Thing One: Plan your programming based on mission, specificity, style, and audience orientation. That last bit is the most important. Just like the movement toward donor-centric development activity (“What do you want?”) has proven more successful than self-facing activity (“Here’s what we offer.”), audience-oriented experiences that reflect an organization’s expertise (“This is what we’re famous for.”) have proven more successful than vanity programming (“I like this and you must, too.”).
Thing Two: “Seasons” are an artificial construct. In the arts, audiences don’t really care. (In sports, they do, because championships constitute the end of a season.) The construct helps to create a small clustering of performances or exhibitions for fans to purchase as a marketing tool. Programming toward a seasonal “arc” is an imprudent and arrogant exercise that implies your attendees don’t patronize any other arts organization.
Arts Organizations: Reverse Engineering a Mission is Like Hiring a CEO Based on the Ability to Fit in the Chair
You may be asking yourself, “Why are there so many 137 Words posts about ‘mission?’ We put on [plays/operas/concerts/exhibitions/ballets] and THAT’S our mission. Art is enough. Case closed.”
Ignorance and arrogance – back together again.
Is art enough? Enough for what? Enough of what? Is there a societal need for art? Assuming there is, is there a societal need for your art?
Here’s the deal: a nonprofit has no human owner. Not the CEO, ED, MD, AD, Curator, President, or even the Board of Directors. An identified societal need is at the center of the nonprofit’s identity. The mission – the compelling combination of values, purpose, goals, and vision whose sole commitment is to fill that societal need – is the owner. An unrelenting, benevolent boss who defines productivity as eliminating that which is unnecessary to the completion of the mission.
If You’re _____________, Then Your Nonprofit Arts Organization is Probably Unsustainable (with apologies to Jeff Foxworthy)
- not paying your executive director because s/he is independently wealthy and actually donates 6 figures to the company;
- working 70 hours/week every week and see nothing wrong with that;
- hiring part-time employees and expecting them to work full-time free of charge;
- of the belief that your employees are less important than your equipment or your building;
- insisting that anyone besides your marketing director is the final word on your marketing;
- keeping your artistic director away from donors because s/he doesn’t know how to interact with them;
- in the mindset that any of your people are more important than any other of your people;
- playing “Dialing for Dollars” to meet your payroll;
- arguing that “keeping the base” is more important than expanding the audience, while…
- thinking that you can do both;
- sweating a little right now after reading this post.
Why do you do what you do?
Donors are not stupid. They already know WHAT you do. When you can make a compelling case WHY you do it, you’re on your way to a good relationship.
How is your process better?
Show why you provide great services. Don’t cheap out on those services just to serve more people. Persuade donors that you provide better value than they can.
Why are you more deserving than somebody else doing a similar thing? With malice toward none, distinguish yourself through contrast and differentiation.
What do I get out of it?
Learn what drives your donor before you ask them for money. Know if they want tangible recognition before giving it to them, for example. And thank them personally whenever possible (not via mail merge – in your own handwriting).
Organizational Health Can Be Measured by the Number of Donors Who Don’t Have to Give to Your Arts Organization
How many non-board (or non-ex-board) members give to your arts organization?
How many non-staff members?
How many non-parents (if you do activities that include children)?
How many people who don’t attend your gala or other special event?
How many people who refuse donor benefits?
In other words, how many people donate simply based on your mission, programming, and activities; or by trusting a stakeholder of your mission, programming, and activities without expectation of a return?
Count the households of donors who donated all on their own. If the number is small, create a special campaign to draw them in, even if the donation is a simple $50. And thank them – they’re giving for no reason at all, except for unconditional love.
Ultimately, the health of your organization is measured by the number of those who unconditionally support it.
I’m continually surprised by surprise announcements.
Seattle does not tolerate surprise announcements well. I’m not sure of a place where surprises go well, but in a city fomenting the crucible of passive-aggressive behavior (see this article for some fun), change without tortuous committee meetings is, well, gauche.
Recently, KUOW (Greater Seattle NPR news/talk licensed by the University of Washington) issued a surprising announcement that they’ve signed a deal to buy KPLU (Greater Seattle NPR news/jazz licensed by Pacific Lutheran University). Evidently, Pacific Lutheran University’s broke.
FYI: KUOW once purchased another non-commercial station, KXOT, to carry its KUOW2 programming. That failed.
Listeners/Members hate the idea and said so at a meeting on November 23. KPLU kept soliciting memberships even after the deal was signed.
KUOW comes off as untrustworthy, KPLU as desperate.
Don’t own your own performance space. It’s a liability, not an asset. Balance sheet be damned.
An asset is something you can sell. No one wants to buy a theatre…unless it’s to tear it down. And if it’s an Historic Building, run like the wind.
