To change…or to let go

18290927-poster-for-a-concert-of-classical-music-with-violin-Stock-Vector

Yesterday, I spoke at the Creative Connections workshop hosted by Mosaic Arts, our local arts council in the Green Bay area.  It was a wonderful day, full of lively discussion, packed sessions, and intriguing ideas.  I gave what is becoming my stump speech, on change and challenges for the arts in the 21st Century, newly revised to include examples from my recent travels.

After the session, a gentleman from a local presenting organization approached me with questions. Here is an approximate transcript of the conversation that followed:

He: You said that we shouldn’t put words like “Experience the Magic of Mozart” on the poster.  So what should be on the poster instead?

Me: What audiences are you trying to reach?

He: We are always trying to get younger audiences but we have not been successful.

Me: Have you considered…

He: (interrupting) We give free tickets to the schools all the time.

Me: And, let me guess (commiserating).  They don’t use them.

He: No, they don’t!  The teachers don’t come either! That says a lot about the poor quality of music education in the schools these days!

That, unfortunately, had to be the end of the conversation as we were being called into the next session.  But it has stuck with me.  I really want to have a longer conversation with this gentleman, who is a well-meaning, hard working community volunteer with no knowledge of contemporary marketing techniques. Not knowing his name or if he was inclined to jot down the URL for this blog from my slide show, I will take the liberty of saying here what I really wanted to say.

Sir, I thank you for giving your time to your community and helping the arts to happen.  I’m sorry you are struggling.  I’m sorry you haven’t been successful in attracting what you perceive to be the next generation of audience members, which will save your organization.  But I have some questions for you.

First, if you were a high school or college student, would you come to one of your concerts?  Did you go to these kinds of concerts when you were in school?  What makes you think, then, that it’s the fault of our educational system and/or “young people these days” that they aren’t leaping into your arms when you give them free tickets for a weekend concert featuring an artist they know nothing about when they probably have plans with their friends?

And what do you mean by “younger audiences” anyway?  What is the average age of your current audience?  Have you considered the fact that “younger audiences” might be people in their 40s and 50s — people who would be much more comfortable walking into a room of grey-haired people than 20 somethings?

But we also need to get to the crux of the matter.  If you are struggling with declining audiences, have you done the kind of hard thinking about why your organization should even continue to exist? I know your organization well.  Your organization was part of a concert revolution in the early part of the 20th century, the Community Concerts movement that worked to book a series of performers on tour to small towns across the Midwest and, eventually, America.  What a great idea!  Small towns starved for great art would have the opportunity because of block booking and coordinated tour management to see some of the greatest performers in the country.  A subscription-only business model ensured that all costs were paid for before the artists were even booked.  From the 20s to the 50s, people signed up before they even knew who the artists would be.  When I arrived in Green Bay in the early 90s, the series was sold out in subscription, no single seats were ever available.  A few years ago, you started (reluctantly, I understood) selling single seats, but the subscription remains the core of your marketing efforts and, at $82, is a great bargain but far from the $35 for 4 concerts it was in the 90s.  And the subscription model is considered by most marketing experts to be incompatible with most of today’s consumers’ hectic lifestyles.

Although there are several Community Concerts affiliates scattered throughout the United States, most book independently now since the original organization, a collaboration with Columbia Artists Management since 1930, was dissolved in 1993. What is more important, in 1993 our community opened the 2000 seat Weidner Center, followed soon after by the renovated Meyer Theater downtown, the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton, and other presenters in other communities throughout our area.  Consumers now have a wealth of choices for live concerts, in venues of all sizes and genres, and can go to them in modern facilities with a variety of amenities, including refreshments and valet parking, while your series still takes place in the area’s oldest high school auditorium.

Your organization has a long and storied history.  But before seeking new audiences or bemoaning young people, you need to do some introspection.  From my point of view, you have three choices.  You can celebrate your loyal subscribers (on your website it says you have over 600!) and do more to encourage their participation rather than seeking to grow. You can figure out what is unique about your organization, and market that.  You can realize that in order to continue selling tickets (and certainly to attract new audiences), you need to change your business model rather than trying to change your potential audiences.

