Newsletters > On Our Minds

Frugal Innovations and HR

Navigating the Crisis - December 2021 EditionISSUE 3 • March 2020 | Erin Gold, Joseph H. Kluger, Alan Brown, Dr. Thomas Wolf, Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf, Alan Kline, Kathleen Hill

Chitenge Safeguarding Street

This issue features a discussion on the arts as frugal innovations, a call for nominations for the fifth edition of Managing Nonprofit Organizations, and a reflection on HR topics at the California Association of Museums’ conference.  

Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf, The Arts as Frugal Innovations
Thomas Wolf, Would You Like to Contribute to a Nonprofit Textbook
Victoria Plettner-Saunders, Human Resources Topics at the California Association of Museums’ Conference

The Arts as Frugal Innovations
By Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf

I like total surprises – moments that turn the world sideways, urging me to think about the work we do at WolfBrown in a wholly new light. 

This winter a team at WolfBrown’s Cambridge office undertook a challenging project that grew out of our work for Carnegie Hall’s Lullaby Project. The Bernard van Leer Foundation, a foundation housed in the Netherlands with a global commitment to the well-being of young children and their families, invited us to write about the potential role that music could play in supporting the development of young families, including those forming in the difficult circumstances of poverty, conflict, and environmental threat. (See their urban planning initiative and the projects from their collaboration with Urban95 about livable cities for three year-olds). 

The result of WolfBrown’s work with the van Leer Foundation, Making a Joyful Noise, summarizes basic research on the ways that music supports relationships, social-emotional skills, communication, and learning in young children – and other family members. The paper also describes a wide array of programs from around the world that use music as a major lever for human development: lullabies written in neonatal intensive care units, singing sessions for mothers at risk for post-partum depression, and song-writing with fathers who are incarcerated. (Watch this space for a publication announcement.) 

In the course of this work, we learned about the field of frugal innovation: scalable low-cost/high impact design that can make significant changes in the quality of human lives. For example, think about transforming standard-issue rescue blankets into multi-purpose garments for migrants or giving families small, enclosed stoves to replace dangerous open fires. The best of such interventions work because they are affordable at scale and culturally appropriate: accessible, meaningful, and immediately empowering for their specific users.  

Two researchers, David Swann and James Reid in the U.K., brought these perspectives to the maternal-infant health crisis in Zambia. In their first innovation, local women designed and printed chitenge (traditional cloths used for clothing, shade, and swaddling) with important health messages (e.g.,a map of the locations of community resources as shown above). But in rural Zambia even a single chitenge is too costly for many young mothers. Seeking a zero cost intervention, Swann and Reid worked with community health volunteers to compose lullabies with lyrics that carried public health information for young mothers. Recognizing the universal engagement of individuals and communities with singing, these lyrics celebrate the intimacy of maternal-child bonds and broadcast vital health messages. Clinic workers now embed these lullabies in their pre- and post-natal work with young mothers. 

The surprise? Re-thinking the arts as “frugal innovations”: culturally-embedded, sustainable interventions with the power to make significant improvements in human lives at low costs. As immediate and necessary as replacing open fires with safe charcoal stoves or turning rescue blankets into warm clothing for a new life. 

Radjou, N., & Prabhu, J. (2015). Frugal Innovation: How to do more with less. The Economist.

Reid, J., & Swann, D. (2019). Decolonising the Finnish Baby box: A sociomaterial approach to designing interventions for infant and maternal health and well-being in Zambia. Journal of Early Childhood Education Research, 8(2).

Would You Like to Contribute to a Nonprofit Textbook
By Dr. Thomas Wolf

More than forty years ago, I was teaching a course called “Administration of Nonprofit Organizations.” I had a student body made up of staff and board members of local nonprofits along with a few undergraduate and graduate students who were taking the course for credit. At the time, I could not find a book that worked for my proposed curriculum so I wrote my own materials for every class. 

In time, I was approached by a publisher who asked me whether I wanted to turn my notes into a book and in 1983, a volume appeared under the title The Nonprofit Organization. I learned a lot from that first effort and when the publisher asked me to prepare a second edition, he suggested a new title, Managing a Nonprofit Organization, so it would be clear that this was a book intended for practitioners, not academics. As an afterthought, I also added study questions at the end of each chapter, which, to my surprise, turned the volume into a popular textbook for college and university courses. 

