Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 Roundup

Last evening we had some excellent Barbecue from a local spot in Cold Spring NY called Roundup Texas. Its name prompted me to do a brief review of blog posts I wrote in 2016. That's what everyone in the media does at the end of the year - look back, right? Besides looking ahead just might be a bit scary, given the current climate, in spite of my "Be Not Afraid" admonition last month.

I posted nine pieces, including this one, bringing to 57 I have written since I began in April 2011.  I am sometimes asked, how do I choose my topics? There is no rhyme or reason. Whatever strikes my fancy is the best answer, keeping in mind my audience is folk involved in guiding nonprofits. Most posts are didactic in nature, hoping to  provide useful advice for those deep in the daily struggle. Others are more general, even written to entertain.

In this latter category may be found  the most read : February's "Over The Top Criticism"- although there is a message ultimately about time reversing initial reactions. (All these posts may  be be read in the archive section to the left of this screen). I used examples from Nicholas Slonimsky's "Lexicon of Musical Invective" as examples. For instance a  contemporaneous review of Beethoven's Second Symphony declared it a "crass monster."

March's "Block Gobbledygook - Save The Humanities" - addressed the need for and importance of clear writing as evidence of clear thinking.  I had fun quoting examples of outrageous gibberish, especially from academia.

I looked at  several management issues. The need for careful administrative organization before embarking  on a capital campaign was addressed in September's ""For Want Of A Nail" - Campaign Infrastructure." In May, I tackled what has almost become a fad in a piece called " "A-Branding We Will Go." Look before you leap was the message before embarking on an expensive  branding or re-branding exercise.

 I have an ongoing interest in non profit boards and governance in general. The critical importance of having board members who understand and commit to their duties was discussed in January's "Board Member's Oath of Office." The sensitive  and tricky question of length of tenure of leadership in nonprofits, both staff and board, was explored in "Been On The Job Too Long" posted in June. This post had a lower readership than most. Did the title scare some away?

Finally I  could not avoid writing about the presidential  election and its outcome in October's "Nonprofits and A Toxic Election" and November's "What's Ahead for Nonprofits -The Looming Trump Era." In the latter, I ended by quoting the poet Seamus Heaney's last message to his wife in a text shprtly before his passing:  "Noli Timere"  - Be Not Afraid.

That was 2016, perhaps an "Annus Horribilis"  (Horrible Year) as Queen Elizabeth II stated about  the year 1992, when Charles divorced Diana in addition to other Royal family troubles. Will 2017 be better? Surely it will be challenging. I will look forward to the journey, along with you,  and hope my musings will be of some use. Happy New Year!!

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What's Ahead for Nonprofits - The Looming Trump Era

"Seismic" is too mild an  adjective  for the event of  Donald Trump's surprising election to the presidency. Maybe even"cataclysmic." I will leave it to others (and there is no shortage of them) to analyze why and how it happened. Here I want to suggest what a Trump administration, along with Republican control of the Congress,  might mean for nonprofits, both for their own welfare  and the roles they might play in our society in  the coming years.

We don't know of course exactly what form legislation, executive orders (or rescissions thereof) or other initiatives will take. But broadly there will be some that directly or indirectly will surely affect nonprofits. In the indirect category revisions of the tax code stand out, particularly any significant  change in the maximum allowable write-offs for charitable giving, which might reduce incentives for donations. There is a theory too that projected tax cuts for the very wealthy might further dampen giving.

As for direct effect, e,g. cuts in federal support that goes primarily to social service agencies and education, the declared intention to cut federal spending by 1% annually  (exclusive of entitlements such as Medicare and the military) if enacted, would hit hard. Also at risk are the organizations long on the hit list of conservatives: Planned Parenthood,  the arts and humanities agencies and others - all now perilously exposed with  right wing Republicans sitting in the catbird seat. The unwritten partnership between the federal government and the nonprofits that look after many of the needs of our society is now likely to unravel.

There are almost countless scenarios, likely of the dark variety, that can be written because of this shift in power, especially because of the rhetorical groundwork in the campaign laid by Mr, Trump that demonized  those who are not white, Christian, physically and mentally able, among others. There is a deep unease, and indeed fear, abroad in the land. Nonprofits will have to continue to  do their best work  in spite of facing the likelihood  of reduced resources. But collectively there is something else they can do.

