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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After reading this article by Melissa Chadburn, I thought hard about my own resilience. I’ve put myself through hell over the last 5 years. But I find it weird when friends and (especially) relatives call me “resilient.”
As opposed to what? Suicidal? That’s the bar?
But it makes other people feel better. Like the cigarette-smoking, coffee-drinking people in the article, resilience does nothing for me.
In nonprofits, especially arts organizations, resilience is incorrectly measured by survival, not by impact. Longtime organizational survival is not proof of quantifiable impact. It’s like seeing the biggest pumpkin or smallest sneaker. If the pie is lousy and the shoe doesn’t fit, the rest of it doesn’t matter.
I once went to a restaurant advertised as the “oldest Chinese restaurant” in town. The food was horrible.
Resilience is not the goal; impact is.
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.