Can Your Organization Afford Empathy?

For about a month now I have been pondering a post Seth Godin made about the limits of empathy and how it might apply to customer relations in an performing arts setting.

In the context of a customer who wants a refund on a car purchase after a broken limb prevents them from driving, Godin writes,

But empathy doesn’t require you to reach into your pocket because the customer has rewritten the terms of the deal and is undermining the business you’ve built to serve others.

Instead, it means that you can see his pain and that you’re completely okay with this person not buying from you again. That through the mist of pain and percocet, it’s entirely possible that he doesn’t have the reserves to be empathic to you, that he can’t see it through your eyes. And you probably can’t force him to.

So empathy leads to, “I hear you, I see you, and if you need to walk away, we’ll understand. We hope you’ll see it the way we do one day, but right now, I can’t solve your problem.”

We have occasionally had situations where people feel we should give them a refund for a performance that has occurred due to situations where they chose not to attend. Some times it was because they decided it was too cold, it rained too hard or because their road hadn’t been cleared two days after it stopped snowing. None of this providing an impediment to hundreds of other people. Other times there are some strong indications that they want a refund because they decided they wanted to do something else.

I am not sure how often Godin’s scenario of people wanting a refund on a car because they broke an arm actually happens. The reality is, people do have the option of doing something other than participate in an arts and cultural activity and often exercise that option. We can’t necessarily be philosophical in the way we respond to requests for refunds in the face of this reality.

One alternative is to have so much business that you are okay if a person chooses not to buy from you again.

We are all experienced with this type of scenario. Drew McManus just experienced that this past week.

In the context of Godin’s post, Drew was trying to rewrite the terms of the deal –pay a penalty if you want to change or cancel. It’s right there in the reams of small print you acknowledge when you buy the ticket. In American Airlines’ mind, it would be undermining the business they have built to serve others if they just let anyone cancel or reschedule.

On the other hand, not to excuse these policies, this summer American Airlines wanted to give pilots and flight attendants a pay raise outside of contract negotiations in recognition for a difficult time employees faced during the merger with US Airways and Wall Street sent their stock plummeting.

““We are troubled by [American’s] wealth transfer of nearly $1 billion to its labor groups. In addition to raising fixed costs, American’s agreement with its labor stakeholders establishes a worrying precedent, in our view, both for American and the industry,” J.P. Morgan analyst Jamie Baker wrote

So the fact that empathy is apt to be punished might be contributing to a cascade effect in corporate/organizational culture.

Perhaps one positive result of many arts organizations being small enough that they worry about losing customers even over ridiculous refund requests is that there is a tendency to treat constituents with a higher degree of empathy than they would receive elsewhere. Perhaps working on providing that can become something of a competitive advantage for some organizations.

There are no clear prescriptive answers to the type of refund requests I mentioned earlier. Each has to be addressed as they present themselves with the understanding that we may or may not damage our relationship with someone in the process.

Knight Fdn Looks To Fund Technology Connecting People With Art

A heads up to people who have, (or know people with), innovative ideas using technology to connect people with arts and culture, the Knight Foundation is looking for project ideas via the Knight Prototype Fund.

Unlike some of the other projects the Knight Foundation funds, these projects don’t need to be set in the communities it traditionally supports which is why I wanted to bring it to everyone’s attention. As the prototype term suggests, they expect some of the concepts to be in the early stages of development.

Applicants don’t necessarily have to work for an organization. We’re looking for ideas from arts organizations, artists, technologists, designers, educators, researchers and others inside or outside of institutions who are eager to experiment. We’re open to diverse approaches and perspectives on the use of technology to connect people to the arts, and seek to identify projects that have the potential to be replicated by others in the field.

What can we build to help arts organizations expand their use of technology? How can we use the qualities of new mediums to create unparalleled experiences? How can we replicate solutions, so that more in the field benefit? How can we learn more about the people we are trying to reach and design solutions that understand their needs? How can arts institutions provide magic outside of their four walls? How can cultural organizations breathe warmth into technology?

[…]

We hope to invest in projects that have provocative questions at their core that can only be answered through the act of making them a reality. Grantees will join together over a nine- month sprint to learn innovation techniques and test ideas.

They anticipate the average grant will be around $50,000. Deadline is March 6. They are hosting an online Q&A from 1 to 2 pm ET on February 21 (connection instructions at bottom of the page)

As an example of the type of thing the Knight Foundation has been doing lately, they partnered with the creators of Pokemon Go to see if similar games or tools could help build community.

It sounds like they would be open to projects that pushed the envelop even further as well as repurposing existing tools in a manner few people have considered.

One of the things I most appreciate about what the Knight Foundation proposes is that they are going to provide applicants with training in innovative methods as well as bringing them together to learn from each other. This acknowledges that innovation isn’t generated in a vacuum or emerge from a lone genius working in a garage, but rather builds on past work in new ways, often in collaboration with others.

Taking Arts & Culture’s Measure

I have been cautioning the non-profit arts community about citing the economic value of the arts for over a decade now. The first time was in 2007. I wrote about it a few times in the interim, but I didn’t really start to devote time and space to the idea until the last 2-3 years.

However, if you don’t put stock in my arguments, perhaps you will find statements by celebrities with English accents to be compelling. Check out the following videos from an Arts Emergency Service convening at the Oxford Literary Festival where author Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials series) makes the same point cited in just about every piece I discussed in previous posts:

“Keep clear of economic justifications for the arts. If you do that, if you try that, you hand a weapon to the other side because they can always find ways of proving that you are wrong about it, you’ve got the figures wrong. You invite them to measure everything in terms of economic gain. My advice would be to ignore economic arguments altogether.”

Noted graphic novelist Alan Moore chimed in about “…the ridiculousness of, sort of, having to have impact. To appoint words like that to the arts, its criminal, its ridiculous.”

Pullman makes another statement that aligns with the assertions by Carter Gillies I often cite that just because something can be measured, doesn’t mean the measurement is relevant. (Diane Ragsdale also wrote a piece along these lines.)

“The government, you see, asks us to do something and then gives us the wrong tools to do it. [unintelligible] says, ‘Look I want you to measure this piece of wood. And here’s a tool for you.’ And gives you a grindstone. And one thing you can say is, ‘Why do you want to measure this wood anyway? This is firewood, I’ll burn it to keep myself warm.’ Questions arise from that. What is the right tool for measuring the arts and do we need to measure them anyway? What are we measuring them for?”

There is another video on the Arts Emergency page where the panel, which includes Arts Emergency co-founder, Josie Long, discuss the false dichotomy between art and science that is worth checking out.

As I was looking back at all the posts I made on this subject, I found the following tweet I had linked to many years ago.  It struck me that if you can’t entirely control the language your advocates use, request they make this one small change in terminology can help start to shift the “economic benefit” mindset. (Though perhaps not something to use in the context of immigration discussions.)

You Can Have All The Charity Golf Tournaments You Want When You Own The Courses

Generous donations to a non-profit can often become more of a burden than a blessing which is why it is important to have a good donation policy and properly evaluate the impact of the donation upon the organization.

According to a story in Non Profit Quarterly, this is exactly the challenge being faced by the Great American Songbook Foundation in Carmel, IN.  The organization with a budget of less than $1 million was approached with a non-strings attached donation of an estate valued at $30 million.

….includes a couple of golf courses, a pool, a fully furnished 50,000-square-foot main house, and a clubhouse—all set on 107 acres. There are no conditions on the contribution.

The upkeep alone could easily eat up the entire current budget of the organization, what with the nine staff required to maintain the property, and it should be pretty darn clear to any manager or board who have taken a trip or two around the block that such a gift could potentially ruin the organization.

[…]

This isn’t the first time the Simons have tried to move the property, which has covenants that disallow certain kinds of development. In fact, the property has been on the market since 2014 at $25 million with no takers. Additionally, a previous attempt to contribute the property to the Indiana University Foundation in 2008 fell through.

The Songbook Foundation Board is going to take three years to study the use of the estate which is probably a wise course of action. The NPQ article notes that since they accepted the donation of the estate, they will bear the costs associated with maintaining the estate during that time.

There are a number of options available to the Songbook Foundation according to another article.

The foundation could decide to use the main house as a museum and center of operations, subject to a rezone. The golf course land could be sold in a plan similar to Estridge’s but with lot sizes that meet the covenants. That money could be used to support operation of the museum.

The entire property, including the main house, could be sold to a developer. That money could be used to support the foundation or build the Great American Songbook Museum closer to The Palladium, possibly next to the soon-to-be-built luxury hotel, The Carmichael.

[…]

“It’s a very generous gift,” Brainard said. “It’s an asset that could be used by the Foundation to leverage for future donations. It’s very important to include neighbors in any conversation about any use and then proceed in such a way that enhance’s property values in the area.”

…He [McDermott] said charity events could be held on the golf course and added that a donation this size is a signal to other potential donors who were thinking of writing a check.

I have to admit, given the number of fundraisers that occur on golf courses, I was amused by the thought that these guys may be the only non-profit to own part of their “supply chain.”

If they decide to keep the properties, they will almost definitely need to set up a separate administrative body to keep themselves from getting bogged down in the business of overseeing the estates. Not to mention there might be issues that conflict with their non-profit status. The unrelated business incomes from the estates could potentially be 25+ times greater than that of the non-profit. It will be really interesting to see what they decide to do.

I made a post on the ArtsHacker site about two years ago that included lists and links to various resources one can use to create a gift acceptance policy and to evaluate the suitability of accepting gifts when donors approach the organization.

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