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Gala Going

Seth Godin recently linked back to a post he wrote in 2011 about the economics of fund raising galas. To heavily summarize what many of us already know, he points out that it is difficult to get someone to give money to a cause, but if you wrap it in a social occasion, people are willing to spend a large amount of money with the knowledge that some of it will go to a good cause.

Of course the issue is, there is a lot of time and money being spent on organizing the event. When it is all over, there may be a significant amount left over to put toward the cause, but there would have been a lot more had there not been such a large amount of fundraising cost involved.

But that brings up the simple question about whether fundraising can be decoupled from the social element. The basic development office truism is that people give to people, not organizations. Donors need to feel a personal attachment and investment to the cause.

There is an event called an Un-Gala where you are supposed to stay at home and make a donation. But if you Google the term, you will find that a lot of people sort of missed the memo and are having big flashy events.

At the same time, donors are increasingly looking at the overhead costs of non-profit organizations. Organizations like GuideStar, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance are pushing back against using overhead ratio as a measure of a charity’s effectiveness.

Then there are some like Dan Palotta who are really pushing back against the concept of overhead ratios and advocate for spending large amounts of money to fund raise enough to pursue big solutions.

He has no desire to decouple the social aspect from fundraising. The more galas, 5k runs and promotional efforts you can muster in order to raise awareness and forge a connection or investment with the cause, the better in his mind.

I find a lot I agree with in Palotta’s philosophy. His thoughts about people taking too conservative a view about fund raising bear considering. Maybe my next statement is reflective of that mental malaise.

I am not sure most non-profits operate at a scale on which his ideas would be viable. I think he is envisioning the steps large cause based charities focused on cancer, poverty, diabetes, environment, etc. An arts organization would probably have to adopt a vision on a statewide scale rather serving a city or town to be operating on the scale required to viably follow the approach he advocates.

I have generally viewed Kickstarter and similar crowdfunding services with a semi-skeptical eye. However, reading Godin’s post on gala economics, I have to admit crowdfunding is superior in some aspects. It does reduce the cost of the social element to some degree. There are costs associated with producing a video appeal and producing and fulfilling the donor benefits, just as with a gala event. However, the costs aren’t likely to be as great as for a fundraising gala.

I have heard some horror stories from people who severely underestimated the amount of labor and cost involved with meeting their crowdfunding promises, but I can attest to the fact people do the same with their gala events. Crowdfunding sites allow an opportunity to experiment and relatively quickly refine your approach over various iterations. Something that is not easily done when you are talking about organizing successive social events.

So it is possible in time people will become as adept at creating engaging crowdfunding presentations as they are with gala auctions.

While most crowdfunding sites are focused on projects rather than being optimized for annual seasonal fundraising events, I imagine that design might evolve over time. Just as likely, non-profit organizations may find the idea of anchoring fundraising around an event on a single day is inferior to a series of longer term appeals customized and delivered to specific groups.

A recent article on Nonprofit Hub notes that donor fatigue is not real. People are willing to entertain multiple requests for donations. The thing that wears on people is poorly designed request and follow processes. A targeted, online approach to both may be the solution and allow for more frequent solicitations.

The other little nagging consideration is if people are increasingly having their cultural experiences at home or on a handheld screen, what will be the future of gala events? Granted, everyone loves a good party and may show up for gala events when they never darken the door at any other time of the year.

I would be interested to know if anyone has studied whether people whose only connection with an organization is these semi-annual events donate as much as someone who involves themselves more frequently. It would be difficult to measure. The infrequent attendee could easily be swept away by the emotion of the night (and perhaps a sense of regret for not participating more often) and give quite a bit. Someone who participates often may not give as much because they are not wealthy, but attend the gala because they do feel a significant appreciation for the experience they have had.

The reality is, both approaches may ultimately be necessary. Currently crowdfunding sites tap as much into the participant’s wider social network as much as it does their direct connection and interest in the project. Live events appeal more directly to a person’s connection, but provide an opportunity mingle and have an enjoyable social experience that a video on a website can’t provide.

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What I Learned Today About The Benefits of the Arts

I apologize for missing my posting schedule yesterday. I was involved with an activity that I need to keep confidential. It kept me busy all day and required a bit of driving to return from. However, I can say it was related to my job and I got paid with a big bucket of candy.

I am taking the time to tell you this by way of celebrating the type of opportunities those of us in the arts have in the course of our jobs. It is an amusingly enigmatic, but absolutely true, description of what transpired.

Another of those enjoyable opportunities presented itself again today when people from our state arts council came down to do a site visit for a project we are participating in October. In addition to showing them around my facility, I also took them around town to look at our floodwall murals, our children’s theater and the local museum.

