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Telling The Story Of Your Overhead

Our friends at the Non-Profit Happy Hour Facebook group shared the Furniture Bank’s Charity Overhead Manifesto. In the post, the Furniture Bank talks about how much damage resistance to covering overhead can do to their programs.

We have heard many of these arguments before, but Furniture Bank takes the next necessary step of humanizing and discussing the impact of the work “overhead employees” perform.

The reason this is important is because it takes an abstract concept of overhead and specifically shows how overhead costs are manifested in the organization’s operations. Absent this specificity, it is easy to envision overhead going to senior administrator salaries or unsexy equipment and supplies like filing cabinets and copy paper. While this is inevitably the case to some degree, it isn’t the whole story.

This reminds us how important a compelling story can be. Furniture Bank lists what their overhead helps them accomplish:

  • Maintain, insure and run a fleet of 11 trucks, and a team of movers, picking up furniture from donors and delivering them to clients every day;
  • Employ 25-30 individuals each year who would otherwise face barriers to employment;
  • Pay market rent on a 30,000 Sq Ft client showroom;
  • Sustain an organization with 40 hardworking and big hearted employees who:
    • take orders,
    • track inventory,
    • book client appointments,
    • schedule and complete pickups & deliveries,
    • answer donor inquiries,
    • process donations,
    • ensure we have the right technology to run our operations, and
    • undertake the numerous other tasks that must occur every day to ensure that the community’s unwanted furniture goes directly to a family transitioning out of homelessness or displacement.

That format can be a little boring though. They also participate in the Charity Defense Council’s “I’m Overhead” campaign that has created images with Furniture Bank employees discussing what they do which end with a line about the impact they make, (you can see examples of the full ads on the Furniture Bank site.)

“My name is Miro Janes-Richardson. I make sure families have a place they can finally call home, and I’m overhead.”

My name is Yuri Hernandez. I make sure clients have the dignity of choice and don’t have to sleep on the floor, and I’m overhead.”

Miro is a truck crew leader and Yuri is a client services coordinator.

It may be difficult for arts organizations that don’t have a strong human services aspect to their operations to tell as compelling a story as these, but there are still opportunities to illustrate that staff help the organization be good stewards of donations.

For example:

“Do you recognize this flat? It has been in some of your favorite performances over the last five years including Dangerous Liaisons, Amadeus, A Raisin in the Sun and Christmas Carol. Here at the theater, we are great recyclers, repainting and repairing set piece dozens of times, extending their useful lives for years. This reduces our need to purchase lumber, which is good for the environment. But to make it happen, we need to store flats like this one and be clever about changing its appearance so you don’t recognize it when it appears again.

I am Steve and I work magic to make fake trees look real so that real trees can live, and I am overhead.

That five minutes of typing may not have resulted in the most compelling argument for theater operations, but you get the idea.

It isn’t just enough to tell people that they shouldn’t use overhead ratio as a measure of effectiveness, it is also necessary to communicate specific examples that illustrate that what they may envision the raw numbers represent isn’t necessarily the reality.

I don’t doubt that there will still be people who want 95-100% of their donation to be devoted exclusively to program beneficiaries, but linking overhead activities with impact outcomes can help combat decision making strictly by the numbers.

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The Classic Or Contemporary?

When it comes to Shakespeare, I feel like it is worth taking the time to sit and allow yourself to adjust to the language and rhythms rather than dismissing it outright as too impenetrable. There is a lot in there that can’t be accurately replicated by updating the language.

I would say the same thing about classical music and visual art. Allowing yourself time to transition your perspective from 21 century life to whatever period a piece of music was written in is worth the time.

If you are wandering a museum, you definitely need to be prepared shift between digital graphics of daily existence to Vermeer to Mark Rothko.

So I was interested to read back in April that Shakespeare enjoys a greater degree of appreciation in non-English speaking countries.

A survey of 18,000 people in 15 countries reveals, for example, that 88% of surveyed Mexicans like Shakespeare, compared with only 59% of British people; 84% of Brazilians said they found him relevant to today’s world, compared with 57% in the UK; and 83% of Indians said they understood him, far more than the 58% of Britons.

Overall, Shakespeare’s popularity abroad stands at 65%, compared with 59% in the UK.

[…]

The research suggests it is experience of Shakespeare at school which plays the biggest part – studying the original text can put people off for life.

Hilhorst said most Britons were taught Shakespeare in his original English while abroad there were often translations which used a more contemporary, accessible language.

That conclusion would explain why the “do you like Shakespeare” figures are roughly the same among English-speaking countries – USA (63%), Australia (60%) and the UK (59%). In the top five are India (89%), Mexico (88%), Brazil (87%), Turkey (79%) and South Africa (73%)

Only French and Germans like Shakespeare less than English speakers.

There is an implication in the article that Shakespeare is better enjoyed in general when the language is updated to be accessible to contemporary audiences.

I am of two minds about this. First, it is irking no one is really advocating for classical music to be updated to make it more accessible. Certainly, you can put it in different contexts to make it more familiar and accessible like Bugs Bunny cartoons or playing it in bars, but will it increase appreciation and understanding of Bach to hear is played on electric bass, guitar, keyboard and a drum kit?

What about electric violins and turn table?

Does it help people understand The Last Supper if it is digitized or parodied?

star-wars-last-supper-mosaic-72dpi

If I am being honest, maybe Black Violin’s version of Bach’s Brandenburg Concert will help people become more comfortable with the original. But I imagine it is also easy to claim that while it may make you more comfortable, it doesn’t really help you understand Bach’s original composition.

