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.
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.
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.
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.
TK (The Kid) is 16 now. TK is alternately sullen and wild, certain and insecure, questioning and answering. TK wants. TK is desperate about lots of things. TK doesn’t wash dishes, brush teeth, or do homework without daily prompting. TK sometimes screams for attention, then hides under a hoodie when asked for results – like a final exam. And there are entitlement issues.
Very much like many TKs out there, so I’m told.
Arts charities are equally desperate. They want. They’re certain and insecure. Some beg for funding. Some mature and discover that the measurable positive impact they produce is what people want. They scream for attention, rail at the threats to the NEA, then hide under the “art is for art’s sake” hoodie when asked for results – like a grant application. And there are entitlement issues.
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.
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.
“XYX YXYXYXYX (WHO SERVES AS GENERAL DIRECTOR AND ARTISTIC DIRECTOR, CEO) AND XXX XXXXXXXX (WHO SERVES AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR – DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING) HAVE A FAMILY RELATIONSHIP”
Their two combined salaries (excluding payroll taxes) to total budget: 6.0%.
Their two salaries to all salaries: 12.7%
These two employees to all 406 employees: 0.5%
Ratio, these two employees’ salaries to all employees’ salaries: 25-1
Current year surplus/(deficit): ($3,239,641)
Are your decision-makers married or in some family relationship? For a for-profit company, that’s fine. Family businesses and for-profit nepotism are mostly fine.
But charities, owned by the community and answerable to its constituents, are not family businesses. And when they act irresponsibly, like the above arts organization, it’s a travesty that negatively affects the whole industry.
Because now we have to convince supporters that this won’t happen to their donation.
Arrogance, thy name is YXYXYXYX.
Charitable mission statements tell us what the world looks like as the charity succeeds.
When the mission is rendered moot, the charity is superfluous.
Outside the USA, arts nonprofits are suffering due to reductions in government subsidy. In the USA, however, subsidies are almost non-existent, save for the NEA, which supports with pennies, paper clips, and Cheerios from underneath the Congressional Budget couch cushions.
So the US turns to capitalistic support. Survival of the fittest.
I don’t know. Perhaps the NEA now only exists to exist, like the NRA, PTA, PBS, Catholic Church, or the United Way.
Because in a country where the wealthiest 1% own more than the least-wealthiest 90% and where 95% of monetary gains since 2009 went to the wealthiest 1% of the population, could it be that charities are now just quaint relics of a populist past?
Sadly, few people know “Profiles in Courage.” Ask around.
Among performing arts charities, some leaders shrewdly keep their positions because they fear appearing impolitic. They seek sustainability for themselves first, and then, secondarily, their organizations.
To them I implore:
- Pay performers wages, on the books, legal standard or better, for every hour they spend: rehearsals, performances, fittings, etc.
- If your charity isn’t making a substantial difference, merge or close. If it is, share your secrets.
- It’s about social progress, not black ink. Both are preferable, but you’ve failed if your best work is 30 years of balanced budgets.
- Take a stand. Don’t buy trouble, of course, but don’t become invisible to save your own skin.
- Theatres: plays aren’t written, they’re wrought. It’s about the production and the viewpoint, not the script and sets.
- Do something. Don’t be something.
I just read an article in the Chicago Tribune about actors receiving no payment for some performances. I’m not sure why it was written, except as acknowledgment that, well, actors receive no payment for some performances. Even for hit shows.
But why? “We can either pay you guys and not do a show — or not pay you and do a show,” said one producer in the article.
Here’s the thing: there are lots of performers. The competition forces them to undervalue themselves.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s ethical not to pay them. At least minimum wage. For rehearsal and performance time.
If that producer decides not to make money on a project, that’s his prerogative. But no pay to performers is abusive, unless he’s offering 40 acres and a mule after the run of the show.
I’ve tortured people in the group interview process. I thought I was offering consensus. Buy-in. Group drive.
I was wrong.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Oh, so wrong.
To everyone I’ve ever put through that, on either side of the table, I apologize. I’ll never do it again. Promise.
There are four decisions: autocratic (I say), consultative (I say with your input), democratic (we vote, losers weep), consensus (we vote and everyone backs the decision).
As practiced, the group interview might have evolved into a method for managers to abdicate responsibility in the name of consensus. While consensus is ideal, the group-think process can too often be dominated by a crank in the corner with issues, motives, and insecurities. And, possibly, an unknown agenda.
Group-think promises consensus but can preclude innovation.
And why would you ever choose to preclude innovation?
Women’s issues are not about women. Race issues are not about people of color.
And when Mars attacks Oklahoma, the issues will not be about Oklahoma.
I visited a domestic abuse nonprofit. They do great work, but are ghettoized by donors as a “women’s issue” charity. The executive director wondered how they might be able to globalize the cause (and increase revenues).
“Domestic abuse is a societal problem,” she complained. “And I worry that without some men providing disinterested advocacy, we’ll only attract women donors.”
But every time she interviewed qualified men for marketing or development positions (and they’d graduate to a final 10-on-1 group interview), the staff and board balked. “Just not a good fit,” they’d euphemize. And they’d recommend another qualified woman.
Is your charity’s issue exclusively yours? If not, how are you communicating that?
