A few weeks back I wrote a post responding to a session at the Theatre Communications Group conference in which an esteemed leader of a resident theater (Michael Maso) called “bullshit” on some criticisms being lobbed at large theater institutions. I am incredibly grateful to all who took the time to read or respond to the post. The comments, including a link to Mr. Maso’s response, are well worth reading if you have not done so. I want to pick up on some of the ideas raised by Maso and others in a future post, but today I want to draw attention to comments posted by Corey Fischer at the recently closed Traveling Jewish Theater. In talking about the struggles the organization faced in trying to maintain its commitment to its mission and goals, Corey writes:
The sad part is that in the years leading up to our decision to finally close down, it seemed as if we were being punished for our commitment to be a home for artists. Some foundations and consultants implied and sometimes said straight out that to attempt to have artists at the center of the company and pay them a living wage was frivolous, unrealistic and irresponsible. Perhaps. But as economic conditions forced us to change that basic aspect of our identity, it became harder and harder for us to accomplish our mission of creating and presenting original work. When we recognized that the only way to even have a chance of surviving was to become one more theater producing plays that could just as easily be done by a host of other companies, we saw no reason to continue.
When I read Corey’s posts I was reminded of the 1989 book “Permanently Failing Organizations” by Marshall W. Meyer and Lynne G. Zucker, which I recently read on someone’s recommendation. The authors define permanently failing organizations as those that persist even though they are no longer achieving their goals. While economists and others have long theorized that higher performing organizations persist and those that are not high performing are driven out of business, Meyer & Zucker found that persistence and performance can become decoupled and companies that are no longer achieving their performance goals (e.g., profits to owners/shareholders in the case of for-profits; and artistic and social mission goals in the case of not-for-profits) can continue to exist for quite a long time.
Without going too deeply into the theory in this post, the researchers postulate that organizations reach a so-called ‘permanently failing’ state when those who are ‘dependent’ on the institution (primarily but not exclusively, managers who depend on the institution for a paycheck and who, therefore, often value maintenance of the organization over other performance goals) begin to amass power, which they then use to keep the organization alive, but in a low performance state. Why do these managers fail to pursue strategies that might lead to higher performance (e.g., higher profits or higher quality)? Because such strategies often entail taking risks that might lead to “outright failure”–something those running permanently failing organizations want to avoid at all costs.
It strikes me that in nonprofit arts organizations–in which there are no owners (or shareholders) in the legal sense, in which permanence is often a goal of the institution, in which mission and goals are notoriously difficult to define and measure, and in which it is actually quite difficult for up-and-coming innovators to access the resources and power necessary to give the most established institutions a run for their money–it would be particularly easy for organizations to drift towards a permanently failing state (or to become ‘nonprofit arts zombies’, to use the phrase coined by Brian Newman in his chapter in the book 20 under 40).
Interestingly, Traveling Jewish Theater clearly felt it had the option (and encouragement by funders and others, even) to pursue persistence at the expense of its mission and goals by becoming “just another theater company doing work any other theater company could do.” However, TJT chose the road less travled in the nonprofit arts sector. Laudably, TJT felt it was “more important to accomplish the mission, than to survive” (a phrase used by Woolly Mammoth board member, Pete Miller, at the Scarcity to Abundance conference at Arena Stage in January 2011).
In the nonprofit sector we have come to associate age and size with performance; and yet we have also become a sector in which there is an almost constant call for innovation and new models. Perhaps the two are not unrelated? Perhaps we perceive the arts sector itself as being in the doldrums not because there are no innovators in our midst (there are plenty), but because we have, for too long, held up our permanently failing organizations as leaders and, by doing so, have permitted them to define our sector’s goals and its performance.