Sunday, October 30, 2016

Does Our Moral Superiority Cloud Our Decision Making?

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

I was listening to an interview with solo rocker and former lead singer of Genesis, Phil Collins, in which he was taking stock of his life and talking about his plans.  At one point he made the observation that after three failed marriages and half dozen or so kids who've chosen not to be involved in his life, he had to come to the conclusion that:  "well you know, maybe it'"

That's actually a bold admission, because most of us naturally see things almost wholly from our own perspectives and are, at least, somewhat reluctant to lay any blame at our own doorstep for things that have gone wrong  - for decisions we have made.  Whether it's a biologically built in defense mechanism, learned social behavior, some kind of character flaw or a psychological neurosis - the bottom line is we tend to feel that our behavior, our viewpoints, our judgments are correct and that we are just a little bit smarter, wiser, more attuned, and better people than most others.  It's easier to believe that.  It makes life simpler.

I ran across a paper that suggests that: "We Are Absurdly Confident of Our Superiority".  

"Decades of psychological research reveal that, in fact, most of us strongly believe in our own superiority.  The latest evidence comes in the form of two newly published studies, which find we consider ourselves both more virtuous and less biased than others."

These two studies find most people think they are both morally superior to other people and less biased and prejudiced.  That doesn't, of course, mean people think they are omnipotent or without any fault; scions of excellence that can never be challenged.  Most people will admit they have flaws and aren't always right.  They make mistakes.  But the idea that we truly believe in our own moral superiority and believe that we are less biased than other people, logically may cloud our whole decision making process.  Most of us like to believe we are reasonable people, open to debate and other viewpoints, willing to compromise and hear other sides of things - but in truth, are we really then?

My question is how does this bias in our own favor cloud our judgments, and is that complicated by situations in which we are surrounded by people who generally share our world outlooks and reinforce our beliefs?  How, for example, does this play into the question of equity and awareness of structural racism in our sector, or in the wider society?  And on a more base level, how does this affect, color and impact even our mundane daily business decisions and the way we interact within our organizations.  If our decisions are shaded by this belief in our own "decency" superiority, does it follow that we believe that our decisions are likely better made and more considered than other people's decisions?  After all, other people are then more biased and prejudiced than we are.  Does that put us at a real disadvantage because we then have real trouble being open to other viewpoints and ideas - and, criticism or evaluation - despite our denials?

Is awareness that we are susceptible to this kind of clouding of our judgment based on some notion that we're above others, enough to overcome it and allow for the negative effect it might have on our decision making?  What might we do to minimize its negative impact across a whole spectrum of decisions we are expected to regularly make?

This maybe something to think about and discuss within the organization.  If you want to ask probing questions that might help you move your organization to a really new level, perhaps this is a good one.  The fact is that decision making is a process that is affected by countless intangibles of which we are unaware, or which we simply don't want to consider.  We all want to make well reasoned, sound and defensible decisions about everything, its in our personal and organizational best interests, but we don't spend that much time questioning the process or how we come to it.  

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Equity Funding - No Change Yet

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

There's a line in an Eagles song that goes:
"Things in this life change very slowly. if they ever change at all."
I was, well not surprised I guess, but somewhat disappointed, to learn from reading a blog post by Ebony McKinney from a session at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference last week in St. Paul, that the lion's share (60%) of funding - grants, gifts and contributions - continue to go to the largest budget cultural institutions across the country (those with budgets over $5 million) and that, in fact, the funding to the smaller organizations, with budgets under $1 million has actually declined, and "that is a drearier future than we saw in 2011".  

These figures are from a report yet to be released from Helicon Collaborative updating the 2011 landmark Holly Sidford authored funding equity study for the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy - which study's findings on the inequitable distribution of funding is largely credited with kicking off the current ongoing attempt by the field to consider and address the wider equity question in the nonprofit arts sector.

Consider the following data points (from Ebony's blog post):

  • "Total giving by the top 1000 foundations show (in aggregate) approximately $2B given for non profit arts and cultural activities
  • Of those allocations, the largest 2% of arts and cultural orgs in US (those with budgets over 5M) see nearly 60% of all grants, gifts and contributions. That’s a drearier future than we saw in 2011
  • Groups with annual expenditures of under $1M saw their share of all gifts, grants and contributions drop by 5 points
  • That group, (37,000 organizations) represent the fastest growing cohort in total of arts organizations
  • They represent 90% of all groups and are the organizations serving communities of color, LGBTQ populations and disabled populations."

What are we to think of this.  Several points:

First, when it's released, the whole report may provide context and further refinement of the situation and thus we need to hold off presuming too much.  Still, if the base facts as reported are accurate (and I assume they are), then the inescapable conclusion is that in the five years since the Helicon Report, things really haven't changed.  If anything, things might be worse in terms of the inequity in funding.

Second, it's important to bear in mind that change itself is a process, the dynamics of which are that it is often the getting to Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point that takes the most time, and that once that point is reached, change often happens at breakneck speed (consider gay marriage as one example).  So we need to move towards the tipping point in any way we can.

Third, there are some identifiable possible reasons why funding has remained static over these past five years, including: 1) Prior funder commitments - legal and ethical - made to fund (over multi-year periods) certain organizations, projects and approaches, and as those commitments are satisfied, we can move in other directions;  2) some funders have adopted overarching goals and objectives for their funding, including funding stability, an emphasis on research, focus on audience development, legacy programs, and certain specific arts education and other projects; 3) some foundations and some public funders have crossover "old boy" style relationships with specific large cultural institutions and those networks continue to influence funding, if not officially, then by degree.  And historically, big donors have similarly been an insular group that followed traditional giving patterns.

Fourth, funders continue to support programs that are successful with verifiable benchmark support data, and are managed at the highest level of skill, and an understandable majority of those programs are executed by a small percentage of resource rich cultural institutions with long-term experience.

Fifth, the funding community is just really beginning to fully understand and appreciate the extant inequities in funding allocation, how structural racism has impacted the field, and how the lack of diversity is adversely affecting the sector on multiple levels.  As it grapples with the challenge of equitable funding, it is now just beginning to consider how to make changes.

Sixth, the internal structures of funding organizations and their histories may obviate against change of any kind, and may make the process of change slow.  

All of the above is likely true, legitimate and telling.  Still, one other underlying reason for the seeming lack of progress may well be one of the primary causes of the inequity in the first place:  the well heeled, white, Euro-centric, large budget cultural institutions, by virtue of relationships with decision makers, being the beneficiaries of a legacy of funder priorities,  and superior staffing, resources and experience from having benefited from decades of preferential treatment, have a lock on the funding decision making process, and are loathe and reluctant to voluntarily give up what they have for so long gotten as a matter of course, and, to a degree, on which they have built their houses.  

While some may chide them for selfishness, and others criticize them for myopia and a failure to see the future, I think it not completely unfair of them to defend their legacy status quo, especially as for some of them their survivability depends on a continued flow of the revenue streams that are the result of inequity.  Then again, whether or not that kind of position is in the best interests of the entirety of the arts and for the public is open to rigorous debate.

That said, the challenge then is to develop a system for funding allocation that represents a more fair, equitable and just situation for all the arts organizations within the ecosystem; one that, while it probably cannot please everyone, at least, addresses the needs of all.  That objective, we haven't gotten anywhere near yet.  And we need to begin to make some tangible and measurable progress to advance that goal.  

I wonder what the landscape might look like if we made a pledge (as our fallback minimal position) to arbitrarily allocate a third of the available funds across the board to the same institutions that we have funded for years (the $5 million + budget organizations) , a third to those with budgets between $1 million and $5 million, and a third to those with budgets under $1 million.  Oh yes, I know such an arbitrary and rigid framework would doubtless create many unjust and unfair instances, wreck some havoc in some places, and sink some worthy and valuable projects and programs.  But overall, over time, might it not be more just and fair and equitable, reduce havoc and foster more worthy projects and programs than the ongoing inequity with which we continue to live?  

