Successful Nonprofit Arts Organizations, Like Successful Buildings, Depend on Successful Hierarchies
Bricklayers. Carpenters. Stagehands. Electricians. Actors. Musicians. Painters. Singers. Writers.
Easy to find hacks. Difficult to find experts. Project-based.
Foremen. Department heads. Designers. Curators. Musical directors.
Small universe of successful ones. More skills required. Still project-based. Work toward a larger goal than Level One, namely a finished piece. Excellent collaboration skills.
Smaller universe still. Hire and manage Level One and Two (no requirement to perform at their skill level). Work toward a slightly larger picture, although still project based.
Architects. Executive/Artistic/General/Producing Directors.
Scarce universe of specialists. Determine “what.” Hire Level Three – several Level Threes, in fact. Understand projects, themes, and cohesion.
Tiny, zealous universe. Hire Level Four. Determine “how.” Has personal stake.
The Community. The Mission.
Top of the hierarchy. Determines “why.”
Artists produce work from their creative souls, nurtured by a series of cultural, environmental, and psychological motivations. They create “a hat,” as Stephen Sondheim once wrote, “where there never was a hat.” Talented artists create from their current state of mind, without boundary.
Craftspeople produce work to fill a need. They possess a series of cultural, environmental, and psychological motivations which channel into art that produces a desired impact. Craftspeople create hats because they’re the best answer to a question.
All craftspeople are artists at their core. Many artists have no capacity to become craftspeople.
Nonprofit arts organizations require craftspeople. If the organization is more important than any artist, and the mission is more important than the organization, then employees on the organizational chart need to be, by definition, craftspeople divining an impact, not artists divining inspiration.
Feedback from You (yes, you): 9 Words That Describe the Nonprofit Arts Issues That Are Placing You at the End of Your Rope
This blog, as most are, is pretty much one-way. I share experiences, advice, consultation, and observations; you read ’em. I can discuss 1,000 issues that affect nonprofit arts organizations.
But that’s me.
What keeps you up at night?
What concrete issue (not just “there’s no funding for…”) is fraying your rope? Or better, what issues are figuratively tying a noose around the end of your rope?
Here’s your assignment. In 9 words (no more, no less), write that issue and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s it. Beginning in August, we’ll periodically take each issue and I’ll give my take. Then we’ll open up the discussion to everyone who reads 137 Words. Let me know if you’d like your name in or if you’d like to be anonymous. And if you’d like my help privately, let me know that, too.
The American Dream is built on dependence (Independence Day and elections notwithstanding).
The USA is Blanche DuBois and the “kindness of strangers.” We’re Willy Loman. We’re Fanfare for the Common Man. Revelations. Hamilton. Smoke Signals. Angels in America. Our successes depend and are dependent on the joy, madness, and desires of others.
The monarchy doesn’t choose our art; we do.
American art depends not on individual brilliance, even though there are brilliant individuals. Our best art provides impact.
Mavericks provide almost no impact. Collaborations do.
Patrons deign to “provide for.” Supporters want to “identify with.”
True, there are Americans that call themselves mavericks and patrons. Some folks prefer their terminology shrouded in cobwebs.
But for the rest of us, we know what we are. Even better, we know why. Our best arts nonprofits reflect “We, the People.”
On September 12, 2001, we issued an internal memo at our nonprofit arts organization. We proffered the notion that standing by our programming and “moving forward” was the best way to fight back.
We were wrong. Putting on blinkers never helps.
On June 12, 2016, after one attack in Orlando and a foiled one in Santa Monica – key nonprofit arts organizations are right now readying memos rationalizing the same advice.
Move forward. That’ll show ‘em.
At what tipping point do we scrap activities to reflect the damage inflicted on people? Why must we wait for a year to see the first artistic responses? Why not now? Why worry about the production quality of said response? As nonprofits, when do we sacrifice our comfort zone to provide leadership to our communities for some resolution?
Or should we just move forward? Yet again?
Transformational Persuasion: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Why It Matters – Especially When You’re Running an Arts Organization
Muhammad Ali died last week. A quote from a Zairian in “When We Were Kings.”
“George Foreman? We had heard he was a world champion.
We thought he was white, then we realized he was black, like Ali….
