Collections Management Policies for Small Museums…Part 2

So, I continue to plug away at my small museum’s first-ever Collections Management Policy…and based on the view counts for my previous post on the issue, so are many of you.

Since small museum workers should have their own therapy group, I want to contribute to progress by saying that actually, this is not that hard. The hardest part is getting everyone else in the institution on board with the process. Once that’s done, the writing part is easy.

Before you write, get out your museum’s charter and by-laws and hard-core read them over. It’s probably been years since anyone’s really done this, but as you’ll find out, writing the CMP is a good time to re-evaluate all of this stuff anyway.

Next, gather the policies of organizations of similar size, mission, and in your region. Sometimes they’ll put their CMPs on their website, but often, you can just shoot an email to the director or the curator or registrar of the organization and they’ll gladly share with you. Museum people like sharing. And the document is a public document anyway…that’s actually half the point of the policy–so the public SEES that you’re being all responsible about your collections.

Next: Read them. Yup, just sit down with a hot cup of tea (or a cool glass of lemonade, whatever  fits) and read through the policies (I’d get at least two). You’ll notice how they cover similar topics, but in a personalized way.

NOW, HERE’S THE KEY TO THIS: How do you eat an elephant? Bite by bite, baby! Do not think of this policy as one big POLICY (capital P). That’s what it will eventually be, but for now just think of it section by section.

So, when you open that Word document, title it “Accessions and Acquisitions” and only focus on that one section. It will be less than four pages, maybe significantly less. And start there. Think about how things work in your museum, how you want things to work, and how things practically CAN (and cannot) work.

Most importantly, when you have a draft of the policy, SOLICIT EVERYONE’S OPINIONS. Yup, everyone. Board members. Executive Director. Volunteers. The works. Make contact–not just an email that never gets answered–with everyone and make sure they read it and give you comments. Take no criticism personally. If something, for legal reasons, must be a certain way, explain why. If there’s room for compromise, make it. The more direct input everyone has into this thing, the more it’s going to be followed, and the less of your time is wasted in this effort.

Both my Board President and Executive Director, plus our head tour guide, gave me great suggestions on the document. The Board President and I even duked it out over some stuff, but it was a productive duking because at the end we reached consensus and everyone was involved in the process. It was a good thing.

….To Be Continued…


Collections Management Policies for Small Museums

A Collections Management Policy can fix this! (Well, it can keep it from getting worse…)

Anyone perusing my posts will quickly notice a pattern: I’m often writing about disasters, especially collections disasters. This isn’t that unusual at a small, all-volunteer museum, but outside cowardly anonymous blogs like this one, most museums never talk about their Fiasco of the Week.

Yes, it’s embarrassing that objects are marked wrong or not at all, that so much documentation about our donations is missing, that so many of our actual objects are missing, that I’m buying curatorial supplies out-of-pocket because we have no budget, that about 1/4 of our collection is crap that never should have been accepted in the first place, and…well, the list goes on.

(Psst…if you’re so small or unorganized that you literally have no accessions system at all, just a jumble of stuff no one’s ever really tried to organize, you are not alone. DON’T PANIC. See the paragraph below about not having a time machine).

Listen, you can’t change what happened in the past. You do not have a time machine. So buck up, stop obsessing over the sins of the past (even if the sins are yours), and start thinking about changes for the future. And if you’re a really small museum, the first step in that direction is developing a Collections Management Policy.

A collections management policy is a wonderful, wonderful document that will greatly improve the quality of your curatorial life. It lays out exactly what, from this moment on, you will be accepting and not accepting into your collections, who gets to make those decisions, who has access to your collections, and how the collections will be cared for.

(For a sample policy, see the Met’s policy here. Also see the American Alliance of Museum’s guidelines here).

Just think: The days of Old Lady Tour Guide Jane accepting every colorful rock some kid finds in the park and accessioning it into your collection will be over…over! No more 19th century ballroom gowns donated to your science museum, and…this is the exciting part: Collections Management Policies specify a deaccessioning process that will let you legally and ethically get rid of all the crap in your collection!

Sold yet?

Okay, you want to do this. But where do you start?

