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.”
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
“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.
Family dynamic: parent(s), children, siblings. Extended to include: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Further extended to include: spouse(s), in-laws, in-laws’ spouses. May include lifelong friends and, sometimes, pets.
Company dynamic (charity): trustees, leaders, directors, managers, administrators, jobbers, customers, targeted beneficiaries. Extended to include: co-leaders, benefactors, additional management layers, corporate partners, colleagues. Further extended to include: advisors, non-targeted beneficiaries and, sometimes, the government.
Family is not company. Company is not family.
Each seeks a “home.” Neither seeks dysfunction. Few achieve functionality. Both are worthy.
Family members often yearn to be companies with direction: clear and evenhanded parents, rebellious and aspiring children who just need additional experience, collaborative siblings.
Company members often yearn to be families with humanity: caring but autocratic leaders, ambitious managers, iconoclastic jobbers, entitled customers, and grateful beneficiaries.
Is it best to treat families and companies as unconnected?
Negatively Commenting on the Title of a Post (What You’re Reading Now) is Akin to PETA Boycotting “To Kill a Mockingbird” Because, You Know, They’re Killing a Mockingbird.
Recently, a foundation advocate negatively commented on the title of a 137 Words blog post. On the title, not the post.
As Ben Franklin once said, “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.”
Thank you for reading 137 Words and sharing it with your colleagues. We’re pretty amazed when 137 Words evokes derision, praise, or questions.
If you haven’t shared yet, please do – karma will be kind.
In 6 months, 137 Words has picked up about 6,000 readers. That exceeds all our expectations. We are truly grateful.
And to those like this advocate who only read the title and not the posting (what you’re reading now), I only wish bliss. Or, should I say, additional bliss.
Harsh? Maybe so. Because I am all too often a card-carrying member of the Right to Extreme Stupidity League.
I write this blog and read many others. I find that people responding to nifty list posts (6 Strategic Ways to Get the Best Board of Directors) are looking for shorthand answers to longhand questions. I understand the appeal; work is complex and speed is valued over thoughtfulness. But the awkward and obvious question is:
“Are there only 6 ways to get the best board? Or are these just the first 6 you thought of?”
Same goes with negative posts (How NOT to Have a Sucky Board of Directors). I’ve been guilty of this, usually after a recent bad experience. Sorry about that, because the obvious and awkward question is:
“There are a kerjillion ways to have a sucky board. Can’t you help me get a good one?”
I’ll try to be a better poster. And here are 137 ways how…
Executive Directors: How Do You Control Your Self-Righteous, Burnout-Induced Rage Because, Well, Nobody Knows the Trouble You’ve Seen and Nobody Knows Your Sorrow?
I read an earnest article about burnout and its inevitability for certain nonprofits. According to the article, everyone running a charity should watch for certain signs. Included: “chronic underfunding” (always stressful in any operation), “documentation demands” (spending extra hours issuing reports for funders who do not pay for the extra time/staff necessary to prepare that report), and more.
What to do about it? I’ve tried intense sarcasm, shouting at the top of my lungs, turning crimson, and bellowing the occasional Charlie Brown “AAUGH!” Those seemed like good ideas at the time, but proved to be exactly the opposite. Funny that.
The article recommends that funders provide additional funds for a) reports and for b) executive directors to take sabbaticals.
Wow. Sounds so simple when you put it that way, doesn’t it?
Wait, there’s that sarcasm again. AAUGH.
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.
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?