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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
I’ve tortured people in the group interview process. I thought I was offering consensus. Buy-in. Group drive.
I was wrong.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Oh, so wrong.
To everyone I’ve ever put through that, on either side of the table, I apologize. I’ll never do it again. Promise.
There are four decisions: autocratic (I say), consultative (I say with your input), democratic (we vote, losers weep), consensus (we vote and everyone backs the decision).
As practiced, the group interview might have evolved into a method for managers to abdicate responsibility in the name of consensus. While consensus is ideal, the group-think process can too often be dominated by a crank in the corner with issues, motives, and insecurities. And, possibly, an unknown agenda.
Group-think promises consensus but can preclude innovation.
And why would you ever choose to preclude innovation?
What I want:
An arts charity that makes my community better.
Value to the community:
Safety. Knowledge. Personal Power. Issue solutions.
Provocation. Entertainment. Populism. Progressiveness. Mischief.
Educational residencies in both art and topic.
Every other charity, educational institution, or NGO with similar values.
50-50 split on revenues with partners. Partners open their mailing lists to help themselves financially through ticket sales.
The measured outcomes of the partners. Quantity of classes, students, and schools participating.
Populist results defeat the arts’ elitist reputation. The needs of the charities are filled.
Enough so that all artists receive at least $15/hour (in 2014 dollars) and no full-time hourly rate is more than 4x anyone else’s.
Arts moves people to action. Thorny issues seen can never be unseen. Life is better.
Every kid wins trophies.
There are two possible takeaways from this fact:
a) Trophies don’t mean much; or
b) Every kid deserves trophies.
If a), then the result is that external recognition must be useless. Which means:
1) We reward mediocrity.
2) We foster cynicism to greatness.
If b), then the result is that external recognition must be unrelenting. Which means:
3) We reward everything.
4) We foster entitlement to greatness.
I have rarely seen folks as entitled as those in the performing arts today, at least here in Seattle, the epicenter of externally-based self-esteem. I’ve known dozens of actors who have insisted that they’re too talented to audition. Dozens more of nonprofit arts organizations feeling too holy to follow a mission.
Consider: Oscar Isaac had to audition for the role of Llewyn Davis. It wasn’t handed to him.
I’ve been working with nonprofit arts organizations (mostly theaters) for most of the last twenty-six years. Executive/Managing Director for ten. Marketing and Development Director, too. Consultant for nineteen, the last two full-time.
Raised several million dollars (not by myself, of course!). Increased attendance by hundreds of thousands, mostly by engaging young people.
I’m now looking to regroup. Enhance one brilliant mission. Make life better.
I’m currently based in Seattle, so the I-5 corridor from greater Portland-BC would be optimal. Additionally, I’m very interested in relocating – but to the right place: Chicago, San Diego, Eastern Michigan, NY/NJ/PA, or DC would be fantastic (personal networks in those regions).
I don’t come cheap. But I’ve proven that I’m worth it.
All I need is a company looking for greatness; more than the sum of its programming.
Interested? Click here.