Advice from those who have been there

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

For many people, experience is the best teacher. And while not all nonprofits have taken a pause, two local organizations have recently been through the rigorous process and can offer their perspectives.

Kimberly Sterling, the former board president of the Martin Luther King Center, and Allison Luthe, the center’s current executive director, shared advice applicable to a human services agency.

The Indianapolis Opera’s Matt Mindrum, the current board chair and David Starkey, the general manager, looked at the pause from an arts perspective.

Here are some of their suggestions:

Have a clear plan and consistent messages

Sterling said it’s not enough to just ensure that clients will be served. The board should have a purpose behind the pause. Why is it happening? Is it purely financial or are there services that are being duplicated by others?

Before the pause, a nonprofit needs a media plan, and everyone from staff to leadership has to be clear in their descriptions of the reasons for the break. Electing a spokesperson is important to make sure messages are consistent. Having one person delivering the message also frees up others to attend to other steps to turn around the organization.

Know your board

Sterling said it is critical when planning a pause to understand who on the board is willing to work. During a pause, there will be an additional time commitment, and an oversight board will not work.

“Everyone needs to be all in, and if you’re not, it’s OK, we just needed to know who’s staying and who’s not. It needs to be a board that clearly understands its role and works well together. Board development was absolutely critical, especially in the short term, particularly when we didn’t have staff.”

In MLK’s case, the board chair decided to step down because of other commitments, and Sterling took the helm.

The board also knew it needed a strong treasurer and someone to work with the auditors. MLK’s was a volunteer who stepped up after reading about the center’s situation in the newspaper, and volunteered his services to help. Although his term is up, Jeff Gearries continues to serve on the board.

When Sterling rotated off the board at the end of her term, she wanted to make sure there was a strategic plan. The board’s responsibility was not only to fight fire an immediate need, but also plan for the next three to five years.

Sterling said the board’s work was guided by a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King: I am what I am because of who we all are.

“As you think about what a community center is, it’s about the community, it’s not about the staff members, and it’s a reflection of the community or at least it should be.”

Recognize that healing needs to take place

In both cases, there was a lot of personal attachment to the organization as it was.

Starkey, who became the Opera’s general director in March, recognizes that the healing is still happening.

When you have an accident and you injure your body, you have to be very dedicated that you heal, and you must be very optimistic. I came to a city and to an organization that was deeply troubled. I knew many of the people and many of the circumstances, knowing the past leadership of this company, admiring it from a distance. The healing is still happening. And I think we have the greatest healing tool, and that’s music, specifically singing. Time does heal. If you come back pretty quickly, then some of that didn’t have time yet.”

Know your community

Luthe’s first month on the MLK job saw the Double 8 food store on Illinois Street close. Her first reaction was to move into action and provide support. While the center didn’t have a lot of money at the time, they did have two shuttles available, and people in the neighborhood that needed food.

Their plan was to drive folks to the nearest grocery store. They produced fliers, and got everybody excited.

But nobody showed up to ride the shuttles.

“That’s when I said, ‘We’re going to have to get in touch with people and find out what they do need.’ If you’re going to be a community center, you’ve got to be grounded in the neighborhood. Make sure that in your renewal that you’re really connected to whom you should be connected to.”

Define your organization

Luthe said people had to understand that, “collectively this is going to be a new thing.”

“If you have a million dollar house next door (in Tarkington Tower), and then you’ve got an abandoned block of boarded-up houses, what’s your mission and who are you really here to serve? So I think people needed to figure that out. Are we a social justice organization that is a cultural center, are we a social service provider or are we a gathering place?”

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