The Story of The National Museum of Craftsmanship

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The National Museum of Craftsmanship is both unique and typical. Its uniqueness is what makes it especially memorable—its beautiful location along the bay in a welcoming old building; the unusual combination of being grounded in the local arts scene while serving a national and international constituency; its wonderful workshops and soon-to-be library; and its dedicated staff, supporters, and attendant four-legged friends.
The museum is typical in that it is confronting the characteristic challenges a nonprofit organization faces as it moves from one chapter in its story to the next. It is preparing for the 2007 departure of its founding executive director after 30 years under his visionary leadership.

A Rich History

The museum was founded in 1975 with a $10,000 grant from a local funder. The essence of its mission—to preserve, collect, and educate while extolling the virtues of various types of craftsmanship—has remained essentially unchanged over the past 30 years. In addition to showcasing fine examples of craftsmanship, the museum has expanded its mission to include a dual focus of educating both craftspeople and the public by offering classes and serving as a place where those with an interest in handmade works can congregate and teach one another.

The museum began with the current executive director and one intern. Today, it employs 13 full-time staff members and operates four galleries and a full production shop. A library is on the drawing board, slated to open in 2007. The library is seen as the final component needed for the museum to fully carry out its mission.

Artistic quality permeates this institution. Over the years, the museum has initiated a number of public events that have put it on the national and international map. These included “Share Your Craft” days, during which well-known artisans from all over the country would share their art and techniques with museum visitors. The museum has since hosted many volunteers, some of whom have been with the organization for nearly 20 years.

A large tenth anniversary celebration where two new galleries were formally opened to the public boosted the prestige of the museum in the mid-80s. However, the expansion led to a budget deficit. This deficit was relieved when a $20,000 grant “fell from the sky,” providing a much-needed breather and a period of stability for the museum, which added to its credibility.

The museum began much like other nonprofits—with barely enough money to get started. The commitment and passion of the founder and his wife filled in the gaps. Over time, however, the museum developed the capacity to raise sufficient money to keep the doors open, expand services, and even have enough of a surplus to contribute to an endowment. The organization’s funding mix has remained rather steady, with a third of its funding coming from the local arts council, a third from contributions, and a third from earned income.

Fundraising, however, is an area that is causing a good deal of concern. Staff is very conscious about balancing income and expenses, and sees income as remaining relatively stable while expenses are increasing—in many cases, in areas where they feel they have little or no control. There is concern about the capital campaign for the library taking money away from operations, the museum’s dependency on several larger donors, and what will happen when the executive director leaves. The perception is that the museum is becoming less financially stable, and that if cash flow trends continue, the museum won’t be in a healthy financial situation within five or six years.

The board has not been engaged in financial management or fundraising in a significant way. Generally, fundraising has fallen to the executive director, with his passion and vision for the museum as the main selling point. Sophisticated computerized databases and donor management approaches have not been part of the museum’s strategy. The museum also does not have a plan for fundraising, and the staff says they do not have the expertise to develop one.

The board of directors is characterized by the staff as a group of good people who are inactive and somewhat out of touch with the real needs associated with running the museum. The board is comprised of people from the local community and elsewhere, with local people drawn to fill areas of expertise needed for running a nonprofit organization (accountants and lawyers) and non-local people selected because of their standing or expertise in the arts arena. The board meets four times a year. The agenda is prepared by the staff, and a packet of materials is distributed prior to the meeting. Few board members prepare for the meeting by reading the materials that they receive. Some, but not all, board members contribute to the museum. Board training has not been a priority.

One staff member said that the problem with the board is that they all love the executive director and do whatever he says. There is a general feeling that although the board is in place and functioning, it is overly complacent.

The organization relies heavily on its well regarded staff. The museum is a haven for people who are energized by a leader with a vision and who are good at finding their place within that vision and working independently. Staff members set and meet their own deadlines, follow through on their promises, and are good at solving their own problems, but also understand that their actions affect others—that they are part of a system. Honesty and integrity are highly valued. The museum experiences very little turnover and staff is very stable.

In an environment where independence and initiative are valued and rewarded, it is not surprising to find that there is no formal strategic plan. The museum’s most recent plan is now out of date, but the absence of a written plan as an organizational roadmap is not seen as a major handicap. The plan that is most important to the museum staff is the plan that is in their heads—the vision for the museum. The museum has found that being opportunistic has worked for them, and has rarely if ever relied on more formal planning processes for direction.

