Sunday, July 1, 2012

Going Outside the Box - Too Far?

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

Limited Shelf Life?

The funding paradigm for the arts is relatively simple and long standing.  We fund (for a variety of reasons and lofty purposes) organizations within the sector, and to a lesser extent, from time to time over the past five decades, individual artists.  With respect to organizations, we seek to single out those that have artistic excellence, are well run, and that offer access and programs to the communities they serve, which we value .   We also seek to sustain and increase the capacity of those organizations.  We support certain of their programming and (at least recently) try to help them (in part) with the cost of their operations either directly (or indirectly by helping them to be better managers).  We are constantly trying to measure the impact and effectiveness of this funding in the realization of goals and objectives we devise, and we are continually asking ourselves if what we are doing is working, or even does it make sense.  But we are slow to take risks, reluctant to make major course changes, and conservative in how seriously we call into question the underlying assumptions on which the whole construct has been built.

A case in point is how we approach organizational leadership and personnel, and how we think about the underlying organizations which form the foundation of what we do.
Brain Pickings quotes Alvin Toffler:  "The illiterate of the 21st century, will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."   
And perhaps a corollary might be that the future belongs to those who will risk, innovate, succeed, then fail and re-risk and innovate again.

I wonder whether instead of investing exclusively in long term organizations, we ought to invest more in people and short term teams to accomplish our aims.

The Hewlett Foundation has term limits for all its leadership and programming people (but not administrative support / clerical personnel).  That includes the President of the Foundation and all the program officers.  No exceptions, after eight years you have to move on.  Arguably, such a policy insures that there is a periodic influx of new blood, new thinking, new ideas and obviates against the organization becoming too staid and bogged down in past history or the habit of doing things as they have always been done.

Is this a good idea that ought to be implemented across the whole of the nonprofit arts sector?  Should we limit the tenure of all of our leadership - senior and middle management to some arbitrary maximum term?  Would this result in new ideas, leaner and more productive organizations, fresher perspectives, increased support and better results given an organization's mission statement?  Or would it simply be pushing good people out at the peak of their performance level when they still have much more to contribute?  Is a time limitation counter productive in that it squanders what people learn from experience and being on the job - in a particular place at a particular time?  Or would it insure that an organization would put a premium on relevance and idea generation?

Should we be investing more in people - those leaders we recognize as moving us forward because of their skills, experience, talent, charisma, thinking prowess, leadership - irrespective of their current organizational affiliation, than in the organization they make succeed?  Is such a radical shift away from funding the organization something we ought to consider.

And what of organizations themselves?  Ought there be some sunset date self- imposed after which an arts organization would at least begin to wrap up their existence?  Is there any really good reason an organization ought to exist in perpetuity as a given from the outset?  Isn't it a fact that, as Michael Wolfe argued in a Quora post "failure is the default path for a large company given a long enough timeframe."  Why do we automatically assume that once an organization comes into being (even assuming that support for its launch and initial success is fully warranted), it then ought to forever continue to exist?  And that we ought to forever support that existence?

What if we assumed that virtually every (or at least a sizable portion of the total) new organization would have a wrap date from the get-go?  What if we approached organizational support from a more limited perspective than the current thinking of 'forever'?  What if we funded and supported 'projects', 'progams' or even 'people' rather than organizations.  Specific projects that had a built in sunset provision.  Specific people who have demonstrated current acumen and original and exciting creative thinking - and even those people for only a single, specific project they wished to tackle?  How much easier would it be to measure the impact and link the success of the effort to a desired outcome, then trying to gauge the impact of ongoing organizations and their programs?

Ok, perhaps there ought to be a few exceptions to a general rule of assuming obsolescence from the outset as the inevitable eventual norm - like artist founder driven performance organizations maybe?  Or  museums maybe?  Then again, maybe not.  I'm just asking.

Is part of our blind allegiance to 'forever' organizations our love affair with wanting to impact capacity and sustainability?  Could those two concepts not more easily be managed if we confined them to some particular goal and impact and detached them from the ongoing institution?

What might the field look like if instead of 'forever' institutions hiring people for jobs related as much to the perpetual existence of the organization itself as to its artistic (or related) mission, we organized ourselves by assembling 'teams' of people - small strike forces as it were - that could come to bear on any given challenge or project - for a limited time period, and then were available to join another team for another assignment?  And isn't that precisely what some younger Millennial generation artists are now doing in their efforts to create?  Aren't many of them already embodying the idea of strike force teams assembled for a specific purpose without the baggage and vast infrastructure that is necessary when one starts 'organizations'?  Would that make for more effective and impactful results, than the way we have currently 'organized' the dynamics of our field?

Would that perhaps change dramatically a whole host of other issues with which we grapple - from earlier shared decision making with younger leadership cohorts, and leadership succession, to fundraising, to evaluation and metrics, to professional development to -- well, maybe everything?

Some will argue that if you are going to create a new infrastructure, management team and apparatus to do something from start to finish every time, you are going to waste a lot of time and energy in a needless and costly repetitive cycle of reinventing what is already in existence.  But is that true?  Maybe  what you would be doing is simply dismantling the existing separate infrastructures and mechanisms that are definitionally already needless repetitions of what is not needed in favor of a new system that would be far more efficient in the long run by centralizing and merging certain functions and applying them as needed to a given project - be it a performance, a service or something else.  Which would be ultimately better - a thousand self-contained organizations where all the functions are (inefficiently) under a thousand different roofs, or a system of highly qualified teams to which much of any given project could be outsourced on a case by case basis?  And that is assuming that these teams are organic themselves and constantly evolving.

