Arts Organizations: What is Your Art? Is it “It?” Is it a Picture of “It?” A Report of “It?” None of the Above?
45 years ago today, February 9, an earthquake happened. I was shaken out of bed and looked out the window just in time to see a brick chimney fall on Dr. Prince’s new 240Z. That’s what happened to me.
We turned on the television to see films about the Van Norman Dam — in danger of bursting. I saw that through a lens.
The next day’s LA Times had the front-page story, “DAY OF DISASTER — Quake Leaves 42 Dead, 1,000 Hurt; Periled Dam Forces 40,000 to Flee.” I read that report.
The racing results, as always, were in the sports section. A square box on the front page said so. Horse racing is a popular entertainment. I didn’t care.
Is your art happening to your constituents? Is it through a filter? Is it second-hand? Or is it entertainment? Only one is personally meaningful.
Many nonprofit theater board members feel isolated. They’re told (or they conclude) that the only company that matters is the one for which they’ve chosen to spend their money, time, and expertise. Board members don’t have the time to discuss extra-organizational collaboration when the basement is flooded and the auditorium is only half-full and, oh yes, they have careers and families and other interests.
Collude. Your market is begging you to collude. Don’t guess what your competition is up to; collude and be part of the regional success.
Get together with other board members regularly. Require artistic directors to openly discuss their programming with each other. Oblige your organization to differentiate.
Think shopping mall, not stand-alone.
Chamber of commerce, not pop-ups.
Constellations, not stars.
Healthy arts communities are like boxes of chocolates, not bunches of grapes. Collude.
Life on the Unraveling Nonprofit Arts Fringe: Why Hiring Experience and Guile Trumps Everything Else
Actor Hugh O’Brian is said to have coined “The 5 Stages of an Actor’s Career;”
- Who is Hugh O’Brian?
- Get me Hugh O’Brian.
- Get me a Hugh O’Brian type.
- Get me a young Hugh O’Brian.
- Who is Hugh O’Brian?
We’re in contact with hundreds of highly-experienced, resilient people who have made a career in the arts – and they’re having difficulties getting back into the field.
Some of it is ageism. Boards use headhunters to find smart young guns to lead departments or organizations — only to find that instead, they’ve hired brilliant 2-year placeholders with few people skills, entitlement issues, little flexibility, and quick parachutes.
Studies show those >50 stay longer than those under <40, are more productive, have better improvisational skills and flexibility, and are likelier to bring success.
Forget headhunters. Do your own search. Hire someone better than you.
Nonprofit Arts Boards: Sustainability Does Not Equal Survival – Sometimes, it’s Best to Close Up Shop
Simplistically speaking, charities are like scientific experiments — unemotional methods to gain insight.
Sometimes, we make conclusions based on these experiments with the bias of survival as a sustaining strategy.
In nonprofit arts organizations, boards often conclude that their organization should last for some version of forever. It’s the biggest mistake a nonprofit arts organization board can make.
Sometimes, it’s time to close, not out of failure, but out of symptoms/findings:
- Chasing dollars with dollars
- Last-ditch “give us a million by next month or we’ll go out of business” campaigns
- Capital campaigns that mask company debt
- Doing off-mission work that “pays for” the mission-oriented work
- Unwritten HR policies that permanently institutionalize attrition
- No quantifiable proof of external impact
Boards – no shame to close an organization when findings lead you to that conclusion, even when your finances are sound.
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.
T’was the month before year’s-end; the devo department
Was sending appeals to all homes and apartments.
The director was sweating like Richard M. Nixon
For fear that a failure would cause crucifixion.
The ED was clueless and screaming for money
And the board chair was gone, yachting to Bimini.
The donors were asked to contribute all year.
Each month — no each week! — it’s all they could hear.
“Give now” and “Give now” and “Give now” once again.
They were tapped just for money and not for their ken.
When all of a sudden there arouse such a ruckus
A donor had given fifteen thousand buck-us.
The annual giving director said “WHEE!
We’ll hit all our goals! And they’ll promote me!”
The year-end was saved and Christmas was merry,
Now it’s time to mail the appeal for January.
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.
The Christmas Arts Season is Almost Here: Time for Much Mooing and Missions Drifting Higher than the Plowed Snow Blocking your Driveway
Once there was a theatre company that produced new plays. However, during the holiday season, they produced “A Christmas Carol.”
Foundation leaders that supported this company asked one day, “Why do you produce ‘A Christmas Carol’ when it has nothing to do with your mission or the rest of your activities?”
“Because,” said a truthful board president, “it’s our ‘cash cow.’ And we need to milk it for all its worth to pay for everything else we do.”
