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Corralling The Wild Volunteer

The Wall Street Journal had a story entitled Docents Gone Wild sharing some stories about museum docents going off script, treating visitors rudely or diverting people away from works of art they didn’t approve of.

The take away for me wasn’t so much that you have to keep an eye on those crotchety senior citizens as much as the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation provides an opportunity to mobilize a large cohort of people on behalf of the arts. Only it will require some effort to effectively engage and train them.

In some respects this idea is a complement to the series on arts and aging/healing that Barry Hessenius hosted last month. That series dealt with the idea that there is an unmet need that the arts can respond to that is only going to grow as the Baby Boomer generation ages. However, currently most arts organizations lack the capacity to do so.

In terms of enlisting retirees as volunteer or in a type of semi-retired/second career role, arts organizations’ ability is a little more developed, but can still be improved. These retirees are people who are transitioning out of careers as highly skilled professionals and will likely enjoy a longer, healthier post-retirement lifestyle than their parents had.

They may want to contribute more than just ushering, envelop stuffing and phone answering during their retirement. If they can’t find an activity to hold their interest, they may choose another activity that they feel is better suited to the energy and ambition they feel they have.

Arts organizations may be wary about involving additional older folks on their boards of directors when they are desperately seeking younger voices, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some organizations managed to create special task groups that mobilized to advocate and lobby for them with government entities.

For all the foibles their docents may exhibit, I am pretty impressed by the rigor of the training program these museums have instituted for their docents. Not that I would increase the training we give our volunteers for its own sake, but it makes me wonder if we are investing enough attention to our training as well as care and feeding of our current volunteers even before addressing the issue of being prepared for new arrivals.

As I was I writing this post, I had a vague recollection of some futurist like John Nasbitt (Megatrends 2000), Faith Popcorn (Popcorn Report) or Alvin Toffler (Future Shock) coming out with a book in the last 10-15 years that said retirees would gather into fairly insular communities termed something like Yogurt Communities because they would value “active cultures” or cultural activity. I wonder if anyone can remember it because I can’t find it. I was curious to do a check back to see if predictions were coming to pass.

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Info You Can Use: Playing With Your Volunteers

About a month ago I wrote about how our accreditation team used games to get the leadership ready for the accreditation process coming up this year. I had noted that while accreditation is a pretty oppressive and mind numbing subject, the games made learning about it easier. I had suggested that this was a good approach for tackling administrative and governance processes.

This weekend, we actually used a similar approach during the much more pleasant process of volunteer training so I thought I would share what we did.

We held a brunch in our lobby. My assistant theatre manager and I made Belgian waffles and pancakes to order for our volunteers (we also had eggs, breakfast meats and a pretty good toppings bar.) After eating our fill, we talked about the upcoming season of shows and why each was so interesting.

Then we had a scavenger hunt which actually proved to be a good tool for making people more aware of many aspects of their jobs and the theatre building. Some of the questions were just fun and silly like getting a picture of a prop backstage and some information from a set model. Others were more directly related to things we wanted our volunteers to know.

For example we asked how many theatre seats were in a row that had empty spots for wheelchairs so they were aware that the number on the right most seat wasn’t actually the seat count for the row.

Because there is construction next to the theatre we had them take a picture of one of the large signs directing people along the detour from the disabilities parking to the lobby which forced the volunteers to walk the path a wheelchair would have to follow.

We asked for the name of the person who sponsored the Green Room so that the volunteers knew where the green room was and were familiar with the name of one of our important donors.

And of course, we made sure they knew that most crucial of all information–where the bathrooms are–by making them count all the stalls available for use by audience members. (Which also helped them know which restrooms had the most capacity.)

I think this was a much more effective technique to simply giving a tour and pointing things out because it forced the volunteers to pay closer attention to the surroundings as they sought out our grand piano and the 2005-2006 season brochures hidden around the building. It also promoted team work and helped the volunteers bond over activities other than ripping tickets and stuffing program books.

Though to be clear, this doesn’t replace our orientation tours. Every volunteer is given a tour of the facility which points out the location of emergency exits and life safety equipment along with instruction about the procedures.

