Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Iowa Rain Forest ("Earthpark") Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Blog, FromDC2Iowa

Serious Responsibilities


The Gazette

October 22, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

The story of how the Cedar Rapids Science Station and its McLeod/Busse IMAX Dome Theatre got to the point of financial ruin is complex and multilayered. The common denominator — and the fact that should refocus others with this responsibility — is that the whole series of unfortunate circumstances and decisions over several years occurred under the watch of a board of directors.

  Board members undoubtedly served and continue to serve with sincerity of purpose. These are honest, capable people, many of them among the most visionary leaders of the community and in their professions. The board work in recent months to restructure the contract with IMAX, hire a top-quality executive director and upgrade exhibits has been commendable. But it seems likely that the Science Station’s substantial obstacles would have been overcome had the scrutiny and aggressive problem-solving happened much earlier, before the critical hour was already past.

  It’s rarely easy, especially in the arena of non-profit cultural and arts organizations, but successful organizations endure because of passionate, hard-working, vigilant board members who don’t view their affiliations as positions of prestige, but see them as opportunities to fight for a mission they embrace.

  Board members have a duty to scrutinize financial reports, question the executive director, make realistic budget proposals, craft respected business plans that give donors faith in the direction of the organization. Board members cannot shy from the sometimes-uncomfortable jobs of a board, either: raising money, participating in the painstaking work of strategic planning and offering candid assessments of the organization’s performance.

  If these tasks don’t appeal to potential board members, they shouldn’t accept board seats.

  Likewise, if an organization is salivating to recruit a prestigious person, look beyond that prestige to consider if the potential board member is willing to tackle the post. Too many boards are focused on brass ring members who are coveted for their potential connections. But if that person can’t make the commitment to be engaged in the work of a board member, how much difference will he or she really make?

  Organizations do not need naysayers. But neither do they need ‘‘yes’’ people. They need a mix of realists, optimists and visionaries, to be sure. But a board absolutely must also have roll-up-your-sleeves folks who can be go-to people for getting the job done. Something as simple as attendance at board meetings is a basic measure of commitment.

  The dire straits of the Science Station were caused by a unique set of woes that took a toll on the educational and entertainment facility: building the IMAX theater without an endowment to support its operations; an embezzlement of more than $300,000 that shook the public’s confidence in the organization; pledges that weren’t aggressively collected; a wobble in the economy at an inopportune time.

  Other non-profit failings the community has suffered came to pass for their own unique reasons. But all can link their problems to governance weaknesses, as well.

  There’s great vitality in the Cedar Rapids non-profit community, despite some isolated trouble spots.

  Strong governance can keep it that way, while those organizations that need improvement can start by looking at who’s on watch.