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Stuff To Ponder: When Not To Tell Your Story

Createquity may be in reruns right now while they reorganize, but they have great timing. Today they featured a post from 2011 which was something of a complement to the post about pricing and story I made yesterday.

Where my post yesterday addressed using a resonant story to get people invested in paying a little more to participate in an arts event, Createquity featured a guest post by Margy Waller suggesting that when it comes to public funding for the arts, the lack of a publicized story might be the best bet.

Members of the public typically have positive feelings toward the arts, some quite strong. But how they think about the arts is shaped by a number of common default patterns that ultimately obscure a sense of shared responsibility in this area.

For example, it is natural and common for people who are not insiders to think of the arts in terms of entertainment. In fact, it’s how we want people to think when we are selling tickets or memberships. But, in this view, entertainment is a “luxury,” and the “market” will determine which arts offerings survive, based on people’s tastes as consumers of entertainment. Consequently, public support for the arts makes little sense, particularly when public funds are scarce.

Perceptions like these lead to conclusions that government funding, for instance, is frivolous or inappropriate. Even charitable giving can be undermined by these default perceptions.

The second paragraph aligns squarely with Seth Godin’s thoughts on pricing that “Some goods are difficult to understand before purchase and use, and most consumers undervalue them and treat them like commodities.” And later “In situations like this, our instinct is to assume that the thing is generic, a commodity, not worth extra.”

Waller suggests that given the perception that public support of the arts is frivolous, by making the fight to restore/increase funding public, arts organizations are choosing a battlefield where they are at a disadvantage.

Politicians can leverage public opinion that the arts are a luxury. When the conflict is covered by the media, it is in the context of a political fight rather than say, a matter of societal value, education and cultural identity.

Because the big fight in the default way of viewing the arts is very losable. And in our efforts, we’re forced to expand a precious resource: the time and energy of staff and key supporters who have to work so hard to convince public officials that they won’t suffer consequences in the next election.

Moreover, every time the fight is public, we’re likely to be reinforcing the dominant ways of thinking about the arts that are getting in our way now. When attacked, we rebut with facts, and the media covers the issue as a political fight with two equal sides – both seen through a lens that sets up the arts as a low priority on the public agenda. And as we know, this can have the effect of making people defensive and hardening existing positions. Of course, it should be no surprise that even officials who are friendly to arts funding are reluctant to be in the middle of that kind of coverage.

Waller suggests a strong, but quiet lobbying campaign, citing the success of just such an effort in Ohio. When you think about it, she has a valid point because quiet lobbying is exactly how plenty of entities who would prefer to avoid public resistance to their plans get things accomplished.

I am sure we can all envision some program that slipped by under our radar and we would prefer not to be associated with those sort of tactics. But the reality is, not every act of governance is preceded by a rancorous public debate. I am sure many arts supporters would be happy not to gird for battle every budget cycle if their goals could be accomplished quietly and efficiently.

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Info You Can Use: Story and Pricing

Seth Godin posted some thoughts about pricing that are worthy of consideration. The fact this post is about three times as long as his usual posts indicates the importance he places on the topic.

He tackled the concept of substitution which is basically what we talk about when we identify movies, television, Netflix, video games, etc as competitors for people’s entertainment dollars and time.

One of the key elements of pricing is realizing that people have choices, and that substitutes are available. This is more nuanced than it sounds, though, and I want to highlight key things to keep in mind when you think about how much to charge and how people might react.

Marketers make two mistakes over and over. They create average, commodity products and expect that people will pay extra for them. Or, in the other direction, they lose their nerve and don’t charge a fair price for the extraordinary work they’re doing, afraid that people will find a substitute.

This second paragraph that essentially summarizes the situation arts organizations face. Arts organizations are either accused of overvaluing their product and charging too much in the face of substitutes. Or they are accused of setting prices too low leading audiences to expect those prices should be the norm for something that cost five times as much to produce.

Godin addresses a number of factors which impact what price someone will pay. The one I felt was most applicable to the arts was:

Some goods are difficult to understand before purchase and use, and most consumers undervalue them and treat them like commodities

[...]

This leads to opportunity and challenge of marketers who choose to sell something that we don’t buy very often and that we can’t tell if it’s better (or if the story is true) until after we buy it. In situations like this, our instinct is to assume that the thing is generic, a commodity, not worth extra.

Having read this, it occurred to me that as arts attendance decreases there is an increasingly likelihood of arts experience meeting the definition of something that is difficult to understand before purchase and use. As a result, people see it as interchangeable with other entertainment options. To be fair, many elements of the experience are interchangeable, but others are not.

According to Godin, what enables you to sell a good or service at a higher price is if it has a story. The example he used are organic eggs. We are all probably aware of some aspect of the story associated with organic eggs: they are better for you; the chickens are handled more humanely; you support small, local farmers; lack of antibiotics and pesticides; locally sourced means a small carbon footprint in production.