Since we are at one of the most remote parts of the state (I look at the hills of KY across the Ohio River from my office) I wanted to provide a little advocacy for the arts in our community.

Some of what I learned in the process brought to light issues which I suspect are being seen nationwide.

Something the people at the museum noticed in the arts classes and summer camp activities they conduct is that they are having to spend more time working on basic eye-hand coordination exercises with kids than they used to. There is a circus/gymnastics school under the museum’s organizational umbrella and they are having the same issues with coordination and with kids feeling comfortable about throwing their bodies around.

They see this as a result of the reduction of arts classes and recess in schools and the simple fact that kids are more often in front of screens rather than just running around wildly.

So when we talk about the benefits of the arts, we can probably lay claim to improving very elementary abilities like eye-hand coordination and gross and fine motor skills. It probably sounds ridiculous to even consider saying such a thing since it is essentially slightly above walking as part of natural development, but it may not be long before we start hearing about the consequences of people lacking these abilities.

Everywhere I have worked, I frequently hear something along the lines of “X have lived here all their whole lives, but this was the first time they were in this/a arts building.”

In the experience of the museum folks, the things they are having the kids do like making mbira with cigar boxes and wire coat hangers are often among the first projects involving trial and error problem solving the kids have worked on with material objects. (As opposed to solving puzzles, etc on a screen.)

It makes me glad I am supplying my nephews with boxes of Legos. Again, this may eventually become an area in which the arts can claim the provide a notable benefit.

The last thing I learned that made an impression on me was that the circus program, which has a Cirque du Soleil type focus on acrobatics, has been really effective at cutting across social and economic strata. Because physical work is so dependent on body type and weight, students get paired up on this basis rather than with whom they are friends.

Some parents may be rolling coins to allow their kids to participate, but in the practice rooms the value of one person relative to another is all about physical strength and ability to safely counterbalance you. Economic means doesn’t really factor into whether you can trust someone act as your partner.

This is not a claim all arts disciplines can make. In some social background does enable you to progress further. In others, you aren’t necessarily required to depend so entirely on a partner.

That being said, there are ways most of the arts disciplines can structure their instruction to draw attention to the fact that social and economic background doesn’t have any bearing on one’s ability to demonstrate excellence. (Probably best accomplished by drawing as little attention to any differences as possible.)

Yes granted, ability to afford advanced training and internships is tied to economic background, but in the early stages of training especially, it is often clear that background is not a determinant of basic ability. (Though it may determine how inhibited someone is about exhibiting their ability.)

So even though the arts have been branded as elitist, they can be a powerful tool for socialization that de-emphasizes distinctions.

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Psst! You Wanna Buy A Press Release?

Last week I was reading an article on Slate that talked about teachers who were making more money selling their lesson plans online than they were from their teaching jobs.

So before I go on, let me just suggest that if there are any educational activities your organization does that you feel are really effective or if you have any lesson plans that bring the arts to other academic subjects (or vice versa), you may want to make them available on the websites mentioned in that article. There may be a good market for such things.

My purpose in this post is somewhat along the same lines. I wondered if there might not be a need among arts professionals to share materials they developed so that others wouldn’t have to constantly reinvent the wheel.

In a way, it is something of a logical extension of the idea behind Drew McManus’ ArtsHacker website which gives advice and guidance to arts organizations. (If you didn’t know it already, I am a contributor to the site.)

I am not suggesting he monetize the site. There is plenty of need for the freely given and available advice it provides.

I suspect there might be a real need for other types of materials arts groups develop in the course of business.

Just off the top of my head, there is probably a need for good marketing content for different shows. Whenever I do research on artists or shows so that I can write press releases and web/brochure blurbs, I often find that people are using the generic descriptions provided by the artist or agent.

Often the blurb is about how great the artist or performance is, but not why an audience member might enjoy the show. I find this particularly true of Broadway shows which seem to have more content about the creators and producers than the show itself. My audience doesn’t know enough about various choreographers to care about that.

I am sure there are a lot of people out there who try to craft interesting descriptions designed to resonate with their local audiences, but they aren’t easy to find. Having this work collected in one place might be a boon.

Right now the best centralized sources are the table at conferences upon which arts orgs throw their brochures.

Granted, you wouldn’t be able to use someone’s release in its entirety. Every community has its own particular nuances that need to be addressed. I don’t imagine that the teachers mentioned in the Slate article are using lesson plans on the sites without making alterations to suit their students.

After a few years, this resource may actually raise the quality of promotional writing in the arts if press releases were available for download for a few dollars from a database indexed by show/artist and community demographics.

Once people start looking at the potential approaches one might use to promote something, they may be inspired to up their own game– especially if people are paying money for good material.

It may instill confidence in a number of people who start to see a high demand for their writing. Just because an event wasn’t well attended doesn’t mean you are a bad writer. The message may have just been poorly distributed.

(Though the negative potential is that instead of hiring marketing staff, a company might have an intern aggregate content from press release samples.)

Other things people might find valuable are ideas for events surrounding a performance: everything from dinner & show promos; coffee houses; young professional wine and cheese events and after performance talks, to an imaginative use of a speed dating format to meet the cast.

It may sound a little cynical, but I could also see a demand for providing grant report content from which people could crib information. Even though a lot grant reporting feels like it involves mindless reduplication of effort with minor tweaks, against this is an area where the example of effective writing can be valuable.

I would be reluctant to have people post their strategic plans for sale since they really do need to be invested with long, tedious hours of discussion and revision to be effective.

However, case studies on how an organization manifested their strategic plan could be useful. If you are having to write about it for some grant or foundation report, you might as well make a little additional money off the effort.

The one big issue I haven’t investigated or really thought about is the issue of copyright credit. I am not sure how the teacher lesson plan sites work it. I have seen copyright notices on educational handouts. Since classroom instruction isn’t as public a forum as press release distribution and web content, I don’t imagine there is any need to give credit to another teacher before a lesson on fractions.

Would you have to give byline credit on every press release noting all the people who contributed to it as some news outlets do?

A lot of potential in this idea, but much to think about.

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Les Grandes Espérances [Insert Translation Here]

In the course of any given week, I don’t usually think about supertitles. However, in the course of the last week, the topic has come up twice. First, in a post by Fred Plotkin about opera supertitles on the WQXR website and then today I see one on The Telegraph website about Parisian theaters adding them to their shows.

Plotkin wonders aloud whether the use of supertitles in opera is degrading the experience by distracting people from the power of the music. In his mind, audiences should be focused on the emotion being communicated by the music and the singing rather than worrying overly much about understanding the plot.

The Telegraph piece says the motivation behind Parisian venues adding supertitles to their performances is to accommodate the growing number of English speaking tourists who are attending performances.

I haven’t been to enough operas to really have any sort of investment in whether supertitles are undermining the point of attending an opera. One of the commenters to Plotkin’s piece suggests that without the supertitles, most opera companies outside of the Metropolitan Opera would not be able to fill half their seats.

That’s what I wanted to address, the basic idea that there are growing expectations from audiences.

It is often a daunting proposition for most non-profits who wonder if they have the resources to address those expectations. It is easy to forget that the need to meet these expectations may reflect a growing interest from people who want to participate rather than something required to retain the audiences you still have.

The Parisian theaters are adding the supertitles because they have found,

“There is a whole trend in tourism to seek ‘experiences’ rather than visits. Tourists want to go beyond being stuck together in the Eiffel Tower, a cabaret or Versailles, to have more local experiences,” said Carl de Poncins, founder of Theatre in Paris, the company that came up with the surtitle idea”

A desire to find experiences off the beat tourist path is potentially a good sign for arts organizations in large and mid-size cities with relatively good tourist business.

Even if you aren’t in a high tourism area, there is potential for an indirect benefit to you.

When I made my post last week about the economics of Broadway productions, a colleague pointed out that even though Broadway had had the best year ever, increasingly most of the attendance comes from tourism rather than residents of Metro-NY.

If that continues to be true, like the theaters in Paris, New York City based theaters may find it necessary to provide foreign language translations for shows. I don’t think single language translation of supertitles would be suitable given the high number of international tourists visiting the city.

An attempt to provide information to attendees at performing arts events on personal devices was first made about a decade ago with Concert Companion, so the idea is not new. In that time the technology to deliver the information has improved greatly and the appearance of those devices in performance halls is becoming more frequent, (though perhaps unwelcomed).

The downsides to this situation are similar to the ones Plotkin identifies. Yet, the benefit of commercial and larger arts entities recognizing a need to accommodate speakers of foreign languages is that the technology to deliver on demand and in real time has a good chance of being developed.

Even if foreign tourists don’t play into Broadway marketing plans, it probably won’t be long before playbills and all the enhanced information about shows that Concert Companion set out to to deliver will be regularly available at performances on personal devices.

Heck, theaters may stop handing out playbills altogether and go the route of airlines who require you to bring a wifi capable device if you want to watch in-flight movies. After a good system for organization and delivery of the content is in place, then the real hurdle will be about the etiquette for using personal devices at live performances.

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