Arts Organizations: Reverse Engineering a Mission is Like Hiring a CEO Based on the Ability to Fit in the Chair
You may be asking yourself, “Why are there so many 137 Words posts about ‘mission?’ We put on [plays/operas/concerts/exhibitions/ballets] and THAT’S our mission. Art is enough. Case closed.”
Ignorance and arrogance – back together again.
Is art enough? Enough for what? Enough of what? Is there a societal need for art? Assuming there is, is there a societal need for your art?
Here’s the deal: a nonprofit has no human owner. Not the CEO, ED, MD, AD, Curator, President, or even the Board of Directors. An identified societal need is at the center of the nonprofit’s identity. The mission – the compelling combination of values, purpose, goals, and vision whose sole commitment is to fill that societal need – is the owner. An unrelenting, benevolent boss who defines productivity as eliminating that which is unnecessary to the completion of the mission.
Organizational Health Can Be Measured by the Number of Donors Who Don’t Have to Give to Your Arts Organization
How many non-board (or non-ex-board) members give to your arts organization?
How many non-staff members?
How many non-parents (if you do activities that include children)?
How many people who don’t attend your gala or other special event?
How many people who refuse donor benefits?
In other words, how many people donate simply based on your mission, programming, and activities; or by trusting a stakeholder of your mission, programming, and activities without expectation of a return?
Count the households of donors who donated all on their own. If the number is small, create a special campaign to draw them in, even if the donation is a simple $50. And thank them – they’re giving for no reason at all, except for unconditional love.
Ultimately, the health of your organization is measured by the number of those who unconditionally support it.
The Christmas Arts Season is Almost Here: Time for Much Mooing and Missions Drifting Higher than the Plowed Snow Blocking your Driveway
Once there was a theatre company that produced new plays. However, during the holiday season, they produced “A Christmas Carol.”
Foundation leaders that supported this company asked one day, “Why do you produce ‘A Christmas Carol’ when it has nothing to do with your mission or the rest of your activities?”
“Because,” said a truthful board president, “it’s our ‘cash cow.’ And we need to milk it for all its worth to pay for everything else we do.”
“Oh,” said the foundation leaders. “Does it?”
“Yes,” said the president. “It’s a good thing, too.”
The leaders huddled together.
“That’s wonderful,” they said. “It follows, then, that we can now fund companies whose mission aligns with ours. With your ‘cash cow,’ you don’t need us. Thank you!”
And then they cut funding to the theatre company to zero.
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?
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.
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..
A development director once told me that she worked “on behalf of donors.” No, not really. You work on behalf of the mission.
A marketing director once told me that “it’s all about the money.” No, not really. It’s all about the mission.
An artistic director once told me “we do it for the art.” No, not really. We do it to execute the mission.
Unless the mission, well, sucks.
Often it has fallen to me to gently (and sometimes not so gently) advise that without a compelling, singular mission that speaks to a specific, measurable societal improvement, a nonprofit arts organization is merely exchanging entertainment for money — like an organ grinder’s monkey, begging for pennies.
You are there to solve a problem. Make sure your company stands for something outside your little corner of the operation.
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.
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.
Take a long inward look at why your nonprofit arts organization exists.
Stop. Read the next sentence. Close your eyes and do what it says. Open.
Say out loud what the mission is – not the mission statement (because someone else wrote that) – but the from-the-gut societal problem your nonprofit organization solves.
Welcome back. Was that hard to do?
Was your interpretation in line with the mission statement?
Or is your organization a nonprofit just for the tax breaks? In other words, do you take donations to produce somebody’s vision of art (maybe even yours) with no change to your community?
Inspiring nonprofits don’t measure success by journalistic acclaim, performance buzz, or paid attendance. That’s what baseball teams and political conventions do.
Be inspiring. Be better. You’ve been given a life-altering societal charge: follow your gut.
Ethics: “You can’t just ask people to behave ethically just like that.” -Sepp Blatter, Friday, May 29, 2015
One nonprofit arts organization that sent its executive on an expenses-paid vacation to Europe, paying for it with tax-deductible donations.
One executive director that increased the YOY marketing budget of the organization by 50% based not on history or data, but on “that’s how much we’re spending, so that’s how much we have to make.”
One board of directors that undertakes an emergency “going-out-of-business” desperation fundraising campaign, but after raising the money, changes nothing about the way it does business. And then does it again.
Hundreds of nonprofits having to deal with trust issues from nervous donors because of unethical behavior from a disgusting few.
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.
Attracting Millennials to the arts isn’t the easiest thing in the world. What worked with the Greatest Generation hasn’t worked with Boomers or Millennials.
This summer, Coca-Cola put names on the bottles (common first names for those born in the 80s and 90s). Then, a Coke turned into something about “me.”
Look what I’m drinking… it’s me!
We’ve also seen hundreds of bucket challenges to support ALS research, which is great. The product sold in the videos is “me.”
Look what I’m using to do good in the world… it’s me!
Marketing the transformative experience of the arts works best when it’s about “me.”
Look at that amazing artwork/ballet/opera/play/musical… it’s me!
If you can make the experience about the patron (not for the patron), you’ll have a fan for life.
Or at least until the next big thing.
Performing arts charities, more than any other, tend to value programming over impact:
“to sustain, encourage, and promote the performing arts and to educate the public with relation thereto” – Lincoln Center
“producing and presenting the greatest examples of music, dance, and theater; supporting artists in the creation of new work; and serving the nation as a leader in arts education” – Kennedy Center
In contrast, public broadcasting tends to value impact over programming:
“to create a more informed public – one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures” – NPR
“to inform, to inspire, and to educate” – PBS
Do you see the difference? Do you want the difference?
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.
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?