Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Nonprofits - Get With The Program!

Strategic planning continues to be a widely used undertaking in the nonprofit world - and that is a good thing. It is helpful to know where you are going and to set measurement markers along the way. Parenthetically, sometimes I wonder about the productivity of the planning means...retreats, facilitators, power points, etc. I will set that issue aside for now; a subject perhaps for another post.

Within planning nonprofit leaders should not lose sight of the need for programming. I do not mean planning specific programs a nonprofit might provide but rather the concept of examining carefully the purpose and design of such programs. Let me illustrate from personal experience.

When I began directing the Maymont Foundation in Richmond in 1992 - the Foundation operates the 104 acre museum and park complex(www.maymont.org) in the city - there was great excitement about a $1 million pledge from a board member to build a new nature center. A small center was housed in an early 20th century stone barn on the former estate. It had an aquarium tank and some exhibits of live animals, snakes, owls, etc. The center was very popular with school children and their teachers, eager for an indoor environmental education site in addition to the magnificent outdoors of Maymont, which included wildlife habitats. The need for an expanded center - to meet demand - was quite clear.

What was not clear was what was to happen in a new building, its size and where it would be sited on a large and topographically challenging property. Nevertheless some key board members had already identified potential architects and even, with me in tow, flown in a private jet to examine a new Nature Center in another state. With my limited experience I knew $1 million would not go very far but I was particularly concerned that we were, so to speak, "flying blind."

Fortunately I had heard a presentation at a museum conference by a noted campus planner Richard P. Dober. He urged the audience to engage in programming the facility before embarking on the design phase. Ascertain what you want the building to provide for your audience and have the design conform to the program- in other words: "form follows function" - a phrase coined by the great Chicago architect Louis Sullivan.

I was convinced. We ultimately hired Dober and his firm to guide us in developing a program for a new nature center. The program report, covering potential activities, their physical adjacencies and siting solutions,  was presented to each architectural firm the building committee chose to interview. The result provided the committee with a means to compare not only each firm's design abilities but also their thoughts on how the challenges presented in the facility program would be met..

The designers selected - a team of the Richmond architect Sanford Bond and the internationally known Cambridge Seven Associates - brought forth a brilliant concept that built upon and embellished the facility program they had been given, In November 1999 the Robins Nature and Visitor Center opened, seven years and $18 million dollars ($5 million in endowment) after the dream began. The center has attracted over two million visitors since it began operations.

Too often nonprofit executives and boards will leap at a good idea for a program or service and skip the step suggested here - a deep analysis of what purpose the program will serve, how it fits into the mission and architecture of the organization, and how it will be sustained if successful. For example, there might be an idea like: "We need to fix up the old barn - let's raise money for that." The chances of successfully securing money for renovation will be greatly enhanced by first thinking through the questions of the renovated building's purpose and function.That thought process, which should be undertaken as a corporate endeavor, can also serve to build support for whatever final shape the program will take.

Speaking of renovation, in a week I am scheduled to have knee replacement surgery, so there may be a delay in my next post. I fear the project is a dim prospect for raising funds, but I will gladly welcome ideas.