My small museum never had a CMP (Collections Management Policy). That’s pretty clear from the mess that is our collection. So I decided to develop one…and then panicked at the prospect. I was at this stage for many, many months and have now gotten some professional guidance. So I present…


(Full disclosure: I’m doing all this as I go, so I’ll post the steps as I complete them. Also, I didn’t develop these steps, I’m just following them. I’ll amend or add on as I see fit though–yay anonymous blogging!)

These first steps may seem mostly like common sense, but I promise, it’s a fantastic way to ease into this process. You must take this one step at a time.

Open a Word document, and type up the following information:

  • Your museum’s mission statement
  • Your museum’s components (library? tours? special events?)
  • The Chain of Authority in your museum. This is a biggie. Make a pretty little flow chart, top to bottom. Start with your Board of Directors, and go all the way down to individual staff members like the curator and educational director.
  • Who primarily works with your collections?
  • Who do you want to have the final say in all collections decisions?
  • How many objects do you curate? How many documents in your archive?

When you’re doing this, try to write it out as it exists now and not in your dream museum. This document can be amended later, I promise. The one recommendation I would make is that if you don’t have a Collections Committee on your board, propose to form one. That’s not a requirement though. Just write all this out as it goes day to day.

When I did this, I was surprised by how uncertain I was about the chain of command at my museum. As I’ve written before, our board is practically non-existent and has been a certifiable “mess” for several years now. In practice, I make almost all decisions about acquisitions, with the Executive Director interfering obnoxiously every once in awhile. That scares me. I’m not really qualified to be doing that, and I realized that I probably haven’t been asking for input into these decisions nearly as often as I should, largely because no process is in place for me to do that. The CMP is going to change that.

I was also surprised by the size of our collection. I actually went through our accessions book and hard-core counted everything. If someone had asked me before this how many objects we had, I would have said about 8,000. It’s more like 4,000, and that’s including a large archaeological collection.

Get all this info together, and you’ve taken the first step!

If you read the CMPs of large museums, they’re usually really long and complicated. Yours doesn’t need to be exactly like this, or even anything like this. You can personalize it for your museum. There are several things that you really should include in there (more on that in later posts), but this is about making your life easier.

To be continued…

Collections Management: Sailing the Storm-Riven Seas on a Shoestring Budget

Like most small museums, we’re broke. Not “we only made $2 million last year instead of $4 million” broke. I’m talking “$4,000 to our name at any give moment” broke. That’s been the situation, to some extent, for over a decade. Last year we ran out of heating oil in February and had no money to re-fill the tank or even to pay our outstanding bill from the previous fall’s fill-up, and if you remember last winter in the Eastern United States, you’ll realize that February through late April was a rather…uncomfortable situation for everyone. We’re that broke.

Why am I ranting about this now? Because it’s become clear to me that something has to be done about our curatorial office, and in this fiscal environment, collections are unequivocally LAST on everyone’s list of priorities. That’s great for everyone else, but the curatorial office is my primary responsibility, and as I learn more about basic professional collections management, I become more and more embarrassed to even TALK about the state of our collections, never mind let any new volunteer see them.

How bad is it? Well…it COULD be worse. As far we know, we don’t have infestations and nothing is deteriorating too badly (no, I’m not a trained conservator, or, at the moment, a trained ANYTHING, so all of this is on common sense alone). This is lucky for us, since the little hygrometer a staff member paid for out of his own pocket consistently shows 80% humidity in the office (standard museum practice: 30-60%) and the temperature in the office fluctuates between 43 degrees in the winter and probably in the 80s in the summer (standard museum practice: 50s to low 60s). We have no light controls in the office, but most things are boxed and so have basic protection from the sunlight, with the notable exception of a really nice feathered outfit whose safety I currently fear for.

So, okay, that’s not too bad. But we have no–literally, no–archival packing material or boxes. We use cardboard and plastic, with probably acidic tissue paper or even (gulp) bubble wrap to keep things from breaking (FYI: never, ever use bubble wrap with museum collections if you can help it). We have a ton of (pardon my French) SHIT that the previous administration accepted for no good reason and that should probably be deaccessioned. Did I mention the accession book, which I digitized from a hand-scribbled notebook when I first got there, is on an Excel sheet on my personal laptop since we don’t have a working computer in the office? Fantastic, right?

More concerning is the fact that we don’t have a collections management policy. That one I’m working on. A wonderful local organization gave us permission to adapt from their almost perfect policy. We’ve never had a full, professional inventory done on our collections, but I did do a partial one years ago (when I was a teenager who’d never even heard the word “inventory”), and I can tell you that we’re a goldmine of old loans, found-in-collection gems and bullshit, and a missing-in-inventory list long enough to be concerning.

The bellyache of all this is that every time I take steps to improve things, I run against three issues:

1.) Nobody Gives a Shit About Collections: Nobody on staff is a trained museum professional. Nope, not one. We’re all volunteers, remember, and a few of us have been wondering for over a decade what exactly we’re doing here. Most of us are working very hard just to keep this place open day to day. Trying to justify pooling with another museum to purchase archival materials for long-term preservation can be a little…challenging. We can see the exact level of our heating oil (right now: 0.00%) but it’s much harder to calculate the exact rate of decay in an off-gassing cardboard box holding a feathered textile.

This is related to the fact that…

2.) Nobody Understands the Collections: Collections are the backbone of all real museums. But at my museum, we have an absent “curator” who only shows up when I call him, and other than that, I and any volunteers I specifically recruit are the only ones working with the collections. The other staff members don’t have a true understanding of how big a deal it is that we hold all this stuff in the public trust, a trust that we’re currently violating.

Also, to circle back…

3.) We’re Broke: Even when I get people to understand that we have an obligation to fix this, they say “well, how are we going to pay for it?” I don’t know. There are some grants out there, but they’re hard for a small, volunteer non-profit to get. For one, many of the private grants that used to cover collections care have dried up or changed their mission to focus on education for inner-city kids or some other trendy thing that will get them more press and donations. What’s left, with a few exceptions, are federal grants (like Museums for America) that come with all sorts of strings attached, can be complicated to prepare and oversee, and are highly, highly competitive.

But…there are resources out there!

I have found some good resources over the years that have helped me, though. One of them is the Connecting to Collections community hosted by the non-profit Heritage Preservation ( The amount of really high-quality information they offer for free is greatly appreciated, and I hope they know that. There are also Museum Registration and Fundraising guides out there that are probably available through your library. It was after reading one of these guides that I realized for the first time what my job title actually is, after years of doing it: Hello, World, I’m the Registrar! It helped to know that what I do is valued in museums outside of my little one, and is important enough to have its own committee within the AAM, which brings me to the next resource: The Registrar’s Committee of the AAM (, with all kinds of useful documents, templates, and resources.

Some of these resources have given me the confidence to approach our non-collections staff about the importance of these issues (and they are important–VERY IMPORTANT). It’s also alleviated some of my anxiety about not being a professional (yet!). I can at least know what the professional guidelines are and do my best to follow them.

When it comes to collections, I have learned this: However bad it is, it’s almost certainly not the worst. Yes, somewhere out there, there is a museum whose collections are in worse shape than yours. You can bet on it. So when you’re tempted to just give up in the face of a long uphill battle (in many cases, really more like scaling the face of a cliff), remember to take a deep breath and put things in perspective. This CAN be fixed. Just take it one small step at a time! Sooner or later, you’ll start noticing that the small things you do are making a difference. And that makes it all worth it.

Small Museum Grant Writing: A Different (and Less Bitter) Approach

It’s grant season, so I’m again going to address all you desperate people out there. You know who you are. You’ve been suckered into writing an “easy” grant for a museum that can’t afford a professional grant writer: You’re the only one in the office who can string together a coherent written sentence, so guess who’s on deck?

I’ve been grant writing (non-professionally, trust me!) for about four years now for a small museum. I’ve written in the past about what I’ve learned the hard way (see this and this). I’ve now been mentored by a much more experienced grant writer and gotten a few hard knocks–and one funded proposal two funded proposals!

I’ve learned how to think about grants a different way, which has helped me overcome some of my previous bitterness.

So, here’s my latest advice:

1.) THE MONEY ISN’T THE POINT. Seriously. Getting a check in the mail or at some pompous awards ceremony is a plus, but this isn’t about a quick buck. This is about RELATIONSHIPS.

Are you taking notes? Write this down: RELATIONSHIPS.