Or, you can decide that your organization had a great history and contributed to our community’s cultural life for many years, and go out on a high note rather than gradually withering away.

As much as I support the arts in communities, I really can’t get behind putting continuing efforts into something that isn’t working.  If it isn’t working, change it – or let it go.  Nobody – nobody will think you failed after nearly 100 years of art.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Sabbatical blog post: In which I talk to lots of people and learn lots of stuff

I was on sabbatical this semester.  It was wonderful.  A sabbatical is supposed to be for recharging batteries as well as doing projects and research that are hard to fit in while you’re working full time – and that’s exactly what this sabbatical did for me.  Since you read this blog you know that one of my primary interests is innovation in the arts, and how organizations and artists are responding to changes in society, the economy, and technology.  My idea – which turned out to be even more inspired than I originally thought – was to travel the country talking to artists and arts organizations, earning my keep by giving guest lectures for the colleagues who helped me set up the interviews.

During the past few months I’ve met with dozens of people representing multi-million dollar, traditional organizations like museums and symphony orchestras, to small, scrappy DIY venues, to individuals doing good work with a laptop and a dream.  I’ve visited classrooms where students are engaged in doing projects that have them working in their communities, and I’ve talked with people who are working for government and independent arts councils and are on the front lines of what their communities and organizations need.

In keeping with one of today’s trends – what one of my interviewees called the “art is me” movement, I also engaged in some personal creative time.  I enrolled in a MOOC developed by the Milwaukee Art Museum in partnership with Google, which had participants engaging in art in a very different way than most museum enrichment programs I’ve seen.  I did some online learning via classes and videos in knitting and felting.  I took a drawing class.  And, I spent a glorious 5 days on an island in Pugent Sound on a knitting retreat (I also had hoped to learn Photoshop and teach myself to sew, but I guess there’s only so much one person can do in a semester).

I plan to profile many of the organizations, people and trends I discovered in my next several blog posts.  But in advance of that, here are a few broad threads that wove their way through many of my conversations.  We’ll be revisiting these too, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Are you hearing these too?

We need to take risks, but we are not in a climate which allows risk.  Immediate money concerns, holding on to current audiences while trying to attract new audiences, being bound to limitations of space, balancing demands of audiences and funders — all of these encourage a conservative focus on programming instead of encouraging us to risk creating art that is new and exciting.  Yet new and exciting programming is what we need to remain relevant.

We need to redefine access.  Access traditionally has meant making our work available and approachable for a variety of socioeconomic demographics, ages and backgrounds.  This, believe it or not, is limiting our thinking by stereotyping both traditional arts audiences and people who don’t participate in the arts.  We continue to want to provide “access” by asking people to join us where we are, instead of engaging people where they are.  We need instead to listen, and to think of access beyond the boundaries of demographic measurements.

We need to rethink collaborations. Collaborations don’t have to mean two arts organizations getting together to produce programming.  I talked to organizations who are banding together for energy savings, and sharing space in creative ways.  I toured facilities who are offering artists different kinds of partnerships which allows them to save on infrastructure and maximize exposure.  I talked to organizations who have been approached by corporations wanting to fund specific projects and who have found ways to make these collaborations a win-win.  There is so much more there than we are currently utilizing.

We need to relax the structures in which we work.  There are some who say the not-for-profit model is “broken.”  Certainly there are some serious issues with not-for-profit that we need to address as an industry.  One of these is taking a hard look at how we assemble and use boards of directors, and the relationship between governance and management in the contemporary arts not-for-profit.  Another is the competing interests of earned and contributed income – which provide a variety of funding sources but also keep us tied to the needs of each constituent group.  Most people I talked to don’t believe the not-for-profit system needs to be scrapped (it’s there for a reason), but it is definitely time to take a good look at what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and whether changes in the traditional structure would help us make art better.

That’s enough to think about for today.  Again, I’m anxious to hear your thoughts.  Do these trends ring true for you?

