Sunday, March 20, 2016

Communications Survey Report

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


How many hours a week do you spend dealing with email?  How many reports and studies do you get every month, and how many of those do you actually read?  Does your organization have a formal communications policy?  What is the impact of the increased information flow on your organization?  On your personnel?  How do your people manage communications?  These and other questions are critical for the nonprofit arts sector in managing their communications and information flow.

I spent considerable time last year investigating how the nonprofit arts use communications internally in their organizations and externally within the sector.  The purpose of the inquiry was to establish a baseline of information about our communications uses, habits, preferences and attitudes, as well as how we perceive the impact of our communications, and the flow of information, to and from others, on our personnel and organizations.  Communications is at the heart of vitally everything we do, and communications is one of the major occupiers of our time.  As time management is critical to our productivity, efficiency and our effectiveness, I strongly believe this effort ought to be the very beginning of a continuing inquiry into the subject - both at the organizational and sector levels.  I would hope organizations might ask themselves some of the questions asked in the survey and using that information assess their own communications, and the impact of information management on their work. 

Below is a brief Summary of Findings from the Communications Survey conducted this past fall.  I urge you to read the full report, and I think you will find the results informative.  Thank you to all 1601 survey respondents.  HERE is a link to the full report.

The Random Drawing Results:  Westaf conducted a random drawing of all those survey respondents who entered the pool.  Here are the names drawn:
Individual:  Lindsay Mauck - Philly Young Playwrights
Organization:  Viterbo University Fine Arts Center
Checks are being sent to each.

Internet and digital technologies have increased not only the volume of information available in the world, but access to that information and ways to communicate it.  That volume and the tools available to communicate it continues to grow exponentially.  The nonprofit arts field, like the rest of society, seeks to keep abreast of knowledge germane to its work, and to communicate within its own sphere, and outside of it to its constituents, stakeholders, the public and governing authorities. Communications is at the very essence of everything the sector does - key to its mission, operations, and its success as an enterprise.  No sector today lives in a vacuum distinct or apart from the technology that has changed the world.

Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Instagram, Vine and scores of other communications platforms did not exist a decade or so ago.  Smart phones, tablets, mobile apps and even email are a relatively new reality.   All of these tools make it easier to both send and access information, data, thinking, opinions and ideas, and those twin abilities are both a boon to what the nonprofit arts community does, and an increasing challenge for it in managing how it communicates.

While available information is virtually infinite, the resources of the sector and its component organizations is not.  Chief among the scarce resources with which the nonprofit arts field contends, is time.  Limited funding streams impact the ability of arts organizations to employ personnel necessary to adequately identify, analyze and apply the volume of information available in some useful way to a typical arts organization’s business operations and other objectives.  The learning curves of new technologies themselves require an increasing investment of time to master.

While a perceived information overload, and the consequential implications of such a status, is nothing new, the nonprofit arts field has a dearth of information about which communications tools we use, how we are managing that usage, and the impact of that usage on organizations and personnel within those organizations.

This report seeks to begin to provide a baseline of knowledge about the communications tools being used by nonprofit arts organizations and personnel, and the management of its communications activities - within, and between, arts organizations.

A national representative survey instrument designed to ascertain arts organization and leadership communications perceptions, behavior, habits and usage was created to obtain that baseline information in an attempt to begin to understand how arts organizations are communicating.

Specifically, the inquiry sought to understand which communications tools arts organizations and personnel use and to what extent, which sources of information are valued and trusted, how arts administrators are managing the volume of available information and the impact of the increased available information on a variety of markers relating to productivity, job satisfaction, and organizational efficiency.

It also sought to determine whether or not the increased volume of available information is thought to constitute information overload (when the volume of information being dealt with exceeds the ability to make sensible decisions) for the field.

While the volume of available information is increasing, as are the ways to communicate that information, the capacity of human beings to process the increased information is not getting any faster.  Causes of the rise of available information and resultant overload include: i)  the ease and cost effectiveness of sending more information to more people, ii) the lack of filters to simplify and summarize information, iii) the chances of factual errors and inconsistencies in the available information, and iv) the failure of people who pass on information to first process it themselves.   Every communication, ours included, adds to the potential of overload.

The natural response to the paralysis of overload is for human beings to install filters that can make the inflow manageable.  Thus, for example, one response to too many emails in your inbox, is to simply not read a certain percentage of them.  If your email to someone to whom you want to communicate falls into this category, you haven’t communicated at all.  Effective communications increasingly must concern itself with getting past the filters installed by people to manage the overflow.

How we communicate, how we manage our communications strategies and tools, and the impact of our communications choices are complex subjects, and the project recognized early on that preliminary data is needed on which future research and inquiry, by both theorists and practitioners within our field, can build.  Drilling deeper into our preferences, perceptions and behaviors will be necessary in order to better enable our field to improve the effectiveness of its communications, minimize the negative aspects of the information onslaught and maximize the positive impacts of how we manage information going into the future.

The challenge to our organizations is twofold: First, to effectively and efficiently manage the flow of communications and information, and second, to translate the information we access into knowledge that will benefit our operations and advance our missions.  Given the time expended on managing communications and information, and the centrality of those efforts to almost everything we do, it is essential for organizations to proactively address the challenges faced in this arena.


A survey of a representative sampling of arts organizations finds that their internal and external communications includes a variety of traditional and technological methods, each varying in its preferred usage and perceived effectiveness.  While this study was intended to establish a baseline of communications perceptions, behaviors and impacts, the following conclusions may be reasonably drawn from the survey responses:

1.  Communications from arts administrators and organizations, and from others to them, is a major occupier of time.  Email in particular dominates average weekly time expenditures.

2.  The field’s perception of the value and impact of the increased information available to it, and the communications it sends and receives, indicates a struggle with that volume, with a large bloc believing the sheer volume is, or is becoming, unmanageable.

3.  While the increase in information being communicated and being received is perceived as having a positive impact on organization productivity, there is a majority bloc that believes it is a negative on a personal level.

4.   While the struggle with managing communications of all types and the pervasive feeling among the respondents that there are significant negative impacts on their time and abilities to do their jobs, most arts organizations do not have any formal plan to address these issues.

5.  Due to the limitations of this survey, it is unclear the extent to which arts organizations are aware of, and are dealing with, communications and information issues, including the challenges posed to staff personnel.

6.  Most arts organizations do not have the resources to engage a full time communications officer.
Administrators are challenged to relate the increased information to their specific needs.

7.  It may be a myth that the inclusion of an Executive Summary in reports is the preferred method of review by arts administrators.

8.  For many organizations, this respondent observation encapsulates their challenge:  “We have 20th century resources in a 21st century environment.”


Preferred methods of communication:  While a wide range of communications tools are employed by arts organizations, including traditional and technological, three principal means dominate - email, face to face meetings  (one-on-one, staff / department) and the telephone - all of which might today be considered “old school”.

Communications plans / staff officers:

  • More than three quarters of arts organizations do not have a formal communications plan for internal organization communications.
  • 65 % do not have a staff communications officer
  • Nearly 60% do not have a formal plan for external communications.

These figures suggest that a large bloc of arts organizations may not be dealing directly with communication issues within their organizations.  One can speculate on the reasons for the lack of communications plans: 1) a lack of resources - time, money; 2) the difficulty in creating organization wide plans due to differences in staff / generational preferences for the use of various communications tools; 3) a belief that such a plan is / would not be of sufficient value to justify its creation; 4) the possibility that such a plan would be essentially outdated on creation; and 5) unawareness of the challenges administrators are having in this area.


Effectiveness of various external communications tools:  In order of perceived effectiveness, the top five tools are:

  • Email 
  • Website
  • Convenings / Events
  • Facebook
  • Telephone

Again, with the possible exception of Facebook, these tools are basically ‘traditional”.

Of those organizations that use Facebook, 34% post a few times a week, 22% post daily, 23% post 2 to 4 times per day, and 10% post once per week.

Preferred sources of incoming information:  Communications from sources outside the organization are most often read / reviewed from these sources - in order:

  • Colleagues / Peers
  • Constituents
  • Community leaders
  • Foundations
  • Other arts organizations within the discipline

Information from colleagues, peers, constituents and community leaders hold the most importance and sway to arts administrators.

Effectiveness of various communications:  The most effective communications tools for external communications are, in order:

  • Email
  • Convenings / events
  • Website
  • Facebook
  • Meetings


Coping with the increase:

  • 63% say the volume of information and communication is growing and becoming increasingly more difficult to keep pace with.
  • 15% said it was out of hand and they were feeling overwhelmed
  • 21% thought it a reasonable amount and had no trouble handling it.

Perhaps the single most important finding from the survey document is the number of arts administrators who view the increase in the volume of communication - to and from others - as a real or potential problem; one that is a threat / drain to their most important resource - time.

Perception of the value of the information available:

  • 38% think about 25% of the available information / received communications are of value to them.
  • 28% think about half of the available information / received communications are of value to them.
  • 18% think less than 10% of the available information / received communications are of value to them.

Challenges to managing communications:

  • Nearly 80% think that a lack of time is the biggest challenge in staying abreast of all the information available.
  • Nearly 40% think their biggest challenge in staying abreast is relating the information available to their needs.

Hours Spent Per Week Dealing with Various Communications Tools:


  • 23% spent 7 to 10 hours per week reading and responding to email
  • 22% spent 11 to 15 hours per week reading and responding to email
  • 18% spent 16 to 20 hours per week reading and responding to email
  • 16% spent more than 20 hours per week reading and responding to email

Over half the respondents spend 11 or more hours dealing with email each week - or one-quarter of a traditional 40 hour work week.

Conferring one-to-one with coworkers within the organization:

  • 33% spent 4 to 6 hours per week conferring one to one.
  • 22% spent 7 to 10 hours per week conferring one to one.
  • 13% spent 11 to 15 hours per week conferring one to one.

Other major time consuming activities:

  • 28% spent 4 to 6 hours talking on the telephone
  • 31% spent 4 to 6 hours searching the internet
  • 28% spent 4 to 6 hours attending staff / department meetings
  • 23% spent 4 to 6 hours on social networking sites.

Impact of the increased volume of communications:

  • 36% think the volume of communications / information positively impacts their productivity. 27% think it negatively impacts their productivity.
  • 44% think it negatively impacts their time to reflect and brainstorm.  28% think it positively impacts their time to reflect and brainstorm.
  • 43% think the volume negatively impacts their ability to effectively manage their time.
  • 46% think the volume positively impacts their organization’s success.
  • 58% think the volume positively impacts innovation.
  • 48% think the volume positively impacts organizational adaptability

There appears to be a split between the perceived value of increased communication / information to the organization on the one hand, and to the individual administrator on the other.  The balance of these two seemingly different conclusions poses a major challenge to organizations.

Other Findings:


Volume of reports received:

  • Nearly 40% receive 3 to 5 studies and / or reports each month.
  • 18% receive 6 to 10 per month
  • 10% receive 10 or more per month

Reports reviewed:

  • Nearly 60% read or scan 1 to 2 reports per month
  • 30% review 3 to 5 per month
  • Less than 5% review more than 10 per month

Preferred method of review:

  • 41% read select sections of the reports and studies they receive
  • 28% scan the whole report
  • 25% read or scan the Executive Summary section (and this relatively low number flies in the face of conventional wisdom that the Summary of Findings is the preferred method of report review. 


  • 19% reported having engaged in a crowdfunding campaign in the past year; of that number, 18% reported having engaged in more than one such campaign.
  • 20% of those that engaged in a campaign reported raising $5000 to $10,000; 20% reported raising $10,000 to $20,000.

It is my hope that these preliminary findings on our habits, behaviors, and perceptions about the tools we use to communicate, our management of those tools, and the impact of the increase in available information on our organizations and personnel will encourage arts organizations to take a long look at their communications and information management.

As a preliminary study, the findings suggest more questions than they provide answers.  We ought to consider: 1) the effectiveness of our communications and how we can improve them; and 2) the implications of our behaviors and perceptions on our business practices and what alternatives to current practices exist.

Special thanks to WESTAF, the Knight Foundation and the Hewlett Foundation for their support of this project.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

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