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How Long Before Elementary Schools Need To Turn A Profit?

Non-Profit Quarterly recently posted a story by Beth Gazley examining how private donations are increasingly being used to subsidize public services as government funding is cut.

One finding arts organizations should perhaps be sensitive to relates to school funding. According to the article, support of schools often exacerbates existing inequities in school funding where wealthier areas tend to provide more private funding to schools that are well supported by public funding.

My own research, with my colleague Ashlyn Aiko Nelson, suggests that DonorsChoose.org is something of an anomaly. Most of the philanthropy directed at public schools is local, meaning that wealthy school districts enjoy a philanthropic advantage and few people are paying attention to fairness and balance. And, indeed, we found clear evidence that across the nation private philanthropy for public schools exacerbates rather than eliminates budgetary inequities across school districts. Specifically, although most school funding still comes from taxpayers, we found that wealthy school districts are able to provide more dollars per pupil overall through this philanthropic “bonus.”8 Simply put, DonorsChoose.org’s successful efforts at raising $80 million in 2014 do not come close to balancing the inequitable impact of the other $880 million raised in 2010 by local PTOs, school foundations, and booster clubs.

Arts organizations are already well aware that arts entities serving wealthier communities tend to receive larger donations than those serving poorer communities. If they are really dedicated to bringing the arts to under served schools, they may have to make an effort to reach further beyond their immediate geographic vicinity.

Speaking from experience, I can attest that this can be difficult because schools that perform poorly are often under more pressure than normal to focus on testing and worry about anything that might distract from that goal.

I could find some pleasure in schools outsourcing arts education to non-profits, but unfortunately that doesn’t generally happen.

The other issue is the question about whether arts organizations are giving a community what they need or what the arts organization thinks they need.

Questions about whether you may be exhibiting this bias plagues every introspective arts organization. This can especially be the case when an organization serving a wealthy clientele reaches out to a far less affluent demographic.

An observation made in the NPQ article that “the narrow focus on school fundraising saps community energy and possibly distracts parents from other forms of political engagement—such as advocating for more public spending overall on public schools in order to end the reliance on fundraising altogether,” resonated with me.

First, because arts organizations have long faced the challenge of shrinking public funding and it is disturbing to me that a core public service like education may end up similarly regarded as something that a private community support should be responsible for.

Second, because that can result in an increasingly insular view by individuals about how education should be funded, shifting it from being beneficial to the commons to have an educated population to being a benefit only to those who can afford it. You can’t entirely blame people if, after putting a lot of effort into raising money for their own school to close a funding gap, they feel that other PTOs ought to do the same for their schools.

People often say arts organizations need to be self supporting and only present shows that can make the profit. I fear that the same sentiments may end up being applied to education.

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Share Your Locker With A Bassoonist

If you remember your Grimm Brothers fairy tales, you will recall the story of the Bremen Town Musicians, animals who drove criminals out of a house.

Well according to the BBC, a group of musicians in Bremen is helping to prevent crime by also taking up residence– in this case, in a neighborhood known for crime and poverty. More specifically, taking up residence in a school.

Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen shares space in a public school. When the philharmonic was looking for a new space, the city made sure the rooms in the new school they were building had excellent acoustics and set up the dual residency in the single building.

Initially, the musicians were disappointed they weren’t getting an iconic building and the teachers didn’t want to have students diverted from learning core subjects to interact with musicians.

The school and the orchestra devised a series of projects to bring musicians and students together. Musicians would visit classes to talk to pupils and once a year the musicians would help pupils and residents of Tenever to write and perform an opera.

But what makes the partnership unique is the sheer volume of interactions between musicians and pupils. Whenever they are not playing, the musicians are based in the school.

They sit with pupils over lunch and talk to them about their lives. Pupils are allowed to watch the orchestra rehearse, sitting between the musicians rather than in front of them as an audience.

Ms Rueggeberg says: “Normally you only see an orchestra dressed up for a concert, but the kids mostly see them running around in jeans and find them very approachable. It has broken down the barriers.”

As you might expect, test scores have gone up and problem behavior has decreased. Having the orchestra based there has also apparently reduced the negative stigma associated with the neighborhood.

If you want to combat the idea that “the arts are not for someone like me” there is probably no better way than having students eat lunch with artists and sit next to them during rehearsals.

If you notice at the end of the BBC piece, the musicians feel they are benefiting both in a growing understanding of their audience and development of their own skills.

“When the children sit between us at rehearsals, our concentration is better. We can actually see their eyes grow wide with excitement when we play certain chords or play quickly.

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Your Bad Customer Experience May Be A Feature, Not A Bug

About a month ago I bookmarked a post Seth Godin had made about customer service. Since it is a little longer than usual, I waited until I had the time to come back to read it.

Now I sort of wish I had read it earlier because it pretty much runs counter to every customer service best practices article I have ever read and provides a lot to think about.

Essentially he says there are different types of customer service and a company should own the type they practice rather than pretending they are striving for something they ain’t.

