Leadership from the Ground Up

onward upward

This week my local historical society–full disclosure, I am a board member–spent part of its monthly meeting discussing the American Association of State and Local History’s (AASLH) Standards and Excellence Program or StEPS. Now in its second year in Connecticut, where it is supported by the Connecticut League of History Organizations and Connecticut Humanities, StEPs brings museum 101 to small organizations. The program takes two years and each organization admitted is also partnered with a mentor. Participating organizations are encouraged, prodded and coaxed to meet like organizations around the state to compare problems, projects, and goals. They attend workshops with guest speakers where they are encouraged to bring as many board members as they want for a modest $10 each. All good, right? Well, yes, except for the part about Governor Dannell Malloy zeroing the Connecticut Humanities budget a month ago, it’s better than good. It’s very good, except for–wait for it–you knew it was coming–the program’s governance piece.

One of the bolder statements Anne and I made in Leadership Matters was that if museums and historical organizations had invested as much over the last quarter century in leadership as they had in interpretation and collections management, the field would be in a different place. In fact, we feel so strongly about this that before writing Leadership Matters we wrote an online handbook called “What Comes First?” for individuals charged with starting museums or historical organizations. (It’s available through the Museum Association of New York.) So while we’re totally on board with StEPs, we wish the governance piece were more rigorous.

It’s possible for a volunteer board to emerge from the governance section of the StEPs program, having shed the traditional mission statement of protect, collect and interpret the history of wherever, and yet still not understand the arc of growth that strong organizations take from mission-driven, all-volunteer boards to boards whose goal is to hire a part or full-time director. To us there is a difference. It doesn’t make the former bad people, but it certainly separates the sheep from the goats. And in a subtle way, the organizations that are able to make the leap, have also intuited the idea that as non-profits we hold a public trust. It’s not about the board’s comfort level around the table; it’s not about the parts of local history they are interested in, it’s about their community however it is defined. And it’s about a quality and commitment to leadership–which, granted could be all-volunteer–that keeps the organization on a forward, financially stable trajectory, committed to something more than mediocrity.

Which is worse: A historic house with beautifully organized and cared for collections, but no visitors, or the same historic house filled with laughter, argument, lively discussion, and plenty of people? No, we are not suggesting that collections aren’t important. They are. For most organizations they are the catalysts that spawn ideas. But too many history organizations and their staffs are mired in process to the detriment of leadership. Their leaders manage but do not lead.

So what are we suggesting? Well, for the complete laundry list, see page 201 of Leadership Matters and our Leadership Revolution Agenda for History and Cultural Organizations. In the short term, of course we support more states following Connecticut’s model–not the Governor–but CLHO and CTHumanities–and participating in StEPs or programs like it, but we’d push everyone one step further and ask them to not stop at a new mission statement, but actually talk about where they as a group want to see their organization in one, three or five years. And to jot down the things they need to get there. And to partner with their local Rotary or Chamber of Commerce or bank. Approaching non-profit work as if it were a business isn’t bad. After all, if your “product” is happy people in the galleries, noisy, contented children getting back on the school bus and a growing membership, what’s not to like.

Joan Baldwin

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2 Comments on “Leadership from the Ground Up”

  1. Trevor Jones says:

    Amen! All the good management in the world doesn’t do any good if you lose sight of where you’re going. There’s very little point in spending time organizing your collections if you don’t have a plan for how you’re going to use them. Unfortunately, all of our museum evaluation programs separate the “what” questions from the all-important “why” questions — which simply reinforces the disconnect you describe.

    • Thanks for that Trevor. I always feel sort of cold-blooded when I make these kind of statements, but wouldn’t it be better for a beginning history organization to leave the stuff in moving boxes and figure out how to build a committed, invested board before building a building?
      Stay in touch. If enough of us harp on this someday we’ll turn the Titanic.
      Best,
      Joan


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