“Love You, But I Would Love You More If Only…” In Public-Private Partnerships

This past week I have been dipping my toe in and out of the livestream for the ArtPlace America Summit. One of the plenary sessions I went back to listen to more fully was a discussion ArtPlace CEO Jamie Bennett held with Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson and Detroit Future City Executive Director Anika Goss-Foster about public/private partnerships.

The title of the session was “You’re not the Boss of Me: What Happened to the Public in Public-Private Partnerships?” and the most fascinating parts dealt exactly the issue of who the boss is in public-private partnerships.

Around the 12:15 point, Rapson talks about how one of the previous mayors of Detroit had approached him at the Kresge Foundation asking if they would fund a long range master planning process to revitalize Detroit. The team Kresge put together was so successful in generating participation and investment from the community that the city administration started to feel that their prerogatives were being challenged and their competency was being questioned. The city government began resisting the efforts of the Detroit Future City team Kresge put together to work with them.

Kresge decided to shutdown the process for a year and pull it out of the mayor’s office. However, they had built up so much momentum getting the community involved over two years, the community wouldn’t allow them to dial things back. Kresge restructured things toward a community ownership model and finished the master plan.

Around the same time, a new administration took charge of Detroit city government and they embraced the externally generated plan. But then the same dynamic developed where the city government came to resent the involvement of outsiders. According to Rapson, they did recognize the talent of the Detroit Future City team, but they wanted to absorb the organization into the city planning department and have them work under the city’s terms.

Rapson says that in the current national environment, the lines between public and private are much more porous than in the past. At one time a philanthropic entity wouldn’t get involved with this type of work. At one time the view was that private sector work was tainted and the public sector was far too messy and political.

Today he says, when faced with a problem there is more of a negotiation of who does what the best. Who is best equipped with the expertise, capacity and resources to address an issue. For instance, only the city government is empowered to set zoning laws, levy taxes, etc.

What intrigued me was Rapson’s implication that Detroit Future City’s work was influencing how the Detroit city government viewed and executed community outreach, shifting it from an authoritarian approach to a more collaborative one. Though there is still work to be done.

I wondered if this might presage a new trend in the way cities might operate. Jamie Bennett asked if the ideal wasn’t supposed to be that citizens already had the opportunity to participate in planning through their vote and approaching their government representatives.

Rapson responded acknowledging that in this particular case, the Detroit Future City team had helped to create a constructive process and environment. But he also makes note that it had been an anti-democratic (his term) philanthropic institution which had been responsible for making sure the community voice was at the table.

My read between the lines on this was marginally cautionary. It is working in Detroit thanks to a number of conditions that have come into alignment, but it perhaps shouldn’t be seen as a broad panacea applicable to every city.

It sounds like Detroit Future City is doing a great job involving community input in their advocacy. Goss-Foster said people will come up to her in the streets and supermarkets to point out that the group with which they identify isn’t included in the plan. She said she often concedes they are right and invites them down to her office to talk about getting them included.

Are You Really The Storyteller You Think You Are?

FastCompany had an article about Five Ways Non Profits Struggle last month.

Most of the things mentioned aren’t really news to you if you work in non profits: Restrictions on how grants and donations can be used, employee burn out, ineffective use of data collection and lack of access to capital.

The assertion that,

…most organizations don’t engage in fundraising experimentation because they’re worried about the perception that it might create. There’s a tendency adhere to a set formula–the portion of operations supported by grants, individual contributions, or mission-related revenues–without thinking about how impact can change if you get creative.

was somewhat intriguing. Perhaps I will investigate that idea a little more in the future.

It was the fifth point, however, that I hadn’t expected to see on the list.

53% of nonprofit leaders spend less than two hours preparing for a speech

That’s especially scary considering only 10% of people in the sector consider themselves to be well-trained storytellers, according to Janus’s research. At the same time, there’s a huge payoff for those who learn how to talk engagingly about their mission.

Now arguably, this might not make the top 5 problems facing non-profit leaders, but it could certainly constitute a barrier to success.

While I have encountered a number of people who did a poor job making their case or were deadly boring, I never considered that it might be lack of preparation that contributed to that problem. I think we have all encountered teachers/professors who have a reputation for being boring that spans years. Their problem was more attributable to delivery rather than lack of repetition.

On the other hand, if you do consider yourself a good storyteller and feel that process is an important part of garnering investment and interest in your mission, then it does behoove you to invest time in development and preparation.

This article made me recall how I was recently asked to deliver two talks within a couple days of each other. I was keenly aware that I was much more comfortable discussing content I had spoken on before and felt I did a more effective job delivering it. Even still, I probably practiced and tweaked it for 5-7 hours.

Even though I wasn’t as comfortable delivering the second speech, I invested close to 20 hours developing and rehearsing it.  I suspect when I get some more distance from it, I will be able to go back and cut a lot of extraneous content so I can do a better job on the topic the next time out.

It is admittedly not easy to find the time to do justice to a speech with so many immediate demands on your time. The two talks I recently delivered were definitely a nights and weekends endeavor. It is very much like the situation where the you could do something ten times in the time it takes you to teach a new employee to do the job to a half way acceptable level. In the long term, however, that initial investment can become a long term benefit to the organizational mission.

