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Vol. 30, No. 4

Is your garden overgrown? Bars develop programs by design, not chance

by Amy Travison Jasiewicz

When the leadership of the Cincinnati Bar Association surveyed the landscape of their organization two years ago, they recognized that the vegetation was getting a bit overgrown. It was time for pruning, as some of the programs and committees needed to retire to allow the groups that were directly supporting the association’s mission to fully bloom and thrive.

Following a careful review of its 20 committees, the CBA Executive Committee weeded out seven that had either run their course or primarily served nonmembers. The proposal was put before the board of trustees for a vote: Eliminate all seven of the committees, or eliminate none.

The result? Executive Director John Norwine reports that of those seven committees, “Two never went away; three we continue to work with, but they do not [receive] the same level of support as before; and one, I just found out, is coming back.”

Cincinnati is not alone in its struggle with this issue. Many bar associations find their gardens thick with this type of deep-rooted and uncontrolled growth. And as the seasons pass, members continue to add more flora to the landscape that compete for limited nutrients such as staff time, volunteer time, and funding. If they all survive, none can thrive, many bar leaders have found.

Plant selectively

So how do bar leaders determine which of the organization’s components get uprooted? Can it be done without offending the gardeners who do most of the planting? As many organizations are reluctant to haul out the Weedwacker, some bars, including Cincinnati, are taking a new approach. By establishing a set of criteria to screen new initiatives and proposals, associations are able to control the creation, as well as the growth, of new programs.

Dadie Perlov, a principal at the Consensus Management Group in New York, says this screening process is crucial, but tough for bar associations, which she affectionately refers to as “sweet tooth organizations.” “They want to do everything, and the bottom line is, they can’t,” she says. “They find it difficult to focus on the five things that are going to make a difference.

“Instead they do 15 to 20, soak up money and time, and the return on investment isn’t as great as it should be.”

Karen Garst, executive director of the Oregon State Bar, agrees that prioritizing can be a real challenge when a new proposal starts to germinate. “With any volunteer board, colleagues want to be supportive, and there are a million good ideas, but which is the great one?” she says.

She compares her association to a tree, and each of its programs and projects is an ornament. As each branch becomes more weighed down with decorations, the tree comes closer to its “tipping point.”

“We don’t have a program that isn’t a good idea, but the tree might tip,” Garst explains. If you initiate a program for every good proposal, “you won’t have the resources when a great one comes along,” she notes.

To help separate the great ideas from the good, Perlov urges bar leaders to ask some hard questions, such as: Does the proposal support the organization’s mission? Does it/could it/should it generate revenue? Do we have the personnel and financial resources to support it? Should it be outsourced? What is the benefit to members? What makes it unique? (For the complete set of criteria Perlov recommends using to evaluate new program ideas, see “Criteria for board action,” page 14.)

A system of accountability must also be established, Perlov says, that makes one person responsible for the group’s achievements (or lack thereof). Members should be given a clear vision of what they are expected to achieve, and a specific time frame for completion.

“The board has to be disciplined to say when the criteria aren’t met, and then stick to the policy,” Garst adds.

A new approach

The Cincinnati bar has developed a new program checklist that Norwine says is working “moderately well.” The checklist asks for detailed information, including: projected direct and indirect program costs; estimated staff and volunteer hours; the number of members who will benefit/participate; and whether the proposal could replace an existing program.

“My staff understands that you need to go through this exercise before establishing a significant new program, and they’re giving [the checklist] to the volunteers,” Norwine says. “At least it makes [volunteers and staff] think about whether we can support a new program, where in the past we just barged forward.

“We were indirectly dropping programs that staff couldn’t keep up with, and we were ignoring things that should not be ignored.”

In 2001, the Columbus Bar Association’s board of governors devoted its retreat to considering what criteria should be used to decide whether new or existing programs should be cut, frozen, or grown.

“Our observations were that a lot of the things we did were from an evolved or derived mission, and we wanted more of an intentional mission,” says Executive Director Alex Lagusch. “Some things evolved through a desire and a significant amount of work of a few champions. We wanted to develop programs that were a result of strategic thinking.”

Following the retreat, a special committee established specific criteria, and a worksheet referred to as “the grid” was born. The grid scores each program numerically, based on how well each of the criteria is met. Of the 89 programs that were assessed, 10 were immediately eliminated. Another 15 were placed on a “watch list” for further examination.

The champions of those dropped programs argued against elimination, but “They just didn’t meet the criteria,” Lagusch says. It was reassuring when the highest-scoring programs from the grid corresponded with the top programs rated by members in a survey. “It lends the process credibility,” Lagusch notes.

