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.
There are an endless number of costly, effective CRM systems for the arts. One costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and it’s superb at what it does.
One might say, “It had better be.”
Before that expensive, expansive piece of software, there were others. Some great at some things, some at others.
Not one of these pieces of software ever raised a dime. People do that.
Not one of these pieces of software ever performed, exhibited, or created a compelling artistic experience. People do that.
Not one of these pieces of software ever governed, advocated, cajoled, or counseled. People do that.
Before CRMs that cost various ulnae, fibulae, and tibiae, there were inexpensive off-the-shelf database software solutions.
Before that, we did it all on paper.
Millions attended. Millions still do.
And the best relationships are still person-to-person.
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.
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.
Omnibus Festa, Omni Tempore: Raising Money to Spend on the People Who are Raising Money to Spend on the People Who are Raising Money to Spend on the People Who are Raising Money…, etc.
The 1980s and 1990s were the golden years of galas for arts charities. Mostly because there were fewer of them. But also because high percentages of the money actually went to the organization.
Today, putting on massive galas to feed donors – netting scant revenue to the charity but plenty of “goodwill,” “friend-raising” and resume padding – are often construed as elitist, inefficient modes of raising income.
One annual gala, or perhaps groups of organizations sharing a larger gala and splitting the receipts, might thin out the calendar and make them more financially effective. Hundreds of hours of employee and trustee resources might well be better spent on relationship-building, not napkin swans..
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.
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.
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?”
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.
Artistic events evolve. The elements may be eons old, but the results continue to change. With the squeeze of a contraption, like Play-Doh® in a Fun Factory, necessarily comes a different product. Different from the time before. Different from the next time.
This is a job for Marketman©, a copyrighted portion of this publication. Marketman© (not necessarily male) is your company’s Sea Gal/Jay Carney/Don Draper/Rob Petrie. Marketman© is charged with the task of launching a product to market, eliminating it, subsequently launching a new product.
Marketman© sells art, not tickets. There is no lasting inventory, like month-old sodas on the shelf, when the new product is introduced.
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.
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.
Have You Heard? I’m a “Bomb-Throwing Provocateur!” Who’d Have Thought an Artist Could be One of Those?
A few posts ago, we talked about the enmity brewing between the arts charities and the rest of the charity sector. That many US arts charities concentrate on the quality of their art while the rest of the sector concentrates on outcomes. That arts charities are pretty much the only part of the charity sector in which the donor also uses the charity, exacerbating the arts’ reputation as being elitist.
Responses were 50-50. Those that agreed tended to come from arts marketers and fundraisers while the rest came from artistic directors and producers. Break it up…nothing to infer here.
Funniest comment was from a 36-year arts veteran decrying elitism; it’s part of the title here. She could have said, “You’re an asshole.” Or “jerk.” Or just plain “wrong.”
I might be all those things. After all, I’m an artist.
Good board members:
- aren’t ambassadors. Ambassadors wait for people to come to them. They’re zealots. They zealously get donations and zealously get new board members.
- don’t try to get. They work together and with staff and they get.
- personally donate among their three largest monetary donations that year. Not from their company…from them.
- are forensic analysts, (not governors). Remember, the bottom line is “Are we living our mission? Is the mission working?” They see to it that it does, regardless of the financials.
- insist that board meetings are too important to be reporting vehicles. Productive monthly board meetings can be like having twelve mini-retreats.
Think of it this way: if each board member’s consulting rate is $100/hour and your charity has 20 board members, do you want to spend $2,000/hour talking about the past or the future?
For Arts Charities, Everything Powerful Stems from a Great Mission…Including a Great Mission Statement
Many arts organizations craft mission statements that promote activities, art, and excellence. Unfortunately, those things are irrelevant.
“[Theater] presents engaging dramatic work that celebrates the intimate relationship among artist, audience and language.”
That’s not a mission statement. No surprise: that theater died.
A mission is the unspeakable acme of a societal obligation. A mission statement expresses that mission, the product of an organizational manifesto, as best it can.
“[Company’s] mission is to create theatre so strikingly original in form, content or both, that it instills in young people an enduring awe, love and respect for the medium, thus preserving imagination and wonder, those hallmarks of childhood which are the keys to the future.”
See the difference? This mission statement discusses the mission’s impact – “preserving imagination and wonder” – as a crucial need. That’s a supportable argument.
Nonprofit Management Counter-Intuition 2 — “Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater” Might Be a Better Risk than Listening to the Sirens
There is a Siren-like fatal lure to “almost there” for some charity leaders.
Let’s say that despite success in other programs, a few of the more ambitious risk-reward programs are flailing. The Sirens entice you to put more time, more effort, more personnel, and more money into the flailing programs.
When you explain to them that by moving time, personal, and financial resources away from the programs that are working into the programs that are not, the company risks the success of the working programs, the Sirens entice you to do it anyway.
Sirens are evil.
Why not take this opportunity to refresh your organization’s ambitions, goals, and programs? The smart move might be to throw all the programs out (at least on paper) and build a new list of activities that support the mission from scratch.