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.
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.
Artists and Non-Offensiveness: The Tyranny of Over-Sensitivity, Feelings, and Participation Trophies
There’s a troubling trend. There’s an absurd unwillingness to offend that seems pervasive among arts creators.
Not that creators are creating “Pleasant Art,” per se. Writers and artists are creating lots of work that is designed to make audiences uncomfortable. Which is good. The work may be about single issues and not terribly complex, but it’s good.
However, there are too many artists raised in atmospheres where everyone wins, even when they lose. In the name of inclusion and self-esteem, they live in a world where, like toddlers, “feeling bad” is simply unacceptable.
They believe they’re special.
To these artists:
- You are not special.
- You do not deserve success.
- Sometimes you lose.
It’s what you do with that information that defines you.
If you believe that nobody should ever have hurt feelings, you’re not doing your job.
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 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.
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.
Thing One: Plan your programming based on mission, specificity, style, and audience orientation. That last bit is the most important. Just like the movement toward donor-centric development activity (“What do you want?”) has proven more successful than self-facing activity (“Here’s what we offer.”), audience-oriented experiences that reflect an organization’s expertise (“This is what we’re famous for.”) have proven more successful than vanity programming (“I like this and you must, too.”).
Thing Two: “Seasons” are an artificial construct. In the arts, audiences don’t really care. (In sports, they do, because championships constitute the end of a season.) The construct helps to create a small clustering of performances or exhibitions for fans to purchase as a marketing tool. Programming toward a seasonal “arc” is an imprudent and arrogant exercise that implies your attendees don’t patronize any other arts organization.
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.
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.
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.
Painter sculptor carver glassblower metal-artist potter actor set-designer lighting-designer costume-designer sound-designer playwright director choreographer jazz-dancer ballet-dancer modern-dancer opera-singer jazz-singer classical-singer musical-comedy-singer performance-artist rock-singer rock-musician classical-musician poet novelist ballroom-dancer hip-hop-dancer hip-hop-singer beat-boxer aerialist cinematographer folk-dancer native-dancer folk-singer Latin-dancer swing-dancer belly-dancer tap-dancer clog-dancer sketch-artist screenwriter clown mime country-singer storyteller improviser busker magician juggler composer lyricist ethnically-specific-singer ethnically-specific-dancer ethnically-specific-visual-artist
Apologies to those I neglected.
Art breathes life into our lives. Art offers us the only thing on the planet that has the capacity to make us better – hope. Even existentialism compels us to rebel… and hope nonetheless.
Unfortunately, hope is not a measurable outcome.
We must find it within our best selves to find a system to fund individual artists separate and apart from arts organizations. Not instead of, but in addition to. We deserve to hope for better.
Kibitzing. Webster’s definition: “watching other people and making unwanted comments about what they are doing.”
Good intentions (egad). Some people pay for the privilege via their donation or board service. My mother believes it’s her birthright.
For arts charities, kibitzing mainly involves comments, programs, and activities that are unsupported by research or any evidence of success.
Instead: come with solutions rather than problems. Shortfalls are as unintentional as bad art. No one intends red ink or a lousy play with bad acting. But rather than more bake sales, auctions, galas, or (egad) a “give-a-million-dollars-or-we’ll-go-bankrupt-on-Tuesday” campaign; rather than creating a program committee (because anyone can pick plays) or a marketing committee (because anyone can market the arts), work with your ED toward real, verified solutions.
The road to hell is paved with kibitzers. The road to bankruptcy, too.
Artists don’t work alone. They require collaborators.
A script isn’t a play. A score isn’t a symphony. A scene isn’t a painting. Choreography isn’t a dance. A libretto and score isn’t an opera.
And a vision isn’t an arts charity.
For any piece of art to be considered finished (and viable), a team is required. Playwrights, composers, choreographers, visual artists, and arts charities may be the ones who create artistic launching pads, but art, like space exploration, requires a slew of equal partners. Among those: directors, performers, designers, interpreters, tools and toolmakers, and audiences. All partners create tension. And that’s good.
No single artist deserves immunity from collaborative pressure. A piece of true art isn’t done until it’s done. Not before. Not after. The immutable pressure of the finish line makes the race exciting, meaningful, and artistic.
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?
A Version Aversion (or: Why It’s More Important That The Whole Thing Works And Not Just The Elements)
Saw a play recently. The story was appropriately troubling and deftly told. But great art is not about literary proficiency or good acting.
Often in any of the artistic ventures, we render our version of a piece, and are judged by some version of accolade. Our study becomes about acting excellence or mind-blowing special effect or the brilliant manipulation of color and light. And critics judge on those foundations. Even in a new work, we cling to “our version.”
Fans don’t care. Fans are, fittingly, binary. Either the art makes one transform or it doesn’t. When we seek outcomes that make it jarring to return to reality, we do well. If fans only enjoy the elements created to produce the art’s reality, then “our version of art” is to “great art” as “Matchbox Cars” are to “Lamborghinis.”
And in doing so, no issue, thought, or attitude can be unseen, unfelt, or unheard. It is not for the singing, the painting, etc., that art is produced. The glory of art is in its scope of power. To inspire peace or revolution. To cause great comfort or great discomfort. To provide joy or desolation.
As a populist, I believe that visual and performing arts serve great groups of people. I fear that many in power judge art as dangerous. Their battle plan continues to manipulate those same great groups of people into despising it, to consider it as foreign. As the other.
And I fear that they’ve won that battle. But not the war. Not yet.