As a group, notwithstanding some bad apples, nonprofits represent what is best in our society. They exist to help others, with health care, education, spiritual growth, community development, public safety, etc. They are largely funded by voluntary gifts and guided by volunteer boards with their work made possible by the donation of  millions of  volunteer hours.

It seems possible, and there is evidence emerging to support the worry, that the toxic atmosphere spawned by the Trump campaign will encourage discriminatory and even hateful behavior by members of the public, to say nothing of any actions that may be taken by the incoming government itself. Nonprofits and their leaders should be vigilant in their own communities for such instances, regardless of their respective missions. Recently at  the annual conference November 17 held by the umbrella organization for nonprofits Independent Sector as reported in The Chronicle for Philanthropy, several speakers made points that we need to consider.

From Brian Gallagher, CEO of United Way Worldwide: " Civil society is our business. We can take a pass on the economy - that's not quite our business; we can take a pass on politics- that's not quite our business; but we can't take a pass on culture."

David Smith, director of the Presidio Institute hoped the nonprofit world could create a "brave space" where those marginalized could come together.

Finally, Michael Steel, described as a Republican political strategist, was asked how nonprofit leaders might "listen to racists without getting angry at them." He replied, "I don’t think we should talk to racists without getting angry at them" This remark was greeted with sustained audience applause.

We are entering a scary and unknown world.  Here is my coda message, best said as always elsewhere, At his father's funeral in 2013, Michael Heaney, the son of the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney,  revealed in his eulogy a text message Heaney sent to his wife just hours before his death. It was in Latin : "Noli Timere": Don't Be Afraid.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

Nonprofits and a Toxic Election

It seems that even I can’t resist joining the Election Pundit Cavalcade, although I am small potatoes compared to the hundreds of writers of reputation who have spilled buckets of ink about this astonishing presidential contest.

My entry into the fray is prompted by a recent article (9/29/16)  in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The heading was “Nonprofits Worry about Election’s Impact on Public View of Charity.”  The anxiety is focused on the candidates’ attacks on each other’s foundations- the Clinton Foundation and the Trump Foundation. Will the political charges that each lacks transparency and involves questionable use of funds affect the public’s view of charities in general? Will the media scrutiny, seeking out a “story,”  create a ripple effect and result in negative perceptions of the role of nonprofits overall?

Before I weigh in on those questions, some facts (a bit rare these days). The two foundations are quite different in organization and purpose. The Trump Foundation is classified as a private non-operating foundation, whereas the Clinton Foundation is a public charity. The distinction is that that a public charity derives its support from a variety of sources – such as individuals, corporations, governments and even other foundations  and uses those funds to advance its mission through its own in-house programs. A private foundation on the other hand usually is funded from a single source, a family for instance, and fulfills its charitable purpose by making grants to other organizations.

The Clinton Foundation is very large, with assets in 2014 of $354 million, expenses of $91 million and a staff of 486, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The Trump Foundation had assets of $1 million, expenses of $600,000 and no staff. The Clinton Foundation’s programs are based on defined strategic initiatives (global health for example), whereas the Trump Foundation’s grants have been to various organizations with no unifying purpose. The Tumpies accuse the Clintons of raising money from those who expect access to the Clintons in return (“Pay for Play”), the Clintons point to dodgy Trump Foundation outlays, including one to a charity auction where the Foundation paid for Mrs. Trump’s bid of $20,000 for a six foot tall portrait of her husband, now located in one of the Trump golf clubhouses. 
A few weeks ago the office of the New York State Attorney General Eric Schnedierman, responsible for oversight of nonprofits, ordered the Trump Foundation to stop raising money in New York for lack of certification to do so.  Mr. Trump has regularly boasted of his philanthropy, but without access to his federal tax returns, which he repeatedly refuses to release, it is impossible to ascertain the amounts.  Warren Buffett, clearly a billionaire many times over, in his challenge to Trump’s “smart” avoidance of tax payments whereby he claimed almost a billion dollars in losses in 1995, released his 2015 federal return. There it showed Buffett gave over $3.6 million to charity. The last donation Trump made to his foundation was in 2008.

