Arts & Culture Sector 2011: Striving for Systegic Survibrustainadaptinnovaccountabeffectipreneurism

In 2005, when I was working at Mellon, a fellow funder suggested that the funding community needed to stop using words like ‘strategy’. She lamented, “Funders got arts organizations to start using [such] business words years ago, but nothing has changed. They are not in better shape.” (Evidently, it takes more than using business jargon in funding guidelines and proposals for arts organizations to improve their finances.) Around that same time I correctly predicted that ‘innovation’ would emerge as the next funder mot-du-jour.

Funnily enough, I was at a meeting of funders a year later at which some had recently jumped on the ‘innovation’ bandwagon while others, who had been using ‘innovation’ for a year or two already, were planning to take the word out of their guidelines because they had determined it wasn’t working. (Evidently it takes more than using business jargon in funding guidelines and proposals for arts organizations to overcome risk aversion and ‘innovate’.)

Systemic’, ‘effective’, ‘sustainable‘, ‘adaptable’, ‘entrepreneurial’, ‘accountable’, and ‘artistically vibrant’ now appear to be vying for top spots. ‘Emerging’, ‘mid-career’, and ‘established’ are continually embraced and abandoned like partners in a square dance (and many artists and organizations cleverly reposition themselves accordingly in order to qualify for grants). Of course, these buzzwords never fully displace the ubiquitous pursuits of ‘excellence’, ‘accessibility’, and ‘diversity’.

This juggling of magic words and continual tweaking or overhauling of definitions and priorities by many (but certainly not all) funders is understandably maddening to grantees. Funders intend no harm, and most probably believe their ideas and guidelines are well-received because … well, who would dare to say otherwise?  The generally accepted wisdom is that it’s safer to flatter funders than to challenge their intelligence. Even when funders convene arts leaders to ask for ‘honest input’ that might help shape their priorities and guidelines, all too often participants leave the meeting shaking their heads at the amount of BS flung around the table.

Fantasizing for a moment … I wonder what would happen if funders started getting letters from organizations saying: “After reviewing your guidelines we have determined not to seek a grant in support of ‘Systegic Survibrustainadaptinnovaccountabeffectipreneurism. We must admit that we understand neither what is meant by this term as you are using it in your guidelines, nor why you believe it to be an appropriate, beneficial, or achievable goal for our organization or others like us. We considered writing a fictional proposal that would please you, because we could certainly use the funds in pursuit of the goals we’re actually pursuing, but decided this would be both disingenuous and a waste of time (yours and ours).” 

I suspect most funders would shrug off such a letter and that it would have little impact.

David Dower at Arena Stage has noted at more than one gathering of theater types that being “an ‘artist-focused‘ organization that develops ‘new works‘ by ‘emerging’ artists‘ of ‘culturally diverse‘ backgrounds,” is the current phrase that pays with theater funders.  As you might suspect, it has become an articulated goal (if not a goal in practice) of theaters across the US. I’ve witnessed funders and theater leaders alike chuckling at David’s observation, no doubt in sheepish recognition of its truth.

The promotion of such jargon by funders, and the dutiful adoption of it (on paper anyway) by arts organizations has been going on for decades. What’s bewildering and disappointing is that this mechanical and dysfunctional pas-de-deux persists despite the fact that both grant-makers and -seekers seem to recognize it as such. I wonder whether we have simply given up on the possibility of enlightened dialogue, or whether we are we actively trying to avoid it?

So … any predictions on what the winning word for 2011 will be?

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  1. says

    I continue to fear that people in the not-for-profit world use “entrepreneurial” without having any real conception for what it means, and it has almost risen to the level of being a pet peeve now. I’m ruminating on how to express myself on this in a way that will make it plain for NFPs…

    • says

      David – I couldn’t agree with you more. I often hear cultural entrepreneursim used in such a way that I think many people conflate it with “the ability to raise money.” No doubt, the ability to persuade people of your cause, develop new income streams, and creatively finance your institution (particularly as stable sources of support seem to be drying up left and right) is one aspect of entrepreneurism, but entreprenuerism also implies personal ownership/risk/and ROI that is not generally appropriate in the NFP world given that there is no “owner” and profits are to be reinvested in the organization and not returned to the CEO. There is also a market orientation and opportunism implicit in entrepreneursim that does not seem to jibe with NFP goals (to maximize mission rather than profits). Those who persist in using this term in the NFP arts world (the “cultural entrepreneur”) need to think carefully about what this term really means in that context and how it is distinguished (in practice, character, and values perhaps?) from an entrpreneur that is, say, working as a producer in a commercial context. I look forward to reading your blog on the topic when you write it.

