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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?”
In the USA, we made up the phrase “freedom of expression.”
Constitutionally, the first amendment states that Congress can’t pass laws that, among other things, designate a national religion or abridge the freedom of speech or the press.
Often, these rights are lumped together and expanded to include artistic expression.
And political contributions.
But in an America where we have officially anthropomorphized businesses, can the arts be effective tools for positive change? Or simply a numbing agent against negative change?
Have retribution-fearing foundations and donors unwittingly turned nonprofit arts charities into a series of retribution-fearing crab buckets? With the exception of organizations that seek measurable impact using arts as a means (not an end), have we become participants in social malaise?
If so, send lawyers, guns, and money to get you out of this.
Paul Begala said, “Politics is show business for ugly people.”
The converse, that show business is politics for pretty people, is equally true.
Pretty (young) people enter nonprofit arts leadership believing that they should land a high-paying managing director’s job within 3 years. Ginormous student debt is predicated on that prospect.
Ugly (old) people, therefore, had better vamoose, and decrease the surplus population, to paraphrase C-Dick.
Pretty people panic at red ink. They leave. No experience or belief in failure.
Ugly people see an opportunity. They know when to duck and when to charge.
Consider for your next important hire:
- When hiring for “fit,” by definition, you’re hiring to appease. Don’t expect much change.
- When hiring for “innovation,” you’re hiring to anticipate obstacles. And only someone who has experienced obstacles (and carried on) knows how to do that.