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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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Shakespeare, human communication, and Twitter

I’m at the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference (up until 5pm it was the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America, but now the organization is embracing the whole world).  Between the gorgeous mountains and the amazing minds congregating here, I am immensely inspired and, basically, on fire.

The first speaker today was Tina Packer, Founder of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts.  Her talk was titled, “Where are we going?  What are we doing?”  It was a fascinating talk that wove together Shakespeare, psychology, rhetoric, neuroscience, and the philosophy behind the writing of the King James Bible.  I could write a multitude of posts on various topics inspired by this one hour, but Tina said one sentence within the first ten minutes that will drive this particular response.

“[The Internet is] severing the idea of thought and feeling in the body and the process of communicating human being to human being.”

Those of you aware of my obsession with Twitter can begin to imagine how hard I had to sit on my hands and not respond until the Q&A portion of the hour.  When the session was opened up to the floor, my hand would be held back no longer.  First I quoted the Pew Internet & American Life Project study which said:

Compared to those who do not use the internet, internet users are 42% more likely to visit a public park or plaza and 45% more likely to visit a coffee shop or café.

The findings go on to say:

We found that ownership of a mobile phone and participation in a variety of internet activities were associated with larger and more diverse core discussion networks.

I can definitely say that this is true in my case.  The friends I’ve made on Twitter and, more specifically, the 2 am Theatre community, have expanded my world exponentially.  And, these relationships have and continue to translate into a much more active social network “in real life.”  Now, when I visit new cities (like Boulder, for instance), I have friends to meet and relationships to expand.  There are theatres I would never even have heard of that now I want to make special travel plans just so I can check them out.

I can already hear nay-sayers, “But, you are already invested in the theatre world, what about all those ‘kids’ out there who aren’t tapped into our community?”  My answer is they are out there, waiting to be engaged.  I believe the Internet has simply made it more impossible for us to blame the potential audience for not finding us.  It is easier and more vital for us to be present in the conversation.  LISTEN!  They are talking about issues that we explore every day.  Talk to them, ask them questions, get to know what they are looking for and how we fit into their lives.  But, above all, listen.

Over lunch a few of us got into a conversation about the perceived generation of “dabblers” out there, the idea that everyone wants to sample.  However, what I’ve found is that while, yes, people want to sample lots of things they may not have sampled before (and that is a GOOD thing), we also are seeing folks wanting to dive their entire souls into in-depth research about niche topics like never before.  I believe that it is our job to provide samples that make the dabblers want to dive in.  What is on your website that allows people to dig and dive?

One of my favorite quotes from Tina’s talk was:

“We have the run down of human conscious and a multiplicity of points of view embedded in Shakespeare.”

This is so true, her example of the characters in Julius Caesar was perfect: Cassius and Brutus on the same side but for intensely different reasons.  Antony and Octavius, the same.  However, the same quote could be talking about the Internet.  We have the opportunity to use technology and the Internet to introduce ourselves to our potential audiences, draw them in, and hook them so that they can’t wait to get through our doors.  The conversation is happening, with or without our points of view.  But, they can’t get hooked if we don’t show up.

 
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Posted by on January 6, 2011 in social media, theatre, Uncategorized

 

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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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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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Why I don’t ask my Facebook friends to follow me on Twitter and vice versa

The majority of tweets that came across my stream during Stowe Boyd‘s 140 Conference (#140conf) talk read something like “we have lots of identities on line, not just one, and that is a good thing.”  This piqued my interest, so I watched the video of his talk this morning.  While it wasn’t as rich in insights as I had hoped, it did make me start considering my personalities online and wonder if/how this will/should translate into how we use these sites in business.

For me, Facebook is a place where my friends and I chat about our lives & share pictures of our kids & vacations.  Sure, I post some professional stuff there too, because a lot of my friends are in the same industry I am.  However, it tends to be a much more personal, in-depth conversation that is had on Facebook.  Those that I follow, and those who follow me, on Twitter tend to be much more business-based.  I have many more conversations about industries  (theatre, non-profit, social media, etc.) and where they are headed than about personal things.  Again, it crosses a little when we share the occasional quote from our kids or photo, but in general it is more business.  Have others seen the same distinction in their use of these tools?