Ali said [about Foreman], you’re the out-of-towner here.”
Nonprofit leaders that manage organizations, programs, and people well can be quite successful. But not transformational. Transformational leaders effortlessly persuade with passion about the mission, not the statistics. Their material requires no script, just practice to remove the “ums” and “uhs.”
Trump, for example, vigorously (and effortlessly) transforms experienced opponents into “out-of-towners.” Clinton relies on effective policy, experience, and “being right.”
Passion KOs policy every time. Ask George Foreman.
Doesn’t your arts organization’s constituency deserve the most transformative experience you can offer? Or do you settle for production excellence and competence?
Nonprofit Arts Board Members, Executive Directors, and Staffs: Has Your Board Been Assimilated? Have You?
Board membership for a nonprofit arts organization is a privilege. It requires commitment of time and money. It requires the urge to change things for the better.
It’s not for self-aggrandizement. It is not about being thanked endlessly. It’s not about banquets, galas, and being fed.
It’s a job.
Group thinking can be inspirational, but “groupthink” can poison your organization’s health. When your board only votes unanimously, for example, or the newly-approved mission is just reverse-engineered to current activities and reduced to pabulum, you may no longer have a board. You may instead have a Borg.
Borg members wait for orders. They don’t debate. Resistance is futile.
The Borg is powerful. Borg Presidents lead by autocracy. Borg Queens (often founders) drive staff away by insisting the organization’s activities revolve around them. Borg Drones atrophy.
Board or Borg?
Special 2016 “Alan Harrison’s Birthday” Edition: Pack Up the Babies and Grab the Old Ladies – And an Easy-To-Fulfill Wish List
I was born on May 14. Conceived on a hot August night. Neil Diamond would’ve been proud. He was old enough to have a kid then, so…who knows? Brother Love? Are you my papa?
From him, I want flowers.
From you, I want (this is your cue):
- A 137-word card. ( <–Yes, that’s a link.)
- Share your favorite 137 Words post with your social network (that’s “share,” not “like”).
- To join a great company with a great mission. In Seattle.
- Health for The Kid.
- Guidance for The Kid.
- The love of my life to be happy, fulfilled, and curious. You know who you are.
- The ability for you to guide your favorite nonprofit to safety, security, and success.
- Brilliantly measurable missions, better than you believe you’re capable of.
- Complete, successful execution of those brilliant new missions.
- Pie, not cake.
What’s the biggest societal issue in your personal world?
Americans in April named their list. What’s yours?
Economy, racial injustice, government dissatisfaction, immigration, terrorism. Unsolvable as big issues. Possibly solvable as small ones.
Hunger in your neighborhood? Support the food bank. Find ways for it to thrive so that many can survive without resorting to lawlessness.
Specific racial and income injustice in your town? Support the agencies that convene and expose the problems to the light. Find ways to gather people together who might never otherwise come together – and de-mythologize the stereotypes of the bad [ethnics – fill in your own blank] or the bad [other ethnics] or the bad [government officials], etc.
And do it using your art as a tool.
You now have step A and step Z. Just fill in steps B through Y.
Nonprofit Arts Executives: After the Ask (for anything, actually), It’s Fast “Yes,” Slow “No”… Try a Slow “Yes” Instead
If you don’t hear right away, it’s probably “no.”
That goes for asks, offers, hiring, and anything else you require.
And that goes for you, too, when your stakeholders ask, offer, hire, and anything else they may require.
Reflection is the predictable path toward rationalization to the “no.” This is why the phrase “upon reflection” is almost always followed by a version of “we’ve decided not to change.” After all, as a rule, it’s easier not to change than to take a risk.
Many arts charity executives preach the glory of “managed risk” (an oxymoron, of sorts) and value fiscal responsibility above social impact. To be clear, social impact is central to the success of the mission; fiscal responsibility is a valuable business practice.
If “yes” leads to greater impact, then stop saying “no”… especially upon reflection.
