All the pandemic did was rush oblivion along.
The end of this version of the nonprofit arts industry was coming relatively soon, even before the pandemic. It’s a system borne of privilege and elitism, forgetting that art all by itself is not a charitable mission, no matter whether it’s in the IRS code or not (it’s not). In the largest organizations, survival is based not on how many people take part, but on how many rich people donate. That’s unsustainable when the rich people start turning 80 and their kids want nothing to do with you.
But you don’t have to just sit there and blame audiences, donors, artists, writers, and major stakeholders (including yourself) for your company’s lot. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is. The news articles you’re reading are just another day of doomscrolling. There is a way forward for the intrepid among you. All you need to do is recognize one thing: failure is what got you this far, and failure will save your ass.
But to fail with understanding (instead of failing, folding, and forgetting), it might help you to think of a sandcastle and the various points of view surrounding one.
A sandcastle is ephemeral, to say the least, but worth appreciating, particularly because of its fragility. One will never see any particular sandcastle again, even if the same tools were used to create it. Wet sand is used to make intricate designs, but the sun eventually dries everything out and makes the structure more crumbly. Even the slightest wind will knock off dozens of grains of sand, let alone a steady sea breeze. And when the tide comes in, the whole thing will disappear. Some might call that a failure.
Through memory, however, we can appreciate the sandcastle for what it was, learn from the experimentation it took to build it, study the latest conditions, and see if there’s a way to build a better one.
It’s not the sandcastle’s fault that it disintegrated into the waves. Not the builder’s fault, either. Ultimately, even a castle made of rock will disintegrate into the ocean. How do you think we got sand in the first place?
Your nonprofit arts organization will never be exactly the same as it was a decade ago, five years ago—possibly even a half hour ago. Things change constantly. The only that doesn’t change is this: the community needs services. You have people in your community who need help. They’re hungry, homeless, and sick. Or their pets are.
Or they’re so uneducated as to be subject to the whims of an upper class that may or may not care. They need tools, not merely to survive, but to contribute to a society that they believe does not want them. All the political calls for the catastrophic reversals of women’s health, civil rights, and the right for people to love whom they choose to love – these stand as evidence of an uncivil society whose goals are financially oriented, but not financially viable. Correction: these issues make life financially viable to those with the finances to make them viable.
Everyone else has to trust charity, which is not in high supply.
As job openings become scarcer, the economy is seen as more stable. When middle class wages increase, most economists refer to that as damaging to business. Businesses raise prices when middle-class wages rise, invoking a never-ending spiral of capitalistic betrayal and pain. Inflation doesn’t seem to rise when the wealthiest among us rake in money, making their finances even more powerful throughout the process. And when your nonprofit arts organization caters to those who profit by that system instead of those who suffer by it, your organization is complicit.
Instead, your nonprofit arts organization (it’s a charity, remember?) should, of course, be doing something about that. Shouldn’t it? Or, do you subscribe to this notion, as a reader did?
“As I recall not-for-profit means non-commercial which doesn’t necessarily translate into a requirement to aid the ‘underserved.’ Certainly good if one can do both, but, in my mind, not the primary goal for not-for-profit arts organizations.”
Time moves forward for you and your nonprofit arts organization. Do not continue to expect a result based on a pre-pandemic, pre-2008, pre-September 11, pre-tech-bubble-burst, 1980s-style status-oriented system whereby those who attend and donate to the arts gain footing and sway within their castes. That time no longer exists, except for a select few white elder statesmen, with the emphasis on “men.” Thankfully.
Stop building sandcastles for a few galactic minutes and go out for a proverbial swim. Feel the waves instead of just watching them. Learn more about life and the materials around you. Everything you experience in the ocean can inform you about, well, building a sandcastle, if you want it to. Or assembling something new out of the ingredients of the ocean. Or better, you can learn about power structures and how to help those at the bottom – if you believe they deserve to be helped. That’s a key element to success in the nonprofit industry: lifting people from being eaten.
And learn that there is no such thing as failure. Whether a sandcastle reverts to its original state by virtue of a swell, a 2-foot wave, an 80-footer at Nazaré (Portugal), or a category 5 hurricane, the result is the same and you were not the cause. And because you were not the cause, you can’t necessarily fix it, except by recognizing the boundaries and purpose for building a new structure that serves people who need it.
Stop blaming the world after your sandcastle gets taken away from you. It was never yours to begin with. Besides, nothing is stopping you from finding new ways to succeed except the wrongheaded idea that somehow, for your comfort, things must not change. Free yourself from tying your legacy to something as brief and unstable as a sandcastle. Sand is worthless when people need your help.
Based in Kirkland, Washington, Alan Harrison is a writer and speaker specializing in nonprofit organizations, strategy, the arts, and life politics. His columns appear regularly in major publications. Contact him directly at email@example.com.
If you’re feeling generous or inspired, just click on the coffee cup above. You don’t have to, of course, but if you can afford it and find some value here, please provide the desperate need for caffeine. Alan is always looking for good opportunities to write and consult for nonprofits that need a hand. And, of course, that elusive Perfect Opportunity™.
BIG NEWS: Alan’s new book, “Scene Change: Why Today’s Nonprofit Arts Organizations Have to Stop Producing Art and Start Producing Impact” will be published in January. CLICK HERE TO PRE-ORDER IN THE UNITED STATES. If you live in the UK, CLICK HERE.
A few more copies may be made available for those booking conferences, reading engagements, and speaking engagements. Recruit your local bookstore, conference panel, or boardroom to get a visit from Alan. Let Alan know if you want bulk copies for your board!