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Horizontal Integration – A Model for the Twenty-First Century Nonprofit

Posted by on May 20, 2015 in Arts & Culture, Education issues, Nonprofit organizations | 0 comments

“The Reel Connection: Videos, Jewelry, and Tanning,” “Bakewell Auto Parts & Pet Supplies,” “Harbison Enterprises: Military Surplus and Lingerie,” “Rose Computers & Antiques.” Not exactly your business school idea of “horizontal integration,” these real business combinations are the funnier side of a serious nonprofit organization strategy that integrates missions and strategies in education, youth development, community development and community organizing, and arts and culture.

I wanted to share two organizations where mission drives a complex, multi-faceted enterprise. Though very different in program and activities, both are dedicated to the development of young people into successful adults and the development of their communities. And, unlike our silly businesses above, both move their diverse enterprises forward with an integrated vision of human potential and empowerment, strong values of environmental sustainability, and an entrepreneurial spirit.

Boston-based Artists For Humanity’s ( mission is to bridge economic, racial and social divisions by providing underserved youth witSusan Rodgersonh the keys to self-sufficiency through paid employment in the arts. Founded by artist Susan Rodgerson in 1990, AFH recruits 250 Boston teens annually as paid apprentices to work with professional artists and designers on commissions and client projects in mural production, industrial design, photographAFH Sceney, graphic design, motion graphics and other art and design disciplines. The AFH model fuses an after-school destination for youth and a commercial art and design operation with STEAM career-oriented training, youth mentoring and leadership development, and college readiness and retention programs. An important overlay is a focus on environmental sustainability and community development, realized through the construction of the AFH EpiCenter, a LEED Platinum building situated in the Fort Point arts district, functioning as a public and private event space, gallery for youth-created art, and resource for environmental awareness.

Isles, Inc. ( is the creation of Marty Johnson, who has devoted his life to empowering people in communMarty Johnsonities, especially Trenton, NJ, to improve their circumstances and environment. Isles’ mission—fostering self-reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities—is realized through a breathtaking scope of programs and community initiatives. An article last year in the Princeton Alumni Weekly called Isles a “think-and-do-tank.” ( The results: a 20,000 sq.ft. former paint factory renovated as a solar-powered alternative high school and solar-vocational training center, coupled with a weatherization and home-safety business, has helped 650 high-school dropouts earn diplomas, prepared 870 people for high-demand energy industry jobs, and conducted lead-paint testing and removal in more than 2,000 Trenton-area homes. Add to the list community gardens and bee keeping, a new vacant property mapping website, community organizing training, home foreclosure services, real-estate development for affordable housing and countless other examples of Johnson’s self-characterization as a “serial entrepreneur.” Then there’s Mill One, an abandonedMill One historic 130,000 sq.ft. textile mill down the road from our client Grounds For Sculpture. Johnson wants to turn Mill One into a center to house nonprofits, artists, private businesses, and housing. Grounds For Sculpture and Mill One together would form the core of an arts district on Trenton’s border, creating a new economic engine in one of the poorest communities in New Jersey.

Marty Johnson characterizes himself as a “serial entrepreneur,” but there is more to it than that. Both Johnson and Susan Rodgerson seem to be natural “systems thinkers” who are not just creating program after program, but rather develop multi-faceted, complex, and highly responsive ecosystems that broadly serve their missions. Artists for Humanity and Isles provide thought-provoking examples for non-profit organizations struggling to define an essential position in the larger systems in which they operate. Organizations that understand and embrace the full potential of their roles within community systems may open up new possibilities for partnership, impact, and support.

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The Facilitator’s Nightmare: Dysfunctional Boards

Posted by on Oct 23, 2014 in Nonprofit organizations | 0 comments

Nonprofit boards, especially those with long-time members, can become like families – they have rehearsed their interactions, opinions, and thinking many times. Every time they get together, they tread the same well-worn path, particularly when long-standing, “hot-button” issues are put on the table.  Of course, there are many structural issues on boards (term length and renewal, committee structure, etc.) that can contribute to this phenomenon.  In the long term, those things need to be dealt with.

However, even without fundamental changes in the membership, structure, or culture of a board, it is possible to change the dynamics of board meeting discussions.  As a facilitator, I use a number of different strategies.  Some suggestions: 1.  Change the meeting environment – have the meeting at a beneficiary organization’s location.  2.  Switch the seating around – don’t let people sit in their accustomed places next to their buddies.  3.  Put staff around the table interspersed with board members.  4.  Anticipate how individual board members might respond in a discussion and prime other members in advance to speak up and get things back on track.  5.  Bring in a facilitator to manage key discussions.  6.  If things get stuck, break the meeting up into spontaneous groups of three – mixing staff and board if staff are in the room – and give them 10 minutes to consider the issue or question and then share their thoughts with the group.  7.  Incorporate “right-brain” activities into a meeting (e.g., ask them to take a few minutes and write a haiku about the organization and why it is valuable to the community; assign a member for each meeting to choose a piece of music he/she likes, tell the group why, and play it).

My favorite facilitator’s “trick” is to listen intently to a meeting participant who is making a totally off the wall, irrelevant, disruptive comment.  I nod a lot and at an opportune moment, I point to the person and say something along the lines of, “Yes, yes! That is a very useful thought to keep in mind as we go through the discussion. Thank you for adding that to the mix.”  Then, turning to someone else, “I saw your hand….do you have something you wanted to add as well?”

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Renfroe’s Elevator – the Power of a Magnetic Museum

Posted by on Oct 23, 2014 in Arts & Culture | 0 comments

Early in Anne Bergeron’s and Beth Tuttle’s recent book, Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement, they recount a wonderful story that manages to encapsulate many of the volume’s messages:

Bruce Renfroe operated a New York subway system (MTA) elevator that carries passengers to and from subway tracks 10 stories below ground – a 40-second ride.  As Magnetic recounts, “Back in 1995 when he started the job, Renfroe noticed that everyone was somber, quiet, and unsmiling.  One day, he decided to change all that.”  He decorated the elevator with family and neighborhood photos, pictures cut from magazines, a plant, and fresh flowers in a vase; he played recordings of jazz; he greeted every passenger personally and sent each off with wishes for the day. “Soon his passengers were talking to one another, smiling, bringing in photos of their own to add to the wall, or a favorite CD they thought Renfroe and the others might enjoy.  Those passengers became a community, even if only for the 40-second ride each day.”

It didn’t stop with Renfroe—his “vision of a better morning commute,” as the book calls it, was taken up by other MTA elevator operators who hung images, played music, and prompted conversation.  MTA management eventually got wind of this artistic elevator renaissance, and – you guessed it – banned the practice “for safety reasons.”  Big mistake.  As Magnetic describes it, “Thousands in the neighborhood came to Renfroe’s defense and signed a petition in favor of reinstating the elevator adornments. ‘It has forever changed the way people go to work,’ said Rosa Naparstek, a local resident who led the community efforts on behalf of Renfroe.” MTA eventually signed an agreement with a community arts group to develop elevator decoration projects.

Having recently finished leading a planning process for the Chrysler Museum, one of the six “magnetic museums” profiled in the book, I was stirred by the story’s lesson.  Just the barest of artistic content, available for the briefest moment of time, changed lives.  Despite its simple realization, the vision was so powerful and accessible, and fulfilled such a deep and fundamental human need, that it drew a community of strangers together toward a common goal, influenced others to adopt a new and unfamiliar practice, empowered the powerless, and conquered an entrenched, unimaginative bureaucracy.  Bergeron and Tuttle sum it up well:

Renfroe’s story illustrates how a powerful personal vision, authentically communicated and generously shared, can take root and inspire a movement.  If an elevator man in a steel box can align a group of disconnected New York City commuters in under a minute, imagine what a cultural organization or a business with a compelling vision and resources might be able to accomplish.

Learn more about Magnetic Museums at

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Posted by on Apr 28, 2014 in Education issues | 0 comments

A puzzling course/workshop/research list from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD): The Art and Science of Ecocentric Practices; Evolutionary Network Analyses & Visualization; Experimental Data Visualization; Diffusion Limited Aggregation in G-Speak.

Not so puzzling if you understand that STEM + ART = STEAM.

STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, Math—is on the lips of many CEO’s, K-12 educators, college presidents, funders, and policymakers.  STEAM asserts that Art and Design should be at the STEM table, shaping education, workforce development and STEM practice.  STEAM specifically refers to a RISD initiative ( that is spreading its influence around the country, leading to many experiments in integrating art and design across the STEM curriculum as an effective learning tool.  Google “STEAM education partners” for a host of examples.

RISD’s  STEAM extends beyond education: “The goal is to foster the true innovation that comes with combining the mind of a scientist or technologist with that of an artist or designer…. [RISD] art and design education teaches the flexible thinking, risk-taking and creative problem solving needed to solve today’s most complex and pressing challenges – from healthcare to urban revitalization to global warming.”  RISD’s students are being trained not to be passive observers of society, but rather to understand their responsibility and have the skills to engage constructively with vastly divergent sectors of endeavor.

The arts community has believed in and asserted the essential nature of the arts for many years without making much of a dent in thinking, practice, policy or funding among the corporations, schools and school districts, legislative bodies, funders, and policy makers who control the money, and therefore the agendas of those sectors. That’s changing.    (See

A recent article from the Miami Herald described four new STEAM magnet schools, noting, “Teaching creativity, at its root, is about teaching the ability to think divergently: to not only know your facts but to find new approaches and solutions to existing situations.”  An obvious point? Maybe, but a growing number of power and funding brokers in the public and private sectors are newly interested in and talking about it.  There’s even a STEAM Caucus in Congress, chaired by a Republican from Illinois.

Unlikely allies (“divergent” artists and Republican congressmen!) see the growing mismatch in workforce resources and industry/public sector needs; the failure of the NCLB’s standardized test model of education, which stifles creativity and does little to truly prepare students for the world of post-secondary study and technical careers; and the potential of art to turn the ship around.

The STEAM movement heralds a fundamental change in the perception of art and its role in society. STEAM advocates, educators, and practitioners—and increasingly, thought leaders and policy makers— are recognizing that art is, in fact, a “public good” available and beneficial to all.  We cannot compete globally, we cannot advance society without it.  Let us know: Is STEAM rising in your community?

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Low Stress High Impact Major Donor Cultivation

Posted by on Feb 20, 2014 in Fund Raising | 0 comments

Thomas JeffersonWhenever I am asked to work with a nonprofit board on major gift fund raising, I always intone the First Axiom of Resource Development: Fund raising is not about asking for money; it is about building relationships.  In addition, however, I present Laura’s Corollary: These relationships are built on mutual passions, which are centered on (1) the personal experiences of the board member and the funding prospect, (2) the societal issue(s) being addressed, and (3) the mission of the nonprofit.  An “ask” should be an opportunity for the donor to express deeply felt connections to the cause in question and to feel like an agent of change.  In my experience, if donors don’t see a gift as an opportunity for self-fulfillment (and, admittedly sometimes self-aggrandizement), they don’t write much of a check, if any at all.

I was introduced recently to the idea of a “Jeffersonian Dinner” through a webinar presentation by Jennifer McCrea and Jeffrey Walker.  More information about them and the Jeffersonian Dinner concept can be found at on their Generosity Network website. This model addresses the three elements of Laura’s Corollary—beginning with personal experience, connecting that experience to the larger trends and challenges in society, and then exploring the role of the nonprofit organization in addressing those challenges. The Generosity Network website lays out the advantages of this approach: A Jeffersonian dinner “enlists new allies…. helps to create and disseminate ideas…. expands attendees’ networks…. and spreads knowledge about and interest in your organization.”

Here is a basic outline of how it works: A dinner host invites eight to 12 people who will bring something to the conversation (expertise, interest, connection, etc.).  Each invitee provides a brief personal biography; these are sent to the group in advance of the dinner along with a “starter question.”  The question is designed to elicit personal stories that relate to the topic of the dinner.  For example, if the dinner is focused on the role of museums in K-12 education, the question might be “Tell us about a childhood experience in a museum that had an impact on your life, and why.”  A moderator manages the conversation, which moves from these personal stories to their connection with larger interests of the group around the topic; and then to the work of the nonprofit, how the organization could further its mission, and attendees’ interests in following up on the discussion.

The dinner follows Thomas Jefferson’s own decrees for dinner guests at Monticello—no one talks to his or her neighbor; there is only one conversation at the table in which everyone engages.  Jefferson also had a practice of what he called “pell mell seating,” where dinner guests were asked to just take a chair in no particular order.  He apparently thus offended any number of diplomatic and government guests, who felt their rank and stature were being demeaned by the seating arrangements.  The point that we carry forward to today is the egalitarian nature of the conversation—no one is a star, no one presents, no one monopolizes, everyone participates—as well as the purposeful nature of Jefferson’s own gatherings.

I have not yet had an opportunity to work with a client to try a Jeffersonian dinner, but the model is building its track record and enthusiastic practitioners.  I would be interested to hear from any readers who have convened such a gathering.

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