Monday, December 31, 2018

Books I'd Like to Read, But No One's Written Yet

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

As 2018 mercifully fades into the rearview mirror, this is the time of year when everyone sends out their lists. Lists of what's been accomplished, lists of upcoming plans, lists of needs, lists of New Year's resolutions, lists of predictions.  In the last couple of years, we have lists of books people have read. or mean to read: Books that help us to improve our skills; to trigger our imaginations and creative juices; books to make you a better manager; books to guide your professional development; books to help you cope.

Many of these books contain good advice - sometimes pragmatic and even inspiring.  Most of them are in the "self-help" genre.  While well intentioned, most of them also often don't really help us very much.  They may address the exact major challenges we face, and they may offer valid prescriptions for action and behavior, but they often miss the point of telling us what we need to know to actually change things.  

I suppose it's a lot to expect to ask for blueprints to success that will unfailingly work.  After all, the author's - though experienced experts and perhaps even wiser than we are - primary motive in writing the book in the first place is to make money.  Nothing wrong with that, and often times we are, at the least, entertained and given some ideas that we might try out - some of which might even be of real benefit to us.  But infallible answers that categorically are the answers we seek - well, those works are hard to find.  

So here's my - tongue in cheek, sort of  - list of a few books that I would like to read next year:

  1. Magic Words - a straightforward compendium of exactly what to say to donors and funders to get them to finally loosen their purse strings and give you money.  The book might be subtitled just that:  Oh For Pete's Sake - Give Us the Damn Money Already.  I use the title MAGIC WORDS, because it so often seems that only magic will help as you try to close the deal with potential supporters.
  2. You Want Me To Do What?  Seriously?  What to say when people make inane, ridiculous, stupid, insipid and totally impossible requests.
  3. The Five Habits of People Who Know When to Tune Someone Out.  Self-explanatory, I think.
  4. OMG - One More Grant - Sympathy and advice for when you have to write just one more freakin' grant.  
  5. Dead Ends - An explanation - in plain English - as to why you won't get the job or the promotion that simply doesn't exist.
  6. Playing to Empty Seats - a dystopian novel as to the future wrought by technology and the internet. 
  7. Why You Say Yes, When You Should Say No, and No, When You Should Say Yes - an attempt to explain why our brains seem to be hardwired to screw ourselves on a regular basis.
  8. We're Working On That - an explanation of why real progress on equity seems to move at a snail's pace.
  9. Everyone's A Leader Doesn't Mean No One's A Follower - why the notion that everyone is a leader only makes sense, if, at times, we're all followers too.  
  10. I'm Ok, You're Ok - the Rest of Them Are Nuts - The truth about everybody you know.
  11. The Corporatization of the NonProfit Arts - the truth about the similarity of some of our organizations and the wider corporate world, including the non-essentiality of the staff rank and file.  
  12. Relentless and Endless Storytelling - an examination of decades of fighting just to protect the status quo of the NEA.

Next year is very likely to be as crazy and turbulent, if not more so, than this year.  Still, there is always hope, and, for some inexplicable reason, I remain optimistic -- although I often feel like this line from the Paul Simon song, America:

"'Kathy, I'm lost' I said, though i knew she was sleeping.                                                    
          'I'm empty and aching, and I don't know why'"

Wishing you all a very Happy, healthy, safe and sane New Year.

Don't Quit

Sunday, December 16, 2018

What Is The Number One Reason People Leave Their Jobs?

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

Attracting, recruiting and retaining management and leadership talent to our ranks is generally recognized as critical not only to our success, but to our survival.

We benefit from a large pool of arts administration graduates and others who passionately want to work in our field.  But, like every organization in every sector, we face the prospect of losing our people.  It is one of the challenges to any organization.  What is the number one reason people leave?

It's not because of money - not because we don't necessarily pay a competitive - or even living wage, although that is an issue.  It's not because we don't offer enough opportunities for promotion and advancement - despite the fact that a lot of senior baby boomer leaders are not retiring on a previously predictable timeline and making way for the next generations.  And it's not because of too few opportunities to share decision making authority and feel as though one is having an impact - though that too is a complaint.

None of the above challenges are the principal threat against keeping good people in the fold.  According to Gallup's latest report, State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders, a study of over seven thousand adults, the number one reason people leave their jobs is toxic managers - in other words, bad mangers and bosses.  According to the study, fifty percent of employees left their jobs "to get away from their manager to improve their overall life, at some point in their career."   

Hiring qualified people isn't enough.  Giving them responsibility isn't necessarily enough.  And paying them well isn't always enough either.  You have to create a working environment that, more than anything, demonstrates to them that they are valued and respected; that their contributions make a difference; that they are crucially part of a team.  That takes constant reinforcement.

Smart leaders, managers and administrators know the following are key to grooming and keeping talent - both leadership and rank and file:

1)  Employees should always be counted on the "asset" side of the ledger, and not considered as merely "expenses".  In other words, you've got to treat the organization's people as human beings, each one an individual with differing needs and situations.  Be empathetic and concerned, not just with the job they are suppose to do, but with their careers, and to a reasonable extent their lives.  Caring about your people must be genuine; it can't be faked.  If the organization doesn't seem to really care about them, why should they really care about the organization?

2)   Always accentuate the positive - focus on what your people are doing right and what they are accomplishing, rather than their shortcomings and mistakes.  Set a tone within the workplace ecosystem that values your people, not one of constant criticism.

3)  Giving credit and making sure everyone knows the contributions of your people is important and appreciated.  Acknowledging and honoring people is an easy and simple thing to do, and reaps huge rewards in terms of job satisfaction and motivation.  Don't skimp on touting the contributions of your people.  If saying thank you is too much to ask, then your organization is in trouble.

4)  Act like the leader your people want you to be.

Often times there is so much on our plates as leaders, so many challenges and demands, so much to get done each day, that we take for granted our number one asset - our people.  And our people include our boards, supporters, and volunteers too, and the same logic applies to treating them in ways that make them want to continue to work hard for the organization.

Make it a point today to complement the people of your organization and listen to them so as to more readily identify their genuine needs.  It should be a big part of your job.  Every day.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Monday, December 3, 2018

Video? What video?

Once again the gremlins of technology messed with me.  The video accompanying yesterday's post made it to the blog site, but for some inexplicable reason didn't get included on the emailed version.


If you want to see the video click on the blog logo above, and that should take you to the blog site, where you can scroll down to yesterday's post, and the video should appear at the end of the post.



Sunday, December 2, 2018

What Do You Do If The Economy Goes South?

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

Economic health is a cyclical thing.  It goes from robust to decline, and back again, with some regularity.  That's due in part to the reality that the economy is largely dependent on human confidence or lack thereof, and that condition is subject to all kinds of subjective criteria - including politics and paranoia.

Of late, the stock market has been on a mini roller coaster, rising and falling, though the underlying conditions really haven't changed much.  The once stratospheric housing market is cooling off, and some say it's over.   Both of these markers may simply now be in a period of what is called "a correction".  Add to that, global trade wars have investors worried, resulting in layoffs at some affected companies.   It may be that the decade long growth in the economy, including record low unemployment, may not continue unabated for the longer term.

So what happens if the economy cools off considerably?  What will it mean?

History tells us that another recession is probably a matter of when, not if.  But how deep a recession and how long might it last?  Nobody can definitively answer those questions.

The deeper the downturn, if there is one. and the more likely, for us in the nonprofit arts, that our widespread undercapitalization situation will leave many of our organizations hurting, if not their existence threatened.  Nonprofit arts organizations continue to rely on five revenue streams: government support, foundation support, individual philanthropic support, performance or exhibition revenue from audiences and earned income from all other sources.  Earned income has never, unfortunately, been of significant size to rescue us from downturns in our other cash flow streams.  And, as we are all painfully aware, maintaining high levels of audience income continues to be challenging.

When economic conditions change negatively, government usually sees a reduction in income, and their natural response is to cut back on expenditures.  Unfortunately, for us, the arts are most often one of the early casualties of that approach.  Such cuts are rarely the same across the board.  Some states and local jurisdictions have reserves and will weather any economic downturn better than others, and so the hurt for the arts won't likely be the same everywhere, if, in fact, the economy does a downturn.