Nearly all of the volunteers are interested in going around the building again if provided the opportunity. Opening all the doors and turning on all the lights to let them scurry around looking for things changes their relationship with the facility and infuses the experience with a bit of the playfulness and fun that characterize the arts.

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Can Arts Orgs Play Moneyball With Their Staffs?

Ever since the movie Moneyball came out, I have been thinking about whether similar system can be applied to the arts. I mean a system by which baseball teams with small budgets were able to compete on par with the most well-funded teams by assembling a team of under utilized misfits? Heck, I am describing the place you work, right? It seems ready made for the arts!

I was happy to see a recent post by Shawn Harris on the TCG website raising the same general question. I agree with most of what Shawn suggests, including taking an objective look at different aspect of our operations and audiences to determine whether we are truly serving the interests of the community or just perpetuating assumptions.

One assumption I feel pretty safe in making is that what motivates people to attend a baseball game is different from what motivates people to attend an arts event. While celebrity is certainly a factor, people attend baseball games looking for an engaging contest. If they don’t know a lot about each of the players, that is okay if the game was well played. Can the same be said about an arts event? If someone is unfamiliar with a performance, will the fact that statistically speaking, the actors, while unknown, are the most effective performers in a period play?

Probably not. But then again, you shouldn’t be selling the show based on statistics anyway. Even though stats are a huge part of sports, that isn’t what primarily sells tickets. While a well-known artist would make it easier to sell a show, in the long run it is going to be better to take the “brains in the seats” view and work on engaging audiences in the organization, one aspect of which is going to be based on the quality of your personnel choices.

That is what I first started thinking about when I was considering whether Moneyball could be applied to the arts–are we hiring the best people? More over, are we actively seeking the best people or just casting a net and taking whatever swims our way?

I recall going to an Arts Presenters conference where Andrew Taylor talked about how a lot of arts organizations didn’t know how to effectively evaluate the skills of job candidates. He said there was a tendency to hire to the specifics of a job description rather than to the general needs of the position. Though he did mention an associate who hired a person who managed a Sears call center to run their ticket office after some unsatisfying interviews with people from the arts field, it seemed the exception rather than the rule. Taylor said he teaches his students to take control of the interview in order to illuminate their skills and illustrate how it applies to the criteria laid out in the job description.

While I am reluctant to put arts people out of work by suggesting that you look to hire those without any industry experience, I think it can help to always be mindful of the basic abilities you seek in employees. I once had lunch with some representatives from Enterprise Car Rentals and they were so impressed by the affability and service provided by one of the wait staff, they tried to recruit her at the end of our meal.

When was the last time you even thought about adding a person you met outside the context of the arts to your team? In fact, other than pursuing people who would increase the prestige of your company, when is the last time you tried to recruit someone way from another arts organization based on abilities and effectiveness alone?

When I think about the Moneyball model of finding success putting together a seemingly mismatched set of players few other teams desired, I wonder about our collective ability in the arts to effectively identify and cultivate the talent of people who aren’t necessarily shining in their current position. I know this can be tough in the arts where everyone wants to be the star actor/dancer/artist/director. Even if you are perceptive enough to see their talent lay elsewhere, people may be resistant to taking a different role.

The thing is, non profits should be pros at identifying and leveraging undiscovered skills. With all the volunteers we use to assist us with our programs and to serve on our boards, we should be championing seemingly unorthodox hiring decisions. But if Andrew Taylor is correct, the hiring practices in the arts are actually more orthodox than in the for profit sector.

If that is the case, perhaps we aren’t using our volunteers’ skills as effectively as we could, as well. That question starts to bring me back to my post last week featuring Aaron Hurst’s suggestion that certain volunteer programs may be a waste of time.

The research he cited found little difference in effectiveness between well- and poorly- managed programs involving less than 50 people. I wonder though if well managed programs might have beneficial side-effects for organizations in the form of improved hiring skills. In other words, the capacity to identify and employ highly capable people may be developed in the process of effectively doing the same thing with volunteers.

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Info You Can Use: Efforts You Can Skip…Maybe

From time to time I advocate for carefully evaluating the technology tools ones organization uses rather than jumping on what appears to be the hottest new thing everyone is apparently using. Not every tool is appropriate for every organization.