I would also argue this is more akin to a shift in context than an actual adaptation into a contemporary “language.” I would place the common practice of  setting Shakespeare in different time periods while retaining the language in this category.

Which brings me to my second mind. The one advantage Shakespeare has is that the works can be adapted to contemporary times and the adaptations can help you understand the original works. I would say West Side Story may do this better for Romeo and Juliet and Throne of Blood for MacBeth than Forbidden Planet does it for The Tempest (granted, Forbidden Planet wasn’t intended as an adaptation of Tempest).

Whether adaptations like these help inspire people to explore the originals, I don’t know. My sense is that the theatrical format by its very nature lends itself to adaptation in ways that allow people to connect with the original works in ways other arts disciplines don’t.

To a certain degree, there is an argument for making Shakespeare’s language more contemporary because you can do effectively.

But it is still absolutely worth experiencing Shakespeare in the original language.

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What Is Required To Create Works That Matter?

Can a creative person afford not to attend to the business details and promotion/branding of their practice these days?

Cal Newport, perhaps unwittingly, wades into the longstanding debate about pure practice of ones craft vs. being more business savvy and oriented with his post “Want to Create Things That Matter? Be Lazy.”

In this instance, the “laziness” is not doing anything that distracts you from deeply investing in your core pursuit. So no engaging with fans on social media or email; accepting speaking engagements; show casing work, etc.

While Newport doesn’t explicitly say this includes ignoring personal finances and legal arrangements, his definition that:

“…shallow work is an activity that can impede more important deep efforts and therefore cause more net harm than good. It might slightly help your writing career in the moment to be retweeted, but the long term impact of a distracting Twitter habit could be the difference between a struggling novelist and an award-winning star like Stephenson.”

could easily be used to support a rationalization for avoiding the less pleasant aspects of a creative career.

Paying attention to the contracts you enter in and analyzing if you are effectively pricing your work provide a net benefit to one’s career, but this is also time consuming if you don’t have the resources to pay someone else to do it for you.

While you would be on solid ground to claim these are definitely worthy pursuits, according to Newport activities like public speaking engagements are on shakier ground. Still, public appearances, especially ones you are paid for, aren’t really on the same level as busyness that you engage in to avoid doing substantive work.

Emails and social media can be a time suck and you can rationalize that you are getting things done and advancing your career, but Newport has a point that the trade off of spending an hour on tweets vs. an hour of productive creation in unequal. At a certain level of notoriety, public appearances can become a huge time and energy suck of themselves.

At the same time, we can point to examples of people who have had their careers start based on the effort they have put into a social media presence. Whether you think that success is deserved or not or whether you believe the career will endure or not is another issue.

Even though I am pretty much firmly on the side of balancing your checkbook and reading your contracts, I think the conversation about how best to pursue a career as a creative isn’t one that can be definitively settled.

That said, it doesn’t serve creative artist well to lecture them on being mindful of all aspects of their lives without some good practice guidelines (if not best practice guidelines).

Most creative oriented folks would say it is important to them to create work that matters. But if no one is aware of the work’s existence, if no effort has been made to make people aware of it, does it matter? Or rather, does it matter to the extent that others feel it has impact in their lives.

There can also be the question about whether it matters enough to support the creator financially, but that touches upon an immense conversation so I will just leave the question as one of impact.

So how do you know when you are neglecting the practical requirements of a creative career? How do you know when you are favoring shallow pursuit of your creative goals over deeper pursuit of them?

These statues were in a side alley people park their bikes in. Does this work matter?

These statues were in a side alley people park their bikes in. Does this work matter?

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Can You Answer This Question About The Arts?

I am a little embarrassed that it hasn’t occurred to me to post about this sooner.

Here on the old blogosphere, general Internet, at conferences, in coffee houses and on the street where you live, we often talk about educating people, reaching out to them, removing the sense of mystery about the arts. Yet it seems so difficult to figure out an effective way to do this.

While I am not going to claim it would have a high ROI, it just occurred to me, (despite participating for years), that getting more arts people answering questions on Quora would help promote and educate people about the subject. In addition, it would give those involved with the arts a sense of what people were asking and give them practice answering the questions.

I have been reading and participating on Quora for a few years and only just recently realized that the arts have pretty light representation in terms of questions and responses. I get a digest of recent responses everyday which often address questions about history (real and speculative), politics, and guns, lots of guns. I have no idea why I get so many topics on guns since that isn’t one of my stated interests.

It just occurred to me this weekend that I don’t really see much about the arts. When I do seek out questions on the topic, the most recent answers can be between 3-5 years old.

Today I got a request to answer – “Why do they tiptoe in ballet?” I have a general idea of how to respond, but many of you with a dance focus can do a better job answering than me.

Here is a brief example of the types of questions in the subject area – What makes acting believable?; How can I improve my live performance as a musician?; Theatre: Why aren’t plays recorded for commercial sale?; What are some interesting tricks that are used in theatrical set design? (this one only has two answers); Is it socially acceptable to go to the theater by myself?

Of course, there are also questions about studying an arts discipline (barely any answers on multiple theatre related ones) and dating someone who is involved in the arts.

Quora can be a great source of information on areas of interest you may have. You may often discover answers to questions you weren’t aware you had. The range of people answering questions can be surprising. Celebrities, prominent business people, Nobel Prize winners and prominent experts often offer their insight. Over time you will also start to recognize and even seek out answers by less noted people who have earned your trust by exhibiting a high level of expertise and thoughtfulness in their responses.

While you will find articles providing advice on how to use Quora for marketing and promotion, the environment of the forum doesn’t really tolerate blatant promotion.

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