Sunday, March 29, 2009

March 29, 2009


Hello everybody.
"And the beat goes on...................."


Janet Brown is one of the first people I met when I came into the nonprofit arts field. She is one of the most intuitive, street smart and strategic thinkers that I know; knowledgable, experienced, well networked. She is also a warm, affable, and generous human being. She accepted the position of Executive Director of Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) last December. I am personally delighted they chose her. I think she is an excellent choice to lead this important organization to new places.

GIA has become an increasingly more important and visible organization. As the only institutional national intersection for the nation's arts funders (both public and private), for a long time it was an organization pretty much into itself with closed doors. As it has grown, and particularly with government funders increasing their role in the organization, it has opened up somewhat and moved towards giving the funding community more of an identity and base. Most importantly, it has allowed the funding community to share ideas, experiences, data and research, strategic thinking, and to explore avenues of collaboration and cooperation. Increasingly funders are exploring strategies and solutions to sector wide problems. My experience has been that the funding community leadership represents a treasure trove of our best thinkers - really sharp, smart, dedicated and passionate people who are, by and large, voraciously interested in both facts and theories. GIA's collective membership is as close as we have to a "think-tank". To the extent the organization can organize and systemically tap into its collective experience and wisdom to spur dialogue and debate on major policy issues, vet and test hypothesis and idea trial balloons, and find ways for us to try new strategies and approaches to sector wide challenges, the better will we all fare.

The downsizing and cuts in local, state and national government funding over the past half decade made foundation and corporate support expoentially more important and that increased the importance of the role these institutions have played in the arts & culture sector. Now the current economic crisis has impacted foundation and corporate giving as their portfolios have lost value. The whole of the funding community isn't easy to simply categorize, and the relationship between its various parts is complex and ever evolving. Numerous factors, including foundation board reassessments of their missions and how to meet those missions, new evaluation tools, research and data collection, shifts and re-allignments of strategies and priorities, and more cooperation with other sectors of the wider field and within local communities, are but a few of the considerations that have also had an effect on what foundations (and all funders) do and how they do it. The relationship between public and private funders and the organizations and projects they fund is a process, one likely to continue to change over the short and long terms.

GIA becomes increasingly important in providing a structure to make some sense of, and give a voice to, those changes and those players. Obviously any organization that includes under its umbrella virtually all of the funding for the sector is an important structure. The role that GIA should assume is an interesting topic for discussion and speculation. But while that discussion will be closely watched, it is an internal discussion for GIA's membership. Janet's job is challenging - not only is the field experiencing fundamental shifts and changes, not only will there be increasing expectations of, and demands on, GIA -- her members are diverse, fiercely independent, and vastly different from each other.

Janet agreed to sit down with me for an interview about the challenges her new job poses, her current thinking and her priorities on a range of subjects.

Here is a thumb-nail bio for Janet as background:

Janet Brown is an adjunct faculty member at Goucher College, Baltimore, MD teaching a graduate course in Arts and Public Policy. She is founder of the Prairie Arts Management Institute, a multi-state professional training program for arts administrators and served on the South Dakota Arts Council. Janet has a BFA in Theatre and a Masters in Public Administration.

Janet was Chair of the Performing and Visual Arts Department at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Executive Director of South Dakotans for the Arts. Prior to that position, she worked as Assistant to the General Manager of Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival in New York City, was a fund-raiser for the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and assistant membership director of the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts.

Janet received the national Selena Roberts Ottum Award from Americans for the Arts, and the Robert Gard Award from the University of Massachusetts Arts Extension Service (AES) for her work as an arts advocate.

She was appointed by Senator Tom Daschle to serve on the Library of Congress Folk Life Center Board of Trustees. A registered lobbyist for 15 years, Janet served on the Board of Directors of Americans for the Arts, and is a founding member of the National Community Arts Network (now the State Arts Advocacy Network.)

She was appointed Executive Director of Grantmakers in the Arts in December of 2008.

And here is the Interview:

BARRY: Acknowledging that you’ve only been at the helm of GIA for a couple of months, nonetheless can you share with us what you think are the major priorities for your funder members at this time, and what your agenda will be for GIA this year? Specifically, what do your members see as the biggest challenges and the highest priorities for both the sector and to them as components of that sector? Where would you like to see the organization head and what would you like to see it accomplish in the short and long terms? What do you see as your role? Will GIA launch and fund any initiatives (with national implications) of its own?

JANET: Like nearly everyone and every business in America, GIA members are re-evaluating their situations and assessing how they can continue to fulfill their missions with fewer resources. Our members come from both private and public sectors. Some have already seen their budgets cut, some will see a larger drop in 2010. Everyone has made some kind of change. We are encouraging members to share their research and decisions that affect their grantmaking with others in the field. We are trying to communicate more frequently with members to share that information.

BARRY: To what extent has that research and decision making been shared so far? I would think this information would be very useful to the whole field. Will GIA try to organize the sharing of this kind of information, or will this be on an individual ad hoc basis?

JANET: Much of this information in on our website or our Economic Turmoil blog site in the form of reports or aggregate information about the field, This information is available to the general public.

BARRY: And your goals for the organization?

JANET: I have several goals for GIA. One is for us to play an important role in arts policy making and arts perception in our country. Funders come in all shapes and sizes, corporate, nonprofit, governmental...what they have in common is a belief that we are better human beings and our communities are better places to live when we’ve created an environment in which artists and the arts can survive and flourish. This understanding, although it seems basic to me, is not an obvious conclusion for many Americans. One day, no one will ask “how giving funds to the NEA could possibly have anything to do with jobs?” But, until then, we have a lot of work to do connecting the dots between commercial and nonprofit arts and creating a marketplace where artists are acknowledged for their contributions to our society.

BARRY: Do you have any ideas yet about how funders might support further progress in changing the public perception of the “value” of the arts? And, as to “arts policy making” – what might the role of the funder be in this arena?

JANET: Sometimes I imagine that arts folks are Sisyphus trying to roll the big rock of public perception up the hill only to have it fall down again and again. But, we can’t be discouraged because we have made progress and we do have more solid arguments about the value of the arts to individuals and communities than we had 20 years ago. Our challenge is to promote ourselves so that the average guy on the street agrees that the symphony is as important as the piano teacher who has affected his child in a positive way. Funders are the front line of this kind of promotion because they are putting their dollars behind their beliefs. That’s why it is so important at this time for funders to be vocal about their support of the arts. Sometimes we fund programs but we don’t do a good job or feel the need to “market” why we gave the money in the first place. That these programs are so important to the people being served that as funders, we felt inspired to give them money. That’s a powerful message to the general public, to policy-makers and to other funders.

Public policy needs private sector input in order to assure a balanced impact on citizens. As nonprofit organizations, given tax-exempt status by the federal government and tax relief from state governments, private funders have an obligation to be knowledgeable and active in the system that dictates, at the basic level, how they operate. There are numerous policies made on the local, state and federal levels annually that affect our nonprofit arts organizations and funders. GIA hopes to inform their members about these policies and encourage involvement in the development of policies in order to increase the advantages of giving money to the arts.

Another goal for GIA is to expand the membership especially in the areas of community foundations, small family foundations, corporate funders and public agencies. Associations are a great tool for professional development and communicating an industry’s best practices. We can help philanthropists who want to fund the arts feel more connected, informed about trends and help staff to learn about the uniqueness of arts funding.

BARRY: Would GIA take the lead in creating tools and mechanisms to aid and assist new philanthropic donors to invest in the arts then?

JANET: This might be “pie in the sky” thinking but it seems to me that as the national organization that represents all grantmakers in the arts, just encouraging membership in GIA helps to sustain and increase donors in the arts. We can begin by looking at cities with organized grantmakers, both private and public, and encourage them to begin to strategize on the local level how to promote philanthropy in the arts and why it’s important. Leveraging tax dollars with private funds couldn’t be more important than it is today. Those who actively make the donations are in the best position to encourage and educate others. The local level is where that becomes most relevant and effective. GIA can help grantmakers strategize and implement these kinds of programs.

A third goal is to open the doors for more communication between the private and public sectors of arts funders. With the influx of governmental funds to help the economy, how do private foundations react to support organizations in their quest to develop programs with stimulus money? With an understanding that the arts make a connection across community issue lines, philanthropists have an opportunity to work together, sometimes within their own organizations, so that artists and arts organizations can play the role we know they are capable of in the areas of commerce, healthcare, social justice, education, housing and so forth.

My last goal, right now, is to have an exciting, inclusive 2009 conference in Brooklyn, October 18-21 where private and public sector members, large and small, both support and challenge each other to talk about their work in new terms, thinking about big questions and tough decisions that have been or will have to be made. Candid conversation based on the well-being not of our funding institutions themselves but of the lives affected by the funds given. Are we redefining the arts in America? Are we being redefined by our changing demographics and the economy? This will be a stimulating time together for us.

BARRY: Funders have traditionally shied away from getting involved in advocacy (let alone lobbying efforts), but there has been some change in that legacy in the past couple of years. I know that you, like me, have a long history of pro-advocacy and that you have felt that our sector needs to get more involved in this arena. What do you think might be the role funders can play in moving us towards greater political clout and power?

JANET: Sometime we don’t see ourselves as advocates but you can’t have worked in the nonprofit arts world for too long, with the passion it takes to survive there without being an advocate. There is a direct connection between perception of the arts and public policy in this country. If we believe that artists and the accessibility to their work are important for the people who live in the communities we serve, then, we have to be advocates. GIA’s main purpose is not be to an advocacy or lobbying organization. But our members’ work is made easier if we live in a society that understands and accepts our work as valuable. We’re not here to make laws, we’re here to change minds and hearts. I think most of us can agree on that kind of advocacy.

BARRY: So you don’t think the GIA membership should get involved in any kind of funding support for advocacy / lobbying efforts then? Should funders support advocacy / lobbying training, efforts to familiarize the public with core issues, ad campaigns to promote the value of arts, or any other indirect kinds of efforts, or stay out of that entirely?

: No, I don’t think that. I think everyone who funds the arts should be involved in advocacy. Lobbying is another issue. Funding advocacy efforts is one way to be an advocate. I firmly believe and stated earlier that we should be promoting the value of arts and could do more to assist those who are working to emphasize how the arts integrate with commerce, justice, education, community livability, celebration and redemption in our society.

BARRY: In recent months we’ve heard increasing discussion about collaborative efforts. Is GIA moving towards any policy position regarding support (or even demand) for more collaboration as a pre-condition to funding? Can you detect any consensus among your members about how to nurture real collaboration? What role can funders play in this arena?

JANET: In a recent study of our membership, funders noted that one of the trends in dealing with the economic downturn is to encourage grantees to develop collaborations and partnerships. From experience, I can tell you that real collaborations are hard work and both granters and grantees need to be practical about the purpose of collaborations. To be sustainable, the best collaborations and partnerships are driven by common mission, programming and desired outcomes, not by the “carrot” of funding. Funders are particularly aware of this, I believe. Having said that, there are many ways that arts organizations can collaborate and share resources either with each other or with other entities in their communities. I think more funders are going to look favorably on those practical collaborations.

BARRY: Do you think collaborations and mergers may be the only way a percentage of arts organizations can survive in the current climate? And, if so, do you think funders are asking themselves (if not openly, than privately) whether or not it isn’t better to let a percentage of organizations simply close down so as to thin out what is an (arguably) overbuilt field?

JANET: I think those organizations who are relevant and resourceful will come out of this recession intact. It is likely that collaborations and mergers are part of that resourcefulness. Overbuilt field? That’s a loaded question. I think funders have less money to give out and organizations that have received and depended on their support will get less. I think some funders will continue to fund the groups they have always funded and others are going to redefine completely who they give to and why.

There will be organizations that will fail, but I don’t think any funder is looking at their constituents and deciding who should live and who should not. Communities, cultural organizations and funders are way more complicated than that.

BARRY: For years the funding community’s mantra was: ‘Capacity building’ and ‘Sustainability’. In funder board rooms across America the question is now being asked: “Did all that money really help to build true capacity and sustainability? What is your opinion?

JANET: Having spent the last 25 years working with local, state and regional organizations on capacity building, I firmly believe that support in this area from arts funders has been important. Sometimes we forget how far we’ve come. I suppose one could say that because there is still work to be done on the public perception of what the “arts” mean in our communities, that we haven’t made progress. But stop to think about the research that’s been done, the increased number of art schools and programs, the facilities that have been built and maintained in the past 25 years. There was a time when, outside of New York City, you felt embarrassed bringing up the word “art” at a political forum or meeting with elected officials. Today, national leaders are talking out loud about the benefit of arts jobs and artists as needed workers. So, we have a long way to go but we’ve made progress and the funding community has played a major role in that development.

BARRY: Follow-Up Question: For years funders emphasized funding “programs”, but often times would not fund the increased operational costs (overhead and personnel) to administer and manage those programs – with the result of unrealistically burdensome increases in workload. Has that changed? Will it change?

JANET: Again, citing our survey of members, many have made a commitment to general operating support instead of specific program funding during this economic downturn. Private and public funders are doing studies and connecting with their grantees regarding their needs. I have been tremendously impressed by the caring nature and concern that funders have for the organizations and artists they have worked with over the years. No one wants to see this sector fail. I believe the economic downturn has led to a natural concern by many funders to fund “art-making” first, particularly for those funders of major institutions.

BARRY: What is your sense of how the $50 million for the NEA included in the Stimulus Funding package should be allocated? Is emphasis on the retention of jobs the right approach?

JANET: I think the NEA decision to make stimulus money all about jobs will strengthen our nonprofit arts community for years to come. It also sends a powerful message that cultural jobs are jobs that build community through commerce as well as providing quality of life experiences. We are an industry with workers who are specialized, dedicated and productive. Let’s keep them working and let’s send the message to America that a job in the arts in no less important than a job on the automobile company assembly line.

BARRY: Follow up question: What kind of relationship between arts funders and the NEA do you think would be a valuable development? Has there ever been a direct Summit between the funding community and the Endowment where the two could talk about the needs of the arts community and how they might work together more closely?

JANET: As a public funder of the arts, the NEA is a member of Grantmakers in the Arts. One of the areas I’m anxious to collaborate on is the collection of data, analysis of data and original research on arts funding, trends and best practices in programming. Different entities are collecting this data and there could be a more centralized process that would give us a better picture of the nonprofit arts world nationally and regionally combining public and private contributions with individual giving research.

In the area of policy, I am optimistic that we will collaborate on “summits” in several areas that are of major importance to the administration and to arts funders such as education, community livability, justice, changing demographics, housing, national treasures and increasing philanthropy to arts and culture. My goal of breaking down “silos” is important in building a bridge between the private and public sectors who believe the arts are important to us. GIA is a perfect vehicle to do that because our mission is to expand arts and culture through philanthropy. So our table is set for many family members: national, state, county and city arts agencies, large and small private and family foundations, corporate funders, community foundations and nonprofit organizations that give grants to arts organizations and artists.

BARRY: Do you see funders taking a more active role in demanding that grantees address key / critical issues as a condition for funding in the future? Is there any sentiment among the funders to see if they can more directly impact changes in behavior by arts organizations? For example, several sources (me included) have concluded that current leadership of our arts organizations need to make some wholesale changes in how they delegate authority and move to be more inclusive of the next generations if our field is to attract and retain the best and brightest – is that something funders can help to bring about – both by providing support and assistance, but also by insisting that changes happen? Is that a proper role for them?

JANET: Funders are making tough decisions these days. Some decisions are based on a more critical look at their grantees and where and how those organizations can improve, consolidate and work smarter. For probably ten years or more, many funders focused on audience development and inclusiveness of programming. I’m not sure those efforts have been effective in every case. The proper role for funders is difficult to define. Public agencies are somewhat simpler to talk about because their obligation is to civic responsibility and the citizens of their jurisdiction. Private and corporate funders are a little more complicated because their obligations are to their mission and their founders which can and does differ with every organization you encounter.

Organizations like GIA serve as a receptacle of practices and trends for the field. I can tell you that I have been most impressed by the passion for the arts of the individuals involved with GIA membership. These are truly dedicated professionals, many of them artists themselves, who believe in the power of the arts to change lives and communities. For those individuals who have had less experience in the arts world and find themselves now as arts funders, GIA provides information on best practices, research and philosophical debates on cultural issues. So, the role of the funder is easier for me to talk about in terms of what I believe the funder should not do rather than what they do. I believe funders should be guided by the needs of the community they are serving whether that’s a national community or a neighborhood. In many cases, this means the funder is more responsive than prescriptive. But, there are many instances where astute, experienced funders have successfully guided organizations to a higher level of programming and administrative stability. What has impressed me most is that GIA members constantly ask themselves that very question, “what is the role of the funder?” That kind of constant self-examination speaks a great deal to the kind of people who work in the arts philanthropy field.

BARRY: Follow-Up Question: Do you see any movement by funders to demand more accountability on the part of grantees? And if so, do you also see any movement of funders to be more actively involved in monitoring the progress of their grantees in moving towards specific results (beyond just the requirement of some final report)?

JANET: I think I answered this and the answer is yes. There will be more accountability on everyone’s part, funder and grantee. The question of monitoring progress will differ with every program or grant. Also, there is always the debate about the level of requirements placed upon grantees and are they more overwhelming than can be realistically administered. But, I think more data needs to be collected and shared about how programs were successful or not. This is much easier said than done in terms of the capacity of arts groups to deliver, and honestly, the capacity of most funders to administer increased reporting structures. This is one of the Catch 22 questions. If you require more accountability, then you have to create a system to analyze and utilize that information. But, in general, all funders are going to be more concerned that they are giving their money wisely and it is being put to its best use.

BARRY: In recent years we’ve seen increased funder support for individual artists – both to advance “creativity” and to provide needed support services. Do you see this trend continuing and how might expansion of this trend manifest itself? Will direct support for artists come at the expense of support for arts organizations?

JANET: I’m very glad to see an increase in direct funding to artists. When the NEA was forced to cut some of their individual artist programs in the mid 90s, a seriously negative wave swept the country and states and cities reacted in kind. But there was a reverse reaction by private foundations to fill the gap and there are some very passionate individual artist funders who are members of GIA. We’ve made it one of our five majors programming goals. There is talk of WPA2 proposed by community arts folks like Bill Cleveland and Arlene Goldbard. No, I don’t think support for artists will come at the expense of arts organizations. We can’t see ourselves that way any longer. If an artist gets funding, arts organizations benefit somehow or another and visa versa.

BARRY: Can you elaborate on GIA’s five major programming goals that you just mentioned?

JANET: There are actually six. Our goals will further grantmakers work in the following areas (not in any priority order): arts education; social justice, individual artists, changing communities and demographics, the changing nonprofit arts ecology, public/private collaborations and philanthropic practice.

BARRY: Another trend has been larger funders initiating “re-granting” programs whereby smaller, more localized funders or consortiums are charged with allocation of funds for specific purposes. How has this worked out so far, or is it too early to tell? Do you see this trend continuing?

JANET: I’m not sure if this is a growing trend in this economy but I have always felt that people “closest to the ground” make the most knowledgeable decisions about allocating funds. Now, there are always exceptions to this especially when we’re talking about national programs or treasures. I have a lot of experience in rural areas and this is truly the best way to disseminate funding in that situation. The more complicated the program, the less I’m inclined to believe that re-granting is the way to go. But, it works so very well for artist residency school programs, presenting, performances, touring or planning. There is often times better technical assistance accompanying funding if the re-granter is a state, regional or local service organization prepared to provide that service. I hope the re-granting trend continues because there are sophisticated organizations to manage the re-grants and for many funders, they provide an efficient delivery system.

BARRY: Given the current economic crisis and its impact on our sector (downsizing, staff layoffs, reduced programming offerings, the demise of some organizations), what is your sense about the long term effects and impact of what is going on? How will this systemically change our sector? Apart from the more obvious negative implications, do you see any silver lining, or positive changes that might come from all this.

JANET: I think we are in for some tough times. Arts organizations that are not relevant to their communities, do not have good local support and have made a stretch financially in the past few years, may be in real trouble. Those who had deficits or lived off their endowments or have new facilities to manage are particularly vulnerable. What is the silver lining? I am hoping there will be more sharing of information and resources between arts groups and artists and a greater sense that we belong to a community ecology in which the arts need to define their role. As funders, I believe there is more openness, more communication, a need to come together. All this is helpful in creating new structures.

This is a time when good leadership means everything. Those organizations (both granters and grantees) that have leadership ready to engage in collaboration, partnerships and recovery will be more successful. I believe we have an opportunity to make the arts more relevant and more visible in this downturn. We need to embrace the “big tent” definitions of what art is and how it impacts us on a daily basis. We need to tell our stories to an America that wants to hear it but doesn’t quite get it. How we reach out now may make all the difference in decades to come.

BARRY: I ask this question of everyone. If you had one million dollars that you could personally spend any way you wanted to make a meaningful contribution to our field, how would you spend it?

JANET: Well, first of all, a million dollars isn’t enough to do anything these days. But here goes. I would fund a “think tank” that brought all kinds of arts administrators and artists together with the goal to better illuminate the ecology of the arts and how to make that obvious to the general public. Academy award winners that we adore on television, don’t spring full-grown. They are trained, they are inspired by a teacher, they work in regional theatre or independent films. Same with dance, music, literature, visual art...and yet we have the big disconnect between funding the “arts” and the music we listen to on the radio. We have sectors within the arts that don’t talk to each other: commercial, educational, charitable. Creating a bridge between them all, with substantiated research and policy development at the core -- that would be tons of fun.

Thank you very much Janet.

Here is an update summary of the Obama Administration's appointments in the arts -

Have a great week.

And Don't Quit.


Sunday, March 22, 2009

March 22, 2009



"And the beat goes on..............."


Most of us are procrastinators on one level or another. To some this is a serious problem. I am astounded by how many people (my age) who still don't have a Will. They just keep putting it off even though the consequences are dire in doing so. I suppose they avoid it for the same reason other people avoiding seeking medical help on first discovery that something might be wrong -- they just don't want to contemplate, let alone deal with, bad news. (Ironically many people deal with problems with their cars but avoid dealing with problems with their bodies). The 1-800-Dentist tv ads are built entirely around the fact that (apparently) lots of people put off going to the dentist.

Psychologists would probably tell us there are deep-seated reasons we procrastinate. But the more
common reasons are all pedestrian and there are lots of legitimate excuses -- too heavy a workload, higher priorities, intervening crises, no time. Often times we just procrastinate because we just don't want to deal with something. There really is no valid excuse. I'm sure someone has done a study to show the costs to business of procrastination - in terms of lost productivity, money and most of all, wasted time.

I've read that one way to deal with procrastination is to make lists of what you need to do so you are confronted with your own tendency to postpone something. I've tried that, but often found that the mere act of putting the task on the list somewhat obviated my following up and doing anything about it. I took action - I put it on the list - right at the top -- and once I did that it was easier not to do anything else about it. On the plus side, I found that if I put some of the things that really needed to get done on the list every single day, carried them over from day to day, that eventually they would just disappear off the list miraculously (whether I did anything about them or not). Of course that didn't hold true for most business taks.

Often times we waste more time avoiding something than it would take to just deal with it. And it's easy to find reasons during the day not to deal with something our minds have decided we don't want to deal with (for whatever reason). We can put it right at the top of the list, and fully intend to get to it first thing in the day, then find ourselves dealing with other things on the list and all of a sudden the day is gone and we never got to Item #1. Logically then when we had free time we would get to the postponed job, but that's not how procrastination works.

How do you deal with it then? Putting it on the daily list might be more helpful to some than it has been for me. Delegating the job to someone else works if you have someone to delegate it to. But then there are many tasks that simply can't be delegated. Deadlines help - they force one to confront what is being postponed. I suppose self-imposed deadlines aren't nearly as effective though. The best method I've found to deal with some pesky item that has entrenched itself in that part of our brain where we subconsciously relegate those tasks we think deserving of procrastination is to break the job down into smaller component parts, and tackle one at a time. It is easier to Call Joe Smith and set a meeting about fundraising, than it is to design next year's Fundraising Campaign. And if you can get someone else involved in addressing the task that involvement will make it axiomatically harder for you to delay action. Sometimes all we need is someone else telling us to get on with it. The old proverb that "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" helps when whatever it is you are putting off doing is complicated and large.

I guess in the last analysis, like the NIKE ad suggests, the best approach is to "Just Do It."

So whatever it is you have been guilty of inexpliably putting off, this is your wake-up call. Hey, I'm talking to YOU - don't ignore me. It's a good week to see if you can take some baby steps and get going. There is always a great feeling when you finally deal with something you've been avoiding, and inevitably you are left asking yourself why you postponed it for so long.

Good luck.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

March 15, 2009


Hello everybody.

"And the beat goes on..................."


Fortune Magazine has just released their annual list of the best companies to work for in the U.S. As companies listed nominate themselves, the ranking is, of course, dubious at best. And the criteria used to determine the rankings specifically excludes compensation and benefits - which everybody knows are critically important in recruitment and retention of employees. Still, it's an interesting exercise because it highlights the things that are important to employees (the main methodology apparently used to compile the rankings is an Employee Satisfaction Survey - and wouldn't it be interesting to do something similar in our own nonprofit arts sector?).

The new number one ranked Best Company to work for is NetApp down in Silicon Valley - replacing long time champ Google. According to media coverage of the rankings, what makes NetApp number one is that the company places a high premium on according their workers more than just a modicum of lip-service respect; indeed, their whole philosophical approach to employees is apparently to emphasize a "team" approach over the celebration of prima donnas. They attempt (as do all the high ranked companies) to center the focus of work on the ultimate goals and aspirations of the company, and then try to manage employee relations in terms of those goals - involving everyone, at every level, in as much of the innovation and decision making processes as possible. They delegate real decision making authority, seek out employee advice and opinions, try to give everyone a sense of the big picture and what all the other departments are doing, and actively encourage new ideas.

The companies on the list try to accomplish these objectives in different ways and on different levels, but it all boils down to three simple precepts really:

First, hire the very best people you can;

Second, once hired, give them as much leeway and control to do their jobs unfettered as you possibly can (trust them); and

Three - make working at the place enjoyable and fun.

This approach confirms what I discovered in the Hewlett Foundation Youth in the Arts Project Focus Group study (soon to be published - really! - and echoed apparently in work done by the Doris Duke Foundation reported here recently) that if we are to attract the best and brightest of the younger generation(s) to join and stay in the arts sector, we will have to learn quickly how to delegate more authority and change dramatically the way we have previously conducted business in our field in terms of power sharing.

I wonder which of our organizations, employees would rank high as desirable places to work? Would your organization be near the top? Do your employees think your organization is a great place to work? Would they tell that to their peers looking for a job? I wonder what a full survey of our field would show in terms of what our employees value the most (outside of pay and perks). Of course, the biggest attraction to working in the arts is that the work involves "the arts" and "creativity", but if you factor that out too, what tangible or intangible things make for a workplace that employees highly value? Do you know? Is it important that you know?

We need to pay more attention to this I think.


An article in the current issue of Blue Avocado -- (a newsletter of good ideas for nonprofits published by former Compasspoint CEO - Jan Masaoka)suggests appointing someone on the Board to play the role of "Devil's Advocate" to critically challenge new ideas the Board is considering passing so as to fully vet them and avoid mistakes and disasters by too much like minded thinking among Board members.

According to the article: (

"Wouldn't it be wonderful if boards could foresee the obstacles ahead - in time to make the right decisions?

Absent a few sprinkles of fairy dust, using the devil's advocate technique might assist you in identifying such obstacles. A devil's advocate (DA) is someone who takes an opposing view to test an idea or project the board is considering. The DA's job is to ask questions and make the best case possible against the proposal. By responding to the questions and challenges, the board is forced into healthy debate as it considers arguments it might never have thought of had it not been someone's specific task to challenge the board's thinking.

Here's how it works. Select one board member and place an index card marked DA or devil's advocate in front of that person. Throughout the meeting, this person should ask questions to test the soundness of the decisions the organization is considering."

I think that's a good idea. Along the same lines, in terms of making our organizations more attractive places to work, I think it might be a good idea if there was someone on the Board of Directors (a revolving job perhaps) whose job was to act as the "Devil's Advocate" or "Ombudsman" for the organization's employees -- to make sure that critical Board decisions were made taking into consideration how those decision would impact employees - workplace satisfaction and the ability of the organization (on an ongoing basis) to successfully attract and retain new talent.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit!


Sunday, March 8, 2009

March 08, 2009


Hello everyone.

"And the beat goes on....................."


The bad news continues unabated. Everyday the economic news gets worse. From America to Thailand and everywhere in between, people are stuggling, amid confusion, to makes ends meet and somehow survive the meltdown. We throw money at the crisis, hoping somehow that we can buy our way out of this mess created by the world's banking and financial institutions (and make no mistake those people and their greed are the ones who caused all this), and, alas, so far it isn't working - or if it is, the positive results still lie far into the future. We must be patient we are told.

It is increasingly obvious that we haven't yet hit bottom; that the worst is yet to come. It is also increasingly clear that we aren't likely to return to the way things were; that things will forever be different, including, in large measure, our spending / saving behavior.

Meanwhile, every sector, including our own, is feeling the pain: layoffs, cutbacks, downsizing, uncertainty, anxiety. The world is changing, in big and small ways, most likely permanently, and all of us will, of necessity, need to do things differently from this year forward.

Part of the anxiety we all feel stems from the vagaries of what that future will look like, how we will be forced to change our procedures and protocols, our policies and presumptions, our priorities and preferences. As the sands shift, what will the new model(s) look like?

We can talk about those changes in broad terms and there are several (but by no means all of the) obvious areas that will demand new focus:

1. The necessity for new collaborations and new partnerships - including mergers and cross sector alliances. It is doubtful that we can continue "business as usual", and that our sector, like most others, is going to have to make wholesale changes in how we operate - as a "business entity."

2. Changing audience demands and profiles. The competition for discretionary spending has already risen and is likely to become fierce. Couple that reality with generational challenges in audience development, and the result is that "putting more bodies in seats" is going to require a level of sophistication in terms of research, marketing, content, staging and other factors heretofore beyond our reach.

3. Rapidly changing priorities and perspectives in donor giving - including the likelihood of new foundation imposed accountability, compliance with specific protocols and even specific time sensitive benchmark results achievement. People and institutions will continue their philanthropic giving - but to what extent, with what caveats, and on what timeline are increasingly unknown variables. Again, the competition for those dollars will increase.

4. If not continued downsizing of our organizational size, then certainly the necessity to be able to adapt and alter our organizational models on very short notice. Leadership will need to be flexible and have the tools to re-organize both structure and operations on a continuous basis so as to remain competitive. How we organize our business structures, how we manage our people and assets, how we spend our limited time and how we capitalize our resources are but a few of the myriad questions we will need to deal with in the short term. Many observers have concluded that our nonprofit model needs to be revamped. Into what - the pundits are less specific. We are businesses at heart and if we want to survive we will need to very soon figure out how to change.

But those four demands are vague in themselves. What will they actually mean to the average organization? Will collaborations and mergers actually save dying organizations, and at what cost in terms of the "art"? What are the ramifications of trying to keep existing audiences while simultaneously trying to appeal to other generations in this new economic reality? Can we compete in our current form? Will donors and foundations dictate artistic decisions? Will new demands on our time, our structures, our support systems so drastically and dramatically change the way we must do things that we will lose the character of who and what we are?

The arts face a particular conundrum: What is our priority - quality or quantity? Do we cut back on the scale of our offerings - fewer plays, dance performances, musical concerts, museum exhibitions - so that we can maintain a certain level of artistic excellence? Do we somehow compromise the quality of the goods & services we offer if we try to maintain the current level of expanded offerings that we have grown to include over the past decade? Do we scale back what we offer in order to protect the quality of that offering? And if we must do that, then how will that impact our fundraising, our audience development aspirations, the public's appreciation of our value, the degree to which we can protect and nurture our artists?

It's easier for some industries than it is for us. Take cereal for example. If you haven't noticed, cereal makers now offer smaller boxes (less net weight) but at the same price. Few people notice. But do we emulate that approach and offer the same number of plays in a season - but with less stage and production values? Do we have less gallery space in the museums? Do we cut back on the lighting of our dance pieces, have fewer musicians in the orchestra? Can we cut back expenses by cutting back on production values? Or do we cut back in the "front office" expenses by slashing marketing budgets, laying off a bookkeeper, or leaving a program officer position vacant?

Certainly, theatre groups, symphonies and dance companies can cut their seasons and offer fewer plays, performances and pieces, and while that saves the organization much needed money, what does it do to the artists - the actors, musicians and dancers? And are not they our core client base as much as is the public? Or we can offer the same number of plays, symphonies or dance pieces, but cut back on the staging or lighting or costumes, but then is the experience the same? Do not those cutbacks compromise the artistic integrity of the work? And while the artistic merit of the product may not be critical to Hollywood, can we say the same? But if we cut back on the marketing budget, how do we compete effectively with all the other options available to the public - from television to movies to sports to whatever?

The world may have already fundamentally changed in such profound ways that everybody is now just beginning to try to figure out how to act in the new order of things. There is substantial evidence this is the case, and the arts sector needs to figure out what all this may mean to it early on if it is to survive. I'm not talking about the short term - this year - but rather how we will fare from 2010 on. We need to be in the vanguard of whatever new thinking will be required for us to adapt to the changes that may have already begun on systemic levels and not end up in the "johnny come late" group. We need some heavy emphasis by some of our thinkers and funders to begin to: first survey what is actually going on in our organizations - on all of these levels -- and then to put forth some likely scenarios as to what it will all mean and how we might make the necessary changes and adaptations to our behavior so that we can not only survive, but be positioned to thrive. This isn't just some academic exercise that we can afford to postpone until a "better" time. If we really understand and appreciate the need for strategic planning, we better start being more strategic, and doing more planning right now. Because, the world has already changed and will likely change more, and what use to work is going to be nothing more than a prescription for future failure. It would be a disaster if we simply wait for things to return to normal. The old "normal" is, I think, now gone forever.

These are very complex issues and we need to pay attention to the long term implications of the short term crisis.

Have a good week.

And, Don't Quit!