Customer service is difficult, expensive and unpredictable. But it’s a mistake to assume that any particular example is automatically either good or bad. A company might spend almost nothing on customer service but still succeed in reaching its goals.
[…]
Organizations don’t accidentally run ads, don’t mistakenly double (or halve) the amount of cereal they put in the box. They shouldn’t deliver customer service that doesn’t match their goals either.

and at the end of the post [my emphasis]

Every single person who makes budget decisions, staffing decisions and customer service decisions must to be clear about which strategy you picked, needs to be able to state, “we’re doing this because it’s congruent with what we say customer service is for.”

Obviously, you can mix and match among these options, and find new ones. What we must not do, though, is plan to do one thing but then try to save time or money and do something else, hoping for the results that come from the original plan without actually doing it.

Customer service, like everything an effective organization does, changes people. Announce the change you seek, then invest appropriately, in a system that is likely to actually produce the outcomes you just said you wanted.

Between those two passages I quote, he points out ten different uses of customer service. There are some most of us aspire to. There are some that we complain about.

We read a lot of articles about how businesses need to engage with customers. So when we have an unsatisfying interaction with a company, we may complain about how they did not take the opportunity earn our loyalty. But as Godin points out, they may be reaching their goals without interacting with us in the way we want them to.

As customers, we may be like the school kid who says, I am really nice, helpful and loyal to them, why won’t they like me? Liking you may not be important to their goals.

We all probably assume this is part of airlines’ calculation, but reading Godin’s post you realize there are a lot of other companies that have decided they are doing just fine without doing much more.

My suggestion as you read his post is to take a different approach than you might normally.

Instead of thinking about all the things you need to change about the way you do business in order to meet customer expectations, be honest and consider whether the way you handle customer service isn’t just the way you want it after all.

If it isn’t the way you want it, consider what approach would fulfill your vision of success rather than what approach the articles you read say you should be using.

Whatever philosophy you adopt needs to be inline with your philosophy on programming, education, pricing and operations. Any misalignment will be apparent.

You can’t change your pricing in an attempt to attract under served audiences but have programming, education and operations oriented to serving a different demographic.

Likewise, you can’t aspire to certain goals without directing training and funding to support it.

Once you have decided what your philosophy is and what resources you can afford to direct toward accomplishing it, then you need to own that reality rather than pretend to be doing something else.

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Talk About Somebody Beside Yourself

One of the social media guidelines for organizations that is frequently mentioned is to avoid having every post you make promote your products/events. The idea is that you should present a variety of topics that might be of interest and educational to whatever demographic follows you. People quickly become disillusioned by posts that talk only about yourself or try to sell them something.

It’s a lot like dating, too.

I have started to believe that is a good practice to embrace when you are asked to make speeches and presentations about your arts organization as well. Even though you are asked to talk about yourself, the audience may enjoy themselves more if you expand the scope a little.

Over the last year I have been asked to speak to a number of groups and each time my general approach is to talk about how my organization fits into the greater “arts ecology” of the community.

The simple fact is, no one arts organization usually has the resources to meet the needs of everyone in the community. A vibrant arts environment requires a wide variety of groups representing various aspects of their disciplines. Performing arts organizations may not have a season that runs year round. A visual arts organization probably isn’t equipped to provide classes in performing arts. A children’s theater may not be able to provide adults with the experiences they crave.

When I have been talking to groups, I have been pointing out all the opportunities that exist in the community in contexts my organization can’t serve well. My goal is to raise awareness and pride in the resources the community has to offer.

One thing we know from research is that even if people never avail themselves of amenities like the opera, they value living in a community where an opera exists. That attitude helps communities attract new businesses and helps businesses attract quality employees. (Granted that is of little consolation to the opera performing to empty seats.)

It doesn’t take much effort to mention other arts organizations you frequent and why you like attending. (Especially if they are comping you in to events.) I often mention my lack of knowledge about visual arts and how I enjoy the informality of the local museum which allows me to ask questions without feeling like I will be judged for my ignorance.

Within this general theme, I also tell funny stories and have been known to recite some poetry as well. I get many compliments on my talks and invitations to speak at other places. Certainly, a good deal of this success can be attributed to my gradually improving skill at public speaking.

But consider, when people come thinking they are going to hear someone talk about the upcoming season of performances and leave having discovered there is more going on in their community than they knew, the experience has exceeded their expectations. My brochure can tell them what is coming up over the next year, but only I can make them leave excited and proud about living here.

I am sure many of you live in places where you view other organizations as rivals for audience and donors. You don’t necessarily have to mention them, but I suspect that if you get into the practice of talking about how exciting it is to live in a place that has an organization like Company A, you will start to get much better at identifying and communicating about the niche you fill in the community. (And perhaps in the process you will discover a niche you should be filling instead.)

Company A may not even be the organization you view as a rival. It may be an organization of a different discipline you feel complements the work you do, or vice versa.

Who knows, in the process of talking about your local arts ecology, someone (including yourself), may get so excited and proud about the environment that partnerships, alliances, sponsorships and better may result.

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