10/09/2012 08:07 am ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

Artists and Staff Are Family Too

I often speak and write about the family of an arts organization. I am convinced that those organizations that do a better job of building an engaged, happy group of donors, board members, audience members and volunteers -- the external family members -- are far more likely to generate the funds they need to continue to create important artistic and educational programs.

Typically, I separate this set of family members because they give their time and money to the organization. While one certainly hopes they get something back for their generosity (and I believe they will not stay active as family members if they do not receive, at least, some psychic reward) they are generous of their own accord, with no obligation to engage with the organization.

Over time, I am becoming more cognizant that the other kind of family -- the artists and the staff of the organization who form the internal family -- are motivated in large measure by similar factors as the external family of donors, audience members, etc. and have a strong influence on them. When the organization consistently produces important, vibrant art and does strong institutional and programmatic marketing, artists and staff members become more engaged and happier to participate in the activities of the organization.

And when artists and staff are happier and more engaged, they work harder and far more effectively to build relationships with donors, audience members and others outside the organization who have the power to help it grow and develop. Artists can be our most effective fundraisers if they are happy; conversely, when they are angry or frustrated they can communicate these feelings to our supporters, often our most loyal donors who can easily become disenchanted.

I have seen the power of happy staff and artists displayed most potently when troubled arts organizations get healthy. When they are sick, and when the staff and artists are unhappy and frustrated, they can and often do more public relations damage than a vicious article in the press. They discuss the dysfunction in the organization, complain about poor decision-making and express severe pessimism about the future of the institution. This can only help to dissuade donors from participating. When the organization begins to regain its health, however, and the artists and staff are excited about future programming, pleased with aggressive marketing efforts and optimistic about the health of the institution, they become important advocates for the organization, encouraging donors and audience members to become involved.

This is one of the reasons that labor strife is so damaging to arts organizations and must be avoided whenever possible. Unhappy employees almost always lead to an unhappy family. And it is too easy for members of our external family to depart for happier organizations where they will be embraced by artists, staff and other donors and audience members who are happy to share the excitement of their organization. Long after the labor problem is solved, the impact can be felt.