Unless you know someone at the grant organization, you’ll probably be turned down the first time you apply. This is normal. Do not be discouraged by it. Remember, these people don’t know you, and they probably do know most of the applicants–as I’ve said before, most of these organizations, especially private foundations, are an old boys (and girls) club. Put together a kick-ass proposal, even if you think it probably won’t be funded. These people talk to each other, and a strong application (even one that won’t be funded for whatever reason) puts a bug into the ears of the rich people. Make no mistake, they will be checking out your museum, maybe for the first time.

This is a good thing! It’s the beginning of the relationship between you and the funder. When you aren’t funded, call/email and ask why. If they say “we can’t release that information” (and they might), don’t take it personally. Say “thanks for taking the time to talk to me.”

Then do this:

2.) NETWORK PEOPLE, NETWORK! Or have your resident networker do it. That person who’s supposed to be your “marketing” person? Get their butts off Facebook and send them out to conferences, seminars, community galas, and dinners. Have them get onto the board of another organization. This must be someone willing to rub elbows, wine and dine, learn about people’s families and zodiac signs. You know those emails your local arts council or volunteering service sends you about dumb professional development and community arts seminars? Go to those. Seriously. Cough up the sixty buck admission fee and send someone social. There will be important people there. Meet them.

THE HUGE MAJORITY OF SMALL GRANTS ARE AWARDED ON A WINK-AND-NOD BASIS. ORGANIZATIONS WILL NEVER ADMIT TO THIS. It’s not because they’re bad people. They’re just rich people (who, despite the opinion of the self-proclaimed 99%, are mostly pleasant individuals).

So why the secret handshake? The reason is oversight. This is something I’ve learned to think about differently. In the post-Enron, post-Recession world, these funders are under intense scrutiny by the IRS, their local governments, and even other non-profit watchdogs. They’re doing what you do in your job every day: Covering their asses. When they give to someone they know and trust, there’s less chance of a problem. And that means less of a chance of an uncomfortable court case for them.

So, you need to get to know these people. Preferably informally.

If you can’t do that, then at least do this:

3.) SCHEDULE A MEETING WITH THEM. Some organizations (sometimes very rudely!) refuse to do this. Others welcome it and even encourage it. If they encourage it (and they’ll say so on their website or in their application), for God’s sake, do it! Well before any kind of deadline.

Remember: THE MONEY ISN’T THE POINT. A relationship with these people will bring you more than just a check. It will get you publicity in the rich-folk community, and thus, through trickle-down, in the general community. Set up a meeting. Present your plan for the next five years (yes, you need to have that). Talk about your goals, your mission, your needs. And, importantly, this:

4.) LET THEM KNOW THAT SUPPORTING YOUR MISSION WILL HELP THEM FULFILL THEIRS. Think about your organization’s mission. You want to do things that fit that mission, right? Well, most of these funders are also non-profits, or at least the non-profit wing of a corporation. They also have a mission statement. And they have to prove, probably more legally than you do, that they’re fulfilling it.

In your networking/meeting, don’t just talk about you. This isn’t Christmas, and funders aren’t Santa Claus. THIS IS A RELATIONSHIP. Ask them about their mission: What are your priorities right now? What do you see as the biggest problems in the community? How are you fulfilling your mission right now? What kinds of programs do you think are the most valuable to the community? Let them talk. Then tell them how you can help THEM fulfill THEIR mission. This is something the veteran grant writer taught me, and it’s very good advice.

As they say, “money talks, bullshit walks.” If you want a business to do anything, explain how you’ll help their bottom line; for a grant organization, explain how you’ll help them fulfill their mission.

And remember:

5.) THEY WON’T GIVE YOU THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS RIGHT AWAY (USUALLY). They’ll start small. Anyone can talk, after all–they want to see you in action. Make that $500 they give you the best damn $500 you ever spent. Work harder on that even than you do a $10,000 one you’re funding yourself. Get the report done correctly and on time. THIS IS ABOUT THE LONG TERM. If you do well, they’ll give you more next year. You’ll work your way up. You have to be patient. And it will pay off in way more than money in the end.

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY! IT’S RELATIONSHIPS! And it doesn’t happen overnight, however much the cash-strapped board wants it to.

