May 03, 2009

National Storytelling Network Financial Situation: They Tell Me it's OK

The Back Story:

So, the National Storytelling Network, the primary national organization for storytelling in the United States, hit a financial crisis recently. The impacts of that crisis are ongoing, and the particulars of the crisis has never been fully explained.

On December 5, 2007, NSN Board Chair Karen Morgan sent out an official NSN bulletin via email informing its membership that since at least 2005, expenses for the organization had exceeded revenues, and the organization was drawing down its savings. In addition to changes in financial and operational procedures at the time, the Board of NSN charged a task force of "elders," various respected board and staff members who had served NSN over the years, to review the finances and present a plan for the organization's sustainability.

They did, and their plan would have re-shaped the organization from a membership network to a quasi-foundation, cutting staff to a bare minimum.

An official email bulletin from NSN on December 31, 2007, noted that the Elders' plan had an annual budget of $234,000.

It also noted-- and this was news to us members-- that Executive Director Bobbie Morgan and the NSN staff had come up with their own counterproposal to streamline procedures and enhance revenue, with an annual budget of $623,000.

What they didn't tell us at the time was how big a budget NSN had before that.

The bulletin also announce that the majority of the Board decided to go with a modified version of the Staff plan and NOT the Elder plan, and that as a result, three experienced Board members were resigning.

As 2008 came along, no financial news was forthcoming from NSN. I spoke with two Board members at the time personally on phone calls, who assured me that things were looking up, that the tide had turned, and the organization would be fine. I asked that financial statements be made available to the members (not only for transparency's sake, but because of the large disconnect between a $234K and a $623K budget).

On April 14, a bulletin from the Board noted that the organization would need major restructuring to survive-- and that the Executive Director position was being eliminated.

On May 2, 2008, the Board posted an FAQ, and an explanation of the financial crisis (in the simplest terms. It didn't name names, but, if you knew who to talk to, you could find out who spent what-- and the names of the Boards of Directors (who nominally had fiscal oversight for the organization, even if they failed to exercise it) were public knowledge, although no one was reporting on this.

That FAQ noted that NSN would make available to its members the results of the audit and a budget for 2008, once it had been completed.

I've had various board members since that time assure me that the finances were in such a mess the audit was delayed, and that it would eventually be completed. Also that the financial report to those who attended the conference in summer 2008 was very well received. Also that the finances were looking good.
Also that I could get my very own copy.

That's all very nice, but without numbers, it doesn't mean a thing. I've posted public reminders on the NSN forum, which was set up for members to communicate with the Board. Repeatedly.

...for an entire year.

The NSN Board of Directors has been paying lip service to transparency since the crisis began. I'm attempting to hold them to it.

(The transparency, not the lip service.)


About Sean Buvala said...

Dream a little dream, Tim, dream. Aww, Tim wants some answers. How precious.

But...I get lots and lots of requests to run advertisements in the behind-the-hidden-door magazine or for a membership renewal.

I'd like to see some anarchy on the board, folks. Barring that, how about some risk-taking? It's about time to reinvent.

The Phoenix dies and rises. What a beautiful new image for an organization.

Paula said...

What scares me, Tim, is that none of the other members seem to care. They're just clapping their hands harder in the hopes that Tinkerbell will live and we can all visit her at the family reunion in Los Angeles in 2010.

I wish you'd been at the Producers and Organizers retreat. I wish I'd been at Northlands. We've got to stop not meeting like this.

When the board announced M L was leaving and they had a new Finance Guy, the most important thing to reassure us was not that the financials would be forthcoming but that he was really quite competent even though he wasn't a storyteller. And this seemed to satisfy 95% of the membership.

Which means that the 5% that knows better is going to have to be loud and organized and withhold something of importance to be taken seriously.

Like money.

Are you ready to use your blog to call for a response to membership renewal and donation requests - or any request - that says "I'm not renewing / donating / placing an advertisement" until NSN has demonstrated it is accountable to its membership by publishing its 2008 financials?" Is this important enough to set up an escrow account people can put their membership dues and donations in so that the board fully understands the impact of not meeting this obligation?

Of course, organizing such a movement - or mutiny - would require more than being a gadfly and posting a Widget people can share. It would requires a commitment of time and energy - something which the board of NSN, despite its weaknesses where financial accountability is concerned, has never been lacking in. To respect that commitment by making a parallel one would be genuine leadership.

So how 'bout it?

Paula Reed Nancarrow
Northstar Storytelling League
(aka The Old Guard Storytellers)

About Sean Buvala said...

More and more the time to fix has passed. It's time for something new or something to rise from the figurative ashes. I wish I had full-time staff, interns and a 500K-ish budget. 'Cept not in a small, inaccessible town. Phoenix is a nice place...

Tim said...

Not sure that a mutiny via escrow would have enough of a financial impact (given the small numbers of members who would care... especially when it would put at risk the only two quantifiable benefits of membership, the magazine and the conference discount).

However, I'm still mulling over the idea (first floated when NSN was "teetering on the brink") of setting up an alternative national organization.

That would get noticed.

About Sean Buvala said...

Phoenix is a nice place.

Paula said...

And what would that organization look like? Enquiring minds - well, at least mine - want to know.