With increasing demands on volunteers’ time, as well as competition from other professional organizations, “The programs that you offer, you really want to be stellar,” he says. The current corporate climate means volunteers have higher expectations regarding an organization’s accountability, Lagusch adds, and a system using objective criteria indicates the bar is using its resources responsibly.

Nurturing new seedlings

The Multnomah (Ore.) Bar Association also has a process in place to ensure that new committees are well focused before they begin to sprout. As they mature, the process ensures that committees continue to grow in the same direction as the overall organization.

“It starts with a good committee charge,” says the bar’s executive director, Judy A.C. Edwards. A charge is drafted by the committee chair and liaison, reviewed by the executive committee, and proposed to the board of directors. Each year, the board has the opportunity to “tweak” committee charges so they remain in line with the organization’s mission, as both should evolve in tandem over time, Edwards says.

To keep members focused, the first several committee meetings begin with a reading of the group’s mission, she says. If a group is not fulfilling its charge, the board consults the committee chair and recommends a different approach. “If we are going to consider sunset of a committee, we give at least two years’ notice,” Edwards says. “As far as those committees that aren’t succeeding, well, it’s pretty obvious.”

Deep roots

Even if it is obvious to most when the time has come for a program to ride off into the sunset, why do some members so strongly resist?

Sheree Swetin, executive director of the San Diego County Bar Association, sums it up by describing a volunteer’s affinity toward a cherished program as “parental.” Parents rarely find fault in their own child. And, she adds, “People start programs because they are passionate about something.”

When the Oregon bar attempted to retire the Military and Veterans Section after its activity level fell far below expectations, a handful of core members fought the elimination. “There is always someone who is vested in the activity, and they appeal to the board to keep it,” Garst says. “That is why if you have a set of criteria that you can judge it against, you’ll be more successful [in eliminating programs].”

Suggesting an alternative to being disbanded can help soften the blow. In this case, the OSB proposed that the group establish a Listserv for its members or continue to meet outside the structure of the bar, which requires fees and expenses.

The OSB also has an effective instrument to monitor the pulse of its programs and services. It publishes an annual report evaluating measurable outcomes and detailing specific results achieved by each element of the organization, Garst says. The leadership uses these program measures as a tool to identify any areas in need of special attention.

Thorny issues

Every garden has a flower that requires lots of maintenance, and it is often covered with political thorns. Most gardeners are reluctant to touch the plant, let alone pull it out.

Perlov says political considerations can be a compelling factor in deciding the fate of a program, and sometimes, you just can’t kill it. “That’s a political reality, and there is a return on investment there for keeping [volunteers] happy,” she notes. The challenge, she adds, is to find a way to keep those members satisfied without exhausting your resources.

In San Diego County, staff resources were solely supporting the remains of a presidential project that took several years to merge with an internal committee. As the program was established by a president, a gradual transplant was the best approach, says Swetin, because that way, “you make a lot less people angry with you. If a program has strong support from key volunteers, it’s worth it. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of people.”

Sally Bloomfield, president of the Columbus bar, has not seen any difficulties regarding the retirement of presidential initiatives. These groups are often created to accomplish a short-term project, she says: “They are formed to do something specific, they do it, and it’s over. It dies its own death.”

And while the work of some programs eventually does come to a finish, the work of a bar leader is never done. So, as you toil in the garden, stay focused on the organization’s priorities by developing criteria for new programs and a policy to nurture them. Or perhaps it’s time to establish a system to measure program results or enhance member appreciation efforts. In return for all that work, many bars have found, it’s a pleasure to step back and admire the fruits of your labor as your programs burst into full bloom.

Criteria for board action | Do we know, and can we clearly state, what success will look like for this project? | How does it advance our mission? Current goals? Focus? | How important is it, and to whom? | Do we have (or can we get) adequate staff/volunteer personnel to implement it? | Can/should it be outsourced? | Who will be accountable for achievement? | Is it realistic, with a stretch? | Can we afford to do it, find the fiscal resources to do it, or give up something else in order to do it? | Can we afford not to do it? | Does it have, should it have, or can it have revenue potential? | Will it be a benefit to a significant number of core members? | Will it enhance the image of the organization and its members? | What is the project’s expected completion date? | When will the board get its first progress report?

This is a proprietary product of the Consensus Management Group. It may only be used with permission from Dadie Perlov, (212) 712-2449, or Linda Shinn, (317) 815-8840.