Sunday, May 21, 2017

Postcards for the Arts

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on.........................."

The Trump Administration releases its FY 17 / 18 Budget this week.  The reported cuts are so draconian, including, very likely, elimination of the National Endowments of the Arts and of the Humanities, that the budget is likely DOA in Congress.  Now the lobbying to protect funding for hundreds of programs and projects, valued by a wide variety of interests, including the arts, will start in earnest.

Continued effort by the sector to make the case for the value of the NEA and the Arts will be essential to insure that the agency continues to exist and that funding isn't decimated.

Last Thursday was apparently International Museum Day and Arts Museum Day, and a number of museums included postcard writing stations on site - encouraging the public to fill out postcards in support of the continued funding of the NEA to be sent to people's elected officials.  This is a very simple idea that every arts organization in the country ought to include at their performances, exhibitions and other programs, starting now.

The postcards can include a pre-printed message of support citing the value of the individual sponsoring organization to the local community or a general message of support for the many contributions the arts make locally, closing with support for the NEA.  Every such postcard ought to include the message:

I am a registered voter in your district, and the continued support for the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities is critically important to our community and to me personally.  
Followed by whatever message the organization or the individual wants to include, and closed with a Signature, date, address, zip code, and phone number.  The writer may also request a response from the official.

While you can make available to those willing to fill out a card easy ways to  determine who their Congressperson and / or Senator is, and their local and Washington D. C. office addresses, that should be done at the point where the cards are being filled out.  OR in the alternative, your organization should simply collect completed and signed cards, and have staff or volunteers complete the addressing.  You can pay postage or ask the people filling out the cards to do so.  You should do the mailing.  If you leave it to the public to take the card with them and do it all themselves, a huge percentage of the card will never get sent.  The easier you make it for people to help, the more cards you are likely to collect.  And thus the greater the impact such an effort will have.

This represents a minimal investment of cash and time to defend the arts.  If every arts organization would do this over the next few months, we could generate hundreds of thousands (and maybe a million or more) messages.

Please consider such a project, or something similar.

Thanks to Hyperallergic for the story and to the museums for generating the idea.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Arts Brand

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on........................."


Over the past decade we've talked a lot about branding and our brands.  It's a somewhat confusing topic, and we are often unsure what we mean by the term.  Briefly, our brand is the public's awareness and perception of our organizations, and the goods and services they offer.  It is the sum total of their perceptions and experiences with our organizations and what they offer.  It is created by all of the various parts of our organizations.

Larger arts organizations and those that have been around for some time have a more established brand in the public's mindset.  Smaller and newer organizations have a more difficult time both creating and establishing their brand. But whereas it may be axiomatically more difficult for the larger, older organizations to change their brand image, it may be easier for up and coming organizations to grow their brand at a faster pace.

But beyond our organizations, the arts as a whole also have a brand, and this is what interests me.

Private sector industries all have brands.  Take the airline industry as an example.  For the most part, the airline industry brand is that air travel is a safe, convenient and cost effective way to travel. The major aircraft manufacturers - Boeing and Airbus - are seen as companies that produce reliable, safe airplanes.  Competition has produced relatively affordable ticket pricing.  Airline routes are extensive.  But the brand has suffered of late for a multitude of reasons - including increasing incidental pricing of services that use to be free - from baggage charges to onboard food purchases to extra charges for premium seating.  The brand has suffered from a public perception that air travel for the passengers has become unpleasant at best, and insufferable at worst.  Crowded airports and planes, security line hassles, long waits, delayed and late flights all make for an increasingly unpleasant experience.  Compounding the tarnishing of the brand has been the recent spate of individual airlines mistreating passengers.  The Friendly Skies of United are now perceived as anything but friendly.

And while the airline industry brand has thus diminished, because of the convenience, relatively reasonable pricing, and safety, people are likely to continue to fly, and the industry is likely to continue to profit.  But the brand itself may be in trouble, and over the long haul, that may cause problems for the industry.

What is the Arts Brand - not that of any individual arts organization - but the whole of the arts?

I think over the past couple of decades we have succeeded in increasing the brand's image as a sector that has an economic component valuable to both the local and national economy; as responsible for jobs and economic benefit.  We've moved the dial in the perception of the brand as valuable to placemaking, and as an important part of overall education.  We've expanded the brand somewhat to include a wider consideration of creativity and its importance.  And there has been much discussion of the wisdom of the brand emphasizing the ancillary values of art over the intrinsic values.  Both are part of our brand. While audience attendance may be down in many situations, online involvement is up and the choice of arts experiences has never been deeper.

