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Setting an Agenda

May 12, 2015

Recently, I was approached with questions from a board member of a nonprofit organization in trouble about changes they will be making in their systems and procedures. Looking for suggestions, I told her they were off base and needed to get their priorities straight. At the same time, I was shown a retreat agenda from another nonprofit organization… Also off base.

Both organizations have admirable functions, a concerned and involved Board and a desire to expand the purposes of their organizations. Unfortunately, they also miss the point.

The first organization that was in trouble has a declining member and revenue base, yet they were concerned about something that does not address their main issue – staying alive and remaining relevant. I told them they need to focus on improving member retention and getting new members. Not coming up with a plan for this will be fatal. The absence of having good systems is an annoyance, maybe costly and perhaps stupid, but not terminal.

The agenda I saw was for an offsite 2½ day retreat. The impressive agenda had no time allotted for ways to engage or to improve services to members. I might be missing something but isn’t an organization’s raison d’être about the “customers” who, in this case, are the members. This organization is extremely successful, so maybe the Board chair doesn’t think member services need any attention. For me, it’s always about the customers. They also had a half an hour allocated for their strategic plan update. I don’t know what their plan is, and it might include something dealing with members, but I know there is a dearth of younger people on their Board. Perhaps some time should be devoted to this.

Part of the purpose of meetings and retreats is to engage Board members, promote camaraderie and to have fun. However, the main purpose should be to find ways to make the organization better, more important to members or customers, grow memberships and to be more profitable.

As Stephen Covey said: Make the Main Thing, the Main Thing!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Kevin Miller permalink
    May 26, 2015 3:38 pm

    I used to be involved with a community theater that had great success at the time my wife and I joined it. Starting out as a determined group of amateurs that rented stage time from local high schools, over the course of ten years they were able to get the county to donate unused land and to raise enough funds to build a 400 seat theater of their own. When we became involved, they had 300 dues-paying members who did all the work the theater required. They also put on five shows every year, twelve performances per show, and had 3,000 season ticket subscribers. Pretty impressive!

    Gradually, a small group began to monopolize the management of the theater and things began to slide downhill. If a board member was thinking of resigning from office, he or she would always do so immediately after the general elections–which meant the president could appoint a replacement until the next elections rather than have an open election for the office. The committee assignments for choosing plays and directors were kept closely held and it probably won’t surprise you to hear that the members of that committee chose the plays they wanted to direct and appointed themselves directors (mostly) or ended up starring in the play another committee member was directing. When they wanted to shrink the board of directors from fifteen people to twelve, one of the positions they eliminated was Membership Director, during a time when membership slid from 300 people to 140 people in just over two years. They eliminated the monthly membership newsletter. They put more and more restrictions on who could serve on the board of directors (to keep control close) and raised the number of hours of annual participation required even to vote for directors. When I left, there were 120 members and less than 40 qualified to vote in the annual election.

    And of course, production quality suffered too. We lost season ticket holders over the same period. From a high of 3,000, we dropped to less than 1,300 in four years. Why? Season ticket holders trust you to put on good performances, not plays that that the people picking them want to direct or star in. What ended up happening was that many people started to wait until the reviews came out in the newspapers before buying single play tickets. When you are only running a show for three weeks, you end up losing much of your patronage for the first week with even a good show, then sell out the second and last week.

    And while all this was going on, the thing that took up most of the insiders time was an annual awards dinner (ala the Emmy Awards). The annual dinner and ceremony was held each July, and the planning for it started (I kid you not) the previous August. Instead of competing in the marketplace for patrons, they competed among themselves for plastic trophies for “Best Director” and such.

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