It’s an election year and charges fly back and forth. I am not sure the fracas about the two foundations necessarily tarnishes the reputation of the work of nonprofits in general, the worry of some in the field. What is more troublesome in my view is the potential damage the tone of this election has done to the outlook of Americans. 

It’s been years, in time and attitude, since JFK declared in his inaugural address in 1961: “ My fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”   The idea of making personal sacrifice for a greater good is the farthest thing away from many voters’ minds. They have been conditioned over the years by politicians’ promises of what they can do for the voter. This year especially, thanks to the drum- beating, hateful narcissism of Trump that glorifies “I” and “Me,”  the taking far outstrips giving.

The work of successful charitable nonprofits is based on the concept of voluntary giving. Donors give of their treasure (and time) to an organization so, in turn, the organization can give back services to the community. One definition of philanthropy is “the desire to promote the welfare of others” (from the Greek word translated as “love of humanity.”)  What I fear is that most people will remember from this campaign the miasma of hate created by Mr. Trump and espoused by many of his supporters.  If misanthropy – the hatred of humankind – the desire to denigrate the welfare of other, a trademark of Trumpian rhetoric becomes the standard, then not only the nonprofit community, but our nation, is in trouble.

Regardless of the election outcome, there will be a bad taste in the mouth of the electorate that will linger for some time.  The remedy for this  damaging aftertaste and any potential  impact on nonprofits is for every organization to focus on its mission and continue to do good work. Tip O’Neill, the legendary Speaker of the House (1977-1987) once said “All Politics is local.” Such may be said about the work of nonprofits. Negative attitudes and opinions about nonprofits created by this toxic national election can be mitigated in time by the good work of charitable institutions at home.
So, to employ the message developed by the British Ministry of Information to buck up the populace during World War II: “ Keep Calm and Carry On” – with philanthropy.

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Friday, September 9, 2016

"For Want Of A Nail" - Campaign Infrastructure

This post is suggested by two observations gleaned over my summer break. (By the way, I hope you had a good and especially restful one.)   Both have to do with campaigns. The big campaign, of course, is the presidential one, dominating the news by  its often bizarre twists and turns, with major navigation from the Republican nominee, the idiosyncratic (to put it mildly) Donald J. Trump.  The other one(s) are suggested by developing capital campaigns by two nonprofits with which I have some familiarity.

A conventional wisdom often found  in commentary about the Trump campaign is that one of its weaknesses is the lack of a strong infrastructure. That term, most often associated in the public mind with bridges and roads, is more broadly defined as the foundation or underlying framework supporting any organization or enterprise.  Observers have noted, for instance, how thin the Trump campaign’s staffing is in key states as well as his erratic media buys, to say nothing of the turnovers in top campaign leadership. State staffing (the so-called “ground game”) is important for getting out the vote and identifying likely supporters. The Trump team seems to believe, likely emanating from the candidate himself,  that his large rallies will suffice. One writer observed the Trump campaign resembles more a concert tour than an organized campaign for the nation’s highest office – at least in the traditional format.

The other observation comes from a conversation I had this summer with a friend who has been a donor to a local nonprofit for years before moving away.  I took the opportunity to offer an update on the nonprofit’s news, highlighting enthusiastically a prospective capital campaign. I was told quite firmly not to count on any support from that family as a recent substantial contribution had never been acknowledged by the organization. We discussed the likely cause, the lack of administrative resources.  But the damage had been done.

Too often nonprofits, especially smaller ones, will forge ahead with an ambitious fundraising campaign without assessing its capacity to manage it. Who will prepare and send acknowledgements, keep track of multi-year pledges? What is the mechanism for informing the campaign committee and solicitors of funding status?  I know firsthand of an embarrassing situation where a solicitor, at a social occasion meets  a friend whom he had recently asked for support, and says to the prospect:  "Thanks for seeing me the other day, I hope you will consider my request. “  The surprised response was: “Didn’t you hear of my $$$$$$ pledge?”  Not only was he in the dark, he also missed the chance to offer thanks without prompting.

The word campaign originally applied to a military operation of some length with a specific objective in mind. Successful military campaigns depend on good planning, execution of that plan and a vast support network, logistical and otherwise.   The old proverb “For want of a nail (“… the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the rider was lost, for the want of a rider the battle was lost”…etc.) is worth remembering.  