But despite those developments, we still suffer from our brand being regarded as a  frill; something elitist and exclusive and, the evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, as not a priority item when it comes to support - both financial and otherwise.  While we may legitimately think of the arts as essential to the very fabric of society, alas, that's not our brand image.

How do we change that part of our brand?

Unfortunately, we lack the economic resources, the organizational capacity as a sector, and even the will to mount any massive and successful campaigns to re-brand ourselves as a top tier priority and the producer of goods and services that are essential and not a luxury.  But that remains the challenge if we are ever to change the necessity of continual self-defense and having to fight for our very lives (as evidenced by the ongoing struggle to protect the NEA and state and local government funding attacks, which are decidedly political), and if we are ever to elevate ourselves in the public mind.

There have been some attempts in the past to tackle the problem (I'm thinking of efforts like AFTA's television ad campaign as part of the Ad Council's program as an example), but those were limited and not part of any larger, sustained campaign.

Somehow, we have got to figure out a way to move the brand in the public mind to being considered a value of such magnitude, and one without any reasonable disagreement, that the consensus is that the arts are as important as the ecology, as necessary as education, as valuable to the individual as health.  Unfortunately, the overall brand is more than just the sum of the individual brands of the thousands of organizations that comprise the field.  It is both a part of those individual brands and something distinct and separate from them.

One problem is that all of those organizations that have their own individual brand within our sphere, very few, if any at all, spend any concerted or coordinated effort at pushing for the overall sector brand change.  What is needed is consideration by every organization, that in addition to marketing itself as valuable, is the simultaneous marking of the value of the overall arts.  And not just in times of defending the arts against specific attacks such as the recent NEA issue.  And, of course, countless of our organizations unable to do much about their own brand.

How do we mount the kind of cooperation among ourselves that might move us in this direction,? Perhaps we can build on the current effort in our own defensive, to move to a long term, sustained effort of cooperation and collaboration among ourselves to work together to rebrand the Arts as a whole, with every organization including that marketing goal as part of their wider marketing efforts in an attempt to re-brand the arts.

Mind you that effort is not simply a catchy slogan or fancy logo. While the Art Works phrasing initiated during the Rocco Landesman NEA era is of value, it simply isn't, by itself, enough to have changed the public's brand perception.  Partly that is due to the fact that for the most part, the audience for the slogan and the meaning behind it, is largely us.  It is  principally directed inward. It preaches to the choir as it were.  We haven't had the money or other resources to mount an effective campaign to make the public aware of it.  And while it's inclusion in the marketing materials of thousands of arts organizations across the country is enormously valuable in trying to assert it as a sector brand, that's not enough by itself.  The problem is more complex and at a different level, and we haven't yet spent enough time trying to address that challenge.

It would be helpful if the challenge itself were taken up by a wide variety of our national service organizations and funders.  There have been occasional murmurs about trying to strategize about the challenge, but nothing ever seems to come of it.  That's a shame.

Re-branding on that level would be of invaluable help in making our advocacy efforts easier, and might well help overall marketing efforts of our thousands of organizations, including, ultimately increasing audiences.   When we talk about increasing public value of the arts, we are talking about a re-branding effort.

The alternative is to simply let the Arts brand mean what it has meant (not to me, not to you - but to far too many) - an elitist pursuit that while valuable, is a luxury society can often ill-afford when compared to higher priorities - despite its contributions to society on other levels, and despite its theoretically widespread public support.  (I say theoretically, because while public opinion sampling polls invariably show substantial public support, the perception of us as an elitist frill still dominates decision making on every level.)  People say we are important, but rarely translate that belief into actions.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Monday, May 1, 2017

Generations and the Seminal Events That Define Them.

Good morning
"And the beat goes on....................."

In an article in New York Magazine by Jesse Singal, he posits that there are really two groups within the Millennial generation (roughly those born between 1981 and 2000) - what he terms Older Millennials (those born around 1983, which includes him), and Younger Millennials (those born in 1989 and after) - and that each is defined by when the seminal events that impacted the Millennial generation hit.  Those events are suggested to include the 2008 financial crisis and the rise of smartphones.

"Their impact can’t be overstated, and because of precisely when they hit, it really might be the case that in 2017 a 33-year-old is more different from a 23-year-old than at any other point in recent history. 
Take the financial crash. Many Old Millennials were either already in the workforce by then, or close enough to entering it that we were able to “sneak in” before the crisis had fully unfurled itself. Which means we were raised and educated during a period in which we were promised that if we followed the rules in certain ways, there would be gainful employment waiting for us in our early or mid-20s — which there often was. The same definitely cannot be said of Young Millennials. The crisis permanently rejiggered the world for them. They grew up, like us Old Millennials, assuming that things would more or less work out if they followed the rules laid out by adults, only to have the rug pulled out from under them entirely during a very formative period in their lives.
Then there are smartphones and social media, which hit the two halves of the generation in massively different ways. For us Old Millennials, the social aspects of our middle- and high-school-years were lived mostly offline. Sure, AOL Instant Messenger was a pretty big deal when it first caught on, but most of us didn’t even have cell phones until college, and smartphones until after. Think about all the stuff you go through between the ages of 12 and 22 in terms of your development as a person. Now think about how many of those experiences are affected by the presence or absence of a cell phone and social media.

That makes sense to me, and the same theory would apply to my generation of Boomers.  Older Boomers were just on the cusp of becoming young adults when the Vietnam War was central to American politics, while Younger Boomers were of the same age when Watergate was the dominant issue of the times.  While part of the same generation, those two events created different impacts on each segment.  The reaction to the Vietnam War, coupled with the change in lifestyle attitudes (dress, music, relationships, sex, and authority), laid the groundwork for how the second half of the Boomers dealt with Watergate and the Nixon Whitehouse and the American attitudes at the time.

So what?

The point being that broad descriptions of a generation can be misleading, if not outright, erroneous, as likely every generation has at least two sub-groups that share similar experiences and contexts resulting in shared attitudes and challenges faced, but which groups are very different beings depending on when within the generation they transition to young adulthood.   And it's very likely that there are numerous divisions within each sub-category depending on education, income, where one grew up, religion, ethnicity, and so on.  What is the value of knowing this?  I think the reality that no generation is a monolithic entity, and no universal characteristics or attributes can be easily assigned to the whole of what we have decided to call a "generation" is knowledge that might help us as we formulate strategies that target generations - whether as audiences, supporters, donors or whatever.  Talking about and fashioning approaches to Millennials, for example, for whatever purpose, should not presuppose they are uniform in either their experience or their thinking, let alone their behavior.   It's easy to deal with them as though they all think alike and act alike, but they don't.  The appellation "millennial" is really of limited use.  In discussions involving that generation, it's more a starting point, then the final destination.  I think perhaps we've been treating it as the end point.  We bandy about the term "millennial" as though 80 million people share lots of things beyond their birthdays.  Some do, others don't, but we treat them conceptually like they are a monolithic entity.  The same applies in retrospect to the Boomers.  I went to school at UC Berkeley.  We use to think the Boomers all across the nation were a united front; we were in this together.  How wrong we were.  We may have shared the same music and the same global events, but not much more.  Certainly not politics, nor even basic values.  In the last election some Boomers were for Hillary, others for Trump.  The only real value of even having a label like Boomers has devolved into a simple way to describe people of a certain age - and not much more. And that may be as true for Generation X and Millennials as well.  If we want to single out generations, we need to dig a lot deeper than a couple of shared decades.

But as an aside, all this does make me wonder what are the events that are now - or will soon be - impacting the current generation - those born after 2000, and which would then extend to those born up to 2020 or so.  I don't know what people are calling them - say, hypothetically, Generation Q.  The early part of this generation were still kids when both the 2008 financial crisis hit and smartphones were introduced and began to change the world. Both realities were part of the fabric of the country before they reached their teens.  In 2017 they are just beginning to enter young adulthood, and so the seminal events impacting that transition period are just coming to the fore.  It seems reasonable that the global populist movement (including Trump's election) and the global march towards authoritarianism might be one of the events that will define the first half of this generation.  We can only speculate on the ramifications of these developments and how the impacts will manifest, but it seems likely they will somehow impact the first half of this generation.  It may be reasonable to suppose that the growth of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, as they proceed apace, might be the events that will significantly impact the second half of this generation, but again, we can only speculate on how those impacts will be manifested.  These are just before the fact guesses.

The question of how those events (or others, and what they might be) and their impacts, will influence and impact our sector - in terms of everything ranging from public value of the arts, to public and private funding, to audience development, to job displacement, to artistic creativity and even to organizational management and leadership dynamics - should soon be something we begin to ask.  And we would likely profit from some early consideration of what it all might mean; not now, but in a decade.  It should be obvious by now that planning for the reality of a decade in the future, needs to begin immediately.

Of course, there may soon be other (currently unknown) developments that will eclipse and dwarf these two events and more dramatically impact the next generation (pandemics, nuclear war, climate change resulting in droughts and famines or who knows what), and we can't be absolutely sure until after the fact.  But the idea of investigating the reasonable possibilities seems like something all sectors will soon be embarking on, and so should we.

This is yet more fodder (in a very long list of things) for heavy consideration by Arts ThinkTanks.  Too bad we don't have one.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Monday, April 24, 2017

Systemic / Structural Bias / Prejudice and Privilege Embedded in Software and now Artificial Intelligence

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on...................."

When we talk about the concepts of racism and privilege being structural and systemic, we mean that the biases and prejudices, and perks and advantages are embedded in the structures and systems by which we operate and the environments in which we live.  Those systemic realities transcend individuals, situations and time, and are often invisible in the way they insinuate into our cultures and influence who we are, our attitudes and beliefs, and our decision making processes.

Everyone is to some degree prisoner to their heritages, histories, cultures and environments, and biased and prejudiced accordingly.  Many, if not most, people are largely unaware of the extent to which they have been programmed, and how those programs perpetuate social and political climates and how we function daily.  All best intentions aside, that makes it axiomatically more difficult to address the inequity challenges facing the world.

I have been interested of late in the dangers in the growth of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how machine learning ultimately threatens the existence of the human species as machines elevate to the superior position in the relationship with humans - greater information and knowledge, and its own learned kind of wisdom based on precepts and assumptions it (not we) may make; leading to the day when the machines tire of the human species and see no logical reason for its continued existence.  Science fiction? Maybe, but there are lots of minds out there who share that fear.   Moreover,  in the short term machines - being programmed by human beings - are likely to exhibit the same biases and prejudices as those who programmed them - thus perpetuating the inequities of modern life and the myriad problems stemming therefrom.

A recent article in the Guardian reported on troubling research that AI Programs exhibit racial and gender biases and prejudices:

"The findings raise the spectre of existing social inequalities and prejudices being reinforced in new and unpredictable ways as an increasing number of decisions affecting our everyday lives are ceded to automatons.
As machines are getting closer to acquiring human-like language abilities, they are also absorbing the deeply ingrained biases concealed within the patterns of language use, the latest research reveals.
Joanna Bryson, a computer scientist at the University of Bath and a co-author, said: “A lot of people are saying this is showing that AI is prejudiced. No. This is showing we’re prejudiced and that AI is learning it.”
Bryson warned that AI has the potential to reinforce existing biases because, unlike humans, algorithms may be unequipped to consciously counteract learned biases."

Developments in AI are happening at an accelerated rate.  This isn't science fiction way in the future stuff - this is happening now, and likely to happen ever faster.

This made me wonder to what extent (and to what damage) software that has guided our computational efforts for the past three or more decades has already been embedded with bias and prejudice?  How has privilege already been incorporated into all of the "smart" devices that now manage and empower our lives?  How many online video games that kids play millions of times a month, unintentionally reflect the human biases and prejudices and privileged positions of those who created the games - manifested in language, preferences, rewards and otherwise?  And what is the net effect of that?  How many software programs created to power the search engines we use, reflect that same unintentional bias?  How many myriad ways we use computer programs and software have further increased and deepened the structural and systemic racial, gender, sexual orientation, religious and other prejudices with which we still grabble.

The paper reported on in the Guardian above pointed out:

"The latest paper shows that some more troubling implicit biases seen in human psychology experiments are also readily acquired by algorithms. The words “female” and “woman” were more closely associated with arts and humanities occupations and with the home, while “male” and “man” were closer to maths and engineering professions.
And the AI system was more likely to associate European American names with pleasant words such as “gift” or “happy”, while African American names were more commonly associated with unpleasant words.
The findings suggest that algorithms have acquired the same biases that lead people (in the UK and US, at least) to match pleasant words and white faces in implicit association tests.
These biases can have a profound impact on human behaviour. One previous study showed that an identical CV is 50% more likely to result in an interview invitation if the candidate’s name is European American than if it is African American. The latest results suggest that algorithms, unless explicitly programmed to address this, will be riddled with the same social prejudices."

