Monday, June 13, 2005

June 13, 2005 Update #6

Table of Contents:
I. Capacity / Sustainability Considered
II. Poltical Muscle - more thoughts
III. Bits & Pieces

Hello everyone.
And the beat goes on................

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I. Capacity / Sustainability Considered
"I said, over and over and over again............."

There are six definitions in the Miriam Webster online dictionary for capacity. The one the seems to apply to what we are talking about is: "the facility or power to produce, perform, or deploy". So when we talk about capacity building, we are talking, I assume, about increasing arts organization's facility or power to do something. Thus, a grant made to increase the capacity of an arts organization in the marketing field, would have, as its outcome, that the organization would have greater facility or power to market itself in some way more effectively. Lord knows there are enough marketing programs, foundation studies, approaches, trainings, research, conferences etc. etc. that ostensibly try to do just that. And I have no doubt that most of them do, in some way, add to an organization's facility and power to market more effectively. The question is how much? Is the increase meaningful? Does it make a measurable difference? In audience size? In visibility? In fund raising? In program recognition? And then the bigger question is for how long does that increased facility and power last, really last?

Let's take a narrow slice of the overall marketing area - increasing audience size. Most funding that seeks to help arts organizations increase their audience size through marketing efforts is spent in three primary areas: 1) to hire marketing people - staff (full or part time) or consultants, that can help to manage the marketing function for the typical arts organization that doesn't have a big staff, deep pockets, real expertise or substantial resources; 2) to develop and/or execute some strategy or plan to target specific sectors or communities as part of a way to build a relationship with potential audiences - some kind of community outreach; or 3) to spend on actual advertising, or printed brochures or the like to reach the public and inform and educate them about whatever it is that they might be an audience for. There may be many other areas - research, press/visibility, mailings etc. etc. that might be the purpose of the funding.

So most organizations that spend the grant money they might get in one or more of these areas, do so until the grant is over and the money runs out. Do they achieve their goals? Undoubtedly, they are better off than they were before - but have they increased their audience substantiallly? And can that increase be maintained over time? And have their increased their facility or power to effectively expand their audience, over time, through marketing efforts? The missing piece seems to be in the grantee being able to establish a consistent new revenue stream that will provide the ongoing funds to keep whatever effort the original grant paid for (e.g., staff, outreach programs, and / or advertising, printed materials, mailings etc.) It is this provision for future revenue to "sustain" the projected increased capacity that is often marginalized.

Major arts organizations (big city symphonies, operas, museums, ballets etc.) usually have the biggest audiences - in part because they enjoy something akin to a monopoly within their territory. They are the big fish in the pond, have the most money, civic support, often times legacy and history on their sides, name recognition, media coverage, and they spend the most on advertising and courting audiences. I suspect that most other arts organizations may see a bump in attendance from grants supporting audience development, but, because the grant is usually of such a limited duration [and advertising and marketing usually take either a massive effort (read money) or a sustained period of time to really impact audience size], and because there is usually no provision for how to keep the person they hired, or continue the outreach they started, or sustain the advertising they made - the bump is usually small and often only short term. I can't help but thinking that despite our very good intentions, and a great deal of serious thought and work and effort by very talented people - funders and recipients alike - that we haven't gotten the result we wanted. To be sure, there are very complex and difficult challenges facing us, and it's much easier to criticize than come up with solutions. I seek not to criticize, but to ask us all to look deeper and to be honest with ourselves.

Now I might be completely wrong, and I would appreciate hearing about success stories - organizations that build meaningful capacity and sustained it, and how they did it.

But, in our attempts to increase capacity, shouldn't part of that effort be focused on how to we increase the revenue stream to the grantee organization so that they can "sustain" (which is our twin goal) whatever progress they make? But do we do that? And how do we do that? Or, even can we do that with the resources we have? And if we can, and decide to commit resources to try to do that, are we not forced to make a decision about who we can fund? (because the demand exceeds the supply of funds to address that objective). So, if we give more money, for longer periods of time, with some of that money meant to help the grantee build long term revenue streams, to fewer organizations, we might be helping to really increase capacity (and sustainability of that increased capacity), but only for specific (and increasingly fewer) organizations - arguably at the expense of the "capacity" of the whole field.

Don't get mad at me folks, I'm just trying to ask questions about whether or not we are spinning our wheels by not thinking our goals and protocols and assumptions through.

If you want bigger audiences, the way Hollywood or Major League Sports or even our own larger fine arts institutions do it is by increasing their advertising expenditures. Most arts groups don't have enough money to play that game - so we approach the issue and problem from other points, and, yes, that has succeeded to some degree, but it is highly questionable if we have really increased capacity, and even more doubtful that any such increase has been sustained.

Now it easier, say for a sports team to establish a "relationship" with the public - one that says that taking in a "game" is enjoyable and a pleasant way to spend time; easier for them to create going to a game as a habit, and that's because, for the most part, they enjoy an even bigger municipal monopoly than do the big symphonies, operas, museums etc. (There aren't twenty basketball teams in a given city - but there may be twenty dance companies. Yes, I know there may be twenty movie theaters just like twenty legit theaters in one area, but Hollywood only releases a few movies at a time, and they spend way more than we will ever be able to on advertising. They also have better "hype" machinery).

All the people that go to museums, theaters, symphonies, dance performances and the like is, in the aggregate, often a larger number than go to the sports events in a given period of time. And we have succeeded in establishing in some quarters that going to arts performances / exhibitions is a good way to spend one's leisure time and money. How do we expand that sector - both in terms of the number of people who feel that way, and the number of organizations who directly benefit from people who feel that way? The problem for us in the marketing arena is that not enough people feel that, and only a percentage of all arts organizations are the real direct beneficiaries of that feeling. Can we change that without providing for the long term sustainability of our successful efforts? Isn't that sustainability mostly a matter of funding?

So, what to do? Who knows? There are good arguments to keep doing what we've been doing, and good arguments to stop doing that and do something different (and many proposals for what "different" thing we should do). But one thing is clear to me at least, and that is that we need to question the objective - capacity - how we are trying to accomplish it, and particularly, and most importantly, how will whatever gains we make be sustainable over time.

II. Political Muscle
"If you want him to, only think of you,..........."

No foundation, no corporation, no aggregate of individual giving can equal the financial resources of government. If we are always going to be dependent on some kind of financial support beyond "earned income", government support ought to figure prominently in the mix (and government support is, in my mind, directly related to the issue of the sustainability of increased capacity efforts). I would again offer the opinion that making our case is not enough. We need to make our case, but we also need political power. And political power comes from lobbying and lobbying effectiveness comes from being involved in individual office seeker campaigns. We can't do that as 501 c (3) organizations, but we can do that if we form 501 c (4)corporations, and they, in turn, create PACs and other mechanisms. Until, we raise funds to support and staff those organizations and they, in turn, offer financial support to candidates that support us, we will be at a competitive disadvantage in the political situation where the demand for support exceeds the supply. Period. I hope people will start talking about this reality. Otherwise, emphasizing ONLY the "making of our case" is ridiculous, and will continue to yield marginal results. There are both policy and practical issues in a political approach that need widespread consideration.

III. Bits & Pieces:
*Here's a good website for when you're travelling:
 *And here's an irreverant NYC based take on the day's Hot Topics:

Have a great week.
And remember, Don't Quit.