12/06/2010 08:30 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Is Missing in too Many Strategic Plans?

Recently, I was asked to meet with the board and staff leadership of an arts organization that has made great strides over the past two years.

In this turbulent environment, this arts center has strengthened its board, created new earned income programs, and cut costs in ways that are transparent to its donors and ticket buyers. The accumulated deficit has been reduced and there is a new spirit of optimism among the board members, staff members and artists of the organization.

But our meeting was still disturbing to me. When the group presented its plans for the next three years there were proposals for creating a sizeable cash reserve, revitalizing the gift shop and catering operations, completing a substantial debt reduction program and building more aggressive programmatic and institutional marketing campaigns. Each of these plans was clearly outlined and admirably thought through.

But there was one substantial hole in their plans: there was absolutely no mention of artistic or educational initiatives.

How was this organization going to raise the money required to build its cash reserve fund or reduce its deficit without creating the programming needed to entice new ticket buyers and donors? When I raised this concern, I was told there were ideas for new programming but they were not formed well enough to be mentioned in the plan.

The following week I taught a group of arts managers in one of our regional capacity building programs. The topic was planning. I asked each participant to share the section headings of their plans. They had sections on Missions, Goals, Objectives, Marketing Plans, Fundraising Initiatives and Financial Forecasts. But not one of the groups had any specific artistic or educational programming plans.

I asked each group to read their mission statements. Every one of them was focused on artistic and educational programming. But as these groups did their planning, there was no explicit link made between their missions and their strategies.

How can one have a mission related to dance or theater or music but have no specific plan for programming?

How can one have marketing, fundraising or financial plans that are not based on the future work of the organization?

There is clearly a misunderstanding in many organizations about the role of the mission. Missions drive the entire planning process. The only reason to write a plan is to create a roadmap for achieving the mission. A plan that does not include specific programming is a meaningless document.

When we fail to recognize the primary role of programming in our strategic plans, we are implying a lack of trust in the value of the work we do in the arts. Good artistic and educational programming is not simply an expense that must be compensated with ticket sales and fundraising; good programming is the primary driver of revenue and, therefore, of fiscal health.

No wonder so many artists accuse arts managers and boards of ignoring the art in favor of financial concerns. It is right there in our strategic plans.