Board Leadership Guest Series: Changing the Face of Reality

September 20, 2010

With only three weeks until the October kick off the Dodge Foundation’s Board Leadership Training Series, past workshop participants share valuable “takeaways” that have changed the way they work. The series began with Laura Otten of the Nonprofit Centre at LaSalle University’s School of Business. She challenged board members to make a commitment to gain the tools to become a more effective governing force. Last week, Alan Levitan, the Board President for the Arts Council of the Morris Area, reported how his board made changes in their board recruitment and meeting structures. This week we hear from both the Artistic Director and Board Chair of the Lydia Johnson Dance Company who provide their unique perspectives on how the workshops influenced their perception of the challenges they face. It doesn’t matter what size your organization is, or where you are in your organizational lifecycle, these workshops promise to be transformational.

Changing the Face of Reality
By Lydia Johnson and Camilla Finch Teitelman

Lydia (center) with Dancers Kerry Shea and Jessica Sand

Lydia Johnson, center, with dancers Kerry Shea and Jessica Sand

Lydia Johnson: Artistic Director and Founder

When I first arrived at the Dodge Workshops I was hesitant to share all of the reality of our small Dance Company’s situation. We were presenting full-scale performances with 10 professional dancers in both New York and New Jersey. We had recently performed at Jacob’s Pillow (a prestigious dance festival). We had received insightful and deeply positive reviews from the New York Times, and Backstage Magazine and articulate listings in About The Town in The New Yorker. A well-known New York arts Blogger had come forward asking to feature the Company in a series of articles on the creative process. He wanted to follow the creation of a new dance from start to performance and publish photos of our rehearsals on his blog. We had plans for a Gala Celebration of our 10th Anniversary at both our home theater, SOPAC in South Orange NJ, and in New York at The Ailey Citigroup Theater. Our dance classes were steadily growing and we had an expanding scholarship program for underserved children who wanted to dance.

But this was not the whole picture! There was a reality that our glowing reviews and newly redesigned website did not expose. Our dancers are paid by the project and thus the scheduling around their other commitments and jobs is extremely difficult. We have no office. We had no paid administrative staff. Our Board is a small group of dedicated supporters who meet in each other’s houses. At that time, they were constantly trying to figure out how to divide the never-ending list of volunteer jobs for the next event. Our equipment was unbelievably old and difficult to use. I had to race back and forth between two 10-year-old computers when I was working since one would not open PDF’s and the other held our old hard drive- based database. I functioned as Executive and Artistic Director and Administrative Assistant. I choreographed, taught and did publicity and all of the secretarial work. The Board members who had been with us for a number of years were exhausted from doing everything from cutting up vegetables for fundraisers to planning how to raise awareness of our performances. And most importantly, our understanding of the process of focused fundraising was just beginning to emerge. We were consulting with a development professional but only sporadically.

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Ensemble for DUSK, Lydia’s two-part Gorecki ballet

I assumed we would downplay the difficulties of being so small and underfunded. True, we were accomplishing miraculous things with almost no resources, but what we couldn’t possibly have seen, without the Dodge workshops, was that this path we were on had been traveled many times before by creative nonprofits who were now integral to their communities! Nonprofits we admired and aspired to be like had actually been where we were now!

As David Grant began to speak on the Lifecycles of nonprofits, I felt the lifting of the burdens I had been carrying. The burden of thinking we were alone in this experience, that the difficult path was unique to us and therefore somehow our “fault.” The burden of thinking we would be judged harshly if anyone really knew how we were functioning. The burden of being unable to ask questions regarding how to progress since we were reluctant to expose the whole situation – assuming it would shock and upset possible advisors.

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Josh Kurtzberg and Laura DiOrio

What a revelation the workshops were! We were given the tools to place our journey in perspective. We had markers and concepts with which to understand our strengths and our limitations. And most importantly we began to understand the tools to change and grow in ways that simply would have been impossible without the structured information and warm support we received.