But what about 'brand' and identity?  What about consistency and constancy?

What about them?  Why do they exist only if the organization is perpetual?  Ask instead, how much more excited the public might be if creativity were really turned on its head?  What is brand if not the perception in the public's mind of value?  Is consistency really the holy grail?  Would it be outrageous to ask a grant applicant: "How long they perceive the organization intends to remain in business?   How long it can rationally argue that it will be viable?"  Are those questions anyone asks of a grant applicant today?  Why not?  Should we not rethink what we ought to ask of applicants; should we not ask them to think, up front, about the need for them to continue forever?

I am, of course, not suggesting we 'kill all the lawyers' as it were and get rid of all the organizations, but rather than we begin to insist that they evolve.  It seems apparent the 'organization' is an essential framework for some (maybe a lot of) artistic endeavors.  Isn't it legitimate to just ask out loud whether or not we ought to continue in perpetuity to support the concept of the 'forever' organization?  Is support loyalty to that construct perhaps myopic, confining and in the long run just maybe not such a great idea?  Is the notion that organizations ought to every so often re-organize the way they exist not legitimate?  Does not the commitment to the concept of the 'forever' organization breed complacency, and aren't our organizations becoming 'soft' in a way; too safe in some ways to continually consider when and how to change to stay at the forefront?  Should we focus only on how we can make any given organization better, or ask instead whether supporting the 'organization' itself is the right approach?  And maybe we ought to identify our best and brightest and support them wherever they happen to be - follow them and not stay with the organization itself?  Shouldn't we begin to question the whole model - if for no other reason than to more accurately pinpoint its flaws and weaknesses so we might deal with them.  We might just need to "unlearn" what we have done for so long, and relearn a new approach; take new risks and innovate again.

Or is such a notion way too radical for it to be seriously considered?  Too full of holes and too conceptual to begin to deal with?  Were I again a major funder, I would want to start thinking more radically - and consider ideas that are way outside the box - at least for the longer term.  Tiptoeing just outside the walls of our box isn't likely to allow us to consider what might lie way beyond those walls - "for the times they are a-changing."  If we say we want to think outside the box, should we not be dong it ourselves?  How far out of the box are we willing to go?  I suggest we consider the proposition that funding individual projects rather than institutional organizations (and the idea of funding specific proven leaders and follow them on their career paths) might be, at least in many cases, a far better approach in determining the best use of funds given our stated objectives (and the challenges attendant to all funding) than continuing to fund all the organizations themselves - just because we always have.  And I think we might want to deal with the proposition (embrace or dismiss it) sooner, rather than later, so that we control the dialogue rather than having it imposed on us.

Doubtless this will appear as heresy to anyone gainfully employed at an ongoing organization, but I am not sure it ought to be viewed that way. Sector wide systemic reorganization takes a long, long time.  The change would be slow.  But, over time it might just be a better way to protect one's job and make it more interesting and challenging and thus satisfying, and it might yield better results in furtherance of original mission statements over that longer term.

Too far outside the box for our comfort level?  Even just as a topic to discuss seriously?

Have a great week.

Don't Quit!


  1. Couple of comments. I very much agree with the idea of funding key people not organizations if your intent is to break new ground. Venture capital firms look as much to the key people involved in the proposed project as to the validity of the business plan. Second, the innovative parts of the corporate world have largely shifted to “project teams” as the way to really get things done. The notion is to have a pool of competent people and assemble teams with the specific skills and backgrounds for the particular project, not put the work into a previously defined function. Creates both better work, as self-managed teams function better, and brings fresh insights into the project.

    The arts are full of creative people but generally stuck in fixed “departments” repeating rather than innovating.

  2. Barry,
    Lots of Questions - I read them encouragingly!

    After taking the risk to create an organization to support individual artists, riding a small wave of success and now moving the entire program onto the web as a resource...I am relaunching digital storytelling workshops, consulting and building a new matrix of income to support myself and family.

    What if individual artists were supported "equally" to arts organizations? Change would happen more quickly, local economy would "feel" the diference and jobs would undoubtedly grow.

    Anyway, a girl can dream....

    Thanks for the extra encouragement today.

  3. Barry,
    Very interesting article. Any creative endeavour needs regular infusion of fresh ideas and innovation. From personal experience in two start-up communication positions I know how someone in a leadership position can become "tapped out." Strangely enough, it's usually at the 7-8 year mark! In the first I left after almost 9 years, knowing something new was needed and in the second case I reinvented the position sufficiently after 7 years to go on for another 10. I don't recommend it!
    Thanks for sharing your insights.

  4. I think this is just the kind of discussion we need to have in the sector and in our communities. Leaders and funders and donors need to understand the options so they can make informed choices. Many nonprofits do seem to exist to perpetuate themselves rather than to create better communities. But I am wary of the lack of accountability in many new nonprofits and loosely organized projects, which could turn off many donors as well as fail to utilize resources well.

    I also believe good leaders understand when it's time to move on, and do so, sometimes before others think they should. Boards should be monitoring leadership performance always, and be ready to act when they need to initiate leadership changes.