Beer, Beads, and a Balcony

During a discussion on nonprofit “mission statements” toward the end of the day’s presentations, a conference attendee stood up to leave early in order to prepare for the group’s evening social hour. She announced there will be “beer and beads on the balcony” at their New Orleans’ hotel on Bourbon Street. Her comments were instantly understood and readily approved by the group including this speaker.  The group’s proposed social activities were consistent with New Orleans’ culture and traditions.  Though unintended, her off handed statement clearly expressed the power of a nonprofit’s well crafted mission statement.

 “Beer and beads on the balcony.”  Her phrase

  • provided a clear vision for the future;
  • established a clarity of purpose for coming together as group;
  • aligned each participant’s individual expectations toward the groups’ overall purposes;
  • provided context for the activities within the community’s culture; and
  • communicated where these activities were to occur.

All in six words!   Can your organization similarly express its mission in just six words?

In Leadership on the Line, the authors Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky use the metaphor of the balcony to argue “the only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray.”  For them the critical point is “When you observe from the balcony you must see yourself as well as the other participants. Perhaps this is the hardest task of all–to see yourself objectively.” 

Too often boards are mired in their organization’s details.  They miss the big picture implications for their organization. The latter requires them to take time to “go to the balcony”.  This view enables them to observe and comprehend the players and their patterns of activities occurring around them.  But then they can’t just stay on the balcony.  They must then reenter the fray to be effective.  Alternating between these two perspectives often challenge leaders and boards.

While I don’t know whether a Bourbon Street balcony inspired the authors’ metaphor, leaning over the rail and tossing beads to those passing below brought to mind their counsel.  Effective leaders and boards must simultaneously be part of what occurs on the street and objectively understand the larger context in which their organizations operate.

How capable is your board of alternating between the balcony and the street?

About Marty Martin, JD MPA

Marty Martin, JD MPA, Martin Law Firm, Raleigh, North Carolina, provides legal, tax, and training services related to nonprofit, tax-exempt, and social enterprise organizations serving local, regional, state, national, and international constituencies. He works with them throughout their lifecycle including start up, operations and management, board governance, merger, and closing down. He is an instructor with the Duke Nonprofit Management, Intensive, and Advanced Certificate in Nonprofit Leadership programs. He is a BoardSource Certified Governance Trainer. Martin is affiliated with North Carolina State University's Institute for Nonprofits. Martin served for three years on the IRS Advisory Committee for Tax Exempt and Government Entities ("ACT"). He was awarded the IRS TEGE Commissioner's Award which "is the highest honor of the Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division, and the highest honor we can personally bestow" for his service. He received a Master in Public Administration (MPA) degree with a concentration in managing nonprofit and public sector organizations from the Harvard Kennedy School and Juris Doctorate (JD) degree from Western New England University School of Law. He completed advanced training in nonprofit organizations from: Harvard Business School's Initiative on Social Enterprise; Harvard Kennedy School's Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations; Duke University's Nonprofit Management Program; University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business; Center for Creative Leadership; BoardSource; and the TCC Group.
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