Business-As-Usual Is “No Longer an Option” for Heron Foundation

Clara Miller of the Heron Foundation reminds us in her “President’s Letter” that in order to stay relevant, we must all be continually adaptive.

Image: The F.B. Heron Foundation.

Earlier this year, the Heron Foundation‘s Clara Miller (formerly of Nonprofit Finance Fund) took some time to reflect on their 2013 accomplishments in her “President’s Letter.” But instead of sharing inspiring stories of their grantees’ successes, she turned her gaze inward, to how and why the foundation is changing operationally.

I wanted to take a moment to spotlight this piece of writing because it resonates deeply with what we think and talk about all the time at EmcArts — that business-as-usual isn’t going to cut it anymore, and that it’s only by rigorously questioning our cherished organizational assumptions that we make progress.

With a refreshing level of detail and candor, Miller shares how Heron dedicated 2013 to building new organizational structures, processes, and practices to ensure that they have the internal capacity to adapt to the challenges of this new era. The lessons parallel something we have found to be true in our own work at EmcArts — that changes in external relationships must be rooted in changes made internally.

Below, I’ll highlight a few bits that I found particularly resonant, but I highly encourage you to read the whole piece. I always find Miller thoughtful and provocative, even on the subject of auditors!

Miller begins:

Nearly two years ago now, we took time to examine and question the relevance of Heron Foundation’s mission—to help people and communities help themselves out of poverty. And we found the world has changed. We reaffirmed the importance and relevance of the mission, yet we felt we needed to change our strategy.

Then, she goes on to share the often invisible, behind-the-scenes work they have been doing at the organizational level to combine their granting and investing programs, restructure their data gathering, increase the size of some of their grants, introduce a new audit format, and be more intentional about increasing their social and knowledge capital.

In the end, Miller concludes:

These systems won’t reduce our risk of failure, they will simply make it possible for us to know how we are faring against our goals. And as for failure, these systems will make it more obvious—to ourselves and others—when we are succeeding and failing. The investments to build our platform are prerequisites, not destinations. They will only get us to the base of the mountain; they will not assure that we are able to climb it. We are simply building the capacity to try.

But we think that the potential gain will outweigh these pale perils, and that the price of business as usual would be that we hadn’t even tried to take the steps we need to be able to succeed.

Carry on, Heron! I’m excited to see how these changes play out in 2014.

Richard Evans is the President Emeritus of EmcArts, where he directs program design, research, and strategic partnerships that place a particular emphasis on innovation, adaptive organization change, and effective ways that the arts and culture field can respond to the demands of a new era.