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.”
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 email@example.com. 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.
The American Dream is built on dependence (Independence Day and elections notwithstanding).
The USA is Blanche DuBois and the “kindness of strangers.” We’re Willy Loman. We’re Fanfare for the Common Man. Revelations. Hamilton. Smoke Signals. Angels in America. Our successes depend and are dependent on the joy, madness, and desires of others.
The monarchy doesn’t choose our art; we do.
American art depends not on individual brilliance, even though there are brilliant individuals. Our best art provides impact.
Mavericks provide almost no impact. Collaborations do.
Patrons deign to “provide for.” Supporters want to “identify with.”
True, there are Americans that call themselves mavericks and patrons. Some folks prefer their terminology shrouded in cobwebs.
But for the rest of us, we know what we are. Even better, we know why. Our best arts nonprofits reflect “We, the People.”
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.
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.
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.
Arts Organizations: 137th Post, 137 Thanks, and 137 (of Other People’s) Words That Guide Inspiring Leaders
“We must reject the idea — well-intentioned, but dead wrong – that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become “more like a business.” Most businesses…fall somewhere between mediocre and good.” (Collins)
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” (Thoreau)
“People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.” (Sinek)
“When they say things like, we’re going to do this by the book, you have to ask, what book? Because it would make a big difference if it was Dostoevsky or, you know, ‘Ivanhoe.'” (Anderson)
“‘To be is to do.’ (Socrates) ‘To do is to be.’ (Sartre) ‘Do be do be do.’ (Sinatra)” [Vonnegut compilation]
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?
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?)
Nonprofit Arts Boards: Sustainability Does Not Equal Survival – Sometimes, it’s Best to Close Up Shop
Simplistically speaking, charities are like scientific experiments — unemotional methods to gain insight.
Sometimes, we make conclusions based on these experiments with the bias of survival as a sustaining strategy.
In nonprofit arts organizations, boards often conclude that their organization should last for some version of forever. It’s the biggest mistake a nonprofit arts organization board can make.
Sometimes, it’s time to close, not out of failure, but out of symptoms/findings:
- Chasing dollars with dollars
- Last-ditch “give us a million by next month or we’ll go out of business” campaigns
- Capital campaigns that mask company debt
- Doing off-mission work that “pays for” the mission-oriented work
- Unwritten HR policies that permanently institutionalize attrition
- No quantifiable proof of external impact
Boards – no shame to close an organization when findings lead you to that conclusion, even when your finances are sound.
The art of sustainability in arts charities is akin to performing a balance beam routine on a Ginsu knife. You can sacrifice mission for dollars or dollars for mission, but even if you maintain a perfect balance, there will still be substantial blood on both sides.
We talk way too much about relevance in the arts. The tag in the back of the shirt is relevant for a description of content and washing instructions, but the design of the shirt can reveal personal characteristics of the wearer. Let’s aim higher. How about “integral”?
Integral arts charities are those that are so entwined with other charities that they become essential to the health of the community. “Integral” obviates this useless discussion of relevance and moves us to the more useful question:
How do the arts make communities thrive?