      • Michelle Boone says

        For your consideration, arts funders buzz words in 2011:
        – Capitalization – introduced at this past Grantmakers in the Arts conference
        – Multi-culturalism (I’m sure the Census data will generate new ways of describing the nation’s changing demographics)

      • says

        I agree that the word “entrepreneurship” is used by cultural non-profits in ways that severely dilute its meaning. However, I also happen to believe that my organization is *genuinely* entrepreneurial, which makes me a bit biased! =) As such, I’d like to push back a bit on your argument that a market orientation and opportunistic approach are inherently inconsistent with NFP goals.

        Having a market orientation means simply that your attention is focused externally on your constituents. If an organization comes to view its funders as its primary constituents, then I agree that it has gone badly adrift. But if it (properly) defines its constituents as the population it exists to serve (through the provision of charitable goods and services), then having a market orientation can ensure that an organization remains grounded in reality and responsive in the face of a changing world. The alternative – relentless internal focus on an abstract mission – can all too easily slip into a kind of high-brow masturbation.

        Being opportunistic, meanwhile, just means that you’re paying attention and that you’re agile enough (intellectually and organizationally) to leverage unanticipated circumstances in a positive way. Isn’t that just part of being an effective organization? I can’t fathom what’s desirable about the alternative.

        Finally, I fear this discussion is overlooking what is perhaps the most important aspect of entrepreneurship. The essence of entrepreneurship is identifying an opportunity to create value where it doesn’t currently exist, marshaling the resources to realize that opportunity, and then assuming some amount of risk in its pursuit. (It’s an authentically creative process, by the way.) In a field where limited resources are spread increasingly thin, where audiences are abandoning us in droves, isn’t this exactly what we need? Innovation (another admittedly overused buzzword) alone isn’t enough; it’s entrepreneurship that turns an innovative idea into lasting change.

        • says

          Adam –
          As always, you make excellent points. I don’t think that entrepreneurism is completely out of bounds in an NFP. But I do think it is a misunderstood term and that there has been insufficient dialogue about it in the field. And that concerns me. Cultural Entrpreneur is bandied about all the time and I imagine that very few that use the term could define it and discuss what distinguishes a “nonprofit cultural entrepreneur” from an “effective arts manager” from a “for profit entrepreneur” from an “innovator.” So we say entrepreneur and some people simply mean “flexible” or “innovative” (as one poster commented); others means “able to find capital”; others mean “creating a niche where none existed and persuading others of that value.” You’ve gone a long way to aiding this conversation with your post. Paying attention to the market is inevitable (and a necessity in US where so many arts organizations that are entireley dependent on box office and other earned revenues) – but it can also go too far and then you see nonprofits being accused of being “for profits in disguise” (because they are virtually indistinguishable from their commercial counterparts). Opportunism can be OK, if it means being responsive to the environment and making excellent use of new resources in support of mission. But I think it can also result in behavior that is more appropriate to a for profit. While I would agree that there are leaders and organizations that are both entrepreneurial (depending on your definition of the word) and provide great social and cultural value (as a nonprofit arts organization), I also think it is a term that could send us down a slippery slope. Thanks for the great post!

      • says

        Good point,

        I’m hypothesizing, but I think that the use of the word entrepreneurship in nonprofits has been stimulated by the rise in the last decade of public awareness of social entrepreneurs. These are entrepreneurs who absolutely do take risk and seek profit, while also seeking to do good. Microfinance is full of them, and Muhammed Yunis talks as though he invented the whole idea… perhaps he is unaware that inner city churches and other religious and cultural institutions have been doing this for decades (plural). The awareness of social entrepreneurship is probably the reason Illinois and some others now have an L3C incorporation category for low-profit (not nonprofit), socially minded businesses.

