Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Gratitude and Generosity

It’s that time of year when we tend to think about and express our gratitude more often than usual. We are grateful for the love and support of family and friends, for good health, food in the cupboard, for kindness and understanding from others. We also tend to be more generous this time of year, serving a meal at a shelter, dropping money in the kettle of the bell ringers, or writing a check to a favorite charity. We certainly hope our museums will be on the receiving end of others’ generosity with a year-end gift.

While valuing both gratitude and generosity, I’ve gradually decided that gratitude is relatively easy; generosity takes work. Generosity, it seems, is a more demanding, active, and compassionate form of gratitude. With gratitude someone else’s generosity or a lucky moment has enhanced us. We feel grateful to be on the receiving end of someone’s good will, gift, attention, or extra effort. How hard is that? On the other hand, when we have given up time, wisdom, or money, our generosity enhances the situation or wellbeing of someone else, not ourselves. Generosity is our giving without the expectation of someone else’s gratitude.

We are likely to think of people like Bill and Melinda Gates when we think of being generous. There is a link between generosity and resources with a long-standing connection between generosity and the elite. In fact, the origin of the word generosity is from the Latin word meaning of noble birth.

We don’t, however, need to be rich to be generous. True generosity is the quality of giving good things to others freely and open-heartedly. We can be generous with time, attention, advice, donating our body’s blood or organ, patience, kindness, hospitality, mentoring, money, or service to others. Everyone, even very young children and people with seemingly few resources can be generous to others.

Generosity is a disposition to do well towards others. As an inclination to act in a certain way, generosity is something we can all practice. While it takes more time and effort than a polite thank you, we can all do an errand for someone else, let someone get ahead of us in line, and remember the anniversaries of loss and suffering. We can live in generous ways in everyday moments, giving more than we think we have to give, sharing more than may feel convenient, or giving what’s needed with respect.

Giving is both an individual and a social act. When we give, we are contributing in some way to others in a social network, to our neighbors, members of our congregation, someone we tutor, a homeless family receiving a meal, or refugees living in a camp on another continent. The act of giving connects us to others and contributes to a stronger social network that may be small and near, or distant and large.

It might sound like a Hallmark greeting card to say that generosity gives twice–at least. Our mentoring, financial contribution, time listening, or doing a favor contributes to someone else’s wellbeing. In return, these actions refresh what we have allowing us to recognize our capabilities, enjoy a sense of purpose, or appreciate that we are in a position to give. Giving further serves our enlightened self-interest and how we see ourselves.

Of greatest interest to me is a generosity of spirit, giving that depends less on the money we have or the opportunities and privilege we have received from others. In that sense, it is more available to more of us and with fewer limits. Having money to act on behalf of others or in the interest of our community is not required.

Generosity Has Such Wide Arms
Although generosity does not necessarily beget generosity, it does spread good will, redistribute advantages, and create openings for change. When museums cultivate a spirit of generosity within themselves in addition to encouraging supporters to give time and money to their missions, they create larger openings that invite and inspire people and ideas.

Along with playing a valued role in their communities, museums’ generosity can help strengthen communities. Museum resources like spaces can be meeting places, event spaces, or even platforms for friends and partners to support their friends and partners. Museum expertise in problem solving, event planning, or creating interactive experiences can help community groups meet their goals, and not just advance those of the museum. Helping partners meet their goals makes stronger partners and a stronger community.

The museum field is a generous field. We share ideas and lessons learned about what worked and didn’t. I know this first hand. Without the generosity of strangers in museums who became friends and colleagues, I would not have managed to start a museum, expand a museum, help museums grow, or write a blog. Such helpful, generous guidance from so many is a model for me and for others to make introductions, share resources, and give away ideas. Because any idea is inspired by the generosity of others sharing their ideas, what they have seen, heard, and thought before, giving away ideas provides others with fresh ideas for their thinking. 

In our museums and professional service groups, a generous spirit helps build a culture of respect and acceptance. This spirit allows us to give someone the benefit of the doubt, tolerate ideas and behaviors that may be at odds with our own, listen to someone with who we disagree as if they might be rightThis act could inspire someone to go out of their way for someone who needs something, not expecting anything in return.

Gratitude is appreciating life’s gifts. Generosity is sharing life’s gifts. We need gratitude. But we are diminished without generosity. We could probably survive as a species and a society if we didn’t feel and express gratitude. There would, undoubtedly, be consequences of not hearing someone say thank you, or not opening an envelope to read heartfelt thanks. We could not, however, survive without generosity of spirit, open-hearted sharing, and true giving.

Of course, acting generously does not, for a moment, mean not feeling and expressing gratitude as well.

— Originally posted 11/2017 —

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Growing Pains

Part of this series on growing a museum, this was first posted in 2018

It happened again recently. Another, unplanned, leadership transition in a young, 3-5 year old, museum. Again, I get over my surprise; everything seemed to be going well. 

Again I think about the bumpy spots all museums encounter. Like any organization, these museums are experiencing, and will experience, rough spots and growing pains. Some bumps are easier than others. The departure of an executive director is a challenge, but not an unusual one. An unplanned departure makes it even harder. Often when it happens, is what makes it hard.

