Monday, October 13, 2014


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

Note:  There is no way I can possibly cover all the material I absorbed in today's sessions and do justice to it all tonight.  So, I am going to hit a couple of highlights and then come back later in the week and cover the rest.  And that is likely to be my approach tomorrow as well.  I also plan on a separate post on the GIA Preconference on the Unique Practice of Arts Grantmaking this weekend.

Session:  Getting Beyond Breakeven 2.0: Exploring the Opportunities and the Limits of Making Investments Towards Change

"In 2009, TDC (Consulting) published Getting Beyond Breakeven, a study commissioned by the William Penn Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts, which reviewed the capitalization needs and challenges of arts and culture organizations in Philadelphia.  The study found weak financial health despite strong financial literacy, and identified two potential reasons for the disconnect:  1) strategic plans ungrounded in market knowledge, and 2) a chaotic market for philanthropic dollars that does not always encourage behavior that leads to financial health.  Five years later, TDC has conducted a follow up study" which has found:

  • "Organizations remain financially weak (70% undercapitalized and negative available unrestricted net assets grew in the aggregate from negative $14 million in 2007 to negative $25 million in 2011).
  • Competition between arts organizations (particularly for contributed dollars) intensified, caused by: i) a lack of organizations exiting the field, ii) a tendency towards growth (caused in part because "growth" became the default metric for success) especially among larger organizations, and iii) a net decline in paid audience attendance.
  • The market is in transition - including generational shifts, donor motivational changes, foundation adjustments in approach and priorities.  In 2007 these external market conditions were not considered important by the area's arts organizations in terms of organizational planning, whereas now the exact opposite is true.
  • 90% of the organizations had a strategy to keep old and grow new audiences, but only 20% had the financial resources to pursue the strategy.  
  • Whereas in 2007 individual donors made up the biggest part of contributed income, in 2011 foundations had picked up the slack caused by the 2008 economic problems." 
TDC's report noted four assumptions arts organizations make in "rationalizing a strategy for financial sustainability or growth" as the definition of success:
  1. "If we (or they) could only get to scale, our financial problems would be solved.  
  2. Spending more on marketing means more people will come.
  3. We need to invest in more fundraising staff because we need to find more individual donors.
  4. If we invest more in the highest quality art and market it relentlessly, then our organization will thrive and grow."
The danger in these assumptions is that bigger is not necessarily always better; growth does not always result in more money coming in.  "For small organizations run on a careful balance of goodwill and money, and increase in size runs the risk of swamping available goodwill."  Thus for a sizable portion of these organizations, current success is a product of the passion of their supporters, and the mistake they make is assuming this "sweat equity" is scalable.  "Shifting to a model that requires paid staff makes sustaining the organization significantly harder, and a system that worked smoothly under one set of conditions may falter when placed under another.  TDC contends that for most of these organizations small is beautiful.  They run at a scale feasible and fun for volunteers."

The report's conclusion was that growth is not the goal in and of itself. Rather, when investing in growth that actually contributes to sustainability, "organizations and their supporters need to challenge their core assumptions and be relentlessly honest about their goals, what kind of investment it will take to actually achieve those goals, and whether those goals are achievable."  The following questions, the report suggests, ought to be asked:

  • What are we chasing when we invest in marketing or fundraising?
  • What is the role of program growth in fueling mission and sustainability?  How do we pay for more program investment and what are the revenue goals?
  • How do answers change for organizations with different scales, business models and revenue dependencies?
  • Where are the points where funder and organization priorities align?
The results from the Philadelphia study has implications for arts organizations across the sector, and suggests that we remain a long way from addressing the issue of capitalization.

Session:  Building the Field of Our Dreams
The Bridgespan Group developed the Strong Field Framework to help organizations collectively assess the strengths and needs of the field a given cohort might seek to build.  The Irvine Foundation together with AEA Consulting is applying this framework to the arts to learn how to develop and support a field within a field of arts organizations, nonprofit partners, researchers, and policymakers committed to engaging more and different kinds of people in the arts using emergent, sustainable approaches.

What is a Strong Field Framework?  -- Definition:  A community of organizations and individuals working towards a common goal, using a set of common approaches.  It involves:

Standards of practice
  • Shared knowledge base
  • Shared identity
  • Leadership and grassroots support
  • Funding and support policies
Fair enough.  Straightforward and unambiguous. 

Questions that are suggested to arise in any such efforts include:
  1. What is the shared goal?
  2. How is the knowledge base defined?
  3. What are the consensus approaches?  What models are to be used?
  4. What infrastructure will prevail?
  5. Who owns / controls the field (and how is the "field" defined?
  6. What are the influencers: e.g., the changing ecology of the arts, the evolution of the participant's framework.
A little less straightforward and with some ambiguity.

Examination of the process for forming strong fields that can advance a common goal - how does that process work and what are the steps in its incubation, development, and launch? - seems to me a valuable exercise.  Ascertaining the attitudes of the arts "field" towards such a process and identifying practical advice as to how to make it work can have use in a variety of applications useful within our field.  Identifying the challenges, obstacles and opportunities for field building as a tool are obviously critical to applying the logic to any of our challenges - engagement included.

But, I must admit I found this session somewhat confusing, because I think we so far have only very preliminary results of the investigation.  We are at a very early stage in the analysis of field building as a process and for the arts specifically.  More questions remain, than answers so far provided.  How, for example, do you move people from sub-fields up and out to the larger field you seek to establish?  What motivates people and organizations to do that?  Self interest?  Group interest?  How are those interests defined?  How are they exploited?  How is one field motivated to support the goals of a separate, but arguably related, field?  Are we always talking about a definable "field" or are we really talking about a more complex dynamic of fields (plural)?  

I applaud Irvine for again trying to expand the arts knowledge base in how we might leverage our internal collective numbers, and our cross sector collaborative potential, by dissecting the dynamics of "fields"as an ingredient in a recipe for authenticity and action.  I think perhaps though that many in the audience felt that their examination of the subject matter is still very early on, and needs to move towards completion before they unroll their final conclusions.  And if they succeed in unraveling the component parts of forging cohesive strong field frameworks they will have contributed yet another invaluable tool to the sector. 

Lunch Plenary:  Dr. Steven Tepper
Readers of my blog are familiar with Dr. Tepper - one of our foremost policy wonks and strategic thinkers.  It is always challenging and interesting to hear one of his talks, and today's lunch presentation: The Arts and 'Bigger Than Me' Experiences - was no exception.

Dr. Tepper repeated the litany of positive new ways the public is experiencing the arts as a counterpoint to the assertions that the arts are dying or losing adherents -- pointing out that the ways people are creating and accessing the arts are up, just not on the old measurements.

He then turned the presentation to consideration of the rise of the IWWIWWHIWI (I Want What I Want, When and How I Want It) rant of the current thinking:
  • In 1950 12% of respondents agreed with the statement: "I am an important person".
  • In 1990 80% of respondents agreed with that statement.
  • We have come to the point where experiences that cannot be captured and embodied in a "selfie" are not experiences worth having.
  • The unavoidable media overload reduces compassion, empathy, moral reasoning and tolerance.
  • There has been an aggregate increase in the number of hours the middle class works of 660 hour per year. So, many workers no longer take lunch breaks. 
  • There has been a decline in trust of everything from the medical profession to politicians to the media to business and beyond.
All of this, he suggests is shifting the pendulum from the personal "ME" centered experiences - exhaling the solo voice, personal pleasure, doing things to the "Bigger Than ME" experiences that emphasize knowing over doing, reflection, empathetic understanding, and purpose.  And those experiences are what the arts offer.  

He cited numerous examples of this shift:
  • The movement from digital back to vinyl albums in music.
  • The return to favor of Black & White photography.
  • The rise of serial episodes in television.
  • The Slow food movement.
None of these examples (and others) are necessarily convenient or cheap. And that's the point.  They are being embraced because they are characterized by:
  • authenticity - relationships, not transactions
  • slowing down, not speeding things up
  • conversations, not marketing or sales
  • doing less, not more
The theory is that the Millennial generation is embracing these changes and whereas in the later half of the 20th Century the arts championed "excellence, and in the early part of this century, the arts championed "access", now we are moving to "impact" as a defining mantra.  

By and large I agree with Dr. Tepper.  I think there is a shift towards what he calls the Bigger Than Me experiences.  I have two reservations:  1)  I'm not sure this is new.  I think maybe every generation seeks these kinds of experiences at a certain point in its development; and 2) I think there is a danger in assuming that generational shifts in valuation and action are anywhere near permanent.  I think all generations change as they grow older.  They all have periods where idealism dominates, when being part of something bigger than the self is paramount.  They all have periods where they recede into ego and selfishness, and they all tend to grow more conservative, more risk averse and more willing to accommodate and settle as they grow older.  What is true today, may look very different in a decade and so the arts would be wise not to put all its eggs in any one basket, but embrace the probability that change is a (the) constant.  Strategies, tools, approaches, plans should all take into consideration that nothing ever remains quite the same.  My own guess is that the truth of any given moment, is, unfortunately, very, very short lived.

More on tomorrow sessions and then I will circle back to talk about some other conference outcomes at the end of the week.  Thank you for your patience

Have a good day.

Don't Quit.


  1. Thanks for sharing these intriguing reflections.

    Maybe I'm missing the context, but Dr. Tepper's examples as presented here seem suspect at best. Yes, there is a very small percentage of our population that is turning to the novelty of nostalgic forms and practices. But what the heck do vinyl records have to do with the idea of something "bigger than me?"

    Before I got to the description, I thought/hoped that he was talking about the desire to be part of something bigger than oneself, to make a difference as a collective instead of as individuals. I'm not sure that is trending either--but I hope art can help move us there!

    1. Nina - I'm afraid I didn't do Dr. Tepper's presentation justice if my minimalist reporting created that impression. I think Steven's vinyl records resurgence example, was meant as an example that people are yearning for things that have an authenticity that perhaps the march of progress seemingly lacks. Those who prefer vinyl records, prefer analog over digital because there is a "real" presence to the analog recorded sound that digital simply can't reproduce. My impression of the "bigger than me" that he talks about was precisely what you were talking about -- the desire to be PART of something bigger than oneself; a part of a collective; the antithesis of the culture of the "selfie".

  2. Rick Noguchi, Sr. Program Officer, Irvine FoundationOctober 15, 2014 at 7:46 AM

    Thanks for reporting on our panel, Barry. Your blog provides a great window into the conference sessions along with your commentary on the content. Regarding the Field Building work we reported on, our intention was to share emerging findings and discuss them at an early stage in the GIA forum... We were very encouraged by the insightful comments and questions that we received from the session participants and those responses were really helpful as we refine our assessment of the applicability of the Strong Field Framework to the arts.

    We look forward to sharing the final conclusions publicly once the investigation is completed sometime in 2015.

    1. Thanks Rick. I like what you guys are doing, and I wholeheartedly support the effort to try to find ways that will make it easier for everyone in the arts sector to build "fields" that have impact. I look forward with you in sharing your final conclusions once your investigation is complete.