        Funders are certainly aware of social entrepreneurship, and I think they want to encourage the creative entrepreneurial spirit in their grantees. And you certainly can encourage this spirit within a nonprofit, even if you may not have, strictly speaking, an entrepreneurial venture.

      • says

        I hope I’ve captured my thoughts coherently here, Diane.

        I think that there is an aspect of entrepreneurialism that can be emulated by arts organizations to great effect which is what I try to focus on there. But you are absolutely right. The very model of NFPs prevent true entrepreneurship from ever being achieved. I had a friend confront me with L3Cs as the answer to that (as well as reading the arguments in its favor in 20UNDER40), but I see L3Cs as just another governance model that is good in some cases and not in others, certainly not the Great Answer for the Arts. As so much of the art that we promote is experimental (or is supposed to be theoretically) and therefore often not commercially viable, the NFP model still stands for me as the ideal solution.

        It would help to end the bigotry out there that makes the arts a “lesser form of charity” or even not a charity at all in some minds. Cultural exploration and the entertainment it brings along with it are essential to the human condition, and we need to find a way to make that stick for cultures worldwide. That’s a far, far bigger problem to handle though, so give me a few decades before I tackle that post 😉

  2. Polly Carl says

    This trend in the world of the nonprofit is disturbing and it’s a trend that became more entrenched in the economic boom of the late nineties up until about 2007/8. Our economy was filled with so much excess and arts institutions got in on this driven in large part by corporate boards whose individual pockets were overflowing. The result was not only a lot of new buildings but very large salary increases for those at the top of large arts institutions–no surprise that our institutions started to look more corporate. I wish that (as you and I have discussed Diane) “ethics” would become the new buzz word in 2011. Strange with all of the Madoff like behavior in the corporate sector that this word isn’t in the news everyday but the field might benefit from funders insisting on an organizations “ethical overview” as a part of all proposals. How do you pay artists? What’s the disparity between the highest and lowest paid person on your staff? What’s the relationship between capital expenses and artistic ones? Is there a proper relationship between actor pay and production budgets? You get the gist.

  3. says

    I’ll toss out a possible prediction – how about “creative austerity?” Of course, that might imply we’ve been “creatively profligate,” but “austerity” seems to have won favor with some…

  4. says

    Couldn’t agree more! I spent many years writing grant proposals for various projects, always trying to fit myself and the project into the changing guidelines. Now the discussion is focussed on entrepreneurial artists – which I would say that I am, but the difference is that I’m not a “not for profit”, Tugboat Music (and now The Green Golly Project) is an LLC. I didn’t want what I do to be either dependent on grants or altered in direction to fit funding guidelines, so decided to follow a different business model to achieve our goals. The point is that when you ask artists to become entrepreneurs you are asking them to do something very difficult and something that people who studied in music schools and conservatories (for example) are not trained to do. Is it little wonder then that the (at least small) organizations although addressing the jargon in their proposals don’t change much from year to year. They often have not the know how to implement the changes. Sorry for the rant- maybe schools need to offer an additional year or two in Biz school for aspiring artists. Or maybe the funders should just look to the excellence only of a given applicant.

  5. says

    I find that when people use entrepreneurial in the context of nonprofits, they usually mean flexible, nimble and fast. Which I think is really what is behind a lot of these buzzwords – innovation, entrepreneurial, adaptable – really these are all code for doing things differently and without the impediments that we associate with nonprofit institutions (specifically that they are slow, bureaucratic and risk-averse.) It doesn’t trouble me so much that funders want to encourage organizations to be different in the way they work, but it is especially troubling when those buzzwords are adopted as guidelines for grant programs that often do not actually support speed, flexibility or risk.

  6. Tim DuRoche says

    Systegic Survibrustainadaptinnovaccountabeffectipreneurism. . . wonderfully Germanic construction–I love their luxury of being able to neologize by compounding words. I worried for a moment that the northern European linguistic climate was influencing you.