A campaign is like building a house. Before you get to thinking of installing a Viking range or his/ her bathrooms in the master suite, you better be sure the foundation is solid and the roof doesn’t leak. Skimping on those costs will end up affecting the integrity of the house and the contents of the pocketbook.  Planning and investing in a campaign infrastructure will ultimately bring dividends and provide insurance against surprises.  Not doing so can bring the house down. So, don't forget those nails!

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Monday, June 27, 2016

"Been On The Job Too Long"?

The title of this post comes from the refrain in the ballad “Duncan and Brady” about a late 19th century murder in St. Louis. “Folkies” among you may recall the Dave Van Ronk version in the 1960’s, as well as those performed by many other artists and bands over the years.

“Been on the job too long” here raises the tricky question of length of tenure of leadership in nonprofits, both staff and board. When does a leader know it’s time to move on? And, if the leader doesn’t have that level of self-awareness or self-assessment, who makes that determination?

A leader’s self determination to move on may come from several realizations. One might be that the internal fire, needed to lead mission-driven organizations, is being banked, by time and perhaps tiredness. The perpetual pressure to raise money, satisfy diverse constituencies and, at the helm, to steady the boat, may have taken its toll. This state of mind may have  eroded inventiveness and led to falling back on past solutions or ignoring new ideas from others. This can result in “bunker” mentality. You raise the periscope now and then to survey the landscape, but otherwise lower it and plod on. 

Now if the leader doesn’t see that the time may have come, others might and that is where trouble can start. The way around such disconnect is the regular performance evaluation. If the review is open, mutual and based on pre-established criteria,  surprises can be averted and wrong turns righted. Well-run nonprofits have built-in evaluation systems, for all staff.
But what about the board? As discussed here before, a board governance committee ideally would have designed a way to assess board performance as a whole, reviewing attendance, participation and engagement in the organization’s mission. It is more difficult to determine any individual performance, unless a board member stands out by, for instance, being disruptive in meetings or routinely absent. A job description for board members is critical to form the baseline for evaluation.
And what about the board chair? Who assesses his or her performance? Who decides if the incumbent has been on the job too long? Presumably the position selection process, perhaps with a person rising through the ranks by exceptional service to the organization, along with a term limit and an election process, will provide a good framework for any future transition.  Absent that situation, what if a chair shows no sign of moving on and exhibits autocratic behavior and a management style that is having an adverse effect on the institution?
Short of a bloodless coup d’etat,  which board members,  genetically shy of controversy , are unlikely to undertake, what can be done? A further complication is if the board chair is a major contributor or fund-raiser .
The best answer is to recruit a qualified person as a replacement  with equal or even more financial prowess. I served a board some years ago where a wealthy board member, who was not the chair but acted as if he were, made management demands of the board that it resisted. He threatened to revoke a seven figure trust he had established with the organization as beneficiary (hint: it was established as “revocable”) unless the board acquiesced. Finally at a point  when the board declined once again, another board member stepped up and said he would make up whatever funds were lost.  The demanding board member resigned, revoked the trust and good to his word, the champion provided what was lost and much more over some years.  It helps that such acts of bravery are backed up, as in the military, by reserves.
As for CEOs or other key staff, the decision for moving on, if not voluntary, is tough. Most in the nonprofit world will agree that personnel issues are the thorniest in management. After all, it is PERSONnel , and in nonprofits where employees’ rewards are just partly pecuniary,  volunteer board members serve without pay and there is chronic under-staffing, relationships with people are critical to success.
Here is a scenario that spells trouble.  There is disgruntlement about a CEO’s performance, there is little communication between the employee and those who are unhappy , especially about the reasons for the unhappiness. Pressure starts to build and an action is taken by either party that leads to a bitter parting of the ways, leading to the institutional well being  poisoned. 
With early and open discussion among the key parties, a leave-taking, if it is necessary  (sometimes negotiation can resolve that) can be made relatively painless for all concerned. All should be attuned to the possibility of someone being on the job too long – and develop an early warning system to avoid a situation best put in the movie Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” 

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Sunday, May 8, 2016

" A-Branding We Will Go..."

