Substantial Change Comes From Within

Diane Ragsdale has an extremely interesting post today related to an earlier set of posts she made two years ago about coercive philanthropy in response to change of direction the Irvine Foundation was taking in their funding philosophy.

She notes today that many of the arts groups the Irvine Foundation had traditionally supported did not shift themselves toward the new direction the foundation was encouraging arts organizations to go. She says:

My view, in a nutshell, was (and still is) this: While the Irvine Foundation may have been justified in pursuing a brave new strategy, its grantees were also justified in rebuffing it. I wrote:

Irvine appears to be interested in bringing about a kind of diversity (i.e., change) in the arts sector we don’t often talk about: aesthetic diversity. … However well-researched and justified, Irvine must recognize (and I think it does) that its strategy is out of line with the missions of a majority of professional arts organizations, which were formed to present work by professionals for audiences that come to appreciate that work, not make it. … Irvine needs to recognize that it is endeavoring to coax organizations into uncharted territory. It wants to coerce a change that many cannot make, or do not want to make.

We often speak of arts organizations bending over backwards and stretching their missions and activities in order to make themselves eligible to receive funding so it was of great interest to me to read about arts organizations who were not doing so even though it might be significantly detrimental to their finances.

In one of the posts Diane made two years ago, she talks about the  long time period required to make the substantial change of the type the Irvine Foundation is signalling versus the impatience of most foundations.

She uses the example of Centerstage Theater in Baltimore which made a focused commitment to do a better job of serving the city’s 67% African American population. They initially lost subscribers and supporters before eventually replacing them in the 10 years it took to fully realize this vision.

Ragsdale suggests that substantive change only comes when the leadership is behind it, not when the funding philosophy shifts.

I seriously question whether funding organizations to make them change works. Has any organization that was reluctant to change made substantive long-term change because of a grant? I suspect any change that happens probably has more to do with leadership, other sources of income, and an intent to change that was already solid before the grant arrived.

And when change fails to be manifested? Well, I would wager that a majority of foundations perceive that organizations are at fault in that case (not the grantmaking strategy). And why wouldn’t they? Organizations write proposals in which they promise to change themselves in dramatic ways for ridiculously small amounts of money and over unreasonable periods of time. They lie about what they can do. They choose to do this to get the money. Foundations choose to believe these lies because it’s convenient to believe that it’s possible to change the world in 3-5 year cycles..

In her post today, she provides a insightful illustration of how this manifests. (To understand the reference to moving diagonally across the box, you need to scroll to the Ansoff Matrix graphic in her post.)

If a business is doing well, then (from its perspective) the best strategy is to continue to create the product it knows for the market it knows (market penetration). However, when that market is in decline (and one could argue that this is the case for many professional arts groups at the moment), its least risky move is either (a) to develop new products for existing markets (product development), or (b) to develop new markets for existing products (market development).

Asking arts organizations to develop new products for new markets sends them diagonally into the box marked diversification and is a high-risk move; there can be a significant chance of failure. And while Irvine might be willing to underwrite some of the financial risks associated with experiments in this realm, it can’t underwrite the strategic, operational, compliance, social, and psychological risks associated with such changes—organizations need to be ready, willing, and able to bear these on their own.

This section of her post really helped clarify some fundamental concepts of business strategy for me. It made me realize that when there is a discussion about the need for live performance organizations with middle to older aged audiences  to develop things like video based entertainment in order to engage younger groups, what is being advocated for is a risky proposition requiring a commitment to endure challenges on all the fronts she lists.

The efforts of Centerstage Theater illustrate that even implementing the changes required to develop new markets for the existing product may entail some of the same risks she mentions.

There are many other related issues Ragsdale addresses so the whole post is worth a read.

I realize I should mention her current post is in reaction to a report on a recent study the Irvine Foundation engaged in. Even though Ragsdale is critical of some aspects of it, my general impression is that the Irvine Foundation may be in it for the long haul with their new focus given they have committed to gathering data and studying the issues. Though I guess we will see where things stand in 8 or more years.

Re-Defining Elite

Seth Godin is talking about us. Well, actually I think that is a little narcissistic to think he is merely talking about people in the creative fields. I am pretty sure his comment encompass American culture as well as that as that of a number of other countries.

His post titled, “I’m an elitist” addresses a lot of topics we in the creative fields get conflicted about:

Lowering the price at the expense of sustainability is a fool’s game.

Only producing tools that don’t need an instruction manual takes power away from those prepared to learn how to use powerful tools. And it’s okay to write a book that some people won’t finish, or a video that some don’t understand.