    I’ve been waiting for “innovation” to seep into “public value” and have that domino into cultural nonprofits embracing the concept of “hybrid value chain”

  7. says

    This idea misses a major point: the target audience of fundraisers is not the organization, it’s the funders – who are probably for-profit businesses or people with business background.

    What successful business shouldn’t communicate well on the level of its target audience?

    As the #1 problem with arts organizations is the lack of business savvy/structure/etc, let’s not discourage any moves away from the bottom-line direction.

    • maria n smith says

      “As the #1 problem with arts organizations is the lack of business savvy/structure/etc” Is that REALLY the #1 problem with arts organizations? I have a hard time buying that.

      But your point is not missed. Fundraisers (or whoever is serving in that function) speak to funders, and the communication between the two is different than that of say, arts organization and arts consumer.

      I am not sure which word or words will emerge in 2011, but I’m sure fundraisers will find a way to talk the talk to get the dollars.

      If there are any funders reading this, when was the last time you asked a 40-year old founder established nonprofit about its leadership succession plan? Do you ask small arts organizations if they consider “success” to be growth? If they don’t, why encourage growth?

      While I wish I could predict what the jargon of 2011 will include, I am far more interested in how funders might try to change the game, not just the adjectives in proposals.

  8. Andrea Moore says

    I recently, tongue somewhat in cheek, listed various methods that come up in article after article about rescuing classical music (from itself?) “Entrepreneurship” was among them, of course, but in the case of concert music, a standard definition of the term is not out of place: an entrepreneur is a self-funded (or the person on whom most or all fundraising depends) impresario, someone who does have a vision and does assume the risks, and who provides opportunities for other musicians.

    I appreciate that way of working – it’s where institutions begin. What I object to is the air of breathless discovery in the coverage of such projects, as though this – at last! – is The Thing That Will Save Us All, rather than an essential part of all of music’s history. Perhaps as a result, the term is catching on among funders, though they continue to be obsessed with “accessibility”, and of course “excellence” when it comes to the concert hall.

  9. Amy Lou says

    I have long been bothered by the phrase “measurable impact” (or sometimes “measurable success”) of our activity. More than once, while writing an operations grant, I have been tempted to write that I will count the tear drops that fall from the eyes of audience members at every one of our shows, to prove that they have been moved. But then, the relevance of a piece of art doesn’t always occur in the moment that it is viewed. So I could, instead, follow audience members around for years so I can record the instant when they have their “aha” moment. But I don’t think that is the impact that funders are looking to create. They want hard numbers like ticket sales and restaurant meals and hotel rooms. Who cares if a soul is transformed?

    Based on the current global-speak, I think the next word to be spun could easily be “austerity” (after years of being expected to “grow” under continually shrinking funding). We will be encouraged to celebrate the life of artists because of their ability to create beauty even in times of austerity and indeed ‘austerity’ will become fashionable. We will see it everywhere. “The set was decorated with austere beauty”. “The brush strokes revealed a strict sense of austerity.” “Theatre companies are producing more with less in an attempt to achieve austerity.” Austerity will no longer be seen as a bad thing. It will be promoted as an artistic choice and something to strive for.

  10. says

    While the abuse of words, such that they become buzzwords, is simultaneously frustrating and entertaining, please keep in mind that it is only context that makes them sound like business words, or culture words, etc.

    Strategy is a word owned by business? Really? Most corporate strategy tools taught in MBA programs originated in the military, so perhaps generals would shake their heads at an implication that strategy is a business word. Further, who wouldn’t want to have an intelligent strategy for whatever she or he is doing, regardless of the organization?

    Likewise, “sustainable” is a word that many think is owned by environmentalism. When I read “sustainable” in a job description, I am 90% certain that this is about energy efficiency and reducing negative environmental impact. However, any business or nonprofit strategist would desire that whatever sets apart his or her organization would be something sustainable, whether it is great service, low prices, the best musicians in one’s orchestra, or excellent development of new plays. And as a finance manager in a nonprofit, my job is all about a different kind of sustainability, sustainability of financial resources so that the mission can continue long into the future.

    These are words. When they are consistently overused with less understanding then they deserve, they become buzzwords. But does that mean I don’t want strategy, innovation, sustainability, adaptability, access, diversity, excellence and much much more systemic throughout my nonprofit organization.