So if the problem isn't just the algorithms that will facilitate the learning by AI, but are already working their negative impacts in software and programs we use and have been using, we (in our own field of the nonprofit arts) need to try to figure out which programs, which software specifically - and in which situations - have the designers, code writers and creators imbued their work (assumedly unintentionally) with their prejudices and biases, and to what extent has that made the systemic racism and privilege more entrenched.  And what damage has already been done, and what can we do to change the reality.  And that is unquestionably a Herculean challenge given that little of all the software is specific only to us.  But where it is at least semi-specific to us - such as perhaps in some grant managing software - can we identify where the coding or algorithms may be reflective of bias and prejudice?  Is that even possible?

With some exceptions, most programmers, coders, program / software creators are probably white men of a certain age.  To the extent we use what they have created in untold numbers of ways in our business and personal lives, continued exposure to their mind set biases, eventually has an impact on our thinking and our own experiences.  The more time we spend absorbing the thinking of others - particularly without any avenue of exchange about that thinking - the more it is likely to color our own thinking.  And most of that coloring goes on unnoticed.

A good illustration came up in another article this week - this one in the Nation - about Thought Leaders, in which the author quoted a passage from Barack Obama's (2006) book The Audacity of Hope:

 "Increasingly I found myself spending time with people of means—law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. As a rule, they were smart, interesting people, knowledgeable about public policy, liberal in their politics, expecting nothing more than a hearing of their opinions in exchange for their checks. But they reflected, almost uniformly, the perspectives of their class: the top 1 percent or so of the income scale that can afford to write a $2,000 check to a political candidate. They believed in the free market and an educational meritocracy; they found it hard to imagine that there might be any social ill that could not be cured by a high SAT score. They had no patience with protectionism, found unions troublesome, and were not particularly sympathetic to those whose lives were upended by the movements of global capital. Most were adamantly prochoice and antigun and were vaguely suspicious of deep religious sentiment.
[A]s a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population—that is, the people that I’d entered public life to serve.”

We have all been spending an inordinate amount of time with those who have written the software and programs we have all been using in our computers for decades - including those people's biases and prejudices from their own specific upbringing and experiences.  They likely didn't know their baggage was included in their work, and we likely didn't know it either.  But in all probability that is the reality.  This is the ugly, insidious side of systemic, structural prejudice and privilege.

Fighting against this will be a lot harder than anyone could have possibly imagined, but the battles absolutely must be on all these deep levels - and especially for the future.  A biased, prejudiced AI landscape is beyond frightening.  It may pose a threat we are simply incapable of countering.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

An Opportunity for the Arts (Maybe) as Retail Finds Itself in Deep Trouble

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on................."

The American retail industry continues to take big hits.  Increasingly, shoppers are moving online.  Not everywhere or for everything - yet, - but more and more the trend is away from bricks and mortar shops.  Maybe it's the ease and convenience - particularly in a world where we seem to all have less and less time to do the work that needs to get done.  And while shoppers still like to hit the stores when they can - especially for certain items like apparel stores are closing, downtowns, suburban areas and even malls have more and more shuttered, empty spaces.  Rents are coming down, as more retails are either in bankruptcy or nearing it.  And the retailers being hit range from the hip and trendy to the old stalwarts.

According to Bloomberg:

"The rapid descent of so many retailers has left shopping malls with hundreds of slots to fill, and the pain could be just beginning. More than 10 percent of U.S. retail space, or nearly 1 billion square feet, may need to be closed, converted to other uses or renegotiated for lower rent in coming years, according to data provided to Bloomberg by CoStar Group."

Consider this:

"Urban Outfitters Chief Executive Officer Richard Hayne didn’t mince words when he sized up the situation last month. Malls added way too many stores in recent years -- and way too many of them sell the same thing: apparel.
“This created a bubble, and like housing, that bubble has now burst,” he said. “We are seeing the results: Doors shuttering and rents retreating. This trend will continue for the foreseeable future and may even accelerate.”
Year-to-date store closings are already outpacing those of 2008, when the last U.S. recession was raging, according to Credit Suisse Group AG analyst Christian Buss. About 2,880 have been announced so far this year, compared with 1,153 for this period of 2016, he said in a report.

And not surprisingly, Amazon is far and away the catalyst of the trend:

"Even brands moving aggressively online have struggled to match the growth of market leader Inc.
The Seattle-based company accounted for 53 percent of e-commerce sales growth last year, with the rest of the industry sharing the remaining 47 percent, according to EMarketer Inc."

So what has that got to do with the arts?

It might be an opportunity for us.

