Bad Times Beget Bad Decisions

As the February 1st editorial in The New York Times, “Art at Brandeis” notes, hard times force hard choices on everyone. In both its editorial and in a stinging article, “In the Closing of Brandeis Museum, a Stark Statement of Priorities,” by arts pages writer Roberta Smith, The Times joins the growing chorus of lament over the university’s decision to close the Brandeis Rose Art Museum.

You may ask what all this has to do with a blog on marketing for the Jewish community. It is simply the latest example of how smart people and revered institutions seem to never think through the implications of their actions to their institution’s reputation. Brand building and reputation burnishing are important responsibilities for every organization and their leadership. As important as balancing the books, keeping an organization fiscally sound, being transparent to its supporters, focusing on its mission and being respectful of its many publics.

Yehudah Reinhartz, President of Brandeis University as well as a highly respected Jewish intellectual force and his board of trustees seem to have forgotten or chose to ignore the basics of why you invest in building and sustaining your organization’s reputation and why being its fiercest champion is job #1.

Certainly everyone understands the financial dilemma Brandeis faces. But the decision to close the Rose was apparently made without consulting either the museum’s board or its director. A decision made behind closed doors without vetting potentially harmful outcomes with your own leadership not only has infuriated donors to the museum but also alienated and marginalized a whole range of friends and supporters to both to the museum and the university. When looked at from a short distance of time and space, this seemingly good solution to a financial problem has devolved into a full fledged pr, recruitment and development mess.

Who wants to go to a university that behaves so callously and acts so cavalierly toward the students for whom it exists? Who wants to give to an institution that may not respect the wishes of its donors? Why should anyone trust this university and its leaders? What else don’t we know? One question leads to another and another….

One bad decision can create an avalanche of woes. One bad economy can make some smart people act unwisely. With all the troubles our institutions face, we cannot afford for them to ignore the basics—treat your supporters well and cherish your reputation like your life depended on it. It does.

Gail Hyman is a marketing and communications professional, with deep experience in both the public and private sectors. She currently focuses her practice, Gail Hyman Consulting, on assisting Jewish nonprofit organizations increase their ranks of supporters and better leverage their communications in the Web 2.0 environment. Gail is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.