Pop Up Box Office Are As Much About Listening As Selling

Hat tip to Artsjournal.com linking to an Arts Professional article all performing arts professionals should read.

Hull Truck Theatre in Hull, England started regular pop-up box office hours in local retail chain locations to help address barriers to participation people had.

(By the way, the barriers were exactly those identified in the US studies like Culture Track – “time, cost, lack of awareness of what’s on, childcare and a sense of it being ‘not for me’”)

Magda Moses, who is the Community Projects Coordinator at Hull Truck Theatre Company started out with a trial visit to one of the stores and had conversations about their past, present and future experiences with theatre, following the theme of an upcoming production of A Christmas Carol.

Members of our box office team then joined us, enabling customers to buy tickets from an ipad.

We now run these pop-up box office and community engagement sessions in four Heron Foods stores once a month, and having other staff in attendance has helped the project become more embedded across the theatre.

One of the things we’ve learnt is to visit on regular days and times so that we can promote our visits in advance and people expect us and get to know our staff.

Since some of the responses they have received have dealt with being intimidated by the theatre building, an opportunity to interact with box office staff provides a point of contact that likely would have never occurred had they not gone out in the community.

In addition to the oft mentioned concerns about how to dress and act at a performance, a number of people identified being concerned that the experience would not live up to the expense of tickets. When the theatre produced a show about local woman advocating for fishing industry reform in the 1960s, Hull Truck Theatre offered “pay what you can” tickets exclusively through pop up box offices at Heron Foods.

Moses writes, “…we received positive feedback that people were thrilled to be able to afford to see a play that was directly relevant to their community.”

It sounds like the feedback they got from these efforts might be better than any paper survey and they have gained some insight into their audience segments. Yes, it is probably more expensive and labor intensive than more conventional approaches, but I am sure there are some intangible benefits that can’t be easily quantified in an ROI analysis.

Every time we visit Heron Food stores we ask about what sorts of events they like to come to, which informs out future programming.

We’ve identified differences in audiences across the city. Shoppers on Orchard Park are likely to bring the whole family, so they want affordable shows that everyone will enjoy. Hessle Road shoppers are likely to be older and are interested in local history and Hull stories. This information helps us make sure our marketing is relevant to each area.

Our pop-up box office sessions are about much more than selling tickets. They’re also about building relationships, trust and familiarity in order to spark the idea that someone can go to the theatre.

The sessions are an important part of the Community Dialogues project and the theatre’s wider commitment to welcome new audiences. So once we get to know someone, we can direct them towards tours, coffee mornings, family events, access performances or workshops, depending on their interests.

Data Vs. Your Gut

When I was thinking about what to write today, I figured a good intersection between yesterday’s post about productive employees not necessarily being good manager material and Drew McManus’ recent post about the “Shit Arts Administrators Say” Twitter account is Colleen Dilenschneider’s post, “Three Phrases That Effective Leaders Do Not Say”

Written last summer, Dilenschneider’s primary goal is to advocate for a proper approach to using all the data arts leaders have available to them. She argues that it can often feel easier, and therefore preferable, to rely on gut instinct rather than think critically about what is best for the organization.

Dilenschneider goes to great effort to explain these ideas so visit her page rather than being satisfied with my synopsis.

That said, in brief, the three phrases and suggested alternatives are:

1) “That doesn’t apply to me”
Say instead: “Let’s uncover the extent to which this finding applies to our organization, and explore what can be learned from this information.”

2) “I agree/disagree with the data”
Say instead: “Given these findings, I think our biggest challenge is…

3) “We need more information before we can do anything (on this topic where we already have meaningful information)”
Say instead, “Let’s consider what needs to change and what items need to be tackled to make the most of this information.”

It is in connection with phrase 2, that she addresses the problem of insiders using their gut feelings by warning against things like weighing the opinion of one person (board chair/executive director) more heavily than the hundreds/thousand whose responses comprise the data. Likewise, she points out that not only aren’t industry insiders the target market for the services and products arts organizations provide, insiders tend to have all sorts of blind spots and skewed perspectives due to their position.

One thing she doesn’t mention here, though I am sure she would acknowledge, is that it takes work to understand and evaluate whether data is valid and relevant to you.   It is often also easier to utter these phrases than to invest the time to look at the methodology behind the data to determine whether the results are dependable.

For example, radio and television stations trying to sell you ad space will cite all sorts of numbers about how much exposure you will get. With a little thought, you will quickly come to realize you won’t be reaching anywhere near those numbers as a result of any number of factors.  Your experience as a consumer helps inform a healthy skepticism.

When faced with data for an area in which you have no frame of reference or expertise, it can definitely require some effort to understand and evaluate. It is much more expedient and comfortable to go with one’s gut.

Dilenschneider does say there are times in which these phrases are useful. Note that final caveat though:

  • For instance, it’s a good idea to say, “That doesn’t apply to me” after you’ve collected the data and understand the true extent to which it applies to your organization, and you’ve found that it doesn’t.
  • It’s okay to say, “I disagree with this data” to discount findings when it is data about you and only you.
  • And it’s wise to say, “We need more information before we can do anything,” when it’s a big or expensive change and the takeaway is unclear. In such a case, you should absolutely gather more information!

This said, these phrases are all too often uttered defensively. If these words are about to escape your lips, think twice.

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