We might explore a pilot program to see if the arts might do the same thing for malls and vacant retail space, whether downtown or in suburbia, that we have succeeded in doing for the revitalization and reinvention of some downtown areas across the country.  Arts organizations and artists might find a way to negotiate cheap rentals - perhaps supported by local government programs - for their being an attraction for people to come to the remaining retail space neighbors.  Artists and organizations looking for affordable space in an increasingly expensive real estate landscape might succeed in this situation where they bring with them multiple ways that might attract shoppers - from exhibitions to performances, to a vibrant arts ecosystem that is attractive to the public.

To go shopping and see artists at work, perhaps talk to them, watch rehearsals, maybe see performances, interact with arts education programs, poetry slams, dance companies, film makers and on and on might be a very attractive lure to the public.  And that might help retailers. And this might be a golden opportunity for us to target Millennials, even younger people, and to build public will in support of the arts.

It might be possible to negotiate some support for this kind of an effort from some of the major retail brands who are being threatened by the growth of Amazon and the online shopping presence.

And as more artists and arts organizations might occupy some of this space, in some instances it might grow into the spaces becoming de facto cultural centers.

It won't work everywhere, but it might work in some areas.

It's just a thought, but it seems to me our artists and our organizations need affordable work spaces, and venues to sell their product; we need new and expanded audiences; we need to interact with the public more directly beyond our normal channels,;the retail industry needs help in reinventing bricks and mortar shopping so it will attract shoppers; and the commercial real estate industry needs occupants and to stem the tide of the closures.  Win / Win?  Maybe.

I think this may be a possible opportunity for us to investigate and explore and I hope some funders will seed a couple of pilot programs along these lines to see if it might be something of benefit to us.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Interviewing For New Hires

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on.........................."

Our organizations are arguably no better than our people who work for them.  Even for the largest of our organizations (which really aren't that large), every employee, every staff member, is crucial for the organization to operate at its optimum level.  And even if employees operate in silos, disconnected for the most part from each other, the organization's ecosystem is still a sum of its parts, for the work itself is connected.

Because our organizations are small, vertical promotion is often difficult, if not impossible.  Today, it is much more common for younger people to naturally expect to have multiple jobs at an ever earlier stage of their careers.  Limited and overtaxed budgets and problematic fundraising mean our sector, for the most part, and particularly at middle level management positions, can't always provide the level of compensation available in the private sector. There is the growing desire to run your own shop.  Long hours, frustration, and a variety of other forces are at work to make employee churn commonplace.   And so while we try to recruit the best people we can, and retain their services over time for continuity and other advantages, turnover is inevitable.

Finding the right people for open positions in a highly competitive job market is critical to our successes as organizations.

Once an organization narrows its candidates for an open position, reviews their resumes, and vets their recommendations and past performances, we invariably come down to two or three finalists. At that point the last stage of the hiring process is the in-person interview, where we try to glean information so we can make the best choice.

It is with that interview that I have some problems.  Increasingly, the interview has become some contest to see how clever we can be in designing the questions we ask.Too often now those questions don't really elicit the kinds of information that allow us to make intelligent, let alone, the best choice between candidates.  Too often, our interviews ignore what should rationally be our goals in favor of questions which put the interviewee on the spot - our thinking being that that will give us insight as to how the candidate will perform in our environment.

Questions such as: "What is your greatest weakness"; "How did you deal with failure?"; "Define your work ethic" - all sound reasonable, but suffer, I think, from stemming mostly from our attempts to be seen as wise and smart, and which simply don't tell us what we really need to know.  On one level, such questions are invasive and invite the interviewee to simply parrot back what they think we want to hear (which practice, I accept, is applicable to almost anything we ask, and now so widespread as to be expected - and that reality is yet another reason these kinds of questions simply mask the information that would be most valuable to us.)  To the extent we are trying to "game" the process with clever questions, the candidates will likewise try to game the process with answers they think fit our line of questioning.  We don't want the interview to be a contest of gaming each other.  We want it to be a frank, candid interchange between us; honest, transparent and fair to all.

Our obsession with everybody in the entire field needing to be a leader; our preoccupation with educational benchmarks in the form of degrees, which we equate with automatically being able to do the best job); and our laser like focus on where an applicant worked before - all color our thinking when we determine what we should ask of our finalists.

There are really only two major pieces of information we need to make an informed decision:

1) Can the applicant to a good (great) job in the position.  Do they have the experience, the thought processes, the vision and discipline to work at the organization and excel at the responsibilities that will be theirs.  How would they handle a specific challenge facing the person who will get the job.  I would be less interested in their weaknesses, or their failures, and more interested in their strengths - and I think it is the interviewer's job to determine their strengths by finding out what they would specifically do given a specific challenge.   More important than what they did in the past, is what they can do in the future - not in general, but for your organization.

2)  Every organization has its own culture.  Some are hierarchical; some authoritarian; some loose and flexible; some favor innovation and independent thinking and questioning and some have narrowly prescribed areas of decision making and how things are to be done.  The first thing that needs to be done is a realistic assessment of the organization's work culture - so that you can craft questions that will give you an idea whether or not the applicant will fit in.  The chemistry between the new hire and the extant work staff - and the organization itself - is arguably as important as their experience, expertise and vision.  If it ends up being a bad fit, the cost will be high to both the new hire and the current staff.  Too often, how the relationships might manifest get short changed or ignored in the interview process.  That is a big mistake.  One question you ought to ask yourself at the end of an interview is:  "Do I like this person?" because that is important.

It's easy to go online and seek some sample questions to ask prospective applicants in an interview, or for those that can afford to hire a search firm, to demur to that firm to come up with the questions.  But that is risky, for too often the questions then asked are the latest in the changing trend of what is fashionable at the time.  Generic questions may, if you are very lucky, give you some information that will actually be helpful in making your hiring decision, but don't count on it.  And it is an abrogation of the responsibility to take control of the process.  Nobody - certainly not a search firm - knows your organization like the people who work there.  Most search firms never bother to really research a client to determine what the ideal candidate would look like; rather they have a standardized "ideal' candidate profile that is basically a description of a candidate that is too perfect to exist in reality.

Some standardized questions might work for you, if you tweak them to fit your organization and the job slot to be filled.  But many more favored questions don't yield the kind of information they claim to.  Yes, you want to know how the candidate sees both work itself and the environment in which work is performed, and yes you want to know what the candidate values in relationships, their past successes and how they dealt with adversity - but be careful that the questions will actually elicit the information you need.  Too many questions elicit stock answers that are rehearsed and stray far from the facts.

Sometimes, it isn't what you ask of the candidate that tells you what you need to know. Sometimes, when you invite the candidate to ask you questions about the job, about the organization, those questions are more telling.  If the applicant doesn't have any questions for you, then they likely haven't done much research about your organization.  Ideally, the job interview isn't one sided; it's a conversation about the job, the applicant and the organization.  To get to that point you need to shift the power dynamic in your favor as the one doing the hiring to a more equal footing whereby the questions are back and forth and the interview becomes a discussion during which you can actually learn something about the applicant.

Hiring is often a crap shoot anyway.  You make the best decision you can given the information you have.  Sometimes you make a great hire.  Sometimes it turns out wrong and the relationship doesn't work.

But those hiring decisions, even at the lowest level of employees, are critically important and you need to treat them as such by thinking through the process before it starts.  That is true whether a Department Head, an Executive Director or the Board is making the hire.  The better you can assess the fit, the more likely you will make a wise hire.

So, please spend some time drafting questions that will give you information about your job candidates as to how they will fit into your organization, and how they will handle the actual job they will be expected to perform.  You need to be as honest with yourself in preparing for the interview as you hope the applicant will be in responding to your inquiries.  THINK about it.  Knowing everything you do about your organization and the job, if you were the candidate, what questions ought to be asked to determine if you would be the right person to hire.  My guess is your biggest failure or other such irrelevant and invasive questions wouldn't be on your list.

Good luck.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Blueprint for Saving the NEA

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on..................."

Here (IMHO) is a very brief and limited overview of what our strategy to save funding for the NEA needs to include.

We need a massive communication with Congress.  While it is important for every arts organization, whether or not they get funding, or whether or not they value the NEA, to communicate with their local Congress representative and Senator, as an organization - registering their strong support for continued funding for the Endowment - that's not enough.  Every person who is employed by an arts organization, every volunteer and supporter, and every artist (even if they are not supported by the NEA) has to likewise communicate.  And by massive, I mean hundreds of thousands of messages.  If there are a million or more people employed in the nonprofit arts, plus many times that number of artists, teachers etc., surely we can muster ten or twenty percent to take 30 minutes and communicate with their elected officials.  This kind of effort is a numbers game.  And this time around we are competing for support against a wide range of programs and funding that are all crucially important to the country's future.

If we really want to maximize our effectiveness and increase our chances of saving the NEA, we need to use social media and any other tool we have to enlist the support of neighbors, friends, co-workers, local media and businesses to join the effort in communicating with Congress.  Every single person in the arts ought to enlist the support of one person outside the arts to make that phone call or write that letter or email.

An aside to those who believe the Endowment isn't that relevant or important - either to them as an artist, administrator, or citizen - please consider that elimination of the NEA would quite possibly have a domino affect on state and local arts support and would, in countless ways, harm and injure an already fragile arts ecosystem.  Maybe this isn't your direct fight, but you are an indirect participant, and if you care about the arts, you will be affected.  And to arts organizations who haven't in the past rallied to this kind of lobbying effort, the question is why?  Are you not part of the ecosystem?

The message each individual sends to their elected representatives can include whatever arguments in the Endowment's favor that you choose - stories of how the arts make a difference in people's lives, how the NEA is important to communities, in education, or the economic arguments in favor of jobs and vibrant local economies, or the basic intrinsic value of art and culture.  It doesn't really matter.  While we can continue making the case for the value of the arts on whatever level, at this point in time we may not have time to amass a tectonic change in public will.

What does matter is this:

First, individual messages must state at the beginning of the communication that you are a registered voter in the district and that support for the NEA is a critical issue for you as a voter.

The communication ought not to be overlong, because if it is, there is a very good chance no one is going to read it - and that is another reason to state at the outset that you are a registered voter in the district (state) and that you want support for the continued funding of the NEA. 

Second, personal visits are best, then phone calls, written letters (fax them to save time), then emails.  Using a robot software program to send a template email isn't the best approach, though better than nothing.  Petitions are basically useless. Please don't think that's all you need to do, because its largely a waste of time.

Third, we need to be strategic in marshaling mass communication to Congress.  So, while it is important to communicate with every single member of Congress - House and Senate - there are target priorities:

1)  Current and past supporters.  Communications should steel the resolve of our supporters to have our back.  Don't take them for granted.  Just because you live in a district or state and your elected official is pro arts, you still need to let them know you need that support to continue at this crucial juncture.  Thank them in advance.

2)  Members of the Committees which have jurisdiction over the Endowment's budget.  These are the people with control over the budget line item at the outset.  Those who are registered to vote in these districts have a special obligation and opportunity to impact the decision making process.

3)  Representatives and Senators who are or may be opposed to funding for the Endowment who are in fact likely to be in tight races for re-election in 2018.  The greater their perceived vulnerability, the more open they are to strong voter sentiments.  That's just a political reality.  Click here for some info on early handicapping of Senate and House 2018 races.

Fourth, we need to challenge and respond to attacks on continued NEA funding that are covered in the media with facts and solid arguments as to why those attacks miss the mark.  Thus, we can ill afford to let Opinion Pieces like the flawed logic of George Will's Washington Post personal view that the Endowment should be defunded. or Budget Director, former conservative Congressman Mick Mulvaney's, absurd change that 'we can't ask coal miner taxpayers from West Virginia to use their tax dollars to pay for things like the NEA'.  
First of all Mr. Mulvaney, we're not talking about tax dollars, we're talking about 46 cents per citizen.  And we most certainly can ask West Virginians and all U.S. citizens to pay for things that make America stronger, more prosperous, improve education and job preparedness for the future, nurture creativity and add value to local communities, including in West Virginia, with programs directly or indirectly funded and supported by the NEA.  And there are West Virginia coal miner families who do benefit from the vibrancy of a strong arts and culture ecology.  Just because they voted for Trump it doesn't necessarily follow they all oppose arts funding.  

We need to counter these kinds of weak arguments against the NEA with facts and counter arguments.  Particularly in the media.

Finally, we need to follow up all our communications.  Lobbying is only as effective as your willingness to hold officials feet to the fire as it were.  A personal visit, a phone call, a letter or an email are great, but a follow up phone call, letter or email is a thousand fold more effective.

Based on past support for the Endowment, I believe the odds are in our favor to keep the agency alive and with not too substantial of cuts - BUT - we live in very different times than we've ever faced - and nothing is certain today.  We ought to mass the biggest effort in our history - for doing so not only enhances our chances to preserve federal funding and support of the arts, but it will be a foundation of which we can build the kind of advocacy and lobbying apparatus we should have cerated decades ago. And it will give us the opportunity to make a better case for the public value of the arts.

Please help.  It's worth a 30 minute to hour investment of your time to do this right.

Americans for the Arts (click here), and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (click here) are but two national organizations that provide links, news, updates, and tools to help you advocate and lobby effectively.  Start with them.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit.