Monday, November 12, 2018

Board of Director Accountability as to Our Public Benefit - A Can of Worms

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on....................."

Nobody owns a nonprofit.  The IRS grants the organizations a special tax status because the entities are classified as "public benefit corporations".  It is because they benefit the public that they are treated differently than commercial enterprises.

But who decides what that benefit is?  Who monitors to determine if the benefit is actually being met?

The way the system works, is that, like for profit corporations, nonprofits too have Boards of Directors whose principal duty is a fiduciary one, to make sure the organization's finances are both solid and transparently on the up and up.  Beyond that the Board is unofficially charged with overseeing and insuring the organization is well managed and complies with all legal obligations.

Some Boards see their function as pretty much stopping there, and placing responsibility for the operations and management in the hands of the Executive Director and staff - with some provision for periodic review.  Others Boards have a penchant for micromanagement and see the need to involve themselves in even the smallest of decision making processes and details.

But where is the public oversight to monitor that the nonprofit is, indeed, benefiting the public?  Where are the rules and regulations that insure fair, impartial and meaningful community (public) representation on the Board?  Where is the reporting mechanisms that demonstrate to the public that its benefit is being conferred?

For a variety of reasons, including the difficulty, if not impossibility, of defining what the public good is or is suppose to be, the answers to these questions is there isn't any such oversight, nor protocols or regulations which need be adhered to or followed to protect the public.  This is true irrespective of whether or not the nonprofit is involved in social justice or the arts, health care or education; whether or not the organization is deemed political in its ideology or is religious in nature, or both, or neither.  It's true with very wealthy organizations and threadbare startups; large and small.  Nonprofit governance is left to the organization itself.

Yes, various states have some rules to govern nonprofit governance, but in the main, unless there is scandal or some public outcry, there is no government interference, but for the occasional use of the sector as a political hot potato.

And the likely reason for this hands-off legacy is that neither political side wants to open this can of worms, because what will be good for the goose, will be good for the gander.  Thus the political right might want to seriously regulate nonprofits it feels exceed their mandate, or in some way offend it, and conclude the public benefit is minimal, or useless, if not non-existent, but they don't want any of the same kinds of draconian rules applied to religious organizations (which make up the bulk of charities of all kinds).  Nobody wants to touch the question of nonprofit accountability in benefiting the public; not directly, nor indirectly, by tempering with how the Boards of Directors of these organizations function.  Beyond raising alarm for fund raising purposes, politically it is a no win situation.

In many established, large or wealthy nonprofits, the Boards are top heavy with civic leaders and those who have credentials the organizations deem valuable, not the least of which might be their wealth or fund raising ability and acumen.  That's true in the arts as well.  Smaller and newer organizations may have Boards of local community members, many of whom are new to the arena and novices in their role.  Enthusiasm and passion are their coin of the realm.

But in neither case are these Boards in any real way accountable to the public beyond the obvious legal fiduciary obligations.  Nowhere are decisions as to programming or otherwise under any microscope as to their intent or effectiveness in serving a public benefit.

The other reason this has virtually always been the case, is that such review and evaluation could easily devolve into factions within a nonprofit fighting for control of the organization, not necessarily to right a ship off-course, but to force and impose their interpretation of public good for another faction's beliefs, thereby paralyzing the organization by infighting.  Such fights would, more often than not, be about control, not public benefit.  And how would those disputes be resolved?  The courts?  OMG, there would be another can of worms that might grind the work of nonprofits, so caught up, to a standstill.  That hardly serves any benefit to the public.  And it's hard to see how anyone befits if those kinds of disputes are argued in public.

So, other than a commitment to transparency in, not just financial / fiduciary matters, but as to decision making (which transparency is more the exception than the rule), it seems an impossible task to regulate how a public good is defined or delivered.

But does that mean the question shouldn't be asked, or ways to address it shouldn't be considered?

Take, for example, philanthropic nonprofits just in the arts sector.  Most of these organizations have governing Boards of stalwart civic citizens, a preponderance of whom are either wealthy or in prominent positions of power within business, politics or the community.  And our studies have confirmed that these foundations, on average and on balance, continue to make large grants to the largest organizations - often at the expense (because even the richest foundations do not have unlimited grant funds) of smaller, newer organizations.

Is that in the public benefit?  Who's to say?  I believe you can make an argument on either side of that question.  And people on both sides of that issue within our field have strong feelings one way or the other.  There are, in fact, often differences of opinion between the Boards and staffs within a foundation, and within their funding territory and community.  That's healthy I think.

Ultimately, it might be argued, the public itself determines whether or not it's getting a benefit by their support, or lack thereof, for the individual nonprofit.  That such conference of approval is often by relatively small and arguably, special interest groups, notwithstanding, that system has its impact.

