Last year, the MTTA received a grant for a consultant to suggest ways to improve our fund-raising capabilities. The product produced by the consultant (Jean McCord of McCord & Associates) was called the Action Plan. There was a wide range of topics discussed in this Action Plan, which came to thirty pages. It included many excellent ideas and suggestions, ranging from the structural to the procedural to common-sense. Unfortunately, personality conflicts between the consultant and several members of the MTTA leadership, and the fact that some of the leadership just didn't want to hear some of the recommendations, led to the entire document being dismissed. Promises were made at the time that the issues raised would be addressed "after the Gala", but it's since been swept under the rug. When the final draft of the Action Plan was presented, I put a lot of effort into defining my reactions to and impressions of it, in hopes of presenting them when the Board got around to discussing the recommendations. It doesn't look like that's going to happen, so I'm posting my comments here. (I'll try to post a link to the Action Plan itself in the near future.
Comments on the Action Plan for the Mount Tahoma Trails Association (Final Draft)
Submitted by Pat Gleason
Member, Mount Tahoma Trails Association Board of Directors
These are my personal comments and impressions of the final draft of the Action Plan for the Mount Tahoma Trails Association prepared by Jean McCord of McCord and Associates. They do not reflect the opinions of other members of the Mount Tahoma Trails Association Board of Directors or any other individuals.
By stating my honest opinions here, I imagine I’ll aggravate just about everyone who reads these comments at some point or another. I have tried as much as possible to avoid personal attacks and reprovals, and to keep my discussions focused on how the issues identified in the Action Plan address the needs of the organization as a whole and its ability to accomplish its mission.
These comments will try to follow the sequence presented in the Action Plan to the extent that this is possible. Many topics overlap, and pertinent aspects of some topics are scattered throughout the document.
Preface: In my opinion, the greatest challenge to the MTTA is to reverse the downward trend in volunteer participation in the organization. To that end, my personal primary focus in adopting suggestions from this plan relates to recruiting, retaining, and revitalizing volunteers and the volunteer spirit that built this organization. Without this, the MTTA cannot thrive.
The underlying assumption of adopting the Action Plan (or any of its constituent parts) is that the MTTA is growing and wants to continue to grow. I’m not convinced that this is necessarily a good thing. It depends on how we define growth. I believe it is essential that we “grow” our volunteer participation and enthusiasm, which implies growing our membership base. Only then will we be able to grow in any other respect. I do not believe that we have the structural, leadership, or volunteer resources for expansion of infrastructure or services under the status quo. This is not a problem so long as usage of the trails and huts does not exceed the capacity of the system. But if we extrapolate the annual increase in trail usage, it becomes evident that the day will eventually come. We can control future usage, to a degree, by doing nothing. When potential users can’t find a place for their cars in the Snow Park, or day users can’t find a place to sit down to eat lunch in the Huts, they will go somewhere else. Granted, that day may be far in the future, but the sooner we plan for that day, the easier it will be to bring our ultimate vision into reality.
Regarding the “begging” approach to soliciting funds vs. emphasizing accomplishments, investments, and success: AMEN!
As to the issue of Leadership listening to the membership (and each other!): AMEN AGAIN! I address this in greater depth under the Board Membership section of the Board of Directors topic.
I’m skeptical of our ability to get the majority of our funding from individuals, but I am convinced that we can increase the amount of our budget contributed by individuals if we incorporate most of the suggestions in this document.
Thanks to Gene Glasunow and Bob Brown for all of their hard work in revising (inventing!) the Case Statement. Review of that document is a matter for another discussion at another time, but I agree that its importance cannot be understated.
I agree that we really, really need to improve our record keeping, data bases, and IRS compliance. This is way too big a responsibility for any one person. I believe a thoughtful revision of our organizational structure will go a long way toward expediting and streamlining this goal. If ever there was a need to create a committee to define and delegate these tasks, this is it. A well-constituted committee can work to set up and develop specific policies and procedures to establish an efficient work flow for accomplishing these goals.
