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Artists and Administrators: we really are all on the same team

I’m not sure why Mike Daisey’s article from February 7, 2008 has been making the social media rounds again, but I’m reminded enough of the ire I felt when I first read it in 2008 (and saw his production of “How Theatre Failed America” during NPAC in Denver that same year) that I am back here blogging again.

I’m not going to spill a lot of ink on the article itself or Mr. Daisey’s specific arguments because (1) it was written 6 years ago, before the “Great Recession” hit that autumn and changed much of the landscape, and (2) I feel Mr. Daisey makes so many leaps of ill-focused logic and presumptions that it is a waste of breath to enumerate all the flaws in his argument.

I do worry, however, about the perception that the resurfacing of the article may encourage: that (1) “large” organizations (broad and ranging definition depending on who is speaking) do not care about the art or the artists and (2) arts administrators are evil delusionary autocrats deliberately seeking to cheat artists (“they are a dime a dozen”) and fill their own pockets in the name of supporting the edifice of “the institution.”  Granted, I am an arts administrator, so it would make sense that I would take offense to this…no one, not even the most universally reviled criminals would probably paint themselves as a villain.  However, I have spent almost two decades in the non-profit theatre industry and I have yet to encounter one single person who was deliberately trying to find ways to cheat or devalue artists for their own gain.  The sooner we all stop demonizing each other, the sooner we will start to realize there are numerous theatres existing right now that are trying to do what’s right by all their employees and the communities they serve.  When we do that, we can start talking about what works in various communities, why it works, and how these strategies can be modified and replicated in other communities that haven’t found their model yet.

The first, and most important, thing to note is that we really are all on the same team.  The vast majority of us, artist or administrator, came to this industry through a love of theatre.  We have a deep, burning need to share that love with our communities, to help them know how much more beautifully rich our lives are with theatre in them.  That love is why we put in the umpteen extra hours, work for significantly less pay that we would find in the corporate sector, and (for me, anyway) stay awake at night trying to find more ways to make our employees’ lives better.  In the years since Mr. Daisey wrote the aforementioned article, the answer to that last issue has rarely included increased salaries.  We’ve all spent the last six years finding our balance and learning to be better stewards of the public’s funds (we are, after all, by definition of “non-profit corporation”, in the public trust).  We know that our people are the backbone of our organization and, there is no question, most of our theatres rode out the recession on the backs of our people, artists and staff alike.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned in my career and I hear echoed in the conversations of my peers:

  • Your mission, vision, and values must be your guiding light.
  • Great employees (artists and admin) are the only way any organization survives, much less thrives
  • All great employees should be valued, regardless of title or union affiliation
  • Respect is the Golden Rule.  Why on earth would anyone put up with everything else related to working in non-profit theatre if they weren’t at the very least respected for their unique contribution?
  • When there is a choice, you should always prioritize people (we will give raises rather than getting a color copier until all our employees are paid fairly)
  • Sometimes it does come down to “we have to fix the air conditioner” and there is no other choice.
  • It is almost never a question of black and white; so many factors go into every decision (budget, casting, marketing, staffing) it is always a matter of degrees, timing, and competing priorities.
  • Transparency should be the law of the land.  Without accurate information folks are free to jump to whatever conclusions pop into their brains, just as Mr. Daisey did.
  • You have to bring in more revenue before you expand the budget.
  • Breakeven is never good enough.  We’ve allowed ourselves (often encouraged by funders) to believe that if we aren’t “re-investing” every penny we make this year into this year’s expenses then we are not using our funds wisely (and we don’t need their funding).  We must eradicate this thinking.  It is only by establishing cash reserves (not endowments) that we can take the artistic and programmatic risks we all want to support.
  • It should not be a question of “if” but “when.”  Just because you can’t fulfill the organizations wildest dreams (or even more pedestrian ones) tomorrow doesn’t mean you give up and condemn “the administration” for killing your dreams.  It does mean you need to plan out how to take all the steps needed between where you are and where you want to be.  We’ve all been so busy making sure our checks didn’t bounce, it has been hard to lift our eyes to the horizon and even think about dreams.  I’m encouraged by the fact that I am hearing more and more conversations about strategic planning and mapping out strategies to move our organizations to the next level (including the next level of support for our people).

I honestly believe that most often the fault lies not in administrators’ motivations, nor even in the specific budgetary priorities of an organization, but rather in a severe lack of transparency.  Without transparency, there can be no appropriate oversight.  Without transparency, you lose vital opportunities.  Without transparency, there can be no trust.

