Hire for Human Connection: Lessons from Trader Joe’s

Trader JoesI recently read this post about one woman’s emotional connection to the guys who work at Trader Joe’s.  Yes, the end made me cry, but the piece also reminded me of all the reasons I love Trader Joe’s.  Sure, they have good gluten-free spaghetti for 80% less than Kroger, but it is more than that.  Much more.  As the author of that post highlights, every time I walk into a Trader Joe’s I feel seen.  I feel like I am a human being recognized by other human beings.  I feel like I’m welcomed and appreciated and acknowledged.  All of this simply from eye contact, a smile, and a hello?  Yep, that’s the magic of Trader Joe’s.

I can’t say that I get that same feeling when I walk into most theatre lobbies and offices.  Why is that?  What does Trader Joe’s have that our theatres don’t?  They are just as busy (or more so) as we are but they create a completely different atmosphere.

I went to the source: a friend who works at my customer service Mecca.  I asked, “What is it?  How do they train you?  What materials do they give you?  How do you create this amazing environment in what could just be a crowded grocery store?”

His answer?  “It is really about the hiring process.”

Really?  Just hiring?  No sample scripts?  No role playing?  No complicated brainwashing?

Really.  They put the most energy into what Jim Collins calls “getting the right people in the right seats on the bus.”  Each potential hire is interviewed by 3 or 4 people.  They are looking for innate qualities of kindness and human connection, not lines on a resume.  They don’t do much training at all.  As my friend said, “it is hard to teach someone to be warm and friendly.”  The fit is the thing.

I’ve read that so many times over the years but too often we hire for one of three reasons:

  1. They are our friends
  2. They are the person available and we don’t want a hole in the organization
  3. They have tactical experience, regardless of “soft” skills

Not everyone is the right fit for every organization and it takes discipline to hire for fit and not for “we think they can do the job.”  It takes fortitude (and everyone pitching in) to keep a position open until you find that right person.  And it takes courage to make a change if you make the wrong hire.  But, just as with the good-to-great companies in Jim Collins’ book, that is the essential first step to becoming a great organization.  You can have the clearest vision for the company possible, but if you don’t have the right people in the right seats, you aren’t going to achieve that vision.  Compromising on who you hire is the first step to mediocrity.

We also need to work on the other thing my friend mentioned about Trader Joe’s:  they take care of their people.  Yes, that means good pay, 401(k), vacation time, holidays off.  Even more than those, he says Management is encouraged to care for the “whole employee.”  They treat each other with as much respect and humanity as they treat their customers.

Theatres are (can be) community-building, inside and out.  The relationship that can form betwixt and between audience members and artists is beautiful.  What Trader Joe’s shows us is that this human connection isn’t the sole purview of the theatrical production.  We can build community from the very first contact of someone walking into the box office, the classroom, or the administrative offices.  We can build it among ourselves within our offices, conference rooms, and rehearsal halls.  In order to do that you have to bring your humanity to work and welcome the humanity of those who enter our potentially magical spaces.  Connection is a vital thing to our well-being.  Let’s not wait for the show to make that connection.  It starts with us.

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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Choices: A response to Louis C.K.

This may seem off topic, but it has been on my mind and I want to write about it.

If you’ve spent any time on social media in the past week or so, you’ve probably seen this bit from Louis C.K. on why he hates smartphones.  A lot of my friends are posting (and reposting) it and I understand why.  Louis C.K. is witty and articulate and what he says is real.  If you look around you can see evidence that supports his argument.  

But, you know what?  We all have a choice of what we give our attention to.  Do you know what I see?  

I see the boys on my son’s peewee football team, on which he is one of four second-string players, helping, encouraging, and teaching him.  I see children at my kids’ school supporting each other as they figure out together how to deal with conflict.  I see colleagues at the ASC, friends at Rotary, and folks in the community reaching out and helping each other in tiny and enormous ways.  I see our theatre community sharing, communicating, and collaborating with each other in ways and on a scale that would have been unthinkable a dozen years ago.  This is all real too.

Have you noticed that when you are irritated more irritated people show up in your world?  Which reality do you want to promote?  What do you want more of in your life?  Recognize that you are making the choice.  If you want more disconnection, keep posting that video, keep telling that story.  I know what I want.  I choose joy.



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Posted by on September 25, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Interviewing for the big job

Michael Kaiser’s recent article in the Huffington Post got me thinking about what skills we need to make sure the future leaders of our arts organizations have; how can we help them be prepared to take the reins?  Then last week a friend asked for advice on interviewing for her first Executive Director position.  I’ve talked through this process with other friends over the years but this is the first time I’ve written it all down.  Much of this advice is applicable to the second round of interviews, but it is all good to think about even before your first talk with your potential new artistic home.  I hope this gives some framework to what I feel is important knowledge for an incoming ED/MD to have.

Interviewing for the job of Executive or Managing Director

Remember, you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you; you need to make sure you go into any ED or MD position with your eyes wide open. They may not have everything in formal written form, but what they do have will give you a good idea of the infrastructure you would be jumping into.

  1. Most recent two years’ financial reports (Income Statement vs. Budget, Balance Sheet, and Cash Flow) … what is their revenue split between earned & contributed?  Do they have consistent earned revenue or have their ticket/event sales been erratic?  Within contributed, how much is in grants, corporate, government, and individual?  Are funds from a capital campaign artificially inflating their Balance Sheet or are they making the numbers work on the operating side in a straightforward manner?
  2. Current budget (and cash flow projections for the fiscal year if they have them; it would be very helpful to know how cyclical their cash flow is and what they currently do when faced with cash troughs)
  3. Latest audit
  4. Current Strategic Plan
  5. Development and Marketing plans for the current year.  What has been their approach to marketing, both event and institutional?  Do they see any issues with their current branding or brand awareness? (or do you?)
  6. If they don’t have a formal written development plan, then you’ll need to ask if they have any special campaigns going on right now or planned in the near future (is there a balloon debt they are going to need to retire in the next two years?  Do they have their hearts set on an endowment?  That sort of thing.)  What is the average individual gift? ($200k in $50 increments takes a whole heck of a lot of time & work!)  What is their current rate of retention for patrons and donors (churn) year over year?
  7. Ask about their Board structure: number of Directors, term limits, standing committees, how active are they?  Do they have a formal Board Promise or a specific give & get?  How much of the annual fundraising comes from the Board?  What kind of pipeline do they have for future Board members?  What will be your role in cultivating new members?  What is the term for the Board Chair? (will you be training a new Board Chair as you are learning the ropes yourself?)  What is the Board orientation process?
  8. Do the ED and AD report directly to the Board?  Are both leaders voting members of the Board?  What evaluation process do they have for the executive leadership?
  9. How big is the staff and how much is the Board a “working” board?  What about performance evaluations for the rest of the staff?

Be ready to talk about your experience with fundraising A LOT.  Be sure to have examples demonstrating your comfort level with engaging folks of all backgrounds in conversation and communicating the mission.  Be ready, if asked, to give feedback on their current marketing messages & materials.  Also, give thought to where you would want to focus when you first join the team:

  • Does their budget process need to be revamped? (are they consistently coming in under projections?  Do they have an accumulated deficit?)
  • Is there a segment of their audience that needs more attention?  Have their communications been consistent?  Have they become stale?
  • Do they need to go into a strong Board development phase?
  • What role does the AD currently play in fundraising and how can you use her/his “stardust” to the greatest impact?

Do your homework and you will know if you and the organization are the right fit.  You will also show your potential employers that you are serious about the commitment you will all be making to each other if a job is offered and accepted.

As I mentioned in my earlier post on the next generation of arts leaders, if you are an emerging leader and you see items in this list that confuse you or areas in which you know you need more experience, start now.  Join a non-profit Board to see things from the other side.  Take fundraising and/or marketing courses.  Take a look at the Nonprofit Finance Fund and BoardSource for help in beefing up your financial and Board relations understanding (also, read Governance as Leadership.  Really.  Do it now.).  The great thing about being a Managing or Executive Director is that you get to be involved in every facet of the administrative side of the business.  The hard thing about being a Managing or Executive Director is that you need to be familiar and comfortable with every facet of the administrative side of the business.

Please continue this conversation in the comments below!


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Learning from Arena Stage: Budgeting for capital and programmatic success

This article came out in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago about Arena Stages’ inability to hold up the promise of full productions of new American plays in their Kogod Cradle space.  It is a well-written article about promises made at the beginning of a triple-digit million dollar capital campaign compared to realities nine years (and an economic crash) later.  Those more enmeshed in the world of new plays have written far more eloquently on the impact of the programmatic changes at Arena than I could.  What struck me most keenly about this situation comes on the last page of the article:

Rocky finances are commonly cited as complicating Arena’s current programming choices. As of this summer, Arena continued to carry $16 million of what could be called “expansion drag,” debt from the fundraising shortfall around the refurbishment.


In this, Arena is hardly alone. Recently the University of Chicago released its study Set in Stone, which starkly chronicles the debt and post-opening revenue shortfalls endured nationwide by new or expanded museums and performing arts complexes between 1994 and 2008. Of a timetable to retire the debt, Smith says, “We’re always hopeful.”

If you are planning to build/refurbish a facility and haven’t read Set in Stone, I suggest you do it now.  These are problems we can fix.  Here are a few points I think are key to “doing it right” so that you can fulfill the promises to your mission, your trustees, your employees and artists, and your community:

  1. Resist the urge to cut the capital budget to bare bones:  I know everyone wants to get that capital campaign nut down as small as possible so that the feasibility studies say you can get it done.  However, if you cut things like paying down debt, operating cash cushion, cash reserve / risk capital (or, if you must, an endowment), and construction contingencies you are asking for trouble.  Those “add-ons” to the bricks-and-mortar budget aren’t sexy enough for a campaign of their own, as many organizations who have tried a “follow up” campaign have learned all too well.  If you can’t raise the money to fund it right then you should wait.  By rushing the process you are not only putting the organization at risk, you are mortgaging your future and the future of those artists and leaders who are coming behind you.  
  2. Don’t go public with your campaign too early.  The old rule of thumb was to announce when you were 60% of the way to your goal.  These days I wouldn’t announce a campaign until at least 90% (perhaps 95%) of the needed funds were raised.  Information travels at the speed of light now.  Once you announce your project people will want to see progress continuously.  A major capital campaign is not IndieGoGo, but many of your constituents (and the press) will expect the same speed of resolution once you make your plans public.
  3. Don’t break ground too early.  Related, but equally important, to #2.  I’ve seen many an arts organization decide to start building once the funds for the bricks-and-mortar portion have been raised mistakenly believing that the sight of the progress on the edifice will inspire additional giving.  Again, if you start this ball rolling before you’ve raised the “add-ons” mentioned above, chances are (as Arena found) you aren’t going to raise them.
  4. Consider the impact of a capital campaign on your unrestricted contributed operating revenue.  Is contributed revenue currently a significant component of your annual operating budget?  Make sure you consider the fact that a major capital campaign can severely cannibalize your unrestricted general operating donations.  This trend may not recover for a few years after the new facility is running.  Too many organizations actually plan for the opposite: a new building will inspire new donors!  Remember, new donors take cultivation.  All those new patrons that will come when you build it aren’t going to automatically jump to the top of the cultivation ladder.
  5. It is always more expensive than you think.  In addition to resisting the urge to cut the capital budget, you must also plan for higher operating expenses and lower operating revenue than you hope.  Plus, build a percentage of your first two years’ operating expenses into the capital budget.  Even if your conservative estimates show you breaking even or better in your first year of operation, you need that cushion.  If you plan this way, the worst that could happen is that you have higher net income than budgeted and put the cushion into an account to fund artistic risk. 

It is possible to have exciting new facilities without killing the artistic output, or worse, the organization itself.   We don’t have to be slaves to our buildings.  It may not be the fast track, blaze of glory path, but we can run successful business and take artistic risk at the same time.  


Posted by on November 5, 2012 in Arts management, funding, theatre


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Enlightened and Inspired Funding from the Nonprofit Finance Fund and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation

In nonprofit theatre, folks spend a lot of time talking about how the “model is broken.”  That phrase is bandied about referring to the production model, the business model, the funding model, you name it.  Within all the broken talk, there are a few brave souls actually testing new models.  The Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) are two of these brave souls.

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a webinar hosted by Rodney Christopher & Rebecca Thomas of NFF on their “Leading for the Future” initiative, supported by DDCF (check out the webinar slides and video).   The presentation also featured Cynthia Hedstrom and Jamie Proskin from The Wooster Group and Amanda Nelson and Thomas Cott from Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation.  I’m thankful to NFF for posting the video; the presentations were fast and furious with a lot of great information. (some of which I missed the first time around due to live tweeting!)

I’ve been following the information NFF has released over the past year regarding this incredible initiative.  If you haven’t yet read “The Case for Change Capital” or watched the video case studies, I highly recommend them.  I hope this project is a sign of things to come.

For those new to the Change Capital and Leading for the Future conversation, NFF and DDCF have teamed up to provide up to $1 million to each of 10 arts organizations “intended to allow participants to take transformative rather than incremental steps to remain artistically relevant, effective and excellent while ensuring long-term financial viability.”  The capital is meant to be expended over the course of four or five years.  Some organizations are using the funds to grow, some to shrink, some to reach new audiences in new ways, one organization is using the capital to responsibly wrap up their operations.  There are a number of revolutionary components to this funding model:

  1. The size of the grant allows for truly transformative change.  NFF and DDCF are not asking for the moon while only providing enough funds for a trip to the beach.
  2. The massive investment is funded from one source; the organizations did not have to cobble together 15-20 different small or mid-sized grants in order to make this happen.  I believe this not only saves organizational energy from searching for, courting, and applying for separate funding, it also saves the proposed transformation from too many cooks in the kitchen.
  3. The choice of how best to achieve transformational change was left to the organizations, with technical assistance and professional consultation from NFF.  Allowing the organizations to chart their own future and adjust their course as the funding period proceeded means the folks on the ground, witnessing the actual impact of the changes are the ones steering the ship.  Plus, they are fully invested in their destination.
  4. The time period is long enough to allow the organizations to build up to sustainability, with the acknowledgement that there probably would be deficits as they made changes and then grew into their new structure.  I’ve seen a few grantors provide funding for new or expanded positions at arts organizations.  However, these are often at most two-year programs.  Expecting a small or mid-sized arts organization to go from not having money for a $50k/year Development Director to having enough surplus to not only cover that salary but also all the other incremental costs that come along with that investment (not to mention all the other incremental increases in costs we all face every year) in only two years can be too much for many organizations to handle.  If you want true, sustainable change, you have to allow time to grow into your new skin.
  5. It encourages strategic risk at the exact time we as arts organizations are fighting the urge to buckle down and hide from the financial uncertainty.  It is taking advantage of what Jerry Yoshitomi called “an unfreezing moment.”  These chances have to be seized before everything finds its new baseline.

Back in late 2008 / early 2009 a lot of us in nonprofit theatre were speculating that those who made it through this recession were going to come out the other side stronger, leaner, and more resilient.  I think that is proving to be true.  However, just as Michael Kaiser suggested in The Art of the Turnaround that those who manage through turnarounds must be careful to not keep too tight a fist when stability is reclaimed, we must now begin to look at how we will not just survive but explode the status quo with revolutionary models of our own.  Who knows, maybe this is just the beginning of a tide of change capital to help us all transform into what we are next meant to be.


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Misguided Means to Unintended Ends: Portland’s arts diversification plan

This article came across my Twitter stream this afternoon and immediately piqued my interest.  On the surface, a city like Portland linking funding for arts organizations to racial diversification of their boards, staff, contractors, and eventually audience sounds like an innovative and progressive idea.  Diversification of voices around the table is a good thing and we should all invite a variety of voices to the conversation.  However, linking vital public funding to blanket benchmarks can’t be healthy.  While I understand this policy is still in its infancy and “years from completion,” the information covered in the article is plenty to make me wary.

Here are some of my concerns:

  • Arts organizations, their missions and their audiences, are as diverse as the city itself.  Suggesting that every organization should be striving for the same benchmarks goes against the very reason they are distinct organizations in the first place.
  • What about organizations that are not producing work that speaks to a large and diverse audience?  We, as an industry, have decried funders dictating programming for decades.  Is it OK here because diversity for diversity’s sake is seen as a good end result?  There should be room in a vibrant arts ecosystem for niche companies and each of those will serve a different audience.  You can’t force an audience to be interested in a type of programming and you shouldn’t force an organization serving a distinct audience to turn from its mission in order to secure public funds.
  • Requiring a certain level of spending (30% of their budget is the “ideal” mentioned in the article) on communities of color is misguided.  How would this play out?
    • Do the Mayor and City Commissioners understand that each dollar an arts organization spends is already stretched to the limit and that few companies can simply divert funds in this way?
    • Does this mean a forced quota for staff, artists, and contractors?  What happened to allowing companies to hire the best person for the job, regardless of ethnicity?
    • Throwing marketing money at underserved communities may be the antithesis of actual engagement of these communities
  • Why just enforce ethnic diversity?  I’m willing to bet that there isn’t a direct correlation between the gender split of the staff and boards of Portland’s arts organizations and the population of the city as a whole.  What about gay voices at the table?  The disabled community?  Religious beliefs?  Socio-economic status?  Diversity comes in all shapes and sizes and each organization daily contends with reaching out to those audiences who could be interested in their work.

Instead of making arts organizations jump through ever more hoops to reach benchmarks unrelated to their mission, how about some of these ideas:

  • Rewarding organizations for diving deep into the communities to which a company’s programming speaks?
  • Judge an organization on their dedication to fulfilling their mission and the steps they take to engage and broaden their audience in ways that make sense for them?
  • Celebrate diversity in all its forms within the arts community

I applaud the Portland city leadership for looking for ways to encourage diversity.  I just fear they are heading down a path that will be detrimental for all involved.  As always, I’d love to know what you think.  Please continue this conversation in the comments below.


Posted by on February 27, 2012 in Advocacy, theatre


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Time to Wake Up – Contributed Revenue Growth

This afternoon my Rotary club listened to a presentation by Rep. Bob Goodlatte.  The talk was primarily about the Federal budget (or, as he put it, lack thereof).  I could debate various specifics from the talk, but the point that was most interesting to me was the fact that 42% of the Federal budget is currently funded by debt.  FORTY-TWO PERCENT.  Add to that a fact that I already knew, that only 35% of the Federal budget is discretionary, and you have a serious problem (I know, this is not new news).  If you were previously refusing to acknowledge that Federal funding for the arts is an endangered species, it is time to wake up.  The facts above make it obvious that even with increased tax revenue, there have to be severe cuts in all budget areas if the Federal government is going to stabilize financially.

So, the question that remains is what to do about it.  Up to this point we, as an industry, have been spending a good deal of time and money on trying to fight this inevitable change.  Meetings with and letters to legislators, meetings with and letters to Board members and donors to encourage them to write and meet with legislators, attendance at conferences and arts lobbying days on Capitol Hill, receptions, lunches, dinners, etc., etc.

What would happen if we took even 50% of the time and money currently devoted to the concerted attempt to not let what has become a tiny trickle of funding disappear and, instead, put it toward the only growth sector of contributed revenue: the individual donor.  Building a strong, sustainable revenue stream with individual donors is not rocket science, but it does require our time.  Time to meet individually with donors and discover what fuels their sense of ownership of our organizations.  Time to cultivate that sense of ownership in new patrons who will become tomorrow’s donors.  Time to  listen, respond, and cultivate the myriad ties that bind folks to the work we do.  What would happen to your individual contributed revenue if you took 32 hours (the equivalent of four working days that would have otherwise been spent travelling to DC to meet with legislators, or any of the other things listed above) and spread those hours out over the course of a year by adding 32 one-on-one meetings with donors you wouldn’t otherwise have had the time to do?

We all calculate (or should) Lifetime Value (LTV) for our donors and patrons.  Compare those results to the projected LTV of NEA funding for your individual organization.  This is simple math, folks.  Wake up and focus on your community.

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Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Advocacy, theatre


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