The same may be true of foundations, who will be under pressure to divert funds to a host of other seemingly more demanding and priority causes.  And in any case, foundations lack the resources to  rescue all the organizations, no matter how worthy, that may be in peril.  And individuals - at least the middle class - may feel the squeeze and be less comfortable with the same level of their previous support.

So, if there is, in the future, another round of economic hard, or harder, times, at the very least the arts may find it more difficult just to tread water, let alone continue any growth.  Again, some organizations will fare well, others will have a harder time.

Of course, the economy may stay robust and healthy for quite some time still, but it's reasonable to anticipate that, at some point, we ought to be prepared for negative changes in the economies at the global, federal, state and local levels, with perhaps great territorial variation.  Economics is not a precise science, despite the preachings of the media pundits and the financial sector experts.  Right now may be a good time to consider what it would mean for your organization were a recession to be on the horizon.

So what do you do?

First, you take a long, cold hard look at your finances and capitalization, and your budget, to see where you might be if the worst case scenario were to happen.  The prudent thing to do is consider the issue before it's on top of you.

Second, you look at your projections for income and expenses with a suspicious mindset.  You try to figure out what income on your books might not actually materialize, and what expenses might increase.  You look at what you might be able to cut if it came to that.  In other words, you need a plan, now, in case of a precipitous or even cataclysmic event.  You may have only two choices: take in more money, or spend less.  You have to figure out which approach is realistic, and will work for you the best.

Its entirely possible that many smaller and even mid-sized organizations would be faced with cuts as the only alternative.  And so very hard decisions would need to be made as to where those cuts could / should come from.  There are no easy decisions here, and both predictable and unintended consequences would need to be considered and accommodated.  We're talking about some hurt here.  No way to avoid it if it comes to that.

Third, if changes in the economy are still sometime off in the future, this is a good time to address -head on - the audience development challenges.  We know our audiences are shrinking - big time for some, a tiny bit for others.  But all of us also know that the population is accessing art across levels of platforms very different from our historical live performance / exhibition audience paradigm.  We have simply got to figure out how to capture the larger audience that exists outside of our traditional approach.  And that's only the half of it, because then we've got to figure out how to monetize any new directions we take.  You may not be able to solve this conundrum, but we have absolutely got to begin to try now.  Any progress will help to minimize the hurt if, or when, it comes.

Again, some will be ok, others will not.  So Fourth, you have to figure out where you fall - a hiccup in your affairs, or a big time problem that will threaten what you do.

Fifth, on a local or regional basis, arts organizations should ratchet up their lobbying efforts now with government, so that if the time comes, they will have already laid the ground work for making their case in competition with all the other interest groups that will want a piece of the dwindling support pie.

Sixth, ditto that approach with local foundations, and individual donors.  Conversations should be held now about what to expect in an uncertain future.

And finally, watch this very short video clip:

It is a clip of a baby bear cub desperately trying to follow its mother up a treacherous snow capped mountain to safety at an upper ridge.  The little guy has a lot to overcome.  

Perhaps the most important thing you can do is, like the little cub, stay the course and keep trying.  You
Don't Quit.

Have a good week.


Monday, November 12, 2018

Board of Director Accountability as to Our Public Benefit - A Can of Worms

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

Nobody owns a nonprofit.  The IRS grants the organizations a special tax status because the entities are classified as "public benefit corporations".  It is because they benefit the public that they are treated differently than commercial enterprises.

But who decides what that benefit is?  Who monitors to determine if the benefit is actually being met?

The way the system works, is that, like for profit corporations, nonprofits too have Boards of Directors whose principal duty is a fiduciary one, to make sure the organization's finances are both solid and transparently on the up and up.  Beyond that the Board is unofficially charged with overseeing and insuring the organization is well managed and complies with all legal obligations.

Some Boards see their function as pretty much stopping there, and placing responsibility for the operations and management in the hands of the Executive Director and staff - with some provision for periodic review.  Others Boards have a penchant for micromanagement and see the need to involve themselves in even the smallest of decision making processes and details.

But where is the public oversight to monitor that the nonprofit is, indeed, benefiting the public?  Where are the rules and regulations that insure fair, impartial and meaningful community (public) representation on the Board?  Where is the reporting mechanisms that demonstrate to the public that its benefit is being conferred?

For a variety of reasons, including the difficulty, if not impossibility, of defining what the public good is or is suppose to be, the answers to these questions is there isn't any such oversight, nor protocols or regulations which need be adhered to or followed to protect the public.  This is true irrespective of whether or not the nonprofit is involved in social justice or the arts, health care or education; whether or not the organization is deemed political in its ideology or is religious in nature, or both, or neither.  It's true with very wealthy organizations and threadbare startups; large and small.  Nonprofit governance is left to the organization itself.

Yes, various states have some rules to govern nonprofit governance, but in the main, unless there is scandal or some public outcry, there is no government interference, but for the occasional use of the sector as a political hot potato.

And the likely reason for this hands-off legacy is that neither political side wants to open this can of worms, because what will be good for the goose, will be good for the gander.  Thus the political right might want to seriously regulate nonprofits it feels exceed their mandate, or in some way offend it, and conclude the public benefit is minimal, or useless, if not non-existent, but they don't want any of the same kinds of draconian rules applied to religious organizations (which make up the bulk of charities of all kinds).  Nobody wants to touch the question of nonprofit accountability in benefiting the public; not directly, nor indirectly, by tempering with how the Boards of Directors of these organizations function.  Beyond raising alarm for fund raising purposes, politically it is a no win situation.

In many established, large or wealthy nonprofits, the Boards are top heavy with civic leaders and those who have credentials the organizations deem valuable, not the least of which might be their wealth or fund raising ability and acumen.  That's true in the arts as well.  Smaller and newer organizations may have Boards of local community members, many of whom are new to the arena and novices in their role.  Enthusiasm and passion are their coin of the realm.

But in neither case are these Boards in any real way accountable to the public beyond the obvious legal fiduciary obligations.  Nowhere are decisions as to programming or otherwise under any microscope as to their intent or effectiveness in serving a public benefit.

The other reason this has virtually always been the case, is that such review and evaluation could easily devolve into factions within a nonprofit fighting for control of the organization, not necessarily to right a ship off-course, but to force and impose their interpretation of public good for another faction's beliefs, thereby paralyzing the organization by infighting.  Such fights would, more often than not, be about control, not public benefit.  And how would those disputes be resolved?  The courts?  OMG, there would be another can of worms that might grind the work of nonprofits, so caught up, to a standstill.  That hardly serves any benefit to the public.  And it's hard to see how anyone befits if those kinds of disputes are argued in public.

So, other than a commitment to transparency in, not just financial / fiduciary matters, but as to decision making (which transparency is more the exception than the rule), it seems an impossible task to regulate how a public good is defined or delivered.

But does that mean the question shouldn't be asked, or ways to address it shouldn't be considered?

Take, for example, philanthropic nonprofits just in the arts sector.  Most of these organizations have governing Boards of stalwart civic citizens, a preponderance of whom are either wealthy or in prominent positions of power within business, politics or the community.  And our studies have confirmed that these foundations, on average and on balance, continue to make large grants to the largest organizations - often at the expense (because even the richest foundations do not have unlimited grant funds) of smaller, newer organizations.

Is that in the public benefit?  Who's to say?  I believe you can make an argument on either side of that question.  And people on both sides of that issue within our field have strong feelings one way or the other.  There are, in fact, often differences of opinion between the Boards and staffs within a foundation, and within their funding territory and community.  That's healthy I think.

Ultimately, it might be argued, the public itself determines whether or not it's getting a benefit by their support, or lack thereof, for the individual nonprofit.  That such conference of approval is often by relatively small and arguably, special interest groups, notwithstanding, that system has its impact.

But is there anything that can be done to help improve the quality of that debate so that all the factions within a community are given voice as the decision making goes on?  Many would argue that the first step in helping to insure that the public benefits is to diversify the governing Boards so that a community's diverse constituency is fully represented.  Though with the best of intentions, that hasn't always worked.  Boards tend to be insular and self protective.  And they tend to replace themselves with people like themselves. The larger, older and wealthier the organization, the more so. Board diversity could be mandated legally at the state level, but again, politicians are reluctant to get embroiled in any kind of fight that might alienate even one segment of their constituency.  There is a movement afoot to diversify boards, but that movement is still embryonic.

