If you’re looking for a steamy exposé on what can go wrong when a bunch of creative strangers start an organization, I’ll have to disappoint you here. But you might pry it out of me over a drink offline.
Instead I want to share the Big Gotchas that derailed us, in hopes that the knowledge can help someone else. I’m sure much of it will sound familiar to other organizers and leaders.
So here are the lessons learned:
We started too big
By that I mean the board of directors. When I walked into my first official board meeting after many months of outreach, there were about a dozen directors seated around the table. I knew maybe four of them.
That was overwhelming, and it laid some of the seeds for our downfall. We should have begun with a core, stuck with that core until we developed a singular vision and expanded only as needed. Even with later expansion, that core should have been identified as the founding directors, with powers above and beyond others added later.
That would have been easy to define, too. I got things rolling so of course I include myself. As I organized meetup after meetup to discuss a local maker movement, two more people were consistently present and one helped me pitch the maker movement to a prominent civic organization for inclusion in Fort Worth’s current 20-year development plan. Later, I was introduced to two more gentlemen who seemed eager to get involved as organizers. So, five founders. That’s a good number for kicking things off; enough for diverse viewpoints but not so many that they can’t be narrowed into one over-arching vision.
We should have stuck with that for at least the first six months, if not longer. As it was, strategy and tactics eluded us as our too-large body squabbled over petty issues and lost sight of the big picture.
We should have started with formal advisers
The idea for an advisory council didn’t occur to me until months into our organization development… when it was obvious we needed some guidance. Advisers would have been a useful sounding board for helping us determine course and corrections. We did have business, civic and community leaders to tap from the beginning, but we never established a formal body.
We failed to observe established maker organization practices
Of course there’s no one-size-fits-all, but there’s still value in canvassing sister organizations to see what they’ve developed. Openness is a core aspect of maker bodies, so “stealing” is no crime. We should have especially invited the Dallas makerspace leadership in more often; we had one visit but they offered to be even more involved. For whatever reason, it never happened.
Meanwhile, a group in nearby Plano got together and accomplished what we couldn’t… and they followed best practices. I’m still envious as I watch them grow.
We were too closed and disconnected
Over time the foundation drifted away from the community. We failed to develop community contributors as typical meritocracies and “Do-ocracies” do. That’s death for an all-volunteer organization. Ultimately you disenfranchise the community you came together to support, and fatigue directors. That latter was especially true in our case: we never made the transition from a working board to a governing board, instead settling into some sort of muddled mess between the two with some directors in the trenches and others in an ivory tower. It became very tiring to attend meeting after monthly meeting and make no progress on key items.
This is where size and lack of cohesive vision bit us in the critical parts. We just couldn’t develop consensus on anything, which limited communications to the community. Some directors favored a secretive approach to policy and process development, which often meant we couldn’t or wouldn’t share items that would encourage the community. More on that.
We never established funding and fundraising policy or practices
That just flat nuked our organization. We were constantly broke and begging. We even had sponsors offering to donate, and had to turn them away. The next point explains why.
We never really defined our constituency
We tried but didn’t complete the task. This is fundamental to any nonprofit: whom do you serve? It’s important to define that so your general membership knows where and how to contribute, for one, but it’s also critical to fundraising. Sponsors and donors will not touch you if they can’t identify your purpose and target beneficiaries. Who could blame them? They want and deserve full accountability for their contributions. That accountability is also the law. We did a poor job on that front, too.
We let a side project take over
Now, in and of itself that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Pivoting is fine as long as you redefine the organization around the pivot. We didn’t.
My original proposal had been to start small BUT design a scalable organization structure and purpose. The idea being that we would begin with focus on putting together one local makerspace but plan for a day when we could directly create or just somehow support others in a given geographical area. After some disagreement and discussion we settled on Tarrant County as home, with the hope that we could get a makerspace going in downtown Fort Worth.
At some point an opportunity to help a Tarrant library create a makerspace emerged. Long story short, this focused resources and efforts on that goal and often got in the way of original plans. While a few directors dedicated themselves to the library space, others tried to maintain the original plans. Ultimately the library partnership effort obviated the need for some directors to participate in our own foundation, and fragmentation began. It didn’t help that the project was largely done in secret. The irony is we were building a makerspace while losing community members for lack of a makerspace– and unable to tell them anything.
None of this is said to assign blame. It was an evolutionary process. In hindsight, though, perhaps everyone would have been best served had directors focusing on the library project simply stepped down from the Tarrant County Maker Community Foundation at some point. As it is, the side project ended up contributing to our dissolution.
There’s more but…
I’ve provided the essentials. No need to expose any more dirt here. I may go into more detail in The Maker Community Experience book I’ve mentioned. But what I’ve shared here is fundamental stuff that, if left unaddressed, could do your organization in as well.
Don’t follow our example.