In Order Have Social Impact, They Had To Kill The Social Impact Statement

If you haven’t seen it already, it is worth reading Joanna Jones’ piece on Medium about how the Oakland Museum of California developed and then abandoned their social impact statement.

One of the central identity problems non-profits face is generating statements of mission, goals, etc that are meaningful and alive for the organization. Creating these statements is seen as a necessary evil for strategic plans, grant applications, etc and are filed away until it comes time to revise them for the new strategic plan or copy it down on a grant application.

But people join non-profit organizations with the hope that they can make a difference. Even if it is contrary to whatever is written on the reference document gathering dust in the filing cabinet, every organization should have some aspirational statement of purpose they are telling new hires that actually aligns with the organizational practice.  (Making enough money to meet payroll doesn’t count.)

Now, the thing that everyone thinks they are doing that keeps them coming to work every morning still may not be the most practical and realistic. That was the issue that Jones says the Oakland Museum quickly came to recognize. In 2017, they created a social impact statement that, “OMCA makes Oakland a more equitable and caring city.”

Focus groups asked whether a museum could really solve the problems contributing to the lack of equity and caring in the city. The museum’s internal stakeholders also questioned the viability of the statement.

The museum invited six experts on social impact to spend two days participating in convenings and museum activities. While these experts were excited and energized by the reach and inclusion of museum events, they too were skeptical about the social impact statement. They wondered how the museum could ever meet the myriad concepts people would have about what equity and caring looked like.

After a lot of work, conversation and introspection, Jones writes that they realized they didn’t actually need a social impact statement,

Rather, we simply needed to articulate the problem our community is facing that we are uniquely suited to address, the best solution we believe exists for that problem, and the concrete and tangible outcomes we’re going to measure that will demonstrate our positive social impact.

The problem we’re trying to solve is social fragmentation.

The community of Oakland is presently undergoing significant fallout from inequities within institutions, the state, and civil society resulting in a decline in social cohesion and an increase in social exclusion.

Our contribution is facilitating greater social cohesion.

[…]

We will know that we are achieving that impact–creating greater social cohesion–when our Museum visitors say that they:

  • feel welcome at OMCA
  • see their stories reflected at OMCA
  • connect with other people at OMCA, and
  • feel comfortable expressing their own ideas and are open to the ideas of others at OMCA

What I valued about this piece was the discussion of the process they went through to come to this realization. There are statements of purpose non-profit organizations are obligated to have. There are some statements/actions organizations may feel self-obligated to enact in order to adhere to trends or to remain relevant. But these may not be relevant or constructive to the developing organizational identity. I was glad to see they recognized that while it was valuable to enunciate a clear purpose, their statement didn’t necessarily need to conform to a specific definition.

Don’t Forget That Failure Is An Option

It has only been in recent years that a message of embracing and talking about our failure has been part of a public conversation among arts and cultural organizations. I am not sure how many people are including these stories in their reports to funders, but little by little people are willing to admit that not everything has gone has planned.

Still, we don’t see a lot of articles and case studies where people are analyzing where they went wrong. It was for that reason that Madhavan Pillai’s account in Arts Management Quarterly drew my attention. Pillai had experienced great success with a walking project which drew attention to the polluted ecosystem along the Cooum River near Chennai, India. Buoyed by this success, he wanted to create an arts festival along the river to inspire people to take ownership in the well-being of the river.

The project concept was well received among partners and supporters, the goals and objectives were crystal clear. A proposal was written, presentations were made, budgetary details worked out, teams were set, their roles and responsibilities were defined and agreed on. A strong network was established without leaving a single stone unturned including a focus on public relations and advertisement. With all ingredients for a very successful international festival in place, the project failed

Among the factors Pillali attributes to the failure was actually not acknowledging that the project might fail. The other was using a democratic leadership style that sought the consent of all the partners. (my emphasis)

The overemphasis on democratic leadership, which is otherwise considered to be a best practice, turned around to become disastrous…During the high-point of crisis I was consulting team members and addressing everyone’s concerns….A consent with all members could never be reached. The mode of action instead geared towards an apologetic atmosphere with self-satisfied and settling egos within the team.

Based on this experience, I think that leadership should be trained to face failure as the most powerful source for know-how and understanding. It teaches survival, renewal and reinvention of yourself and the organization you are leading, but this learning about failure should be built in education. If the control over the team and partners is not strong, the leadership is forced to accept new ideas that emerge every day.

The lack of factoring the failure left no room to fight the crisis and I was left alone with unnerving thoughts, waiting for a miracle to happen. Irrational and persistent fear of failing kept me towards pushing my limits and digging inside to explore….As the famous proverb goes “success has hundred fathers, failure is an orphan”, I was abandoned.

A lot of interesting thoughts here. In addition to the text I bolded regarding how experiencing failure makes you stronger, Pillali’s mention of being paralyzed by fear and waiting for a miracle were not unfamiliar. I have seen a good number of arts and cultural organizations where miracle seeking in the face of a paralyzing crisis has been the default mode of operation. I have felt fortunate that I was not on the inside of those organizations because I have had the unfortunate experience of being on the inside of organizations that operated in this way.

California Symphony–They Speak Your Language

I was excited to see Aubrey Bergauer posted a follow up to her original 2016 Orchestra X post regarding how the California Symphony was acting on the feedback it has received about the concert planning and attending experience. I have written about some of Aubrey’s work since then, but I was eager to see a cumulative reflection.

Unfortunately, her post came in the middle of the holiday production crunch so I only got around to reading it this week.

A couple of really interesting things that caught my attention in this latest post. First was the counter-intuitive value in leaving past events posted on the website. I always want to get the clutter of old information off my website so it is easy for potential attendees to find the information they want. While this is probably an important practice generally, for the California Symphony, leaving that information available helped bolster their credibility. She writes,

1) As the season progressed, this list got awkwardly short, especially for an orchestra like the California Symphony that doesn’t perform as frequently as our bigger-budget peers. Participants told us they couldn’t believe we didn’t perform more often, and it looked even worse when only a few concerts were on that list. 2) As they were trying to “get a sense of what we’re about,” as they said, they couldn’t really tell based on only a handful of upcoming shows

Another thing is that they started running digital ads in both English and Spanish. The Spanish ads have a link to a Spanish language landing page.

That pilot test did lead to a measurable increase in Latinx households, and so we decided to put some money behind developing the new site in both languages. Now, when we run ads in Spanish, we can link to landing pages in the same language, another step in making this important segment in our community feel invited and welcome here, as well as give them the information they need to join us.

This was not new information to me because Aubrey has been reporting her success attracting a broader audience segment on Twitter for a few weeks now.

While she didn’t report on the outcomes of the changes, her discussion of how they adjusted some of the website sections to be outwardly focused rather than inwardly focused gave me something to think about. For example, instead of “Education” as a navigation header they are using “Off Stage” with subheaders focused on kids, adults and artists. They also changed “Support Us” to the more outwardly oriented “Your Support.”

A lot of the work they did was in the area of providing background information both in their program book and website. Their program notes are more about the background of the artists and music than the technical details of the music. They have song clips and information drawn from Wikipedia available online for those who want to know more. They changed their writing style to short bullet points rather than paragraphs.

Aubrey provides the rationale behind these changes based both in research and user feedback so it is definitely worth while to read this recent post.

Who Knows The Problem Best, Makes The Decision

Recently over at Nonprofit AF, Vu Le talked about the problem of decision fatigue experienced by executives and other leaders. He mentions that his organization has been using an alternative decision making process called Advice Process though he doesn’t like that name and suggests,

Feedback-Informed Networked-Autonomous Lateral (FINAL)

[…]

In the FINAL decision-making process, whoever is closest to the issue area is the person who makes the decision, provided they do two things: Check in with people who will be affected by their decision, and check in with people who may have information and advice that might help them make the best decision.

The web page Vu links to explaining the Advice Process makes it clear this is not consensus building.

It is a misunderstanding that self-management decisions are made by getting everyone to agree, or even involving everyone in the decision. The advice seeker must take all relevant advice into consideration, but can still make the decision.

Consensus may sound appealing, but it’s not always most effective to give everybody veto power. In the advice process, power and responsibility rest with the decision-maker. Ergo, there is no power to block.

Vu lists a number of benefits to this approach including cultivating an environment where there is better decision making, critical thinking and relationship building. He also says employees feel more empowered and supervisors’ role in the relationship is more focused on coaching and support.

He also admits there is definitely a learning curve that requires trust, restraint, tolerance, and permission to fail as a result of poor decision making. He mentions it can occasionally be difficult to discern with whom decision making should reside and there are some decisions just too big to be made by one person.

There is also the issue that some people and organizational cultures may not be in a place to adapt to this approach. Shifting from a familiar dynamic is not always easy and people want to maintain known roles.

One of the commenters, A Nia Austin-Edwards, shared an anecdote about an organization whose executive director ceded decision making in a similar manner. The staff wasn’t educated and prepared in the process and consistent coaching wasn’t provided to guide the staff. This was exacerbated by some traumatic organizational history.

But overall this may be something your organization might want to consider adopting. Some of the burn out staff may experience may be attributable to a feeling a lack of control and authority within the organization–that they are subject to the whims of others whose motivations they don’t understand. A structure that allows people to become more involved in decision making may help alleviate some of that.

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