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Behind the scenes: Our spring Board of Directors meeting

Posted by Jennifer Vaughn

20-05-2014 11:01 CDT

Topics: Planetary Society

Twice a year, the Board of Directors of The Planetary Society gathers for a face-to-face meeting. We supplement throughout the year with email correspondence and regular phone meetings with different Board committees. But, it's these in-person meetings that cement the relationship between the Board and staff and between our top-level governance and day-to-day operations. Our first meeting of 2014 was held on April 25 in Washington, D.C. at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

First off – who's on our Board? We currently have 13 members of the Board of Directors - five officers: Dan Geraci (Chairman), Jim Bell (President), Heidi Hammel (Vice President), Lon Levin (Treasurer), Wally Hooser (Secretary), and eight members: Lou Friedman, Scott Hubbard, Alexis Livanos, John Logsdon, Bill Nye (yes, he's also our CEO), Bee Thakore, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Fillmore Wood. At this meeting, we were missing Heidi and Scott, but the rest were all in attendance.

And who am I? I'm the Chief Operating Officer for The Planetary Society. I work closely with Bill to move our mission forward. I'm the behind-the-scenes person who works with our staff, Board, and outside partners and consultants to implement programs, formulate plans and budgets, raise money, and grow our community. I am a staff member and not on the Board of Directors, but I, along with our Chief Financial Officer, Lu Coffing, attend Board meetings as non-voting members.

This year, our Spring meeting focused on strategic planning. We've been working on a thorough planning process for about a year now. I'll be writing more about the details of the plan over the next few months, but to set some context for this particular meeting, let me share (or remind you about) our revised mission, vision, and top three initiatives.

Our new mission (what we do):

Empower the world's citizens to advance space science and exploration.

What I most admire about this new mission statement is that we lead off the statement with the words empower and citizens. These are carefully chosen words that encapsulate two key values of our organization – that we're focused on people – all people – and that we find ways to connect these people with real activities in space exploration. We believe that citizens not only should have roles in space exploration, but that citizens will essentially propel our endeavors in space. The Planetary Society is the vehicle for gathering, organizing, and activating this public force to advance the world's space activities.

One more word to call out in the revised statement is science. Our original draft of this revised mission statement ended with "…to advance space exploration." It was at our Fall 2013 Board meeting when the word science was added to reflect another key organizational value – we believe science is the driving force behind why we explore space. By adding the word to the statement that will be used over and over again to describe our organization, we're maintaining an explicit commitment to science.

Our new vision (why we do what we do):

Know the cosmos and our place within it.

A vision statement is supposed to be the ultimate goal an organization works toward. For the Alzheimer's Association, it's "A World Without Alzheimer's." For Oxfam, it's "A just world without poverty." The visions articulated in these statements are extremely difficult – perhaps impossible – to achieve, but they represent the ideal we're reaching for. What we tried to do with our vision statement is to sum up (succinctly) why humans explore space. What drives us to take on such difficult, time-consuming, expensive activities? We believe at the heart of it all is a quest for knowledge – knowledge about what's out there, but also knowledge about ourselves. I think our eight words sum that up beautifully.

Our top three initiatives:

I. Advance the Exploration of the Cosmos and the Search for Life

II. Engage the Public in Space Exploration

III. Build a Sustainable Future for The Planetary Society

Of these three initiatives, the third one is the most novel for our organization. We've built The Planetary Society on the first two concepts. We have nearly 35 years of experience advancing exploration through public engagement, and our near-term plans will define how we're going to take these roles and expand them even more. Focusing on the business of this nonprofit is relatively new for us, yet we cannot achieve our mission, let alone our vision, if our organization isn't preparing itself to last for decades or even centuries.

To create reliable long-term sustainability for nonprofits like ours requires a hefty reserve fund or endowment, in which the principal stays intact (or even grows), and the interest earned supports key programs. Last year, The Planetary Society committed to growing such a fund with the Carl Sagan Fund for the Future, and – already – we have nearly $1 million in principal. Of course, with today's interest rates, we'd need many, many more millions to support all of our programs. We're committed to fundraise for this long-term fund each year and commit a portion of all unrestricted donations to the fund.

At the meeting, our Board of Directors voted in the Charter for the Carl Sagan Fund for the Future. The Charter sets the rules for the fund and defines who is in charge of the fund. In our case, we've agreed to appoint a separate Board of Trustees to manage the fund. The primary responsibility for these volunteer Trustees is to protect and grow the fund. We also put in place rules to make it extremely difficult – although not impossible – for funds to be taken from the principal. Our next task is to identify and vote in our Board of Trustees.

Another key investment the Society is making to ensure a viable future is the development of our global volunteer network. The Planetary Society is, and always has been, an international organization. We have members in more than 100 countries, but we also need relevant programming around the world. There's no better way to create meaningful relationships at the local level than by engaging our volunteers and providing them with the resources and guidance they need to do their jobs to the fullest. To help us with this effort, we engaged two key people: our Global Volunteer Coordinator, Tom Kemp, and our Volunteer Network Manager, Kate Howells. Kate is relatively new working with us, but she has already made a significant impact on the program, including the development of a network in Canada. Kate presented her work to the Board and plans for the next year. We have more about our Volunteer Network here.

This particular meeting had an unusual backdrop – our recent $4.2 million gift to the organization. Our donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, expects us to use the extra funding to truly advance our work, not cover day-to-day expenses. With this gift, came new (and very welcome) work – in each program area that the donor specified we needed to establish plans to do more than we had been expecting to do. Thankfully, we were deep in the strategic planning process, so we were able to take some of our "if we only had the money" dreams and put them into our 3-year plan. We're still finalizing plans and budgets for putting this gift to work, but throughout the Board meeting, we discussed the impact of the gift on particular programs and our organization as a whole.

It wouldn't be a Planetary Society Board meeting if we didn't have a heated discussion about space policy, and this one didn't disappoint. Space policy is a topic that engages each and every Board member; they are a passionate group. At our Fall 2013 meeting, we established a new committee of the Board of Directors specifically dedicated to space policy in an attempt to streamline our policy discussions at meetings. Our Space Policy Committee – John Logsdon, Lou Friedman, Scott Hubbard, Heidi Hammel, Dan Geraci, and Fill Wood – met a month before the meeting and had a two-hour session the day before the Board meeting to discuss updating our position on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Last year, we released a statement providing conditional support for the initiative. We were intrigued with the concept, but we had many questions about details, including budget and schedule. Our Space Policy Committee invited Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, to update the committee on ARM and plans for getting humans to Mars. At the Board meeting we continued the discussion and began working out the key points for a revised statement. We still have questions and concerns about ARM, but we're pleased to see NASA working out longer-term plans for human exploration. We will have our revised statement posted soon.

The Fall meeting is when we do the bulk of our "reporting" on programs, finances, etc., since our fiscal year ends on September 30. Nevertheless, we make sure we give status reports at the Spring meeting. When it comes to our science and tech projects, our advocacy activities, and our community outreach, it's all good news right now. Membership is stable and our digital community is growing, our Save Our Science (#FundPlanetary) advocacy campaign to has been the most successful campaign we've ever led, and our projects, such as PlanetVac and Laser Bees, have all met major milestones. And, we're getting ready for a major announcement about our biggest project, LightSail. Look for more information about LightSail starting in June.

And, finally, there is Neil.... Neil is not only an engaged and committed Board member (he's been on our Board since 1997 and served as President for a 5-year term), he's also a morale booster for the rest of the Board. We can pretty much expect at any given meeting Neil will take over at some point with a story (or stories) that will captivate us all. This time – not surprisingly – he shared stories from shooting Cosmos. Neil is always a star to us – but now, the whole world agrees. We're lucky to have him working with us.

We're lucky to have all of them. I am honored to work for such a dedicated group of volunteer leaders – indeed, with the exception of Bill who is our paid CEO, our Board members donate their time and expertise to guide and shape this organization of ours. We have exciting times ahead.

 
See other posts from May 2014

 

Or read more blog entries about: Planetary Society

Comments:

djysrv: 05/25/2014 02:05 CDT

From the perspective of governance of nonprofits, it is problematic that the executive director is also a voting member of the board. This arrangement creates ambiguity when it comes to accountability. Mr. Nye's unusual commitments to off-topic advocacy, such as appearing on Dancing with the Stars and debating creationists, are huge distractions from his mission. You can't have effective leadership if the person is charge is off tilting at windmills. This person can't be held accountable for staying on message if they have a vote on it at the board level. With a new resource of $4.2 million, the Planetary Society needs to take a closer look at how its leadership is positioned to be an effective manager of those funds.

Jennifer Vaughn: 06/05/2014 09:15 CDT

Thanks djysrv for your comment. First off – we agree there need to be checks and balances in place to ensure that our mission and our resources are managed responsibility and effectively. We work hard to make sure safeties are in place and we regularly add new layers of governance. Our Finance Committee of the Board of Directors (Lon Levin, Dan Geraci, Jim Bell, Heidi Hammel) governs our accounts, investments, and our monthly operating budgets. Each month, this committee reviews revenue and expenses and monitors general account activity. The Finance Committee works with the staff to create our annual operating budgets – and, in the case of the recent special gift, helps set up rules for how we put the new money to work. In these cases, the Finance Committee will then involve the whole Board for a vote (e.g., the whole Board needs to vote on our annual operating budget each year). We also have an independent company complete an audit after we complete each fiscal year. Our Audit Committee of the Board of Directors (Fillmore Wood, Wally Hooser, Dan Geraci) oversees the independent audit, and each year talk directly with the auditor. The committee will ask questions about our bookkeeping, our financial health, and our staff's overall helpfulness with the audit. The results of these audits are available to all who are interested. Our Board currently has 13 informed (and strong-willed) individuals – Bill's vote is 1 of the 13, so he certainly has influence, but he in no way controls the will of the board. Also, there are three of us who run day-to-day operations – Bill is our part-time CEO, Lu Coffing is our full-time CFO, and I am the full-time COO. Neither Lu nor I sit on the Board, and our Board Members hold all three of us accountable for the health and effectiveness of our organization. Lastly – just as a point of interest - Lou Friedman, our Executive Director for 30 years, was not only a voting Board member, but also was a Board officer.

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