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.”
Artists produce work from their creative souls, nurtured by a series of cultural, environmental, and psychological motivations. They create “a hat,” as Stephen Sondheim once wrote, “where there never was a hat.” Talented artists create from their current state of mind, without boundary.
Craftspeople produce work to fill a need. They possess a series of cultural, environmental, and psychological motivations which channel into art that produces a desired impact. Craftspeople create hats because they’re the best answer to a question.
All craftspeople are artists at their core. Many artists have no capacity to become craftspeople.
Nonprofit arts organizations require craftspeople. If the organization is more important than any artist, and the mission is more important than the organization, then employees on the organizational chart need to be, by definition, craftspeople divining an impact, not artists divining inspiration.
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.
Consultant: A strategic plan should generally include the following sections: mission statement; outline of goals, objectives, and activities; assessment of current resources; and strategic analysis.
- All nonprofits are mission-driven; take care to define your mission clearly.
- Having activities or programs clearly defined will help your nonprofit communicate with the public. Remember that activities and programs flow from your mission.
- Assess all of your resources — including money, people, expertise, skills, and other intangibles.
- “Strategies” are practical ideas about how to make the best use of your resources to achieve your goals.
Them: Blah-blah-blah MONEY, blah-blah-blah GOALS.
Result: A “strategic plan” proclaiming the need for more money with no action plan (except, of course, to raise money) and no justification (except, of course, to raise money).
In answer to your next questions:
- Way too often.
- They blame the consultant.
Just read this article from an artistic director who wonders whether artistic directors should be their organization’s leader, whether the model is archaic. Nonprofit performing arts organizations take note. The leader is the mission, not the AD.
Is your artistic director the custodian of your mission, passing that duty on to the next artistic director? Or does the legacy of the organization reside in the legacy of the AD? Is “artistic vision” really a thing, or is it theory? Wouldn’t it make more sense for an executive director with an artistic sensibility to curate the company’s impact?
Maybe your leader ought to be the company’s leader, not merely the artistic leader. With artistic personnel hired to support the mission (instead of supporting the artistic director), your institution will become far more flexible as tastes and impacts change.
On September 12, 2001, we issued an internal memo at our nonprofit arts organization. We proffered the notion that standing by our programming and “moving forward” was the best way to fight back.
We were wrong. Putting on blinkers never helps.
On June 12, 2016, after one attack in Orlando and a foiled one in Santa Monica – key nonprofit arts organizations are right now readying memos rationalizing the same advice.
Move forward. That’ll show ‘em.
At what tipping point do we scrap activities to reflect the damage inflicted on people? Why must we wait for a year to see the first artistic responses? Why not now? Why worry about the production quality of said response? As nonprofits, when do we sacrifice our comfort zone to provide leadership to our communities for some resolution?
Or should we just move forward? Yet again?
Transformational Persuasion: Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Why It Matters – Especially When You’re Running an Arts Organization
Muhammad Ali died last week. A quote from a Zairian in “When We Were Kings.”
“George Foreman? We had heard he was a world champion.
We thought he was white, then we realized he was black, like Ali….
Ali said [about Foreman], you’re the out-of-towner here.”
Nonprofit leaders that manage organizations, programs, and people well can be quite successful. But not transformational. Transformational leaders effortlessly persuade with passion about the mission, not the statistics. Their material requires no script, just practice to remove the “ums” and “uhs.”
Trump, for example, vigorously (and effortlessly) transforms experienced opponents into “out-of-towners.” Clinton relies on effective policy, experience, and “being right.”
Passion KOs policy every time. Ask George Foreman.
Doesn’t your arts organization’s constituency deserve the most transformative experience you can offer? Or do you settle for production excellence and competence?
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.
What’s the biggest societal issue in your personal world?
Americans in April named their list. What’s yours?
Economy, racial injustice, government dissatisfaction, immigration, terrorism. Unsolvable as big issues. Possibly solvable as small ones.
Hunger in your neighborhood? Support the food bank. Find ways for it to thrive so that many can survive without resorting to lawlessness.
Specific racial and income injustice in your town? Support the agencies that convene and expose the problems to the light. Find ways to gather people together who might never otherwise come together – and de-mythologize the stereotypes of the bad [ethnics – fill in your own blank] or the bad [other ethnics] or the bad [government officials], etc.
And do it using your art as a tool.
You now have step A and step Z. Just fill in steps B through Y.
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.
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.
Arts Boards: What to do When Your Arts Leader(s) No Longer Know the Difference Between Boredom and Discipline
Your theater produced a hit. Tickets sold out for days. Extended as far as you could.
Do it again next year?
No. Your outward-facing mission execution is more important than the sales of any one play. Gauge this particular play and its impact. If it’s a fit (not just a hit), consider rescheduling the next production and run this play until its inevitable end. Then close it forever.
If all your plays are mission-driven, every experience is predictable in its impact. That’s called discipline, and it’s what makes arts organizations successful.
