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April 9, 2007

Creativity ain't what it used to be (and never was)

Charles Leadbeater offers a 20-minute perspective on creativity, our misconceptions about it, and the tensions between old ways and new ways of innovating.

Spinning out ideas he launched years ago in his monograph, the ProAm Revolution (and his new book, We-Think, available for download here), Leadbeater suggests that our traditional view of how innovations enter the market -- special people in special places creating things that are pushed down the pipeline to passive and waiting consumers -- is no longer true, if it ever was. Rather, the traditional, corporate approach to creativity and innovation is decreasingly able to develop radical innovation, and spends much of its time stifling the innovation of talented and networked amateurs (bloggers, software developers, user groups, and such).

While Leadbeater isn't talking specifically about professional nonprofit cultural organizations, he might as well be. At times the parallels may make you squirm a bit in your seat.

Posted by ataylor at 8:31 AM | Comments (3)

April 10, 2007

What do markets ''feel'' like?

I've railed on before about the need to make cold, detached data more relevant and accessible to the working arts manager. After all, if our work isn't informed by evidence -- past performance, financial history, market indicators, demographics, economic measures, and so on -- we're managing on a hunch.

While the obvious response is to develop more thoughtful two-dimensional graphs and charts, Richard Hodge at SpeculativeBubble offers a more visceral approach. His virtual roller coaster turns data points into altitudes, taking you on a ride of relative home values from 1890 to today (click the image in this post to play, or jump to a larger version of the video).

Granted, the roller coaster visualization may not directly inform your strategic decisions (although the ending precipice will make you think twice about buying real estate in 2007). But the effort sure does translate an abstract concept into accessible terms. Imagine charting a similar coaster for your organization's cash flow, and you'll realize why your bookkeeper looks so woozy all the time.

Hang on tight, and ''feel'' the data.

(Thanks to Mark for the link!)

Posted by ataylor at 1:04 PM | Comments (0)

April 12, 2007

Planning the creative city

Cultural Planning ToolkitDeveloping a community cultural plan is a bit like creating a family budget -- we all know we should have one, but we don't know where to begin. Thanks to the good folks up north at the Creative City Network of Canada, communities now have a colorful and clear ''how to'' resource for creating that cultural plan (for the family budget, you're on your own).

The Cultural Planning Toolkit is a free download and a helpful web site developed for Canadian communities and government officials, but it's flexible enough for use in any setting. Says the promotional text:

The toolkit has been developed to encourage community leaders, planners and local government staff to explore the potential of cultural planning. In particular, we hope to demonstrate how cultural resources can support the delivery of a spectrum of community priorities.

Also available is a toolkit for cultural mapping, to help communities gather and track the cultural assets and activities already at work.

Posted by ataylor at 9:04 AM | Comments (2)

April 13, 2007

Same as it ever was

A post at the Donor Power Blog posits that all the chatter about a next generation of marketing (''marketing 2.0'') and the related talk about ''fundraising 2.0'' are ignoring a fundamental point: no matter the medium, the basics remain the same.

...all of that is less important than what's always been true: If you want to motivate people to give, you have to:
  • Find the right people.
  • Tell a rip-roaring story.
  • Show them how they can make a difference.
  • Make it clear what happens if they don't.
  • Make it easy to give.

And while I might add a few addenda to that list (''Steward their gift with sincerity and care," "Show them the difference they made," and "Make it easy to give AGAIN"), I'll admit they have a point.

It's easy to get lost in the tools and transitions of engaging and audience for earned or contributed income. In the end, it's all about the same thing.

Posted by ataylor at 8:40 AM | Comments (2)

April 16, 2007

Same basket, fewer eggs

In response to a troubled city, and what appears to be a desire to consolidate governance, the Heinz Endowments announced last month that they were refocusing their giving strategy in Pittsburgh, and shifting their significant resources into fewer causes.

The three ''big bets'' that will receive 30 percent of Endowment giving over the next five years are public school reform, downtown real estate development, and economic development projects combining technological innovation with a concern for the environment. The new focus will inevitably mean that many annual grantees will see lower checks in the next five years, or no checks at all.

Pittsburgh literary critic Bob Hoover flags the fact that the arts are not directly listed among the ''big bets,'' despite a history of significant giving from the Endowments to the arts downtown. He worries that the loss of contributed support will compound the population loss and audience exodus already underway:

Our major writers took their inspiration from a city that encouraged their imagination with its crowded streets of people from different cultures, its classical educational system, its pride in the Carnegie Institute and Library and the industrial wealth that supported the arts....

We're at a crossroads, and it seems to lead out of town. The third piece of bad news might be that our artists will be taking the next bus to somewhere else.

Pittsburgh and the Heinz Endowments have spent serious resources over the past decades on building and sustaining the city's vitality through the arts. The new focus suggests that the emerging ''theory of change'' doesn't directly include the arts in the top three levers to be pulled.

