Budget Time: Defending Your College Thesis or An Open Book Test?

Budgetby Stuart Botwinick

It was funny scene, Rodney Dangerfield goes back to school as Thorton Melon in Back To School (classic movie, circa 1986) and in a closing scene, he sits to take an oral exam. A large long room, wood floors, a single chair facing a stage of his professors – everything about the setting conjures feelings of cold, cruel nervosa… Dangerfield sweats as he is grilled… as if he is defending his life to an onslaught of questions, some meant to challenge, others meant to confuse and a few to just check whether he was paying attention in class. But then… a dramatic turn, his lit professor, Dr. Diane Turner (Sally Kellerman), pulls up a chair, right next to him. Earlier in the film, he finds a passion for the lit material (as well as for Diane) and together they explore the classics. The music builds… Turner asks a question with full knowledge of his journey to the table, prompting Melon to begin to recall all he has learned with her… Melon begins slow and then with her encouragement, she listens eagerly as he stands, eyes wide open and recites the Dylan Thomas classic “Do Not Go Gentle to That Good Night.” He is confident and supported fully by Turner. He breathes, they smile, he looks around the room having made a great showing.

Turner: ”Thorton, what does that mean to you?”

Melon: “I don’t take sh-t from no one.”

How does the board conversation about the budget make you feel? Is it a summation of a full fleshed out year worked through in partnership with your board? Have they been part of the different bits and pieces that come together for a full overview of your agency? Does a narrative flow through the numbers, not revealing, but retelling the path passed and the one ahead?

Sometimes known as budget season, I found myself using the word ‘defend’ a lot. As if trying to keep hungry lions away from my Jelly Bellys. I seek not keep the delicious sugary goodness away from them, but, if well-orchestrated year round, together we have been tasting the goodies a bit at a time. If they know how we reached the budget numbers in February, then March, then April, May, June may not be a great leap. It’s not about taking the proverbial “sh-t” from your board. The healthy conversation is ongoing. The healthy conversation comes in bite size pieces. For larger organizations, small pre-meeting meetings (critical!) allow organizations to dig deep together, to allow for a lay leader to pull up a chair real close and say “What does that mean to you? If not, “what does this mean to our organization?” How should it best be explained at a budget presentation? The larger or more complicated the budget, the more pre-meetings and chair sliding the better. A budget “thesis” presentation should come from a shared journey; as partners, key leaders should be able to know most of the answers and be by your side or even in your stead when it is discussed with everyone.

You can pull their chair closer too… Done right, you can’t fail and there is no need to cheat. Consider what it takes to make your budget presentation an open book test that you can take in partnership with your leadership.

Stuart Botwinick is Assistant Executive Director of Sid Jacobson JCC (East Hills, NY) and a board member of Jewish Without Walls/JWOW.