Who Implements the Action Plan:
“What I am proposing…will take more volunteer time”. This is quite the understatement. The Action Plan does little to recommend how to recruit the volunteers necessary to enact most of the suggestions it proposes. To be fair, this was not its intent. I must disagree, however, with the statement that “…it can be fairly easy to get eager, enthusiastic volunteers to help…” This is totally naïve, to say the least. Regardless of how many of the suggestions presented here that we decide to pursue, recruiting “eager, enthusiastic volunteers to help” should be the MTTA’s Number One Priority.
I agree that “…The current Board is too small to successfully implement these suggestions”. Regardless of what we decide to do about that, we should agree on a process for evaluating, prioritizing, and implementing the proposals here that goes further in depth than merely making comments at a single Board meeting. It’s not necessary (nor possible) to do all of this at once, but we shouldn’t forget about valid suggestions just because we don’t have the volunteers (or stomach) for doing them now.
Board of Directors/Corporate Organization:
Structure: I agree that the MTTA can be well-served by changing its organizational structure. I do not believe that there is a pressing need for this to happen right away, but sooner or later changes will need to be made to manage the impact of growth on our infrastructure and the concurrent increase in demand for volunteer labor. I do not believe it should be changed solely for the purpose of attracting more money, or to appear more politically correct. Changes should be undertaken only to ensure the MTTA’s ability to effectively carry out its mission. I do agree, however, that the MTTA needs to recruit volunteers into its leadership ranks who posses the skill sets and expertise necessary to carry out the various functions of the MTTA’s mission. Participants in the MTTA leadership should, at minimum, have a vested interest and investment in the success of the organization.
Jean is correct in her assumption that the existing bylaws are not being followed. Several years ago, I published and promulgated our Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws, along with some minor tweaks to the existing procedures. At the time, I got the distinct impression that no one else could be bothered to read them. (How many of us even know what they are? Even I must admit to being foggy on some of the dictates of the document.) As a step in the direction of remedying this, I suggest each Board member, at the inauguration of their term, sign a statement acknowledging that they have received, read, understand, and will uphold the Bylaws and Articles of Incorporation of the Mount Tahoma Trails Association.
Our existing structure has served us well to this point, but has little room to accommodate much further growth. For some time now, I have been made aware of the fact that the status quo has been alienating some of our volunteers. (See “Volunteerism” below.) I see the alternative reorganization chart proposed by Bob Brown as pretty much a repackaging of the status quo, with the very real potential for further alienating our volunteer base. All power is still concentrated in a five-member Board of Directors. All other positions are basically titles with no teeth.
There is universal acknowledgement of and respect for Bob Brown as the Father of the MTTA. Without his tireless, perpetual effort, the MTTA would not exist; nor would it have flourished to become what it is today. But the unspoken truth of the MTTA is that Bob Brown runs the show; what Bob wants, Bob gets. What Bob says, goes. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that I do not believe that this has been a bad thing!! For the most part, I do not have a problem with this. After all, the MTTA is not and has never been a club; nor is it or has it ever been a true democracy. It’s not even a co-op. The MTTA is first and foremost a not-for-profit corporation with the express, dedicated purpose of maintaining the trail system under the terms of our charter with and for the landowners. As such, Bob has served as the de facto Chief Executive Officer of the corporation. (And admirably so, I might add.) The MTTA has needed the dedicated hand of a loving father-figure to guide it through its infancy and adolescence. But our organization is beginning to blossom into adulthood now, and as such needs to spread its wings if it is to grow much further. The current leadership structure is designed to preserve the status quo. If maintaining the status quo is the sum of our ambitions as an organization, then there is no pressing need to change. But if we want to grow, or even continue to thrive, the status quo will not suffice.
I will address my suggestions for improving the organizational structure of the MTTA in a separate document. My intention here is to indicate my support of the Action Plan’s recommendation to update the mechanics of how the leadership of the MTTA conducts its business. Whatever the Board ultimately decides, I should hope we will solicit member input on this matter, if not as a binding mandate, at least as an advisory recommendation.
Regardless of what organizational form the MTTA decides to embrace, I believe it is essential that the Board defines the Job Description for every position in the organization. These descriptions need to include over-all responsibilities, who the position reports to, and estimations/expectations of the time involved to effectively carry out the responsibilities of the position. This will be a lot of work to set up, but once done should only require minor tweaking over the years. An ad hoc committee will probably be the best way to accomplish this. Additionally, if a position proposed in any new organizational model exists in the current structure, the person holding that position should be actively involved in writing the job description for that position.
Board Membership: Fulfilling the responsibilities incumbent upon a member of the Board of Directors often involves doing work that just isn’t fun. While enjoyment of the trail system and fruits of one’s labors is a crucial component of the rewards of participation, candidates for Directorship must be aware of and accept the serious obligation of stepping up to all tasks involved with engaging in the decision-making process. It’s not enough to just go along to get along. In order to ensure that the over-all benefit of the MTTA remains foremost in our motivation, we must be willing to encourage lively discussion, be open to opposing opinions, and accept the fact that there will always be dissent to which we cannot, in good conscience, turn a deaf ear. Directors must commit to an open, accountable, and transparent decision-making process in order to encourage a sense ownership and inclusiveness among our rank-and-file members and volunteers. Those unwilling to do so, regardless of their good intentions, will ultimately create more harm than good for the MTTA.
Additionally, we need to define specific procedures and protocols for conducting Board elections. As set forth in the current Articles of Incorporation, there is too much ambiguity in the instructions for conducting elections.
Accountability: The growth we have already experienced has made the MTTA much more susceptible to an audit, and therefore has increased our need for greater accountability and transparency in our financial record keeping. A potentially greater vulnerability exists should one of our donors get audited and the validity of their gift to the MTTA is brought into question. Even if it does not immediately impact our finances, it would certainly be a public relations nightmare. Will our accounting practices and procedures or financial records pass muster in an audit? Under our current financial and record-keeping practices, this is a disaster waiting to happen. Equally important, will our bookkeeping be a hindrance to obtaining grants from funding sources that require a high degree of accountability and transparency in our financial statements? In addition to paying for an annual independent outside audit, I think it would be a prudent one-time investment to pay a financial professional to at least verify the adequacy of our record-keeping, or, if necessary, set up an accounting system that meets the requirements of the IRS codes relating to 501(c)(3) corporations, as well as any record-keeping needs implied by our Case Statement. As I stated in the Overview section, all of this points to a prime justification for establishing an effective Finance Committee.
Bylaws: I believe it is futile to rework our bylaws/founding documents until we decide upon our ultimate organizational structure. Once we reach agreement on that, we can construct the bylaws to accommodate the structure, rather than retroactively try to make them fit.
In order to implement most of the suggestions in this Action Plan, the MTTA needs a critical mass of enthusiastic volunteers to get the ball rolling. I do not see where we have that critical mass at this time. I believe that if we can re-establish this critical mass, the momentum generated will truly transform the MTTA, restore the vibrancy of our volunteer community, and open the door to endless opportunities to grow and serve our constituents. I see this as our most important challenge; if we can do this, any and all other problems will get taken care of in the process.
As mentioned in the Board of Directors section, I believe that the status quo of our organizational structure is beginning to alienate some of our volunteers. As a measure of this, I look at the downward spiral of volunteer involvement in summer work parties and other events, some of which we no longer sponsor due to lack of volunteer support (Ski Lunacy and the Hut-to-Hut Tour, for example.) I do not consider involvement in our Ski Patrol as a valid metric of volunteer participation, as this has direct and tangible benefits to the participants.
A very few of these alienated volunteers have expressed their frustration with the way things are, without much reassuring feedback to this point. Others have kept their opinions to themselves and soldiered on for the benefit of the organization. Many, many have just walked away without saying goodbye. As proof of this, just look at the significant reduction in the number of volunteers who participate in our summer work parties. If we are to continue to grow and thrive, we must take active measures to reverse this trend!! I believe that instituting a more workable and inclusive leadership structure is the necessary first step in accomplishing this reversal.
Another necessary step to increase volunteerism is to find ways to increase the value of membership beyond the promise of a Newsletter now and then and a warm fuzzy feeling. Considering that the MTTA is a corporation as opposed to a club, I would suggest we emphasize being a shareholder in the corporation and its goals over being a member of a club. Once this sense of ownership is established, we can proceed to encourage the rewards (fun!) of being a member of the club of the shareholder community. A subtle distinction, but an important one none the less. Without a closer review of DNR policies and regulations regarding what we can or are proscribed against offering to potential shareholders, I am at a loss to suggest specific incentives in this document. It would be a priority for study of a future Membership Committee.
Acknowledgements: I whole-heartedly agree that we must improve the way we acknowledge gifts of both money and of our volunteer’s time. (I still have not received any sort of acknowledgement of the $100.00 gift I made to the MTTA back in August.) As things stand now, I’m not aware of anyone who is designated to handle this very important responsibility. It should be one of our highest priorities to establish a consistent policy, general guidelines, and specific procedures to administer to this crucial need. This is one area that the Board can and must be able to act on in very short order. As a temporary measure to work under our existing structure, I suggest we designate the office manager to work with the President in executing these responsibilities. To accommodate this increase in the office manager’s workload, I also recommend that the Board re-evaluate the compensation tendered to the office manager to execute the expectations of the job. I also believe strongly that the MTTA should overtly and specifically acknowledge the contributions of its volunteers. (See comments in the Newsletter section.)
Newsletter: The Mount Tahoma News is a source of pride for the MTTA. Personally, I’m amazed at how Bob Brown is able to consistently produce a product of such quality with the resources we provide him. The demands of adopting the suggestions in this Action Plan fall most heavily on the Mount Tahoma News to act as the beacon of our organization. Regarding the role of the Newsletter and what should be included in its various issues, I believe every suggestion proposed in this section of the Action Plan is valid, and should eventually be incorporated as recommended. That said, this is way too much to expect any one person to pull off without substantial help. We will need to achieve that critical mass of volunteerism to get more participation in the production of appropriate content for the newsletter. More fodder for a future committee…
Regarding the current policy of not recognizing volunteers by name in the Newsletter, I, too, disagree strongly with this proscription. I intend to place discussion of this issue on the agenda of the next Board meeting and advocate for the reversal of this policy.
I have also been occasionally frustrated by not having the issue date and page numbers on all the pages of the newsletter. I’m sure the editing software template can be easily amended to accommodate this recommendation.
Additional comments: Throughout this document, Jean McCord has referred to a number of documents and resources given exclusively to one Board member only. In keeping with our stated practice of openness and inclusion, McCord & Associates should provide these resources in their entirety to all Board members. If somewhere down the road Gene should decide to resign again, or even threaten to do so, the MTTA needs assurance that these resources will not be lost. With today’s technology, it shouldn’t be hard to attach these files to an email sent to all Board members.
Impressions: As I understand it, McCord and Associates was hired to help the MTTA improve its fundraising capabilities. As mentioned in my preface, my main interest is in improving the MTTA’s volunteer base. Perhaps due to this bias, my comments tend to deal with everything but fundraising. As far as general and specific recommendations pertaining to fundraising, it’s hard to find anything to disagree with in this document and much to embrace. However, it seems too much time and effort was diverted to issues that only tangentially affect the MTTA’s ability to attract grants and donations. Specifically, recommendations regarding the size and function of the Board of Directors and over-all organizational structure seem to be a case of the consultant driving the agenda, rather than vice versa. As evident above, I happen to agree with the consultant’s conclusions and recommendations on this subject, but I question the prominence of and resources devoted to said subject in the preparation of this report.
Initially, I was very enthusiastic and encouraged to have Jean McCord working with us. She espoused ideas I’d been encouraging (to mostly deaf ears) for the past four years . However, one incident caused me to question her objectivity and therefore her suitability to be involved in this project. At a meeting with the Board of Directors and other interested members at High Hut cabin, Ms. McCord refused to provide references when questioned about her credentials by the representative of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. This refusal in and of itself did not bother me so much as the way it was handled. The result was that I personally lost a significant amount of confidence in the consultant’s ability to make appropriate recommendations for our organization.