This isn’t just avoiding an “Edifice Complex.” Unless, of course, you adore unending capital campaigns to rebuild the defects your company “cheaped out” on. Find funding for what you do, not where you do it.
That said, one of the most overlooked ways in which a board member can help an organization is to provide eternal, free nearby office space for the company (there’s never enough inside the theatre). It’s a major tax deduction and the perfect in-kind gift – one that actually removes a necessary expense from the budget.
“Fire ’em the first time you think about it.” This was the mantra of the board chair of a company with which I was affiliated. I’ve always appreciated the portion that means that I should know when things are not working with a company or individual – from the perspective of employer or employee.
Which brings me to performance reviews. Gack. Many formal performance reviews within arts organizations waste time and energy and breed unnecessary anxiety. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t do them – but do them continually rather than once a year or when a contract demands it.
If your company has a horrible work environment, a performance review is about as helpful as a Band-Aid on a heart attack. Similarly, if the environment is open-minded, so should your inter-reactions. You’ll know if it’s working out.
I’ve been reading a number of articles discussing arts charity marketing as a whole-company tool, not a ticket-sales tool. Here’s one from TRG.
I was disappointed by Advancement Northwest’s Major Gifts Symposium keynote speakers’ idea of including donors within a charity’s mission.
I have been met with resistance from key artistic and production personnel who have been taught that “we do the art and everything else is a necessary evil.” (Actual quote.)
It’s just human nature for stakeholders to overvalue their contribution. Board members do it. Employees. Volunteers. Audience. Artists. Donors.
Here’s the thing: arts nonprofits that are created to solve a societal problem don’t have these issues. These issues fester when the company is created prior to creating (and rationalizing) a mission.
Create your company as an answer and horses and carts will sort themselves out.
Just Because Someone Repeats It Doesn’t Make It True: Nonprofit Arts Organizations Must Serve a Charitable Purpose or Die Trying
Supposedly, Martin Van Buren wrote to Andrew Jackson imploring Jackson not to approve the railroads for fear of the loss of the canal system, citing mass unemployment, the closing of boating businesses, and the fear of trains moving at breakneck speeds of 15 mph. It never happened. I checked.
In W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, “If you build it, they will come” was actually “If you build it, he will come” and referred to the farmer’s father. Not “If you build an arts center, thousands of new patrons will come, regardless of programming.” Read the book.
There is another fabrication that arts organizations are nonprofits simply by being arts organizations. It’s not true. I checked.
All over the US, there are myriad arts nonprofits that don’t serve a charitable purpose. Rightfully, foundations are noticing and diverting funds elsewhere.
Raising money is not Begging, It’s Sharing Joy with Someone Who Might Benefit from Joy in Their Lives
If you’ve ever dined out at a remarkable restaurant with a significant other, you know how to raise money.
You’ve tasted the Cabernet, the risotto, the chocolate soufflé. Inevitably (unless you’re an ass), you’ve offered a taste to your partner. You’ve chosen to have less of the valuable thing you love, but the increased joy of your partner provides impact to an outcome that shows that “spending” that taste was worth the return.
It’s a somewhat simplistic metaphor, but it’s awfully close. Joy in the works of nonprofit arts organizations is not an outcome, but the impact that leads to that joy is. And when you are able to catalyze your impact into a persuasive story – with quantifiable outcomes – then you’re raising money.
But if your partner hates chocolate, there’s nothing you can do. Remember that, too.
If it ain’t broke, break it. Then fix it.
You only read books in one direction.
Your legacy ends when you leave.
Institutional survival is not the goal.
Missions are gods; mission statements are bibles.
The best leaders are the best assistants.
Learn why before you continue.
Success is measured by impact, not excellence.
“Fiscal responsibility” is a business practice, not a mission statement.
Volunteers are employees who work for $0.
If your people are averaging 50+ hours a week, you’re failing.
Always use transitive verbs in your mission statements.
The cool kids are back in high school.
Sharpen your point of view; that’s why it’s a point.
Be completely, spectacularly wrong.
Treat candidates like employees.
Treat employees like human beings.
Treat human beings as though you are one.
Fire yourself regularly; interview yourself for your job.
Leadership by Forcing Audiences to Follow: “This is How We’ve Always Done It” Didn’t Work in 1776 and It’s Not Working Now
Overall, there are 28% fewer television viewers between 18 and 49 than there were 4 years ago. The average television viewer is now 50.
They’re streaming and DVRing. “Appointment Television” is becoming increasingly obsolete, apart from the Super Bowl…so far.
Broadcasters are sweating bullets and taking golden parachutes. It’s guerrilla consumer behavior and to them, it’s just not fair.