"Branding" is a popular topic in both the profit and nonprofit business world. How do we identify our enterprise? How do we show what we do to a public distinctively, in a world with millions of messages bombarding us constantly, in print, TV and online.

Years ago, when I had a house in rural western Colorado,  I lived across the road from a cattle ranch. My first knowledge of branding came from observing the annual spring ritual where young steers were branded, literally with a hot iron bearing the symbol of the ranch,  impressed by a cowboy on  the animal's hindquarters. The squeals and smells were short-lived but memorable. The purpose of branding was to identify an animal as belonging to that ranch. The design of the brand itself was suggested by the ranch's name.  If there was open range involved, branding was important. In the old days of rustlers, branding was essential.

Now branding is associated with the marketing of companies, products and services, extending sometimes to people, as  in the case of  Donald Trump. More often than not an organization undertaking a branding exercise will  first look to the visual - the logo. And/or the name. It's not surprising branding is considered important, as you have so little time for your message to be absorbed. Why not encapsulate it with one visual impression?  Or a name that "says it all."? Easier said than done and the logo/name approach is only a part of the branding equation.

Many books and articles have been written about branding and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of consultants and firms devoted to  advising organizations on the topic. Several examples of their work are illustrative of the perils associated with branding or re-branding. Regarding logos, here are a couple.

Some years back (1976),  the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) decided it wanted a new visual image. With much ballyhoo and an expenditure later reported to be  a million dollars, NBC "rolled out" its new logo, plastering it everywhere.  A month later, the network heard from another NBC - the public educational Nebraska Broadcasting Corporation, which pointed out its years-old logo was exactly the same but for the color. Nebraska filed a trademark infringement lawsuit. The giant NBC settled out of court and went back to the drawing boards.

Recently New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled a new logo to replace the one widely in use since 1971. That logo was an elegant single letter M,  based on a work in the museum's  collection, a woodcut by Luca Paciloli, an associate of Leonardo Da Vinci. The new logo, designed by a "London-based global-branding firm," illustrates The Met. A storm of protest arose, much of it emanating from art and graphics critics. New York magazine's architecture writer Justin Davidson   called the new logo  a "graphic misfire," looking like "a red double decker bus that has stopped short, shoving  the passengers into each other's backs." The public weighed in too. After all, the previous logo was like an old friend, seen for over 45 years on publications, admission buttons and gift shop bags.

The aesthetics and sentiment aside, other commentators wondered: "Why?"and "Why Now?" The museum, responding to the controversy, explained the logo was designed to support its effort to have the institution, informally known as The Met,  be so re-named by the museum, throughout all of its communications. Why now?  Perhaps the reason is that the museum has new leadership. In 2008 Thomas Campbell was named the director, succeeding Phillipe De Montebello, who served in that post for over 30 years.

Given the time and money spent on the logo project, The Met is not likely to back down and will widely employ all its resource to use and promote the new image, which is essential if the re-brand is to be firmly established.

Changing a name as part of a branding effort can be even more challenging. Often the desire to re-name comes about from public confusion about the original. When I became director in 2006 of the historic site  Boscobel I was puzzled by its official name, used in all communications, including roadside signs: Boscobel Restoration, Inc. What is being restored, I asked myself - sofas? works of art? We changed the name to Boscobel House & Gardens to more accurately describe the organization and its property. Another Hudson Valley resource, known  for years as The Museum of the Hudson Highlands found it was constantly having to answer the question: museum of exactly what?  After a re-branding project, it became The Hudson Highlands Nature Museum. The name questions stopped.

A very recent name change in the Hudson Valley region has led to much head-scratching. In 1946 a handful of doctors joined together to form the Mount Kisco Medical Group, in Mt. Kisco, New York -where I grew up - in northern Westchester County. Originally based in a small wood frame house near the hospital, it expanded over the years. Now it has 500 physicians in 40 locations in the Hudson Valley.  In February of this year, it changed its name to CareMount Medical.

Clearly it had outgrown its own original geographical location, but that hadn't stopped patients from going to Mt. Kisco Medical Group locations in other counties. The name CareMount has all the markings of puzzling work by a branding consulting firm, as it appears to have come out of the blue, with no historical or mission-related logic. If it didn't include the word "Medical" in its title it would be a total mystery. "Care" comes close to its mission, but "Mount"?  I am surprised a wag hasn't renamed it "Costs Mount" - not far from the truth in health care.