Giving people what they want isn’t always what they want.

Curators create value. We need more curators, and not from the usual places.

Creating and reinforcing cultural standards and institutions that elevate us is more urgent than ever.

We write history about people who were brave enough to lead, not those that figured out how to pander to the crowd.

Elites aren’t defined by birth or wealth, they are people with a project,…

These are all issues that are constantly being bandied about in the arts today. Pricing seems to always be a topic of conversation.

Diane Ragsdale and Nina Simon recently challenged us to think about wants versus needs.

While Godin never promises you that someone will pay for it, he encourages the creation of challenging work because to do otherwise is a disservice those who are ready to be challenged.

He actually developed that idea in a post he wrote about 4 years ago and links to in his current post.

While Godin does acknowledge that affluence does play a role in ones ability to become an elite by providing free time to pursue knowledge and the tools to communicate and process that knowledge, he states that birth, class and affluence do not make one an elite.

The number of self-selected elites is skyrocketing. Part of this is a function of our ability to make a living without working 14 hours a day in a sweatshop, but part of it is the ease with which it’s possible to find and connect with other elites.

The challenge of our time may be to build organizations and platforms that engage and coordinate the elites, wherever they are. After all, this is where change and productivity come from.

Once you identify this as your mission, you save a lot of time and frustration in your outreach. If someone doesn’t choose to be part of the elites, it’s unclear to me that you can persuade them to change their mind.

Two things that come to mind. If we define elites as he does, people who are willing to be challenged, rather than worrying they are the people we are focusing too much upon because they possess interest and ability to support our endeavors, what will need to change in order to engage and coordinate this new constituency? And is it sustainable?

Not the first or last time this basic question has been asked, probably even in the last week given all the conversations about how the non-profit arts sector needs to change themselves. Following Godin’s suggestion to look in new places to find curators may be a start down the right road.

Second question is about that last paragraph of Godin’s that I quote. How do you determine if someone is unwilling to embrace the challenges that are a hallmark of an elite and shift your attention elsewhere? This seems to a difficult proposition because we are not always the most objective.

As I noted at the start of this entry, there is a degree of narcissism in the arts, really just about every industry, where we see people who don’t experience the world in a similar way as we do as an outsider. Lawyers view the world differently from engineers who view the world differently from computer programmers and visual artists. Those who do not value what we value are not valued.

Yet there are groups in each who are furrowing their brows and generating a lot of sweat, tackling problems with the gusto of Godin’s elites. We know they are fellow travelers in pursuit of progress, but we want them to pay attention to us right now. It may be 15 years* before their pursuits orient them in our direction and into our orbit looking for solutions.

I am sure Godin’s definition of outreach is much wider than what arts organization define as outreach, but even if your efforts embody his definition, 15 years is a long time and it is easy to give up on someone (or a group) that is clearly engaged and actively pursuing productive projects simply because they aren’t engaged and active with you.

As a whole, arts organizations currently don’t have that sort of patience. Even if they don’t expect people to fall in love with the arts after one exposure, they still want it to happen fairly quickly and investment to manifest in frequent interactions. Otherwise, organizations wouldn’t purge their mail lists after a year or two of apparent inactivity.

On the other hand, if you take up Godin’s challenge, take the approach that you value seekers and restructure to serve them in all the ways they want to interact with you, both on- and off-line, maybe it doesn’t take 15 years.


*I use 15 years because it was about 15 years ago that friends from grad school took me to an art museum when I was visiting them in NC, as did another pair of friends when I was visiting them in OK. However, it was only about 4 years ago that I started going to art museums of my own accord and on a regular basis. I figure if it takes a person with a career in the arts around 15 years to start to do that, it may take someone who is not in the arts around that long as well to go from infrequent to occasional and we need to wait for them.

Can You Pursue The Intrinsic Value of Arts Alone?

There was a post by KCET columnist Corbett Barklie last fall that has had me thinking and wondering if there hasn’t been enough conversation about this topic.

In short, Barklie feels that arts organizations are sacrificing a focus on the intrinsic value of art in the pursuit of “social service” related activities. (my emphasis)

Arts groups exist to interpret the past, elucidate the present, and imagine the future. To borrow from Dewitt H. Parker’s The Principles of Aesthetics, “The intrinsic value of art must be unique, for it is the value of a unique activity — the free expression of experience in a form delightful and permanent, mediating communication.”

Nonprofit arts groups and the artists that run them are not reactionary entities. They are visionary entities.

