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!

Friday, January 5, 2007

A Tale of Two Towns

It’s easy, when one advocates for the arts, to conjure up a Cuba Gooding-like fantasy in which a talented (but perhaps unknown) artist shouts “Show me the MONEY!!” and, poof, it magically appears. In my last column, in addition to demonstrating how infinitesimally small public funding for the arts is as a percentage of federal and state budgets, I said that advocating for the arts was actually not about getting more money. I even suggested money wasn’t really all that important. In this column I explain what I mean.

This is a story about two communities. One is large (population 9500), the other small (population 1900). One is, by Vermont standards, urban and industrialized; the other decidedly rural and still very much agricultural. Except for one thing, which I shall address in a moment, those are the basic differences between the two. What these towns have in common is a legacy of families who have a deep and abiding love and respect for Vermont in general and their communities in particular; major issues with traffic and safety; a high school that is under increasing pressure to produce outstanding students with fewer and fewer resources; an innate distrust of “flat-landers” who are, according to the “man on the street,” ruining all that is good about Vermont; and reasonably good access (eight miles or less) to a major interstate highway.

For the past generation or more, these two towns have had to confront significant issues around economic, social, and cultural survival. The larger town has seen its core businesses erode and, particularly in the last two years, a significant number of vacancies on Main Street. The small town has had to confront enormous pressures to upgrade transportation facilities, to cater more and more to the tourist economy instead of focusing on ensuring the vibrancy of its farm economy. Both are seeing their young adults leaving because there are too few jobs capable of supporting young families, and social, cultural, and recreational amenities are minimal—especially in the small town.

But there is one significant difference between these two towns, and it is this: the small town has become very good at articulating what it cares about, what it values, what matters to its citizens. The large town has not. The small town appears to be more concerned with making decisions that are in the public’s interest, that add to the perception that the town is a vital community worth preserving and protecting. The large town, with a few notable exceptions, has not.

The result of these two “public mind-sets” (if you will) is that the small town is managing the changes placed on it by globalization, the economy, and Vermont’s demographics in a way that is empowering its citizens and enhancing the community’s self-image. The large town is, by virtually any standard of measurement, foundering. The emphasis for the small town is on what matters, what people value; for the large town, it’s now only about how much (or little) things cost.

The difference between these two towns is like the difference between one who advocates for the arts based on a clear articulation of the “value-added” the arts bring to a place, to a community, to a project, and one who only focuses on what he could do if he only had more money.

The truth is, I have yet to meet a single person who has made a convincing argument that an arts council “needs money” as much as a food bank, or a child-welfare program. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is difficult to deny.

But in my world-view, every coin has two sides. Government, the will of the people, must not be allowed to address all of society’s ills without also investing in society’s benefits: those things that bring joy, beauty, and (forgive me) social capital. It has been demonstrated over and over again that one cannot simply throw money at a problem without also throwing money at the solution. Problems are easy to spot; solutions are more subtle. Increasing police presence in a community to put young men and women in jail for what are essentially antisocial crimes (drug abuse, for example) is easy and politically defensible. But just doing that will not address the root cause. Arts programs that engage kids after school, that offer alternative outlets in addition to recreation programs, that allow kids to freely “express” themselves in a safe environment that is mutually supportive can, do, have, and will offer a lasting solution. And that is just one example…there are many others.

The program, the service, the project, the outcome, the value to the community—these are what our advocacy has to focus on. We have to model our behavior after the people of the small town. If we only focus on the money, and how our administrators and our artists and our suppliers all need more, we will spiral downward and wonder, like the large town, where the heck we went wrong.

“All well and good (you say) but I have an electric bill 60 days overdue and I can’t make payroll next week. I need the money NOW.”

Stay tuned…