ADDENDUM (4/19/07): The thoughtful comments to this post by John Federico and the Heinz Endowment's Janet Sarbaugh underscore that this is a complex issue, and that Heinz giving to the arts, especially downtown, advances at least two of the three new ''big bets'' identified by the Endowments. That said, redirecting 30 percent of resources means that some traditional recipients of Heinz support will be left with an empty hat next year. It will be interesting to see who that is.

Posted by ataylor at 8:43 AM | Comments (2)

April 17, 2007

Button by button, thread by thread

A trail of web links led me to the work of Stuart Kauffman, a biologist with a thoughtful focus on self-organization and the science of complexity. In his book, At Home in the Universe, he applies those concepts to all sorts of organic systems -- from the origins of life to human social networks to civilizations.

One thought experiment on the nature of networks struck me as particularly relevant to the arts leader:

Imagine 10,000 buttons scattered on a hardwood floor. Randomly choose two buttons and connect them with a thread. Now put this pair down and randomly choose two more buttons, pick them up, and connect them with a thread. As you continue to do this, at first you will almost certainly pick up buttons that you have not picked up before. After a while, however, you are more likely to pick at random a pair of buttons and find that you have already chosen one of the pair. So when you tie a thread between the two newly chosen buttons, you will find three buttons tied together.

The magic arrives as you get to half as many threads as buttons. All of a sudden, most of the clusters become cross-connected into one giant structure. The sea of disconnected buttons transforms into a tightly connected system, where you can't lift one button without moving a thousand.

It's a fabulous metaphor for the slow and seemingly random connections we make as artists, arts managers, and arts organizations. If we keep to the business of making those connections, we can eventually (and rather suddenly) change the shape and nature of the world.

Thanks to The Sophist for the connection.

Posted by ataylor at 8:02 AM | Comments (0)

April 18, 2007

Time to rethink the professional arts conference

The Philanthropy 2173 weblog offers a short list of innovative conferences now providing free video access to their content on-line (and a curator that's pulling them together). The blog links back to a New York Times story on the TED conference, and its extraordinary success in giving away its keynotes on the web.

According to the conference's media director, June Cohen, the give-aways aren't a ''gee-whiz'' feature or an afterthought, but rather a core strategy in advancing both mission and money:

"Conventional business logic would tell you that in a community like TED you have to keep your commodity scarce and expensive to retain brand value," she said. "But the same year we started releasing most of our content for free we raised our conference price by nearly 50 percent and still sold out in 12 days."

The Times article flags the content-sharing strategy as an emerging trend:

Of the 11,000 or so trade shows and corporate events each year in the United States, about 10 percent in the last year have begun to use videos from their shows to generate more revenue, according to Darlene Gudea, publisher of Trade Show Executive Magazine, an industry publication. "Show organizers are realizing that only part of the industry comes to a trade show, leaving a lot of educational opportunities, and revenues, on the table," Ms. Gudea said.

Within this trend, consider the strategy, structure, and mind-set of the traditional professional arts convening -- Arts Presenters, OPERA America, Americans for the Arts, Theater Communications Group, American Association of Museums, and so on. Workshops and keynotes are behind the gate, and rarely shared in a strategic and open way (admittedly, cost and technological expertise are barriers). When audio, video, or digital versions are available, they're off to the side and rarely indexed for access by the wider world. Overall, a flawed concept of the conference commodity -- that people pay their registration fee for the content of the event, rather than the context of smart people together in space and time -- seems to drive event design.

What if we perceived professional arts conferences as entirely permeable -- where the insights and ideas of major presenters flowed around the world like water? Wouldn't that advance the profession more profoundly? And wouldn't smart people pay even more to attend the live event?

Clearly, we couldn't achieve the sheen and polish of TED. But a few thousand dollars in equipment, and some dedicated volunteers, could move the issue forward. Perhaps, dare I say it, the major service organizations could share the capacity to share their content.

Posted by ataylor at 8:58 AM | Comments (4)

April 24, 2007

Quiet Junior, mommy and daddy are talking

Pitty the poor Joyce Theater, which seems to be the last political football still in play for the arts district of Ground Zero. According to a recent New York Times article (subscription likely required) the Governor is back in the game just as it seemed the City was to carry the ball. And the performing arts center is one of the few elements of the project still open to influence and gamesmanship.

It is, perhaps, an extreme but natural progression for a development project that's equal parts commercial, political, and metaphorical. The role of the arts in that mix has been plagued by the persistent tension between honoring loss, celebrating freedom, and the inconvenience of actually fostering free expression about that loss.

What will likely emerge from this intense political focus and the clash of the development titans? An unsustainable venue with extraordinary operating costs that doesn't fit the art, doesn't suit the artists, and distorts the vision and passion of whatever resident company remains when the doors are finally open.