Just like the Colonial armies – they didn’t stand in neat, straight lines as the British did in the Revolutionary War. They broke the rules of battle. Not fair.
Just like younger people bolting from old-school arts organizations – those whose customs and rules work for the producer without working for the video streamer. Not fair.
Predictable, season-oriented, excellently-produced but inadequately result-oriented programming has become today’s version of Artistic Redcoats. Pretty, stubborn, old-fashioned, and easily destroyed by Artistic Neo-Colonials.
Guess who wins that battle?
1. Never be the smartest person in the room. Hire candidates who are better than you. If you can’t, you’re probably an asshole.
2. Make clear what the goal is. In nonprofits, that goal is defined by the mission. If you can’t, your mission probably sucks.
3. Using their strengths (not yours), disseminate tasks rather than relying on calcified job descriptions. Create a human flow chart that leads to mission execution. If you can’t, people will keep quitting because of you.
4. Be their assistant, especially in small organizations, rather than insisting on having them be yours. If you can’t, you don’t really know what “team” means.
5. Don’t let “results” become your mood ring. Use “happiness” instead. Or “satisfaction.” If you can’t, quit your job so that someone else can do it better. If you think no one can, see Step 1.
Omnibus Festa, Omni Tempore: Raising Money to Spend on the People Who are Raising Money to Spend on the People Who are Raising Money to Spend on the People Who are Raising Money…, etc.
The 1980s and 1990s were the golden years of galas for arts charities. Mostly because there were fewer of them. But also because high percentages of the money actually went to the organization.
Today, putting on massive galas to feed donors – netting scant revenue to the charity but plenty of “goodwill,” “friend-raising” and resume padding – are often construed as elitist, inefficient modes of raising income.
One annual gala, or perhaps groups of organizations sharing a larger gala and splitting the receipts, might thin out the calendar and make them more financially effective. Hundreds of hours of employee and trustee resources might well be better spent on relationship-building, not napkin swans..
A development director once told me that she worked “on behalf of donors.” No, not really. You work on behalf of the mission.
A marketing director once told me that “it’s all about the money.” No, not really. It’s all about the mission.
An artistic director once told me “we do it for the art.” No, not really. We do it to execute the mission.
Unless the mission, well, sucks.
Often it has fallen to me to gently (and sometimes not so gently) advise that without a compelling, singular mission that speaks to a specific, measurable societal improvement, a nonprofit arts organization is merely exchanging entertainment for money — like an organ grinder’s monkey, begging for pennies.
You are there to solve a problem. Make sure your company stands for something outside your little corner of the operation.
Two real cases (quotes paraphrased):
“Of course they’ll stay. Where are they going to go?” said a highly-paid nonprofit leader to his board after cutting everyone else’s salary by 25% because, you know, the economy and his vision.
“They came with no skills; I taught them everything,” said another leader when asked how he managed to avoid turnover.
To attack Stockholm Syndrome:
- Interact across the organization. SS leaders use employee non-communication to triangulate.
- Don’t work alone or in some ear-budded isolation. SS leaders crave isolation. What you don’t know WILL hurt you.
- Love the mission, not the leader. When an SS leader’s actions supersede the mission (if there is one), the ship is sinking, so…
- Continually seek new work. SS leaders may call you a deserter; do you want to work for someone who categorizes people like that?
Washington Post reported that some uber-wealthy Rancho Santa Fe, California dinosaurs refuse to conserve water in the worst drought in California history. Consumption there is up 9% (the only area in California increasing consumption), because, as one resident put it: “We should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting our gardens to be beautiful.”
Why? See below for the answer to “Why do dogs lick their genitalia?”
The nonprofit arts industry deserves support. No question. “Arts and culture policies and programs increase economic development in states by attracting businesses, creating new jobs, increasing tax revenues and promoting tourism.” National Conference of State Legislatures
But when “Indominus rex” institutions drink up inordinate percentages of funding (larger than their share of the market), is it just…
“because they can?”
Next Time You’re On the Poseidon, Remember to Go Up – Organizational Culture and the Dangers of Sycophancy
If things are going well, the organizational culture is usually harmonious. If not, then it’s not. As Richard Branson recently wrote, “There’s no right or wrong way to go about creating a company culture, as long as you keep the staff that it’s designed for in mind every step of the way.”
Unless you don’t, of course.
Nonprofit leaders that seek knowledge, challenge their co-workers to wrestle with ideas rather than to rubber-stamp them – these people are golden. These people inspire the best in their communities. Their vision is not their own, but that of a collective.