Articles like Mike Daisey’s encourage and support a culture of fear in an industry where our best work can only be created in a safe environment.  We, as administrators, must lead the way to reverse this culture of fear and the surest way to do this is by sharing what you know and all the plans.  By doing so, we invite in every person in the organization to be part of the solution.  We are better together.  In fact, we can only exist as a team.  Let’s stop fighting and start working towards a better artistic world for us all.

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2014 in Arts management, risk-taking, theatre

 

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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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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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Fiscal responsibility: the sine qua non of general operating support

During the last few weeks of complete radio silence on this blog, I’ve been getting my brain wrapped around my new position as Managing Director at The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA.  Thank you all for your patience with me!

Just because I haven’t been writing doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking and tweeting (@amywratchford) about all the issues and opportunities around our industry.  One thing that has been top-of-mind for me lately is the general lack of General Operating Support (GOS) in our industry.  I’ve heard over and over from theatres and arts organizations that GOS is what they need, and I know the funders are hearing it too.  And yet we continue to see a preponderance of project funding and a scarcity of GOS.  This has gotten to the point where projects are specifically created in order to attract funding, even when basic financial needs of the company are not being met.  We, as an industry, tend to shake our fists and rage against out-of-touch funders who won’t recognize what would truly help us be sustainable.  I, however, think we only have ourselves to blame.

We have trained the foundations and major donors to give us project-based support.  In fact, we’ve trained them on multiple levels:

  • A consistent inability to talk about why we matter outside of the impact of specific projects
  • A consistent approach to documentation, especially financial documentation, of only sending what they ask for and then only in the broadest possible terms
  • Avoidance of explanations of how stable (or not) we are as organizations and what we are doing to make ourselves better (I mean this from a fiscal as well as an organizational/managerial standpoint)
  • A general lack of drilling down to details about who our audience is, how we will reach them, and how we expect to impact them
  • Avoidance of long-term strategic planning (which would make fixing the two bullets immediately preceding actually feasible)

In 2009 in Atlanta, we saw a funder take the leap into the great unknown of GOS.  The Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund (MAAF) listened to the organizations they had supported for years with capacity building grants and heeded the call to convert their funding to GOS.  As Executive Director Lisa Cremin stated when MAAF announced the changes, this was not an easy decision nor was it a cinch for the Board of MAAF to feel at ease with judging who was worthy of what level of GOS.  Lisa said again and again that MAAF had to look at the overall picture of the organization, they had to buy into the company’s plan.  How, I ask you, can we demand that funders provide us support that is open ended in terms of uses if we cannot communicate that plan?  And, how can we truly create that plan if we can’t even speak internally about the realities of the challenges and opportunities that face us on a fiscal and organizational level?  It is our responsibility to define our paradigm and then clearly communicate that to potential funders and constituents of all kinds.  I won’t even go into the impact of fiscal and organizational transparency on the staff, artists, and volunteers of an organization, that is for another post!

If we want General Operating Support, we must be generally and specifically accountable for where we are and where we are going.  Only then can we begin to ease the terror that funders feel when thinking about donating large sums of money to which no specific project tied.  Once we get our ducks in a row then, and only then, can we begin to petition for GOS in earnest.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts!

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2010 in Arts management, theatre

 

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Is your ideal customer on your Board?

I’ve been thinking more about this ideal customer idea and how it relates to the non-profit arts.  We actually have an advantage over for-profit ventures, we could have our ideal customer as a key advisor.  We could have them on our Board.  But, do we?  We spend so much time thinking about what slots we need to fill on the board: deep pockets, corporate contacts, fundraising experience, marketing expertise, finance, real estate, law.  What about an ideal customer?

Do any of y’all have someone on your board that could be the poster child for your company’s ideal customer?  If so, are you talking to them about what brought them to you & what keeps them coming back?  Are you picking their brain on a regular basis about where they get their information and how they share it?  If you don’t have this person on the Board, do you know someone in your patron base you should be courting?

Let me know your thoughts on this!

 

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Everyone is on the team, or, Marketing is not a dirty word

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I’m reading The Referral Engine by John Jantsch (and LOVING it).  The book is about how to build a system that gets your company consistently talked about and recommended by all who come in contact with it.  In the theatre we don’t often think about our patrons as “referring” others to us, but that is exactly what they are (or should be) doing and this book is just as applicable to our work as it is to a general contractor.  I’ll probably post a few notes relating back to this book, but this first one is prompted by something Jantsch talks about on page 19 (yep, it gets good early).  Here’s the direct quote:

Teaching every new employee everything you can about your organization’s marketing strategy, marketing plan, positioning, messaging, ideal customer, products, services, and brand attributes just makes sense when it comes to creating ambassadors for the organization…

… Smart companies make sure every employee understands how to spot an ideal customer, how to properly introduce the company’s story, and how to spot trigger phrases prospective customers use, and clues they give, that mark them as potential ideal customers, even if selling isn’t a part of that employee’s job description.

This basic training should be implemented at the outset and consistently and repeatedly reinforced.

This should be taken even further within an arts organization.  Not only should this information be communicated to employees, it should be part of the orientation for the board, our artists and technicians, and all volunteers.  In fact, I propose that every time Jantsch uses the word “staff” or “employee” throughout the book, we should automatically include board, artists, technicians, and volunteers.  We need to be harnessing the power of everyone that contributes to our organization.

I know what you are thinking, “What actor/designer/carpenter/usher is going to take time to read our marketing plan?”  The answer is, they won’t.  So, it is our job to get this information to them in a simple, engaging, easy-to-spread way and to give it to them in bite-sized pieces over time.  Here are some ideas, please share your own in the comments:

  • Find your “one word” (from Dave Charest) and use it to sharpen everyone’s focus
  • At the initial orientation (and in the information packet you should be providing already) include a section about marketing:  what’s your org’s voice? where are you maintaining a presence (online and off)? who is your ideal customer?
  • Make everyone’s role in marketing EXPLICIT.  Most people can’t take hints.  Tell them straight-out that they are the front lines of communication for the organization and that it is essential that they share their knowledge and love of the company.
  • Provide everyone with timely and consistent updates on how the marketing strategy is going.  You are probably already providing a financial “dashboard” to the board at each meeting.  It is time to do the same for marketing, but don’t save it just for the board!  Let your staff, artists, technicians, and volunteers know exactly what is happening with your most important measures (ticket sales, Facebook friends, email click-throughs, promotion redemptions, re-tweets, blog mentions, Google ranking, etc.)  Pick 4 things you are going to track and have specific goals that you can communicate your progress on clearly and consistently.
  • Highlight folks in the organization that are going the extra mile to spread the word.  We already do this for our major donors, it is time recognize the evangelists in our organization at the same level.

Marketing is not a dirty word, it is the life blood of engaging folks in our organizations.  It isn’t about the hard sell, it isn’t about interruption and pushing.  It is about communication and desire fulfillment.  How we sell the idea of marketing to our potential evangelists is as important to our success as how well we sell tickets.  Go forth and market!

 

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Give and Get, vital to the board promise for any theatre’s board of directors

I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about the role of a board member within a theatre company’s board of directors and how the Board Promise successfully (or not) communicates that role.  In case you couldn’t tell from the title of this post, I am a HUGE supporter of including a formal, specific dollar amount within the board promise as a “Give and Get.”

Most theatres refer to this a give or get, but I think the and is the most important part of the phrase.  It may help my budgeting and ease the cash flow to know that you, as a board member, will be writing a $3,000 check to cover your financial responsibility.  However, it is actually much more useful to the theatre in the long run to get your friends to buy tickets to the productions and become invested in our future; get your company to sponsor a show, buy a table sponsorship at an event, or feature the theatre on your intranet; get your book club, mom’s group, Rotary Club, Toastmaster’s club, or any other to host a group at a show and have a networking reception before or after.

I think the problem is clear and the solution is also a vote in favor of a formal Give and Get.  The aversion most boards and organizational leadership have to the concrete number lies in the confusion around it’s purpose.  They say the board members will be scared off.  A lot of the responsibility for this confusion lies with the staff and leadership of the organization.  We spend so much time focusing on the board’s role as fundraisers that we completely neglect their role as marketers.  (why do you think it is that so many boards have nominal marketing committees that never find their feet?  It is because we don’t teach the board to market the way we do to fundraise.)

Yes, we need the board promise to state that the financial contribution of each board member needs to be one of the top philanthropic donations for the year (I like top three).  But, we need to get better at communicating (and tracking) the work the board members can do regarding marketing.  We can’t turn people into donors without getting them invested in our work.  Whether or not a member of the board can write a large check, their main duty is to evangelize for the company.  I would rather have a member without deep pockets who spreads our mission far and wide than someone who writes a big check once a year and never tells a soul about our work.  Of course, it is nice to have well-resourced evangelists, too!

What are you doing with your board?

ADDENDUM:  Just read this great article Chicago Business (powered by Crain’s) on why executive choose to (0r not to) join a board.

 

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