Hold your ground. This is an important part of the organization’s future. And don’t get discouraged about rejection.

That funded proposal I wrote? (Over ten grand!!!). It came from a local organization whose director we cultivated a long-term relationship with over the course of two years. That relationship started when WE helped THEM with a major event. Take that story as the lesson of this post.

The Big Board Meeting: Mission Drift at My Small Museum

Nobody wants a meeting like this.

The stage is officially set for The Big Board Meeting. Anyone who’s ever been seriously involved with a non-profit knows exactly what I’m talking about.

After two failed events this year and massively high tensions throughout the organization, the blame game has already begun behind the scenes. Next month’s board meeting will be where it will all come to a head.

Here’s the story:

The executive director is burnt out. She’s more interested in using the museum to pursue her pet projects than actually doing things within the organization’s mission. Number 1: She has her reasons for this attitude, and most of them are easy to sympathize with. Number 2: In her heart, she thinks what she’s doing is helping the museum. She’s the kind of person who thinks she’s always right and doesn’t always see the negative effects that her action have on others.

The rest of us are sick and tired of going on tangents. We came to support the museum’s mission, not other random sh*t. We’re understaffed and so we’re all overworked, and for what? The museums made money on only one event this entire year. Granted, it was a LOT of money, notably for the only event within our mission statement. The rest of our events were a huge waste of everyone’s time.

Slowly but surely, mutiny is building, and nobody is happy about it. This is a small museum, and we’re all like family. This is going to be as ugly as family feuds always are.

I hate this. I frankly didn’t sign up for it. I’m confrontation-averse and usually go along with anything, even things I radically disagree with,  to avoid it. However, things need to change if this organization is to survive. As a friend of the executive director, I feel this needs to be done. I’d like it to be as nice as possible–we’re already mentioned things to the executive director informally, so I think she knows it’s coming–but building a behind-the-scenes consensus has involved some talking behind her back, and I feel guilty about that. I always support her and don’t want to hurt her, but I also know that the current pace of the organization is unsustainable.

What to do? I have a life, a full-time job, and my very own family to fight with at home. That’s the thing with small museums. They suck you in, and sometimes, when you’re ready to leave, they won’t let you.

5 Things That Can Ruin Your Life In A Curatorial Office

When I walked into my little museum several years ago, the executive director begged me to “do something” about the mess that was the curatorial office. It hadn’t been really organized for over a decade, and the room was like something out of Hoarders. So, as mentioned earlier, I developed a system based on the remnants of a previous system and started trying to clean things up. I’m still trying after over 3 years. Why is it taking so long? Because of the following list:

1.) New Collections We Really Didn’t Have Room For. At first it was just small things. The executive director bought a special piece of stone from a rock dealer. A woman wanted to donate her mother’s heirlooms. A slight annoyance when I was trying to cram what we already had into a room smaller than your husband’s den, but I bit my tongue. And then came the big one: A huge doll collection, over 100 of them, and the donors wanted them on exhibit, not later, but right away. The executive director and I sparred over this one for weeks. I argued (rightly) that we really didn’t have room for it nor the time to do the exhibit research, and she argued (ignorantly) that they were so beautiful that, well, we’d make the room, and how much research did we really need to do anyway? Oh, did I mention that she has a policy of never even going near the curatorial office and has never done real research for an exhibit in her life? And yet, guess who won? So my clean-up effort was set back almost six months while I dealt with this mess. And the cherry on the sundae? The donors called and sassed us three months later because we didn’t have the exhibit up yet. There’s nothing like being appreciated.

2.) Stuff That Just, Flat-Out, Doesn’t Match Anything In The Accessions Book. We’re talking doesn’t even come close to matching anything in the book. One small example: In a small box on one of the shelves, we had a beautiful handmade tapestry probably worth many hundreds of dollars. Surprise, surprise, no accession number to be found. So I dug through the old accessions book and a “log book” from years ago looking for something that matched its description. Sometimes I’d catch a lucky break: “Black clay pot with chip on right handle” would be a dead giveaway for something I’d found stashed in a box somewhere. This time, nada. I asked everyone, and no one seemed to know where it had come from. I’m still not sure where the darn thing is from. Psst…if anyone can deduce by my posts where my small museum is, come on by and claim you loaned us a nice pink tapestry–I promise, we have no paperwork on it! We’ll probably give it to you if you threaten a lawsuit! Why, oh why, can’t people keep paperwork? I now have it accessioned under my “Unknown–No Records” file. I hate that damn file.

3.) Things That Kind Of Match Stuff In The Accessions Book, With Oral History To Back It Up, And Then You Find Out Later The Oral History Is Wrong. Oh, this was bad. Very bad. The collection in question was a large pottery sherd collection, and we’re talking very small sherds. Kind of crappy, actually. They were in brown paper bags marked with cryptic writing: “Left of Hill Base 2,” “Up Top Slope,” etc. I had no clue what it was at first, but then thought I’d solved the mystery: A large archaeological collection was missing some pottery, and this looked like it. I asked the executive director, and she told me she remembered hearing on the grapevine that the unmarked pottery went with the archaeological collection. That was more than I had to go on with other collections, so I accessioned it all with the archaeological collection. Well, guess what? Here I find out that the archaeological collection didn’t actually include the pottery (we got that later from another collector) and the stuff I’d painstakingly marked (with the wrong collection) came in with another junky collection that was mostly trash anyway. Super.

4.) Interns Who Do Stuff Wrong. And that’s both past and present. The big intern screw-up of the present was mostly my fault. Due to a huge exhibit suddenly thrust upon my shoulders (see #1), I didn’t have time to really instruct B.G., the college intern, about how to properly mark a huge stone collection. Cursory, stress-filled glances seemed to confirm that he was doing all right, but after he was long-gone and I finally got around to finishing it, I realized half the numbers were illegible and had to do them all over again. I’ll take the blame for that one, but not for the massive screw-ups of interns-past, the ghosts of whom continue to haunt the accessions book. Bad research, illegible curatorial sheets, confusing record-keeping systems…it’s all par for the course with the last administration. I hate them. I’ll say this about my screw-up: At least I fixed it when I found it!

5.) I Want To Keep This List Short, So Here’s Several More Things In Succession. First, packing material. Buying it. Very expensive. Ridiculously expensive. Second, boxes. Finding them. Finding ones that fit your collection. Finding ones that fit on your shelves. Finding both these things in one box. Third, technology. Keeping it. I got two old computers donated to us from a nearby college a year and a half ago, including one for the curatorial office. I didn’t have it more than two months before the other computer crashed and the curatorial office computer was hijacked to replace it. Hello, putting museum work on my personal laptop! Fourth, bench space. Finding it. We have a huge–we’re talking 2,000 sherds–pottery collection that we want to try to re-fit. And where exactly do we have room to do that? Fifth, junk. Keeping it out. I’ve worked long and hard to keep the curatorial office from becoming “the junk room” (its basic function between the time the last custodian of the office died and my arrival) and am always jettisoning stuff that doesn’t belong. People, throw your garbage in the trash can, please, not in the office.

This isn’t a complete list, of course, but if you work in a small museum I’m sure you’ve encountered some of these problems. Venting over!

The First Principles of Volunteer Non-Profit Committees

I’ve been on several committees at the museum. Unfortunately, the last one turned into a disaster. Committees at non-profits are almost always volunteer and therefore very different from corporate committees–and often more frustrating. You don’t want to scare anyone away from the organization, but you also don’t want to listen to idiots ramble through entire meetings.  I’ve decided that I’ve accumulated enough experience and advice that I can offer:

The First Principles of Committees (at least at non-profits):

1.) A Committee is NOT a Democracy!

Want a little sip of hell? Take a few sometimes-volunteers who “just want to get involved” in some event, put them in a room once a month, and give them each an equal vote in the planning process. It’s not just that you’ll be doing all the work (oh, you will); you’ll also have to sit and listen to two graphic designers duke it out among themselves for a half hour about the best font to use on the event flyer–and this before you even have an event to flyer about. You’ll have to listen to every Tom, Dick, and Harry’s little objections and dumb ideas and smile and pretend you like them: “Hey, let’s set up a booth at this random store by my house to promote our event to their five daily customers–it’ll be great! Staff? Well, someone will be available that day. Me? No, I’ll be on a vacation. But you’ll be around, won’t you?”

Remember those people in school who would raise their hand just to babble and sound smart, and instead of ringing the bullshit gong on them (a wonderful Harvard Business School invention), the teacher would nod vigorously at them to validate their special comments to raise their self esteem? No? You’re about to.

2.) Everyone on the Committee Should be There for a Specific Purpose.

Everyone hates committees, because they suck. So if you’re going to do the committee thing, you have to have a very good reason to do it that way. There’s only one justification for having a committee: You have a job that requires different areas of expertise, and the committee is a forum for bringing those experts together. Their jobs should NEVER overlap, and one person only gets a public say in another person’s work if it deals with their own area of expertise.

Example of Good Committee: Chairperson, Person A, Person B, and Person C. Person A is a graphic designer. She will handle ALL flyers, promotional materials, photos, etc., or will contract outsiders to do those things. Person B is a lawyer. He will handle ALL the legal paperwork for the event. Person C is a caterer. She will handle ALL the food contracting for the event. Let’s say that, during the committee meeting, Person B finds Person A’s designs terrible. Person B does NOT get to express this in the meeting. He emails the chairperson outside of the meeting, and the chairperson mediates between Mr. B and Ms. A. Committee meetings are to be used ONLY for summarizing work and expressing expertise. If, for example Mr. B had a question about whether the logo Ms. A used for the contract header was copyrighted, he’d be allowed to ask that because it’s in his expertise area.

Example of a Bad Committee (based on a true story, hint hint):

Chairperson: G.A., has never run a committee before but is very intelligent and capable. Is somewhat new to the organzation.

Person A: A blue collar worker who also does graphic design in her free time.

Person B: A mother of three who fancies herself a graphic designer but is terrible at it.

Person C: A just-graduated college student with an Anthropology major who expressed initial interest in the event but rarely says anything.

Person D: An amateur photographer desperately trying to launch his own online photography business and planning to use this event as a launch pad.

Person E: A very intelligent Latino man with almost no English skills and a tendency to ramble on and on about tangential things.

Okay, chess players, can we guess how this turned out? A and B “worked together” on a logo, the end result of which incorporated almost none of the more-sheepish A’s designs and all of B’s ugly designs. C did nothing she said she would. D spent most of the meetings trying to get the committee to promote the event at a big photography event that he was going to be at. E probably had the most focus of anyone on the committee but had trouble communicating coherently, directly, and in English. Chairperson became so frustrated with the whole mess that she almost left the organization. And the event came very close to being cancelled.

3.) Finally, the most important: Before You Form a Committee, Ask Yourself If You Really Need To.

Is the answer no? Then don’t do it. Often events are better planned by just one or two people rather than an amorphous group. You’ll be doing all the work yourself, yes, but at least you’ll have total control. And for me, at least, that’s worth it.

After the disaster that was the last committee, the chairperson and I talked about what we would do differently, and concluded that we’d have simply run the event ourselves and called in specific people to do specific jobs as needed. So, for example, Person A didn’t need to haul her butt to the Museum once a month for some pointless meeting–the chairperson and I would just email her when we needed the flyer. And so on.

Before I conclude the First Principles, though, I need to mention one more VERY important point for all you extroverts out there:

5.) NEVER, EVER pressure people to make “cold calls” who don’t want to or aren’t suited for it.

Most of the time, these people won’t do it anyway and if they try, it will endanger their emotional state and probably the entire organization. Everyone should be working within their comfort zones, especially considering that they’re all volunteers. If you desperately need marketing or networking people, the way to get them isn’t to forcibly convert the writers, lawyers, or designers on your team into part-time salesmen; it’s to get out there and find a volunteer with marketing experience.

I’ve seen committees break up because the one extrovert on the committee became frustrated with everyone else who wouldn’t attend functions or make phone calls with them. That’s not the introverts’ faults; it’s the fault, really, of the chairperson who needs to get a more diverse skill-set on the committee. In the corporate world, everyone is on a committee to do their professional duties. With volunteers, nobody should be forced to do things they aren’t comfortable with. It’s not only morally wrong, it’s also bad for the long-term health of organizations who depend on happy volunteers.

Running a committee of volunteers is never easy, but if you at least try to follow these simple rules, things don’t have to end in disaster like it did at my little museum.