04/30/2012 07:40 am ET Updated Jun 30, 2012

Elect Your Local Arts Manager!

It has struck me recently that people who ascend to high government positions -- as mayors, governors or even presidents -- could do worse than to learn from arts leaders and other not-for-profit executives about creating loyal families of supporters.

Those who come from the for profit sector are trained to value, and believe in, results. Someone who has run a major corporation, therefore, and is then elected into a high government position, might be surprised when being right or being smart is not enough to govern effectively. They may have developed the appropriate strategy for their domain but have a tough time getting the voters to buy in to that strategy.

It takes the respect, loyalty and trust of a large portion of the electorate to govern effectively, to make tough choices and to propose and enact difficult legislation. If the voters trust their leaders, they can accept higher taxes, service cuts and even going to war. They may not be happy but they can be convinced that these actions are being taken to benefit the community as a whole.

We who work in the not-for-profit sector are used to the challenge and discipline of building loyal bases of support.

We cannot run a university, hospital or opera company without a myriad of constituencies who are willing to support us and work on our behalf.

We must woo donors, board members, audience members and volunteers. We must make them feel part of our work, excite them by our vision of the future, and allow them to share in our successes. Unlike our for profit cousins, we do not pay our board members. (In fact we ask them to give us money for the pleasure of serving!) And we sometimes are only able to barely pay our staff members enough to live.

We have learned that simply mounting a good show or education program is not enough to ensure that we have the resources to pay for the next one.

If we are going to be able to do our work consistently, we must market ourselves well in a number of ways to a diverse set of constituents. We must embrace new donors and audience members, attract effective new board members and make it fun to be a part of the organization.

As our country faces significant challenges, we hear a lot about the need for leaders who understand business and economics. Polls indicate that a substantial portion of the electorate values this knowledge above all else.

And no doubt these skills are essential in the world today.

But knowing how to run a business is not the same thing as knowing how to galvanize a large group of supporters to support the making of difficult choices.

Perhaps if more leaders of executive branches of our local, state and national levels of government had experience running a not-for-profit organization, they would be better at building the support they need to make the major, dramatic changes required.