“Oh,” said the foundation leaders. “Does it?”
“Yes,” said the president. “It’s a good thing, too.”
The leaders huddled together.
“That’s wonderful,” they said. “It follows, then, that we can now fund companies whose mission aligns with ours. With your ‘cash cow,’ you don’t need us. Thank you!”
And then they cut funding to the theatre company to zero.
The key to “sustainability” (which, as previously written, is not “survival”) is proof that your particular arts charity is achieving specific community goals.
Each social service and social justice charity measures its results toward the execution of their mission. Those results have a direct link to funding and community support. Your arts charity, then, must find results that apply specifically to your organization.
Charitable results cannot be measured by paid attendance or positive economic impact. Those are commercial results and byproducts — data used by sports teams to get cities to build them stadiums or by entertainment conglomerates to allow regions to let them build casinos.
So what makes your arts charity charitable? Answer that and you’re 99% there.
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.
Confusing the Messenger with the Message: Artistic Direction Fulfills the Arts Organization (Not Vice-Versa)
Being a great director has little to do with being a great artistic director.
Directors direct projects. Artistic directors use a collection of projects to fulfill a mission that serves a community. These are completely separate skills.
ADs who direct some projects for their own company risk treating those projects as precious. Too often, they break rules for their project (organizational mission, budget, marketing, etc.) that they would never allow an “outside” director to break.
And in too many cases, when the identity of a nonprofit arts organization is too closely entangled with the vision of an artistic director, the organization’s brand is that much more difficult to recuperate when inevitable leadership change occurs.
After all, succession is not merely an artistic director handpicking a successor, is it? A company is greater than any individual leader, right?
Calculate the hourly consulting rate of the people in the room (for example, 15 board members x $100/hour = $1,500/hour). At $1,500/hour, do you want to talk about the past or the future?
Board members, inside the meeting room…
- Never do what the last person in the conversation advocates. It’s a trick manipulative people do.
- Consensus is not unanimity; votes needn’t be unanimous. After the decision is made, however, everyone needs to back it.
- No devil’s advocates; take responsibility for your disagreement.
- Read the ED’s report beforehand. EDs: issue your report at least a week before the meeting.
- Your ED is not responsible for writing and executing your strategic plan. You are.
“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.
Oh, I can hear it now.
“See?” they’ll say. “People don’t care about outcomes when they make donations. The Washington Post said so. Ergo: we don’t need outcomes.”
To come to that conclusion is just whistling past the graveyard.
Remember these hard facts:
- The arts are not mentioned in section 501 (c) (3) of the US tax code (you know…the law). The arts fall under “charitable organizations,” which require a measure of public good.
- Using the arts as a cover for an individual’s vanity vision is fine, as long as it’s a commercial venture. Once you pull the taxpaying public into it, ethics demand an outcome.
- The arts can be transformative, both on a commercial and nonprofit level. What differentiates the nonprofit is that a measurement of positive change of the human condition is necessary to rationalize funding.
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.
There are an endless number of costly, effective CRM systems for the arts. One costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and it’s superb at what it does.
One might say, “It had better be.”
Before that expensive, expansive piece of software, there were others. Some great at some things, some at others.
Not one of these pieces of software ever raised a dime. People do that.
Not one of these pieces of software ever performed, exhibited, or created a compelling artistic experience. People do that.
Not one of these pieces of software ever governed, advocated, cajoled, or counseled. People do that.
Before CRMs that cost various ulnae, fibulae, and tibiae, there were inexpensive off-the-shelf database software solutions.
Before that, we did it all on paper.
Millions attended. Millions still do.
And the best relationships are still person-to-person.
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.
Stop Kibbitzing Your Nonprofit Arts Marketers — They’re the Experts at What They Do (And You’re Probably Not)
Jerry Yoshitomi wrote a brilliant article last October. And in learning and unlearning of audience development skills, all too often marketing people are brutally disrespected by the other areas of the organization. I’ve heard marketing departments referred to as “a necessary evil” dozens of times.
Compare the following sentences:
“Anyone can market your arts organization.”
“Anyone can market your arts organization SUCCESSFULLY.”
“Anyone can act, paint, sing, dance, sculpt, direct, and play the tuba.”
“Anyone can act, paint, sing, dance, sculpt, direct, and play the tuba SUCCESSFULLY.”
Don’t be caught in ancient thinking. Just because all consumers react to marketing doesn’t make them good marketers. Treat marketers as you would treat other artists, because that’s what they are. They are the best interpreters of your product to the public. Don’t stand between them and your organization’s success.
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?