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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
“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.
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.
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.
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?”
If Educational Attainment is the Most Valuable Predictor of Arts Attendance, Can the Arts Become a Magnet for a More Highly-Educated Populace?
Of the 25 most populous metropolitan areas (not limited to the city limits), only 15 surpass that percentage by more than 1%.
They are (in order of percentage, high-low):
- Oakland-San Francisco
- New York
- San Diego
- St. Louis
Coincidentally, every one of these cities exceeds the mean in inter-city US migration (moving from one US city to another).
When you eliminate people who have attended school-based arts performances and exhibitions in which they have a significantly personal connection to the art (a child, a neighbor, etc.), fewer than 50% of Americans have paid to experience the arts.
Does that mean that we give up on the arts in other metropolitan areas? Or might the arts serve as an attractor for highly-educated migrants?
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.”
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.
“I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.”
Painter sculptor carver glassblower metal-artist potter actor set-designer lighting-designer costume-designer sound-designer playwright director choreographer jazz-dancer ballet-dancer modern-dancer opera-singer jazz-singer classical-singer musical-comedy-singer performance-artist rock-singer rock-musician classical-musician poet novelist ballroom-dancer hip-hop-dancer hip-hop-singer beat-boxer aerialist cinematographer folk-dancer native-dancer folk-singer Latin-dancer swing-dancer belly-dancer tap-dancer clog-dancer sketch-artist screenwriter clown mime country-singer storyteller improviser busker magician juggler composer lyricist ethnically-specific-singer ethnically-specific-dancer ethnically-specific-visual-artist
Apologies to those I neglected.
Art breathes life into our lives. Art offers us the only thing on the planet that has the capacity to make us better – hope. Even existentialism compels us to rebel… and hope nonetheless.
Unfortunately, hope is not a measurable outcome.
We must find it within our best selves to find a system to fund individual artists separate and apart from arts organizations. Not instead of, but in addition to. We deserve to hope for better.
From ArtsFund, Seattle:
“Together the activity of nonprofit arts organizations [in our region]…generates close to $2 billion in the Central Puget Sound’s economy creating 32,520 jobs, $882 million in labor income and $83 million in taxes.”
From Viking Stadium (new NFL stadium), Minneapolis:
“Construction will support approximately 13,000 jobs…almost $300 million in wages…upon completion, 3,400 full and part-time jobs…the economic activity from a new stadium will generate over $26 million per year in tax revenue and over $145 million in direct spending by Vikings fans inside the State of Minnesota.”
“McDonald’s provides tax revenue for local, state and national governments…$1.3 billion in United States national and state corporate taxes in 2011…McDonald’s spends hundreds of millions upgrading or building new locations.”
Let’s move on to quantifying our outcomes before we bury ourselves with more “economic impact” studies. It’s just not a winning argument for the arts.
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.
Oh, those shoddy, “industry standard” hiring practices. They’re still here.
1) Communicate quickly, at least twice.
- We got your resume.
- Thanks for your interest, but you are not being considered (within a week of close).
2) When you’ve interviewed someone, call them (no email) within a week.
- Thanks for your interest, but you are no longer being considered.
- We’re still interviewing people. I’ll call you on [date range].
3) When you’ve interviewed someone more than once and have hired someone else, call them (no email) immediately.
- Thanks for your interest, but we’ve chosen someone else.
- …send communications stating who you’ve hired (salt, meet wound)
- …let them know they were in the final cut (see above)
- …say you’ll be in touch and then disappear.
- …be rude.
- …assume job-seekers are psychics.
I was an energetic, charismatic, visionary leader.
I worked at least 60 hours a week.
The office is by turns chaotic and paralyzed.
Some are crying.
Some are ecstatic.
Outside the charity, most don’t care.
Not their problem.
Trustees are panicking. Staff members are traumatized.
Some are taking charge, Alexander Haig-style.
Others are forming committees to decide what to decide.
Still others are composing resignations.
Reporter on line 1.
I knew every board and staff member.
And their families.
I knew every major donor.
I knew local foundation leaders.
Benefactors on line 2.
Beneficiaries on line 3.
I knew financials.
I knew history.
I had passwords.
Vendors on line 4.
I knew where everything was.
I shared that information.
But that was 5 years ago.
To employees who are no longer here.
Too bad there wasn’t a written succession policy.
Not my problem.
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.
Executive Director Jack resigns.
Jack leads the committee to replace himself. The committee selects Jill.
Jill is not Jack.
Jill discovers too late that she been enlisted to follow Jack’s path rather than set her own.
After a year, not only is Jill unhappy, but trustees and employees resign.
After a second year, Jill resigns. Or is fired.
The reeling company hires Fred – who is neither Jack nor Jill.
Uneasy lies the head that breaks a crown.
Succession planning needn’t require permanence. It might be best to hire an interim leader from outside the organization (not a board member) while the permanent search is carefully executed.
Every organizational leader’s legacy ends the day the leader leaves. Which means it is never a good idea to have the outgoing director have a say on a permanent successor.
Personality, Talent, Intellect, Experience, Spirit, Passion, and the Ability to Inspire. Good Qualities for You but Intimidating as Hell to Insecure Leaders
I have a friend (not me) who is a sensational grant writer. She’s brilliant (Ivy League educated), inspirational (magnetic personality), talented (great references), and people genuinely like her.
She’s also ethical, sensible, positive, quite attractive, and a snappy dresser.
And without a job.
Lately, when she meets with prospective employers, they are impressed by her prowess, references, and samples. Sadly, they don’t hire her. It’s plausible that insecure bosses-to-be fear she is more impressive than they are and look elsewhere.
Look, if you’re in greater Seattle and need a hell of a grant writer for a full-time gig, contact me and I’ll forward your info to her. But if you’re unstable enough just to want someone inferior to you (even if your grants are being denied) because “anyone can write a grant,” then you deserve your results.