The Hard Lesson and The Silver Lining for Arts Nonprofits in This Down Economy

Building Money Muscles

A lot of leaders in the nonprofit field, particularly in the arts, are feeling the economic pinch. More like a squeeze. Ok, like a wringing. Yes, it’s tough.

But also, it’s a lot like Aesop’s grasshopper that partied a little bit too much during the summer months when he should have been preparing for the winter months. For quite a time, art organizations have coasted – yes, coasted – frequently complaining about money and still having the luxury not to have to do anything about it. This is how you can have a company with an annual budget of $200,000 and a company with an annual budget of $2,000,000 that both vomit identical laments about funding cuts and lack of government support: “Oh, if only we were more like Europe!” (Seriously, esteeyefew.)

That’s because, obviously, spending money doesn’t require any skill. But managing it and multiplying it does. This is best put by millionaire entrepreneur and author MJ DeMarco who said in an interview:

“Financial discipline is blind to income.”

Sobering Reality for High Art

Now, take that lack of discipline and add to it a misguided sense of identity and you will get a real hiccup in progress. I have been present at TOO MANY conversations where nonprofit leaders openly, almost violently, scorned any talk of building wealth. “We don’t do that! It’s not about sales, it’s about art!” Clearly, you cannot have it both ways – Cry about a problem and then outright reject the solution. Yet, that’s what we’ve had for a good long while, self-righteous contradiction and blatant self-sabotage (I am a recovering anti-profit artist too, by the way). The perks: few. The damages: plenty.

Lots of organizations have made the mistake of defining their work as above the common man and woman, determining from an isolated perch what divine gifts they should privilege the masses with. The result is perfectly good community spaces that have little or no activity, events chirping with crickets in the audience, and artists and administrators deserting the field in droves. Many nonprofits have allowed themselves to function irrespective of their positive impact on the citizenry. Ironically, it is under those very obligations – that these nonprofits are of the Social Sector and, by design, are meant to serve the community – that they receive any funding to begin with! Nonprofits, in fact and by virtue of law, belong to the public.

However, arts leaders have remarkably strong will – for better or worse. So there are some that can be overly dedicated to ruinous notions of “authenticity” which give rise to making oneself unapproachable, neglecting your constituency’s observations, overlooking best practices in marketing and outreach, and curating programs without a care whether anyone will buy a ticket or not. Well, those good times are just about over. We won’t be Europeanizing any time soon. Nor will philanthropy, even when the economy does bounce back, magically rain paper on all of us. Some staple grants are only giving half of what they gave last year, and in other cases, not renewing at all.

Opening The Gates

Struggling organizations will be required to mature in order to persevere. Make no mistake, this isn’t about simple tactics to be added to your toolkit. Don’t think making a half-hearted and misguided try at facebook will change anything. Making new money in this era will require a full identity and values overhaul. You will be required to practice generosity, to listen as much as you talk, to invite feedback. To connect with your patrons, to practice humility, to learn from those more expert than yourself. To cultivate a better relationship with wealth, to learn new financial skills, to diversify income streams (and yes, to sell tickets).

The ones unlucky enough to get through without having to make this critical transformation will, no doubt, be doomed to structural and programmatic mediocrity.

Don’t fret. This is all good news. We have been sleeping for too long. We finally get to have our memories jogged. These tough times are an opportunity for us to recall why we got into this business to begin with. Yes, I said business! We can still have fun along the way but playtime is certainly over, Grasshopper. We get to revisit and update our mission statements. We get to have this grand chance to get better. To serve better. To prioritize the people. To emotionally connect. To regularly exercise basic kindness.

Nonprofits can no longer afford to operate in social and monetary alienation. Rest assured, the economy will make darn sure of that. And the message is booming through loud and clear: “Humanize, or die.”

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