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First Cut Is The Deepest

Nod to Thomas Cott for calling attention to a post on TRG blog about Mission versus business models.

I will cut right to the chase and say that I honed right in on their discussion of making a “cut list” of things to stop doing that are diverting resources and energy away from revenue generation.

If you’re a president, CEO, or executive director, you must align with your colleagues and focus your team on the sustainability of your business model and getting the revenue results that will support your mission. Insist on a “stop doing” list. Your non-profit status does not mean that you must exhaust staff time and resources with every initiative, regardless of return on investment.

They give examples of three theaters that have started focusing on audience retention in some fashion. Obviously, the area of focus could be anything.

I think the statements with the most impact were made in the comment section by Paul Botts.

During my years as a program director at an arts funder I adopted a habit that was driven by that “stop doing everything” idea. When presented with an organization’s new strategic plan my first question was always, “Tell me something which expresses your mission, which you could do and should do and really want to be doing, but which you aren’t going to do right now.”

If the response was a blank or shocked look then my feedback was that they didn’t have an actual plan they simply had a laundry list. If you haven’t made any actual choices then you haven’t done any real planning, etc.

Botts goes on to say that he follows up relating his own experience as managing director of an arts organization that tried to do everything their mission called for only to end up in bankruptcy. Even having gone through this uncomfortable experience, he still has to remind himself of lessons learned, indicating it is not an easy thing to keep yourself and your organization focused.

In the past I have often posted about diluting your efforts by adding programs as a way to chase foundation funding. But the situations TRG talks about are less clear cut and potentially more difficult to identify. The examples they give aren’t a matter of adding children matinees in order to get arts education funds. They talk about the Guthrie Theater deciding not to flyer the Mall of America in favor of focusing on getting first time attendees to come back for another visit.

Passing out flyers in a busy place is the sort of thing it is difficult to identify as a cut because it is a visible effort that looks like progress. It is the sort of thing audiences and board members will fault you for not doing in the face of declining attendance.

For some arts organizations, it might be the right strategy to increase attendance because the conversations accompanying the activity serve to increase a connection. In other communities, the connection may exist for as long as it takes to find a trashcan for the flyer.

The other thing that makes the cutting decision difficult is that there may be things that don’t appear to be effective because they are less public, more difficult to measure and might be among your organization’s least favorite activities. Just because you are really motivated to cut them may not mean it is constructive to do so.

Like a paper cut, what appears to be the least significant cut may tend to hurt the most.

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Info You Can Use: Artists U

Springboard for the Arts recently profiled Artists U, an artist lead, artist centered professional development and planning project.

The project started in Philadelphia and has spread to Baltimore and South Carolina. Since they train artist facilitators to lead workshops elsewhere, their sessions may be coming to a location near you.

Artists U grew out of founder Andrew Simonet’s observation that:

“I went to so many [professional development workshops for artists] when I started out and so much of it was useless,” Simonet says. Workshops were often run by arts professionals, not artists, who didn’t understand or address the real struggles that artists face.

After attending a Creative Capital Foundation development workshop, Simonet “says he was “blown away” by “how wrong artists are in their vision of the world.” So one of the focuses of the training sessions and part of the Artists U website is to change the thinking and practices which undermine artists’ efforts.

The website also has a free to download book, Making Your Life As An Artist which addresses these issues in greater depth.

I have only generally skimmed the book thus far, but a section that immediately caught my eye was suggestions on reframing the way you discuss your work so that it will be engaging rather than alienating to most human beings. This is an area in which every artist and arts organization needs to evaluate their practices.

Take a look..

modern dance

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Eclipsed By Your Cause

Two weeks ago my neighbors were gathered around their pool talking excitedly about doing the ice bucket challenge. One of the kids asked five or six times what ALS was throughout the conversation before someone answered, “Lou Gehrig’s disease or something like that.”

This was a good illustration for me about the hazards of having a cause explode in popularity. Often the symbols associated with the cause become valued more than the cause itself.

The Non-Profit Quarterly has been covering some of the skepticism that has been expressed about the long term usefulness of the social media trend.

Writing for Time, Jacob Davidson, whose father died of ALS, found the ice bucket campaign initially attractive, but then had misgivings. “When I looked closer, I became uneasy,” Davidson wrote. “No wonder it took me weeks to learn the Ice Bucket Challenge was linked to ALS. Most of its participants, including Kennedy and Today’s Matt Lauer, didn’t mention the disease at all. The chance to jump on the latest trend was an end in itself.”

Davidson also mentioned the somewhat negative structure of the campaign, that if you choose not to donate, you dump a bucket of ice water on your head. “The challenge even seems to be suggesting that being cold, wet, and uncomfortable is preferable to fighting ALS,” he noted. If the strategy of dumping cold water was meant to increase awareness of the disease, the strategy has a built-in contradiction: “ALS needs all the awareness it can get, but somehow I doubt many learned a whole lot from contextless tweets of wet celebs smiling and laughing,” he added.

