Time To Review – To Whom Are You Accountable?

During the Covid pandemic there has been a fair bit of introspection and soul searching about arts and culture, the role they should have in people’s lives, and the medium through which the experience should be delivered.

Now that there is some optimism about a transition to a relatively better operational environment for businesses and other organizations,  (Yes, i am indeed taking pains not to use terms like “return to normal”), it is definitely time to think about how those theories will be manifested.

Vu Le linked to an important essay by Hildy Gottlieb addressing the question of to whom non-profits should be accountable. Her primary thesis is that it is illogical to view the organization as accountable to funders & donors. She dissects the illogic of the implications of a funder accountable position. Among her best examples is the following:

If organizations are primarily accountable to donors, and a donor dies, is the organization still accountable to that person? What if it’s been 30 years since they died, and the world has changed dramatically — are you still accountable to that person’s wishes? Or are you accountable to their heirs? What if the heirs don’t care about your mission — perhaps their mother was an animal lover, and they could never understand that part of her. Maybe they even hate your organization. Are you accountable to the second and third generations of a donor who loved you, even if her heirs do not?

Gottlieb says the organizational mission determines to whom you are accountable. If your mission is serving a certain group, but they take a backseat to funders, then you are not fulfilling your mission. She addresses the concept of there being no mission to execute without the money with the following anecdote:

I once found myself in conversation with board members from a federally funded health center, who all listed patient health as their highest priority. However, one board member kept insisting, “We can only prioritize patient care to the extent we have the money to do so.”

So I took a sheet of paper and wrote “Values Statement’ at the top. Then I wrote, “Our primary focus will always be the health of our patients, as long as we have the money to do so.” I asked if that is what they would like to post in their lobby.

Suddenly their sense of accountability shifted.

She also notes that in the United States the organization has tax-exempt status in return for providing a public service. The reason for being and accountability is the public service and not the money. The “good stewardship” of funds that results in underpaid staff who turn over at a high rate doesn’t help the organization to advance it’s mission.

“Focusing their primary accountability on the money, we see board members spend a huge percentage of their time discussing financial matters, and often zero time discussing what success would look like in their community”

Gottlieb also debunks the sense that fundraising is a result of relationship building, the oft voice sentiment “people give to people, not organizations.” She says no one is fooled that the relationship is more than a transactional one:

Here is what “fundraising is about relationships” really tells a donor:

If you give us money, we will be your friend.
If we think you will give us money, we will court you as our friend.
The more money you give us, the more friendly we will be.
If you fail to give us money, we will eventually stop calling you.

If we truly valued donors as people, we would stop categorizing them as LYBUNTs and SYBUNTs.

So much of what she writes can easily be applied to the way arts and cultural organizations approach donors/members/volunteers. While I often say it is worthwhile to read an article, I strongly emphasize the importance of reading this one and thinking about how the opportunity for a fresh start will change the way your organization operates moving forward.

I was considering putting such an emphatic statement at the beginning of this post, but considered that anyone who read this far would be more prepared to make the effort toward this goal.

I strongly suspect being more steadfast in prioritizing mission over money will make accomplishing progress in areas of equity and inclusion suddenly much easier than it was before.

Well Done Rare Medium

It is pretty widely acknowledged that people who work for non-profits do so for intangible benefits like a feeling of contributing to the betterment of society and self-actualization rather than rewarding levels of remuneration.

Of all the benefits non-profit workers feel they get from the work they do, compliments are probably not one of them. A story in Harvard Business Review noted that two research efforts found that while people felt that compliments were beneficial and should be given more often, many people refrained from expressing compliments to others.

…we consistently found that people underestimated how good their compliment would make the recipient feel. Compliment-givers tend to believe the other person won’t enjoy their interaction as much as they actually do; in fact, they often believe that their exchange will probably make the person a little uncomfortable. Yet, consistently, receiving a compliment brightens people’s day much more than anticipated, leaving them feeling better, and less uncomfortable, than givers expect.


