“In open organizations, a catalyst is the person who initiates a circle and then fades away into the background.” —Ori Brafman, The Starfish and the Spider
Even without the benefit of hindsight, I knew then my middle- of- the-night emotional email was a clear turning point in the scheme of things. As it played out, I suppose it could have been worse. Kate emailed back almost immediately, apologizing profusely. An empathetic and generous response considering she was just as busy as I was (clearly illustrated by the fact she was also up late working when she received my the message.) Irene, always a voice of reason, reminded me she had been entirely honest about her availability from the get-go and told me in no uncertain terms I needed to check myself. The fact that her father had recently had an actual health emergency (unlike my emotionally hyperbolic one) did not put me in good standing for a resounding display of empathy. Toneski understood where I was coming from and generously offered to meet with me to talk through what was going on. How I could learn to delegate a little more, how I could better manage my workload, how I could begin working my way out from the quicksand.
Was my email poorly timed? Perhaps. Was it honest? Yes, but to a fault. One thing was certain: the one-woman system I had wrapped myself up in was completely and utterly unsustainable. Even the people who wanted to chip in didn’t know how. There had to be a better way. This, for me, was the breaking point. As I learned from other nonprofit leaders, it’s a breaking point that’s not at all uncommon. This do-or-die moment, whether or not it involves emotional pleas for help, is a tipping point. It is during these times that nonprofits either crumble or turn towards paid staff out of necessity—or both. We decided to go in a slightly different direction.
“Volunteer driven” was dropped here and there in our narrative for some time, a shared value that our artists continued to come back to. But even with help, how exactly were tasks distributed? What about accountability? In my day hours, I worked at a traditional nonprofit. While I was sinking in the quicksand of the one-person system, many nonprofits were roadblocked in hierarchy and bureaucracy, many of their employees unengaged and and un-empowered. We needed a better model for what we were trying to do, and I intended to find one.
Shortly after that ill-fated evening, I sat down at the computer and began to list things out, task by task, category by category. I traced the notes in my brain from project to project as I tried to flesh out exactly what it was I did, how I spent my time, and which components could be delegated. I didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes I had been making. As I charted out our activities, gradually, patterns began to form. It was too much for one volunteer, certainly, but split between more people the roles could be more manageable.
Always a proponent of having a good sounding board, I sat down with some of our interns and artists to talk this through. Summer, Amber, Kristin, and I discussed the logistics of how this could work. Amber White and Kristin Thompson were both interns that year in the Curatorial Internship Program. Both artists and organizers, they were invested in the mission and sustainability of the gallery, and they, along with Summer, were critically helpful in the formation of this new model.
Together we sat on the rattan couches of the gallery, mapping out a set of roles and dividing up tasks. Slowly but surely a form was taking shape. Instead of the work radiating out from one founder, we divvied it up into more manageable positions.
One by one the roles came to light: communications director,development director . . . We proposed having an exhibitions director to help with the curation and a gallery director who would manage the day-today of the space. They would work with the gallery interns and exhibitions committee. We developed about ten roles, some of which were more time consuming than others. It took a lot of passion in the work we were doing to keep things rolling. The exhibitions director worked specifically on the exhibitions and with curatorial interns and artists to make them happen.
The roles were structured to have built-in training, with board members committed to two- or three-year terms. Their first chunk of time was spent shadowing and working alongside the board member they were replacing, and this was deliberate. I had served on so many boards where new members would come in with no training or orientation. Even when there’s a board manual, the first few months are often just spent trying to get a feel for the culture. By having built-in training, board members were quickly brought up to speed with norms and expectations— they were also more comfortable with somebody to work with. Less time wasted is an incredibly important outcome, particularly when people were so generously contributing their time.
We also built in this overlap to nurture innovation and development. Applying more than one brain to a task and process often led to new systems, new ideas, new ways of executing programs. Over time this helped us evolve, change, and grow the organization organically—based on the current community needs as well as the organization’s internal capacity. In my opinion, a small nonprofit should have a structure that allows it to flex based on the changing needs of the community it serves. I had seen other nonprofits gradually dissolve because they were unwilling or unable to change their programming services to reflect the needs of the community.
After presenting our new model to the board and receiving approval, we moved forward with a role-based board structure. The organization benefited tremendously as a result. Characteristics of this model included the following:
It was nonhierarchical—each member had one equal vote
There were specific roles for each board member (not just the traditional chair, treasurer, and secretary roles but also programmatic roles)
The board chair served as more of a project manager and connector than a president
We asked for a two- to three-year term commitment from our board members
We built in transition
I took on the role of the first board chair to help set up the role-based board system. In this model, the board chair worked more like a project manager than a president—connecting board members with each other, facilitating productive meetings, coordinating the annual strategic planning.
This proved to be a good decision, especially in hindsight. The Great Recession and the mortgage crisis hit hard during that time, and a variety of other super-fun economic challenges left individual donations lacking, foundations with frozen funding, and many nonprofits in the lurch. A few of our neighbor organizations closed their doors, with countless others furloughing staff and issuing layoffs. At Altered Esthetics, however, things were a little different. We grew.
With no paid staff yet, there was literally no one to furlough. Our rent was our single biggest expense—and though things were tight, we were making it work. Our board rallied around the new concept, many excited to be engaged in a tangible way that gave them more creative input and control. And nobody, especially me, wanted to repeat the mistakes of years past.
This post is adapted from It’s Never Going To Work: A Tale of Art and Nonprofits in the Minneapolis Community. Book includes illustrations by Athena Currier. ©2019 Jamie Schumacher.
It’s Never Going To Work is a light-hearted, illustrated book that offers real-life insights on founding a community space and nonprofit. It provides tools, tips, resources, and camaraderie to community organizers and anybody attempting something new.