But is there anything that can be done to help improve the quality of that debate so that all the factions within a community are given voice as the decision making goes on?  Many would argue that the first step in helping to insure that the public benefits is to diversify the governing Boards so that a community's diverse constituency is fully represented.  Though with the best of intentions, that hasn't always worked.  Boards tend to be insular and self protective.  And they tend to replace themselves with people like themselves. The larger, older and wealthier the organization, the more so. Board diversity could be mandated legally at the state level, but again, politicians are reluctant to get embroiled in any kind of fight that might alienate even one segment of their constituency.  There is a movement afoot to diversify boards, but that movement is still embryonic.

An idea that I think has merit, is for nonprofits in our field, to voluntarily pledge to formalize community input to decision making by way of advisory boards or committees. Yes, I know such a proposal adds an unwanted and perhaps undesirable and burdensome level of bureaucracy, and such boards or committees as already exist, often function in name only.  But to the extent, our Boards can open up to allow for community input, arguably the public benefit can be better protected and served, and more formally codified.

Virtually every arts nonprofit legitimately believes that it facilitates the creation, performance or exhibition, and preservation of art, and is thus beneficial to the public, and except in the rarest of cases I think that would be hard to dispute.   But is there value in formally and periodically asking:  How are we benefiting the public?  Would not the way we answer that question help us in discharging our missions, preparing our advocacy work, justifying our value to the public and funding authorities, and help inform and guide our programming and otherwise be useful to us?

Of course, we may not actually be willing to open up how we conceive of public benefit, let alone how we define it.  But it is a legitimate issue i think.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Monday, October 29, 2018

Get Out the Vote. Where are the arts?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on........................"

The mid-term election is next week.

There seems to be consensus across the political spectrum on one thing:  This may be the most important election of our lives.  It will tell us, and the world, a lot about what kind of a country we want, and the direction in which we are heading.  It will send a message about the role America sees itself playing on the world stage for, at least, the immediate future.  It will tell us a lot about what will happen in the 2020 presidential election.  It will set, for the future, our values and aspirations.  And it will determine where the power lies.

And while the pundits suggest the Democrats will regain control of the House, and Republicans will keep control of the Senate, there is more understanding - after the failure of those same pundits to predict Trump's victory in 2016 - about the races being really too close to definitively say what will happen. Of course, this is the pollsters hedging their bets so they don't look the fools they did last time, but it's a realistic understanding that there are simply too many variables to know for sure what will happen.  The Democrats may win both the House and the Senate.  Or the Republicans may keep control of both.  The chances are pretty good that the Red States will become redder and the Blue States bluer - thus cementing the divide between Americans.   But we don't know for sure what will happen.

That makes this election even more critical.

There are lots of people  - on all points of the political spectrum - who will not vote.  Some have washed their hands to the whole of the political process, believing it doesn't matter who is in power - nothing ever changes.  A pox on both their houses as it were.  There are others who believe a Democratic House and a Republican Senate is just a prescription for more gridlock and more acrimony among waring factions.  Why bother?  They reject, or fail to appreciate, the notion that checks and balances have any benefit to the country.

And there are lots of people who don't vote because they simply don't care; while others find it inconvenient.  Still others will be the victims of attempts to, if not disenfranchise them, then make it very difficult to vote.  Some claim they are too busy.  And often times, inclement weather will keep people from voting.

There is also consensus that whichever side succeeds in turning out their partisans to vote, will likely be victorious.  Trump is busy trying to energize his core base.  The Democrats are trying to rally people of color, poor and young people - who tend to favor them.  There are some signs both sides are succeeding,   But to what extent remains unknown until the votes are actually counted.

So no matter what side you or your tribe are on, it is incumbent to try to get your people to vote.  But historically, Americans do not turn out to vote in huge numbers, particularly in an off year presidential election.  The single most important exercise in democracy - the act of voting - and as a country often we can't even turn out half of those eligible.  Unfortunately,  studies show that efforts to get out the vote, largely fail, and that it isn't easy to increase voter turnout.  Even a record turnout would still leave a huge percentage of eligible voters who didn't vote.

Yet while there is no surefire, proven strategy or tactic to get your people to the polls, it seems axiomatically suicidal not to try.

Clearly we all have a stake in this election.  Not just for what it might mean for our self-interest as the nonprofit arts, but for a thousand impacts it will have on the nation - for generations to come.  So we should be trying to get out the vote, but where is the effort from our sector to do that?  Where are the iconic posters touting the need to show up on voting day?  Where are the stories included in our emails and newsletters, on our websites, and in our programs and on flyers?  Where are the announcements from the stage or the podium?  Where are the songs or poetry urging voters to vote? We talk so much about collaborating within the community on social justice issues - where then are those joint efforts to implore, beg, cajole, guilt or otherwise try to influence potential voters to show up?

Maybe I live in a cocoon, but I try to stay abreast of what is going on in the field, and I can't find much evidence that the arts are doing anything to get out the vote.  Why not?  I don't get it.  Perhaps I'm just blind to lots of energy in this area.  If so, I'm happy to be corrected.  But if I'm right, and we just aren't doing much to get out the vote, then shame on us.  Really.