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

In defense of the art degree

In 2008, Daniel Pink declared in a New York Times article that “the MFA is the new MBA.”  In the 21st century, said Pink, businesses will favor right brained thinking, and the ability to  innovate, and think critically will be the most valuable skills for long-term success.

Fast forward to December 2014, and this headline from the Atlantic: “MFAs: An Increasingly Popular, Increasingly Bad Financial Decision.”  The article highlights the fact that MFAs in visual and performing arts have increased every year in the past decade, and have more than tripled since the 1970s.  It also shares statistics from a list on PayScale.com which ranks artistic careers among the lowest in early career pay although it doesn’t say how those statistics were obtained.  A reference like that wouldn’t be acceptable in an undergraduate research paper, so I take it with a grain of salt when it comes to proving that artistic degrees are a bad investment.

But the heart of the article relies on comments from Jerry Saltz, an art critic for New York magazine, who has been railing against art degrees for some time and who, coincidentally, does not have an art degree himself (full disclosure: I lost respect for Jerry Saltz when he agreed to be head critic on Bravo’s short lived reality show, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist).

The arguments against the MFA, like many criticisms of higher education today, are based on ROI.  Students are leaving school with massive debt, say the critics, and therefore should concentrate on majors that lead immediately to the best-paying jobs.  The inherent flaw in this argument is the assumption that all people who seek degrees are doing so to get a specific job — and, more specifically, that those who obtain MFAs all want to be professional artists.

song-chart-memes-art-student

As a college professor, I do have sympathy for students and their families as they are making the decision to attend college or graduate school.  It’s not the same world I grew up in; when tuition was under $500 per year it was a pretty easy decision to go to school and stay there.  And because teaching assistantships were plentiful in the 70s, I was able to go to graduate school for free, gain teaching experience, and live frugally but comfortably on minimum wage outside jobs.  I’m not saying people should go to college because I did, but I still believe that college, as expensive as it has gotten, is one of the best investments that anyone can make.  As this study from the Brookings Institute points out, college graduates stand to make double what a high school grad will earn over the course of a lifetime.

But I also believe that college is more valuable than just a paycheck.  We make a big mistake when we think of college as a job training program (Scott Walker found this out when he was slammed by the public and press for attempting to change the charter of the University of Wisconsin System away from “the search for human truth” and toward “meeting the state’s workforce needs”).  College – coming as it does at an age when most people are making the crucial transition from childhood to adulthood – doesn’t just create workers, it helps to create adults.  In college you learn:

  1. How to think critically.  In contrast to much of the learning done in elementary and high school, much of college education is about doing research, evaluating sources, putting ideas together and coming to conclusions.  This helps not only in the workplace, but is a valuable skill in evaluating life choices, voting, and raising families.
  2. How to work collaboratively.  Life isn’t a solo performance.  Life involves working with others, in relationships, on committees, in work teams, and in communities.  Group projects and community engaged learning are part of the college experience.
  3. How to evaluate what is put in front of you. As Abraham Lincoln once said, you can’t believe everything you see on the internet.  Yet we are bombarded every day with information, much of which is, frankly, bullshit.  College teaches you how to understand if a source is trustworthy, how to do research to verify information, and how to form opinions without blindly believing everything you’re told.
  4. How to be a good citizen, parent, and responsible adult.  The independence of college is daunting for some, and many can’t handle it.  But in college, students learn to get themselves to class on time (or deal with consequences if they don’t), juggle work, school and sometimes family, make financial decisions, and practice adult relationships.  The aforementioned evaluation skills and critical thinking skills start to come in handy when you are making many of these decisions on your own for the first time.  College provides a relatively safe atmosphere to grow before you need to be on your own, paying taxes, voting, choosing a community, raising a family.
  5. How to develop your own social and political views.  A good college education will allow you to explore many different viewpoints (which is, I guess, the real meaning of “liberal” education) and try out your own.

In addition, an art(s) degree will teach students:

  1. How to take criticism.  In the performing and visual arts, you have critiques of your work, not just by professors, but by other students, other faculty, the public at large, and even professional critics (like Mr. Saltz).  Learning to listen to someone critique something in which you’ve invested not just your knowledge, but your innermost feelings, is a challenge, believe me.
  2. How to defend yourself. Sometimes, critique is useful because it forces you to defend what you believe in.
  3. How to be creative, even within parameters. Creating an art work using a specific prompt, or performing a Shakespeare monologue bringing something different than the thousands of other actors who have performed it, requires a skill far different than memorizing facts.

So perhaps all of those people who are choosing to spend money on an MFA aren’t that stupid after all, Mr. Saltz.  Perhaps they are investing wisely in their futures, and following the advice of Daniel Pink and thinking outside the box when shaping their lives.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The million dollar question

Every year on the first day of class for my intro course, I ask the students what they think the biggest problem is that arts groups face today.  Every year, the answer is unanimous: Funding.

When I go out to do strategic planning for cultural organizations, or meet with local arts roundtable groups, the topic that comes up most often?  Funding.

We all agree that the arts need more capacity to create.  But, as I dig deeper with my students and local arts organizations, I always ask: is more money really the root of the problem?  And, by assuming that our problems will be solved if only we had more money, aren’t we placing a burden on funders to fund us and deflecting the burden of proof from ourselves?

Last week, I posted about being nimble, and I made a comment about funders which I attributed to Stephen Butler, director of CNY Arts in Syracuse, New York.  The comment was that funders tend to funnel most of their institutional support to large organizations, which leaves smaller grassroots organizations struggling to find operating capital. Steve contacted me and requested a clarification: by saying this, he was not criticizing the funders, he was making a plea for more operating and multi-year grants for smaller organizations.  I heartily concur. But I also feel as though we need as an industry to take a close look at our economic model and figure out if it is, indeed, the correct one for the 21st century.

For most of my professional life, the national average of earned to contributed income in the arts has been about 50/50.  Obviously, this ratio varies among different artistic media and types of organizations: a performing arts organization that sells tickets will have a higher earned income ratio than a free community gallery.  But in most organizations, the presence of contributed income helps the organization keep the art accessible to its audiences.  If we were working on a for-profit model, we would have to charge as much for our tickets as it costs us to put on the performance.  This model works for the entertainment industry, which can amortize its costs through mass production (and, of course, doesn’t always work even then).  But for not-for-profit arts organizations, where the artistic decisions drive the money and not vice versa, contributed income is an important piece of the pie.

Speaking of pies, then, here is the latest chart of arts revenue sources from the National Endowment for the Arts (2012, data taken from 2006-2010).  It shows a significant shift.  Earned income is now over 60% of the national average for cultural organizations, with 14% of that being income from endowments and investments.  That means that ticket sales and other forms of direct earned income (tuition, merchandise and food sales, dues) has dropped to only 41%.

RevSourcesArtsCulture_20130923_v1Now it could be that they’ve just never broken this out before in the same way. Or it could be that the endowment building that many organizations engaged in during the 90s is starting to realize its intended purpose.  But I look at that 41% figure and I get a little nervous.  I get especially nervous when I look at the government funding and realize that it  is currently only about 6.2%, down from 10% a decade ago.

The decrease in earned income and decline in government funding places additional burden on other sources: individuals (many of whom are also buying tickets), corporations (whose pure philanthropy has decreased in favor of sponsorships), and foundations (whose income is also dependent on the success of their investments).  And speaking of additional burden, most of the grassroots organizations I know do not have endowments or even any savings to speak of.  Where do they fall on this chart?

Most people, including politicians, do not understand the need for arts funding.  As Mitt Romney said in 2012: “[F]irst there are programs I would eliminate –  the Amtrak subsidy, the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.”  By calling government arts funding a “subsidy,” Romney falls into the common trap of thinking that contributed income for the arts is there only because the arts can’t make it in the marketplace.  I often think that many board members believe this too.

So where do we need to be?  You tell me.  Perhaps I’m wrong in my concern, but 50/50 always seemed like a good balance to me and the new numbers have upset my need for tidiness and order.  Should we be moving toward less reliance on contributed income?  Or will that continue to make arts inaccessible to all but the wealthy?

One thing’s for sure: we need to make a better case for our income mix.  And we need to make it with everyone, from funders, to ticket buyers, to students, and to politicians.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Jack, be nimble

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” — Charles Darwin

We talked last time about evolution, and the need for arts organizations to be able to respond to the changes that are taking place in the economy, with our audiences and with our patrons.

Today, I’d like to talk a bit about a buzzword I’ve been hearing a lot lately: nimble.  Being nimble is the ability to respond to changes in the organization’s environment, and to be able to make changes to strategy and resources based on real-time situational needs.  For some, being nimble has surpassed growth as a primary business goal.  Which organization will survive – the biggest? The strongest? Or the one who most easily adapts?  Charles Darwin posited the answer to that question a century and a half ago.

I’m all about being nimble. In today’s economy, it seems to be a given.  We live in a time of such rapid change that many of our organizations and businesses are like Titanic facing the iceberg: not able to do anything but watch the boat crash.

Performance metrics for the arts over the past forty years have most definitely centered on growth.  Grantors asked about it on applications and often made it a condition of funding. Often, funders could come on board only for new programs and initiatives, leaving the organization stuck after a year or so with a program that needed to find different sources of income to survive.  Organizations (and researchers) touted growth statistics while making their case for the importance of the arts in our communities.  For many of us, growth was a measure of getting past the scrappy stage, the time when we had to run on the fuel of volunteers, limited supplies and equipment, and underpaid artists.  Most of us were thrilled when we got to the point in the 90s and 00s when even small communities had union orchestras and fully-staffed art museums.

WillyWonka-HowsThatWorkingOut-2

This is no secret: our big traditional institutions are struggling.  The latest potential casualty is the San Jose Ballet, who announced yesterday that they need a half million dollars to keep the doors open.  I have to think that some of this struggle has less to do with the fact that audience participation patterns are changing and at least something to do with the fact that these institutions have grown to the point where continued existence is unmanageable.  When you have a fundraising goal of eight, ten or fifteen million dollars a year, after a while the fundraising tail starts to wag the artistic dog.

I had a wonderful talk this week with Stephen Butler, director of CNY (Central New York) Arts.  His assessment was that our funding system has turned into a beast that may be our fatal flaw.  Much of the capital supporting the arts flows to the large institutions – partly because they have “proven” themselves with growth and longevity, which leaves little capital for entrepreneurial organizations.  The big institutions can’t move, and the little ones can’t afford to.

I also talked this week with Catherine Underhill, executive director of Symphoria, a reincarnation of the former Syracuse Symphony which folded in 2010.  Symphoria is operating under a $1.7 million budget, much less than the former symphony’s $7 million budget, and musicians are making about 25% what they were making before.  They’re experimenting with a number of things, including operating under a co-op structure where musicians have 50% of the seats of the board and a bigger say in artistic decisions, and offering free admission to anyone under 18 (which, Catherine says, has led to dynamic participation by high school music programs and students).  Catherine says their goal is not to grow – but to find the right size that works for their community.

I don’t believe there needs to be a mentality that we need to save our institutions just as they are or else we are endangering the very future of the arts.  I have been critical of organizations claiming that they deserve the support of the community just because they exist, and that it is unthinkable to allow a cultural institution to die just because it is a cultural institution.  In my (admittedly limited) experience, I have seen several cultural organizations fold and then come back in a different incarnation after having the luxury of planning without assumptions.  Many organizations I have watched come back stronger for having done this – leaner perhaps, but most definitely not wedded to growth as the overriding organizational goal.

No cultural organization is too big to fail, but many are too big to be responsive in the economic and social world of the 21st century.  I hope that we can find some ways to allow organizations of all sizes to find their correct balance of growth and flexibility.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Believing in evolution

One of the primary purposes of this blog is to write about arts and cultural organizations who are discovering new rules for the 21st century – who are attempting to weather the sea changes going on in our industry by looking at the old forms, structures and program delivery, seeing which ones don’t work very well, and trying new things.

actors_acting_theater_performing_arts_actor_poster-r44e347d72f874fdd9d4f3120c10e76a0_iec_8byvr_324

The arts are evolving

 

The arts industry isn’t the only industry needing to evolve.  Some of our most basic products and business structures — the newspaper, book stores, retail shopping entertainment — seem to be undergoing transformations at the cellular level, letting go of formats that have served them for (in some cases) hundreds of years.  Businesses need to innovate so quickly nowadays that even businesses founded in the last twenty years like Netflix and Amazon (themselves innovators who shaped our consuming habits) are undergoing fundamental changes in the way they do business.

One of the symptoms of the sea change is the number of traditional arts organizations, like symphonies and opera companies, who are either closing their doors or radically restructuring in the wake of declining audiences, donor fatigue, and changing audience participation patterns.  While the demise of any business is mourned in a community, there is a reason that there is a different kind of wailing and gnashing of teeth when a newspaper or a symphony dies than when a restaurant shutters its doors or when a manufacturer moves its operations elsewhere.  Yes, losing that manufacturer can seriously affect the economy of the town, and the wellbeing of all the displaced workers.  But the loss of a newspaper or a symphony is the loss of something each community member has a stake in – without a newspaper, without a symphony, why, we’re back to the Wild Wild West where there are no rules and people spit into spittoons.

I have been asked why arts organizations aren’t as willing (or able) to innovate as for-profit businesses.  After all, some say, look at Netflix, who was on the verge of disaster but instead chose to revolutionize the entertainment industry by producing its own entertainment products and making them available immediately to stream – no need to wait for a season which plays out week by week.  I don’t think that is a fair comparison — after all, there are plenty of for-profit businesses which also fail to innovate and pay the price (Blockbuster, anyone?).  But I also think that there are some elements of traditional arts organizations that make it difficult to be nimble.  For example, most traditional arts and cultural organizations are organized as 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations.  Since the early part of the 20th century, this has been a benefit for both arts organizations and their communities; arts organizations have been at least partially shielded from the whims of the marketplace and communities have reaped the benefits of having high quality artistic activities which benefit the community as a whole.

But not-for-profits by their very nature are not as nimble as many businesses.  One of the reasons they are not is that they are dependent not only on the marketplace to sell tickets, but also on donors and grantors for contributed income.  What these two groups of stakeholders want can be very different, and it can be very risky trying something new when you risk losing not only audience, but a big grant.  Another reason is that many arts organizations are caught between a rock (traditional audiences, which many polls show are aging) and a hard place (attracting new audiences who want different programming and are open to new methods of delivery).  Newspapers know this too: it would be a lot easier if they could just get rid of the printed newspaper and move online, but they are dependent on the longtime readers who need the printed paper and the newer audiences have not been convinced that they should pay for a single source of news when you can get articles on social media for free.  Like newspapers, the most savvy arts organizations know that innovation doesn’t just mean convincing younger audiences to come to the same thing you’ve always done in the same way you’ve always done it.  But to let that go – to move toward recording, online delivery and smaller, less formal performances – means also letting go of the audience that is currently paying the bills.

Unlike some, I firmly (let me repeat, FIRMLY) believe that the future of classical music, traditional theatre and ballet doesn’t lie in playing popular music or choreographing Disney movies.  We’ve tried “pops concerts” for at least thirty years and they have not saved the symphonies.  Not that you can’t find high quality art in any genre, but an arts organization saying that they need to dumb down programming to attract audiences has lost the battle on many fronts.  If you do alternative programming, do it the very best it can be done (and PLEASE don’t call it “pops,” old people).

So.  With all of this in mind, let me state that I believe in evolution.  I believe that arts organizations can and should evolve to serve audiences of the future – and that they can do it while maintaining the very highest artistic standards.  There are arts organizations out there doing amazing things, and I am on the lookout for them.  Do you know of organizations that have tried new programming, new technology, new ways of reaching audiences?  Who are breaking out of structural boxes?  Please – share them with me.  I promise to share some with you too – starting next time when we take a look at an exciting new online class being shared by the Milwaukee Art Museum in cooperation with Google.

shark_adaptation

See you soon!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Grant writing reminders – part deux

Last time, we discussed a few grant writing reminders from my recent peer review panel experience with the Wisconsin Arts Board.  I have a few more, but I also thank those who commented with other grant pet peeves and ideas.  Here we go, round two:

1. Anticipate the reviewers’ questions.

I know that the letter of the law may ask you to just submit your financial statement or Form 990, but if there are issues that may cause questions on review, don’t be afraid to answer them, even if you think it may not look good.  As your mother always told you, what you imagine is much worse than the truth.  If your donations went way down one year because you lost a major funder who moved on to someone else, say so.  If you had to fire someone and you experienced some disarray because of this, it’s better to be honest about it.  You can answer questions truthfully without airing dirty laundry, and how you solve problems like these shows a lot about your organization.

2. Get your financial information from someone who knows something about the arts and not-for-profit accounting.

A common mistake, especially for smaller organizations who often can’t afford to pay for financial services, is that accounting is accounting and anyone who has had any accounting training will know how to organize a not-for-profit bookkeeping system.

This. Is. Not. True.

Make sure whoever is putting together your financial statements understands that you need to properly segregate contributed income from program service/earned income (ticket sales, tuition, gift shop) and that you have your restricted funds segregated on your balance sheet (don’t know what restricted funds are?  If your accountant doesn’t either, find one who does).  It’s also essential to use proper accounting terminology to avoid misunderstandings.  Many use the term “fund-raising” (incorrectly) to mean revenue generating activities outside of your mission activities (for example, a gala special event or candy sales) but these activities should be separate from donations, grants and other contributed income.  And, FYI, when the form 990 mentions “fund-raising expenses,” it means your expenses raising contributed income – not the expenses of executing a special event or the wholesale candy expense.

If you use accounting software, use a nonprofit module or program.  Quickbooks doesn’t allow for categorizing of contributed income, so unless you know how to program a chart of accounts, it won’t give you what you need.

3. Give reviewers the tools to assess your organizational health.

Here’s what reviewers look for in determining organizational health:

  • The ratio of earned to contributed income.  A high amount of contributed income vs. earned may mean that donors support your mission and want to help make your work accessible, but it may also mean that audiences just aren’t interested and true believers are propping up the organization.
  • Wide variances between budget and actual, and year to year.  ‘Splain, please.
  • An appropriate mix of artistic and administrative expenses.  Many organizations, particularly small ones, put all of their eggs in the artistic basket, spending their entire budget on artistic directors, guest artists and performing spaces.  But if there is no money in the budget for marketing or otherwise supporting the art, the organization struggles.
  • A board that understands what its role is.  A board is not a collection of super volunteers.  It is a governing body.  We need to see evidence that the board is not just slave labor for an artistic director — we need to see that there is a strong collaborative effort to make the big decisions, plan for the future and evaluate current programming.

And finally…

4. Understand where the money is coming from and speak to that.

If you are applying for government funds, that money comes from taxpayers.  Therefore, the grantor needs to know that you are spending those funds to serve taxpayers.  All of those questions about your community engagement are not just political correct-speak – it is just a simple fact that what you do must serve your community in order for you to successfully get this particular grant.  And no, despite the rhetoric about the benefits of art to communities, you do not serve the community simply by existing.  Let me repeat that for the back row.  You do not serve the community simply by existing.   And I hate to be harsh, but you also do not serve the community by occasionally giving tickets (that will probably go unused) to at-risk schools.  Serving the community, in fact, does not mean “reaching out” to people who are different than you are.  Serving the community just means that you are minimizing barriers to participation, you are engaging your community in your art, and you are responding in some way to what your community needs, rather than expecting the community to support you so you can do exactly what you want to do without accountability.

This one is so important that I may write more about it later.  In the meantime…hope you all are able to have a few Thanksgiving-y days off to indulge in rest, family and feasting!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment