Guest Series: Developing Your Board Leadership

April 12, 2010

Over the past six months, teams of board members and nonprofit executive leadership attended Dodge Technical Assistance workshops including Nonprofit Lifecycles, Assessment, Board Care and Feeding, and Strategic Planning, among others. We have heard terrific feedback and ideas from many board members who are actively applying the learning to their board work. The “Developing Your Board Leadership Series” is their forum to share what they’ve learned.

Today, Liz Mitchell shares with us the turnaround story of the Printmaking Council of New Jersey.

Printmaking Council website

The Turnaround Stage: A Phased Approach

Completing the Dodge Board Leadership Training Series and hearing the many stories of fellow nonprofit leaders has helped me begin to see the Printmaking Council of New Jersey as the little engine that could.

Like many nonprofits, the Printmaking Council of NJ (soon to be the Printmaking Center of NJ) began in the living room of a group of impassioned individuals. Florence Wender and a few fellow printmakers came together over 37 years ago to formalize their ideas and create an artist cooperative with an educational outreach program. The mission of the organization uses the uniqueness of this timeless art process as a tool for building community through in-house and outreach programs, exhibitions and an open printmaking studio for working artists of all levels.

My connection to the Printmaking Council has been as an active member for many years. Over time, I began to see that there were functional difficulties within the organization. In 2008 the little engine began to stall. I had always felt that PCNJ was a true gem, and I was seeing it lose its polish. I decided to join the Board of Directors to bring my prior board experience to bear on the challenges at hand. At the time, the organization was in a state of flux and the board was faced with hiring a new director. It was clear that new leadership was needed to move the organization forward. We also needed to evaluate the effectiveness of the model of the organization, which was still operating much like an artist cooperative and faced a prolonged decline in the process.

Liz Mitchell Printmaking Council
Liz Mitchell

In June 2008, Linda Helm Krapf was hired as the new Executive Director and brought with her more than 25 years of experience working in the nonprofit field. It was clear to Linda that the organization was in the Decline Stage of its nonprofit lifecycle, and to successfully navigate the Turnaround Phase would take tremendous focus and resolve. Shortly after Linda arrived, I was asked to become the Board Chair of the organization. As we were adjusting to the newness of our positions, the Board and staff began to review, define and prioritize the major organizational challenges. We believed that nothing was so broken that it couldn’t be fixed. In Susan Kenny Stevens’ book, Nonprofit Lifecycles, she describes this stage as “Where Rubber Meets the Road.” I could not agree more!

What we had going for us was experience, tenacity and some refined tools in our toolbox. What we had going against us was that we had a long, long way to go. Over the next 18 months the board began a phased approach to making the necessary changes needed to get the organization back on track. We began to evaluate the organization examining PCNJ’s policies against nonprofit best practices, which identified the weakest points and greatest vulnerabilities. We patiently and bravely took this time to complete a laundry list of items in the “Fix What is Broken Phase.” This involved: creating checks and balance systems; resolving conflicts of interest; hiring qualified staff; and establishing program goals around excellence. We then moved to the work of updating stale curricula, assessing profitability and holding successful fundraising events. Over time, we accomplished an overarching goal to repair strained donor relationships and win the trust of members. A remarkable synergy between the board, staff and members was born in this time.

The next phase was a vision quest. We held salons for open discussion among the membership and found creative ways to engage our stakeholders. We used the following words of Linda C. Crompton, President, Board Source, as a mandate to keep focused and move forward:

“True leaders will recognize that there is opportunity embedded within the financial crisis and seize the moment to evaluate, restructure, retool; in short, to regenerate their organizations. All former bets are off, and the leaders who ask the generative questions—in effect, question everything—will build organizations that come out the other side of the turmoil stronger than ever.”

In September of 2009, we were ready to chart the future course for PCNJ. This process defined the capacity of the organization. We used our creativity to imagine the best Printmaking Council of New Jersey, and planned for the way to give that image purpose. Strategic planning became the new engine that would drive the mission and programs.

In the process of strategic planning we realized that even though we had worked hard and successfully cleared many hurdles, we did not yet have a fully trained board with the experience to execute our ambitious goals. This realization came just as the invitation to join the Dodge Training hit my email. Serendipity was at play as the training sessions that followed yielded invaluable information and real world experience for our board members.

We coined these months in Dodge training as the “Getting Our Governance Ducks in a Row Phase.” Five PCNJ board members participated in Dodge training, creating a critical mass of understanding of the complexities of nonprofit management. Training also clarified the responsibilities each member needed to make. The board began to see and experience a shift in the way they manifest their commitment to PCNJ, and the foundation of the organization began to shift and stabililize. Every time board members responded to the new responsibilities that they helped to define, the organization took a giant step forward. The result is that we now have a shared plan and strategy that has everyone’s mark on it.

Printmaking Council Phillemon

Phillemon Hlungwani gives an artist presentation in the PCNJ Gallery. Phil participated in PCNJ’s international print exchange with the Artist Proof Studio in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The difference at PCNJ is palpable and is evidenced by the support and response from our funders, and through the enthusiasm of our membership. The training has strengthened the board, creating a more focused and value-driven organization. As we round the bend of the Turnaround Phase this new knowledge has helped inspire courage, even though we can’t always fully see what lies ahead.

Board members have talked about “aha” moments at Dodge training. One I remember best was during “The Care and Feeding of Quality Board Members.” Laura Otten took us through the section on board meeting agendas and introduced the models of consensus and strategic agendas. Those of us attending realized that PCNJ was actually fully prepared to define the structure of the agenda for our board meetings beyond reading reports and putting out fires, and into a strategic agenda format. Together, we had laid the ground work, navigated the phases, stayed focused, and let ourselves be inspired by our shared commitment. Being able to take advantage of a sophisticated tool such as a strategic agenda defines the other, less obvious benefits of the work we just accomplished and the training that supports the work – the benefit of efficiency. In these challenging times, our ability to stay relatively small requires that we operate with utmost efficiency. Efficiency allows the engine to work like a Swiss watch. Aha!

PCNJ now has a strong working engine clipping along towards the future with everyone “on board.” Two years into our turnaround we have made lasting and fundamental change. We have replaced: fear with courage; haphazard decision-making with best practices; planning out of convenience with strategic planning; and austerity with prudence. It’s thrilling to now witness the momentum that follows. PCNJ now attracts individuals who are passionate, not only about the arts, but also about doing a job right and recognizing that although challenging, the work of turning an organization around can be infinitely rewarding.

Liz Mitchell has been the Board Chair at the Printmaking Council of New Jersey since 2008. She has also served on the Foundation Board at Raritan Valley Community College for the last ten years, most recently as the Vice Chair. She is an educator, curator and collage artist who makes artist books and installations. Her work is collected both nationally and internationally. She has completed three artist in residencies at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa and most recently held a solo exhibition in the Ben Shahn Gallery at William Paterson University in Wayne NJ.

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