Organizational Planning: Beyond Mission

In early 2016, I became president of the Jerome Foundation, following Cindy Gehrig’s remarkable thirty-seven-year tenure. With so many changes in the world at large as well as in the arts, our board of directors was eager to explore these changes, debate what the future might hold, and engage in self-scrutiny as a prelude to setting a new strategic framework to guide Jerome’s grantmaking during our next chapter. (And the distinction between a strategic framework and a strategic plan is a discussion in itself!) Over a year we held special half-day retreats attached to our quarterly board meetings, a schedule that was designed to promote reflective thinking, allow the board time to read and delve deeply into survey results, data, op eds, industry articles, and so on, and leave room when necessary for circling back to challenge earlier decisions or inclinations. During this time, the board read, debated, and refined its thinking. They moved from broadly framing challenges facing the arts sector, to examining challenges facing artists, to articulating aspirations for what we might do, and finally to reconciling our aspirations with our infrastructure and capacity — admittedly a fairly predictable progression.

Much to my surprise, our founder, Jerome Hill (or as we affectionately call him, “Jerome”), had left us little guidance and great freedom for what we might do. Our articles of incorporation make no mention of arts, of limiting the geographic funding area, or even of a desire to exist in perpetuity: it was, in fact, a shock to read during the first week of January 2016 that he had given the directors authority to spend all resources and go out of business by December 31, 2015! Our long-standing practices of funding the arts in Minnesota and New York City were not Jerome’s directives: they reflected the thinking of earlier directors, the extended Hill family descendants, and Cindy Gehrig herself, who together developed this approach to honor Jerome’s own lifetime habit of supporting other artists, to acknowledge his own career as an Academy Award–winning filmmaker, composer and painter, and to pay tribute to both his Minnesota origins and his active participation in the film community of New York City.

That said, nothing required us to continue down that road. The first step, therefore, was to establish parameters for inquiry: Were we interested in funding sectors other than/instead of/in addition to the arts — and if so, what might those be? Did we wish to expand or further restrict our geographic reach? Were we willing to entertain the idea of “spending out,” or were we committed to perpetuity? Answering these questions was designed less to proscribe future decisions, and more to let us know simply where to start.

In many planning processes I have witnessed, the first step is to examine the mission statement. Mission statements are of course important: at their best, mission statements are short, memorable (if all stakeholders can’t easily quote it word for word, something is wrong), measurable, and distinctive, capturing the voice of the organization beyond the “McMission” statement of “making the world a better place to be.” We deliberately decided, however, not to head down that road. Perhaps this is a luxury of foundation life — our mission is essentially to make grants in keeping with the broad directives of positive benefit that are in the will. But we hoped to animate our board’s imagination rather than restrict it. Too often we have all witnessed mission statement–centric planning that involved mind-numbing, agonizing wordsmithing by committee, and that seduced participants into thinking their work was done once the statement was adopted, when in fact, it was far from complete. Indeed, some of the most inspiring stories I have heard — the March of Dimes reorganization in the wake of the discovery of the polio vaccine, Scott Cowen’s transformative work in reshaping Tulane after Hurricane Katrina — are about what happened because the mission was bypassed or, in Cowan’s case, deliberately ignored.

We chose to begin instead by focusing on our value — both realized and potential. A four-section questionnaire was posted on line, open to responses from past grantees, past rejected applicants, and even people who had never applied to us before. The questionnaire had four broad sections: a self-identifying demographic profile designed to help us understand more about the age, gender, race, home base, artistic discipline(s), profession, and history with Jerome, if any; a survey of their most urgent challenges, including a prioritization of the three most important issues that they needed foundation help to address; an assessment of their past experiences with us; and an open field where they could tell us anything they wished to tell us. The more than 600 organizational responses and the 1,240 artist responses to a follow-up survey we received were unbelievably illuminating — often affirming, occasionally appalling, but clear in key themes of where Jerome had provided value in the past, where we had fallen short, and what they hoped Jerome might provide in the future. We will always be grateful to all the artists, managers, and technicians who took the time to let us know what they thought.

The next logical step could have been to move straight to answering the question, What will we do in the future? But before we tackled the questions or strategies, goals, programs, initiatives, and so on, we stopped to ask ourselves, Within this universe of need and urgent advice, what do we want to stand for? What, in essence, are our core values? Rather than letting our mission and goals set the framework for our programs, we believed that our value and values should set the framework from which our mission and goals would arise.

In the mid-1990s, when I was part of the James Shannon Leadership Institute in St. Paul, Minnesota, its unparalleled leader Ronnie Brooks impressed on me the importance of understanding core values. While understanding value singular arguably involves assessing impact, understanding values plural means seeing their connection to purpose: they are the emotional, ethical, and social strands that define what we stand for, ideally both what we espouse and what we embody. Core values are the two or three highest values — those we will go to the mat for every time, even if we are punished for doing so.

In our planning, we knew that while these core values would also help us be clearer about the organizations and artists we would eventually fund, it would ultimately fall to us to model the values that we hoped our grantees would evince. If we ever hoped to be effective, we would need our core values and our ongoing behavior to be aligned.

These core values would need to permeate the organization, with everyone sharing responsibility of adhering to and embodying those values. A value that applies to the program staff but not the administrative staff, or to the staff but not the board would not be a viable core value.

These core values would need to have a consciously rejected yet equally viable opposite, being chosen always at the expense of something else — diversity chosen at the expense of homogeneity, for example, or innovation chosen at the cost of tradition. Excellence — at least in my thinking — is not a candidate for core value status, for who can viably build a foundation dedicated to mediocre or bad work? Aspiration to excellence is a given: core values are choices that define the character of the organization and that guide it in moments of stress or crisis.

And precisely for that reason, we would need to limit our list to two or at most three values. With the addition of every value, the likelihood that values would come into conflict would be increased, and the power to serve them consistently, fully rigorously would be diluted.

We knew this would be hard but necessary. As part of a large initiative that we held during my Doris Duke Charitable Foundation days, we had done daylong site visits and had met separately with staff, board members, and artists of various organizations. At each visit we would ask each group, “What are the core values of the organization?” and would get wildly different answers or blank stares. Even in cases where the participants remembered and used the same vocabulary, the interpretations of what the values actually meant could be extremely different. I remember a particular encounter where the board was engaged in soul searching after a highly celebrated artistic director was dismissed publicly and acrimoniously because the community (i.e., small but vocal factions of the board, audience, and press) believed the work was too avant-garde. One board member said, “I truly don’t understand the problem. When we chose this leader, we committed to innovation and experimentation — and I’m as committed to that as anyone. I saw Elton John’s Aida on Broadway three times.” This was one of those moments where I realized that while everyone thought they held the same values, what those values meant held very different meanings in the room. When organizations are in internal disarray — in my experience at least — it is very rarely because of a lack of understanding of mission: it is typically because of a lack of understanding and deep agreement on core values.

Defining values can be an invitation for people — me especially — to scale rhetorical heights and espouse their most noble dreams — the realm of professed values. But it also requires careful analysis of how we allocate our time, of our past actions, and of those instances where our past behavior has truly nourished us, not merely gratified us — the realm of lived values.

If our professed values and our lived values had been markedly different, we would have faced a choice: either to change the way we lived to match our values, or to own the fact that the way we lived was indeed nourishing, and to affirm our lived behavior as the true. Fortunately for us, we realized our professed values and our lived values were in close harmony — a realization that has led us to articulate three values that will guide us going forward: diversity in its fullest sense, of race, gender, age, artistic discipline, point of view, aesthetics, and even ways of thinking; innovation/risk within those aesthetics and as a guide to our own willingness to learn, pushing the boundaries of our own comfort level and practice; and humility, our conviction that the artists we serve know more about their needs than we do, that we should approach them in a spirit of learning and consideration, that our artists — and we ourselves — live in service to higher goals than material return or fame, and that our need to be recognized and thanked will never drive our decisions. Most tellingly these are three values that Jerome himself embodied (he was an experimental filmmaker, funded organizations of color in the first year of the foundation, and initially called our foundation the Avon Foundation because he did not want people to know who the donor was).

Clear articulation of these core values will bring numerous benefits moving forward. These values become a recruiting tool for board and staff, insuring a deeper commitment and healthier organizational culture. I once heard Richard Chait, the best board expert I know, say that effective board recruitment starts not with a description of what the board is expected to do, but with a review of recent decisions the board has made, a discussion of the three most pressing challenges the board faces in the next five years, and discussion of organizational values. The quality of a candidate’s thinking and alignment with values — not the size of the checkbook or reputation — should be the key determinants of being a fit for the board. Moreover, he noted, such a conversation at its best will inspire potential members, engage them, make them eager to join the board and do those other things — attending meetings, doing committee work, and, where appropriate, contributing money, which they do at even higher levels when they are engaged. As we interviewed potential board candidates last year, this approach served us phenomenally well.

Core values will also provide a framework for regrounding the organization and the board in moments of crisis. Especially in such moments, boards and staff in any debate of strategy and tactics are far more effective if guided by values that are designed to withstand fluctuations in fortunes.

We hope that publicly proclaiming core values will give us an opportunity to build community connection and forge stronger bonds with the optimal artists and organizations. In the New York Times early in 2017, David Brooks distinguished between thin organizations (which are largely transactional and seen through a filter of mutual benefit) and thick organizations, those that occupy a moral ecology, which rally people to serve a higher good and arouse higher longings and loyalties. Value by itself can lead to thin transactional connection — and transactions are of course important — but values lead to the thick connections to which we at Jerome aspire.

Core values are at the heart of making that possible.