THE BLOG
08/15/2011 08:40 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2011

Consequences

One of the joys of working in the not-for-profit sector is that one is engaged in supporting a mission that is meaningful and motivational.

Unlike in the for-profit sector where the mission is clearly to earn profits for the owners of the corporation, not-for-profit staff members are working for the good of the community. (This is why governments allow grants to these organizations to be tax deductible.) Exactly what the organization hopes to offer to the community is left up to its staff and board members; missions therefore are deeply personal.

This has clear rewards but also pitfalls.

While no one can say that the mission of a not-for-profit is 'wrong,' it is equally true that missions carry consequences that must be evaluated and addressed in the planning for the organization.

Although every arts organization has an opportunity to grow and thrive, none has the right to do so. Most arts organizations do not live to see their fifth anniversaries; the excitement of creating a new arts venture quickly dissipates when the funding required to grow never materializes. Disappointment and bitterness is sure to follow.

The sustained growth and development of an arts organization is earned, through the creation of important art and the establishment of a base of support for that art.

The more restricted or difficult the art, the more challenging it is to develop this cadre of supporters. When an organization pursues the work of one unknown artist, when the work is of a highly specialized or inaccessible nature, it is far harder to build this base of support. It is not impossible, just difficult.

There are highly successful arts organizations of color, avant garde organizations, and rural arts organizations. These groups have pursued challenging missions, less attractive or less well understood by many. But they have marketed their work well, identified potential supporters and embraced them in a smart, disciplined fashion.

Mainstream organizations face a related challenge when they engage a new artistic leader who attempts to reshape the work of the organization. There is nothing wrong with this. Arts organizations and their productions inevitably mature and grow and change. But is does have consequences.

Often times the long-standing family members of the organization may not understand or appreciate the new art. They may leave the family and look to engage with another organization that better meets their needs.

Board members must be mindful of this phenomenon as they engage new artistic leadership and approve the artistic plans of an organization.

Simply because the art is good does not mean it will be supported, especially by the current base of ticket buyers and supporters.

Artistic transitions must be made carefully and with large doses of audience and donor education.

New supporters must be constantly identified and cultivated.

Failure to do so can have dire results. The organization can be left with critically-praised work but little audience or ticket revenue. The donor base can be decimated. And the very existence of the organization can be in jeopardy.

Missions, and the artistic programming that supports them, have consequences.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.