us to do what we are good at. But we may never know what it is like to be truly great, if we never feel the freedom to trust our gut instincts and deliver something different, surprising, and truly memorable.

Happy October.

Lucas Kavner: Mitt Romney And The Arts: How He Plans To Gut Federal Funding

30 08 2012

Lucas Kavner: Mitt Romney And The Arts: How He Plans To Gut Federal Funding.

If artists don’t like what Mitt Romney has proposed, if people who pay to see art don’t like it, if people who donate to arts organizations don’t like this suggestion, they need to act.

There could be protests, but would they be effective?  People don’t really like to see artists chained to the gates of prominent museums or government buildings. With all the problems we have in this country – crippling poverty, unemployment, businesses disappearing, health care imploding – no one feels sorry for a choreographer who has no money to make a dance or a sculptor without a commission. It’s just the way it is now.

But they can vote, can’t they? We’re so often told that we are lousy with artists these days, there are more arts companies, arts organizations, and art students clogging up our universities than ever before. If this number is as large and cumbersome as we are led to believe, than the power of the vote should be strong and effective. But do artists vote?

And what about the private supporters and those that attend the thousands of exhibitions and performances taking place around the country every day. Surely they have a stake in the matter. And the parents who believe that art education enriches their children. Where will their votes be going?

Until there is a viable platform for the arts, until politicians discuss it as if it mattered, until middle and upper middle class Americans make their voices heard as one, in support of arts in America as a public good, Mitt Romney can say whatever he wants about eliminating public funding for the arts, and it won’t matter.

Not until voters finally admit it matters.

Great Expectations

24 08 2012

A friend recently contacted me about a piece he heard on NPR’s All Things Considered.  Titled “North Adams: A Manufacturing Town for Art,” it was a story about a small city in Western Massachusetts and its large contemporary art museum. My friend remembered that I used to work in a neighboring town, but what he didn’t know is that I was born and raised in North Adams, MA and this story would resonate with me in multiple ways.

It’s a story we’ve all heard before, of how “a crumbling mill town” tried to reinvent itself as a mecca for the arts by turning a vacant factory complex into a buzzing contemporary art museum. And, of course, you know how this story ends.

But when you begin to unravel its many threads, this story becomes even more interesting, more cautionary and finally, speaks to the troubling era in which we live and those better days that we long for.

According to the ATC story, when the factory closed more than 3,000 jobs were lost. I remember that time.  A town that once was proud of its strong working and middle classes and its ability to be self-sustaining in a relatively isolated part of the state seemed to transform overnight.  A community of working families soon became a home to retirees and the chronically unemployed.

And Main Street disappeared. Literally. One entire side of a downtown street, distinguished by early 20th century architecture and shops, movie theaters and restaurants was bulldozed and replaced by a couple of banks and a K-Mart parking lot. Today the K-Mart is gone but the parking lot remains. As North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright wistfully commented, “Our Main Street was like the mall at Christmas.”  No truer epitaph for a simpler time has been spoken.

Stephen Sheppard, of Williams College says it best, “There was an initial assumption that having MASS MoCA would transform this Main Street to be like it was in ‘the olden days.” And that is the assumption that drives our desire for our cities to be reinvented by the arts.

We’re not looking towards a new reality based in the present economy and social landscape. We want the arts to embrace the façades of our youth and transform them into something we can still relate to, even if it isn’t the manufacturing economy of the past.

When MASS MoCA opened, we believed – and if we’re going to be honest, the museum and its supporters helped us to buy into the fantasy – that things would go back to the way they were, but be better. That jobs would spring up, Main Street and its businesses would come alive again, and the working middle class and its families would once more take their place in this new improved world.

I know exactly what Dick Alcombright means when he says that Main Street was like the mall at Christmas. It was bustling, and warm, and friendly and full of hope. At least that was what it felt like in our youth.  But malls are the new downtown, you can’t restore half a street to its former beauty, and you can’t necessarily base an economy on a tourist class while hoping there will be new restaurants and stores that you or your kids can afford to patronize. And the jobs you’ll reap are more likely to be service jobs without the wages or pensions that your grandparents once enjoyed.

Part of the problem is that we don’t reason through our expectations. Whether it’s a sports arena or a “world class art museum,” we’re still not sure what its long-term affect will be on a community.  But whatever changes come about, they will be organic to the place – its geography, demographics, education and income levels – as well as the greater trends that affect us all, such as a sputtering economy and a new way of consuming art and entertainment by a new generation.

Has MASSMoCA been the answer to a struggling city’s prayers for renewal?  No, but it was never meant to be.  What it will provide is something more intangible, long term, and will never recreate Christmas on Main Street.  Nor should it.

Those are our memories. MASS MoCA and the new populaces it attracts will have to create their own.

The Power of Quiet Leaders

17 08 2012

If you’ve ever heard the words Ted and Talk in the same sentence, you probably know who Susan Cain is. Her February 2012 Ted Talk on “The Power of Introverts,” is one of Ted’s most frequently viewed talks and her book Quiet is cropping up on a number of national best sellers lists.

Cain is a voice for those who don’t speak loudly and she speaks eloquently about the value of introverts in a culture of extroverts. According to Cain and the research she cites, introverts make up at least 30% of our population, and they have something valuable to offer society if only we would shut up long enough to listen.

The subject of introverts is seldom raised in the arts world. We are a profession of performers, actors, storytellers, entertainers, and larger than life personalities. And I’m not even talking about the artists.

With more responsibility for fundraising and marketing on their shoulders, directors of arts organizations are increasingly expected to be high energy, gregarious individuals. A recent review of job postings for executive positions in various arts organizations used the following to indicate qualities a candidate must possess: “outgoing,” “engaging,” “active in the community,” and my favorite, “an enjoyment of public speaking.”

I’ve had the opportunity to sit on hiring committees interviewing for executive positions, and, no doubt about it, the interview is where the extrovert really gets to shine. While personality is not usually what got her in the door, once she’s made it to the interview the candidate who can think on her feet – or talk out of her hat – is often the one who sails to the top of the short list.

But leadership qualities, as Cain persuasively points out, can be found among the quieter set.  Just as surely as we benefit from arts leaders who weave a great story and charm our donors and patrons, we also need another set of skills to make our institutions strong. We need leaders with qualities such as discernment, patience, and the all important skill of listening. And we desperately need leaders who can process information thoughtfully and propose ideas that have benefitted from our retreating to a quiet space to think creatively.

Take notice of the quiet leaders in your field. They may not want all that attention, but sometimes they demand it.


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