You don’t have to be Alan Turing to break the HR “can’t-ask-how-old-you-are” code:
“How is your energy level?” = “Are you a geezer?”
…Correct response: “I run 26 marathons daily.”
“What were you doing before 2001?” = “What were you doing before I turned 10?”
…Correct response: “I’m 35 years old with 30 years’ experience.”
“When did you graduate college?” = “I’m checking my arithmetic to determine your age.”
…Correct response: “When I was 22.”
“How flexible are you?” = “Is your mind as ossified as a petrified fossil?”
…Correct response: “I’m currently holding the phone with my pinkie toe while simultaneously writing Iraq’s new constitution.”
Seriously, though, hiring managers: according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers 45–64 stayed twice as long as those 25–34 — so those under 40 are a much higher risk of leaving you high and dry.
So stop it.
What I want:
An arts charity that makes my community better.
Value to the community:
Safety. Knowledge. Personal Power. Issue solutions.
Provocation. Entertainment. Populism. Progressiveness. Mischief.
Educational residencies in both art and topic.
Every other charity, educational institution, or NGO with similar values.
50-50 split on revenues with partners. Partners open their mailing lists to help themselves financially through ticket sales.
The measured outcomes of the partners. Quantity of classes, students, and schools participating.
Populist results defeat the arts’ elitist reputation. The needs of the charities are filled.
Enough so that all artists receive at least $15/hour (in 2014 dollars) and no full-time hourly rate is more than 4x anyone else’s.
Arts moves people to action. Thorny issues seen can never be unseen. Life is better.
I was going to write about all the charities to which Donald Sterling donated.
I was going to ask if the standards of the organization should stand up against the horror of the donor.
After all, UCLA gave back $3 million of Sterling’s money.
Then I was going to ask about donations from companies that peddle “evil” – tobacco, liquor, oil, etc.
But then I thought about individual donors’ morals. Not just unethical oligarchs like Henry Ford, Rupert Murdoch, John D. MacArthur, or even Sterling. What about all the philanthropists whose fortunes were built on a million broken backs? Or a few? Or one? And I thought about my experiences with morally corrupt donors.
How to play:
Players select their tokens to start play. Each token designates their role in nonprofit art.
Marionette: Performing Artists/Designers
Blob of Clay: Writers/Composers/Visual Artists
Pawn: All technical/administrative/volunteer personnel (one token represents all)
Change Purse: Audience
Louis Vuitton Pocketbook: Donor/Funder
Fake Louis Vuitton Pocketbook: Development Director
Bent nail: Managing/Executive Director
Telescope looking up: Artistic Director/Curator
Microscope looking down: General Manager/CFO
Bloody leech: Critic/Journalist
Sorry: designated tokens for marketing/pr directors were deleted in the last budget cycle.
All players spin the Great Glass Wheel Of Art simultaneously in all directions and yell, “I Wanna!” The Wheel comes off its bearings; breaks into millions of pieces. Players move tokens anyplace in the room that feels most advantageous, regardless of the playing board or other players.
End of game:
Chaos. All players proclaim victory. None actually win.
Nonprofit Arts Organizations – Are you aware that the other parts of the sector believe that you’re stealing money?
In most nonprofits, a donor gives and someone else benefits. Food banks solve hunger, which promotes family stability, which stimulates re-entry into society for the impoverished. Environmental nonprofits encourage clean air and water, which promotes health, which supports longer, happier lives for everyone. Many religious organizations sponsor high morals (“Do unto others…”), which provides a sense of community, which fosters a safety net.
In the arts, the donor and the recipient are often the same person. The donor gives to a company, the company produces a performance or exhibit, and the donor/recipient enjoys the event. The arts are seen by many as elitist and unworthy of support.
We in the arts have to recognize that there is an enmity-laden relationship between arts nonprofits and all the other charities.
And then we have to do something about it.
Employees are your biggest asset as an organization. Nonprofit employees hold greater importance. Relationship-building through positive, passionate human interaction are better portents to success than technological advances.
And yet, too often the hiring process – especially in communities seeking “consensus” or “fairness” – has devolved into “Interviews in Zombieland.”
“Consensus” is not unanimity. “Fairness” is irrelevant when you’re seeking great people.
The group interview is quickly disintegrating. Every person takes turns reading pre-designed, pre-printed questions in the dullest drones imaginable. Your staff turns into a cast of Zombies in a badly-written, badly-acted play, and everyone uses the same dull inflection to every candidate.
And then, invariably, zombie staff members complain about the candidates’ dullness.
Nonprofit leaders: is your hiring process as undead as your results? And are zombie interviews the best way to show off your organization?
I have a friend. Her name isn’t Penny. And no, it’s not me.
Penny ran a nonprofit. In fact, she has run a few, all successfully. She’s good at what she does. She has been responsible for a lot of success.
A single judgment error cost Penny her job. She didn’t, she didn’t kill anyone, nor did she have any negative board issues. She fell in love with a man who fell in love with her. Unfortunately, he worked for her. And the story made Page One.
Penny and Lincoln have been together for years. No wrongdoing was ever found, and, in fact, the organization exonerated her and paid her a healthy settlement. That made Page Thirty-Seven.
Penny hasn’t worked in years. Search firms steer clear. Search engines find front page news, not page Thirty-Seven news.