Friday, January 19, 2007


From previous columns you’ve come to understand that in my world view, advocacy is not about money. It’s about the idea. It’s about relationship-building. All very well and good, you say. But as an arts organization, I have to pay my electric bill this week and payroll next. What are my options?

I’m afraid to have to tell you that if you are looking to state government or any other public source for funding to alleviate your immediate cash flow problems, it may already be too late. In very rare circumstances, the timing may work out and a corporation or foundation may have some “year-end” funds lying around waiting to be spent. But it’s rare and, in truth, these entities are looking to “maximize a positive outcome” not respond to or, worse, “fix” a drastic situation.

What are your options? You have three.

* Option One: Bring your Board in on the problem and help them to understand why it is theirs to “own.” All organizations have cash-flow problems from time to time, and as an administrator, you should not be forced (by your own conscience or by your board) to assume sole responsibility for the circumstance that you find yourself in. Sharing the burden may cause a moment or two of embarrassment, but doing so will be much easier than explaining why, three weeks from now, you suddenly had to close your doors and now have to explain why no one but you saw it coming. That is a mistake you want to avoid. Sharing also helps you sleep at night.

Spend a day or two developing a realistic understanding of what your three- to six-month cash-flow needs are, bundle them together and tell your board that this is what you need for them to contribute and/or raise in the next eight weeks to get you past the crisis. You might be pleasantly surprised at who steps forward to take a leadership role in this effort.
* Option Two: In addition to bringing your Board in on the problem, bring your audience and donors in on the problem. Remember, your patrons are your friends! They have given you money because, in return, you have either offered them entertainment or shown your organization to be an important part of the fabric of their community.

Make a game out of sponsorship opportunities. “For a mere five hundred dollars (above your annual gift, of course) you can become next month’s official ‘Please Turn Off Your Cell-Phone And Pager Phone Bill Sponsor’ or ‘Not-A-Cold-Seat-In-The-House Natural Gas,’ sponsor. Get three of each, and make sure that all your publicity recognizes their contributions (or not, if they don’t want the recognition!). You get the idea. As with Option One, you might be pleasantly surprised at who steps forward to take a leadership role in this effort from this larger pool of audience and patrons.
* Option Three: Tap the line of credit you were smart enough to get six months ago from your local bank sponsor when you were flush with funds. Okay, yes, I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek with this. It’s almost never a good idea to tap a line of credit to cover basic operating expenses. A line of credit is best used when you simply have a timing issue where cash flow is concerned. For example, say you have $5,000 coming in from the Arts Council in six weeks, $1,000 of which is to cover a portion of the overhead relating to the program you’re putting on whose expense is being incurred now. Tap the Line of Credit for $1000 now, and pay it back when the grant comes in.

There are probably a dozen other things that you and your peers have thought of to move past these types of crises. The bottom line is that the healthiest organizations are the ones that spend a great deal of time looking at the big picture, looking at the long term, looking at trends, building long-term and varied relations with suppliers, vendors, local elected officials, statewide and national elected officials, patrons, and foundations.

Advocacy, ultimately, is about relationship building and education; reaching out not just to people with money, but to everyone who you think should be interested in your programs and services, and inviting them inside. You want to show them, let them experience for themselves, what the arts bring to their lives, the impacts art has on their communities.

Sometimes, this means that introducing them to cultural programs they are already familiar with (think Kronos Quartet playing works by Jimi Hendrix) and THEN introducing them to works (Mozart? Stockhausen?) you want them to hear.

If you are putting on high quality performances of Wagner in a “Bluegrass Only” community, you might want to rethink your business plan.

If you claim you are reaching 1800 people a year with your six-concert chamber series, and it turns out you’re performing in a 300-seat hall to the same 40 people six times, you’re not going to fool us (or anyone else) for long because we will hear what is really going on from others in your community. People talk. People want to do what’s right.

Use that to your advantage. Listen to them. Design your programs to address their needs first. Eventually they will become supporters and advocates for the work that you do. When that happens, you will have far fewer cash flow crises.

Thank you!

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