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.”
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 email@example.com. 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.”
Just read this article from an artistic director who wonders whether artistic directors should be their organization’s leader, whether the model is archaic. Nonprofit performing arts organizations take note. The leader is the mission, not the AD.
Is your artistic director the custodian of your mission, passing that duty on to the next artistic director? Or does the legacy of the organization reside in the legacy of the AD? Is “artistic vision” really a thing, or is it theory? Wouldn’t it make more sense for an executive director with an artistic sensibility to curate the company’s impact?
Maybe your leader ought to be the company’s leader, not merely the artistic leader. With artistic personnel hired to support the mission (instead of supporting the artistic director), your institution will become far more flexible as tastes and impacts change.
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.
Artists and Non-Offensiveness: The Tyranny of Over-Sensitivity, Feelings, and Participation Trophies
There’s a troubling trend. There’s an absurd unwillingness to offend that seems pervasive among arts creators.
Not that creators are creating “Pleasant Art,” per se. Writers and artists are creating lots of work that is designed to make audiences uncomfortable. Which is good. The work may be about single issues and not terribly complex, but it’s good.
However, there are too many artists raised in atmospheres where everyone wins, even when they lose. In the name of inclusion and self-esteem, they live in a world where, like toddlers, “feeling bad” is simply unacceptable.
They believe they’re special.
To these artists:
- You are not special.
- You do not deserve success.
- Sometimes you lose.
It’s what you do with that information that defines you.
If you believe that nobody should ever have hurt feelings, you’re not doing your job.
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.
Nonprofit Arts Leaders: 137 Powerful Verbs for your Mission or Programs – Instead of Hyperbolic or Aspirational Adjectives. (Boring Headline, Yes?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Diversify the audience? Yes. Diversify the experience? Not so much.
Generally speaking, arts audiences are asked to follow privileged Euro-centric (often described as “old” and “white”) behaviors. There are long-standing limitations: no talking, no eating, no drinking, no touching. Sit. Watch. Listen. Clap.
There’s a strict sensibility about enjoyment – so much so, that when a theatre allows its patrons to bring in beverages, arguments ensue as though the end of civilization is nigh.
In any arts endeavor, the key is to invite participation, not ask others to follow your conventions as though they were the default.
The same holds true in the board room. “To change (something) so that it has more different kinds of people or things.” (Webster’s definition of “diversify”) denotes change in the “something,” not changing the people to assimilate to the “something.”
What I wanted to write:
“What’s your definition of non-diversity? Is it…
If so, then the following list might represent descriptions of who divert from your implication of what is normal:
Black. Yellow. Red. Brown.
Amputee. Physically handicapped.
Wheelchair. Cane. Crutch.
With service animal.
Diseased. Cleft Palate.
Dyed. Kinky-haired. Carved.
Tattooed. Branded. Freckled. Pimpled.
Toothless. Bandaged. Pierced.
Orthodontia. Glasses. Hearing aid.
Asymmetrical. Wrinkled. Ugly. Malodorous.
Muslim. Jew. Buddhist. Hindi.
Bi-polar. Depressed. Anxiety disorder.
Blind. Deaf. Mute.
Homosexual. Bisexual. Pansexual. Transgendered.
Therefore, in answer to your question…yes.”