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Kerry Shea and Eric Vlach; Laura DiOrio and James Hernandez, from Lydia’s Untitled Bach

We realized, for example, that while our programming was at a “mature” level, our infrastructure was at a “start up” stage! Well okay that wasn’t such a bad realization – I began to honor and respect even more the wonderful people I was working with and to respect our persistence and ingenuity in moving forward given a pool of resources which were as yet inadequate! The pathway we were on had been traveled before. It had colorful and clear signposts! We were in good company – we were in fact a part of the community of growing nonprofits – and our strength could be expanded by opening up to the pool of collective knowledge I now realized existed. •

Camilla (right) with Founding Board member Rayna Pomper

Camilla Finch, right, with founding Board member Rayna Pomper

Camilla Finch Teitelman: Board Chair, Founding Member

There was a moment of truth for me during the Dodge fundraising workshop that helped LJD put in place many new changes. Allison Trimarco (the instructor for the Board as Fundraisers workshop) said “You can’t continue to work at this level of sacrifice. It’s just not sustainable.”

We had all known this for years but hadn’t found the right way to change it. We knew the next level for LJD was right around the corner, but we didn’t seem to be able to get there. Of late, we had put in place a number of new initiatives. We had added two new board members—bringing our grand total to six, we expanded our fundraising activities to include individual asks in addition to mail solicitations and income from performances and events, and we began writing more grant applications. But it clearly wasn’t enough. It just took too much to keep the organization going at the current level; moving it forward was another matter.

Going to the Dodge workshops galvanized us to treat LJD more like a business. (Although if I had known what a lousy business running a dance company is I might have had second thoughts!) Our Board meetings became more structured. Board roles were more defined and responsibilities laid out clearly. We faced and changed some of our fiscal management and changed our view of fundraising from a huge sometimes embarrassing chore to a game, even a puzzle. And finally, the Dodge workshops gave us a platform from which to discuss issues that we had often found difficult. “That’s OK, but you know Dodge said…” I dare say was uttered more than once.

In the future, I can see using other tools we learned at Dodge, including strategic planning, methods for assessing our programs. And of course, rubrics for the board and all the activities of our organization! •

Lydia Johnson, (Choreographer, Artistic Director)

Originally from Massachusetts, Ms. Johnson is the Artistic Director of Lydia Johnson Dance, which has received generous support from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in 2008, 2009 and 2010. LJD performs and teaches regularly at SOPAC in South Orange, NJ where they are Dance Company in Residence, as well as at The Ailey Citigroup Theater in New York. The Company performed recently at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts. LJD was founded in 1999 and has received additional support from The Garden State Arts Foundation. The Company has been featured in a series titled “The Creative Process” written by Philip Gardner and photographed by Kokyat on the New York arts blog Oberon’s Grove.

Ms Johnson studied at SUNY/Purchase and on scholarship at The Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. She continued her studies in New York with Finis Jhung and Sara Rudner among others. She presented her early work in New York at numerous dance spaces and founded One Night Stand, a series of Co-operative showcases, which allowed choreographers to present new work inexpensively. She has received a Monticello Foundation award sponsored by The National Association of Regional Ballet as well as a Harkness Dance Center Space Grant from the 92nd Street Y.

Camilla Finch Teitelman, LJD Board President

A journalist by trade, Ms. Finch Teitelman worked on the ABC Network News programs, 20/20, World News Tonight with Peter Jennings and Business World with Sander Vanocur. She has also worked in print journalism with, among other publications, Crain’s New York Business. A native New Yorker, she moved to New Jersey 17 years ago where, along with Lydia Johnson and Rayna Pomper, she began the process that led to the founding and development of Lydia Johnson Dance. Currently LJD’s Board President, Ms. Finch Teitelman is moving into the nonprofit sector and is near completion of a Certificate in Nonprofit Management.

Performance photos courtesy Oberon’s Grove