In fact, only 50% of people in one experiment who wrote down a compliment for a friend actually sent the compliment along when given the chance, even though they’d already done the hardest part — coming up with something nice and thoughtful to say. That is, despite the widely shared desire to give more compliments, when faced with the decision people still often forgo low-cost opportunities to make others feel appreciated and valued.

Among the concerns people had were that their delivery of the compliment would be awkward and that repeatedly giving compliments on consecutive days would diminish the value of the praise and be perceived as increasingly insincere.

The authors conclude by noting that gratitude and praise is especially important now more than ever and advocate for creating a culture of gratitude:

As Aron Ain, CEO of Ultimate Kronos Group has said, “Gratitude is not about a one-time holiday party, day off, or spot bonus…It is about creating a culture of gratitude.”

(Title of this post is based on a recollection of a clue in a Hardy Boys book from ~40 years ago where the antagonist writes a note congratulating a fortune teller.)

Why Are You Asking Me On Board?

A piece I wrote on diversity efforts in board recruitment appeared on ArtsHacker last week. I primarily drew the content from a piece Jim Taylor, BoardSource’s vice president of leadership initiatives and education, wrote about his experiences being recruited for board membership.

He said his primary litmus test when being recruited to join a board is to ask what value he would bring to the board. He says this is a question anyone being recruited to join a board should ask. However, if the recruiter can’t provide a satisfactory answer that emphasizes his expertise or experience over his racial background, Taylor says he considers the real conversation is finished.

I quote the following in the ArtsHacker post:

Taylor observes that when people of color achieve something, it is often assumed a bar had been lowered to allow them to accomplish it. “So when a White board member recruits me and effectively diminishes the totality of my assets and qualifications to one aspect of my identity – my race–… I am still being seen as “less than”.

I go on to note that white board members have often been recruited based on their ability to garner financial support or exert influence on behalf of the organization rather than expertise they may bring to the table and no one questions their qualifications, mostly because their identity is viewed as the default norm.

My organization recruited new board members a few months back and I made an effort to specify what elements of people’s experience and background we felt was beneficial to the organization. I don’t believe I had read Taylor’s piece at that time.

However, in on a recent grant application where we were asked to discuss how we were diversifying our board, I did burn through a good portion of the precious character limit enumerating the value each of our new board members brought with them, mindful of Taylor’s article and wanting to make a small contribution toward mainstreaming this thinking.

As governance and equity become increasingly important considerations for non-profit boards, what someone brings is likewise a significant question all parties should be asking.


Many Lens of Board Recruitment

Heavy Lifting of Leadership Occurs Before Baton Is Raised

A week ago I cited a couple of posts Seth Godin had made about leadership. I and other readers were taken by his statement that leadership is a voluntary, risky and creative endeavor.

Since then he actually made a post about leadership that is directly related to the arts, using the what the public sees of an orchestra conductor vs. what the time and effort that under girds their appearance as a metaphor for all leadership.

(Just to note, I don’t know his characterization of what conductors do is completely accurate and exclusive to conductors within an organization, but trust the reader will get the overall meaning.)

Godin opens by saying the quality of a conductor is judged in one-two hour increments in which they wave a small stick and don’t make any noise. However, among the things great conductors do are:

Conductors set the agenda.

They amplify the hard work and esprit de corps of some, while working to damp down the skeptics within the organization.
They figure out which voices to focus on, when.
They have less power than it appears, and use their position to lead, not manage.

They transform a lot of ‘me’s’ into one ‘us’.

They stick with it for decades.

It’s a form of leadership that happens in private, but once in a while, we see it on stage.

In the interests of not copying and pasting 3/4 of a blog post, this is only an excerpt of his list. The gaps indicate where some of the omissions fall. Take a look at the full post if you are interested.

Like the posts I quoted last week, Godin’s view of leadership is one of generosity and humility that doesn’t seek the limelight or employ some form of duress to accomplish an objective. Though there also seems to be an implication that recognition is a natural reward for taking on the risk and work of being a leader. I am not sure that is entirely accurate in practice–especially when faced by people who employ or value the opposite characteristics.

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