NLN7: Nonprofit Collaborations with Margot Knight

margot knight headshot2In this episode Margot H. Knight, Executive Director of Djerassi Resident Artists Program, shares about collaboration, sabbaticals, and learning as you go.

Margot considers herself to be the luckiest woman in the arts world. After 35 years and six jobs in the arts and humanities, she now lives and works on a mountain south of San Francisco surrounded by artists and redwoods and earth and sky at one of the foremost artist residency programs in the world. Since 2011 she has served as the Executive Director of Djerassi Resident Artists Program.

Visit www.NonprofitLeadersNetwork.com/7 to access the transcript and any other available show notes.

Here are some highlights:

About Djerassi Resident Artists Program

We are in our 36th year. We were founded by, and for the first 15 years nurtured by, a private family foundation through Carl Djerassi who had a 1200 acre cattle ranch back in the ‘60s. His daughter was an artist. She built a house on the property and in 1978, she killed herself. Carl’s response was to take a piece of the property and turn it into a place to nourish living artists in his daughter’s honor. So fast forward about 15 years, they spun off completely out of the family foundation as an independent nonprofit. We exist on 583 acres with five buildings, three of which are devoted to artists. We have artists from around the world who apply. In fact, we had almost 900 apply for next year. Artists come for 30 days, all arriving together in a group of at least 12 at a time. They are artists from different disciplines. We have a fully sprung dance floor, we always have a choreographer, we have a composer studio, we always have a classical or jazz or any number of musicians. We have room for poets, playwrights, writers of all kind, creative non-fiction and fiction and space for visual artists and painters and photographers in what we call our messy studios. So, 12 people come and leave at the same time and they leave transformed because there is no work product requirement here. We are investing in the creative process in a communal creativity of artists. So after 30 days together, there are collaborations, there is tons of new work that has been created and will be in the next five, 10, 15, 20 years because we have given them uninterrupted space and time just to be artists.

Nonprofit Sabbaticals

There was a piece on the news this morning that stated people who work 55 hours or more have a 33 percent increased chance of having a stroke – that about defines every nonprofit executive I know and have known over the last 30 years. The whole idea of the gift of time – which is hard to justify because there are no outcomes and we have become such as an outcome based world: ‘What are you doing for this money, what is going to happen, how are you going to change the world, how are you going to fix inner city Detroit?’ We are so focused on outcomes that I think we are losing as a society – across every business model, for-profit and nonprofit – by not providing that kind of free range thinking time for leadership.

Collaboration to Touch Lives through the Arts

I am most proud of times when we have pulled together a diversity of human beings and institutions to work together on something – true collaboration. For example in Orlando, we convened people to see what we could do to improve participation in the arts in the community and we, fifty organizations, joined together. We got research funded and we created a whole host of responses to try to make some incremental progress in touching more people’s lives in the central Florida community with the arts. We did it to see if we could work together to crack the code that none of us could have worked at individually. So, when we can bring different people to the table and really have it work that I am most proud of.

Focus on What You Have in Common

I am very grateful when an established successful organization takes the time to mentor or be part of a conversation which they do not need to be successful. But it is such a sense of continuity within a community, within a cultural community, when the large organizations and the smaller organizations and the minority based organizations and the white established organizations look at what we share. Let’s not look at what divides us, let’s look at the things that we share and what we are trying to do with our missions and work to expand those ways in which we can work together.

Collaboration: You Don’t Need Permission

I think you need colleagues and you need some support. If you do not feel like you are powerful enough that people will say yes to your invitation, do a smaller invitation at first and then expand the circle and expand the circle and expand the circle and take that all information as good approach.

Collaboration: Extending Invitations

It is usually via email, via phone, by running to somebody into the supermarket and saying, “What do you think about doing something like this?” It is a lot of talking and a lot of listening. Mostly listening but you lay out where you think you want to go and then see what other people think and make adjustments as you go along.

I worked on a project with the Idaho World Development Council. We all realized we had the stake in expanding the capacity of nonprofits – whether they were in the housing business or the arts business or the domestic abuse business. By strengthening administration and governance of nonprofits, we would have stronger Idaho. We all worked together to do that and do workshops around the state. That was exciting and brought together all kinds of diverse organizations. The conversation happened when people really rolled up their sleeves and said, ‘gee, let’s just break down what needs to happen to make this better, to make the lives of Idaho better, and to make the arts more vital to community. What’s the outcome that you want?’ Once you are clear on the outcome, man the ideas are flowing.

Collaboration: Take Time to Build Consensus

To start, I like to have a conversation that does not rush to decision too quick. So everybody has got an objective thought of the objective reality, the what. So I like to hear from anybody: what is the problem, what do you see as happening with you and your organization? Then you say, so what, what does that mean? You kind of know what you think the problem is, what impact that is having on your organization, good, bad, indifferent. How do you feel about it? Then you say, now what? Now what can we do? Then you circle back around and make some decisions about the ideas that have the most traction in the room.

The biggest mistake we make is rushing to the decision part too quickly. Everybody has got to be able to talk and follow through and listen before you jump to, ‘oh let’s do this’ because ‘let’s do this’ means you are constantly dragging people with you. If you go through this process… if you are a leader… you are getting pushed up the hill backwards. You are being pushed by the needs and responding. It is a very powerful thing when there is consensus in a room – we can be so powerful if we work together.

Expectations and Education: Is it a Performance or Training Issue?

In my first executive directorship, I thought I was hired to be a leader \, it’s just other thing in nonprofits, you do not get any training. You keep getting promoted because you are doing a good job and all of a sudden you go, oh I am an executive director, I better act ‘executive director like.’ I think I did not do enough listening and after 18 months, I found myself on probation – which for everyone I have ever met is usually the precursor of getting fired. But I had a very wise board chair who brought in an HR consultant who said, “This isn’t a performance problem, this is a personality and style issue, this is a training issue.” The HR consultant met with my board, met with my staff, met with me, sent me to some training and I was able to turn things around and lasted another seven and a half years in the job. I learned a lot through that experience and I learned what things I could do quickly as a new leader.

Whispers, If Not Attended To, Can Become Big Problems

I think Oprah Winfrey used to say, and it sounds a little cliché but it is true, every problem you have is a whisper you ignored. I think one of my mantras in life since I was young is being attuned to notice vibrations, getting ahead of problems so they do not get out of control. It does require a kind of constant stage of alertness but I learned a lot about things that I ignored that I should have paid attention to. Things I thought I could just plow through but should have paid attention to. It is hard I think for anybody to change. I like to think that I learn from my mistakes and I like to think that I can behave differently if it is serious impediment to getting the cooperation or agreement with the people I work with. I am not always successful. I still like to do things too fast. It is just my nature, but I do my best to try to take into account all the considerations before making a decision. The other thing that can happen is you get and what is called paralysis analysis and you do not do anything because you are so worried about everybody being happy. This is not about people being happy, it is about listening to everyone and making a decision that you think is the right decision for the organization and hoping that your listening has brought you enough respect and understanding of the process that people will implement it even if it is not how they would have done it.

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