Sunday, October 26, 2014

Thoughts on Hiring Key Staff

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

I think we often prioritize the wrong things in our quest to search for the best leadership for our organizations.

There is a maxim carpenters use:  'Measure twice, cut once' - meaning that to be safe you need to measure any piece of wood you are going to cut two times before you make your cut.  I can, based on personal experience, testify that this is good advice. Many times I did not follow that advice and had to re-cut to get it right.  One learns over time to be cautious.

It occurs to me that we ought to follow the same line of reasoning when we conduct interviews for our most important senior staff hires.  We need to conduct two interviews for those positions.  But for the most part no one does that.  We cull down the list of candidates and then we interview the finalists.  Once.  Both interviewees and interviewers can have off or on days, both of which may create an inaccurate impression.  Making such an important decision on one single interview seems ill advised.  It's possible to right candidate may be one that we dismiss and reject based on a single interview, when a second interview might give us a much better picture of their qualifications and whether or not they might be a good fit in our organization.  And I think this makes sense even if we engage a Search Firm and they have already done one (or more) interviews.  It might also make sense to have at least some different people doing the interview so as to get other impressions.

And on the flip side, a candidate might have a single brilliant interview, but might, in fact, turn out not be the best fit for us.  I think it incumbent on us to do that second interview to validate whatever conclusions we came to based on an initial interview.  And to get a better sense of whether or not the person we like is actually the person we think they are.  Having been in the position to make critical hires over my career, I know that to a degree, a final decision is often a crap shoot - guess work - and sometimes it turns out right, and other times it turns out wrong - very wrong.

The higher up the staff rung, the more critical is the decision.  Choosing a new Executive Director or comparable CEO is quite possibly the single most important decision a Board can ever make.  Relying on a single interview is risky.

It also occurs to me that our whole approach to finding the best candidate for our leadership might benefit from re-thinking.  I have come to the conclusion that turning the whole thing over to a Search Firm is NOT always the responsible thing to do - unless you do everything possible to help that firm help you.  While Search Firms have a valuable role to play in the process - and can save us time and yield us good results due in part to their experience in that process, simply ceding the responsibility to an outside source  - and expecting they will (or can) do it all for us - may just be an abrogation of our own responsibility to be more intimately involved at all stages of looking for someone to helm the ship.  It may just be too easy to say:  "let's get a good search firm and that will insure we do this thing right." And I think that happens far too often.

First of all, not all firms are equal.  Some are good, some very good, many others are just so-so, and some are virtually worthless.  A good firm ought to help with a situational analysis in painting an accurate picture of where the organization is on a host of fronts.  Only with an accurate picture of the real challenges it faces, can you identify the skills and qualifications you need in a hire.  How much time do we spend vetting those firms before we engage one?  How often is the decision simply that someone recommends a firm, and we just then go out and hire them.  That seems risky to me.

Second, there is no way a Search Firm can possibly know your organization from the inside, and without that perspective the search itself is quite possibly flawed from the outset.  A good Search Firm will try to get background on the organization, but that effort will be constrained by time, cost and the fact that many organizations may be, for a variety of reasons, hesitant to share a full disclosure of their situation, particularly financial matters - and, let's face it, a lot of organizations don't themselves face directly all their problems and the causes thereof.  That's assuming the organization even knows all the root causes of any problems it faces.  A lot of organizations do not.  If the organization is not painfully honest with itself, there is little the search firm can do to fully know what to look for in a candidate.  Every decision we make in the process of finding our leaders is critical. We need to get more involved and we need to be more honest.

We might also more frequently consider both promotions from within, and searching in related fields, outside of the nonprofit arts.

Several years ago I wrote a satirical blog on the typical "job description" you see in the arts - which in our field is symbolic and representative of all our job descriptions  -- unrealistic and often inaccurate portraits of the Messiah we all seem to be looking for.  It's a joke.  We need to paint a much more realistic description of the real challenges facing those we hire.  And we need to much more realistically and accurately delineate the kinds of skills we are really in search of.  The point at which a key position becomes vacant ought to signal to the organization that they need to take a long hard look at what is going right, and what is going (gone) wrong and assess very specifically what is needed in the replacement hire, but very often we don't do that either.  We create an inaccurate picture in our own minds as to what we are looking for, gloss over the mistakes made, live in a somewhat fantasy world, and in being so cavalier about the challenge, we do a tremendous disservice to our own organization's future.

Back to the building trades analogy, professional house painters will tell you that painting the house is relatively easy and quick.  The hard and time consuming work is in the preparation.  And it is that preparation that is key to a satisfactory result - a professional result.  The same is true in our candidate searches.  Once the self-assessment is done so as to determine with specificity the kind of qualities, skills and experience you are really looking for (or should be), and by inference what is not necessarily needed in a candidate, the search and decision itself need not be nearly as time consuming as we make it.  I know of numerous searches in our field that take a year or longer.  That's unhealthy for the organization, puts undue pressure on the existing staff and interim leadership, puts the organization in an unfortunate limbo, and, quite frankly, is irresponsible.

Much of the due diligence in determining, before the process starts, of what you are looking for really ought to start before the key person leaves (whether voluntarily or involuntarily).  And unless people are burying the head in the sand, more often than not, you know when a change looms on the horizon.

At the very least, I would urge everyone - at least for new Executive Director level hires - to spend a lot more time in preparation for the search.

So please consider that the essence of a good search is first and foremost in searching for the keys to where your organization is currently (and for the future) at, what you need, and how you might best find what you need.  And the critical element is honest self-assessment.  When you settle on a couple of potential candidates, don't make the final decision based on a single interview.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, October 19, 2014

GIA Wrap Up & Thoughts on the Equity / Racial / Social Justice Issue

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

Note:  Reminder - click here to access the Dinner-vention video to watch in whole or in part at your leisure.  Thanks.

When I first got into this field, the dominant buzz was all about PARADIGM.  Irrationally, I grew to hate that word.  Over time our lexicon changes.  Here is a summary of the GIA Conference in BUZZ WORDS (all of which I heard repeatedly during the three days):

CurateUNPACK authentic Cohort ValuemappingTransforming SocialJusticeEQUITYintersection RISK  Agency CAPACITYBUILDING story telling Conversations GUARDRAILS 2.0 challenges COMMUNITYofPRACTICEDiversity Sustainability TRUST Outcomes Recipe 
MARKETING CollectiveImpact excellence 
inclusion transparency 

Whew.  Master these concepts and you too can sound erudite and informed at any gathering of the field!    While some of these are actually helpful in framing discussions, one can only hope some of the more pretentious of these will be short-lived.

The 2014 GIA Conference was, I think, very successful.  This gathering remains small enough to be intimate, but large enough so that the conversations are expansive.  As the funding community continues to grapple with some very large challenges, as a body it is making steady progress on working together to, if not collaborate on every approach, at least coordinate some of what use to be very disparate and wide ranging approaches. Perhaps the word that ought to be included in the vocabulary above is the word "SHARING".  Increasingly this community is doing just that - sharing knowledge, practices, research and data, approaches, concerns and more; sharing all of that not just with each other, but across the field.  The challenges all remain, with ever greater complexity involved. GIA is pitching a big tent, with notable success.

Several sessions dealt with the Equity and Racial / Social Justice Issue - detailing pilot programs that are beginning to develop tools and approaches to addressing the issue.  I won't detail them here, as they really are at the beginning stages. Suffice it to say, I think we are moving steadily, if slowly, from talk to action on a practical basis. What I hope is that we can ramp up and move faster.

Personal Opinion Piece:  It strikes me that if we are to really move towards a future that corrects the mistakes and omissions of the past, we are going to have to abandon the idea that we can treat this as a challenge, and move to treating the issue of equity, of social and racial justice (within our field anyway) as an obsession.  We need to move away from the dispassionate and detached position of observer to one where we voluntarily and eagerly move as committed activists to change - not in the long term, but now.  This isn't just another issue or challenge for us - this is a defining moment for us.  We can't simply treat it as business as usual and approach it as just another issue to deal with.  It's more fundamental than that.

It also strikes me that if we are to institute real change, and do it sooner rather than later, we need to find ways to move towards equity that will unite us, not pit us against each other. Thus, on the money allocation side of equity, we have got to find ways to convince those among us who are going to have net losses by virtue of a realignment to a fairer distribution of wealth that it is ultimately in their own best interests to support that realignment. I believe that to be the case, but we need to (here I am, OMG, about to use one of the buzzwords) unpack exactly how that might play out.  We must, I think, avoid at all costs creating internal sector factions and the silo-ization of our field.  We have to avoid demonizing any group, casting blame or boxing anybody into a corner.  But saying that does NOT mean we have to now go very slowly so as not to upset any apple carts.  Just the opposite, I think.  We need to move as quickly as we can to reaching a situation where equity exists (remembering the point made in the pre conference, that equity does not always mean absolute equality.)

The questions for us are:  Are we going to exhibit real leadership and foresight for our collective future? Are we going to make course corrections that will ultimately serve us all (painful to some as those corrections may be), or are we going to procrastinate and find ways to avoid any real movement?  As I said, this is I think, a defining moment for us.  Going too slowly, too deliberately now is a mistake.  While I am not suggesting we act with total abandon before we fully understand all the ramifications and nuances and potential impacts and consequences of the pursuit of a strategy, I am suggesting that, at this point, we pretty much understand those ramifications, nuances and potential impacts and consequences, and we need to boldly move towards implementation of a new reality.  And that new reality is a fairer and more equitable allocation of resources and opportunities that will give voice (or a louder voice perhaps) to those who really haven't been seated at the big table yet.  This is just my opinion.  Others can reasonably disagree of course.

