I received an inquiry. Would I be interested in heading up a new not-for-profit? Several previous colleagues mentioned me as a skilled field ethnographer and creator of education and cultural programs. So, would I be interested? Fundraising and staff development were big items for the initial years!
Typically polyloquent, garrulous, and talkative to a fault, I found it hard to push the word out from between my teeth: NO. They both sat back into their chairs and seemed stunned that I’d so bluntly refused. The toothsome one on the right smiled at me and said, “But you are uniquely qualified.” Her partner assured me that the Board had many strong corporate members eager to help, and I wouldn’t be alone. It would be a unique challenge to create an entirely new model of a cultural organization that could become a model for others.
I sat back and digested what I’d just heard. I’d been in the trade for a long time before decamping for a job trotting video cameras around and working weekends in a woodcarvers shop. I’d heard all those catchphrases before; the unique challenge, new model, and strong corporate Board. Behind them, I glanced into a mirrored wall and looked at the greying hair on my head. Once again, but more politely, I said, No.
“Well, if no is your answer, why don’t you give us why you feel so strongly about this?” I answered,” I’ve heard all the terms you’ve used before. I’ve seen more than a few with colossal promises fail many times over the years. Models don’t turn out to be repeatable due to unique local circumstances; strong corporate boards don’t raise funds – they raise havoc by interfering with day-to-day operations, and unique challenges are just jive talk for ” there are some real issues, and whoever takes the job is going to have their hands full. Sometimes the organizations wind up defunct, not because of a lack of vision but because day-to-day operations become so challenged that the staff can’t do their jobs. Promised funding dries up, collections are dispersed, and communities feel misserved.”
Quietly absorbing this, they glanced at each other and responded, ” Well, would you be interested in serving in an advisory capacity to the Board?” I diverted the conversation to another topic, How tight the grant market had become. Later I thanked them for lunch and left for home.
The above is a fictional distillation derived from about five conversations I’ve had over the past 15 years. Luckily I’ve now aged out of the market for these jobs. Always significant challenges, limited compensation to start, an incredible opportunity, and so on.
What would be my model for how to make something like this work? Start very small, say in a storefront, build genuine community-wide support, and create programs that grow organically from the community’s needs and desires. Forget about fancy Boards, models, and significant funding from the government or corporations. Grow from the grassroots. Don’t forget where you came from if you develop and grow bigger. but this is not how many organizations see things.