Sunday, September 2, 2018

Getting the Most Out of a Conference

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

Note:  Another surgery next week, so I will be taking a little time off to recover.  Back soon.

I ran across this article  in Forbes on "Getting the Most Out of Conferences and Events".  The chief advice is to focus on what you want out of your attendance and then to plan.

There is no shortage of conferences in the nonprofit arts.  Every discipline, every field of interest in the sector, every national service provider offers one.  You could easily go to a score of more conferences each year if you so desired.  And conferences run all year now.  Senior leaders will usually attend one in their dominant field of interest. Unfortunately, because of budget constraints and the costs of attending these conferences, most organizations can only afford to send their chief executives (if they can afford to send anyone at all).  Rarely do the more rank and file staffers get the opportunity, and that's unfortunate because it is these junior leaders who, arguably, stand to gain the most.

(While most conference organizers provide for early-bird reduced registration, I would like to see these organizers provide for reduced registration fees for attendees employed in the field for less than say, three years, as a way to perhaps encourage more newer staffers to attend.  And maybe funders could provide more scholarship support for travel and lodging)

Conference attendance then is an important investment for those who do attend.  How then do you go about designing an approach to attendance for getting the most from the experience?

The answer to that question depends on the time you have spent in the field.  For all levels of administrators, there are two primary things to be gained from attendance: 1) Learning from the content of the sessions and from your peers, and 2) Networking: Meeting new people and rekindling long standing relationships.   It is the latter that takes precedence the longer you are in the field.

I break it down into three broad categories:

1.  The Initiates:  For those relatively new to the field.
For all conference attendees, learning is the primary objective. But not just about job and job skills, but also about the sector as an industry - about the people and organizations who are the leaders and the players, and about how the sector works. Newer people need to see themselves as a sponge at their first conferences - soak up as much as you possibly can.  The real purpose of these conferences though, is networking. Your goal should be to meet as many people in positions that relate to your job as possible - similarly situated staffers at related organizations, funders, researchers, etc.  And secondarily, to learn as much as you can about doing your job - the content of the sessions.

Do two things before you get there.  1)  Scan the session descriptions and decide which ones you want to attend.  Zero in on sessions that have some bearing on what you do, but include a couple which promise bigger picture content so you gain perspective, especially if they are being led by people you want to meet (and introduce yourself before or after the session).  2) Most conferences make available to attendees a participant list as the date nears.  Go over that list and note people you would like to meet and then make an effort to meet those people, at least to introduce yourself.  It's a good idea to have business cards to hand out (and you should collect them from those you meet). Don't worry if you aren't able to meet everyone on your list.  I've been to large conferences where I intended to get together with people I've already known for a long time, and yet, over several days, never managed to cross paths with them.   Most conferences' plenary sessions at the opening of each day, and at lunch sessions, are open seating, and thus great opportunities to meet people -- and if you can place yourself next to someone you want to meet and converse with, you will have an opportunity for a virtual one on one conversation.  For that reason, I never sit at just any table, nor am I the first one to seat myself.  I wait until the tables begin to fill, quickly identify a table occupied by people I might want to talk to and those I might want to get to know.  Even if your seat mates are serendipitously determined, that's ok, because often times you end up meeting someone who will make an excellent contact.   Note too that keynote speakers are often inspiring and motivating, but few keynotes will offer you much practical advice that you can use, and thus the before, and during conversations with those at your table may be more valuable to you in the long run.

Networking and meeting new contacts is arguably the single most important thing you can do at these conferences; even more important than taking lessons from the content of the sessions you will attend.  Despite the fact that there is an overabundance of information to master and content to absorb in our industry, we, like most businesses, are really about people and relationships.  It's from people whom you will really learn your job and craft; it's people who will really help you with your career trajectory; it's people who will help you to brainstorm and inspire you to come up with new ideas.

In addition to plenary session seat-mate opportunities, there are several other situations that lend themselves to meeting people.  1)  Arrive early to sessions and work the room.  Introduce yourself to others (including the presenters and / or panelists) while waiting for the session to start and engage in conversations about the topic or whatever is on your mind.  2)  The break periods between sessions are perfect opportunities to seek out people you want to meet and introduce yourself.  And finally 3) Dinners and events are tailor made for networking.  Most of the nonprofit arts dinners (and there is usually only one) are buffets and you can wander the room to meet new folks.  And if the meal is attached to an arts organizations (often museum or gallery or performing arts venue), you have ample time to simply wander around and see what happens.  Most conferences also have at least one dine-around where they put up lists for people to sign to be included in a dinner at a certain restaurant.  It might be a table of complete strangers, and it might turn out fabulous.   If you only dine with people you already know, you're wasting an opportunity to get to know new people.

Note on shyness.  I know, for many people, the idea of going up to someone and introducing yourself - particularly if that person is a known leader with status and reputation - can be daunting.  And I know some people actually have to force themselves, uncomfortably, to do that.  All I can tell you is that 95% of the time, those you introduce yourself to, will be open, gracious and welcoming.  We've all been new to the field, and most of us have, at times, felt awkward.  My advice:  try.  You might be surprised.  (And for the 5% who are stand-offish, well you're not missing much).

2).  For the mid-career administrators:  Those in the field for a few years.
The advice is essentially the same, but for these attendees you will already know many of your contemporary peers in the field.  This is an opportunity to bond and cement relationships, to add new contacts, and to both hear and put forth new ideas and concepts and to learn from those peers.  It's a time to find out from the field what is going on, what's working and not, what the issues are and where opportunities lie, as well as to brainstorm. This is preparation work for the next steps as these folks move closer towards being the next leaders of the field.  If you know who will be there and who you want to see, you might contact some of those people before the conference and arrange a dinner or other time to meet.  I use to do that at key conferences like AFTA and GIA by trying to set up dinners with six or eight people before hand.  Some of those dinners were the best part of the whole conference - for me anyway.  Try it.

3).  The EDs and CEO's:  The establishment. 
As previously noted, unfortunately, because of limitations, this is usually the largest group at the conference.  Some are newbies in their current position, but not to the field, some in mid career and some nearing the end of their tenures.  For the newbies and mid-career leaders, this is about career trajectory - putting yourself out there, identifying future opportunities and assessing those opportunities might mean for you.  For all of these leaders, the other goals are essentially the same:  Meeting with new and established contacts to share information and experiences, and to learn what is going on around the country.  For these individuals, the content at the sessions is usually an opportunity for refining their knowledge base, and hopefully stimulating a few new thoughts and ideas to share.   The longer one has been in the field, the more this is about old friends and catching up.  That is important because it helps one to reaffirm the plusses of being in the field in the first place. It's about renewal and revival.

Whatever you do in terms of networking, don't just hang out exclusively with people you already know well.  That's squandering opportunities you paid for.  Meet at least a few new people. And for those people you meet and have a connection - or want to - follow up with an email, or, a call. Begin to establish a relationship, no matter how embryonic.  One final piece of advice:  there is a lot of talking that goes on at conferences.  Learn to listen and listen well.  And please, if there are recommended reading materials and / or research available before the conference for a session you might want to attend, don't put that off until you are on the plane.  Do your homework, if there is any, beforehand.  If you give yourself more time to think about the subject, you'll get more out of the presentation, and you'll be able to formulate good questions to raise.  Relax on the plane.

Attendance at conferences can be of enormous value to improving your knowledge base and skills levels, to your awareness of issues, to your ability to do the job better, to understanding the sector and how it works, and to meeting the wide variety of leaders within the field.  It can be good for your job performance, and for your career.  For all of those reasons, it is essential to maximize the precious limited time available at these events by doing some pre-planning - as to the sessions you want to attend and the people you want to see and meet.  Of course, you have to be open to things just happening, and often they will, and you will sometimes be pleasantly surprised by serendipitous  events.  But you also have to plan, and execute your plan, to maximize the benefit of your attendance. Networking is both a casual event and pointed work.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, August 26, 2018

You Have a Mission Statement. Do You Have a Values Statement To Go With It?

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

Virtually every nonprofit arts organization has a Mission Statement, declaring the purpose of the organization and why it exists.  Those statements are often complemented by a Vision Statement, an aspirational declaration setting forth what the organization would like to see accomplished. There has been no dearth of advice as to how to craft a Mission Statement (brevity, focus et. al).

But not that many organizations have yet developed a Values Statement to complement their Mission and Vision Statements.  What is a Values Statement?  It is a declaration (often times a list) of the core values that the organization holds dear, and which guide the decision-making, activities and behaviors of the organization as it pursues its mission and vision statements.

A Values Statement for organizations in the nonprofit arts might include, among other values, the following:

•  Doing the Right Thing - including the embrace and promotion of fairness, equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice.

•  Respect for the Organization's People - in the fair and ethical treatment of its' Artists, Board, Staff, Volunteers, Clients, Audiences, and public.

•  Transparency - in the actions and decision making process of the organization and its people.

•  Artist Support - in their pursuit of excellency in the their art.

•  Community Engagement - Collaboration, Cooperation and Connection as involved and responsible community citizens.

•  Innovation -  Growing the organization with constant creativity and fresh approaches to how it serves its mission and pursues its vision.  A commitment to moving forward and avoiding stagnancy.

•  Service Mentality - providing outstanding service to the organization's many constituencies and parts.

•  Having Fun and enjoying the daily process of being.  (And if fun isn't one of your core values, why would anybody want to work there?)

You get the idea, which is to codify the values that are important to the organization.  Your organization might embrace different or additional ones.  Having such a statement helps everyone in your organization put decisions and behavior into the context of what matters to the organization.  It can help guide decision making and ground goal setting.  And it signals to those who interact with the organization from the outside, the principles that guide the organization.  The process of creating a Values Statement is a way to engage everyone in the organization in a consensus as to what matters in how the organization does business.  It allows the organization to develop a kind of practical ethical compass for the pursuit of its actions and aspirations.  And that compass can be a source of pride and commitment.  It's about who you are.

What are the core values your organization holds?  Does everybody in your organization know?  If they don't, maybe a formal Values Statement is something you ought to consider developing.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Should Artists Play More of a Role in Fundraising?

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

Decades ago, the person hired to serve as the Development Director became nearly as important as the Executive Director. Experienced and successful fundraisers saw their salary base quickly rise in recognition that the very life of arts organizations increasingly relied on sophisticated and successful fundraising.

For a long time, in the arts, EDs confined their fundraising activity to servicing their biggest donors.  They left most of the fundraising to their "development" department, and why not, that's what they were hired to do.  Larger organizations had the luxury of having more than one person employed to do development.  Smaller organizations might not have even one person, and the work fell to the ED and perhaps a willing Board. In the past 20 years though, Executive Directors have increasingly had to spend more and more of their time in that role as well; greater competition for ever scarcer dollars demanded the attention.   Today it may be the primary job for EDs.

Maybe it's time to call development - a euphemism if there ever was one - by its' real name -- fundraising.  Calling it development is like putting lipstick on the pig.  It sounds like it will make it more attractive, but it doesn't change anything.  The pig is still a pig.

Today fundraising, by necessity,  involves more and more of the organization. Arguably, that means the whole of the organization. The ED and, if there is one, the Development person or persons for sure, but the rest of the staff and the Board too - though many Boards are hardly active in the process despite that being one of their principal duties.  Today everybody in the organization needs to be involved in identifying sources of income, soliciting support, spreading the word about the organization's value, making connections in the community, and promoting the organization to the media.  Smart organizations will develop specific activities and ways the whole staff can contribute to the "development" goals, and train people in the skills involved.

Training is necessary as nobody likes to ask other people for money.  It's just not a comfortable position to be in. But the reality is that we are all in that position. That's essentially what fundraising in the arts is all about.  We must ask virtually anyone and everyone for help. Of course that has to be done in a way that doesn't ultimately deplete the real and potential reservoir of donations and donors / funders.  Asking for help is now part art form, part scientific approach.  The new reality is that it is no longer the exclusive province of specialized experts we hire to take on the role nobody wants.  We simply can't afford that posturing anymore.  Everybody has to be part of the process in support of the development effort.

So what about artists?

In many organizations, artists have always been tapped for, at least, minimal involvement in fundraising.  Large cultural organizations have, for a long time, developed opportunities for their artists - be it in dance, music, theater or other areas - to interface with at least their big donors - current and potential. But Artists have generally been excused from doing anything other than lending their presence at events, hobnobbing with the money people.  Their role has traditionally been passive at most.

Artists and their work are ostensibly at the core of why people donate to the arts.  And Artists have a certain authenticity and cachet that makes them effective ambassadors - whether or not they directly participate in the "ask" for donations and support. Most, of course, do not.  They play a "meet and greet" function, but don't sully themselves or the organization with having to be directly involved in any "ask", even if most arts organizations never really directly ask for money at in person events, but relegate that kind of approach to solicitation letters et. al.  The "ask" has been thought to be something, if not offensive, then off-putting, and we've developed a culture to isolate the practice within our structures, almost so we can hide it away like an embarrassment.   But the ask is how we finance what we do.

Should we now encourage, if not outright expect, artists to take a more active and ongoing role in the fundraising business?  If they indeed occupy a position that might increase their chances of succeeding at, or contributing to, the success of fundraising, shouldn't, in the current landscape of the difficulty in fundraising, they be part of the process?  Indeed, their benefiting from the success of the organization would, arguably, justify the imposition of such an additional job description requirement.   Yes, it would signify a fundamental change, but look around, things have changed.  I'm not suggesting artists spend hours doing "cold calls", but that organizations figure out how artists can be effectively integrated into the fundraising mechanism, because it's no longer enough to simply hire  a development person and expect that person to do it all alone.

Some critics of such a proposal would likely decry the loss of artistic independence and distance by even encouraging, let alone requiring, artists to become active in what might be seen by many as a demeaning endeavor.  And others would likely raise the issue of scarce time availability of artists given the demands of the art itself.  And while those might well be legitimate concerns, and while there might be other objections, the possibility that there might be ways to address those concerns and allow / require artists to actively help the organization succeed in raising more money might justify moving the paradigm to include them as active participants in the process.  The answer to the position:  "It's not my job.  is:  "If you want the organization to be healthy, then yes, it IS your job.  It's everybody's job now." 

If government and private financial support were to lessen or become further problematic, and were changes in tax considerations, coupled with increased competition for ever scarcer donor dollars, result in fewer contributions, added to the costs of doing business for arts organizations continuing to increase, we are going to need to pull every arrow out of our small quivers to just survive, let along thrive.

It might be time for everyone in the organization, including artists, to more actively and universally join the fundraising army - whether as volunteers, or by imposition of a draft.

Something to think about.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit