Wednesday, January 28, 2009

When Times Get Tough, the Tough Start Sharing

Slipped in under the large headlines in today's Times-Argus about IBM's layoffs, was a shaded box informing the world that Frog Hollow was closing down its Middlebury operations and selling its building. A few months ago the Chaffee Arts Center in Rutland announced it would close for the winter, citing high fuel costs and limited operating income as the reason for suspending its operations until this coming spring.

The stresses and strains of the economy have a very different kind of impact on the not-for-profit sector. In the private sector, when times get bad, operations are cut, staff is cut, business go out of business or get sold or taken over by other businesses. The competition is fierce, the rules are pretty straightforward (eat or be eaten comes to mind) and the strong survive .

But in the n-f-p world, the organization's mission tends to overrule fiscal realities and the behaviors of boards often contradict their knowledge and experience as business people. The real question is, is this a good thing?

The answer is maybe yes, maybe no. Here's the problem. For a mission-driven organization, profitability often runs a distant second to emotional content as the driving force behind what sustains an organization. Huge accumulated debt, low salaries and the accompanying staff "churn" (high turnover rate), undercapitalization, and characteristically low investment in marketing and promotion are all symptoms of a not-for-profit ripe for disaster.

When times are good, these issues can usually be dealt with in a variety of ways that keeps the organization functional. But when times are like they are now, n-f-ps that tend to operate on the proverbial shoestring are at serious risk. How can boards overcome their own tendencies to ignore financial realities?

The fact is, some can't. And so those organizations end up flaming out and raising disproportionately large amounts of anxiety among their peers across the sector. Onion River Arts Council gone? Crossroads Arts Council gone? Gasp! Chaffee closing for the winter? Frog Hollow no longer in their Middlebury location? Horrors! It can't be!

Well there are things we can do as a sector and as individual organizations. Here are a few I've been preaching lately:

Explore with another agency sharing some of your basic administrative costs, like a shared administrative office space. Develop relationships with local senior centers and social service providers how your work might benefit their constituents, and vice versa.

Increase your marketing/p.r. budget
This sounds counter-intuitive in hard economic times, but if you don't value your own programs and services enough to make them known to people in your community, then you can't expect anyone else to either. Look at it this way...your programs may be even MORE valuable to your local constituency than ever before and you are the only one capable of forcefully driving home that point. You may have to do fewer programs, but if people value them more as a result--this could be a good thing.

Invest in staff
Since the economy is forcing you to consider how to do business differently you may need to spend some time and money helping your staff become more expert in managing new ideas, new relationships, and new technologies. Technical support/professional development grants are still quite available if you spend a little time looking for them (hint: the Arts Council, the Community Foundation, and the dept. of labor are good places to start).

Learn to say No
It always feels bad to say no to a great idea. But if you don't have the money or the personnel, you have to learn to say "hold on to that idea. We can't do it now, but we should revisit it when we have more resources."

Focus on Impacts (especially those that matter to your supporters)
To do this, you have to really know what matters to your supporters. Ask them. Pick up the phone right now. All it will take is maybe 5 conversations before you have some really good ideas and some direction. This will lead to healthy changes and new behaviors.

Make a "profit" and put half of it away into a 12-month CD
Don't settle for breaking even. Earn a little money for your organization every year. Take half of your net income and put it in a 12 month CD. Do this every year, and within five years you'll start to notice that you actually are starting to have a nice little operating reserve.

And if you REALLY don't know how to position yourself for the coming economic storm, please join us at one of our listening tour stops in the next six weeks. I guarantee you there will be a lot of great ideas to be shared among your peers.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Protest, censorship, civil disobedience and the arts

It is a happy accident that in the same week that Barack Obama is sworn in as President, the Arts Council kicks off its NEA/Big Read project, and the final 10 artists for the Orton/Arts Council "Art of Action" project are selected. The first activity needs no more explanation than to say that it is the culmination of the centuries'-long journey, sparked by much protest and civil unrest, towards a collective enlightment by the white establishment here in the United States. The second event is a national project focusing here in Vermont on Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, a fantastic novel about censorship and one person's journey towards enlightenment. The third is a project whose purpose is to engage the Vermonters in a broad and provocative "discussion" of Vermont's future through art.

The Obama Inauguration needs no more commentary by me than I made in an earlier post in November 11 (see "Election Reflection" below). Ray Bradbury wrote his novel in the context of the Nazi purges of Jewish culture in World War II and the post-WWII Cold War during which Stalin burned hundreds of thousands of books. The Communist witch hunts of the 1950s--an era that saw thousands of artists lose their livelihoods to vague and unsubstantiated claims of communism and anti-Americanism also fed Bradbury's concern about what happens to a society when it stops reading, stops caring about its culture and history.

How timely is it, then, that we return to this classic work and reflect on the role of civil disobedience and on the role of the arts in reflecting the essence of mankind's spiritual journey through life--even as we celebrate the election of our first black US president? I think it's perhaps more than a remarkable coincidence.

There must always be a place for public funding for the arts not just for projects that serve a greater "community" good or that increase public access to art and culture, but for projects and art work that is fundamentally controversial and focused on what we are NOT paying attention to in our popular culture. Why?

Everyone who has an income pays taxes. Everyone. Not just people like me and others who think and believe like me, but people who come from other countries and other cultures. Whether you're straight or gay, smart or dumb, interesting or boring, educated or ignorant, tall or short--if you have an income and you pay taxes you have (at least in concept) the right to have your artistic and cultural views reflected in what is supported by our public arts agencies.

Granted, this rarely ever happens anymore. We haven't had a really good controversy in publicly funded institutions since the Chris Ofili episode at the Brooklyn Museum (remember? Mother Mary and elephant dung were key ingredients) some 10 years or so ago. As I recall, it put Mayor "What's so special about being a community organizer?" Giuliani on the map for all of about five minutes until he realized that his office could ill afford to pull the plug on supporting cultural institutions--but that's another story altogether.

Why is this happening? What subliminal current is coursing beneath society's feet and causing us to stand up and elect an African American President, to select a work by Bradbury protesting the burning of books, and to create a project in which the arts is used to provoke civil action?

What spiritus mundi like Yeat's rough beast is slouching its way towards Washington on January 20th, towards Burlington on January 24th, and towards Montpelier on January 29th, to be born, and why? Perhaps it is time to reclaim the turf that was taken away from us by the Congress elected in 1994, and by the NEA cuts in 1995; turf on which the arts built sometimes astonishing and sometimes astonishingly offensive (to me!) works that reflected the best and the worst of American culture.

So is it a happy accident that these three activities are facing off in a short, 10-day period? Or is it the result of some collective, pent-up outrage finally being released?