I hope any of you who might be reading this can pledge to get at least one person to go vote; one person who might not be planning to vote.  Somehow.

I did see a poster online that said this:  "A FAILURE TO VOTE ISN'T REBELLION.  IT'S SURRENDER."

The thing the last election showed us is that every vote does count, and it doesn't take that many to seal an election one way or the other.

Good luck America.

Vote.  Please.

Don't Quit

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Relentless Barrage of Daily Interruptions Is Messing Up Your Productivity

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on......................"

The older one gets the longer it takes to recover from things, especially physical stuff.  Where once your body would bounce back seemingly instantly, as your age advances that's no longer the case.  You can and do recover, it just takes longer.  Another one of the nasty little things about the golden years.

And speaking of recovery, there is now ample evidence that it takes increasingly more time to recover from the barrage of daily interruptions to your work productivity.   This seems particularly true when you really need to focus on getting something done (e.g., a major report, grant application, presentation or ?).  According to  UC Irvine study, quoted in Training Magazine

"People spend an average of 11 minutes on a project before they’re interrupted. It takes them on average 25 minutes to get back to the point they were at before a distraction.
Even after a 2.8-second interruption, subjects in a study doubled their error rates. And their error rates tripled after a 4.5-second distraction, says the Journal of Experimental Psychology."

According to an article on interruptions in

"Interruptions come at great cost. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that, on average, people spend three minutes and five seconds (see, it’ll be fine) on an activity before switching to another task, and 10.5 minutes before switching to a completely new project. And, they found, if a task is interrupted, it takes more than 20 minutes to fully adjust back to the task. 
Other studies show that interruption scenarios significantly decrease work quality. Researchers at Michigan State University asked participants to complete a computer-­sequencing-based task. Every so often, the participants were interrupted with a request to input two unrelated letters -- a task of 2.8 seconds -- before continuing with the sequence. Those interruptions led to twice as many errors in the sequencing task."

Oh dear!

Interruptions of any kind disturb the rhythm of getting work done. That's true if your brainstorming, writing, preparing a presentation, or working in other ways on a given project.

Is it then any wonder why what should take a finite period of time seems to take increasingly unnecessarily long hours to accomplish?

What can be done to minimize the negative aspects of constant interruptions, or really how to avoid many of those interruptions in the first place?  We've got the deal with this issue for the simple reason that the demands on our time are increasing while our available time is not, and if the work that needs to get done, doesn't, then the enterprise (our part or the whole thing) is in jeopardy.

While you can't necessarily control all the interruptions your body must endure as you age, you can take some actions to, if not eliminate, then reduce the interruptions to your work situation.

There are some ways to block out the interruptions at least for those times when you won't get done what you need to get done if you don't.  


1.  Simply ignoring incoming communications for a finite period of time.  Let people know you're unavailable via email, texting or telephone for X number of hours on any given day or days.  Don't worry if some kind of emergency comes up, people will find a way to let you know.  And then resist the temptation to check for incoming messages via whatever platform.  At least for a couple of hours.

2.  Organizations can sanction and facilitate working at home on those occasions when you really need to be productive.  According to a Rescue Time Blog post, a majority of workers cite personal visits or inquiries by co-workers as the most invasive kind of interruption (one that can't really be ignored).  Of course, home has its own set of distractions and interruptions, and so you would have to specifically deal with those up front, but working at home doesn't have all the workplace distractions.

3.  If working at home occasionally, as needed, isn't a viable option, then try to just get out of the office for and hour or two during the day.  Go to your favorite coffee shop and work there.  For many people that option is actually conductive to getting work done.

4.  Ask your coworkers and other colleagues how they cope with the incessant interruptions in the workplace when they need to get work finished.  Maybe they have their own approaches that would work for you too.

5.  Close your door and put a note on it that says you are unavailable for X period of time.  Do NOT Disturb.   It's probably a good idea to advise people upfront of your intention to do this.  And that notice may help them to respect your wishes and avoid the seemingly innocent:  "Can I ask you a quick question?"  Your answer to that ought to be:  "You just did, and the answer is no." 

Of course, not all the interruptions that threaten your productivity are external based. There are also the interruptions that have their genesis in your head.  Often times when faced with a critical deadline or major piece of work that not only needs to get done on a timeline, but needs to be really superb when finished, our minds throw up blocks to getting it done.  We have all experienced writer's block or some other form of an inability to hunker down to the task at hand.  You may succeed in eliminating most of the interruptions that plague your concentration, but still not remedy the internal workings of your mind that will allow you to focus on the one thing you need to finish.

There are, I'm sure, tricks and techniques to deal with that challenge too.  Google it.

Have a good week with minimal interruptions!

Don't Quit

Note:  My own interruptions mean I will henceforth likely be blog posting every two weeks, instead of every week - at least for awhile.