This does not mean that the museum disregards the need for careful planning. A written plan has formed the basis for the museum’s work on developing a library—the current “next thing”—with the plan spelling out the vision for the library and the steps needed to move the vision to reality. With the clarity of the current vision—a vision that has been shaped and eloquently articulated by the museum’s executive director—a strategic plan has felt like more of a hindrance than a help.

The Future

Conversations with the museum’s staff about the future and the major transitions that await the organization are not marked by anxiety. Perhaps the concern isn’t there yet because the founder is still “managing the transition,” and the reality of his leaving is only beginning to be imagined. If one were to tour the museum and talk with the staff about its combination of the unique and the typical, the sights, sounds, and smells of craftsmen and women creating works of art would come to mind. How much of the art of this museum is shared creation and passion for a strain of practice, and how much is individual inspiration and vision? This is a challenge the organization must soon face.

Commentary by Deborah Linnell

Unlike the Membership Association for the Deaf (see page 28), where outside culture could determine its future more then any internal interventions, the National Museum of Craftsmanship holds its own future in its hands. A well thought out executive transition could set this organization on the right track for the next decade. Considering the powerful influence and impact of the founding executive director, this should take two years.

Thankfully, a number of groups have studied what is necessary for different types of organizations as they go through such a transition. Compasspoint in California did some action research when they instituted an executive transitions program, so they were able to define what seems to work in different situations. In this case, the organization could benefit from an interim executive who would stay in place only until the organization adjusted to the founder’s departure. This serves multiple purposes: the next leader isn’t “transitional” by default, as is typically the case for the second executive director following on the heels of a beloved founder; the interim can work with the board to get it more actively engaged before the new leader arrives; and, an interim gives staff space to grieve the loss of their leader without feeling guilty about what this means about their relationship with the new director.

The interim would use the current organizational assessment and work with the board or an assigned hiring committee to do several things:

  • Ensure that the departing director is appropriately honored for his lifelong contribution, helping him bridge his own transition from the beloved work of a lifetime to retirement or the next big thing (a coach may be helpful, if needed)
  • Create a snapshot of the current reality by using the assessment and interviews with staff and other stakeholders, and work with a staff/board committee to paint the vision for the future. This does not need to be a formal strategic plan, but rather an exercise that begins to shift the shaping and holding of vision from one person to many.
  • Develop a leadership profile based upon where the organization sees itself going and what skills and personality may be needed to meet the current and near-future organizational challenges
    With a two-year transition, the organization can describe priorities and develop a fundraising plan (and resources should be dedicated to this), and the departing executive director can put his stamp of approval upon the organization’s new direction. This would give a boost of confidence to the community and stakeholders about the future of the organization under new leadership. It would also enable the new leader to arrive into a healthy, vibrant organization with a committed staff and board and a new vision for the future.

Commentary by Paul C. Light

The National Museum of Craftsmanship has made it to the intentional stage of nonprofit life almost by accident. In fact, its remarkable rise shows just how much a single individual with a clear vision of the future can do. This organization has broken just about every organizational development rule in moving up—no strategic plan, an inactive board, ad hoc fundraising—yet, the organization perseveres, even prospers, because of its compelling mission, a completely faithful staff, and the heroic efforts of its charismatic executive director.

Alas, no one in this wonderful organization is getting any younger, and the natural process of aging presents the greatest threat to the Museum’s future. With no succession plan, the organization could rust away with the founder’s passing. It needs to get serious about succession and put more rivets in its planning. This requires a more active board, which needs to be recruited and trained now. As the board gets better at its work, which has to include fundraising, it will start asking harder questions about the future, not the least of which is, “What happens when the executive director goes?”

The main challenge will be to find board members who share the creative instincts of the organization. This organization will never go gently into a performance-measurement system, but it has to be open to the possibility. After all, the one thing we are all very good at measuring is time. If this organization wants to control its own future, it needs to prepare for the inevitable—its executive director is getting older every day. Put the succession plan together with an endowment campaign, perhaps with some deferred giving, and the organization will be able to move up to robustness as time goes by.