Monday, November 13, 2006

Gazette Leads & Expands Science Station Review

For the past month The Gazette has been taking the lead on constructive reporting and substantive editorial suggestions regarding the financial challenges confronting Cedar Rapids' Science Station. See Nicholas Johnson, "'Hat's Off' to Gazette's Janet Rorholm," October 20, 2006 (reporting), and praise of the editorial analysis in "Nicholas Johnson, "Suggestion for Science Station," November 7, 2006, for Editorial, "Rally Is On for Science Station," The Gazette, November 5, 2006. And see links to seven prior blog entries on this subject, below.

The excellent reporting has continued, of course, with Janet Rorholm, "Effort to Save Science Station Growing," The Gazette, November 7, 2006, and Janet Rorholm, "2-Month Reprieve; Donations Keep Science Station Open While New Board Crafts Survival Plan," The Gazette, November 11, 2006.

But the purpose of this morning's blog entry is to remark upon, and praise, The Gazette's going the next mile -- (a) expanding its focus to non-profits generally, and (b) extending its sense of community responsibility beyond the four corners of its newspaper and online screens into the format of a community meeting.

The meeting, open to the public generally and well-worth attendance by anyone who works for, contributes to, or benefits from non-profit enterprises (which is just about all of us, isn't it?) is to be held tomorrow evening (November 14) in the Cedar Rapids Library, staring at 7:00 p.m.

Sunday's top-of-page-one main story was another example of lengthy, really first-rate reporting, Janet Rorholm's, "Non-Profits Must Plan for Success; Science Station, History Center Among Organizations in Danger Zone," The Gazette, November 12, 2006. (And this link also contains the paper's notice of the meeting details: "Gazette forum will examine what makes healthy non-profits.")

Now it's not like our local papers have never done this before. The
Iowa City Press-Citizen sponsored a community meeting to discuss the Iowa rain forest project when it was assumed -- if the structure was ever to be funded and built -- it would be in Coralville. And I recall attending a community meeting sponsored by The Gazette on the subject of "open meetings" (required by law of public organizations).

I just think this kind of going above and beyond by local media is entitled to recognition, and appreciation and participation by the public.

Even with its focus on Cedar Rapids non-profits, I may attend this one as well. But whether I do or not, I'm not going to be speaking. So I thought I'd offer some substantive suggestions here.

It's not the time or place to review all the things I've written over the past 40 years on related topics: board governance, strategic and program planning, benefit-cost analyses, business plans, management information reporting systems, economic development generally and attractions in particular, and so forth. So I'll just include some quick comments and references.

1. Board governance. There are many models that can work if board members are willing to make them work. One that we found useful in re-orienting the Iowa City Community School District Board was the work of John Carver. Even if a board chooses to reject his approach, I believe it should do so only after, not before, becoming familiar with it. My board governance Web site, with links to Carver's writing, is at

2. Management Information Reporting Systems (MIRS). A board's strategic planning does little good if it is not accompanied with mileposts, measurable goals ("you get what you measure"), and regular reporting of actual results (preferably with a transparency that includes all stakeholders), followed by revisions in strategies and goals in an ongoing process. For anyone who's not familiar with MIRS, an example of such a system that I participated in creating when serving as U.S. Maritime Administrator 40-plus years ago -- and that is, not incidentally, very similar to what is used by Proctor & Gamble and other institutions today -- is available at, U.S. Department of Commerce, Maritime Administration, The Marad Management Information Reporting System, April 1965.

3. Business plans. There are plenty of Cedar Rapids leaders with experience in putting together business plans. For those who haven't had that experience, and would like a simple example of what a business plan looks like and how to put one together, one useful source on the Internet is the U.S. Small Business Administration's material at SBA, "Write a Business Plan,"

4. Economic development and attractions. In the course of writing about the Iowa rain forest project over the past few years, both for publication and on my own Web site, I have had occasion to explore, research and write about economic development issues generally, and those related to attractions in particular. The material I've written on the Web site would print out to well over 100 pages; the additional material to which it links includes the full text of 100s of stories, reports, and commentary. Much of that would be of relevance to anyone dealing with non-profits. The Web site is available at

5. The devastation of debt. The Gazette's Sunday story ("Non-Profits Must Plan for Success," linked above) concludes, "[debt] doesn't have to be the kiss of death for a non-profit organization, experts say." That's one of the few, perhaps the only statement, from that story with which I'd disagree. Even the paragraph in which it's located concedes, "While the Science Station and the History Center's financial problems stemmed partly from debt . . .." As I have examined various edu-tainment attractions around the country (see, for example, Nicholas Johnson, "Time to Learn From What Works," Iowa City Press-Citizen, January 20, 2006, generally, and the section "Up-Front Financing" in particular) one characteristic of attractions that don't make it is their reliance on debt.

6. Non-Profit Resource Center. There's lots of help for non-profits out there on the Internet. But if anyone involved with non-profits is not aware of it, don't forget to check out a really first class resource center right here in eastern Iowa, the University of Iowa's Larned A. Waterman Iowa Nonprofit Resource Center, It's the creation of Willard ("Sandy") Boyd, who has served as, among other things, president of the University of Iowa, the Field Museum in Chicago, and on dozens of non-profits' boards over the years.

So another ten-gallon 'Hat's Off' award to The Gazette and its thoughtful, constructive contribution to its communities' welfare.
Other blog entries by Nicholas Johnson dealing with the Science Station (and relating its problems and solutions to the proposed rain forest for Pella, Iowa):

"Science Station Lessons for Pella," October 18, 2006
"More Science Station Lessons for Pella," October 19, 2006
"More More Science Station Lessons for Pella," October 20, 2006
"'Hat's Off' to Gazette's Janet Rorholm," October 20, 2006
"Science Station Lessons for Pella - Part IV," October 21, 2006
"Science Station Lessons for Pella - Part V," October 23, 2006
"Suggestion for Science Station," November 7, 2006
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