Monday, April 23, 2012

With Volunteers: Thank, Don't Spank

Without question volunteers are critical to a nonprofit’s success. But they must be carefully tended, like a fine garden, and sometimes that includes weeding. Several recent incidents reveal, however, the perils of inept volunteer horticulture. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that the president of the Brooklyn Museum convened a meeting last December with the leaders of the Brooklyn Museum Community Committee, a women’s volunteer group that had been raising money for the museum since 1948. At the meeting Dr. Arnold Lehman informed them that the museum board had decided to disband the group.

The committee had started the docent program and planned fundraising events, including the museums’ first gala. It operated under the museum’s tax-exempt status, out of an office at the museum and paid a secretary from the funds it raised. Over the years the museum’s professional development office became more involved with the committee and the relationship seemed positive until last year when, according to the Journal, the Museum began to intercept and open the Committee’s mail, sending the checks directly to the Development office. That move precipitated the meeting where the axe fell.

After the meeting, Lehman sent a note of thanks to each committee member, enclosing a pin from the Museum gift shop. Not surprisingly, there was “blowback.” Memberships were cancelled and the some wills altered, including one with a bequest to the museum of a collection of prints by contemporary artists such as Robert Rauschenberg. Added to these discernible events there is now the sub stratum of hurt feelings and evidence of an insensitive, boneheaded play by management, made worse by it being broadcast in print and online detail by a prominent national newspaper, all of which cannot help but negatively affect what may loosely be called “community relations.”

Closer to home, at Boscobel (the historic site I managed from 2006-2011), late last year the new executive director and board development committee abruptly informed the Friends of Boscobel, which had been supporting the institution since 1995, that they were no longer needed. Although there is some evidence that the source of the upset was a communication breakdown, the results were recriminations, membership loss and a p.r. nightmare for the institution. One of the angry letters to the local paper was even included in the news story last week about the departure of the director after nine months in the post for a job in D.C.

There are some similarities between the Brooklyn and Boscobel stories. Each volunteer organization had its own separate board, received funds on behalf of the parent museum, which received, some if not all of the proceeds. The potential for collisions with the institution’s development staff/policies were there. At Boscobel, the Friends would sometimes without consultation donate a piece of equipment, perhaps needed or perhaps not. As museum development strategies become more sophisticated, this Friends model becomes more and more out of date.

Nevertheless, the lesson here (or “take away” – don’t get me started on that phrase) is in each instance what can ensue by poor handling of volunteer relations. The cavalier dismissal of these groups will have a longer shelf life than envisioned by management. Volunteers represent connection to the community the institution serves, unlike some distant foundation or corporate donor. These people have friends and neighbors, and they talk. Honor them and treat them carefully. As the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill used to say: All politics is local.

The week of April 15-21 was National Volunteer Week. Volunteering has been a part of American life, in fact a hallmark of it, since Benjamin Franklin in 1736 established the first volunteer fire department in Philadelphia. People serve nonprofits and communities in ways too numerous to list. Everyone who reads this blog post has been, or is presently, a volunteer someplace. Thank you.

That’s it. Express gratitude to volunteers, and for goodness sake, if you direct a nonprofit, avoid at all costs, the opposite. These stories illustrate the wages of managerial arrogance. A little diplomacy will go a long way