Whether these things are completely true or not can be immaterial. If some part of the story resonates with the consumer, they become more willing to pay a higher price.

However, I think the story for the arts almost has to be more powerful than for organic eggs. When you are in the supermarket already, the story of organic eggs and your image as a responsible world citizen doesn’t have to resonate very strongly to divert your decision from one carton to another. If you are in a farmer’s market, the story and your self image are so self-reinforcing by the surrounding booths, it is actually easier to buy more than you intended.

When you are at work or at home making plans, the story offered by the local arts companies has to be pretty strong if it is going to influence your decision away from your usual activities.

Or at least this is the case for performing arts organizations. Visual arts organizations can benefit from impulse decisions. A couple weeks ago I was chatting with a friend at the front desk of the local museum and about five people came in saying they were in town for a funeral and decided to swing by the museum. Not necessarily the first thing that pops to mind when I go to funerals, but they enjoyed themselves.

In either case, if you do have a story, once people start to involve themselves with your organization, they integrate your story into their lives and it becomes easier for them to decide to do so again.

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Best Practices In Audience Drowning

As immersive arts experiences become increasingly prevalent, there have been some interesting introspective reflections of the experiences recently in The Guardian and Irish Times.

Both pieces mention the competitiveness of returning audience members souring the experience. I wrote about this issue to a greater degree in March so I won’t get into it much here.

In The Guardian article, Myf Warhurst wonders if audiences are really up to the job of being part of a performance.

One the one hand, she seems to feel that an immersive experience can help shift the awareness and focus of a participant in a manner the participant wouldn’t on their own. Citing Marina Abramovic’s installation 512 Hours where participants count rice grains one by one, Myf observes,

“Sure, I could have a stab at this while home alone by switching my phone off and counting the grains from my half-used pack of SunRice. But would I really do it without Abramović’s prompting? I enjoy being part of something creative, conceived by an inquisitive mind, because I know I can’t create such work myself. I like being included in the art-making.”

But she also seems to feel that people may conflate participation under someone else’s guidance and vision with being a creator. (my emphasis)

And I’m starting to think that us regular folk might not be up to the job. Are we really clever or interesting enough to be driving the narrative? I’m not sure I am. I like how art makes me feel like an outsider in someone else’s conversation, how it pushes me to think beyond myself and my own ideas. Is it healthy to be made to feel like we’re now special enough to be included in everything?

[...]

What is it about humans, at this particular time in history, that makes us think we’re special enough to be part of art without having done any of the work to develop the emotional, intellectual or craft level that artists have strived to achieve? Perhaps inviting the audience in isn’t always for the best. Even though I like being included, I’m just not sure I’ve done the hard yards to deserve it.

In the Irish Times article, Peter Crawley wonders “Are we, the audience, drowning in immersive theatre,” referring to how prevalent the format is.

Granted, the vast majority of the theater going public in both the UK and US probably haven’t really encountered an immersive performance experience. Crawley’s reflections urge a consideration that the way these events are executed may promote a self-centric view of what should be a communal experience.

It is not just that audience members have started fighting each other in order to be in a position to be involved in the story.

What you, the audience, have always known is that to sit, watch, engage and reflect is not passive. In an insightful takedown last week of the radio personality Ira Glass, who dismissed Shakespeare’s King Lear as “not relatable”, the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead argued that while art is a mirror in which we see ourselves, the demand for “relatability” is lazy and vain: art as a selfie.

That sounds like the toxin of our age and, perhaps, a reason to switch off the immersion. “You, the audience”, sounds like a command. “I, the protagonist”, feels lonely. Isn’t it supposed to be about us?

Crawley didn’t link to Rebecca Mead’s article, but I have included it for reference since I was interested to read what she said.

What seems to be relevant to Crawley’s statement was this (my emphasis):

But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

To appreciate “King Lear”—or even “The Catcher in the Rye” or “The Fault in Our Stars”—only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of “relatable.” In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities. That’s what sucks, not Shakespeare.

What might be an obvious solution is to design the experience as a metaphorical Ropes course where people can only advance/gain access cooperating as a group. Perhaps some, having sacrificed themselves for the good of the group, might get the satisfaction of watching the result of their actions from a hidden room on the sidelines.

But I am sure there are plenty of people like me who are content to watch and ponder and who don’t like to get dragged into participating in the first place. Having to participate and do so as part of a team in order to witness interesting content might be even more off putting. (Though I would much rather participate in a group than to be singled out as an individual.)