You may be thinking, “But what about art groups who work in schools? Artists who work in hospitals?” In my opinion, those are arts service organizations — a rarely made but critical distinction. Arts service organizations exist to create and provide ancillary programs that help fulfill the missions of social service nonprofits such as schools, community centers, hospitals, etc…


Because no distinction has been made between arts groups and arts service organizations, the general arts and arts policy conversation (set by funders and designated leaders) is getting more and more muddled. And artists who exist in organizations that are only concerned with artistic excellence are beginning to feel marginalized.


Unless and until arts groups find their voice of disagreement and set aside fear of funding or political ramifications long enough to speak up for themselves, the conversation will continue to focus less and less on challenges facing arts groups that are committed solely to artistic excellence. Eventually these arts groups will fade from view completely.

My first thought was, but isn’t an educational component the way it is supposed to be? Most non-profit organizations are organized under the aegis of the education part of 501 (c) 3. In a time when there is less arts education in schools, isn’t it in our best long term interest to be providing educational services? But then again, by Barklie’s definition, I have been working for arts service organizations for the last 20 odd years so this is the normal for me.

So my question to my larger audience; is it as Barklie suggests (and most recently echoed by Diane Ragsdale), have funders and others lead the arts in this direction?

After all, at one time, art was presented for arts sake and there wasn’t any efforts to supplement the efforts of education and health care.

Is this an improvement or a dilution of our effort? It can be argued that pursuing education programs helps put arts organizations in touch with their and constituencies, helping to remove ivory tower mentality and acculturate the community.

But there is also the issue of diverting resources from the core competency and mission of the company. For profit businesses aren’t expected to do this. Many get immense tax breaks with no expectation that they serve the public good.

Is it the new normal that arts organizations must split their focus in order to maintain their existence? Is there an egotism inherent to believing you should be able to pursue the intrinsic value of art alone?

Shaping oneself as an arts service organization seems about the only option for garnering foundation funding and mollifying governmental entities who want something more than pursuit of artistic excellence as a justification for being.


Mini-Granting Is Awesome

It may just be serendipity (or you know, Google controlling my every life experience) but I keep hearing about this group called the Awesome Foundation. First it was a story about the Seattle chapter and then a few days later, while listening to the radio I discovered a new chapter was opening right here in my city.

The Awesome Foundation concept is sort of a mix between micro-granting and investment clubs. Ten people get together and commit to donating $100 every month. Then they distribute $1000 monthly grants. There isn’t a lengthy application process and you don’t have to be an established charity. If you have an idea and $1000 will help you get to the next step, they want to hear about it.

They draw a distinction between themselves and most granting organizations.

“The Awesome Foundation does high-frequency, low-stakes grant-making. Most grant-making institutions do high-stakes, low-frequency grantmaking. They often think big about initiatives and form multiyear commitments with their grantees. They give quarterly, twice a year, or only once a year. There’s a lot of pressure on everyone involved, from the applicant to the grant winner to the institution’s program officer to the board of directors.

The foundation’s success has to do with the simple formula. It’s not like big charity where the experience of being a donor is that you give money and aren’t sure where it goes. Our trustees know where the money goes. They’re really invested in the success of these small projects.”

This resonated a little with a post Diane Ragsdale recently made about funding decisions on her Jumper blog.

It’s time to start asking ourselves the disruptive questions. Does it make sense to subsidize large resident theatres and not commercial theatres? Does it make sense to subsidize professional theatres and not amateur theatres performing in churches or high school gymnasiums? Does it make sense to subsidize those that are most able to garner patronage from wealthy, culturally elite audiences? […]

We’re rather protectionist in the U.S. nonprofit arts sector because we know, or at least suspect in our gut, that if we start measuring intrinsic impact—testing our assumptions about the impact of the art we make— we might find out that there is greater intrinsic impact from watching an episode of The Wire than going to any kind of live theatre. Or we may find that small-scale productions in churches or coffee shops are just as impactful (or more so) than large-scale professional productions in traditional theatre spaces. Are we prepared, if we find this sort of evidence, to change the way we behave in light of it?

It made me think that programs like Awesome Foundation might contribute to the prototype for a new funding model where funding is directed to more of these smaller scale efforts. This is the sort of thing existing funders probably know they ought to start to do but haven’t found the will and the way to do it. Once small scale funding models like Kickstarter, Kiva and Awesome Foundation reach a critical mass, then it becomes easier for everyone to say that clearly their practices should be shifted in this general direction.

Send this to a friend