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.”
Self-Absorbed Executive Search Firms: You’re Lovely, You’re Talented, You’re Dreamy. But Tact is Not Among Your Strengths.
On behalf of all candidates, to executive search firms:
“Thank you so much for your 3 [hour-long] phone interviews. I presented 8 tremendously qualified candidates to the client and unfortunately, you were not selected. But your loss is [company’s] gain. I’ll keep your info on file and contact you if something comes up.”
We may like you, but it’s not why we applied to that job you’re representing. Your client’s happiness with you means nothing to us.
One hour would have been plenty, not three.
A simple “no, thanks” is more palatable than “didn’t I do a good job?”
Please don’t insult us with passive-aggressive jibber-jabber – we know you’re not going to contact us unless we apply to another client of yours.
And please don’t tell us about other candidates. If we’re not among them, we really don’t care.
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.
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?
“But We Saved So Much!” – In Professional Nonprofit Theatre Finances and Structure, False Economies Abound
- Eight-performance weeks realize the greatest potential.
- Adding performances only adds increasingly unpopular time slots.
- Artistic Directors should direct half the season.
- For half a season, you have no artistic director, but still you have art. So why have an AD?
- More seats equals higher potential.
- “The difference between 600 seats and 800 seats is 200 lousy seats.” (Eddie Gilbert)
- We mailed 50,000 year-end appeals to increase contributed income.
- Mailings don’t bring in donations. Relationship building does. Disciplined mission fulfillment does.
- 100% of our board gives.
- They’d better, but wouldn’t you rather get thousands to give because of your company’s indispensability?
- We pay performers a stipend or not at all.
- Professional theatre companies pay everyone a real on-the-books wage. Local performers are great ambassadors for your company. The positive financial ROI in local artists is greater than any gala (and it’s ethical, too).
Does long-term planning cause a rift between your artistic director and those other people?
Does it cause discord between your board chair and those other people?
Seen all the time among arts charities: carefully (and successfully) executed annual development plans reduced to rubble after the board institutes a high-priced capital campaign. The capital campaign sucks up all in its path, causing 5 years of stakeholder repair. Indispensable Chair happy. Staff leaves.
Artistic directors substituting their taste for vision and their personal and professional relationships for core values. Idiosyncrasy obviates mission. Indispensable AD happy. Board leaves.
Both cases: company imperiled, stakeholders leaving.
Time to create an action plan, written at a 5th grade level. Make it about impact rather than income. Test the theory that your arts nonprofit is indispensable. Make sure that your most important stakeholders don’t leave.
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.
There’s a saying that every weapon that’s been invented has been used. Or will be.
Similarly, every technological advance of the last 30 years has been used. Or will be.
More avenues of communication. More personalized offers. More database data. More news. More marketing. More music. More art. More words.
Not “better.” “More.”
This is not code for “I’m old and yearn for a simpler time.” I’m not and I don’t. What I yearn for is a better time.
Regardless of how many ways key information is dispersed, some folks just don’t consume it. And that’s on you.
I should know. You may be engaging with this post (and thank you), but others who could, don’t. And that’s on me.
A blown basketball pass is the passer’s fault. But a bad pass isn’t solved with throwing more basketballs.
Anxious about hiring someone whose last position was at a higher level or payscale – or may be older or have more seniority in the organization than you do?
Do yourself a favor. Read one of any number of articles (hint: each of the last 6 words links to an article) about why you should have conversations with a purportedly “overqualified” someone who wants to work with you.
Or do nothing – in other words, hire an untested someone you believe is cookie-cutter copy of the person who’s gone (hint: they’re not).
It’s all in the process: instead of asking a roster of predetermined questions (that’s easy, simplistic, and unenlightened), have an unscripted conversation. You’ll learn more about the candidate, yourself, and your shared goals.
If you’re smart, you’ll hire that “overqualified” person. They’ll make you look fantastic.
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.
Inevitably, there are moments where analysis disconnects with sentiment. You plan by yourself and generate work for your staff. Your staff objects. You have misread the room and caused great resentment. They think you’re a nut.
You’re in a big job interview. The interviewers say they want to “have a conversation,” but instead read from a pre-chosen list of questions. You try to converse. They bridle, citing “fairness.”
Your meetings with the board leave you rolling your eyes…and leave them rolling their eyes as well. You think they don’t understand the problem. They’re sure you don’t.
When you lead by pronouncement rather than by consensus; when you define interviews as interrogations; when you perceive meetings with superiors as continual performance evaluations – these are your issues, not theirs. That anxious sweat on your neck is on you.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.