Despite Stephen Hawking and having seen Pride of the Yankees, ALS might not be strongly on my radar if my father hadn’t died from it about 20 years ago. Even if that hadn’t been the case, I still would be a little concerned about how centered the campaign is on the self rather than the disease.

Seth Godin noted that about 90% of those mentioning the challenge or posting video/images of themselves taking the challenge haven’t donated. That is certainly their right.

He goes on to point out the double edge to the situation. Specifically that a positive impact has been to spread the word about a little known disease. (I guess Stephen Hawking isn’t famous enough himself.) The other point Godin makes is that it is normalizing charitable giving.

This has been great for ALS related charities which have seen more giving in a few months than they see in many years. Even if 90% aren’t giving, the 10% who are are having a significant impact for these organizations.

On the other hand, Godin points out that there are some things to watch out for:

1. Good causes in need of support are going to focus on adding the sizzle and ego and zing that gets an idea to spread, instead of focusing on the work. One thing we know about online virality is that what worked yesterday rarely works tomorrow. A new arms race begins, and in this case, it’s not one that benefits many. We end up developing, “an unprecedented website with a video walkthrough and internationally recognized infographics…” (actual email pitch I got while writing this post).

2. We might, instead of normalizing the actual effective giving of grants and donations, normalize slacktivism. It could easily turn out that we start to emotionally associate a click or a like or a mention as an actual form of causing change, not merely a way of amplifying a message that might lead to that action happening.

Along the lines of Godin’s mention of a fundraising arms race, Non Profit Quarterly quoted Emmanuel College research fellow William MacAskill who expressed concerns that flash could easily obscure the need to do due diligence on the recipients of a donation.

His second point more directly addresses the issue of the seriousness of the charitable decision, that such “donor-focused philanthropy…regards all causes as equal…We should reward the charities that we believe do the most good, not those that have the best marketing strategy, otherwise the most successful charities will be those that are best at soliciting funds, not those that are best at making the world a better place.”

Of course, the truth is people give to people, not organizations. To be a successful charity, you have to be good at both soliciting funds and making the world a better place.

I don’t think anyone would really mind if there was a groundswell of support that rallied attention to their cause, even if the attention didn’t translate into material support. Attention is extremely valuable. I can say with a high level of confidence that there are people in my community right now that speak well of my organization that don’t attend our events. If they inspire others to become involved, that is great for us.

The thing to watch out for is when the cause escapes your control and is co-opted for other purposes. Probably the biggest example of this is pinkwashing where companies use the goodwill of breast cancer awareness to sell products and burnish their image with little or no benefit going to breast cancer research.

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Random Thoughts About Problems and Practices

I got recruited at the last minute to teach a public speaking class this semester. After a week, I have already started to make my problem their problem.

I asked the students, in a time when technology adds so many distractions on top of everyday concerns, how did they see themselves rising above or breaking through the noise of these distractions to communicate what is important to them.

What would they do to connect with people and convince them to become invested in the same thing they are? Would they try to use the media that was providing to be so distracting or would they do something different to set them apart?

In many respects, people trying to advocate for early childhood education, political candidates and delivering a speech at a conference all face the same challenges as arts organizations do in terms of trying to find an effective method of communication. People are distracted by cell phones, watch content online, skip ads on a DVR, read fewer newspapers and magazines, all of which makes it difficult to target your message effectively.

My students didn’t have an answer. I have just gotten them started thinking about these issues. They may not be aware that it will be a recurring theme throughout the year.

Another little anecdote I wanted to share. Last week, the drama department held auditions for the first show. I asked one of the students to perform her monologue for my students today so they could get a sense of what it is all about. It seemed to be a good experience.

However, one thing I started to notice over the last year was that the cast list is no longer being posted on the call board. Everyone is contacted via email. I feel like this robs something from the process for the rest of the community. There is no opportunity for even those who didn’t audition to stop by the board to at least mentally celebrate with those who got cast and commiserate with those who didn’t.

I am sure email or text is much more efficient for the directors. They can inform people and get a response relatively quickly rather than having to continually check if someone swung by the call board to initial next to their name and then chase them down to find out if the lack of an initial meant the actor was too lazy to check or they were affronted to be offered a part they felt was beneath them.

But the situation makes it harder for a person like me who is interested and part of the arts community to get invested in the show. I can’t ask cast members how rehearsals are going in passing because I have no idea who is in the show. I am going to have to make an effort to find out.

When I do know someone has been cast, seeing them on the streets or at gatherings reinforces my association of them with the production and as an artist in general.

I wonder if not posting a cast list becomes one of those tiny changes that alters the dynamics for the performing arts. Without insiders closely invested in a production, does that weaken the bonds the general public feels with the arts since word of mouth from people with expertise becomes weaker?

Or am I just perceiving it that way because I haven’t been connected to anyone in the casts via social media like a normal person would be?

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