A Nonprofit Turnaround Story: The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

I’m an energetic fan of Nina Simon’s commitment to designing deeply participatory engagement, her willingness to experiment and take risks, and her transparency and candor in writing about her experiences.

This morning, on her Museum 2.0 blog, she reflects on her one-year anniversary as the director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. It’s a great post, in part because of her candor about things that worked and things that didn’t. We would all benefit if more nonprofit executive directors wrote a post like this once a year about lessons learned.

I also love the post because of her characterization of their strategy for recovering a near-fatal financial situation:

Just doing it. We didn’t go through an extensive planning process followed by deliberative, careful steps forward. We had a vision, a short list of goals for the first year, and an energetic (if underfunded) attack. Over the past year, we’ve developed several planning methodologies and approaches to our work—such as our exhibition philosophy and community program development process—and we did it iteratively through a series of experiments. We tried and tested and played and worked our way forward, and we’re still doing it. It is, as Kathleen McLean puts it, “museum as prototype,” and it is exhilarating, thoughtful work for all of us.”

The approach aligns well with an argument Trey and I make in The Nimble Nonprofit: strategic plans can be really valuable, but do them quickly, write them in pencil, and aggressively experiment, learn, and adjust along the way. It’s a powerful model that enables groups to sidestep the typical – and painfully laborious and lengthy – strategic planning process while still taking the time to set a clear, thoughtful course. Importantly, it fundamentally integrates a learning cycle into the execution. The prototype model is powerful so long as it’s explicit and so long as there’s a real commitment to frequent assessments and adjustments. The assessments themselves shouldn’t resemble a traditional strategic planning process, either … they have to be smart, targeted, and fast.

Huge congrats to Nina for the post, and even huger congrats to the entire Santa Cruz Museum team for pulling off a remarkable turnaround.

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