May 05, 2015

Book Offers Frank Assessment of Lincoln Center Leaders and Lessons for All Nonprofits

Joshua Bright/The New York Times/Redux

When Reynold Levy became president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 2002, the cultural giant was mired in discord over a $1 billion plan to redevelop its iconic 16-acre campus, among many other challenges.

Friends and mentors told him he was crazy for taking the post. With 10 performing-arts organizations and two education institutions under its umbrella — each with its own board, budget, and viewpoint — the center was a sprawling and in many ways dysfunctional empire.

Still, the native New Yorker and "Lincoln Center loyalist" couldn’t resist the challenge.

His previous experience running the AT&T Foundation, the 92nd Street Y, and the International Rescue Committee served him well. Over nearly 13 years, he helped the Lincoln Center raise $1.3-billion, seeing it through a successful redevelopment. He also helped create new and lasting revenue streams and expanded the board.

Mr. Levy stepped down last year. In a new book that is part memoir and part how-to guide, They Told Me Not to Take That Job, he unspools several management debacles at the center.

The case studies provide important lessons about board governance, fundraising, fiduciary responsibility, and operating practices:

Trustee involvement can mean life or death for a nonprofit.

Mr. Levy’s book delves deeply into how the actions of two boards wrought havoc on the organizations they were governing.

He argues that trustees should take an oath to participate regularly and actively in governance and examine their organization’s financial affairs on a regular basis to make sure it is living within its means.

Mr. Levy says trustees also should pledge to donate generously to the charity and make a real effort to persuade their wealthy peers to do the same. But above all, says Mr. Levy, they should promise that any action they take as a trustee must place the best interests of the nonprofit and those it serves as their top priority.

In addition, if trustees see others on the board shirking these duties, they must not be afraid to speak up, says Mr. Levy. In the book he points to the demise of the New York City Opera as a prime example of what can happen when trustees are disengaged, fail to reign in finances, ignore a declining endowment, and in general make poor if not downright disastrous decisions.

Trustees need to be blunt about the executive director’s performance.

Board members are not the only leaders to get a thrashing in Mr. Levy’s book.

He writes that holding an executive accountable is a straightforward task. Both parties should agree to a set of objectives each fiscal year, and then trustees should take stock frequently — at least annually — of progress toward those goals.

Along the way, both parties should hold regular, "no holds barred" discussions about an executive’s performance, with blunt feedback from board members. Those frank appraisals, he writes, "create an atmosphere of honesty and free-flowing exchange of thoughts."

He writes that Lincoln Center trustees held him accountable to the organization’s goals throughout his tenure, and the frequent, in-depth discussion with his board chair and other trustees provided the juice they all needed to keep charging ahead, especially during the center’s massive renovation efforts.

Keeping employees happy is as important as recruiting new ones.

While nonprofit leaders should always be on the lookout to hire first-rate employees with the potential to become stars in their organizations, they must not overlook their existing talent pool, Mr. Levy says in his book.

"Do not neglect them. Their morale, their sense of importance and self-worth, and their belief in having contributed to the success of the enterprise matter a great deal to whether they stay or take flight," he writes.

One way to avoid losing good employees, he writes, is to find out what they need to reach their professional aspirations. If they need extra training, then provide it. If they want a mentor, help them find the right person, and so on.

"Fortifying staff and fostering their growth is a legacy that will endure," he writes.

Make changes gradually if you’re a new leader.

A new leader should "become an insider" before rushing to judgment about an organization’s needs, Mr. Levy says.

There are lots of basic things a new leader can do to improve an organization’s performance before pursuing more drastic or controversial changes, he writes.

"Lift expectations for individual and collective performance. Raise the metabolism of the place. ... Exhibit energy, curiosity, empathy, and optimism. Emphasize steady incremental progress and connect its achievements to employee incentives and recognition. Respect your colleagues."

Send an e-mail to Maria Di Mento.