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  • Pat Libby

Panicked about climate change -- destroy art!

Updated: Aug 22, 2023

The thing I love most about being a consultant is the opportunity I have to peek into the different worlds nonprofits inhabit.

Over the years I’ve worked with legal service organizations, social justice nonprofits, environmental organizations, performing and visual arts organizations, organizations that provide medical or mental health care, nonprofits working to create affordable housing or helping people without it. I could go on but you get the picture. I learn something new all the time!

The thing that unites all of these actors is a heartfelt commitment to doing good. Beyond mission, what differentiates these organizations from one another is the context for their work – the specific rules, regulations, language/terminology, networks, etc. that encompass their world along with the resources they have to carry out their missions. I’m constantly in awe of the expertise that resides within the leaders of these nonprofits.

At its worst though, that specialized knowledge – combined with a dogged determination to make an impact – can lead to an echo chamber of liked-minded warriors. That in turn can make organizations deaf to the struggles that other nonprofits face.

Exhibit A is how some climate activists have deployed guerilla tactics on artwork at museums throughout the world.

Any intelligent person recognizes that the world is burning and flooding and temperatures are changing at an astounding rate, all of which is wreaking havoc of biblical proportions in every way imaginable. Climate change is no longer an abstract concept.

But do the climate activists who attack treasured art work recognize the toll their actions take on that art and on the institution that houses it?

Why is that different from an organized group of museum supporters dumping oil into the ocean to make a statement about art?

When activists in Vienna doused a 1915 Klimt painting in black liquid last February, the Leopold Museum had to incur the costs of cleaning the work, repairing the wall, installing protective glass, and hiring additional security guards. To add insult to injury, the cost of their insurance soared.

Yet despite their funding struggles, museums -- which are facing the same economic headwinds as other nonprofits -- are stretching themselves to provide desperately needed help in crisis areas around the world. Most notably, The Smithsonian Museum along with New York’s MET are training military officers how to preserve cultural objects. Their efforts have reached Haiti, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Mali, Nepal, and most recently Ukraine (which according to the New York Times, has so far lost 339 monuments and cultural sites due to the war).

As former museum security guard and citizen activist, Ed Tant, wrote; “The climate crisis is very real, but so is the crisis of museums being underfunded and short-staffed.”

This divide between what matters to one organization versus another reminds me of John Gray’s well-known book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus – “where each sex is acclimated to its own planet's society and customs.That’s just like the nonprofit sector where we’re in the same universe but often our planets collide.

So how do we break these planetary silos and build bridges of understanding?

1. By making intentional efforts to interact with people who are affiliated with different types of nonprofits when we’re at conferences and events.

It’s a natural response to gravitate toward people we already know when we walk into a crowded room that’s filled with strangers. And, since we’re still flexing our post-Covid social skills, it takes extra effort to saunter up to folks we’ve never met.

But taking those opportunities to meet people from different planets, and to have conversations about their work, will give you insight into the joys and challenges they face. A good exercise is to stretch your empathy – an attribute most nonprofit staff and volunteers have in abundance – to appreciate the causes other people are fighting for.

2. By having deep conversations at the board and staff level about how your work could be strengthened by collaborating with other types of organizations.

If you’re a regular reader of my blogs you know that I’m a huge proponent of strategic planning. One of the best things any nonprofit can do is to think big and strategically about how your organization can make an impact by partnering with organizations that do work that is completely different from yours. In Canada, for example, the Humane Society teamed up with domestic violence organizations to form the Canadian Violence Link Coalition. In San Diego, the Audubon Society built strong partnerships with local tribes in many different areas such as seed exchanges, land-use preservation strategies, birding events, etc. – all of which makes my heart happy. I know there is a lot of work that museums and climate activists could collaborate on.

3. By participating in learning programs that attract and nurture the talents of leaders of different types of organizations.

While it’s nice to have an informal chat with a stranger at an event, it’s really rich to be in an environment where you are learning alongside people who are affiliated with different types of nonprofits. If you’re into an academic learning experience, you can explore graduate programs in nonprofit management such as the one offered by USD in San Diego (they are all over the country and just a click away to find one in your community).

Alternatively, you can look into collaborative learning groups such as ones sponsored by The FieldStone Leadership Alliance (also in San Diego). Most states have trade associations of nonprofit groups that sponsor similar cross-planetary nonprofit learning experiences.

The moral of the story is this: nonprofits need to stand united. We’re all dreamers and doers. Let’s take the time to truly understand each other and to support our mutual aspirations to make the world better.




Pat Libby is a change management consultant working principally with nonprofit corporations. She is author of The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You, Oxford University Press, The Lobbying Strategy Handbook, second edition, Oxford University Press, and Cases in Nonprofit Management, SAGE. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

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