It was with great interest that I started to read Taproot Foundation president Aaron Hurst’s piece, Five Investments You Can Skip. In it, Hurst follows a similar theme in suggesting that non-profit organizations of a certain size and scope consider giving certain “must haves” a pass. Upon reading them, however, I was a little skeptical about some. The five he suggested were:

1) Volunteers. Recruiting and managing volunteers generally isn’t worthwhile unless you use at least 50 per year, they do at least 50 hours of service each (or fewer volunteers and more hours each), and you invest in volunteer management systems. Short of that, it’s almost certainly a waste of time.

2) Websites. Most nonprofits (the small neighborhood ones) would likely be fine with just a Facebook page. A template site would do the trick for slightly larger group. Only 25 percent of nonprofits need customized web design.

3) Board. There is a tremendously high fixed cost to training your board to facilitate donations (in kind or cash). If your board can’t generate a large part of your budget (say, 20 percent), you are likely to find them getting in the way of fundraising success and eating up senior staff time (and increasing burn out). If that’s the case, your organization would likely see more success with a smaller board focused solely on audits and the legal requirements of governance.

4) Social Media. Does it drive your advocacy, fundraising, or program success? It does for likely less than 2 percent of nonprofits. Everyone else is wasting a ton of time and energy on it. Much like my local car wash that urges me to “like” it on Facebook.

5) Strategic planning. You need a strategic plan, but for most organizations it can be a lot lighter than most MBAs want to admit. It doesn’t need to be perfect and frequently should be more of a living document.

Numbers 3 and 5 I can agree with pretty readily. The suggestion to eschew websites in favor of a Facebook page in number 2 seems to be contradicted by the implication in number 4 that social media, including Facebook may be a waste of time and energy.

I did consider that what he says might be true for non-profits in general. I don’t think it is applicable to arts organizations where providing up to date information about events and activities pretty much necessitate a web presence that is adaptable to your specific needs. I have a difficult time imagining that Facebook is a good option for most non-profits given that they need a site that distinguishes them and their mission from everything else one might come across on the web.

His suggestion that only about 2% of non profits are seeing any benefit from social media made me wonder 1) what he based that on and 2) if true, it may just as likely be due to lack of understanding about how to use social media effectively.

Number 1- Not investing in volunteers, held a number of reversals of opinion for me. At first I assumed he opposed investing in Volunteer management software, then I realized he meant not having volunteers at all. This seemed the most controversial of his points as reflected by the long and impassioned comments that followed. Hurst answered those objections with some research that supported his assertion that volunteer programs weren’t effective below about 50 people.

“When an organization reaches 50 volunteers AND achieves an effective volunteer management model, not only do they lead and manage their organizations better, but they are also significantly more adaptable (i.e., reflect the capacity to be a learning organization), sustainable and better resourced (i.e., have skills, knowledge, experience, tools, and other resources to do their work).”

On the other hand, the way I read it, a small number of volunteers, even poorly managed, help to leverage organizational effectiveness at lower budgets.

“Organizations with 10 to 50 volunteers, regardless of whether they are managed well, are statistically equally as “effective” as their counterparts without volunteers on all measures of organizational effectiveness (capacity), yet their average (median) annual budgets are almost half…This implies that organizations that break the barrier of 10 volunteers, regardless of whether they have figured out all of the best practices necessary to manage those volunteers, are equally as capacitated as their non-volunteer-based organizational peers, at perhaps just shy of half the cost…it is important to challenge the assumption that an organization cannot aspire to a more fully “volunteer-engaged” organizational model. Lastly, it is important to acknowledge the need to conduct further rigorous research to test the cause-and-effect assumption of this important finding.”

The other thing about the study Hurst cites is that it seems to be focused entirely on whether volunteers contribute to organizational effectiveness in executing their programs. It doesn’t seem to examine the role of volunteers in furthering organizational goals in terms of advocacy, awareness building and generally representing the organization to the community. If these factors are measured as part of some criteria, it is not clear.

Despite the doubts that one may harbor about whether all his points are well supported, there is some validity to Hurst’s essential idea that it may be worthwhile to assess whether the implementation of all those best practices everyone knows you need to be employing really provides the best return on investment. It is understandably difficult to be a confident skeptic in the face of widely recognized best practices, but these days it could contribute to long term survival.

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