Survival First?

In my introductory course in not-for-profit management, early on I pose a question to the students, “For a not-for-profit corporation, which is more important: mission or survival?” There is usually some lively chicken and egg conversation around the fact that no good can be done if the organization ceases to exist, but when reminded of the structural theory of the sector, it always comes down to the public service mission. If that is sacrificed, the reason for being is lost.

Recently there has been some interesting discussion about the relationship between the institutional tendency toward self-perpetuation and artistic mission (and artists). Barry Hessenius (of Barry’s Blog) recently said,

Have we grown the arts administration infrastructure to the point where its’ survival (and not the survival of art and artists) has become the prime directive?  Is the sustainability of the nonprofit arts industry now the driving force in all we do and the insatiable beast that has eaten (or at least threatens) the very lamb it was created to protect? Is art and are artists now the second class citizen(s) we espouse as our client and clients, but is that really now just semantical spinning of the true purpose of growing the industry we have spawned?

And Diane Ragsdale has lamented On artists being tossed off the truck from the same cause.

Any entity (whether organic or corporate) has an instinct for self-preservation. This existential focus is compounded in organizations. They act from what I call “the assumption of immortality,” a phenomenon (most) humans do not experience once they pass out of adolescence. No executive director or board president wants to be responsible for the “failure” of having to dissolve a corporation. Corporate “organisms” are also (maybe because of this) even more inherently conservative than we are as individuals. The mechanisms of administration become increasingly important over time. This is a recipe for the development of systems that are focused, first and foremost, on the well-being of the organization. All else, including mission, is secondary. This is almost never the result of conscious choice, it is merely an inherent tendency in the system.

As if this were not enough, the situation is exacerbated by another assumption–that growth is good. As organizations get bigger they need more and more resources (staff, money) to sustain the enterprise. This is why as corporations grow, they have a tendency to increase the percentage of their energy that is spent on administration. (A commonly understood example: As running for Congress has become more and more expensive, the amount of time required for fundraising has crowded out actually participating in the legislative process.) Paying the bills, keeping the doors open, etc., becomes priority one. Lest this should seem insufficiently nuanced, it should be remembered that there are often good motives behind “keeping the doors open.” Shutting down would mean, for instance, putting people out of work and denying services to some people. A focus on institutional survival is not simply narrow-minded self-interest. It’s more complex than that.

I wish I had a definitive remedy. However, at this point, my principal suggestions are 1) never, ever, ever lose sight of the ultimate mission, 2) recognize that corporations have proclivities that can lead them away from the mission (and be prepared to combat those tendencies), and 3) beware (seriously) of growth as an end in itself.

And what, you may ask, does all of this have to do with my mantra about engagement? The answer lies in the fact that the ultimate moral responsibility of the not-for-profit corporation is to serve the public good–the sector’s meta-mission. I also believe that the arts exist for the purpose of enhancing individual lives and making communities happier and more humane places to live. To serve those ends, arts organizations must be outwardly rather than inwardly focused and dedicated to things far bigger than self-preservation. In other words, they must be substantively engaged with their communities. And it is that engagement which will best ensure the long-term vitality of the arts (and its organizations).

Engage! (It’s for your own good.)


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