Arts Organizations: 137th Post, 137 Thanks, and 137 (of Other People’s) Words That Guide Inspiring Leaders
“We must reject the idea — well-intentioned, but dead wrong – that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become “more like a business.” Most businesses…fall somewhere between mediocre and good.” (Collins)
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” (Thoreau)
“People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.” (Sinek)
“When they say things like, we’re going to do this by the book, you have to ask, what book? Because it would make a big difference if it was Dostoevsky or, you know, ‘Ivanhoe.'” (Anderson)
“‘To be is to do.’ (Socrates) ‘To do is to be.’ (Sartre) ‘Do be do be do.’ (Sinatra)” [Vonnegut compilation]
Arts Boards: What to do When Your Arts Leader(s) No Longer Know the Difference Between Boredom and Discipline
Your theater produced a hit. Tickets sold out for days. Extended as far as you could.
Do it again next year?
No. Your outward-facing mission execution is more important than the sales of any one play. Gauge this particular play and its impact. If it’s a fit (not just a hit), consider rescheduling the next production and run this play until its inevitable end. Then close it forever.
If all your plays are mission-driven, every experience is predictable in its impact. That’s called discipline, and it’s what makes arts organizations successful.
Too many artistic directors choose to produce vanity events instead. That’s called boredom, and board chairs have to act on that kind of crisis in leadership.
Coke may make many products, but they still make Coke. Remember what happened when they got bored with Coke’s taste?
Arts organizations challenge, reflect, and engage. They don’t solve.
And remember, race is only one small bit of cultural diversity, not all of them. Just as the opposite of love isn’t “hate,” but “indifference;” the opposite of diverse isn’t “white,” but “homogeneous.”
I read a political blog recently about the Democratic Party presidential race. What troubled me were these words:
“What I’m crossing my fingers for is that in ten years or so we’ll get… a young,
charismatic democratic socialist who runs for president. (Preferably this
candidate would be a woman or a non-white person or, ideally, both.)”
Isn’t that parenthetical statement just as intolerant as one where “not” had been inserted after “would?”
Diversity isn’t only about race or gender or any of myriad other categories. It’s about power, shared equally, with specific impact.
Ils pétent plus haut que leur cul. Marketing Intellectual Pursuits to an Anti-Intellectual Public, Right-Cheer In These You-Nited States of Murrica
In the arts, we want to attract more people. Or do we just want more us?
We’re asked to produce vision, impact, and engagement. We embrace entertainment, but only if it’s at a 120+ IQ level. Even abject silliness on stage is only acceptable if it’s “smart.”
When another company produces an RSC script, they almost apologize in their marketing:
RSC: “it’s not the length of your history that matters – it’s what you’ve done with it!”
Other: “Between the rampant nationalism and the recent election, we think it more vital than ever for us to show we’re capable of laughing at ourselves. It, too, is part of the healing.”
Populism in the arts is an open path to success. Risk being fucking funny, not drolly meaningful.
Face-palms in the arts world: Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright; the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light
- A managing director is face-palming because the budget draft is still a departmental wish list;
- A marketing director is face-palming because the artistic director decided that he knew more about marketing than the marketing director;
- A development director is face-palming because the board chair has fashioned a multi-million dollar “capital” campaign (actually, a “get-out-of-debt” campaign) with no feasibility study, no regard to the annual development campaign, and no accountability to anyone else;
- An artistic director is face-palming because the plays she wants to do don’t jibe with the mission of the company;
- A board member is face-palming because every meeting is about reporting, money, by-laws, and the gala;
And somewhere, performing arts audiences and constituents are collectively face-palming, hoping against hope that the arts folks in their region remember that for them, it’s about the art.
The following phrase should be banished, at least in nonprofit arts organizations: “Taking Our Organization to the Next Level.” To be blunt, it’s an empty goal, often undefined and misleading, and let’s face it, profoundly stupid.
Consider asking the next person who uses it, “Why would you?”
Then ask, “Are you planning on changing the way you do business?” Then ask for a definition of “next level.” Then ask what has kept the organization from achieving that already.
Are they rationalizing a way to do what they’ve always done, only harder, and somehow experiencing growth?
Growth is usually defined as increased depth or breadth (rarely both). Forcefully choose goals with great specificity. Make your choice obvious; don’t aim for subtlety.
When troubled potential constituents notice no change, they will offer no path to growth.
Why would they?
Nonprofit Arts Leaders: 137 Powerful Verbs for your Mission or Programs – Instead of Hyperbolic or Aspirational Adjectives. (Boring Headline, Yes?)
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.
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?
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?