A few lessons for nonprofits might be claimed from the above illustrations.  First, look before you leap into branding or re-branding. Is there a good reason to make changes, and if there are, make sure the new logo or name change solves the problem. Resist the  siren song of change for change's sake. Second, make sure the new logo and/or name reflects as much as possible what the organization does, as that is the whole point of the exercise. Thirdly, remember the organization's brand goes beyond names and symbols.  A true brand is what the public thinks about you - what associations your name evoke. Volvo's brand, most would agree, is safety, a message it has been  promoting about its vehicles for years. Communication has to go beyond symbols and into substance if  a brand is to have any meaning.                     

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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Block Gobbledygook - Save the Humanities!

First, let me say what a pleasure it is to be writing a piece where I am able to deploy the word "gobbledygook."  The word, spoken out loud, sounds like what it means: gibberish. Before I lay out why I am highlighting it, I should set some context.

Just a few days ago, Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard University and a noted historian, gave a speech at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point entitled " To be 'A Speaker of Words and Doer of Deeds' - Literature and Leadership" where she made the case for the vital role of the humanities and the power of language in leadership. She remarked that although West Point was the country's first college of engineering, over the past 50 years its course of study has evolved more to resemble a liberal arts curriculum.

Professor Faust cited a study that found "75% of business leaders say the most important skills in their work are the ability to analyze, communicate and write- the skills that are at the heart of the humanities." Yet, she observes, liberal arts education is under attack. For instance,  at one of the Republican presidential primary debates Senator Marco Rubio asserted "we need more welders, less philosophers."

Of course we need both ( I won't dwell on the observation by one commentator that Rubio should have said "fewer" not "less"). Many believe a major reason why the humanities are under assault is the fault of academic scholars, in particular their predilection to alienate readers by obscure, often unintelligible writing. Here is an example, mentioned in an article by Bruce Cole, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, quoted in the February 3rd Wall Street Journal. Mr. Cole found it in a recent book by an unnamed university humanities institute director, laughably entitled a Manifesto for the Humanities. Warning: Gobbledygook Alert!

"Writing this book, I came to see the new scholar subject as a performance of passionate singularity, hybrid materiality and networked relationality. This is one sense in which the  humanities scholar that is becoming is possibly posthuman, and a posthumanist scholar.The locus of thinking, for the prosthetically extendable scholar joined among the currents of networked relationality,is an ensemble affair..."

I defy anyone to tell me what  all of that - or any of it- means. As Mr. Cole says "In some parts of the academy such obscurantist writing is seen as a sign of brilliance."  Bring on the welders.

Mr. Cole continued: " I believe clear writing is the result of clear thought and that the use of jargon is sometimes the lazy way to avoid hard thinking." In January 2015 I posted a blog entitled "Are You My Thought Partner"  ( advocating the need for clear written and oral expression in non profit management.  Mr. Cole and Ms. Faust's observations reinforce that imperative and its importance to leadership in whatever sector.

The Sciences are not exempt from attack either and, like the Humanities, can be their worst enemy, providing fodder for critics. Here's an example, again from the "Notable and Quotable "  section of the Wall Street Journal, March 3. A paper published by the University of Oregon and supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation is entitled "Glaciers, Genders and Science: A Feminist Framework for Global Environmental Change Research." I guess the thesis has something to do with exploring the role of gender in understanding ice. It should make for interesting reading, if you can understand it.

So there is plenty of gobbledygook in writing and gobbledygook in finding arcane subjects for research, even before the  writing begins.  Let's all work to put a stop to it before it's too late and we are buried in mounds of meaningless words. Politicians will always engage in non sequiturs, obfuscations and the trite. Our revenge is at the ballot box. But for others who communicate in any kind of business it is almost our duty to "call them out" and insist on clarity.

 Comments on this and any other post always welcome

Friday, February 19, 2016

Over The Top Criticism

On the occasion of writing this my 50th (!) blog post since I began in 2011, I am going to have a little fun and talk about a book I have long enjoyed. If you draw any didactic inference from this post, more power to you. And who knows - before I am done, I might give you a hand.

The book is "The Dictionary of Musical Invective - Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time " by Nicolas Slonimsky, published in 1953. Slonimsky was a noted pianist, composer, musicologist and in this case, lexicographer, who died in 1998 at the age of 102. An example of his indefatigable research: Doubting the validity of the Romantic story that there was a blizzard the day of Mozart's funeral, he uncovered meteorological reports from Vienna for December 7, 1791 to  find that  the weather instead had been clear and sunny.

He also liked to have some fun, referring to this work as a " Schimpflexicon" - from the German Schimpf,, originally a nickname for a playful or humorous person. There is also a serious side to this lexicon. In his introduction Slonimksy states this collection of "biased, unfair. ill-tempered, and singularly unprophetic judgments" stem from a psychological inhibition, which he calls  the Non-Acceptance of the Unfamiliar. That inhibition certainly remains an issue today in many sectors of our society.

Many of the critics and publications he cites were not cuckoo but rather at the time respected arbiters of musical taste. Nevertheless, here's a review from a Viennese journal in May 1804: " Beethoven's Second Symphony is a crass monster, a hideously writhing wounded dragon, that refuses to expire, and though bleeding in the Finale, furiously beats about with its tail erect." Or this in 1925 from a Berlin critic on Alban Berg's opera Lulu, now in the Metropolitan Opera's repertoire: "As I left the State Opera last night I had the sensation not of coming out of  public institution,but out of an insane asylum.....I regard Alban Berg as a musical swindler...we must seriously pose the question as to what extent musical profession can be criminal. We deal here, in the realm of music, with a capital offense."

"The Dictionary of Musical Invective" is 250 pages long, but in the final thirty pages, as a delightful aid to the reader, Slonimsky offers what he calls the Invecticon: "an index of vituperative, pejorative and deprecatory words and phrases."   So, under Colossal Joke find Strauss pg.184, Delirium Tremens, see Berlioz pg. 60, Tchaikovsky pg. 209 and Wagner pg. 245. and Giftless Bastard, Brahms pg. 73. The latter is actually from an October 1886 entry by Tchaikovsky in his own diary. There are other citations of uncomplimentary comments by one composer about another.

To relieve the reader of a series of astonishing pans of music we now know and love (mostly), Slonimsky offers anecdotes of composer's rebuttals, if not revenge, or a critic's mea culpa, as in the following case. One H. E. Kreibel of the New York Tribune wrote a scathing review attacking Sergei Prokofiev for a  work performed at a concert he attended, only to discover the next day the piece he thought was by Prokofiev was actually by a S. Vasilenko. Blaming his eyesight and the poor lighting in the concert hall for the mistake, the critic apologized in writing. He then went on to congratulate Prokofiev for not writing the score.

Here is a composer fighting back. Max Reger wrote this to the Munich critic Rudolf Louis:
"I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me."

From  another source (John Julius Norwich's 2015 "A Christmas Cracker - a commonplace selection") comes this anecdote where we find an audience member as the critic.  What's more,  he demands a refund directly from the composer. In May 1872 a Signor Bertani writes Giuseppe Verdi a long letter recounting his attendance at a performance of Aida, in fact two performances, in Parma, to which he traveled by train. He is dissatisfied, but upon hearing praise from other attendees riding with him in his railway carriage, decides to return to Parma and give it another try. No luck. He writes: "When it (Aida) has filled the house two or three  times it will be banished to the dust of the archives." He encloses a bill for two round trip rail tickets, two theatre seats and a "detestable supper at the station."  Verdi instructs his publisher to refund everything but the supper as "he could have eaten at home."  As a condition,  Verdi insists Sr. Bertani has to agree never to attend another Verdi opera, to spare the composer reimbursing further travel expenses.

The "Non Acceptance of the Unfamiliar" is certainly not limited to classical music, It includes art (the Impressionists), science (Darwin, Einstein) , literature (Whitman), popular culture (the  tango and jazz) - almost every form of  expression known to man. But Slonimksy's lexicon creates a special vituperation hall of fame for these music critics writing in the 19th through the mid 20th century. He uses a  verb new to me (but I don't intend to forget it ) to describe their rhetorical style: they vesuviate (cf. the volcano).  Does that description remind you of a current candidate for the Republican Party presidential nomination?

