Saturday, October 21, 2006

Science Station Lessons for Pella - Part IV

Today's (October 21) Gazette, for the fourth day in a row, has a page-one update by Janet Rorholm on the Science Station story, Janet Rorholm, "Board to regroup at Science Station; Envisioning a fresh start, leader asks members to resign," The Gazette, October 21, 2006, p. A1.

[For yesterday's story, and links to prior news reports and blog commentary from October 18, 19 and 20, see Nicholas Johnson, "More More Science Station Lessons for Pella," October 20, 2006.]

The primary news in today's story is that the Science Station board members met, and at the request of board president Dan Thies, have each submitted their resignations.

Coupled with Ms. Rorholm's report -- "former office manager, Nancy Listman, was arrested . . .. The Science Station’s marketing and development director, Kevin Eisenmann, is leaving next week. Executive Director Joe Hastings is resigning Oct. 31." -- President Thies really is in a position to offer the Cedar Rapids community a clean slate on which to write the future of this edu-tainment venue.

Of course, I share the hopes of those who are seeking a solution by which the Science Station can be salvaged in a financially realistic way. But my primary interest in these stories is not so much for what may ultimately happen to the Cedar Rapids' Science Station as for what its experience offers others. Those lessons (as I perceive them) have been spelled out in the prior blog entries, referenced above, and those from today's story, below:

1. Board members' functions and responsibilities. There is an enormous body of literature regardiing boards. (I have created a Web site with links to some of the writing of John Carver, and the experience of the Iowa City Community School District Board's application of his approach. Nicholas Johnson, "Board Governance: Theory and Practice.") I won't endeavor to review it all here. Suffice it to say that
Board positions should not be viewed as merely prestigeous sinecures; they should represen a commitment of time and talent (and often money), and the acceptance of serious responsibilities.

A fully functioning board
requires at least some reading, reflection and prior thought, both by individual board members and by the board as a whole, regarding their purpose and tasks. Whatever model is followed, there needs to be board consensus on precisely what functions and processes are for the board, and which for the CEO -- and the accepted ways by which the two will relate. The board should be setting the organization's mission, measurable goals and mileposts, and designing the management information reporting system by which it will track the operation in general and the progress toward those goals in particular. This should not be left, by default, for the CEO to have to do and the board to merely rubber stamp. By the same token, the CEO should then be left alone to do his or her job without the board (and especially individual members of the board) "micromanaging" the details of administration.

2. Number of board members. Rorholm reports that President Thies wants to reduce the number of board members from 22 to something closer to 10, with an "advisory board" to provide additional input. That would seem to be a wise move. If anything, even 10 is at the upper reaches of a workable board. The more board members the less responsibility each feels. Rorholm noted that -- even given this crucial time in the life of the Science Station -- a number of the board members did not bother to attend yesterday's meeting.

3. Public confidence in the board. Rorholm quotes Thies: "people that I respect say, ‘You
need to build a strong board.’’’ She continues, "It’s natural that people who give money to an organization be comfortable and respect those with fiduciary responsibilities, Thies said." He's right. It is apparently a common human quality to prefer others like ourselves -- whether for social relationships, professional associations, or on the boards of organizations to which we contribute. If someone comes out of a business or financial background of some wealth -- as the major donors to anything tend to -- they will be more likely to feel comfortable giving money to organizations run by those from their range of acquaintance, individuals whose business sense they trust. Of course, it's not just representation from business. Confidence in a board requires that it also includes -- or at least has access to -- the range of expertise most relevant to the operation involved.

4. Non-profit businesses. Those who create, run, or otherwise support non-profits of various kinds are usually motivated in large measure by mission; it is enough that the organization or operation in question is "a good thing." In fact, aside from the matter of "profit" (which often is a distinction of little more than technical significance) the skills necessary to the running of non-profits are identical to those of for-profit corporations: "human relations" (personnel), marketing and advertising, customer relations, government relations, accounting and finance, information technology, management information reporting systems, and so forth.

Don't be bored with your rain forest board, Pella. Your future may depend on it.

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