An idea that I think has merit, is for nonprofits in our field, to voluntarily pledge to formalize community input to decision making by way of advisory boards or committees. Yes, I know such a proposal adds an unwanted and perhaps undesirable and burdensome level of bureaucracy, and such boards or committees as already exist, often function in name only.  But to the extent, our Boards can open up to allow for community input, arguably the public benefit can be better protected and served, and more formally codified.

Virtually every arts nonprofit legitimately believes that it facilitates the creation, performance or exhibition, and preservation of art, and is thus beneficial to the public, and except in the rarest of cases I think that would be hard to dispute.   But is there value in formally and periodically asking:  How are we benefiting the public?  Would not the way we answer that question help us in discharging our missions, preparing our advocacy work, justifying our value to the public and funding authorities, and help inform and guide our programming and otherwise be useful to us?

Of course, we may not actually be willing to open up how we conceive of public benefit, let alone how we define it.  But it is a legitimate issue i think.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Monday, October 29, 2018

Get Out the Vote. Where are the arts?

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

The mid-term election is next week.

There seems to be consensus across the political spectrum on one thing:  This may be the most important election of our lives.  It will tell us, and the world, a lot about what kind of a country we want, and the direction in which we are heading.  It will send a message about the role America sees itself playing on the world stage for, at least, the immediate future.  It will tell us a lot about what will happen in the 2020 presidential election.  It will set, for the future, our values and aspirations.  And it will determine where the power lies.

And while the pundits suggest the Democrats will regain control of the House, and Republicans will keep control of the Senate, there is more understanding - after the failure of those same pundits to predict Trump's victory in 2016 - about the races being really too close to definitively say what will happen. Of course, this is the pollsters hedging their bets so they don't look the fools they did last time, but it's a realistic understanding that there are simply too many variables to know for sure what will happen.  The Democrats may win both the House and the Senate.  Or the Republicans may keep control of both.  The chances are pretty good that the Red States will become redder and the Blue States bluer - thus cementing the divide between Americans.   But we don't know for sure what will happen.

That makes this election even more critical.

There are lots of people  - on all points of the political spectrum - who will not vote.  Some have washed their hands to the whole of the political process, believing it doesn't matter who is in power - nothing ever changes.  A pox on both their houses as it were.  There are others who believe a Democratic House and a Republican Senate is just a prescription for more gridlock and more acrimony among waring factions.  Why bother?  They reject, or fail to appreciate, the notion that checks and balances have any benefit to the country.

And there are lots of people who don't vote because they simply don't care; while others find it inconvenient.  Still others will be the victims of attempts to, if not disenfranchise them, then make it very difficult to vote.  Some claim they are too busy.  And often times, inclement weather will keep people from voting.

There is also consensus that whichever side succeeds in turning out their partisans to vote, will likely be victorious.  Trump is busy trying to energize his core base.  The Democrats are trying to rally people of color, poor and young people - who tend to favor them.  There are some signs both sides are succeeding,   But to what extent remains unknown until the votes are actually counted.

So no matter what side you or your tribe are on, it is incumbent to try to get your people to vote.  But historically, Americans do not turn out to vote in huge numbers, particularly in an off year presidential election.  The single most important exercise in democracy - the act of voting - and as a country often we can't even turn out half of those eligible.  Unfortunately,  studies show that efforts to get out the vote, largely fail, and that it isn't easy to increase voter turnout.  Even a record turnout would still leave a huge percentage of eligible voters who didn't vote.

Yet while there is no surefire, proven strategy or tactic to get your people to the polls, it seems axiomatically suicidal not to try.

Clearly we all have a stake in this election.  Not just for what it might mean for our self-interest as the nonprofit arts, but for a thousand impacts it will have on the nation - for generations to come.  So we should be trying to get out the vote, but where is the effort from our sector to do that?  Where are the iconic posters touting the need to show up on voting day?  Where are the stories included in our emails and newsletters, on our websites, and in our programs and on flyers?  Where are the announcements from the stage or the podium?  Where are the songs or poetry urging voters to vote? We talk so much about collaborating within the community on social justice issues - where then are those joint efforts to implore, beg, cajole, guilt or otherwise try to influence potential voters to show up?

Maybe I live in a cocoon, but I try to stay abreast of what is going on in the field, and I can't find much evidence that the arts are doing anything to get out the vote.  Why not?  I don't get it.  Perhaps I'm just blind to lots of energy in this area.  If so, I'm happy to be corrected.  But if I'm right, and we just aren't doing much to get out the vote, then shame on us.  Really.

I hope any of you who might be reading this can pledge to get at least one person to go vote; one person who might not be planning to vote.  Somehow.

I did see a poster online that said this:  "A FAILURE TO VOTE ISN'T REBELLION.  IT'S SURRENDER."

The thing the last election showed us is that every vote does count, and it doesn't take that many to seal an election one way or the other.

Good luck America.

Vote.  Please.

Don't Quit

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Relentless Barrage of Daily Interruptions Is Messing Up Your Productivity

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

The older one gets the longer it takes to recover from things, especially physical stuff.  Where once your body would bounce back seemingly instantly, as your age advances that's no longer the case.  You can and do recover, it just takes longer.  Another one of the nasty little things about the golden years.

And speaking of recovery, there is now ample evidence that it takes increasingly more time to recover from the barrage of daily interruptions to your work productivity.   This seems particularly true when you really need to focus on getting something done (e.g., a major report, grant application, presentation or ?).  According to  UC Irvine study, quoted in Training Magazine

"People spend an average of 11 minutes on a project before they’re interrupted. It takes them on average 25 minutes to get back to the point they were at before a distraction.
Even after a 2.8-second interruption, subjects in a study doubled their error rates. And their error rates tripled after a 4.5-second distraction, says the Journal of Experimental Psychology."

According to an article on interruptions in

"Interruptions come at great cost. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that, on average, people spend three minutes and five seconds (see, it’ll be fine) on an activity before switching to another task, and 10.5 minutes before switching to a completely new project. And, they found, if a task is interrupted, it takes more than 20 minutes to fully adjust back to the task. 
Other studies show that interruption scenarios significantly decrease work quality. Researchers at Michigan State University asked participants to complete a computer-­sequencing-based task. Every so often, the participants were interrupted with a request to input two unrelated letters -- a task of 2.8 seconds -- before continuing with the sequence. Those interruptions led to twice as many errors in the sequencing task."

Oh dear!

Interruptions of any kind disturb the rhythm of getting work done. That's true if your brainstorming, writing, preparing a presentation, or working in other ways on a given project.

Is it then any wonder why what should take a finite period of time seems to take increasingly unnecessarily long hours to accomplish?

What can be done to minimize the negative aspects of constant interruptions, or really how to avoid many of those interruptions in the first place?  We've got the deal with this issue for the simple reason that the demands on our time are increasing while our available time is not, and if the work that needs to get done, doesn't, then the enterprise (our part or the whole thing) is in jeopardy.

While you can't necessarily control all the interruptions your body must endure as you age, you can take some actions to, if not eliminate, then reduce the interruptions to your work situation.

There are some ways to block out the interruptions at least for those times when you won't get done what you need to get done if you don't.  


1.  Simply ignoring incoming communications for a finite period of time.  Let people know you're unavailable via email, texting or telephone for X number of hours on any given day or days.  Don't worry if some kind of emergency comes up, people will find a way to let you know.  And then resist the temptation to check for incoming messages via whatever platform.  At least for a couple of hours.

2.  Organizations can sanction and facilitate working at home on those occasions when you really need to be productive.  According to a Rescue Time Blog post, a majority of workers cite personal visits or inquiries by co-workers as the most invasive kind of interruption (one that can't really be ignored).  Of course, home has its own set of distractions and interruptions, and so you would have to specifically deal with those up front, but working at home doesn't have all the workplace distractions.

