Be More Entrepreneurial

money stackIn a recent post, I wrote, “Stakeholders are demanding that non-profit arts & cultural organizations “be more entrepreneurial” – which is, too often, code for, “figure out a way to operate in which you don’t have to keep asking us for money.”

Literally, of course, that would be the uncharitable meaning of the phrase.

Today, let’s try for a more charitable interpretation.

Suppose that such stakeholders are simply pointing out the useful fact that for any number of economic, political, technological, business, competitive, demographic or other reasons, it is increasingly necessary for nonprofit organizations to diversify and strengthen the financial means by which they fuel their operations.

Some 5 years into the Great Recession, does anybody really still want to argue that point?  And even when the economy returns to boom times, is there any downside to nonprofit organizations having pursued (and achieved!?!) that objective?

I, for one, am not overly worried that “Be More Entrepreneurial” drives nonprofit organizations to sacrifice artistic quality or ambition for the the pursuit of earned revenue.  I do believe that “Be More Entrepreneurial” fuels the need to explore and secure greater levels  RELEVANCE, CONNECTION & ENGAGEMENT with the audiences we serve.  (And while the benefits of that engagement may be reflected in earned revenue, they may just as easily be measured by increased membership, contributions and sponsorship, too.)

To my original post, several readers responded with alternate interpretations of the directive.  I was particularly intrigued with the reply of Leonard Jacobs who posted, “The cold, nasty, unfortunate, maddening and infuriating truth, Matt, is that far too many nonprofit leaders and thinkers and doers think “entrepreneurial” is a dirty word.”

I understand that.  It’s a quagmire combination of fear, inexperience, uncertainty and inertia that casts “entrepreneurial” as a dirty word.

It’s time to get past that.

Here’s my little tip for HOW:  Let’s worry less about about the meaning behind those who tell us to “Be More Entrepreneurial.”  It really doesn’t matter.

Instead, let’s focus on the spirit by which we RECEIVE the message.

The next time someone tells you to “Be More Entrepreneurial,” try accepting it as they said, “Find new ways to make people love you.”

# # #


Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Traditionalist says

    The “new ways” needed to make audiences love culture should focus on changing audience mindsets, not on changing institutions. Cultural institutions should be about excellence, not relevence. The reason certain audiences may not “love” them is that these audiences have been short-changed by our educational system.

    The responsibility for building audiences should lie with our school system, not with museums, libraries, symphony orchestras, opera, theatre or dance companies. Their jobs are to be excellent, not to change themselves to fit popular taste.

    Audiences need to be shown something AUTHENTIC, not something watered down to a low common denominator. It is time to stop giving average people the message that they aren’t capable of appreciating anything highbrow, time to stop manipulating people into believing that there is no such thing as difficulty or greatness, for fear of “intimidating” them. That politically correct attitude is in fact MORE patronizing than being frank about the existence of high culture.

    People visit the great cathedrals of Europe because they are awe-inspiring in scale and intricacy, not because they are relevent. Scale in architecture is automatically impressive; appreciation of the metaphor, erudition and poetry that distinguish the other arts and sciences may not be so intuitive, but can be taught. Teaching is the province of schools!

    The responsibility for “finding new ways” to make people love culture should lie in schools. They need to return to providing students with a classical education.

    • says

      Dear Traditionalist.

      Your moniker suits your argument.

      I am appalled by the sanctimonious assertion that “The responsibility for building audiences should lie with our school system, not with museums, libraries, symphony orchestras, opera, theatre or dance companies. Their jobs are to be excellent, not to change themselves to fit popular taste.”

      Of course the US education system should be responsible for establishing (among other things) some level of arts & cultural literacy. Vibrant arts & cultural engagement is essential to a healthy democratic society.

      Schools can awaken interest and build a foundation of familiarity in arts & culture. But it is the opportunity and necessity of arts & cultural organizations to feed that interest and build on that foundation. If you believe that schools have failed (for whatever reason) to fulfill their responsibility, then you must surely recognize that there’s NOBODY OTHER than arts & cultural organizations left to work to remedy that situation for increasingly large numbers of the US adult population.

      You say that “Teaching is the province of schools!” That’s a very limited way of looking at the world. Life-long learning is the opportunity of everybody! Arts & cultural engagement deserves to be a life-long endeavor that offers audiences an unlimited supply of exposure to new ideas and experiences.

      You cite the great cathedrals of Europe as examples of artistic “excellence.” They may be, but they were designed & funded under a religious/government authorizing environment that looks nothing like the earned/contributed revenue “business model” required of US arts & cultural organizations. We are pursuing profoundly different objectives. The goal of arts & cultural organizations in the US isn’t about “building cathedrals” (or whatever would be its genre equivalent for theatre companies, symphonies, art museums, dance companies and others). For better or for worse, we ARE in the business of producing and presenting experiences that engage audiences.

      You present a false dichotomy to suggest that pursuing “relevance” detracts from the pursuit of “excellence.” To be perfectly clear, for the business of US arts & cultural organizations, the capacity of arts & cultural organizations to pursue artistic excellence RUNS DIRECTLY THROUGH THE HEART of audience “relevance.”


      • Traditionalist says

        My point is that arts organizations are spreading themselves too thin. The fact that they are forced to be “relevant” (in today’s politically correct “buzz word” sense) has spawned their enormous expansion to encompass legions of administrators and other sorts of social engineers, whose salaries and projects necessitate these institutions following the unfortunate corporate mindset, or “business model”, that is driving this expensive, vicious cycle.

        I completely agree with you that greatness is always relevant, in the true sense of the word. High culture is defined by its universalities, which function at many levels. High culture inherently offers something for everybody.

  2. says

    When an audience is paying you money, it’s an indication that they perceive value to what you are providing. I view the idea of being more entrepreneurial as taking the feedback the audience is giving you. If not very many people are buying tickets you could argue that you either A.) aren’t providing something that’s valuable or B.) aren’t helping people understand that value so they want to buy a ticket.

    Even if you have all your operating costs covered, you should still take an entrepreneurial approach to gleaning the information that ticket sales provides about what people want to see and just as important how they want to be informed of it.