  11. says

    Another problem I have with this trend is it can create outcomes that are the opposite of what’s intended.
    If an organization needs funding and the only way to get it is to “commit” to a way of working that they a) don’t really understand and b) have no way of actually implementing, one ends up with organizations who are not only not innovating (or what ever the buzz word of the year is), they are now invested in lying about it.

    While it’s hard to blame organizational leaders for doing what works, in the end organizations given money and asked to do the best work they could with it would probably achieve real results more in line with what funders hoped for.

  12. says

    Your point about the difficulty of giving or receiving “honest feedback” between grantees and funders reminds me of a moment several years ago. A major national arts funder had convened 5 o6 representatives from each of 10 or 11 state participants in a national pilot program. I don’t remember the precise topic of conversation or why I offered the observation that most arts organizations would find it challenging, if not impossible, to be completely honest with funders at the table with them. The facilitator quickly moved on with no comment–but during the break that followed a few minutes later, I was taken aside by three different people (a researcher hired by the funder, the facilitator, and one of my colleagues) to be chastised and scolded (like a child who’d used a naughty word in an inappropriate context) for making this comment in front of the funders.

    I hadn’t even offered any critique to the funder; just the suggestion that it’s hard for NFP’s to be honest with donors received a major smackdown. Since then, I’ve had great conversations one on one with funders and my careful but honest answers have been well-received. But if you can’t even talk about the existence of the challenge, how will the field be able to confront the challenge itself?!

  13. B.N. says

    “XYZ’s new grantmaking initiative is designed to look at an organization’s overall level of capitalization and capital needs. Institutional Capitalization in particular will address capitalization through facilities, building on XYZ’s years of experience working with facilities projects. While facilities may be the lens through which organizations look at capitalization, the required analysis will be much broader and require a deep understanding of how facilities and building reserves fit within and support an organization’s long-term sustainability and achievement of mission. We believe that helping organizations become better capitalized will ultimately produce higher quality products and be more impactful, innovative, and relevant in and for their communities. Institutional Capitalization is a first step in helping organizations think about capitalization best practices, the methods to determine need, and the resources necessary to achieve adequate capitalization. “

  14. says

    “What’s bewildering and disappointing is that this mechanical and dysfunctional pas-de-deux persists despite the fact that both grant-makers and -seekers seem to recognize it as such.” – Diane

    “I hadn’t even offered any critique to the funder; just the suggestion that it’s hard for NFP’s to be honest with donors received a major smackdown….If you can’t even talk about the existence of the challenge, how will the field be able to confront the challenge itself?!” – Sabrina

    Sabrina nails it. This is all about the power dynamic between funder and grantee. And yes, no one ever wants to talk about it, but it needs to be addressed head-on if anything’s ever going to change. In my opinion, the surest path is to re-cast the relationship between funders & grantees as a partnership, one in which the funder expects to learn new things and is open to (nay, expects) occasional failure as part of the process of experimentation, progress, and growth. I’ve written about these concepts in a couple of older posts you might find interesting:

  15. Laura Zimmermann says

    I hear what Ian is saying, but still, I’d put “partner” on that list of buzzwords.

    Describing the relationship between a funder and a nonprofit as a partnership primarily serves the interest of the funder. It makes us feel like one of the gang. But a partnership in which one member reserves the right to leave in the middle of the night with the checkbook and the cash (or “refocus priorities”) while the other is left with the mortgage and the children is not the kind of relationship most of us would consider a “partnership.” Or at least not a healthy one.

    • says

      Laura, I think what you’re articulating is the difference between a partnership in name only (a buzzword) and a real partnership in which both parties recognize that they have skin in the game. I’m not that concerned about buzzwords; to Aaron’s point, they are just words, and eventually any word can become a cliche. But in my view, a *real* funding partner would (a) provide GOS; (b) provide multi-year support (albeit perhaps with contingencies/performance benchmarks built in); (c) advocate on behalf of the organization with other funders and with the public; and (d) be engaged in formative progress evaluation on a continual basis rather than at one Big Moment coinciding with the next grant proposal. Too much to ask?

      • Laura Zimmermann says

        Ian, you have beautifully articulated good (and perhaps rare) funder practice. Your (a) and (b) have long been acknowledged as the gold standard, while simultaneously being lamented by many program officers who feel hamstrung by their leaders’ devotion to short-term project grants. As for your point (d), I can just say yowch, and yes. As a field we are very, very poor at knowing what, why, or how to evaluate, and funders are often guilty of asking for data we aren’t sure how to use.

        All that said, though, and having the luxury of working in a place that does do multiyear, gen op grants, I still think it’s misleading to call us partners. Is that blasphemy? A mutually respectful relationship in which funders and grantees aim to achieve shared goals, yes, but to pretend to partnership leaves people perpetually disappointed about power* and resource differentials. My cab driver and I both want me to get to the airport on time, but are we partners? My brain surgeon and I both hope for a successful operation, but partners? We have different roles to play.

        *Alliteration accidental!

  16. says

    A potent question right now as funders struggle with diminished endowments and organizations grapple with dwindling resources. As you point out, this dance has been ongoing so we can’t just blame it on current financial fears. But as you ask, ultimately, are artists being served through such constricted language? There has been a lot of discussion about “austerity” and “authenticity” as buzz words for the climate (and I think Paige Price’s notion of “creative austerity” is intriguing). I have recently been deeply considering (and something that I think is going to come in to play as resources remain slim) the notion of “artistic equity” and how it relates to supporting the diversity represented by artists, audiences and funders. While this isn’t in the RFPs, it seems to be an underlying principle–and one that has both strengths and weaknesses.

  17. janet brown says

    What a great and honest blog, Diane. Thank you. I agree with much of the above…most successful nonprofits are entrepreneurs, taking advantage of opportunities and taking risks; properly capitalized organizations can successfully implement their mission and support itself in good or bad financial times, big or large, with or without buildings, sound business practices will never go out of fashion…call it whatever you want. Partners…I agree with Laura. It’s a word we like to aspire to but the dynamics make it rare to achieve. Partners are possible but only if nonprofit are willing to walk away from the table and the money when the “fit doesn’t work.”

  18. says

    From my experience at Arts Council England simply recasting the funder/funded relationship as a partnership doesn’t make the power dynamic vanish. Acknowledging it helps, followed by prolonged and consistent honesty and very active listening – by all parties. (The way people approach funders can reinforce the negative power dynamic.) A sense of joint project can make it feel like a partnership, even when things get tense, as they can – that requires joint articulation though.

    And in terms of words, the word for 2011 in the UK could be resilience – I will admit to some discomfort at how ubiquitous that’s become, although when I wrote about how it could apply to the arts I did say it shouldn’t becomer a funders’ buzzword. Probably in vain though!

    (I once called a literature development project Buzzwords to give myself a small smile when making funding applications. One can reclaim words after all.)

  19. says

    Thanks everyone for the thoughtful comments. I’m enthused by the caliber of the conversation. I think this question of partnership that Ian initially raised and others have commented on is really compelling and will pick up on it in next week’s blog.

  20. Tommer Peterson says

    I’d like to go back to Buzzwords for a moment. Just for drill, I looked for the definition….

    Buzzword: a term of art or technical jargon that has begun to see use in the wider society outside of its originally narrow technical context by nonspecialists who use the term vaguely or imprecisely.

    I expect a lot of buzzwords we hear in philanthropy have leaked over from the growing field of arts management in academia, where there appears to be an epidemic of neophily. (There’s a new buzzword!) If it is “new” it must be good, and if it came from the high-tech field, it must be even better.

    On the other hand, putting names to things allows them to be examined and discussed. The best example I can think of is “power dynamic” in philanthropy – a great concise buzzword borrowed from the field of psychology that allowed a previously taboo topic to be recognized and brought to the table.

    GIA is actively promoting a better understanding of capitalization of nonprofits, and one of my current challenges is finding ways to “un-buzz” this word. There is widespread misunderstanding of this economic term and surprising emotional baggage that it carries for some. We are actually looking at ways of explaining capitalization without using the word itself, just to avoid misunderstandings.


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