Again I wonder about the museum’s next steps, the probable executive search, and who I might know or know of who would be a good fit for the museum and the position.

Inevitably, I come around to the realization that this museum is navigating a transition from one stage to another in its organizational life-cycle. Just as humans go through life stages (think infancy, early childhood, adolescence, and right on through old-age) so do non-profit organizations, including museums. Planned or unplanned, leadership transitions often occur when a museum is making a shift from one stage to the next. In fact, bumpy spots occur at somewhat predictable points in a museum’s development. In the case of these 3-5 year old museums, they are moving from a start-up stage to a growth stage. Not surprisingly, they are living somewhat in both stages. In this situation, the referred pain of growth is likely.

The idea of organizational lifecycles comes from several fields. The work of Susan KennyStevens, a non-profit management consultant based in the Twin Cities has been a helpful tool in my work. In her book Non-profit Life-cycles: Stage-based Wisdom for Non-profit Capacity, Kenny Stevens presents seven lifecycle stages that nonprofit organizations, including museums, typically go through: the Idea stage, Start-up stage, Growth stage, Maturity stage, Decline stage, Turn-around stage and sometimes, the Terminal stage.

Museums of every kind, size, and age experience life-cycle stages. Often these times are rough for staff, board, and sometimes even partners and visitors. A life-cycles approach, however, can be a helpful tool for a board, executive director, staff, and even funders. Besides serving as a tool for navigating a transition, this approach can also help depersonalize difficult discussions and decisions at a stressful time for the organization.

Understanding Stages
While inevitable, stages are not deterministic with one stage automatically following another like cruising through state after state on a cross-country road trip. Completing a stage and moving on to the next requires deliberate effort, activity on many fronts, and working together at another scale and complexity. New opportunities come along; there are staff and board transitions; new systems are needed; and some things must be discarded.

The young museums I’m thinking about signaled an intention to leave the Start-up stage when, accompanied by great celebration and popular response, they opened to the public. The Growth stage seemed certain to follow. Moving through stages, however, is not automatic. Opening the museum doors doesn’t necessarily mean completely closing the door to the Start-up stage and stepping over the threshold into Growth.

And while stages may be clear, the boundaries between them are notConsequently, a museum is likely to be straddling more than one stage and not even realize it.

A stage is not simply a place a museum bides its time or plows ahead to get to the other side. Rather, a stage describes developmental periods when characteristic patterns of behavior emerge, develop, and are resolved. The major tasks that need to be accomplished in every stage cluster in five organizational capacity areas: Programs (including exhibits and programs), Management, Administrative Systems, Financial Resources, and Governance.

Work to Be Done
Managing success in any stage and the transition to the next one relies on having sufficient internal capacity in all five areas. Development–or capacity–in organizations however, is usually uneven and occurs at different rates very much as it does across domains—physical, social, emotional, and cognitive—in humans. Uneven capacity across areas is likely to show up as a rough patch or growing pains.

In museums, and in the Growth Stage in particular, exhibits, products and services are generally more mature than other capacity areas like Administrative Systems or Financial Resources. A museum’s offerings expand in response to public demand. Staff races to keep up; financial tracking systems lag behind. Capacity areas like Administrative Systems or Financial Resources often need time and targeted resources to catch up, for both building new capacity and shedding old ways.

Processes for budget development, program planning, on-boarding staff, and recruiting board members may have been outgrown—or were never even established. New levels of accountability are needed. What worked for a staff of 7 and a founding board may be inadequate for a staff of 20 and a board of many new recruits. The nature of the work to be done in a stage is not necessarily immediately obvious. For instance, “communication” surfacing as a recurring issue—communication with and among staff, staff leadership, the board—often indicates related capacity issues. Nevertheless, communication internally and externally IS more critical than ever.

– For Everyone
Having the necessary capacity also means having the right people in the right positions: staff, staff leadership, and board. In every stage, staff, board, and staff leadership have specific roles to play, and these roles change across stages. For instance, a board needs to shift from being hands on to being strategic. The executive director needs to have the right characteristics to work with the board and be positioned to lead through a period of growth and development.

Finding the right person to complete a museum leadership team, to fit with the board and fit with staff, can be a challenge any time. Especially when a founding ED has left and a new stage of organizational development is unfolding, a successful search can be challenging. A museum may not get it right the first time. Kenny Stevens points out that, while more has been written about the start-up stage, it is really the growth stage that is the more complex management challenge.

When I return to thinking about what comes next for these museums and I look through the lens of organizational stages, I think about them quite differently. Regardless of its size, age, stage, or focus, every museum faces essentially the same task: building and aligning capacity across all 5 areas. And because every museum is different, there isn’t a set way to move smoothly and gracefully from one stage to another.

An organizational life-cycle approach, however, does help a museum get unstuck and develop a shared idea of how to move forward. It invites a museum to understand which stage it is in, to diagnose its internal capacity across areas, to identify where behaviors are out of sync, and to begin to grow and align its capacity.

The approach doesn’t solve everything. No tool does. Moving from one stage to another, however, is also an opportunity for a museum to become a better version of itself.