Those who seek sycophancy, encouraged by well-meaning boards to behave autocratically – these people are leaden. They have no ability to rally, only to bully. Sadly, but inevitably, these folks excel at leading organizations straight into a toxic dump of irrelevance.
I have a piece of paper that says I have a budget of $150 for lunch.
I go to the deli for a sandwich. Maybe chips and a lemonade.
In a new promotion, they ask me to step behind the counter and make my own sandwich. There’s a charge for each ingredient, but I get to make whatever I want.
I make a quadruple-decker. It’s a masterpiece of breads, meats, cheeses, veggies, seasonings, and condiments. It would make Dagwood Bumstead envious.
Because of all the ingredients, it costs $150.
I’ve actually only got $12. I put the purchase on credit. After all, I have that piece of paper. And I deserve that sandwich.
Does your arts organization budget this way – put together budgets based on what a leader wants to buy rather than what’s in your institution’s wallet?
Cultural Fit: FIFA, North Korea, the Kardashians, the Nixon White House…and Your Nonprofit Arts Organization?
I just read an op-ed piece in The New York Times about the over-utilization of “cultural fit” as a criterion for hiring. “One recent survey found that more than 80 percent of employers worldwide named cultural fit as a top hiring priority.”
To an extent, cultural fit is interesting, but a “top hiring priority?” In the broadest sense, someone with an affinity for and experience in the nonprofit arts industry would seem to possess it for a nonprofit arts organization, as opposed to someone from Walmart.
But when challenges face the organization, or if an organization is seeking to “be taken to the next level,” cultural fit is the last thing you want in a key hire. Adding wax to a candle just makes a bigger candle. It doesn’t light up the night until you add the fire.
Take a long inward look at why your nonprofit arts organization exists.
Stop. Read the next sentence. Close your eyes and do what it says. Open.
Say out loud what the mission is – not the mission statement (because someone else wrote that) – but the from-the-gut societal problem your nonprofit organization solves.
Welcome back. Was that hard to do?
Was your interpretation in line with the mission statement?
Or is your organization a nonprofit just for the tax breaks? In other words, do you take donations to produce somebody’s vision of art (maybe even yours) with no change to your community?
Inspiring nonprofits don’t measure success by journalistic acclaim, performance buzz, or paid attendance. That’s what baseball teams and political conventions do.
Be inspiring. Be better. You’ve been given a life-altering societal charge: follow your gut.
Ethics: “You can’t just ask people to behave ethically just like that.” -Sepp Blatter, Friday, May 29, 2015
One nonprofit arts organization that sent its executive on an expenses-paid vacation to Europe, paying for it with tax-deductible donations.
One executive director that increased the YOY marketing budget of the organization by 50% based not on history or data, but on “that’s how much we’re spending, so that’s how much we have to make.”
One board of directors that undertakes an emergency “going-out-of-business” desperation fundraising campaign, but after raising the money, changes nothing about the way it does business. And then does it again.
Hundreds of nonprofits having to deal with trust issues from nervous donors because of unethical behavior from a disgusting few.
In Charities, The Chicken Came First. There. Settled. (But Each Chicken has the Ability to Hatch a Whole Passel of Eggs.)
When communities are in trouble, specific needs arise. Charities embark on social experiments aimed at addressing issues not easily solved when profit is king.
In the arts, we tend to loudly cluck about indirect results. Economic impact. The “Anti-Gang.” Higher math scores…happy by-products, but not arts’ reason for being.
But do regions address their specific needs – or even their happy by-products – when dominated by single museums, ballets, operas, theaters, or symphonies? Doesn’t it really take hen-houses full of them to increase a region’s vibrancy?
To achieve a community’s cultural success, dominating arts charities might consider the counter-intuitive notion of creating their own competition, risking their own vibrancy for the community’s sake. It’s certainly better for the region to incubate dozens of arts charities rather than one, especially when those “chicks” do the same once they’re able.
I’m baaaaa-aaaaack — “He who’s down one day can be up the next, unless he really wants to stay in bed, that is…”
For 8 months, I’ve been temporarily working in Detroit, mixing Cervantes (above) with Kerouac (below). Detroit was fascinating.
Where to go next is the issue.
I’ve studied nonprofit arts cultures across the country and (so far) settled on regions surrounding Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and Washington, DC.
The house and TK are in Seattle. TG is in Detroit. I’ll give you a great deal on the house, but not the others.
Criterion #1: When a region’s arts community is comprised of a whole bunch of discrete mission-based organizations – rather than everybody doing everything – then that region’s organizations succeed. That’s for me.
Criterion #2: When a region’s arts community is comprised of a precious few large arts organizations, those organizations are doomed to irrelevance. Not for me.
But my mind wanders…
“What’s in store for me in the direction I don’t take?”