Because of this separation in my own life, it irks me when those that I follow on Twitter urge me to become their Facebook friend right off the bat.  Sorry, but you need to earn the title “friend.”

The panelists on the 140conf panel “Growing up with Real-Time Internet” said that those in high school are using Twitter in a completely different way than even they were (all were 19-25, I believe).  Presuming that most this demographic aren’t using any of the web tools primarily for business purposes, how will they define the personalities of Twitter, Facebook, and those tools yet to come?  I doubt that they will suddenly, at 25, start using Twitter solely for business.  Will we (should we?) of other generations further release the boundaries between work and life, business and friendship?

Which brings me around to the question of how this needs to inform how we as businesses communicate on these platforms.  I actually think theatres (and arts orgs in general) have a step up when it comes to folks thinking of us as “friends” … our work lends itself to deeper personal connection more naturally than, say, a company selling laundry detergent.  This is only true in the world of social media, of course, if we choose to comport ourselves online as the respectful, engaging family member that we have to potential to be.  I honestly don’t care if Facebook calls us fans or just says we “like” something, the potential for real connection is still there.  For both Twitter and Facebook, it all just comes back to listening.  In order to have the appropriate conversations with potential evangelists, you need to know how they are communicating in the space and approach them in like manner.

I love the quote from Best Buy’s Twelpforce instructions that Brian Solis uses in his book Engage!, “[S]how respect. Expect respect. The goal is to help.  Not to be creepy.”

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2010 in arts marketing, social media, theatre

 

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I’m a little tired of hearing about the “Arts Leadership Void”

When I started reading this article from Charles McNulty in The Los Angeles Times, I was more than a little afraid that it was yet another cry of hopelessness around this seeming lack of anyone fit to fill the shoes of the geniuses that began the regional theatre movement.  (It turned out to be a wonderfully written article with a lot of things to think about, in fact, I will probably refer back to it again tomorrow.  But the first paragraph set me off and I feel the need to voice my thoughts.)  Don’t get me wrong, the founders of our major (and some minor) regional theatres across the nation deserve the praise that they receive; they cut a new path and created a new way to produce theatre.  Many of us owe our ability to pay our bills through work in the theatre to these trailblazers.

However, to say that no one is ready to take the reins, or that those who are out there are woefully unskilled or under-qualified for the job is ludicrous.  Look around (you don’t have to look too hard).  We are the artistic directors, associate artistic directors and managing directors at small and midsize theatres; we are the regional theatre directors working at your theatres, or your peer theatres, for over a decade; we are the marketing and development directors within your own organizations who volunteer their time to serve on the boards of other nonprofits.  We are here and we are more qualified than you think.  Those years at smaller organizations have given us concrete knowledge of the same things that you learned as you grew your organizations into the multi-million dollar institutions that they are today.  The time we spend on these other boards have taught us to look at the big picture and developed our skills in board leadership.  We are passionate about the field and the mission-driven work.  We are more likely to take calculated risks that reaffirm that mission than the corporate folks your boards seems so enamoured with over the past few years. 

Worried about the lack of institutional knowledge?  Perhaps that isn’t what the organization requires right now.  We bring a new perspective, one that is sorely needed.  One that puts aside the things you may still only be doing because you’ve always done them and can run honest analysis of multiple options without the baggage of history.  A perspective that honors why you built this theatre in the first place: to create great art.  The financial and production history we can easily learn. We can read financial statements and examine budgets with a new eye.  We can also debate the finer points of the voice (or lack thereof) the organization is using on social media sites.

We may or may not be attending the fantastic Emerging Arts Leaders meetings that Americans for the Arts and local arts advocacy organizations facilitate across the nation.  We may not see ourselves as “emerging” at all, but rather fully present and arrived.  We may not be of your generation, your race, or your gender, but we are here and we are ready.

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Side note to those leaders who are emerging: if you look to take the reins yourself one day and currently see gaps in your skills, take action now.  Check our the emerging arts leaders groups, here’s the link for more info about the Metropolitan Atlanta Arts & Culture Coalition’s meetings. There are fantastic classes that can teach you the knowledge base, but, also, get yourself onto the board of an organization you love.  Your skill set will grow and your perspective will broaden in ways you can only imagine.  Set yourself up for success.  Your passion will take you the rest of the way.

 

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