3.  If working at home occasionally, as needed, isn't a viable option, then try to just get out of the office for and hour or two during the day.  Go to your favorite coffee shop and work there.  For many people that option is actually conductive to getting work done.

4.  Ask your coworkers and other colleagues how they cope with the incessant interruptions in the workplace when they need to get work finished.  Maybe they have their own approaches that would work for you too.

5.  Close your door and put a note on it that says you are unavailable for X period of time.  Do NOT Disturb.   It's probably a good idea to advise people upfront of your intention to do this.  And that notice may help them to respect your wishes and avoid the seemingly innocent:  "Can I ask you a quick question?"  Your answer to that ought to be:  "You just did, and the answer is no." 

Of course, not all the interruptions that threaten your productivity are external based. There are also the interruptions that have their genesis in your head.  Often times when faced with a critical deadline or major piece of work that not only needs to get done on a timeline, but needs to be really superb when finished, our minds throw up blocks to getting it done.  We have all experienced writer's block or some other form of an inability to hunker down to the task at hand.  You may succeed in eliminating most of the interruptions that plague your concentration, but still not remedy the internal workings of your mind that will allow you to focus on the one thing you need to finish.

There are, I'm sure, tricks and techniques to deal with that challenge too.  Google it.

Have a good week with minimal interruptions!

Don't Quit

Note:  My own interruptions mean I will henceforth likely be blog posting every two weeks, instead of every week - at least for awhile.  

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Getting the Most Out of a Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I break it down into three broad categories:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, August 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Should Artists Play More of a Role in Fundraising?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what about artists?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something to think about.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, August 12, 2018

You May Think You're A Good Listener, But You'd Probably Be Wrong.

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

Every list of the skills one needs to acquire to be successful, invariably includes listening.  Being a good listener is touted as absolutely essential to your professional and personal life.  I've talked about it on this blog before.

You probably think you are a good listener. Better than most people anyway.  Yes, you admit, you don't always put in the effort, but you fully understand the skill, and when its important you are indeed a good listener.

You're very likely not.  You're fooling yourself.  We all tend to think we are better at certain skills than we, in fact, are.  At least better than other people are.  Psychologists call it illusory superiority, and it is a cognitive bias.  Perfectly normal and natural unless manifested in some extreme.

Most people only think they are good listeners.  As I've quoted Paul Simon in the song The Boxer, before:

"All lies in jest, still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

I bring it up again, because I think the universal advice is right - listening skills are critical.  Especially as we are moving foursquare into an age of ideas.

Hearing what we want, isn't being a good listener.  But that's what we do.  Here's another way of putting it - found in an article on The Art of Listening Well by Eugene Raudsepp in INC. magazine:

 "A zoologist was walking down a busy city street with a friend. In the midst of the honking horns and screeching tires, he exclaimed to his friend, "Listen to that cricket!"  The friend looked at the zoologist in astonishment and said, "You hear a cricket in the middle of all this noise and confusion?"  Without a word, the zoologist reached into his pocket, took out a coin, and flipped it into the air. As it clinked on the sidewalk, a dozen heads turned in response.
The zoologist said quietly to his friend, "We hear what we listen for."

And too often, we listen for confirmation of what we already tend to think and believe.  We don't listen in search of contradictory thinking, or even new and challenging thoughts.  We want evidence supporting our already-arrived-at position.  If you don't believe me, the next time you are at a breakout session at a conference, when its open mike for the participants, listen to what the speakers are saying.  For the most part it's like an old Buffalo Springfield song, For What Its Worth:

"People carrying signs, Mostly say 'Hooray For Our Side'

The problem is that most of us much prefer to hear ourselves talk than hear someone else.  Even the shy among us, who never talk, often come to that conclusion in their minds.  It makes real listening very difficult.

There is no shortage of advice on improving your listening skills, most of which encourages you to focus, to put aside your biases and pre-conceived thinking, to be open and receptive, and, of course, to basically keep quiet while listening - both aloud and in your mind.  Listening, we're taught, is a technique we can master if we're willing to put in the effort.

Consider the more stringent requirements suggested by Erich Fromm - the world renowned social psychologist, and the author of The Art of Love - in his work, The Art of Listening, as put in Psychology: 

"Fromm objects to framing listening as a "technique," since that word applies "to the mechanical, to that which is not alive, while the proper word for dealing with that which is alive is 'art.'" And so if "psychoanalysis is a process of understanding man's mind, particularly that part which is conscious... it is an art like the understanding of poetry." He then provides basic rules for this art as follows:

  • The basic rule for practicing this art is the complete concentration of the listener.
  • Nothing of importance must be on his mind, he must be optimally free from anxiety as well as from greed.
  • He must possess a freely-working imagination which is sufficiently concrete to be expressed in words.
  • He must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own.
  • The condition for such empathy is a crucial facet of the capacity for love. To understand another means to love him — not in the erotic sense but in the sense of reaching out to him and of overcoming the fear of losing oneself.

So Ftomm argues that listening needs not only an open mind, but a mind serious and sincerely seeking to understand what it is hearing.  It requires a level of respect for the person you're listening to, and a conscious effort to empathize not only with the speaker's position, but for how the speaker got to that position.

That may be a deeper involvement in listening than most of us want to elect, but the premise that real listening require more than just paying attention, looking the other person in the eye, and not talking needs to be considered.

I think its perfectly legitimate, even if somewhat judgmental and unfair, to conclude that you just don't have time to listen to everybody, and specifically to certain people. But you ought to try to refine your listening skill so you can interact and intersect with the people in your profession and in your life that you need to listen to.  At least learn to know when listening is important, and practice how to be a good listener beforehand.  And a good listener probably doesn't make too many judgmental pre-assumptions.  

Good luck.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Internal Team Coaching as an Alternative and a Necessity

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

Project Oxygen was an internal Goggle project which sought to identify, then replicate, the qualities of its most effective managers.

The quality that topped the list was coaching, and the study went on to identify qualities of effective coaches, including listening skills, empathy, and providing timely, specific, effective feedback in a way individualized to each employee.

Coaching is a valuable tool to help members of an organizational team develop enhanced skills and perform at a higher level. It can give recipients new tools, added confidence and greater insight to the overall operations of the organization.  Coaching can be valuable at all management levels and for staffers of all different years on the job.

Coaches aren't born to the task.  An experienced worker, with some empathy and commitment can learn the skill of coaching. In the arts we most often think of a  coach as someone external to the organization; someone who comes in without bias, unencumbered by the baggage of the organization itself, with fresh perspective, but also with meaningful experience in the field and specifically as a coach.  But it doesn't have to be an outsider.  It can work just as well coming from the inside.  And that was the point of the Goggle project:  to help managers across the organization be better coaches.  It is a mistake to think of a coach as exclusively someone not part of the organization.  The whole idea of coaching ought to be embedded in the culture of the organization, and coaching ought to be continuously going on at all levels.

Hiring an outside coach can be an expensive proposition; almost prohibitively so for smaller budget organizations.  There is grant money available in some venues, but not nearly enough to meet the demand.  Some very large organizations can afford the price. But even in the larger cultural institutions, the cost can result in only higher level managers benefiting from the experience, when it is the newer and less seasoned staff members who are most in need of the service, and who stand to most benefit from the process.  And it is a process, for superior coaching and best impacts result from the availability of ongoing coaching over time.

For these reasons, the arts need to develop and hone the coaching skills of longer tenured managers from within.  In small organizations, that's not always easy.

So, we need to consider the concept of internal team coaching, whereby several longer term staffers work together to provide coaching to less experienced members of the organization.  That would allow the coaching staff to bring multiple skills and background experiences to the task, and avoid the sometimes less optimal outcomes of the limitations of a single one to one relationship, without sacrificing any of the personal involvement.  Team coaching isn't the norm, but it can work for our field.  Even in small organizations, the concept can be viable by including board members and volunteers.

And by bringing the function in-house, the relationships with each recipient of coaching can be personalized to the organization and to the individual.  And a team approach allows for continuity in that if demands or deadlines require one of the team coaches to turn attention elsewhere, the coaching remains uninterrupted.  Coaching is a sports metaphor, and virtually nowhere in sports is there a single coach shouldering the entire coaching responsibility.

i know it seems like adding more work to an already impossibly crowded schedule is counter productive , but the end result of informed, better equipped, more motivated and confident junior staffers able to handle the workload better, more efficiently and more productively is worth it.  It makes for a better functioning team, no matter how large or how small, helps in employee recruitment and retainment, and insures the better longer term health of the organization.  Failure to have some kind of plan to help in the professional development of junior staffers is beyond short sighted.  In the long run its borderline suicidal - for the organization and for the field itself.

In-house coaching does sacrifice some of the detachment of an outsider, but an in-house team approach saves time in the process because the coaching team knows the recipient better than would an outsider - including strengths and weaknesses; and knows the organization better too.  Every approach has pros and cons.

I've been a coach, and, it seems to me,  the most important parts of the process are:

1.  Building trust in the process by reassuring the recipient that the process has as its sole objective to help build skills and the workplace relationship. It is NOT a judgmental exercise.  It is about the relationship.

2.  Identifying what the recipient wants from the process; where they think they might benefit from coaching and why.  Drilling down to specifics, many of which are simply about acquiring knowledge and not about approach, attitude or anything else.

3.  Analyzing the circumstances of the person's work performance to date to help expand their thinking in terms of what the coaching process might focus on and offer them.  Deciding on an agenda and objectives list.

4.  Identifying the person's strengths and their weaknesses, and addressing the latter in a non-threatening way - over time.

The meat of the coaching process is to work through getting the recipient to where they want to go, and to where they need to go.  Part of that process is aligning the two.

Of course there is much more to it than just those simple things. And yes it will take some time and effort for staffers unfamiliar with the coaching protocols and best practices to equip themselves to be of value as a coach, but what doesn't take a little time?  A lot can be learned from the internet.  A lot is intuitive. And if there are multiple coaches as part of a team, they can help school each other to the benefit of the recipient.

And remember, coaching is of benefit to the one doing the coaching as well as to the one being coached.  The coach learns more about those s/he works with, about themselves, and about their organization and the field.  So there is an added bonus to doing it in-house and as a team.

Like the old adage of teaching a man to fish being superior than just giving him one fish, funders might get a bigger bang for their buck if they would support efforts to teach our people to be good coaches rather than supporting hiring a coach.  If we did that for a decade we might yield a whole generation of coaches in our midst.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Are We Taking Ourselves Too Seriously

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

We live in serious times.  Global movements threaten our sanity and security:  authoritarianism and attacks on safety, free speech, democracy and economic stability;  climate change and environmental degradation; the demise of the belief in science and the death of secularism.  And that's just the big stuff. Add to that all of the personal trials, tribulations and challenges each of us faces: financial insecurity for some; family issues for others; health concerns for still more, and the daily crap that life tends to deal us all, including the pressures of our jobs.

Oh my.

So it's very hard not to be real serious about all of this.  Living has become increasingly legitimately serious business.  But is it all?

"There seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things, difficult."
                                                                           --Warren Buffett

Do we take at least some of it too seriously?  And that question applies to each of us as individuals, and, perhaps, to the nonprofit arts as a sector.  Has our worshipping at the serious altar eased the ability of the overall phenomenon of seriousness to insidiously worm its way into our lives, our work, our relationships, our moral compasses, and our beliefs.  Serious is now the default setting?  For everything? Well, that's not right.  We're gonna need to do something if that's where we're heading.'  

Maybe we're not there yet, but look around, that sure looks like where we're headed.

I think that's actually anti-the-arts.  The challenge is not to see everything as equally serious, but to figure out which things truly are and then deal with them.  There are plenty of things that are very serious, and there are a lot of things that really aren't serious, despite somebody saying they are.  And, of course, it's likely a matter of perception, and attitude.  And sometimes, even the serious stuff can't be taken seriously.

Are we now guilty of categorizing everything as serious?  Are we conflating cross categories simply because its easier, or because its expected, or because we're just lazy?  Dump it all in the 'serious' basket, we'll sort through it later.   That's a hell of an approach.

A failure to recognize seriousness as not always in our best interest needs to be considered, both for mental and systems health.  Indeed, it may be the only thing that might save the country in the long run.  Somehow we, as individuals, and we as part of the nonprofit arts sector, have to try to figure out where the line should be drawn so we can approach life in a saner way.

The arts help us in that quest, and for that alone should be cherished.

The upcoming Hundred Days War - in the fight to claim the US House of Representatives in November starts today, and that is serious.  Very serious.

But Not everything is serious.  Not everything.

Try not to be serious today.  Not tooooo serious anyway.  As a conscious effort.  See how that works.

Seriously!.............................{Sorry about that, but come on, how  could I not?? }

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Merchandising - the Untapped Arts Cash Cow

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

When I was in the music business in the 70's and 80's, it was called the Record Business, because record sales were where the money was. Tours were done to support the release of records. Merchandising was kind of an afterthought in support of the artist's brand.   Napster changed all that, and shifted the income to touring, as music downloading and streaming dried up the cash cow of record sales - for the artists anyway.  And now touring is increasingly becoming not just a revenue source, but a tool in support of where even more money is today - in merchandising.

Touring income is still (especially for the larger stadium acts) a substantial source of income.  But merchandising is growing. Everything from the old staples of Tee Shirts and Tour Jackets, to mugs and pens and books and posters and you name it - rock and roll, as a generic form, is a merchandiser's bonanza.  The group KISS has taken merchandising to dizzying heights and their reaping untold dividends from savvy marketing and merchandising has educated the rest of the industry and likely has had an impact on the growth - industry wide - over time.

Professional athletes, at the top, have always made more money from their endorsements than from their contract salaries.  Today, some of those endorsements  (as for example, the major basketball stars athletic shoe tie-ins) are tied in to a percentage of sales and constitute major sources of income.  And all teams make money selling merchandise. The winning teams with the biggest stars do extremely well.

Not so in the nonprofit arts, where ticket sales is still the primary source of earned income (but not, in many cases, the equal of philanthropic support).  Merchandising?  Virtually non existent but for a few big museum gift shops that contribute something to the bottom line.  Many organizations make a half hearted attempt to sell shirts or calendars with the organization or artist logo at live performances, but it is an anemic exercise at best.

What about those few big organizations that do earn measurable, if not truly meaningful, income from merchandise?  As noted, the major players in this game are the big museum gift shops.  Take the Met for example.  They have multiple gift shop locations in New York and New Jersey, including at the airports.  They also, surprisingly, have locations in Australia and two in Thailand - both in Bangkok, both at high end luxury hotel branches. Museum gift shops like the Met stock all kinds of art items, and not just their own logo branded stuff.   Because their own branded stuff wouldn't fill more than a couple of shelves.

There are many other Museums across the country that have similar gift shops attached to their locations, but not multiple locations.

The same option hasn't really existed for other types of art organizations in the dance, theater, music or other disciplines - though I'm not convinced that the option isn't viable.  Take Dance - there is all kinds of dance stuff that could fill the shelves of a gift shop at the local dance venue.  And if the enterprise is really too much for a single dance company, then what is stopping a dozen or more dance companies from working together in the launch and ownership of such a retail outlet.  Not enough money if you split it so many ways?  I don't know.  I think it might be substantial.  We ought to find out.  Theater companies might have a harder time making it a go, but in addition to books, posters, CDs, and memorabilia, each company could market their own logo branded items - e.g., the traditional Tee Shits, Polo Shirts, mugs, posters, wine paraphernalia, scarves and scores of other products that might appeal to people who frequent the theater. And maybe someday we could have a chain of arts gift shops across the country that sold dance, theater, music, visual arts, film etc. etc. stuff, including locally branded logo items,  all under one roof with shared income; stand alones at venues or in malls or downtown shopping areas; cooperative stores within larger name stores; holiday pop up stores; massive online operations and more.

And individual artists might contribute signature items to supplement the inventories.  Certainly our creative artists could create beautiful, desirable, iconic products for us to market - fashion, home, educational, and more.

Yes, of course, bricks and mortar space is a critical consideration, but if the enterprise was a money maker, I'm sure the space issue could be addressed - and that public or private funding support for an answer would be possible.  Funders are always interested in supporting ways for nonprofit arts organizations to expand income, particularly on a sustainable basis.  Big lobbies of performance venues easily lend themselves to carving out enough space for a gift shop on site.  And cooperation and even partnerships with local transitional retailers could very well be do-able to put arts retail sites within their walls.  Empty malls are looking for tenants.  There are lots of possibilities.

To be sure, rock and roll and sports merchandising is built, in part, on the fanbase that sees the artist, athlete, band or team as emblematic of their beliefs, lifestyle and culture.  And that adoration is, in part, one of the drivers of their successful merchandising efforts.  The arts lack that celebrity cachet, and arguably their merchandising efforts can't match that of the music or sports merchandising industries.  But I think that argument too is built on false assumptions.  While our performers are not household names; not celebrities with huge fan bases - nor do our organizations command the intense loyalty of sports teams, there is great affection for, pride in, and goodwill towards the arts and specific arts organizations - large and small; new and established - all over the country.  The aggregate arts audiences are huge.  Arts organizations have a certain legitimacy and place in the lives of countless people across all age groups, income levels, geography and more.  I think we haven't yet made even cursory attempts to exploit the potential to merchandise the arts.  To ignore the potential is to underestimate and undervalue what we have to offer and how people think of us.

And successful merchandising is a prime component of effective branding.  For us, it could be a tool to both brand the arts generically and countless specifics arts organizations specifically.

As I have suggested before, this is the kind of thing that we might experiment with by organizing and funding a couple of pilot retail experiments during the holiday season, when many of out seats are sold and people are looking for unique gifts.  There is, I believe, a false narrative out there that holds that nonprofit arts merchandising is small potatoes and not even potentially a source of real income.  I think that is categorically wrong, myopic and costing us a potential source of a revenue stream.  We ought to find out.

But the effort has to be more sophisticated than just laying out some logo imprinted tee shirts and calendars on card tables at performances.  It has to be packaged and marketed professionally and on a sophisticated level, including being continuously sold and pre-sold at every level of the organization, including communications.  We have to create a culture wherein nonprofit arts merchandise is sought, is coveted, is regarded as cool.   That's largely marketing.  And we need to enlist some help from those who already occupy cultural adoration - and who may be arts friendly.   So if Beyonce were to wear a dance organization Tee Shirt - watch the sales go up.  There are all kinds of ways to tap into the potential of marketing merchandising for the arts.

Such an effort will take time to really grow.  But it could ultimately generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue across the sector. The money is out there.  Waiting to be spent.  We have a really good product with great potential.  We talk about income sources.  We ought not to squander the opportunity merchandising may present.

Christmas seasoning planning begins now - in July.  Maybe somebody, somewhere will pick up on the idea and interest a funder and some participants.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Arts and Aging: Interview with Aroha Philanthropies Founder, Ellen Michelson; and Executive Director, Teresa Bonner.

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

Aroha Philanthropies has been at the forefront as one of the major forces pushing for more arts and creative aging awareness and projects throughout the country and across sectors. Arts and Aging is really two separate fields:  programs and projects concerned with aging gracefully and with meaning; and programs and projects concerned with the impact of the arts and creativity on seniors with health issues; on their wellness and recovery.  Aroha is principally involved in the former - focusing on the vast majority of seniors who are healthy.  Both thrusts have gained considerable traction in the past five years, and both are at the top of areas in which the arts are moving forward rapidly with outreach, programs, projects, funding and research.

Ellen Michelson is the Founder and President of Aroha Philanthropies, and has set the vision for the organization.

Teresa Bonner is the Executive Director of Aroha Philanthropies and works closely with Ellen in all aspects of the foundation's activities, programs and projects.

Here is her Bio:
Teresa has served as the director of the U.S. Bancorp Foundation, the Piper Jaffray Foundation and two nonprofit organizations. As director of the U.S. Bancorp Foundation, Teresa managed $20 million in Foundation grantmaking annually and led the company’s community relations activities.

Teresa is a member of the Council on Foundations' 2013 Family Philanthropy Conference Task Force and the Family Philanthropy Exchange Steering Committee of Northern California Grantmakers. She served on the Planning Committee for the Minnesota Council on Foundations 2011 Family Philanthropy Symposium and is a member of the Minnesota Council on Foundations and the Association of Small Foundations. Teresa is a frequent speaker on philanthropy, most recently to California and Minnesota affiliates of the Family Firm Institute, estate planning councils and planned giving councils.

Prior to joining Family Philanthropy Advisors in 2008, Teresa was Senior Vice President and head of Business Development and Charitable Services for U.S. Bank’s Private Client Group, where she oversaw new business development and services offered to high-net worth clients, including private foundation services, grantmaking, endowment management and charitable services.

In addition to her foundation management roles, Teresa has served as Executive Director of Milkweed Editions, an acclaimed nonprofit literary publisher, and as Executive Director of the Library Foundation of Hennepin County, where she directed planning and implementation of marketing, fundraising, promotional, programming, public relations, grant administration and volunteer functions for one of the country’s largest library systems.  Prior to her work in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, Teresa was a partner in the Minneapolis law firm of Lindquist and Vennum.

Between 2001 and 2007, Teresa chaired the board of directors of MacPhail Center for Music, one of the country’s largest community music schools, where she led the transformation of that organization’s governance, successfully completed a major capital campaign for the creation of a new flagship facility, and chaired the Center’s grand opening celebrations.  She has served on several other nonprofit boards and has been a frequent panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts.  Teresa won the “Woman Changemaker” award from the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal in 2004.

Teresa graduated magna cum laude from the University of North Dakota with a degree in journalism. After completing Law School at the University of Minnesota, she served as a judicial clerk for the Hon. Gerald Heaney of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Together, Michelson and Bonner have successfully guided an initial commitment to dramatically increase the field's awareness of, and response to, the issues attendant to arts and creative aging; funded and nurtured scores of impact projects in the arena; and have directly created, and brokered, meaningful working partnerships and collaborations across sectors. They have accomplished this success by a sophisticated focusing on moving slowly and methodically, measurably building a foundation of awareness within the sector - which approach has yielded amazing accomplishments in making the arts and aging field one of critical importance in the arts and to society.   

Here is the interview with Ellen and Teresa:

Barry:  The main thrust of your and other activities in this arena has been how arts and creativity can help people age gracefully, with dignity, joy, and better and more fulfilling social engagement. In pushing those objectives, you’ve - wisely I think - spent considerable time and resources to inform and educate the arts field about the potential in this area, to train arts organizations in how they might approach providing services to their aging constituents, and to share ideas and projects that are working.  Can you comment on your development of that strategy and where we are in the obviously ongoing process of working within the arts field to expand and grow awareness of, and participation in, the arts and aging field within the wider arts sector so as to someday make arts and aging programs ubiquitous.
 Having been involved for five years, and having successfully moved the needle, what lessons have you learned so far? 

Teresa:  Thanks, Barry, for the kind words and great summary of our key strategies. Let us share a bit of background on how we got to them and where we are today.

Ellen: As an individual funder, I have supported arts education for youth for many years. In 2011, I attended a session on creative aging at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference and learned about the work of Tim Carpenter of EngAGE, which has created amazing senior arts colonies in the Los Angeles area. I knew then and there that I wanted to support arts education for older adults and began thinking about how I might approach this. When leaving the meeting I asked Tim how a small foundation could start work in this arena. He said to me “teaching artists…bring more teaching artists to this work.” That didn’t seem too difficult an idea, so Aroha started our work with teaching artists as our inspiration to dig in.

Teresa: First, as we began learning about the broad field of creative aging in 2012, Ellen and I met with Maura O’Malley and Ed Friedman, co-founders of New York-based Lifetime Arts. They had a clear vision of the potential of arts education for active older adults, what best practices looked like, and what the field needed in order to grow. Each of them brought long careers in arts education and administration to this field, and they understood how the arts education principles that undergird K-12 programs could and should be adapted for active older adults. They champion professionally led, sequential, skill-based learning in an art form over time, in a supportive environment that intentionally builds community and friendships among participants.