If we dilly dally, and jibber jabber, and hesitate, we will only put ourselves in the position of "also rans".  The equity issue cuts across a wide swath of our entire culture.  The change is coming no matter what.  This isn't a party we want to come late to.  We need to get out front on equity and justice issues now. Because it is the right thing to do.  Private funders and arts organizations need to convince their Boards, government agencies need to convince the decision makers, and the various parts of our field need to convince each other to act.  We don't want to be in the middle of the pack as the demographic societal shifts change the mechanisms by which our society runs itself.  The Nonprofit Arts need to be at the forefront of this leadership.  And the train is leaving (if it hasn't already left) the station.  All aboard!!

What does that mean?  To me, it means a significant shift in the allocation of funding.  That shift does not necessarily have to be exclusionary to those that heretofore got the lion's share, but it does mean a meaningful shift that now gives substantial resources to the smaller and mid-sized and multicultural organizations.  And yes, that will be somewhat, but not entirely, at the expense of the larger, more Euro centric and established white cultural organizations.  We should also bear in mind, that as to scarce and limited financial support, there are always two options.  Just like in your own personal budgets you have two options when pressed for funds:  you can spend less, or make more.  The arts need to more deeply explore both - and especially the ways we can make more (including a state of the art (no pun intended) , world class lobbying (not advocacy) campaign to get a fair share of the government largess that we help to pay for.  As I said above, we need to demonstrate to those organizations that will lose some of their base funding, that the positive benefits to them outweigh that loss.  We need to identify what those benefits are, and make them an integral part of the whole approach.

What are those benefits?  A rising tide that will raise all our boats.  Inroads and connections to the Millennials for whom this is not even a debatable issue.  New intersections, collaborations and potential windfalls for all of us.  And new ways to work together to leverage our collective numbers.  It may also yield us some new partnerships and the benefits that come with being seen as true leaders. The list goes on.

What else does it mean?  It means we have to dramatically rethink our criteria for all the things we value and how that valuation is manifested.  We will need to foster and nurture cross platform decision making and collaboration on a level that has nothing to do with programs or projects, and much more to do with conceptual thinking about how we can leverage the strength of our numbers.  It means we can no longer sit at isolated tables when we consider both sector wide cultural policy and what is right for each of our organizations.  It means we will have to build a level of trust and intimacy with each other that, quite simply, has never existed before.  It means we will not only have to pursue, but succeed in that pursuit, at finding ways that when we say art and culture, the consensus meaning of that phrase is automatically all inclusive.

It will entail some very hard decision making both at the individual organization level, and at the sector level.  It will mean that there is a general, if begrudging acceptance, that we are not going to solve everyone's problems, and that we are not going to be able to meet everyone's needs.  That will be very difficult, but it absolutely, positively has to happen.  And it means that we must redefine the reality as it exists and our relationship to, and acceptance of, the changing dynamics of the world - ours and the wider one (neither of which we have complete control over).

Can we do it?  The more appropriate question is probably: can we not?  Ebola has everybody freaked out now, and to an extent, rightly so.  It is a dangerous and frightening threat.  But it is manageable. What scares me about Ebola is that it may just be a test case.  If (or perhaps when) a deadly virus mutates so that it is airborne, then we will face a real crisis that may endanger the world.  How we handle the current Ebola threat is telling about how we may handle the future.  I think the same may be true of the future of the arts:  How we handle the big dangers to our thriving in the world right now, may tell a great deal about how we are able to handle some much bigger threats down the road.

The chief attributes we need to succeed as we remake our hierarchies and fundamentally shift from one (ugh, here it is again) paradigm to another, include, it seems to me, first and foremost mutual goodwill towards one another.  It also will include bold action and vision, risk, hard decision making, and tenacity.  It  will involve sacrifice, compromise, and new thinking about how to proceed - together.

We, of course, need to proceed methodically - but not in the sense that methodical implies dragging our feet, or plodding along; methodical in the sense that we have thought things through and are willing to do what has to be done to emerge stronger, healthier and equipped to withstand the pressures the future will surely bring.  This is about surviving and thriving - for all of us.

Have a great week.

Thanks GIA.

Don't Quit

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Unique Practice of Arts Grantmaking - GIA PreConference

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

The Unique Practice of Arts Grantmaking - GIA PreConference (Sunday 10/12)

This all day session was intended for newer program officers, trustees and foundation executives - but the reality was that the attendees were split between newbies and those who are recognizable names in the philanthropic community with long resumes.  The combination of the two made the questions throughout the session very interesting and relevant.