Several decades and some 150,000 copies later, I have been asked to come up with a fifth edition of Managing a Nonprofit Organization to celebrate its 40th anniversary. The book will still keep its basic structure with an introductory chapter on understanding nonprofits and additional chapters on boards, staffing, personnel policy, finance, fund raising, marketing, planning, sustainability, leadership, and evaluation, but this time I want to add a chapter where readers have the opportunity to hear from nonprofit staff and board members themselves. The target audience for the book remains the same – staff and board members of small to medium-sized nonprofits (generally budgets of $50,000 to $5 million) as well as students wanting to learn about the nonprofit world, though over time, I’ve found that others also make use of the volume (especially junior staff in large nonprofits wanting to advance).

So here’s where you come in. I am looking for help in any or all of three areas:

  1. What are the burning issues that are facing nonprofits today that may not have been present a decade ago? No, I am not talking about the fact that most of them need money to survive (that has always been the case) or that finding good board members is challenging (again, not a new issue). Send me a paragraph or two on what you think is a NEW issue or challenge or opportunity that is important to consider in 2020.
  2. What new skills do nonprofits need in their work force and on their boards? 
  3. Finally, can you nominate an outstanding executive director, board member, or senior staff member of a nonprofit who you think would be able to offer articulate insights on the chapter topics I mentioned above?

    I’d like to offer a few guidelines for nominations: 
  • You can nominate more than one person and it can be someone from your own organization.
  • I not only am looking for people who can discuss strategies for effectiveness in managing a nonprofit but also those who can talk articulately about a challenge they face and possible ways of addressing it.
  • I am especially interested in identifying people who are not from the arts world (I already have plenty of those) who might come from the worlds of education, social service, religion, health, international aid, recreation, research, philanthropy, and so on.
  • I am also especially interested in identifying individuals who bring a different geographic perspective including rural areas, non-coastal western states or the mid-west (I already have plenty of people from urban centers on the east coast). 
  • Please include why you think the individual(s) would be good candidates and if there is a particular issue or challenge that they would be most qualified to discuss. I cannot guarantee that I will follow up with everyone nominated but I will very much appreciate having your suggestions. 

Human Resources Topics at the California Association of Museums’ Conference
By Victoria Plettner-Saunders

As I write this, I am reflecting on my first day at the California Association of Museums’ conference in Los Angeles. My particular interest in attending this conference is its inclusion of a session track on human resources issues, a topic that has not received much (if any) airtime at other arts and culture professional conferences I’ve attended. 

Museums in California, however, have had to confront the rise in employees unionizing and the implications of AB-5, which extends employee classification status to gig workers. There is a lot to talk about. The topics have ranged from recruitment for diversity, equity and inclusion; to addressing #metoo; to strengthening employee retention. 

One of the intentions I set for my participation in the conference was to listen and learn. What I heard were HR consultants and those in larger organizations that have HR staff talking about the importance of using HRIS (aka human resource information systems) and analytics for HR management. But in another session, I watched as they took a poll and found that only one or two people in the room were HR professionals, and that the majority were tasked with HR but not trained in it. This got me thinking about how having an HRIS or tracking analytics is so much farther up the hierarchy of need than most organizations currently reside. There has to be a foundation on which to build organizational HR capacity which is hard to do when someone without training is performing those duties. We need access to training for staff who take on HR duties without being HR professionals. 

At the same time, I listened to a case study presented by The Broad Museum about how they effectively reduced barriers to participation in their Diversity Apprenticeship Program and sat in on a moving and honest roundtable discussion about how museums can support and better engage with transgender visitors, colleagues, and job applicants. I learned that we all have so much to do to be inclusive and inviting, not only with our visitors and audiences but with our workforce recruitment efforts as well. 

On Friday, I participated in a roundtable discussion with conferees about their concerns with maintaining sustainable careers in museums, and another on the recent rise of labor unions in museums. These conversations required honest and open dialogue and were met with the facilitation needed to allow that to take place. We need to enable real dialogue and communication around these issues of importance.

What’s on my mind tonight is figuring out how we can encourage other professional conferences to include an array of breakout sessions on human resource related topics that speak to arts organizations at a variety of levels in the process of professionalizing HR and make conversations like I experienced this week more common place.