(Yes, I intentionally wrote a provocative post title intentionally using another definition of immersion in the spirit of Drew McManus’ little experiment)

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Info You Can Use: Fiscal Sponsorship As Apprenticeship Program For Non-Profits

Non-Profit Law blogger Gene Tagaki recently tweeted a link to an article he wrote for the American Bar Association about 5 years ago urging lawyers to consider alternatives to forming non-profits organizations for their clients.

I should note that this article was written before the first Benefit Corporations were legal in the U.S. so that also remains an option to forming a non-profit.

One of the biggest considerations for not forming a non-profit is the fact that there are so many, with more being formed every day, but an ever shrinking supply of funding to support their efforts.

“Ron Mattocks, author of Zone of Insolvency: How Nonprofits Avoid Hidden Liabilities and Build Financial Strength, asserts that as many as one-third of the nation’s 1.4 million registered nonprofits operate in the zone of insolvency.
[...]
If a nonprofit is insufficiently prepared to compete and operate in such an environment, the end product may be gross inefficiencies, frustrated founders, disillusioned donors, and fewer resources ultimately reaching its intended beneficiaries.”
 

There is also the issue of whether the founders have a realistic business plan that is viable amid the economic conditions present. Takagi also spends some time cautioning against founder’s assumptions of the amount of control they can legally exert over the organization.

Among the alternatives to forming a non-profit Tagaki suggests is actually working with an existing non-profit. I often wondered, if people are able to muster the resources to create an entirely new non-profit that overlaps or competes with an existing one, why not first approach the existing non-profit first proposing to enhance their efforts with an ancillary or complementary program.

That is pretty much what Tagaki suggests:

When appropriate, lawyers should make their clients aware of the following benefits of working with an existing nonprofit:

-Avoidance of start-up costs and administrative burdens of a new nonprofit.
-Increased efficiency in furthering the charitable mission by using an established infrastructure.
-Opportunity to gain experience and expertise in running a nonprofit.
-Development of connections in the nonprofit community.

Collaborating with an existing nonprofit is an alternative that may be considered even where the contemplated charitable idea is not currently being implemented by an existing nonprofit. A nonprofit with a compatible mission may be receptive to implementing and operating a new program, particularly if a volunteer is willing to bring resources to the table. Alternatively, the nonprofit may have institutional knowledge relating to the charitable idea and its implementation. Moreover, the nonprofit may open doors and leverage assets that might not be otherwise readily available, such as

-Existing resources, including staff, volunteers, infrastructure, and systems.
-In-house experience and expertise, which may allow the contemplated program to be launched and operated efficiently and in compliance with the law.
-Donor and business relationships, including with institutional funders, nonprofit leaders, allied organizations, and the media.
-Goodwill, which may provide the program with name recognition and built-in public trust.

The other alternative he suggests is a Fiscal Sponsorship where a project is housed within the auspices of an existing non-profit. It allows the project to take advantage of the non-profit’s status without needing to create a separate entity. If the sponsorship agreement is written correctly, the project has the freedom to move to another non-profit or perhaps spin off as a separate non-profit once they have experienced sufficient growth. Fiscal sponsorship arrangements have been used to host short term projects or as an incubator for fledgling non-profits.

The Sponsor usually retains a portion of the gifts as a fee (5-10 percent is common) and allocates the rest to the Project. The Project Initiators may serve as employees or volunteers of the Sponsor delegated with the responsibility of operating the Project. They also may retain the right to move the Project to another Sponsor or to a new exempt organization created to permanently house the Project. Any such rights should be precisely spelled out in the fiscal sponsorship agreement.

Fiscal sponsorship may provide a Project with immediate tax-exempt status, advantageous treatment as a public charity (i.e., nonprivate foundation) without independently passing a public support test, some degree of administrative support, and a governing body that has a duty to ensure that the Project is operating in compliance with applicable laws. The Project Initiators must weigh such benefits against a lack of autonomy; their limited control over the Project, which remains under the ultimate control of the Sponsor; and the sponsorship fees.

The trade-off aside, if a fiscal sponsorship agreement is written well it can be an extremely helpful process of essentially testing the viability of a concept and learning how to run a non-profit organization without incurring the start up costs.

I was not aware that this option really existed. It might almost be better if aspiring non-profits pursued this option more regularly. Even if it didn’t result in new organizations spinning off all that often, it could potentially create more robust non-profit organizations. (Perhaps even resulting in more nimble sponsored programs growing to subsume their nominal sponsoring parent.)

Since the fiscal sponsorship option is relatively unknown as an option, perhaps the biggest hurdle will be getting both parties prepared and willing to engage in such an arrangement.

It is well known that non-profits start new programs in order to garner funding to support their main goals. It would be easy for a sponsoring organization to starve the program it agreed to house of the resources it needs to succeed. From the other side, as Tagaki mentioned, once you bring your program under the auspices of a fiscal sponsor, their priorities need to become your priorities to a large degree.

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