There may be a few different reasons for such invective-hurling in that period. First, the subject matter, music, is, of all the art forms, one that evokes specially strong and immediate emotions in the listener. Secondly, as Slonimksy quotes the critic Philip Hale, the nature of the attacks may simply stem from "a desire to write a readable article as by any just indignation." Sound familiar?

Whatever the reasons, and here perhaps is the "lesson" of this piece, time has a way of healing, especially the egos and reputations of those attacked. Slonimksy cites the example of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, which 1913 premiere in Paris caused a near riot in the audience and furious critical condemnation. Thirty-nine years after that premiere, in 1952, a Paris performance of the piece, as well as the appearance in the hall of its composer, were greeted with wild cheers. Pierre Monteux, who conducted both the 1913 and 1952 performances, wryly remarked: "There was just as much noise the last time, but of a different tonality."

So, if you are patient enough and value your integrity, jeers may one day turn to cheers, and the unfamiliar morph into the familiar. Time will tell.

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Friday, January 15, 2016

Board Member's Oath of Office

I have written some here about nonprofit governance and the critical role of  board members. A book I  just finished reading has several illuminating case studies that describe what happens when governance goes awry. Its title is:"They Told Me Not To Take That Job" (Perseus Books, 2015) and the author is  Reynold Levy. The job was that of president of New York's Lincoln Center, a position Levy held from 2002 until 2014.

Mr. Levy has  directed a number of high level nonprofits over the course of his career- including the  92nd St Y, AT&T Foundation and the International Rescue Committee. Last October he became president of the large Robin Hood Foundation, the mission of which is to fight poverty.

His memoir pulls no punches, especially regarding the leadership of three constituents of Lincoln Center during his tenure: the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan  Opera and the New York City Opera. The actions of the CEO and board of City Opera, which was forced into bankruptcy  (see my blog"Shutdowns" October 4, 2013), comes under withering scrutiny.  Mission creep, a treacherous invasion of its endowment and a variety of managerial missteps led to the demise of this treasured and ground-breaking opera company, whose "alumni" included the likes of Beverly Sills. Mr. Levy clearly lays the blame for this debacle at the feet of the Opera's board.

Mr. Levy then imagines what might have happened if each Opera board member had been required to take the following oath. I present it in its entirety, as it summarizes succinctly what has been written more opaquely elsewhere in the form of board job descriptions and the like. For references to the Opera insert your organization's name, audience and purpose:

" As a trustee, I pledge to participate actively in the governance of the _______(New York City Opera). As such I will take care to look closely after the selection of a Chief Executive Officer, to regularly monitor the CEOs' performance in office, and to carefully review both the organization's financial affairs and the discharge of its (artistic) mission.

I recognize that the _____(Opera) requires financially supportive trustees, and I will offer generous contributions, consistent with my means. I shall also encourage friends, colleagues, and associates to donate funds.

In executing my responsibilities, I will first and foremost consider the best interests of the institution in its service to _________(audiences  and  artists).  I will not hesitate to voice my view if either my fellow trustees or senior management  appear to be straying from the path of fiscal and programmatic solvency in pursuit of the ________(New York City Opera's) clearly stated mission."

Mr, Levy then asks: " Would an oath of this kind help to set a peer-driven expectation of responsible governance?"   I would say "yes."  If each board member subscribes to it, then that lays the groundwork for the institution's governance becoming "peer-driven," e.g. evolving from the collective actions of the members of the board in their oversight role. One cannot overemphasize enough the board duty of OVERSIGHT.

A few days before I wrote this post,  a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in Manhattan approved a reorganization plan for the revival of the New York City Opera, in a different and far smaller form, and not at Lincoln Center. One hopes members of  the board that will oversee the new organization would, if not take the above oath exactly, pledge themselves to its spirit.

I commend Mr. Levy's book to you. Like other memoirs of successful executives, it is not without elements of self-congratulation. But the stories he tells shines a bright light on critical issues faced by all nonprofits.The book ends with a helpful and practical section entitled "Leadership Lessons That Matter Most."  One lesson he describes is " The Persuasive Power of the Written Word" where he writes: "its persuasive power, its capacity to convey meaning, and its ability to move readers to favorable action is impressive."  Amen to that!

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