Waking the Sleeping Giant

by Anne W. Ackerson

 This article was first published in the December 2003 issue of the Upstate History Alliance newsletter.

I've been reading several articles about governance that appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of The Nonprofit Quarterly.  The title of my article comes from one of them -- Gus Newport refers to many nonprofits as sleeping giants in his article, "Why Are We Replacing Furniture When Half of the Neighborhood is Missing?", because they are unaware or uninterested in how their constituents' needs may be shifting or how their communities are changing.

Newport's use of the term "sleeping giants" intrigues me.  It implies a couple of things:  the first is that, indeed, there are nonprofit organizations asleep at the switch -- they are isolated from the changing world around them, unaware that their missions may not be in sync with the needs of their constituents or communities, or unable to figure out ways to be meaningful, to build audiences, or to expand bases of financial support.

The term also implies that nonprofits have the ability to be giants in the lives of their communities, to help shape quality of life issues, to inform civic dialogue, to enhance the sum of a community's parts.  As Newport writes, "Our efforts in this (nonprofit) sector regarding culture and the arts assuage the human spirit in many different ways, encourage intellectual exploration, and augment our peace of mind.  For these and many other reasons, I have always believed that the nonprofit sector is the difference between chaos and a tranquil society.  We make things grow in the gaps where the private sector doesn't go and where the public sector fails miserably in both knowledge and approach."

I think cultural nonprofits have often been particularly slow to embrace constituents and communities beyond their own image, although Newport indicates that social welfare and advocacy nonprofits are just as inclined to be insular.  After all, most nonprofits were originally created by like-minded people wishing to pursue a common endeavor.  However, Newport's challenge remains:  how or why do we think we can create and maintain programs and products without including input from whom these activities are meant to benefit?

Any nonprofit has a dual obligation:  firstly (and always so), to its constituents -- be they members, visitors, clients, congregants, students, patients, or colleagues -- any by extension, the larger community that sustains its, and, secondly, to keeping itself financially stable, programmatically vital, and future-focused.  Overlaying this for museums and historical societies is the equally daunting obligation to their collections, which they hold in trust for the benefit and 

enjoyment of the public.

It is the first of these obligations that is receiving the greatest emphasis in nonprofit circles today.  "Nonprofit boards owe their allegiance first to the community and only second to the organization," says Kelvin Taketa of the Hawaii Community Foundation.  That allegiance must be assured by active engagement of the people the organization touches, bringing them into the loop on the setting of priorities and program design. (1)  This message resonates throughout current literature, from funders, and at professional gatherings.

Some might find it difficult or downright impossible to envision their small historical society or art museum as a potential community "giant".  but, when you begin to think how organizations might advocate locally to make historic preservation, heritage and cultural tourism, art or science the cornerstones of community vision as well as economic development, then the giant metaphor isn't so far-fetched.  Are we only about preserving things or are we about using those things to engage, excite, and transform?

At your next board, staff, volunteer or members' meeting try asking and talking deeply about these questions:  To whom is our organization accountable?  Does the organization govern and program to preserve institutional interests?  Or does the organization govern and program in the best interests of its community?

Set the Alarm Clock!

Here are some ideas from The Nonprofit Quarterly (Fall 2003) that your organization might actively embrace in the coming months:

  • figure out ways to get regular dialogues going with the people your organization touches.  Board members should always be in a state of visioning new ways to engage constituents.

  • boards, staff, and key volunteers must see themselves as intimately connected to the aspirations and interests of their community  -- have a series of conversations about this.  Reflect these aspirations and interests in mission statements, planning goals, and work plans.

  • design  modes of governance that are capable of dealing with relations between different fields of activity.  "Boards must see themselves as responsible for ensuring that the interconnections between social forces and communities are explored and understood and the strategies taken on by the organization are related to this understanding." (2)

  • encourage board members to actively develop and join coalitions that bridge divisions between issues and communities.

  • pay attention to "horizontal integration" -- merge work with that of others who function in the same field of practice or locality.  Think about co-setting agendas with other nonprofits so that a whole group of organizations talk about the same issues or hold joint board meetings to consider the best interests of shared constituents, neighborhoods, or the whole community.

  • insofar as the law will allow, experiment with the basic nonprofit board model; maintaining the status quo means that traditional power relationships on boards remain the same, so examine these relationships and make some objective decisions about them.  Change disrupts the stability of patterns that have become entrenched, but change, done wisely and well, can give new life and purpose to an organization.

  • create a 'Blue Sky Committee' -- a group of your most passionate board members, staff, volunteers, and constituents who are engaged with the trends of the field, who seek out the possibilities on the large horizon that might translate to governance and programming locally, and who are responsible for keeping the organization in "creation mode". (3)


(1) Ruth McCambridge.  "A Gateway to 21st Century Governance:  Are We Ready?".  The Nonprofit Quarterly.  Volume 10, Issue 3.  Fall 2003.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Ibid.



T:  518 271 2455

E:  anne@awackerson.com

B:  Leading By Design

Troy, New York

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