Too many artistic directors choose to produce vanity events instead. That’s called boredom, and board chairs have to act on that kind of crisis in leadership.
Coke may make many products, but they still make Coke. Remember what happened when they got bored with Coke’s taste?
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.
Ils pétent plus haut que leur cul. Marketing Intellectual Pursuits to an Anti-Intellectual Public, Right-Cheer In These You-Nited States of Murrica
In the arts, we want to attract more people. Or do we just want more us?
We’re asked to produce vision, impact, and engagement. We embrace entertainment, but only if it’s at a 120+ IQ level. Even abject silliness on stage is only acceptable if it’s “smart.”
When another company produces an RSC script, they almost apologize in their marketing:
RSC: “it’s not the length of your history that matters – it’s what you’ve done with it!”
Other: “Between the rampant nationalism and the recent election, we think it more vital than ever for us to show we’re capable of laughing at ourselves. It, too, is part of the healing.”
Populism in the arts is an open path to success. Risk being fucking funny, not drolly meaningful.
Face-palms in the arts world: Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright; the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light
- A managing director is face-palming because the budget draft is still a departmental wish list;
- A marketing director is face-palming because the artistic director decided that he knew more about marketing than the marketing director;
- A development director is face-palming because the board chair has fashioned a multi-million dollar “capital” campaign (actually, a “get-out-of-debt” campaign) with no feasibility study, no regard to the annual development campaign, and no accountability to anyone else;
- An artistic director is face-palming because the plays she wants to do don’t jibe with the mission of the company;
- A board member is face-palming because every meeting is about reporting, money, by-laws, and the gala;
And somewhere, performing arts audiences and constituents are collectively face-palming, hoping against hope that the arts folks in their region remember that for them, it’s about the art.
The following phrase should be banished, at least in nonprofit arts organizations: “Taking Our Organization to the Next Level.” To be blunt, it’s an empty goal, often undefined and misleading, and let’s face it, profoundly stupid.
Consider asking the next person who uses it, “Why would you?”
Then ask, “Are you planning on changing the way you do business?” Then ask for a definition of “next level.” Then ask what has kept the organization from achieving that already.
Are they rationalizing a way to do what they’ve always done, only harder, and somehow experiencing growth?
Growth is usually defined as increased depth or breadth (rarely both). Forcefully choose goals with great specificity. Make your choice obvious; don’t aim for subtlety.
When troubled potential constituents notice no change, they will offer no path to growth.
Why would they?
Nonprofit Arts Leaders: 137 Powerful Verbs for your Mission or Programs – Instead of Hyperbolic or Aspirational Adjectives. (Boring Headline, Yes?)
Arts Organizations: What is Your Art? Is it “It?” Is it a Picture of “It?” A Report of “It?” None of the Above?
45 years ago today, February 9, an earthquake happened. I was shaken out of bed and looked out the window just in time to see a brick chimney fall on Dr. Prince’s new 240Z. That’s what happened to me.
We turned on the television to see films about the Van Norman Dam — in danger of bursting. I saw that through a lens.
The next day’s LA Times had the front-page story, “DAY OF DISASTER — Quake Leaves 42 Dead, 1,000 Hurt; Periled Dam Forces 40,000 to Flee.” I read that report.
The racing results, as always, were in the sports section. A square box on the front page said so. Horse racing is a popular entertainment. I didn’t care.
Is your art happening to your constituents? Is it through a filter? Is it second-hand? Or is it entertainment? Only one is personally meaningful.
Many nonprofit theater board members feel isolated. They’re told (or they conclude) that the only company that matters is the one for which they’ve chosen to spend their money, time, and expertise. Board members don’t have the time to discuss extra-organizational collaboration when the basement is flooded and the auditorium is only half-full and, oh yes, they have careers and families and other interests.
Collude. Your market is begging you to collude. Don’t guess what your competition is up to; collude and be part of the regional success.
Get together with other board members regularly. Require artistic directors to openly discuss their programming with each other. Oblige your organization to differentiate.
Think shopping mall, not stand-alone.
Chamber of commerce, not pop-ups.
Constellations, not stars.
Healthy arts communities are like boxes of chocolates, not bunches of grapes. Collude.
If You’re _____________, Then Your Nonprofit Arts Organization is Probably Unsustainable (with apologies to Jeff Foxworthy)
- not paying your executive director because s/he is independently wealthy and actually donates 6 figures to the company;
- working 70 hours/week every week and see nothing wrong with that;
- hiring part-time employees and expecting them to work full-time free of charge;
- of the belief that your employees are less important than your equipment or your building;
- insisting that anyone besides your marketing director is the final word on your marketing;
- keeping your artistic director away from donors because s/he doesn’t know how to interact with them;
- in the mindset that any of your people are more important than any other of your people;
- playing “Dialing for Dollars” to meet your payroll;
- arguing that “keeping the base” is more important than expanding the audience, while…
- thinking that you can do both;
- sweating a little right now after reading this post.
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.
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 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.