As many of the readers of this post may not be involved in foundations or government agencies that make grants, my attempt here is to give those who deal with funders - but at arms length, and who perhaps don't fully understand how the grant making process really works, or what the issues are for the funders themselves.  I want, if possible, to de-mystify a little bit the world of arts grantmakers, and to try to humanize those in that field so that those dependent on the funders might have a little better idea who they are dealing with and how they do their work.

I think there are two fundamental things to bear in mind if you want to understand grantmakers:

First, like you, these people are professionals and they want very much to have a positive impact on our field.  They know very well the challenges you all face, and maybe they even have a better understanding of the challenges we face as a field - because most of them have as part of their charges and portfolios a range of arts organizations across the various disciplines -- various sizes, compositions and ages.  From your perspective, program officers can seem indifferent to your needs and situations.  That's understandable, but I can categorically state that 98% of them care deeply that the arts thrive.  They spend their waking hours trying - sometimes against the odds, and much like a lot of you - to make a difference.  Their objective though isn't specifically to make art or present it, that's what you do.  Their job is to grow it, to protect it; to enable you to do your job.  They don't want to do your job for you, they want to do what they can so you can do your job better.  Perhaps they are not always your close friend, but they are never your enemy.

Second, they are not really in charge. Their boards are.  Their job is to realize the objectives of the founder / board, and while often they disagree with some of the prescriptions and priorities imposed on them - their job is to make those priorities realizable.  That's not so easy.  Most of you have had some experience with imperfect boards, but most of your boards are on the same page with what you as the staff want to do.  That's not always true with foundations or even government funders.  The program officers don't set the overall objectives, nor construct the funder's ecosystem for determining where funding goes, and (in a general sense) to whom.  Many have input into the process at various points, but that's not the same as being an equal player in that process.  Those who have been in this arena for a long time have learned how they can move, even if only in small and seemingly unimportant ways, their organization closer to the direction they see that would benefit the field, territory and constituents they serve.  But often times they need to do that quietly, on the sly and even invisibly.  You try doing your job invisibly sometime.  As funder officers are trying to help you do your job - in part by trying to better understand you and your job - it would be equally helpful if you try to understand them and their jobs.  The more grantors and grantees can understand the challenges faced by each other, the better each will ultimately fare in meeting those challenges.  We're all on the same side here.

This all day session was divided into four sessions:  While I tried to hit the highlights, this encapsulation is by no means comprehensive.  I am merely trying to paint a general picture of what funders are doing as part of their grantmaking practice in the arts as presented in this excellent session.

Session I:  Turning Vision into Reality - led by Vickie Benson program director of the McKnight Foundation, and Regina Smith, senior program officer, arts and culture, at the Kresge Foundation.

How to move from mission statement to a fully realized funding program.

Bullet Points:

  • There isn't likely an ideal linear approach to progress; no step by step blueprint.  The point is that every funder and funding goal is unique.  
  • While aspirational, funders face multiple priorities and multiple masters.  
  • Developing program strategies is a constant negotiation.  
  • Even successful programs are in a state of constant evaluation, rethinking, adaptation.
  • While the trend of "scaling up" is gaining traction, Roberto Bedoya suggested consideration of "scaling out" as well.
  • Julie Fry of the Hewlett Foundation, offered that Asset Building is not specifically about problem solving.  It is more about problem identification.
  • It's important to embrace the fact that the paths are not always clear and that the competing conversations are often disconnected. 
  • Arts funders often work in in silos. The best option is to build bridges between the silos.
  • The program officer's job is not popularity.
The bottom line:  There is no off the shelf blueprint to design programs that are effective, efficient, fair and equitable and address the priorities of the funder.  And that makes the program officer's job very often problematic at best.  While it is enormously satisfying awarding money that can make a difference to individual organizations (and artists), it is also difficult to always be right in your assessments and conclusions.  Those seeking the money must ask themselves if it would be any different for them?  And if their answer to that question is:  "Yes I could do it better and make it all work", then my guess is they just don't have a clue.  Though it may sound wrong, it isn't as easy as it sounds to use limited money to have highly positive impacts.  

Session II:  Supporting Artists and Arts Organizations: What do Funders Need to Know to Encourage Financial Health and Sustainability - led by Janet Brown - President / CEO GIA, and Cynthia Gehrig, President Jerome Foundation.

The need to understand the financial health of arts nonprofits, of all sizes, as well as the unique marketplace in which they reside.  Turning around the undercapitalized nature of the sector.

Capitalization - not cash flow, but savings.  Having the cash to execute strategy.  Both capital and revenue are essential:  capital to change organizational structure or direction, and revenue to conduct and sustain day-to-day activity.  Adequate capital addresses risk taking.  Adequate revenue insures continuity of operation.

Bullet Points:

  • A majority of grant applicants in the arts are undercapitalized - meaning they have negative liquid cash on hand (apart from Endowments et. al.) and are basically living month to month.
  • Applicant fear is that if they have a surplus, a grantor will say:  "You don't need our money."
  • More often than not, applicants underestimate costs and overestimate income.
  • The arts funding community is very diverse.  The old adage is:  "If you've met one funder, you've met one funder."
  • GIA led a consensus agreement of its membership on a set of common principles about the urgency of the capitalization issue, including: 1) Encouraging surpluses and operating reserves - break-even is not enough.  2) Encouraging organizations with untenable business models to take steps to adjust how they do business so they can move to operating reserves.  3) Offer, whenever possible, general operating support, and 4) Support project support that includes the cost of overhead and indirect costs for the project.  
  • Funders help the field by taking harder looks at applicant balance sheets and asking questions to determine whether the applicant has an effective business model in place - i.e., one that generates revenue and capital.  
  • While there may be understandable reasons for an organization to continue to pursue programs that are ultimately unsustainable (legacy, Board and political reasons), asking questions about past commitments as ongoing Albatrosses for organizations is essential.  The field benefits if we break the cycle of under capitalization.

Session III:  Looking Deeply at the Community You Serve - led by Maurine Knighton, senior vice-president of grant making, The Nathan Cummings Foundation, and Justin Laing, senior program officer, The Heinz Endowments.  (Note:  Unfortunately, due to a passing in the family, Justin was unable to be at the conference.)

How to create an equitable funding practice with authentic community voices informing program development.

Equity is unquestionably one of the major issue in the arts field today.  What does equity mean?  Simply put, it is a fairer distribution of power, access and allocation of funds, resources, and opportunities.  Equity manifests itself in a myriad of ways. Racial equity might be defined (as does Race Forward as:  "A vibrant world in which people of all races create, share and enjoy resources and relationships equitably, unleashing individual potential, embracing collective responsibility and generating global prosperity."

The question is how do we in the arts promote and facilitate more equitable outcomes for everyone?

Bullet Points:  Advice on how to proceed

  • Get clear about what you want to accomplish; develop a theory of change and start with self-awareness.
  • Self-assessment includes appreciating your own world view (including its limitations); understanding and valuing the world views and practices of other cultures; developing the fluency and capacity to interact respectfully and effectively with cultures other than one's own.  (And we may need help with some of these steps.)
  • Don't assume you already know everything you need to know.
  • Most culturally specific arts organizations are small to mid-sized; most have missions that articulate a social justice purpose.
  • Don't automatically assume less aesthetic rigor or artistic quality for smaller culturally specific arts organizations.
  • Be creative and expansive in adjusting your approach.  One size never fits all.
  • Find the sweet spot between solid practices and responsiveness
  • Seek out important practices you are already using.  
  • Equity doesn't necessarily imply absolute equality.
  • Widen the circle - connect people; develop a 'kitchen cabinet' of trusted advisors and colleagues to help with ideas, feedback, assessment and identifying other thought partners.
  • Weigh ALL the options
  • Be humble and take the lead from those you intend to benefit.  Embrace new ways of thinking, listen more than talk, ask questions, borrow from others, keep learning and bear in mind no approach is perfect.

Session IV:  Is All This Really Working - led by Pam Korza, co-director Animating Democracy, Americans for the Arts, and Edwin Torres, newly appointed Deputy Commissioner, Office of Cultural Affairs, New York City (and former program officer at The Rockefeller Foundation) and congratulations Eddie.

How can you measure and evaluate program and grantee success?

Evaluation is a systemic process to determine merit, worth, value or significance.  We do it because it promotes accountability, improves decision making, increases our knowledge base which helps us with sustainability and building capacity, and it increases our case making ability.

Bullet Points:

  • Evaluation is not an audit.  It's not about blame.  
  • Kinds of evaluations:  a)  Baseline Study - an analysis describing the situation prior to an intervention, against which progress can be assessed and comparisons made;  b) Cluster Evaluation - Looks across a group of projects to identify patterns and factors that might contribute to variations in outcomes and results across the sample; c) Formative (Real Time) Evaluation - Carried out while a program is underway to provide timely, continuous feedback as work progresses; d) Emergent Learning - learning that happens in the course of a project when goals and outcomes are not easily defined; e) Participatory Evaluation - Engages a range of participant stakeholders in the process of designing the evaluation so it is useful and relevant to all involved; f) Summative Evaluation - Assesses the overall impact of a project after the fact.
  • Theory of Change - A systematic measure of what needs to happen in order for desired outcomes to occur, including an organization's hypothesis about how and why change happens as well as the potential role of an organization's work in contributing to its vision of progress.
  • Measuring what matters - types of change:  1) Individual, organizational, community, structural / systemic, field wide; 2) Artistic / cultural (intrinsic value, access, equity, development / innovation / capacity; in pacts, excellence; 3) economic, social, environmental, educational, health etc.
  • Einstein said:  "Not everything can be counted.  Not everything that can be counted, counts."
  • Outcomes count.  "At the end of the day, what matters is the strength and usefulness of what has been built, not how elegant was the blueprint."  -- Steven Schroeder, former President, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Sometimes the tools and process of evaluation may have as much or more meaning that the results of the evaluation (Ian David Moss observation)

For those of you not funders, my best personal advice is to build a relationship with the funders who operate in your area, your world.  A relationship is a two way street.  It's not just about asking for what you need - it's shared time, mutual learning and the creation, over time, of respect, trust and the opportunity as peers to move forward.  It may sometimes be about help, but it offers much more than just that limited support; it offers the potential of real learning and true friendship.  

This was a very good session and I thank the presenters for their clear and astute thinking and for their presentation in a real world sense. 

Have a good day.

Don't Quit

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


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

Note:  If you missed the live streaming of the Dinner-vention last Thursday, click here to watch it (all or part) at your leisure.  


I.  Session:  Funding Commercial Creative Businesses:  Sell Out or Smart Design?
The City of San Jose (CA), in partnership with the Center for Cultural Innovation, has started providing  small "investment grants" to creative entrepreneurs with goals at the nexus of cultural and economic development.  Basically this project is still in its infancy, as only two rounds of funding have been completed, and only a total of $40,000 has been awarded in total to 12 grantees, with the $40,000 third round coming up.

Support for private sector, for profit ventures as part of an overall attempt to support the development of a creative culture is an area long neglected.  Detractors and critics may balk at the idea of funding anything that might even remotely be considered non arts, using theoretical arts money.  There are those that believe that commercial businesses really don't have social missions, and thus should not be part of what we try to do.  There are also those that decry the absence of a bar of artistic excellence as fundamental to the judgment criteria, and think without it, this kind of venture should not be part of what we do.

I disagree.  I think there is room for us to wade into the area of providing some kinds of investment in the private sector, for profit field as part of our wider charge to nurture, support and develop the whole of the creative sector in a given area.  Doing so will open doors and vistas we usually don't open, will build bridges to sectors we don't usually intersect with, and provide a holistic perspective on what is really a larger effort than we have thus far been fashioning.  Now if this becomes a trend, maybe we want to think long and hard as to what our ROI is going to be -- general or specific.

The small business types of projects being funded are the same kinds that Economic Development offices routinely fund.  San Jose's criteria are that the awardees must be San Jose based for profits, contribute to the city's cultural vibrancy, promote the city's positive brand, and have a positive economic impact.  And while a T-Shirt company (particularly one that targeted the sports enthusiast market) seems a far cry from what is valuable to the arts field (and this was one of the grantees), it did indeed contribute to the city's cultural creative market, it did promote the city in a positive way, and it did have a positive economic impact.  The key is to think about the process of creating, not the end product.  And the process clearly qualified.  As Kristen Madsen of the Grammy Foundation (in the session audience) pointed out: 'we have to get beyond the thinking that arbitrarily and artificially puts constraints on people who create that they don't put on themselves. Thus, support for a musical artist who sought to record and promote their own album shouldn't be limited just to the kind of act that would appear on a Folkways label distributed by the Smithsonian.'

We need to expand our thinking.

I can see this type of approach having wide application were the funding pool to grow large enough  -- and perhaps with government economic development money, it just might be able to.  If we are trying to create an ecosystem in which creativity and the arts and culture can all thrive, then moving into this kind of uncharted territory - especially as a minimal investment level - makes perfect sense.  Let's play in this sandbox at least a little, and see what happens.  It will be interesting to see what results from this kind of venture funding.

All kinds of things might surface. And eventually, we might build some interesting bridges and intersections of for profit and nonprofit on two way streets.

II. Session:  ENGAGE: State Communities of Practice in Arts, Health and Aging
Fact:  People are living longer and there are more older people every year.

"ENGAGE is a first-of-its-kind initiative to support state arts agencies in developing infrastructure and programming in arts, health and aging in their individual state and as regional and national collaborators.  In partnership with the NEA and NASAA, and with matching funds from the Aroha Philanthropies, the National Center for Aging has been working with 13 state arts agencies (SAAs) in 2013/14.  In 2015/15 an additional 12 states will join the group to work toward next steps in forming new business models, policy development and cultural resources."

Three states that were part of the original cohort reported on their approaches:

Minnesota (which will by 2020 have more people over the age of 65 than it will have children in the K-12 group) has attempted to address the opportunity of intersecting the arts with the aging issues by developing infrastructure, increasing organizational capacity, and building coalitions with other sectors and agencies that are also concerned with aging citizens.  Their activities include:  grants, training, roundtables and a statewide conference.

Montana (which will have the 4th oldest population per capita in the US in the nest 20 years) is offering artists National Center for Creative Aging seminars, hosting webinars on creative aging, and providing expanded teaching artist training.  They have also identified potential partners and stakeholders - including AARP, the Montana Art Therapy Association and the Montana Geriatric Association.

Texas (in which the 60+ population is expected to increase by nearly 50% in the next few decades) is tapping into existing programs that may lend themselves to intersections with the arts, developing webinars, and workshops for arts organizations, looking for other partners to move forward and is compiling a database of creative aging programs in the state.

Lessons learned:  These three states reported that they found it relatively easy to: (i)  convince people of the importance of moving forward on the arts / aging intersection; (ii) to get buy in; and (iii) in finding doors opening for collaboration.
They found it more difficult to get state funding from their legislatures for this kind of work.

It was also pointed out that when you talk about creativity and health care you raise political red flags that may get in the way of moving forward, but when you package the same ideas as creativity and aging, many of the political obstacles fall away.

Maybe what we need is a creative ombudsman for the elderly.

Professional development opportunities in the 2015 year of the project will include:

  • Quarterly teleconferences
  • Ongoing technical assistance
  • Peer to peer mentoring
  • Capacity building tools
  • 2015 White House Conference on Aging
While this whole program is still just a beginning for the arts to move more fully into the arena of serving the growing community of seniors across the country,  there are already lessons to be learned in moving forward. Those lessons include:
  1. Don't re-invent the wheel.  Use existing networks, models, programs, tools, and relationships.
  2. Prioritize what you want to do and take manageable steps.  Don't try to cover all the steps from the start.  Choose a focus, then work on realistic goals within reach.
  3. Create a structure for creative aging work within the organization and make it a priority.  Allocate dedicated staff time and make it part of the organization's calendar and work.
  4. Intersect with and involve the arts learning / arts education staff and fields.
  5. Partnerships are the key.  Reaching out can help do a lot with a little.  Build bridges.  There are lots of potential partners out there.  
  6. Internal education and dialogue are essential.  Get buy in across your whole organization.  
This is the tip of a big, big iceberg.  Just as every arts organization has arts education somewhere on its agenda, in the future every arts organization will have arts and aging somewhere on that agenda too.  Aging populations, aging audiences, aging supporters - all these things will intersect across a broad range of what is important to us.  This program is beginning to try to equip, train and empower the state arts agencies to turn around and equip, train and empower their grantees and constituent organizations so we can build an infrastructure that will be able to address the challenge AND opportunity of arts and aging.

III.  Lunch Plenary:  A Conversation with Roberto Bedoya and Rick Lowe
Roberto Bedoya (Executive Director Tucson Pima Arts Council) and Rick Lowe (Founder Project Row Houses, Houston, and 2014 MacArthur Fellow) are two very highly articulate leaders in the conversations - within and without our sector - on issues of diversity, equity, race, color and the arts (among other conversations).  They have both been around long enough to know what they are talking about, and they both offer comments that are incisive, yet intended to educate and inform rather than accuse or corner.  

This was a very good exchange.  I confess my notes may not due justice to the nuanced texture of old friends talking candidly, gently offering sage and penetrating analysis.   

Lowe started out offering the concept of Cultural Sculpting of neighborhoods.  Art as a solution to working "in" the community, not coming from outside of it.  Engagement is ultimately about "listening" he said.  "Creative people should be involved in creating communities"

He added that placemaking gentrified community development.  It comes from a privileged perspective, and we need to deal with the reality that community developers are not always excited about placemaking - at least in the way it is sometimes framed.  

Bedoya put forth his theory of sovereignty of place - which is about placekeeping; protecting the character of a place while recognizing that the authenticity of a place may not fit the mold of what those seeking change from the outside may have in mind.   

Lowe talked about how the real estate market of a decade or two ago in Houston allowed for the development of Project Row Houses; and

Bedoya posed the question:  How does a city speak through its neighborhoods?

Lowe suggested that placemaking has a softer quality to it than social sculpturing.  "Place" is different than "belonging".  A sense of belonging is about trust.  How to honor the community?  

Bedoya echoed the role of trust in the community as critical to place, and

Lowe opined that outsiders "don't know how life is lived in certain places.  Outsiders don't really know how to function in certain places.  He also noted that if the last four or five decades have been about disempowering certain communities, then re-empowering them will not be done quickly.

Both agreed that the work that must be done goes on and on.

From these two - MORE PLEASE.

While the conference ended Wednesday morning, I plan on at least two more posts covering last Saturday's Pre Conference on the Practice of Arts Grantmaking, and on some reflection after the conference on the big issues the funding community is trying to deal with.

Have a good day.

Don't Quit.

Monday, October 13, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a good day.

Don't Quit.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

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

Just a reminder - Dinner Vention 2 Streams Live tonight (October 9th) from Denver.
6:00 pm Pacific time, 9:00 pm Eastern time.

Click here for the link 

We hope you can follow along.  If not we will post a link to the conversation after the fact on the Westaf site -  click here  Westaf site 

Thank you and have a good day.

Don't Quit

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Dinner Vention 2 and Grantmakers in the Arts Conference Upcoming

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

I'm On the Road Again this week………Denver First on Thursday
Dinner Vention 2 is this coming Thursday evening (October 9th) and will be live streamed from Denver beginning at 6:00 pm Pacific Time, 9:00 pm Eastern Time.  Click here for the link (and you can click right now and register for an automatic reminder).

Click here for the dinner guest briefing papers and links to all the information about the dinner and the guests.

After the live streaming of the event on Thursday, we will put the dinner conversation online with a link on the Westaf site so you can watch it at your convenience and advise others to tune in.

I think we are going to have a very lively give and take at this conversation centering on the models that are no longer working for us -- and it will be interesting to hear the guests take on what isn't working, why and what we can do.  I hope you can tune in.

Thanks to Shannon Daut, Anthony Radich and WESTAF (and Bryce Merrill, Laurel Sherman, and Leah Horn) and to our host the Carmen Wiedenhoeft Gallery.

Houston on the weekend
I once again have the pleasure and privilege of blogging from the Grantmakers in the Arts Annual conference - running from October 12 - 15 in Houston.

Last year - in anticipation of the GIA conference - I noted some 20 big issues that I thought were on many (or maybe most) funder's agendas.  In review of those issues, I think most of them are still on funder's plates.

In scanning the conference sessions this year -- while there are no designated themes or tracks -- several overarching broad interest areas are apparent, including ones I am interested in:

1.  Equity in funding and the attendant racial and diversity issues together with the broader topic of arts and social justice.
2.  The growing intersections between the arts and healing, aging, medicine and health care.
3.  Community and various forms of Engagement.
4.  What might be broadly termed as managing the  practice of funding - including a pre conference on: The Unique Practice of Arts Grantmaking.

The first three of these topics have all been gaining considerable traction in moving to the forefront of funder's priorities - for various reasons.

  • The Equity issue is now front and center throughout our field - on everyone's plates as we search for a way that will finally address the needs of what is already (or soon) to be a diverse cultural field with no majority -- in a fair and equitable way, and which will begin to reflect the actual demographics of the country, and give voice to the representation of those arts forms that have heretofore gotten short shift.   We seek to do this in a way that doesn't necessarily arbitrarily move to abandon the Euro centric arts forms that have (arguably unfairly) dominated the funding paradigm for so long, and we need to do all this in a way that doesn't vivisect the nonprofit arts sector.   This issue is clearly a defining moment for the nonprofit arts, and the way it is handled will be telling about our future 10, 25, even 50 years from now.
  • The arts and aging and healing issue is a bright star in our future.  Our contributions to the medical well being of citizens are only beginning to be explored and there is huge potential for us to make meaningful inroads into community engagement as the boomer generation begins to grow old and experience increasing need for medical services (and all one has to do is note the sheer volume of television commercials for pharmaceuticals to know what is coming down the pike).  Moreover, this intersection boosts our perceived value, will likely attract significant money to our efforts and has the potential to be a media bonanza for us.  And it's all just really beginning.
  • Arts and Communities and Engagement with those communities is now firmly established as part of our matrix.  But we are just beginning to fully deal with all of the ramifications and all of the ways we play out in terms of relationships with communities.  Though we think we already have a good handle on this area of our work, I think we are only at the beginning of trying to figure out what it all means, how it will actually play out to our advantage over the long term, and what makes what we are talking about now different from what we have been doing for a long time.  There is no shortage of ways to engage a community.  Which ones, when, how, and to what effect are questions that still linger.

I'm interested in seeing what the sessions and the ongoing talk among the delegates to this gathering offers on these three major issues.

I hope you will tune in to the Dinner vention live streaming, and I will be blogging live from GIA and after the event as I try to make some sense of all that I am likely to hear.  It remains, to my mind, one of the best conferences for real ideas and analysis.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit