Make Yourself Indispensable

My hometown newspaper, the Winston-Salem (NC) Journal, is one of the papers Media General is selling to Warren Buffett’s BH (Berkshire Hathaway) Media Group. There was recently an article in the paper about that sale and Mr. Buffett’s communication with the publishers and editors of the papers the Group has purchased. The general take was that the new owners intend to be “hands off” in terms of editorial policy. But there was one sentence in Mr. Buffett’s letter that leapt off the page at me:

It’s your job to make your paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in your city or town.

The marching orders from the chief were not “make money.” They were “make yourself indispensable.” Of course, it is his conviction that with indispensability will come profitability, but his path to profit is via community connections. There have been other paths to profitability in print journalism. However, the days when those paths were successful appear to be numbered. The newspaper as a commercial enterprise is in trouble. Buffett is attempting to position his newspapers to benefit from “buy local” sensibilities by being local.

I had not thought before about the relationship between local newspapers and the arts. But Buffett’s admonition has stimulated my thinking in that regard. My ranting about community engagement has deep (though not exclusive) roots in the practical: our fundraising, marketing, and public policy efforts would be far more successful if people thought nice things about us. Seeking indispensability provides a new way of thinking our way to a bright future.

So imagine, how would your work be, look, or feel different if you sought to become indispensable (as opposed to “nice”) in your community? To be seen as an essential resource rather than an amenity? What would it take for your community to look upon your organization as being as vital as a grocery store? (A fascinating side track for your thoughts would be why you are not looked upon that way now.) If you say there is nothing you could do to achieve these ends, then I suggest to you that you don’t truly believe in the power of the arts in people’s lives. But since you do, the answers to all those questions define the essence of community engagement. And in my weariness I wonder why we are not spending every waking moment attempting to move the ball in that direction.

One of our nation’s most successful capitalists has pointed the way.  First, imagine yourself as indispensable, then be indispensable.




Next week I will be journeying to San Antonio for the Americans for the Arts Annual Conference. I hope to see many of you there. A new development that might interest those of you attending is that AftA is sponsoring a book signing for me. Building Communities, Not Audiences will (at last) be on sale. It is my understanding that the signing will take place at 4:00 pm on Friday, June 6 at CenterStage. I’d love to see you there.

I will be posting complete purchase information (print and ebook) as soon as all of the media are prepared for sale.

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  1. says

    Hi Doug,

    This issue has been top-of-mind for me, and one that we are grappling with at our community museum in Santa Cruz. Thanks for articulating it so clearly.

    I facilitated a vision planning session this evening for a local arts-focused charter school in Watsonville, CA. Your post was ringing in my head, and I asked one of the groups of parents and teachers to brainstorm what the community would look like if their school were to close its doors. Their answers–more crime, more juvenile drug use, more segregation, less environmental stewardship–painted an incredibly compelling picture of how valuable their school is to their community. Sometimes, it’s our constituents who can do the best job defining the value and relevance of our institutions.

  2. says

    I love this quote and idea from Warren Buffett. In my work with organizations, I want to help them define and communicate their “unarguable” value in the community. That’s a word I’ve made up to get at the idea of identifying and communicating organizational value that is difficult to argue with. Value that results from engaging people in personally meaningful ways. For example, the YMCA has as one of its tenants the vision of building healthy communities and families. Who can argue with that? I often ask organizations to consider this question, “If you closed your doors tomorrow, who would know or care?” A question that usually sucks the life out of the room for a few seconds. It seems to me that organizations are rarely asked to consider such a question. I believe when an organization can clearly answer this question, they will be indispensable. Thanks for sharing, Doug.

  3. Lance Aaron says

    Glad to hear you will be making a special visit to San Antonio. A special exhibition titled “Coming to America” has been staged for our Americans for the Arts visitors at our city’s Smithsonian Affiliated “Museo Alameda” Latino museum. An afterhours event will be held Saturday the 9th, 6-10. “Bienvenido”.