I wrote this opinion piece for the July/August 2006 issue of Inside Arts, the magazine of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters [available on-line (registration required)]. I reprint it here with my permission.
In his recent monograph, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Jim Collins makes a rather bold statement: "We must reject the idea — well-intentioned, but dead wrong — that the primary path to greatness in the social sectors is to become ‘more like a business.’" His point is that most businesses are poorly run, and that many business practices correlate with mediocrity, not greatness. So, to him, telling nonprofit organizations to "run like a business" is like telling artists to lower their standards, or telling a visionary leader to "aim low."
For those of us who have been struggling to convince cultural leaders to work with more focus, more discipline, and more responsiveness, Collins’ words come as a bit of a blow. But I have to admit he has a point. For the past decades, our industry has fundamentally misunderstood what it means to run "like a business." As a result, we’ve tended to become more rigid, less joyous and increasingly disconnected from the communities and the creative spirit we were formed to serve.
In the Arts Administration MBA degree program I direct, we get to see both sides of the question — dwelling in a School of Business, and working every day with cultural nonprofits. From that perspective, I suggest a six-point alternative to "running like a business," to give ourselves more worthy targets:
- Arts organizations must strive to be better than a business.
Being responsible, accountable, transparent and responsive is the lowest standard we should set for ourselves. Let’s be exceptional.
- We must use business tools with an artist’s hand.
Business tools are merely ways to see the world, and ways to structure our interaction with it. Let’s be like the artists around us and explore those tools with creative abandon.
- We must embrace our roles as social engineers.
So much of our work involves engineering compelling social experiences and catalytic community space. Let’s learn the tools of those trades with the same energy and effort we commit to our more familiar tasks.
- We must define our own goals, rather than having them assigned to us.
We are continually lured by outside measures of success: economic impact, educational enhancement, social service. If these are our goals, let’s embrace them. If not, let’s clarify our purpose to our constituents and ourselves.
- We must work with clarity and discipline.
Nonprofit arts organizations don’t have the luxury of elbowroom; every action must be taken with elegance, intent and an openness to learn and improve.
- We must calculate our efforts in multiple currencies.
There are a multitude of resources beyond money that drive what we do: joy, discovery, connection, sense of purpose, sense of place and on and on. Let’s make room in our spreadsheets and strategic plans to ensure we’re measuring what matters.
In the end, behaving "like a business" is a matter of semantics. Arts organizations are businesses, so their behavior is businesslike — just as good or just as bad. The deeper question is what kind of business do you want to be? And what skills and perspective do you need to get there? It’s not about mimicry. It’s about clarity, curiosity and courage.