Ellen:  At that time, we were finding our philanthropic focus within creative aging. This type of programming was the most compelling to me personally, and we felt it was also the most underserved area of creative aging, as most arts-related programs for older adults were designed for those with dementia. We realized that very little programming was designed for the broader population of older adults, most of whom remain independent very late in life.

Teresa: Second, we saw that a field was just beginning to emerge, with programs springing up, mostly in isolation, across the country. We were surprised to find an almost complete lack of philanthropic support for it. We wanted to inspire other funders to see the potential of this work, and Ellen was motivated to personally reach out to them to build awareness.

Third, we were eager to see new programs with the potential for success and replication arise across the country. At the same time, organizations clearly needed help in developing programs that appealed to older adults. We’re great believers in the cohort model of shared learning, and so we developed “Seeding Vitality Arts” to both fund new programs and train grantees to develop and implement them. We provided this for both our first national cohort as well as our second group of Minnesota-based organizations. We’ve just invited proposals for a third cohort, which will be made up of museums of all kinds across the country.

We engaged Lifetime Arts to provide training, technical assistance and capacity-building for the grant cohorts, as they have done for library systems, arts organizations, arts councils, teaching artists and many others over the past decade. We brought the grantees together in person for a two-day training in fall 2016 and Lifetime Arts offered extensive technical assistance to them online and by phone.

We knew our grantees have much to learn from each other, and in early 2018, we re-convened our first cohort after successfully completing their first year of programming to share their successes and challenges in person. We were thrilled to see the enthusiasm with which they have embraced these programs. We’re also using Basecamp, an app that allows easy communication and sharing of ideas, photos, videos and other documentation of the work, to enable our grantees to stay in contact.

Ellen:  We’re grateful to our partners who are helping us get the word out about the potential these programs have to improve lives. Here are just a few highlights:
In terms of awareness, the National Guild for Community Arts Education began promoting arts education for older adults many years ago. It has offered and is expanding training and capacity-building programs to support its members’ desire to develop programs for this population.
Grantmakers in the Arts and Americans for the Arts have both welcomed presentations on this topic at their annual conferences.

We are now collaborating with the American Alliance of Museums to bring programs to museums of every kind across the country. We announced the RFP for our new “Seeding Vitality Arts in Museums” initiative in June, and welcomed 350 museums to apply during a webinar. We look forward to announcing a new cohort of museums beginning this journey in the fall of 2018.
The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies invited Aroha to present two briefings on this topic for state arts leaders at its biennial assembly in October 2018. We are eager to find great ways to support state agencies’ commitment to meaningful arts programs for older adults. 

Teresa:  Last, the key to expansion, we believe, lies in two areas. First, we need many more cross-sector collaborations between arts organizations and organizations that serve and/or attract older adults. This can take many forms, including collaborations that offer workshop series in senior housing communities, senior centers, faith communities and colleges that want to directly serve their communities. Second, we hope to see arts organizations that offer arts ed for the P-12 population to begin to serve older adults. Those that have done so are seeing new relationships with their stakeholders and new ways to be really entwined in the lives of their consituents and communities. In the long term, this may be much more sustainable than creating new organizations that focus exclusively on creative aging. 

Ellen: There is so much potential here, and a few examples will give you an idea of this. The Minnesota Opera created a chorus of adults 55+ and 200 people participated in an eight-week workshop series in which they learned and performed opera choruses in three languages. Organizations offering arts workshop series routinely report that they can’t meet the demand for classes. A museum in Massachusetts noted that it had tried for years to establish collaborations with a neighboring senior community without success, and that this program has changed that. A public library in Tennessee partnered with a local college’s art department to offer visual arts workshops, and the faculty as well as the participants formed a great collaboration. The list goes on and on.

Barry:  There are now countless stories of how the arts have improved the lives of real seniors.  How do we get those poignant and effective stories out and heard?  What is your overall, ongoing approach to telling the arts and aging story to the arts field, to decision makers, and to the public?

Ellen: The short and true answer is that we started very, very small and are ramping up our communication. 

I am a visual learner. I believe that inspired storytelling - in pictures, not just words - is absolutely essential. We produced several short videos that anyone can view, download and share. These videos are accessible, moving and entertaining, and we have received great accolades for them. You can view them at

 We developed a website,, and brought together many resources designed to inspire and inform readers, including research studies that demonstrate the benefits of the arts for active older adults. 

I was shocked that so few funders were aware of the field of creative aging and wanted to make a difference. In 2015, we invited a select group of public and private arts funders to day-long sessions in Palo Alto, CA and Minneapolis, MN, to learn about this field. As noted above, we’ve also conducted sessions and/or webinars for Grantmakers in the Arts, Grantmakers in Aging, Philanthropy New York and Americans for the Arts to reach a broader array of funders.

Teresa: After that, we launched our “Seeding Vitality Arts” initiatives, first nationally and then in Minnesota, with open RFPs, because we know that nonprofits pay attention to new funding opportunities. That worked beautifully – we had more than 200 applications for the first cohort! We deliberately chose grantees representing a robust variety of art forms, each of whom is part of a broader constituency with which this work can be shared. For example, our grantees are affiliated with as the American Alliance of Museums, Opera America, Chorus America, Theater Communications Group, Dance USA and more. We encourage our grantees to view themselves as leaders in this emerging movement and to share their stories with their colleagues across the country. We strongly encourage our grantees to document their work with engaging photos and videos so that they can share the stories with their stakeholders. 

We’re now ready to take on a more pro-active deliberate communications strategy. Stay tuned!

Barry:  In terms of program evaluation and research, where are we in terms of understanding and confirming the role and value of the arts in the lives of seniors?  What more do we need to do research-wise in the short and long terms?  What do we know and what don’t we know?

Teresa: This research started with Dr. Gene Cohen’s 2006 study of the arts and aging, which evaluated the impact of programs of the kind that we are supporting. His study found that the arts are indeed good for older adults. Those who participated in multi-session arts learning programs shows improved cognition (both memory and executive), improved quality of life, improved emotional wellbeing, and fewer over-the-counter medications, doctor visits and falls compared to the control group. A number of other small studies have showed similar benefits. The NEA has been particularly interested in this topic and has funded evaluations and studies. 

Dr. Julene Johnson of the University of California San Francisco has led a more recent, major study on the impact of choral singing on the health and wellbeing of older adults, and we hope to see the results published soon. 

For both our national and the Minnesota initiatives, Aroha engaged Minneapolis-based Touchstone Center for Evaluative Inquiry to help us measure the impact of Seeding Vitality Arts programs on participants. More than 700 program participants were surveyed, and grantees were interviewed. The interim results are amazing: In the first year of programming, participants reported increased creativity and mental engagement, with more than 80% saying their capacity for creative expression had improved and 77% reporting increased mental engagement. The vast majority of participants said their skills and confidence in creating art and their interest in other art forms also increased.

Ellen:  We need more research to explore the impact of arts programs on older adults. We need more studies with larger sample sizes and strong design. We hope that someday making art will be as well recognized as a boon to older adults’ health and wellbeing as exercise is today. 

Barry:  Early on, you collaborated and partnered with the Center for Creative Aging and with GIA, among others.  What other collaborations and partnerships have proven effective, and what new ones might be in the offing?  The arts are already working with special groups such as veterans and caregivers. I’m thinking about AARP, universities, more LAAs and SAAs, the NEA and NEH, Libraries, NASAA, and more.

Teresa:  We’ve already described some of Aroha’s collaborations with partners in the arts and aging fields. We are especially excited about our new partnership with the American Alliance of Museums ( AAM represents more than 35,000 individual museum professionals and volunteers, institutions, and corporate partners serving the museum field. They are contributing critical thought leadership, communication and much more to make this a success. AARP has provided leadership and information on the importance of addressing social isolation among older adults, and they’ve featured one of our videos on their site. We believe that the leadership of the NEA, the NEH, IMLS, and state and local arts agencies are of critical importance in encouraging program development and training as well as signaling the importance of this topic in their respective communities.

Barry:  How much emphasis are you currently putting on the value of arts participation in senior’s social  lives?  Can you cite specific programs, projects, or grant awards which you think are, or can, have a positive effect?

Ellen: Social isolation is an enormous problem for many older adults, and it leads to dramatically worsened outcomes in health and wellbeing, so building community and social engagement are absolutely central to this work. Grantees in our Seeding Vitality Arts cohorts learn to create supportive, trusting relationships among the teaching artists and the students throughout the process. Class members share life experiences, hopes, losses, and their aesthetic views. Friendships often spring up and endure long past the workshop series.

Teresa: The midterm evaluation of our Seeding Vitality Arts U.S. cohort shows we’re on the right track. More than two-thirds of the 700+ participants surveyed reported that they had formed new and/or stronger relationships through the classes. Sixty percent said that their participation had encouraged them to participate in other community activities. We’ve received tremendously moving testimonials from participants, such as this participant in Johnson City, TN, who wrote, “We don’t need condescending, ‘thumb-twiddling’ pastimes. We need community, respect, rigor and real interaction on sophisticated levels with imaginative, involved people who expect us to be the same.” Another wrote, "It's hard to put into words what this class meant to me. I lost my husband in 2008 to lung cancer. I lost myself also. Now I feel hope... you changed the rest of my life!" These are people who participated in an 8 or 10-week workshop series.

Barry:  How would you describe and characterize the infrastructure and the ecosystem of the arts and aging field as it exists today, and where is it strong, and where does it fall short and need improvement?  By infrastructure and ecosystem, I mean the coordination and communication between all those working in this area, the funding mechanisms, the research, the convening and opportunities to exchange information and ideas et. al.

Teresa: Today, this is still a very small field. Systemic support and coordination is most evident through the National Guild for Community Arts Education, which has regularly hosted preconferences and sessions on creative aging at its national conference and plans to build a network and a conference track on creative aging in the future. We are not seeing regular, coordinated national communication by many organizations other than Lifetime Arts and ourselves, which is part of the reason we pulled many resources together on our web site, The National Center for Creative Aging continues to be a resource for those seeking information on creative aging programs.

Barry:  There has been a measurable increase in the public media coverage of the value of, and the efforts behind, the arts and aging movement.  What is the next step in getting the message out even further?

Teresa: Our grantees are playing a big role in this in their local communities. We’ve seen strong press coverage of the programs in a number of communities. National and regional associations of arts organizations will have the opportunity to help tell these stories. We hope to communicate more effectively with the aging services community, including senior housing, to bring these stories of change to many more. 

Ellen: Next Avenue, the PBS platform “where grownups keep growing,” has done a fabulous job of sharing stories of older adults’ excursions into art-making. We’ve made major grants to enable Next Avenue to add this topic as a regular part of their programming. You can read these inspiring stories at

Barry:  Much of the future of the movement to bring the arts to an aging population will depend on government policies, funding and general attitude.  Where do we stand in terms of organizing our advocacy and lobbying efforts in this arena?  Do you have any plans to mount a sort of Aroha’s Army of Arts Advocates to spearhead this kind of effort?

Ellen: What a great idea! We understand the importance of this, but we are a very small foundation and a truly organized policy advocacy initiative is beyond our scope. We could do much more to activate the advocacy of older adults – this population is ripe to contribute to this effort. Perhaps this is something that Americans for the Arts will embrace!

Barry:  What do you see as the biggest obstacles and barriers to increasing your successes, and where do you see the greatest opportunities to expand your successes further?

Teresa: We believe that ageism is at the root of the biggest challenges. Our current culture does not view older adults as creative, vital, interesting contributors. Age is generally equated with disease and decline, not a time of growth and opportunity. Sadly, as people age, they find themselves becoming invisible and viewed as irrelevant – this is a refrain that we hear over and over. As a result, programming designed to help older adults build their assets is simply overlooked.

  Funding is a big obstacle. Funders, like most others, often have ageist attitudes and don’t envision older adults as a priority – despite the fact that if being “older” starts at 55, it can be a 50-year span of time. State arts agencies have the opportunity to lead on this issue. Older adults should be considered of vital importance to their work, particularly given that within 20 years they will account for 1 in 4 or 5 people in this country.

 All of that said, it appears that this movement is trending upward. People who participate in these classes gain so much and want more – they will be advocates for its expansion. 

Barry:  If credible evidence can be mounted that the arts connection to health is valid, and those participating in arts programs are less likely to fall victim to at least certain kinds of illnesses and that they are likely to recover faster when ill, then it would seem that the insurance companies would be very likely willing funders of our efforts as their bottom lines would improve.  Have you or anyone representing the arts yet held any preliminary discussions with insurance companies about their support, and perhaps participation in the research?

Ellen: Again, this is a very good idea, Barry. We highly value research, but our emphasis is on program development, training, capacity-building and advocacy. Given our very small size, we have to stay focused, so this will be for another day. 

Barry:  In the beginning, you were somewhat of a lone voice funding the arts and aging area.  Where is the larger funding community at today in terms of joining your efforts and what are you doing, in addition to your presence and sessions at GIA, AFTA and other convenings and trainings, to recruit other funders?

Teresa: We are sharing the results of our work with other funders and cultivating relationships with those who are interested. We have invited a couple of funders to join us in the museums initiative and hope that they will get involved. Again, we think that state and local arts councils are key to prioritizing this work within the broader arts landscape. If they signal that this is a priority, we believe that their local philanthropic institutions will also begin to think about how they can contribute.

Barry:  Is there an overall or unifying strategy on your part to make sure all of the various arts disciplines are involved in arts and gaining programs and projects.  Not necessarily a quota system, but some kind of plan that systemically involves everyone - dance, theater, visual arts, museums, film, crafts, music?  

Teresa:  We have designed the initiatives and chosen grantees to showcase the ways these programs work with virtually every art form. It’s been a major criteria in choosing grantees, as has geographic and cultural diversity.

  Happily, the grantees have taken this and run with it. They have offered workshop series in so many art forms: jewelry making, 3D printing, graffiti art, songwriting, playwriting, ukulele, dance, video memoir, analog and digital photography, quilting, sculpting and so much more. 

When arts organizations think of programs for older adults, they sometimes think only of writing memoirs or singing songs from the 40s and 50s. While this appeals to many, it’s not for everyone. We want more, better programs!

Barry:  Is there a one stop Clearinghouse Website that incorporates all of the efforts and resources of all of the organizations working in the arts and aging field?  And if not, might that be a project you would consider underwriting?

Teresa: There really isn’t a one-stop shop at this point. We have tried to pull a lot of resources together on our website, including inspiring programs, supportive research, and more, but it is not the comprehensive website that you describe. Such a site would definitely have value, but we also recognize that it will be only as good as the work it takes to keep it updated and current. At this point, we’re not aware of an organization in a position to take this on, and I’m not sure the field is big enough to support yet another stand-alone service organization.

Barry:  Who or what impresses you for their work in this arena?   Where ought we be looking for ideas and inspiration beyond ourselves?

Ellen: We’re inspired by every person who has taken the leap into a creative life and wants to tell their story, as well as every organization that has stepped outside its comfort zone to offer this programming. For most people, this is new territory.

Several organizations have created lasting, vibrant programs, such as MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, which enrolls hundreds of older adult students in group and individual classes; San Francisco Community Music Center, which has collaborated with the City’s aging services divisions and is now receiving city funding; Young@Heart Chorus in Massachusetts, which has been going strong since 1982 and is the subject of an amazing documentary; and Bihl Haus Arts, which has been offering arts programs in senior centers San Antonio, TX, since 2007.

Barry:  Where do you see Aroha in five years?

Ellen: Hopefully, Aroha will have brought in other funders who see the value of creative aging programing. Greater funding streams are critical to keep the work moving forward. We are always seeking innovative ways to bring the inspiring message of creative aging to the greater public. Innovative ways could mean we will have aligned our work with talented artists who believe creative aging is important in all of our lives. It would be wonderful if older adults could share/present their work alongside a known artist’s work in a public performance/exhibition. This would help disseminate the value of creativity to a much larger audience across the United States. We will have aligned ourselves with many, many more national, regional and local organizations who want to do this work. We will have more people in the game working alongside us. 

With what I have just written, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we weren’t needed in five years? Perhaps creative aging programs will become ubiquitous, and arts, senior service and senior residential organizations will know how to offer them successfully!

Thank you Ellen and Teresa.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit