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


cdilly said...

This is a great post because it asks entrepreneurs-- or those cultural-center-starters-- to start at a different (deeper) baseline.

Your post calls upon mission. As you say, there are a lot of history museums and historic sites, and these sites (like other nonprofit organizations) need to constantly be asking themselves "what am I doing that's different?" and "why is this project special?" If this (especially) isn't done at the conception of an organization, then that organization will be directly competing with organizations that are doing the exact same thing, with the exact same effectiveness.

I think you make a good point, and it is well said. Thanks for the post!

- Colleen

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Thank you, Colleen! I'm enjoying your blog very much and have been meaning to be in touch with you.


Linda Norris said...

Hi Anne--
I think not just how community history should be shared or taught, but even more deeply--the question might be, why should we share or teach or preserve community history? If an organization can't answer the big so what question then perhaps they shouldn't come into being. I remember Dorothy Chen-Courtin telling us to ask why 5 times when developing a mission statement--great advice I still use.

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Great point, Linda. Thanks for taking the questioning to a deeper level. Yeah, I think the conversation has GOT to start there, otherwise, it's just more of the same -- the knee-jerk reaction, which I don't think "we" can sustain more of in the long run.

Susan C Hammond said...

I would like to include considering the social enterprise view point about any new nonprofit. How do we make this endeavor a social enterprise? If you can't launch with earned revenue plans in place I would suggest the organization does not launch independently regardless of the answers to the other questions.


Anne W. Ackerson said...

Susan --

You make a great point! I agree that a start-up must have a plan to fund its mission. Ideally, that plan ought to be as broad-based as possible.