A Steep and Constant Learning Curve: Breakfast of Champions with Laura Zabel

main.jpgEarly Friday morning - so early that downtown St. Paul was just a skip along an empty I94 from Minneapolis - a group of YNPNers sat down for a Breakfast of Champions with Laura Zabel, the Executive Director ofSpringboard for the Arts. The group was a little bit timid at first – after all, we were having breakfast with a woman who has received a Visionary Leader award from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and been named one of Minneapolis Business Journal's 40 Under Forty and Minnesota Monthly’s 12 Minnesotans Who Can See the Future. But Laura’s ease, humor, and total down-to-earthness soon warmed us up. (The coffee may have had something to do with that, too.)

We asked Laura what her biggest learning curve had been at Springboard. She responded the curve was steep and constant – she had little experience when she took the job, and noted the board was taking a risk hiring her to lead. But Springboard was in trouble, and they needed someone willing to reinvent the organization. Laura laughed that her lack of experience may actually have benefited her, because while she didn’t have any of the skills most people have when they take the helm of an organization, she also didn’t have any of the preconceived notions.

Some of her early success may be attributable to panic; she joked, “My plan was to be the person who doesn’t let the ship go down!” This feeling is still present in how she describes her fundamental role: one of good stewardship. “I don’t own this organization,” she said. “I’m here at this moment in time, and it’s my responsibility.”

Part of Laura’s stewardship includes recognizing in order to stay relevant, Springboard has to continue to change and evolve. There is no “aha” moment at which funding, programs, and staff will suddenly fit perfectly into their grooves and never need to change again. Laura suggested a lot of organizations’ funding crises are in fact crises of relevancy – moments when those in charge lose touch with the heart of their mission, and along with it the ability to connect with their community.  

This flexibility is also evident in a nontraditional approach to other aspects of nonprofit administration. For a start, Springboard offers its staff unlimited time off. Laura’s reasoning is if you need to police your employees’ vacation hours, you probably have a commitment issue to begin with. Instead of this policy resulting in extreme absenteeism, it allows Springboard staff members, who are all practicing artists in their own right, to take time for artist residencies, travel, and other projects. Contrary to what you might assume, the problem with this policy has actually been getting people to take time off. (To address this, the office closes for a week in December and another in July for a little enforced vacation.)

Springboard also retains a model of sharing and transparency many nonprofits have given up in lieu of a more closed, corporate mentality. Rather than hoarding success as an organization conducting effective community development through the arts, Springboard creates models and toolkits for all of their programs. They work with 12,000 artists a year, a number that could be multiplied many times over if those programs were replicated throughout the country.

The principles of continual change, flexibility, openness, and sharing strike me as healthy for any individual to adopt. Applying them to an organization can clearly fulfill the promise of community service in a way most nonprofits strive for, but few achieve. Laura’s insights provided plenty of food for thought for me and I hope the other YNPNers, no matter our level of leadership, on how we fit into our organizations and how our organizations fit into our communities.

kite photo credit via Katie Hill
group photo credit and logo via Springboard for the Arts

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