So much work has been done to integrate the arts into the political process of cities, counties, and states. From time to time, one has to wonder (as Sir John Tusa does in the London Times) whether arts policymaking is honestly about advancing the arts.

Posted by ataylor at 8:36 AM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2007

Chasing the fountain of youth

Involving Youth For those not yet concerned with the need to engage a younger generation in the nonprofit arts, cultural policy wonk Barry Hessenius offers more reason to panic in his new report, Involving Youth in Nonprofit Arts Organizations, published this week with funding and guidance from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. (Barry is also blogging about the report and the corresponding ''open forum'' sessions in his post today.)

According to the report's opening salvo:

The future of nonprofit arts organizations, large and small, depends on attracting the best new talent to administer their affairs, to serve as artists and audiences, and to act as advocates, boosters, and financial supporters. Given the shrinking pool of younger people and the increased competition for their attention, action to meet this pressing, and increasingly complex, challenge can no longer be left to a vague future date.

Hessenius suggests that some meaningful efforts have encouraged younger artists, but initiatives to foster youth involvement throughout the arts -- in leadership, governance, staffing, financial support, advocacy -- have existed only within individual organizations, or in patchy clusters of regions or disciplines. The recommendations?

As a field, the nonprofit arts sector needs to intensify its efforts to
  • convince young people of the value of involvement in the arts,
  • widen bridges and lines of communication to the next generation, and
  • involve young people in areas heretofore outside the scope of their experience, for example, financial support and advocacy.

Two immediate challenges come to mind when implementing these recommendations:

First, the nonprofit arts sector rarely, if ever, thinks or behaves as a unified sector, even when addressing such core and common challenges as this. When individual players are already working beyond their capacity, efforts toward the common good seem perpetually on the future to-do list.

Second, the generations we're seeking to ''convince'' have already proven their distrust of marketing and expressed their demand for meaning. A better national campaign about service and leadership in the arts will mean little if the industry isn't honestly and earnestly interested in providing value to younger generations -- through listening, responding, transforming traditional structures and practices, and remaining open to significant change in ourselves.

The best and only way to ''convince'' younger citizens that the arts are valuable to them is to actually be valuable to them. That requires not just a change of face, but a change of nature.

Thanks to Barry and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for informing and advancing the conversation. Here's hoping we can all turn this productive talk into positive action.

Posted by ataylor at 9:25 AM | Comments (7)

April 26, 2007

Defining the future of Americans for the Arts

The good folks at Americans for the Arts are diving into a strategic planning process, and scanning the environment to see how and where they can focus their energy in the coming years. As part of that scan, they've launched an on-line survey to gather insight and input from a wide range of constituents.

Lend them a hand by sending your thoughts.

Posted by ataylor at 10:17 AM | Comments (1)

April 27, 2007

The five meanings of ''scale''

Philanthropy and social sector specialist Peter Frumkin offers a useful series of posts on the concept of ''scale'' in the nonprofit world. The impulse to increase scale -- in organization size, in constituents served, in geography reached, and so on -- is pervasive throughout the nonprofit system. But few organizations or funders seem to understand the impacts and drawbacks of that impulse. To make the point, Frumkin details five strategic dimensions of scale among nonprofits, and explores the misconceptions and sandtraps within each:

  1. scale as financial strength
    The first meaning of scale is related to organizational strength and sustainability.
  2. scale as program expansion
    The second meaning of scale refers to the breadth or scope of service, usually measured by the number of clients served.
  3. scale as comprehensiveness
    The third meaning of scale refers to a set of programs that are closely linked together and that constitute a coherent set of resources for clients or communities.
  4. scale as replication
    Replication is one way to achieve scale, a technique that has been tried and tested in the business sector over a long period of time.
  5. scale as accepted doctrine
    The fifth dimension of scale focuses on the power of creating a new and accepted doctrine within a given field.

His conclusion to the series cuts to the core of our collective problem with scale. In our quest to increase our impact, we get confused about what it looks like when we succeed. Says Frumkin:

With all the obstacles preventing precise measurements of effectiveness and program quality in the nonprofit sector, it is very easy to use size as a proxy for impact and to embrace the idea that programs serving large numbers of people are contributing more to public welfare than those targeting smaller populations. In this sense, scale is much easier to measure than effectiveness and it represents an appealing way to change the conversation.

But the danger of such a move lies, of course, in the fact that scale is not a particularly good proxy for effectiveness and that many large programs do not deserve the support they receive, while many smaller programs deserve greater acclaim. Scale is not the problem in the nonprofit sector, nor is it the answer.

For more perspective on the issue of scale among nonprofits, see ''How Nonprofits Get Really Big'' in Stanford Social Innovation Review (thanks to Laura at WolfBrown for the link).

Posted by ataylor at 8:22 AM | Comments (3)

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