ARTS + CULTURE ORGANIZATIONS: TIME TO POP THE HOOD!
Richard Graber, Director of Grants + Capacity Building
I’m hoping Houston nonprofit arts and culture organizations will inquire about our new Capitalization Program and learn about what it is…and is not. A few weeks ago a colleague approached me at an art opening saying, "Hi, Richard, I signed up for your upcoming grants meeting…whatever it is.” She said it with tentativeness, I assume, because she did not fully understand what the “launch of our new capitalization program” was all about. I'm sure she's not the only one. To yet another inquisitive person, I explained the program by using a car as an example. Not to oversimplify, but in an effort to keep it pithy, imagine a nonprofit organization as a car — every time we start it, we trust that the engine will fire up, and we will drive to our destination. We do this day after day — it's routine.
Unfortunately, all too often, we experience problems with our cars; the much needed oil change and/or new oil filter, tightening of a fan belt, tire rotation, wheel alignment, and the list goes on. But more often than not, we ignore these problems and drive our cars from point A to point B hoping we will get there without any hick-up or larger problem. It's first and foremost a time issue — more often than not, we don't have time to make the appointment to get the car into the shop for the needed service. We continue driving day after day, hoping for the best. With most vehicles, "popping the hood" is dreaded because today's engines are barely recognizable, and we don't even know where to start looking for problems — we need a mechanic. Wouldn't it be nice to have that freedom to perhaps take the day off from work and get the car to the shop for that much needed tune-up?
In the event your car is in perfect condition, the question then becomes are you driving the vehicle best suited for you and your needs? Maybe you're driving a two-door, and a four-door would be more suitable. Considering all the material you haul on a regular basis, don’t you think perhaps a pick-up might be a better option for you than that sedan? At any rate, to assess these situations effectively takes time, talent, and money. Let’s face it: money is tight; time is short; and talent is costly, so consequently, and more often than not, we avoid the situation altogether.
Running a nonprofit arts organization can sometimes feel similar to the car analogy. If you’d ask just about any managing or executive/artistic director of an organization if they feel as though they would like to (or need) to change or fix something within his/her organization, I would venture to say they could think of at least one (or more) thing(s) they see as challenges internally that they cannot or do not have the time to address. In today’s economic climate, being in a leadership role within an arts nonprofit can feel like trying to maneuver the marble in a wooden labyrinth game – one wrong move and down goes the marble! It’s almost impossible to have every skill set needed to be an effective leader.
Watch the Capitalization Program Launch video below.
So what do we do? We focus on areas in which we have expertise and do the best we can day after day. Even if we surround ourselves with people who have skills in areas we lack, we still do not address some of the underlying challenges that organizations often face. A huge reason for this is an underlying problem and what the Nonprofit Finance Fund refers to as the “mis-capitalization” of our arts and cultural organizations. Through their work in markets across the U.S they have found:
Arts organizations excite and inspire audiences across the country with their creative and dynamic artistic programs. Yet behind the stages, the exhibit halls, the literary publication and the websites, most nonprofit arts organizations are in a constant financial struggle. A major contributing factor is that the vast majority of them are mis-capitalized - financially structured in ways that stymie their ability to propel and sustain their aspirations.
To me, this is like the car that is in need of a serious tune-up. Because of the challenges mentioned earlier, leadership cannot effectively focus on the underlying challenges or tackle underlying organizational assumptions within an organization effectively and, so, focus is placed on what it takes to keep the organization running with procuring the annual operating capital needed year after year (general operating funds to organizations, like gas in the car). Thus, the challenges are often left to fester and can remain unearthed and even worse, can lead to a downward spiral, keep an organization in perpetual plateau mode or in complete stagnation.
But let’s be fair, arts and culture organizations typically are built for continuity and not change. So what does that mean for arts organizations? The best way to sum this up is to recognize that arts organizations need to seriously explore new pathways — hence, the very appropriate name of this program, New Pathways for the Arts | Houston. The skills needed to implement change within organizations is much different than those needed to be efficient and effective with the established programs and routine practices. It may be time to challenge internal assumptions at our organization; it may be time to explore "adaptive assistance" as opposed to technical assistance; it may be time to develop "new muscles" for running our organizations with the goal of becoming more adaptive in all we do.
This program is designed for organizations to begin thinking along those lines – it will, in essence, allow them to “pull over” to the side of the road, pop the hood, assess the situation, and get with a mechanic. Perhaps most importantly, organizations will need to commit to instituting change internally once a new pathway is identified, however that may manifest itself through this program. Change is never easy, but it is what organizations will need to consider very seriously as the local and national landscape continues to shift around us. It’s all about becoming more adaptable.