What we heard: your voice on AIGA’s future

Thank you to all who participated in a robust discussion around AIGA’s options for the future in the past several months, and most actively in the past week.

Through the course of these conversations, it became clear that we simply did not communicate as effectively as we had hoped in laying out two separate options for AIGA's future. Our intention was to be clear and transparent; we realize our missteps in that regard and take full responsibility for the misperceptions that ensued. We hope to clarify some of the issues here.

We presented unclear choices (“status quo” vs. “transformative”)

AIGA is transforming and has been for some time. Some agree with the changes, some don’t. Incremental changes have been in the direction of the strategic framework developed over the past five years in consultation with membership and chapters, and recently codified by the board.

The October ballot sent to all AIGA members was intended to do two things:

  1. Confirm that members still agree with the strategic framework as articulated
  2. Gain support for either an incremental or more rapid pace for continued transformation

In describing the second item, we used the terms “status quo” to describe changing the organizational structure incrementally (facilities, staff, activities, finances) and “transformative” to denote a more rapid transformation. Clearly, the wording failed to describe what was intended. Labeling the options “incremental transformation” and “rapid transformation” might have been more helpful.

The option of selling the building is a separate issue

AIGA realized in August 2012 that it should consider its real estate asset as a financial resource whose value could be reallocated to a variety of investment purposes. The board cautiously explored the option for the next six months, recognizing both the fact that the current building no longer suits the needs of the organization and the opportunity to convert a non-revenue producing asset into an endowment that would generate financial resources that could be used to serve members.

In June, AIGA received an unanticipated, limited-time offer for twice the appraised value of the building. The board voted to accept the offer, but put it on hold at the behest of the group of past presidents you heard from last week in order to develop further information to share with the membership. A series of articles and webcasts followed, and we mailed a print piece to ensure that we were reaching all members.

In our materials, we introduced an unintended level of confusion by combining the “rapid transformation” option with the issue of selling the building. They are two separate issues. The intention was to be clear that we can’t easily pursue new initiatives without new funding. The sale of the building represents 1) an opportunity to generate a significant level of funds in a shorter amount of time than traditional fundraising activities and 2) good stewardship, in that it is a way to provide a revenue stream for future boards and generations of members. We know from experience that fundraising from members, sponsors and foundations for a professional association’s activities is extremely difficult; we already work assiduously to raise funds from those sources. If the building is sold, the bulk of the proceeds would be invested in 1) endowments that would generate revenue and 2) a new office space, eliminating any mortgage or other debt for the next generation of leadership. Some of the proceeds could also be used to accelerate change.

More detail is requested before investing in new activities

Many members indicated that they felt they needed more information before being able to judge the appropriateness of investing in new activities.

The new activities proposed would require an investment of $3-4 million. Each proposed activity and initiative will be described, budgeted and scheduled, and specific goals and benchmarks will be identified. In November, we will share this level of detail on proposed activities, including:

  • The concept of a “network exchange” is surfacing among social scientists, organizational strategists and experience designers. Member participation, collaboration, and connection are critical to the AIGA experience. We would seek to develop the capacity to link members to members, ideas, portfolios, mentoring, learning, thoughtful criticism, opportunities to make a difference in the community, and the activities of all chapters.
  • Continuing investments in support systems for chapters, extending the leadership retreat experience to chapters throughout the year, and a chapter innovation fund to provide grants to support innovative programs that might scale in being shared with other chapters.
  • Advancing learning within the profession.
  • Supporting designers over the arc of their careers, from student to retiree.
  • Enhancing the means for designers to become engaged in issues in their communities using design as a tool.
  • Preserving and celebrating the great design of its first century with AIGA’s comprehensive and unique archives.

These proposals will be developed for review by members and chapters, and approval by the board. How quickly they are able to be pursued depends on available funding. If they are funded from the sale of the building, they could be undertaken and completed within the next three years. If not, we will work to make progress toward them more slowly, by 2020.

The purpose and results of the October ballot

The member vote is advisory and was called to provide the board with a measure of member preferences and perspective (as any responsible and accountable board ought to do). Ultimately, the board alone has fiduciary and strategic responsibility for the association. As the representative elected governance body of a membership organization, the board is expected to look out for the interests of members, current, past and future and wants to know members’ preferences.

Nearly 2,000 members voted by personalized email ballot in the period of October 17-25, 2013, four times the participation we encounter on most member votes.  While 82 percent of respondents supported the strategic framework as articulated and 79 percent supported the “transformative” option, the most valuable result of the process was the comments that 450 members provided. The comments raised questions and issues that will help us refine detailed plans for the future, regardless of whether we pursue a slower or faster course.

What happens next?

The board has been listening carefully and will meet on November 7 to decide on next steps, including a review of more detailed plans for proposed activities. A future Insight article will report on those discussions.

If the board decides to invest in a more diversified portfolio, no funds will be spent on new activities or initiatives without providing the details described above, including robust planning, budgeting and scheduling. Selling the building would provide the resources that make many ideas possible, but we will not retreat from our solid and conservative fiscal approach. 

A commitment to openness, transparency and accountability

As with any organization, the board has specific fiduciary and governing responsibilities that it cannot delegate. This board and the institution are committed to governance that reflects not just responsibility, but also openness, transparency and accountability. We welcome diverse opinions because they strengthen outcomes. Everyone’s voice is heard; this does not mean that all will be satisfied with the decisions that are made. But they will not be made in isolation from contrary opinions.

We know that we are in transition in this regard as well, shifting from a club to a hub of a broad network of professionals. We will keep seeking to improve in this regard.