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Postmortem: The Closing of Hull House

Like most people, I was hit with a wave of ‘say it ain’t so’ when I read about Hull House closing last week. The iconic mother of the settlement house concept, the model that Milwaukee organizations like Silver Spring Neighborhood Center and Journey House use in their family and neighborhood development efforts, Hull House was closing due to massive financial problems, one article stating that the organization owed millions of dollars to creditors.

That Hull House collapsed because of the poor economy is the no-brainer and maybe no-brain analysis.  Blaming the economy gives us permission to tsk tsk about how the funding world doesn’t appreciate the iconic, how donors let Jane Addams’ dream disintegrate; the economic downturn and all the excessive belt-tightening are to blame for ending Hull House’s remarkable 123-year run.

All of that may be true.  I don’t know.  All I know about Hull House is what I read in the paper.  But as a long-time observer of nonprofit organizations, I am betting that there is a lot more to the story.  Maybe some of these factors had a role in Hull House’s demise.

  • There may have been a failure to establish and maintain sufficient reserves to help the organization navigate through the economic mess.
  • The board may not have been sufficiently developed, trained, or supported to function as a good steward of Hull House resources.
  • No one may have been able to make hard decisions when they would have saved the agency, e.g. cutting programs/sites/staff.
  • Strategic alliances which might have preserved the Hull House mission and name while providing access to new resources may have been avoided.
  • The organization may have focused exclusively on its service delivery and not been involved in policy-making at the state and federal level that could have influenced program resources.
  • Maybe there was no decent grantwriting shop.
  • Maybe they couldn’t figure out how to diversify their funding (that is, after all, what saved many of us when the stock market tanked).
  • Maybe they assumed the public and the funding world knew all about the good work they were doing so they didn’t need to upgrade the outreach and communication.
  • Maybe they thought it could never happen to them.

 What I’m getting at is this:  The economic downturn reached into every berg in the country.  Strong nonprofits stayed afloat.  Weak ones went under.  And like I said, I don’t know the details of Hull House’s situation.  But I do know this.  Nonprofit organizations can protect themselves – there are life jackets and life boats and survival training aplenty.  Our very own Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee is a good place to start to sharpen your organization’s skills on a lot of fronts. 

The Hull House closing left us with a lesson — If it could happen to Hull House, it could happen to any organization. Be smart.  Take stock.  And protect your organization.


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Pssst! I Know Why You Can’t Get Good Board Members

Yippee!!  You’ve got a live one.  Someone who actually wants to be on your board of directors.  What’s next?  Wining and dining?  Flowers?  Nope.  If you’re like many nonprofits, you’re going to spoil the mood with an application and an interview, maybe a couple of each, with references.

I hate this.  I figure if I’m going to offer my time to be on a nonprofit board of directors, not much should go on except profuse thanks and  celebration.  My message to nonprofits that have gone to too many board recruitment workshops – STOP IT!  Drop the”let’s see if you’re good enough for our two-bit organization” approach and go with “I love you now and will love you more every day we’re together.” 

I’ve sat through a couple of these first date hells.  Once I mentioned to the director of a small community center that I would be interested in helping out by serving on their board of directors.  “Oh, great!,” she said.  Then started the vetting.  The application.  The interview. The interview with board members. The queries about my motivation.  What I would offer the organization.  Was I committed enough.  Interested enough.  I was, actually.  I thought it was a dynamite little organization. But, you know what? I was very put off by the process.  I wasn’t applying for a job.  I was there basically to DONATE MY TIME.  Should you kiss my ring for that? Maybe, especially since you need me more than I need you.

I recently joined the board of Spotted Eagle, Inc.  Here’s how they handled me.

  • The board chair responded to my email inquiry quickly and enthusiastically.
  • The executive director sent me info on the agency and set up a meeting.
  • I was welcomed to the meeting by the board chair, executive director, and another board member – who turned out to be someone I’d worked with several years ago.  He was obviously asked to come because the others thought he had some positive pull with me.
  • We had a lively, funny, interesting meeting in which they laid out their hopes, dreams, disappointments and worries.
  • They made it clear that they had already vetted me — I got clear “google” vibes.
  • I felt appreciated and needed.  Now, isn’t that a great way to start a board membership?
  • There was no idiotic  application, no interviewing me, no hoops.  It felt respectful and appropriate.  These folks got it — I was willing to volunteer my time and whatever expertise they might find useful. 

How did this make me feel?  Good.  I like the organization, I like the people and what they are trying to do.  I’m happy that they thought I could be useful.  It’s all good.

Next time you go recruiting for board members, understand that you are asking people to donate their time to your organization.  Would you treat a potential financial donor like you are treating prospective board members?  Are you vetting financial donors to make sure they’re worthy of donating to your cause?  Board members are precious.  Show them you love them from the get-go.  You’ll get paid back, many times over. 

Wine and dine works every time.  Trust me, I’m right about this.

Jan Wilberg Janice Wilberg


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