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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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Social Media Guidelines: help your bloggers and tweeters help you

At the American Shakespeare Center, we are getting ready to expand our social media footprint.  Internally, this plan has met with a rich combination of excitement and concern.  What happens when we let our ASC family loose on Twitter, YouTube, and blogs?  How can we make sure that we are all representing the ASC in a way that enhances our brand and deepens the conversation with all our communities?  In order to help ease fears and to help our social media volunteers feel supported, I began putting together social media guidelines.

Besides guidelines, we also felt it necessary to be clear on our goal for this social media outreach.  This is what we determined:

The overarching goal of all our social media outreach is to spread the word about what a fantastic organization this is and the passionate, compelling work that goes on in the Playhouse, office, classrooms, and on the road.  Also, to engage in conversation about who we are, what we do, why we do it the way we do, what we are learning, how much fun we are having, and what is going on in the industry.

After a lot of conversation on Twitter, I’ve decided to post our guidelines here.  Let me know what you think and feel free to pass on anything you find useful.

These guidelines were compiled with help from the guidelines of Intel, as published in Engage! by Brian Solis, and Time Warner Cable, as published in the Fast Company article, “Corporate Social Media Policies: The Good, the Mediocre, and the Ugly” (http://www.fastcompany.com/1668368/social-media-policies-the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly).

Social Media Guidelines for the American Shakespeare Center

We are excited about the potential for engaging our current and potential audience through social media.  The connections made possible through blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and other social networks allow for a more direct conversation with all the people who love us already and those who would like to hear about us.  We hope that you will want to join us in these conversations and we want you to feel prepared when you do.  Below are a few guidelines to help everyone engage in a way that supports the brand values of the American Shakespeare Center: serious fun, life-long learning, community, and great language.

  • Transparency is vital. Whether you are communicating on an official ASC channel or not, please know that you represent the American Shakespeare Center.  It is best to include a mention of your connection in your profile and also mention it when posting comments on blogs that are related to what we do.
  • Private vs. Public. Don’t publish confidential or other proprietary information.  Anything having to do with legal, internal personnel, or confidential financial matters should never be discussed outside of appropriate internal communications.  Follow copyright, fair use and financial disclosure laws.
  • Write what you know. Stick to your area of expertise and provide unique, individual perspectives on what’s going on at the ASC and in the world.
  • Learn from others. Use the web to find out who else is blogging or publishing on a topic of particular interest and cite those individuals, including links to their work.
  • Ask before you speak. Don’t cite or reference clients, partners or suppliers without their prior approval. When a reference is made, where possible, link back to the source.
  • The web is a permanent record. Items posted online will likely be indexed by search engines and copied by other sites, so it can remain public and associated with you even if the original post is deleted. Post with care.
  • Be professional. Treat others with the utmost respect in your conversations.  Ethnic slurs, personal insults, foul language, or conduct that would not be acceptable in our offices should not be used.
  • Give the benefit of the doubt. Most everyone is doing the best they can with the knowledge they have.  Please assume that they meant no ill will until proven otherwise and then see the next guideline.
  • Avoid the trolls. Refrain from engaging in heated discussion and use good judgment when expressing opinions that may pose a potential conflict. Do not post angry comments or attack individuals engaging in the discussion.  If someone attacks you, reply politely and disengage.
  • Play nice. Do not insult or disparage ASC, its productions or offerings, or any fellow employees, even if specific names are not mentioned.  The same goes for other theatres or “competitors” of any kind.
  • Proof your work. Knowing that the web often takes on a more casual tone, please remember that language is part of the bedrock of our mission.  Read it over before you post and keep in mind the writing guidelines Ralph put together.
  • If it gives you pause, pause. Please don’t post something that you would not say openly to a room full of patrons, donors, and strangers.  If you are about to publish something that makes you even the slightest bit uncomfortable, stop and think.  Ultimately, what you publish is yours, as is the responsibility.  Also, do not alter previous posts without indicating that you have done so.
 

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Are public competitions good for arts funding?

Over the past month or so there has been a lot of talk (online and off) about competitions like Chase Community Giving.  I missed my chance to add my voice on the 2AM Theatre blog a few weeks ago because I go to sleep too early but last night’s tweet from Lincoln Center regarding American Express’ Members Project brought a lot of my feelings back to the surface.

While I could use this space to talk about how no company, including arts organizations, should allow anyone to tweet for them without implementing social media guidelines (like “don’t bash the competition”), I’ll save that for next week.  Right now I want to talk about whether all this focus on public competitions is a good thing for arts funding.  My knee-jerk reaction to the Chase program is no.  I’ve always disliked popularity contests and I don’t think that continuously asking for votes is the way to build the relationships our organizations need in order to sustain once the spotlight of Chase moves on.  It is superficial and cheap and has the potential to wear thin on our constituents (especially with Chase where you needed to keep the votes coming in throughout the run of the contest).

I can completely see why it makes sense to the companies running the competitions.  Chase would never have received anywhere near the same amount of exposure had they simply sponsored 200 events or hand-picked 200 grant recipients.  Every time an organization asked for a vote, there was Chase’s logo and the blue hand.  In fact, I often had to look twice to figure out which organization was asking for my vote, but I always knew it was Chase.

Then came the ill-advised Lincoln Center tweet.  This turned attention on the American Express Members Project.  Perhaps I shouldn’t blame AmEx for the misguided Lincoln Center communication, but I have a serious problem with funding mechanisms that pit one organization against another in this public fashion.

While discussing this issue on Twitter earlier today, Aaron Andersen pointed me to his post about the psychological underpinnings for the way we respond to these situations.  Aaron writes about how, once a company was officially in the top 200, the situation changed from “Chase’s money that we might win” to “our money to lose.”  The trick with the AmEx contest (and why I think the Lincoln Center tweeter said what they did) is that all the organizations chosen to be in the running automatically had “money to lose.”  The us-against-them idea is inherent.  There isn’t even a way to play the system by working together as the storefront theatres in Chicago did with Chase.  Cooperation gets you nowhere with the AmEx Members Project.

I worry that a continuation and/or expansion of this type of competition is tailor-made to erode the progress our industry has seen over these past two, very difficult, years.  We’ve learned to cooperate and collaborate out of necessity and the call from our foundation grantors that we need to work together more.  Corporate money has all but disappeared from our income statements as corporate philanthropy departments are shuttered and sponsorships have dried up.  Will we sabotage our partnerships with our sister companies (and our foundation funding) for the bright sparkle of these high-profile contests?  Is there a way for corporations to get the ROI they are looking for on their philanthropic endeavors without making us compete for “friends” and eye each other’s tactics suspiciously?  Am I naive to think that in a time when reality TV reigns and everyone is looking for a way to let the audience feel they are part of the process we could possibly hope that corporations would look seriously at a non-profit’s financial and organizational stability and/or programmatic strength when making funding decisions?

Let me know your thoughts.

 

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You are not for all markets: Embracing niche marketing

In my last post I talked briefly about creating the profile of what John Jantsch calls the “ideal customer.”  (Yep, another post inspired by The Referral Engine)  In the theatre world we tend to shy away from the idea of creating one customer profile because we like to think that, if we could just get them in the door, most people would love what we do.  Please, keep believing that.  Hope springs eternal.  However, think about the power (and return on investment) of taking a smidgen of your marketing plan and focusing it on your true, core, ideal patron.

As an example, I’ll profile who I think is the ideal customer of Synchronicity Theatre:

  • Female
  • Professional
  • Well-educated
  • Household income of $75,000 or above
  • age 30-60
  • liberal
  • active member of a socio-political civic organization and/or corporate women’s affinity group
  • living within the neighborhoods surrounding 7 Stages Theatre

Think about the focus this provides to the marketing initiatives.  Immediately we know which blogs we should be reading and leaving comments on, which organizations we should be partnering with, where we should be setting the Artistic Director up with speaking engagements, etc.  Being this specific does not mean that we are turning away politically moderate stay-at-home moms or men right out of grad school.  But, those niches aren’t our ideal patron.  Our ideal patron will jump fully into our mission and revel in every nuance of it, understanding immediately the power and purpose of our company.

I challenge us all to take a moment with our key staff and construct the profile of our ideal patrons.  Then, for the entire next season, commit to targeting this patron in every way we can.  Notice nothing I listed above costs marketing dollars, but if you have the money, put some of it behind this experiment.  Plan out your key metrics now and track them against your general outreach and this targeted campaign.   Back to The Referral Engine, Jantsch lists these four goals as good measures to start with:

  • Lead generation:  For our purposes, let’s count this as how many people you are getting your message in front of with each campaign
  • Percentage of leads converted: How many folks from your initial list actually buy a ticket / attend an event?
  • Cost per customer acquisition: This is important!  How much did you spend per converted customer for each campaign?
  • Average dollar transaction per customer: How many tickets did they buy and at what price point?

I would like to add one more indicator:

  • Total income generated per customer acquisition for the season: I contend that your ideal customer will come back more often than the general target.

Come on, try it with me for a year.  Let’s report back at the end of the 2010-2011 season and see how we did.

 

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Adjusting your initiatives today to turn tomorrow’s marketing challenges into opportunities

Chad Bauman over at the Arts Marketing blog published this post today as part of a series to have industry leaders express their thoughts on the biggest marketing challenges coming our way in the next decade.  While I find it intellectually interesting to hear what these folks have to say (he has an impressive list set to weigh in), I believe the exercise will only be useful if we take the challenges named and examine what we are doing now to prepare for / overcome them.  I think we, as an industry, have become skilled at naming problems from the past, present, and future, real and imagined.  However, we often stop there and wallow in what we couldn’t control (sound like the newspaper and music industry??)  Let’s try to avoid that this time, shall we?

So, I’m going to start by giving my thoughts on what we can do now regarding the challenges mentioned by Thomas Cott and Rick Lester in the current blog post.  Please, add your own thoughts.  And, please, let’s stay focused on concrete actions we can take and not get back into the “no, THIS is the REAL problem” conversation.

Thomas Cott: Thomas lists a number of challenges, among them the demographic shift in our country and the growing “minority majority.”  What are we doing right now with not only our marketing but our programming to embrace this change?  Refer back to Trish Mead’s 2 AM Theatre post on diversity and think about how you are approaching this issue.  I watched Babes on Broadway last night for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed its light, frothy feel right up until the last 20 minutes when Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and the entire cast put on blackface for the minstrel number.  I was flabbergasted.  I thought, wow! I’m glad we are past the period in our history when folks thought that was OK!  Then, this morning, I thought, but what are we really doing today that is including all the voices out there in our conversation?  If they aren’t part of the conversation, you can bet they won’t be sitting in your seats.  What actions are you taking now?

Thomas also sites the change in spending habits for many Americans.  The only way we will get people to spend their hard earned dollars on our production is now and will continue to be that they see more value in the experience than they see in the money they spend.  What are you doing to demonstrate the value of your work in the lives of your patrons?  If we focus on the dollars we will lose, every time.  We must focus on what live performance provides that you can’t get anywhere else.  The visceral connection with the artists and the rest of the audience.  The emotional impact of communal experience and, yes, even ritual.  The lovely folks over at the Pew Internet and American Life Project published this report siting that people who are active on social networking sites are more likely to be out and about in their communities, too.  We are looking for more personal interaction, more real experience.  It is this experience that money does not dictate and it is this experience we need to sell.

Rick Lester: Rick highlights that we were actually once good at marketing to participatory audiences.  They may have performed chamber music in their living rooms whereas now we create music on our computers, but it is a participatory society nonetheless.  How do we harness this surge in the desire for arts participation?  (and, among those who we so bemoan didn’t have arts education in school … curiosity, if cultivated and encouraged, trumps formal training every time.)  How are you inviting your audience into the process?  Open rehearsals?  Reader’s circles for short-listed scripts for future seasons?  Classes?  Open mic nights?  Perhaps a series that brings talented amateurs in to showcase work they do that ties to your mission?  As I said before, you have to invite them into the conversation if you want them to come.

That is all I have time for right now, but I hope it gets the conversation for tactics started.  There are challenges in every era and rarely do people believe they are in a “golden age” while it is actually happening.  Let’s create our own golden age by adjusting now and prevent the need for reacting later.

 

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Let’s all learn from the Brooklyn Museum

As I went down the rabbit hole of blogs and comments and links within comments this morning, I came upon this blog post from the Brooklyn Museum‘s Chief of Technology, Shelley Bernstein.  It is all about how they currently use Foursquare and how they dream of using it in the future (Shelley also gives a great overview of what Foursquare is for those who are new to the application).  This puts my little post on landing pages after buying tickets online to shame in a big way! I had been playing with ideas of how theatres could use Foursquare after hearing about a restaurant who provides free dessert to the current “mayor” of their establishment.  The Brooklyn Museum is getting creative with promos, too (click the link at the top of Shelley’s post to see their Foursquare promo).

The best thing is, the Brooklyn Museum isn’t just focusing on the technology and how it can help the organization.  They are using it to help their patrons, giving the gift of their expertise in whatever way the guests want to access it: in person, Four square, Yelp, etc.  The more we get in the mode of approaching social media as a way to give gifts, the more social media will bring us the returns of dedicated evangelists.  I can’t say it enough, social media is about giving not about selling.  It is our job to figure out what will make our patrons’ experience more enjoyable and more impactful and then figure out a way to deliver it or deliver the information that allows them to more easily get it themselves.  I plan to sit at the virtual feet of Shelley Bernstein for a while this afternoon and read more about all the digital initiatives the Brooklyn Museum has going.

 

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Rethink who you consider potential partners

Did anyone else get the ArtsJournal digest email yesterday and read this article from The LA Times and this article from The NY Times back-to-back?  Am I the only one that thought the Wooster Group / Baryshnikov alliance is just the opportunity to provide exciting programming that McNulty found lacking in L.A.’s larger institutions? 

What if the rest of us took a cue from this partnership?  What if these larger companies that find they can’t afford to fill their spaces partnered with smaller groups of complementary nature?  Imagine the cutting-edge work of Sacred Fools filling the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles.  Or the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta bringing Synchronicity to be in residence in their performance space?  Or Zoetic Dance Ensemble creating site-specific works within the galleries of The Contemporary?

Artistic leaders are often hesitant to form these types of partnerships with other theatres due to the fear of competition and ultimately loss of audience.  I believe that given two companies that have distinct and specific missions, this need not be the case.  What you get instead is a very diverse group coming through the doors of your institution.  However, if inviting a smaller theatre company into the space is too big a leap, perhaps partnering with other, non-theatre, arts organization is the way to go.  It works both ways, smaller theatre companies without homes of their own should be talking established dance companies, and even galleries, and museums.  Many of these have performance spaces that often go under-utilized.

If the current economy has taught us anything, it has taught us the old status quo will never return.  Let’s work on creating a new one.  One that is sustainable and not only makes individual companies, but the arts community as a whole stronger.

 

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