I doubt such a simplistic, yet teutonic proposal, has any chance of even being seriously discussed.  I'm not naive.  And I fully understand that any eventual change in this area is going to be funder by funder by funder on an individual case basis -- until, at least, we reach that magic tipping point.  The problem with change moving slowly is that there continues to be a lot of unnecessary suffering during the wait.  

The big question ought to be: which approach will be in the best interests of the overall arts ecosystem

I look forward to the full Helicon Collaborative report, and applaud the continuing efforts of GIA to address the issues.  

Have a great week.

Don't Quit


Sunday, October 16, 2016

I'm Just Saying

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

On My Mind:

GIA Conference:  It's that time again - for the annual Grantmakers in the Arts Conference - this year in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Alas, personal reasons won't allow me to attend what has become my favorite conference.

Judging from the session topics, and recent conversations with funders I know across the country, this year the GIA delegates are continuing the serious inquiry into the equity / diversity / race issues as the same relate to the nonprofit arts sector, including the issue of the relationship between the arts and social justice.  Initially GIA played host to a general consideration of equity and diversity within the framework of conceptual structural racism - both in the wider society and as played out in our own field (even if unwittingly), and begin consideration of the subject by first introducing the topics and making people aware of them, then digging into the nuts and bolts of how equity, diversity and racism were played out in our field.  Now this year it seems the inquiry is drilling down into the topic to explore in more depth the myriad aspects of how the equity and diversity issues impact what we do, how we do what we do, and our successes or failures in doing what we do.   Consider these session topics as part of the evolution of dealing with the challenges:

  • Innocent Giving: Building Authentic and Functional Relationships with Communities of Color.
  • Arts at the Service of Juvenile Justice:  A Public-Private Partnership Focus of High-Risk Youth.
  • Towards Beauty or Towards Justice:  Must We Choose?
  • The Enrich Switch: Breaking Down the Racial Equity Arts Movement
  • Bridging Difference, Connecting Cultures
  • Looking at Racial Bias in the Panel Deliberation Process
  • Intersectional Philanthropy: Power, Privilege and Practice
  • Three Funding Agencies Walk into a Bar: Partnership for Equity
  • The Practice of Racial Equity in Arts Philanthropy
  • Racial Equity Policies and Practices Define the Future of Local Arts Agencies
  • Arts-led Conflict Transformation in the American Community
  • The Role of Arts and Culture in Countering Islamophobia
That's a sampling.  While a major focus, the conference is by no means limited to a single issue. Other major topics generating sessions over the course of the conference include: Arts Education; Capitalization (and by implication, the survivability of arts organizations); Data collection and application; Rural Arts; and individual artist issues among others.  What I have always liked about this conference is a discussion of big ideas by some of our best thinkers. This isn't so much a How To conference, as it is a How Come discussion.

I'm just saying..........

Every year the President of the United States issues a Proclamation proclaiming October as Arts and Humanities Month.  This year's proclamation is like all the others in that it contains a lofty and impressive narrative of how valuable the arts and humanities are to the country.  Indeed, these things are exercises in hyperbole and don't vary that much from year to year.  Presidential proclamations are, in fact, not very rare - there are scores of them every quarter and number in the hundreds over the course of a year.  They range from designating days, weeks or months to celebrate and honor everything from the arts and humanities, to secretaries to military spouses, and commemorate things as varied as boating safety week, the great outdoors month, and national alcohol and drug addiction recovery month.

I went back to take a look at all of President Obama's Arts and Humanities Month proclamations, and interestingly, the initial ones from 2009 and 2010 (I couldn't find one from 2008), include noting that the arts contribute to the nation's economy in important ways.  In effect, they included our economic impact argument about how we bring financial value to communities and the country.  All the ones from 2011 to this year, however, make no direct mention of the economic argument, but instead, like this year's. they are basically about our arguments that the arts bring intrinsic value -- wonder and awe -- and build bridges, expand minds and like that.  

I wondered why the mention of the economic argument seemed to disappear from the later proclamations.  Odd, in that we not only continued to make that argument, we actually doubled down on it and it became our calling card argument, not only at the federal level, but at the state and local levels as well.  Now, it's highly unlikely that the President actually writes any of the proclamations himself.  There are too many issued every month; it's a full time job, and there might actually be a staffer whose sole job is to write the proclamations - with, of course, an appropriate title - something like:  Director of White House Values Recognition Memorialization.  Or maybe just "Speechwriter Junior".  This individual must have, above all else, an extraordinary vocabulary - at least of adjectives.  No doubt s/he has a dog eared copy of Roget's Thesaurus on their desk, because while all of the Arts and Humanities Proclamations are elegantly laudatory, they are all different.  It is a testament to the writer's resourcefulness that they are able to say essentially the exact same thing, every year, gushing about how great we are, while never repeating a phase or even re-using a particularly lovely descriptive word.  Why though was the economic argument exorcised from the later treatises?  I suspect that maybe a different writer penned the first two.  Maybe it was Kal Penn, who worked in the White House back then and had the arts as part of his portfolio.  He would have been very aware of the economic argument, whereas someone later assigned the task may not have noted how important we regarded it.  We might want to try to get more input to the drafting of this annual proclamation.  

I'm just saying..........

Arts Policy Statement
Back in early September I wrote a blog calling for the arts community to unite to present the eventual winner of the Presidency and the new administration with evidence as to our value, accompanied by a policy paper that set forth what we needed and wanted, and the policies we thought important to the health and vitality of the arts in America in the future.  

Shortly thereafter I came across a cogent, intelligent document entitled:  Advancing the Arts to Support National Policy Priorities, signed by over three score of national arts service organizations and networks, which document was drafted in September, and does exactly what I had called for.  Now, there is no way this document was created in response to my clarion call - it is too good to not to have been worked on for some time - and doubtless long before I brought it up.  I would like to thank and acknowledge those organizations that signed it, and the uncredited authors who drafted it.  I hope it comes to the next President's attention, and that it is used by the next administration's transition committee to better understand the nonprofit arts sector.  And I think it would be of enormous use at the state and local levels too. I'm surprised it didn't get wider play - or maybe it did.  Now maybe a representative committee of those same organizations could take it upon themselves to make sure we try to get to the next administration's transition committee with this message.

I'm just saying..........

The Election Aftermath:  
Whoever wins the Presidential election, it will be a relief to some, and a bitter disappointment to others.  This has been the most contentious election of my lifetime.  What concerns me now, is that no matter who wins, there will likely be a percentage on the other side that simply cannot, will not accept the result.  I worry now that that hardcore percentage may constitute a new and dangerous fringe element that threatens the very principles of democratic rule.  We talk about the arts as a bridge builder, a joiner, a healer.  Maybe we should be seriously pushing efforts right now for the arts to do just that after November 8th.  There may be precious little time to launch efforts to heal the country.

I'm just saying...........

And finally Bob Dylan:
Those who denounce and reject the Nobel Prize going to Bob Dylan are just, IMHO, irrelevant, stupid bores and snobs.  Give me a break with your arrogant pontificating and judgmental jibber jabber.  He's a poet, and he knows it.  

I'm just saying...........

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, October 9, 2016

If Everyone is a Leader, Where are the Followers?

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

We talk a lot about leadership: We have courses and university programs, seminars and coaches to train them, prepare them. Separately we talk about the idea of leadership.  We wonder where they will come from, how we can help them transition in and out of our sector.  We ponder their role in our success.  We have come to the conclusion that effective leadership is key to our success and everywhere we are concerned with our leadership future.

But for something seemingly so important to us, and with which we spend considerable time and energy to analyze and manage, I wonder if we have really thought the concept through.

What exactly do we mean by a leader or the concept of leadership?  When we talk about leaders and leadership, it seems like the category includes nearly everyone in the whole sector.  Is that right?  Definitionally, when you talk about leaders, doesn't the very word conjure up that there must be followers too?  If everybody is a leader, or potential leader, who exactly are they leading?  I'm not trying to be facetious here.  Sometimes I get the impression that we cavalierly toss about the concept of leadership when what we are really talking about is simply trying to improve the skills level of all of us.  That's reasonable, and an objective that doesn't necessarily imply that everyone who ought to have access to improve what they do is necessarily a leader, or will become one.  Sometimes, it appears that, like giving every little kid who participates in something like a sporting contest a trophy and telling them they are a winner, we bandy about the idea of leadership that everyone in every organization either is, or will become, a leader.  We have seasoned leaders and emerging leaders and everyone seems to fit neatly into one of our leadership boxes - you are a leader or you are becoming a leader.  As a sector, we are a nation of leaders.  What then does that mean anymore?  At some point the very word becomes almost meaningless -- unless, we give it some meaning by defining it.

If we are talking about preparing and training everyone to be good at what they do, and, in addition, to see the whole picture and act and react in accordance with that big picture then perhaps we are redefining what leadership really is, and what it means.

One might make the argument that leadership is vastly different in today's flexible, nimble organizational structure than it once was, and that indeed, each member of an organizational team might well be the leader in some aspect of what the organization does and how it functions at a given time, and a follower at another time.  Leadership in such a case must be a fluid concept.

Do we then not need some clarification of what we are talking about when the idea of leaders and leadership is raised?  And do we not need to understand that being a leader at times does not mean that one is automatically the leader at all times. 

If we consider the traditional definition of a leader and leadership -- implying the possession of qualities that allow an individual to move an organization or change a situation by motivating and moving others to action -- then maybe we do a disservice to some of our people and to our organizations by automatically assuming everyone not only wants to be a leader, but is one in fact.  Have we created a situation of entitlement to those who work in our sector that they are all leaders or soon will be?  Is this creating unreal expectations that will inevitably result in dissatisfaction and stilted ambition?  Is that an abrogation of leadership?  Or is this just a semantical issue? a tempest in a teapot? an issue that doesn't really exist?

Should an effective leadership program or approach have as one of its first objectives to weed and thin out the field of potential leaders to a group that already has some of the prerequisites to become effective leaders, so we can develop those people as leaders?   Or is this some kind of egalitarian issue where everyone must be accorded the mantle of being a leader?

To what extent is the success or failure of our organizations and of our efforts in the field due to effective or ineffective leadership, and to what extent is it all a matter of fate given that the forces that determine success or failure cannot be controlled?  Do we yet really understand what effective leadership is, how it works, and to what extent it can mean success?  And conversely, do we really understand the mechanisms and inner working of a failure of leadership - why it happens and the dynamics of the process?  Aren't those two variables important in trying to understand what leadership is?  Is leadership a quality or a learned skill?  If a quality, then is leadership a unique quality - a rare occurrence that we need to figure out how to seek and identify?  Or is it inherent within every individual?

We celebrate and cherish leadership victories, but spend precious little time considering leadership failures.  Have we only successes in our field - even if but a few?  Why don't we talk more about leadership failures?  Is it because we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings?  Is that a good attitude for an organization to have?  Do we end up sweeping a lot of leadership failures under the carpet because we don't want to, or don't know how to, deal with them so as to learn from them?  To what degree are our organizational failures attributable to a leadership failure, and to what degree to other causes? And what are those other causes?  Do we take leadership responsibility for failures, or do we seek to assign casualty elsewhere for our bad decisions.

Is the advertising of leadership institutes and courses available to everyone who applies a kind of a lie in that the truth might be that just because you want to be a leader doesn't necessarily mean you will be able to become one?  Or, is the promotion of (what we call) leadership opportunities of invaluable benefit to everyone in the sector not because it makes everyone a leader, but because it improves the ability of everyone to be more effective in their jobs by honing what skills they do have and giving them a larger lens through which to view not only their work but the work of the entire organization?

I am not sure there are any right or wrong answers to any of these questions, but I am sure that asking questions is essential to our better understanding of what a leader and leadership is, or ought to be, and how it relates to how we succeed or not.  And I think that's true at the organization level as well as the sector level.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit