Sunday, February 28, 2010

Audience Development: Not Just a Marketing Issue

THERE ARE TWO COMPETING REALITIES IN PLAY for arts and cultural organizations that don't seem to be destined for resolution any time soon, and they both have to do with audience.  The first is the fact that for many traditional cultural activities, audiences and volunteerism are declining.  The second has to do with a perpetual lack of resources most arts and cultural organizations dedicate to ongoing audience development, retention and loyalty-building. 

The American Association of Museums' reports in its Museum Financial Information 2009 that museums with separate marketing budgets dedicate anywhere from 2 percent to 8 percent of annual expenses, depending on total organizational budget, to promoting attendance, memberships or products.  The lower end of the range likely doesn't include personnel.  Bottom line:  museums spend on balance $1.29 per visitor per year to get them in the door, on the membership rolls or purchasing from the shop.  

The Theater Communications Group tracks similar data in its Theatre Facts surveys.  The 2008 survey reports a range of 10.8 percent to 12.6 percent of total operating budget spent on marketing/customer service/concessions (including personnel).  However, Joy Zinoman, founding artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre, notes, "A relationship to your neighborhood, the idea of theatre being very tied to a place, is a very different notion.... That costs different money and has different implications.”  

Most of us tend to think of audiences as those who show up.  Indeed they are that, but they are more than that.  Despite the current economy, which has sliced marketing budgets and staffs at those institutions fortunate to have marketing budgets and staffs in the first place, paying attention to the care and feeding of audiences is more often an after-thought than a top priority.

Chad Bauman takes on this question for theaters here and here in his blog Arts Marketing.  The comments to these posts are good reading, too.

Arts organizations lacking the expertise of marketing staff are left to their own devices to think about audience development and many just don't or can't.  Too busy with mounting productions, exhibitions, classes or festivals, the last questions asked - if asked at all - have to do with audience engagement and communication.  As Bauman and some of his commentators note, often programming is established without input from the folks who are charged with marketing it, much less without input from potential consumers.

The health of arts and cultural organizations surely depends on its audiences,  not just to fill seats, but for long term personal connection as board members, volunteers and donors.

Photo:  I Am The Audience from vaquey

Friday, February 26, 2010

What the Health Care Summit Was Not: Four Tips for Holding Difficult Meetings

I GOT SUCH A BAD VIBE from watching snippets of President Obama's Health Care Summit that I almost had to avert my eyes.  This was a train wreck in more ways than one and I'd like to take up some blog real estate to focus in on some very practical aspects of the meeting that, frankly, occur a lot in nonprofit board and staff rooms all across the country.

1.  Room set-up:  I immediately focused in on the fact that all 37 participants were seated around a hollow square configuration of tables.  This way, everyone could see everybody else.  Name tags were prominently displayed on the tables in front of everyone's place.  Certainly, when you're trying to encourage discussion, everybody needs to be facing each other.  Yet, the group was large enough that the folks on the ends would not have been able to see the face of a speaker in the middle of a their row.  A really big round table would have been much better.

The meeting room at Blair House seemed exceedingly small and the table space each participant had assigned to them exceedingly cramped.  Sure, behind the legislators were rows of staffers and camera crews, but still I winced to see folks jostling mounds of paper in too small a physical space.  As it was, the folks sitting across from each other were fairly far apart, while at the same time they seemed to have none of their own elbow room.

I just can't imagine being in that space, around that table for hours on end.  In those bamboo ballroom chairs with little pads on the seats, too -- uncomfortable without regular breaks!  Undoubtedly, the group got up and moved to other spaces for lunch -- maybe even for breaks.  But I keep asking myself how could the space have been configured differently to promote more real discussion?

2.  Group size:  Any meeting advice book tells you that you have to have all the stakeholders in the room to make something happen.  In this instance, I doubt the group could have been smaller, but I'm also wondering if the group dynamic would have been helped by the participation of some nonpolitical stakeholders.  Would their voices have helped to cut through the worn rhetoric?

I've always found that fresh knowledgeable voices can often help a group to move beyond old arguments. They can help to balance the loudest voices, too.

3.  Moderator as Participant:  I was also struck by the fact that the president tried to wear two hats at the summit -- he tried to be the moderator for all while at the same time be a partisan participant.  As a result, I think the process of discussion really faltered, because no one without a stake in the game was really moderating.  As a result, he cut folks off, challenged their points of view and didn't really work overly hard to push for finding mutual ground.

Any time there is as a consequential issue on the table, it's best to call in a non-objective third party to focus on process to move the group forward.  That lets all the stakeholders fully participate.

Besides, a partisan moderator really sends the message to all that the discussion isn't likely to be very objective.

4.  Agenda:  If you're attempting to bring two sides closer together, each side must have a role in developing the agenda -- at the very least in developing the outcomes or objectives of the meeting.  With partisan disagreement so high - so volatile - on this issue, perhaps the best agenda might have been one the participants built together as the summit took place.

The summit was designed to be the Kabuki theater that it turned out to be -- scripted, formal and unsuccessful at unlocking new interpretations or understandings.  If you've got a Kabuki theater playing in your nonprofit board room, perhaps these rethinking these four elements will move your discussions forward in positive new directions.

Photo:  Meeting in Progress - 8th April2009 from Sven1976

Video: We Love Museums - Do Museums Love Us Back?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Presidents' Day: Leadership Lessons for Nonprofits

IT'S SNOWING LIGHTLY IN THE NORTHEAST THIS Presidents' Day morning and I'm hoping that many of you have the day off to enjoy - what else? - cherry pie, a visit to a presidential home, library or gravesite; or settling in to watch Abe Lincoln in Illinois, the 1940 flick starring Raymond Massey. Twice in the last ten years, the folks at C-SPAN have asked presidential historians to rate the effectiveness of our commanders in chief in ten critical leadership areas. The most recent of these rankings was released last Presidents' Day (2009). If you'll forgive the fact that I'm a year late, I think you'll find this list of leadership qualities one worthy of incorporating into your recruitment strategies for nonprofit board and staff leaders. So, help yourself to another piece of pie and enjoy.

C-SPAN developed, presumably with the help of their presidential scholars, a list of ten key attributes of presidential leadership:

Public Persuasion: Here's a skill that any nonprofit board and staff leader will draw on routinely during internal meetings, and with external stakeholders be they loyal supporters or the toughest elected officials.

Crisis Leadership: We're in uncertain times.  Which nonprofits will survive, which will fail?  Who doesn't want a honest voice and a confident presence in the face of lost funding, program cutbacks, declining audience, building disasters, or bad press?

Economic Management: Shepherding financial resources shouldn't preclude some calculated risk-taking, however, it must be understood that it takes infinitely longer to build economic mass than it does to expend it.

Moral Authority: Now that would seem to come with the territory of nonprofit work, but it's never a given. Create a code of ethics or dust off the one you have.

(International) Relations: International for presidents; perhaps community (or whatever sandbox you play in) relations for nonprofits. Building and nurturing those networks can enhance your nonprofit's mission as well as save its bacon.

Administrative Skills: Even presidents need to know how to push work forward and encourage use of the best ways to do that. A nonprofit leader must keep committees, staff, and volunteers on track, on task and in communication. Time management, project management and facilitative skills, and use of technology not only get you closer to meeting goals, they become the models by which others can learn to work.

Relations with (Congress): Who is your organization's Congress? Is it a board of trustees?, a governmental agency? Are you able to reach out to them in meaningful ways and allow them to see themselves in the organization's mission?

Vision/Setting an Agenda: Board and staff leaders who are unable to articulate a future state of being for an organization and a way to get there, really aren't leading....they're following someone else's lead.

Pursued Equal Justice for All: I liken this one to pursuing an organization's mission by making it real and meaningful everyday.

Performance within Context of Times: For nonprofit leaders, knowing how external realities affect the organization, understanding the trends of cultural consumption and the trends within specific cultural industries (and across industries) all boost performance.

Photo:  Dolly Madison - George Washington from Waffle Whiffer 

Thursday, February 11, 2010

My Top Tips for Working For and With Boards

I'VE WRITTEN THESE TIPS FROM AN EXECUTIVE'S POINT OF VIEW.  I do believe that the executive wears three hats when dealing with her board:  a leadership hat, a facilitative hat, and an implementation hat.  I think that most of these tips would fall predominantly in the first two hats.

Your Board is Your Team:  your board may not be the most sophisticated, the wealthiest or the smartest, but this is not an “us” vs. “them” rivalry.  Your nonprofit is the enterprise in which you are all vested.  If you’re not, maybe this isn’t the team to be on (that goes for staff and board members, too).

Communicate:  be the first to pick up the phone.  Try to spend 20% of your time engaging individual and small groups of board members in meaningful conversations about the mission of the organization, your needs as the staff leader, and your staff’s needs.  Strategize with them; use each one as your personal brain trust.
Don’t Hold Back on the Bad News:  trusting and mutually respectful relationships get that way because each participant knows they’re getting really useful information and unvarnished opinions.  When no one wants to “talk turkey”, it usually means your board (and you) haven’t been able to coalesce as a team.
Help Boards Understand…and Learn:  work with board members, individually and collectively, to figure out what information about the organization is most useful to decision-making (in addition to your insights and recommendations) and develop the means to deliver meaningful, measurable and readable information and evaluative tools.  Take some extra time to reach out to and work with board members who you know are having a hard time understanding or processing information.
Help Your Board Do a Good Job:  board members are expected to do a wide array of things – not all of which may come easily.  As the staff leader, work hard to make expectations clear.  Find ways to support board members as they strive to meet their responsibilities, perhaps with training opportunities, facilitators, and practice.

Keep and Sense of Balance and Perspective:  working for and with boards is just that:  work!  But it should be rewarding work and, yes, even fun at times.  Know that a sense of humor is an important skill that shows you can roll with the punches. 

Photo:  Communication
from DailyPic

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Are We Asking the Right Question When We Start a Cultural Nonprofit?

AN ONGOING DISCUSSION IN THE HISTORY MUSEUM COMMUNITY (and I suspect in other cultural communities) has to do with its saturation of organizations.  Practically every county or parish in the United States has at least one history museum, historic house or historic site.  At least one.  In some areas of the country, it's impossible to travel ten miles without landing on the doorstep of a local history museum.

Almost all of them are nonprofit entities, which means they are organized around a board of trustees, committees and legions of volunteers.  They rely on philanthropy and perhaps some government, foundation and corporate funding.  They own property that runs the gamut from one-room schoolhouses to whole historic districts, recreated villages, airplane hangars and everything in between.  And then there are the multiple millions of collection items in their care.

Nonprofit cultural institutions, whether they're a storefront theater workshop or a major symphony, are heavily resource dependent all the time.  Their board seats must be filled, their committees must be active, their staffs and volunteers must be producing programming and garnering support, their audiences must show up.

Two sobering reports were recently issued by the National Endowment for the Arts and Americans for the Arts that discuss the decline of audience participation in all traditional arts and cultural  organizations, yet the formation of traditional arts and cultural organizations remain on the increase.  This obvious disconnect, I think, is the result of default mode thinking on the part of organization founders (and encouraged by community leaders, elected  officials and governmental incorporators) that a nonprofit organization is the remedy to addressing community - or in some cases, personal - need.

As a result, the starting question always seems to be:  how do we start a nonprofit organization, be it a museum, an arts center, a community theater, a you name it? 

I think we're asking the wrong starting question.  The question is not should we form a nonprofit entity, but something more like 
  • how should community history be preserved or taught? 
  • what is the best way to showcase and build the capacity of our region's artistic talent?
  • how can artists of all types participate in schools?
  • how can non-traditional arts and culture participants share their talents, experiences and passions for what they like to do? 
The answers to these kinds of questions don't automatically involve starting nonprofit organizations.  They might just lead to something completely different like expanding the missions of or fostering collaborations with existing nonprofits, creating a program that lives within another organization, or developing more flexible networks that live informally or virtually.   It's kind of liberating, don't  you think?

Photo:  Orange Question Mark Button from jhhwild

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Dollar and a Dream Syndrome

IT'S THE "DOLLAR AND A DREAM SYNDROME" -- someone thinks getting up a community theater would be lots of fun or starting a museum about local history or gathering artists together to open an arts center. Great ideas, all. But how workable for the long run?

As with most small businesses, new cultural nonprofits can be pretty fragile, partly because they develop from personal desire that, ultimately must be shared by many people. As a result, they can live on the edge for long periods of time, surviving on the friendship and handouts of devotees. But one can hardly call that sustainable, right? Yet, new groups are forming -- getting legal -- all the time. In New York State alone, 20-30 new museums are green-lighted by state authorities every year (by the way, only a fraction of them legally go out of business each year).

If you were to create a checklist of what a group of people needed to have in hand before they got that piece of paper from the government making them a legal entity, what would be on that list? 

Here's my short, but growing, checklist:
  • No duplicating the mission or work of an existing organization in the community - if there's another organization that isn't active, don't start a new one, figure out ways to make the existing one active.
  • Benchmark other similar organizations - know what's already operating in your future universe; know what's good, what's bad, what works, what doesn't.  Use the best examples as models.
  • Gather written and signed pledges from supporters totaling an absolute minimum $10,000 (could be more depending on what you're trying to start and where) -- consider this is seed money or the "rainy day fund".
  • Obtain letters of support from local government, school superintendents, libraries and other nonprofit groups, peers in other nearby communities, other stakeholders and potential collaborators.
  • Write a business plan that includes: a statement of need for the organization; understanding of the audience to be served; a mission impact statement, scope of work for years 1-5, specific targets in terms of numbers of supporters, programs, performances, exhibitions, etc.; scope of collections and collecting, if part of your dream; collaborations/collaborators; operating budgets for years 1-5; plan for raising endowment funds; and evidence that all legal requirements are being, have been or will be met.
  • List of board members (or people who have agreed to serve on the organization's first board) with affiliations and what each brings in terms of skills, networks, and financial resources.
  • A job description for the board.
  • In addition to budgets, written plans for raising annual funds (membership, special appeals, fundraising events, etc.) that include lists of prospects, amounts to be raised, who has responsibility for raising it and by when.
  • Write a technology plan that not only talks about hardware and software, but speaks to how the organization will build its profile and audience -- as well as its infrastructure -- by using it.
Photo:  Bursting with Bright Ideas from fpsurgeon 

Monday, February 1, 2010

Five Guiding Trends to Help Your Organization Reshape Its Future

Thanks to a comment on one of the many listservs I read, I’ve just started reading Convergence:  How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector, published last November by the James Irving Foundation.  Right off the bat I’m encouraged that there are many avenues cultural nonprofits can explore right now based on the report’s findings.

These avenues stem from five trends the report discusses: 

• Demographic Shifts Redefine Participation
• Technological Advances Abound
• Networks Enable Work to Be Organized in New Ways
• Interest in Civic Engagement and Volunteerism Is Rising
• Sector Boundaries Are Blurring
The future will bring a wider array of structural options and a greater willingness to experiment, as well as a heightened demand for accountability and compelling measures of social value.  The driving question will be, “What do we want to accomplish?” Successful organizations will quickly move beyond traditional assumptions about how those goals are attempted and think creatively about structural forms, recognizing that different goals demand new solutions.
These five trends offer so much opportunity and optimism for cultural organizations – two commodities that seem to be in short supply.  Fortunately, inventive thinking is free.

Discussions based on the driving question, “what do we want to accomplish?”, are excellent starting points for reengineering organizational infrastructure.  Taking small steps, an organization can change its board composition, its committee structure, its staffing structure, its volunteer composition and structure, and ultimately its programming – even its physical assets – to support the answer to “what do we want to accomplish?”.

Photo:  Pigeon Point Lighthouse from MumbleyJoe