09/16/2013 08:13 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2013

The Speed of the Turnaround

I have written a great deal about the requirements for a successful turnaround of an arts organization. A successful turnaround requires a leader, a plan, an exciting roster of programs, an aggressive institutional marketing plan and a great deal of discipline.

But there is something else a turnaround requires: speed.

Turnarounds rarely happen over a five year period. Troubled arts organizations virtually always suffer from a reputation for being in trouble. The press frequently reinforces this image. (When I arrived at the Royal Opera House we were referred to as "the troubled Royal Opera House" in virtually every one of the hundreds of articles written about us.) This makes existing donors hesitant to support us and encourages prospects to stay away.

To create a different financial profile, we need to convince a group of people that we are an important, vibrant organization with strong leadership that simply requires some marginal investment to succeed. If an organization does not make major progress over 12 to 24 months it is unlikely to create the momentum it needs to change donor and press perceptions.

This suggests that arts organizations that wish to change their fortunes must be willing to make major change relatively quickly. They must create a truly exciting programming plan, develop major institutional marketing activities that create the sense of vibrancy and quality and they must pursue vigorous fundraising campaigns.

The artistic leadership must be responsible for the first of these efforts; I have seen tired, frustrated boards perk up quickly when they hear a new, long-term, surprising artistic plan. This can be accomplished in a matter of weeks.

Institutional marketing must be the province of the executive leadership; when an arts organization creates news stories and events that project an image of vitality and fun, people want to join the institutional family. It can take a few months to initiate implementation but the impact can be sudden and substantial.

The fundraising campaign requires a larger group for success and is often the stumbling block in the turnaround. Successful fundraising efforts must bring in far more money that in the past, typically by reaching a large number of new donors for meaningful if not huge gifts. (At Ailey we aimed for 100 donors at $1,000; at a recent client we aimed for 50 donors at $10,000.) Achieving this goal requires many members of board and staff to act with confidence and speed.

Yet many board members will not believe that these new targets are reachable. When I arrived at Ailey my board told me we could never raise more than $1.7 million a year -- our annual take for several years in a row. My board members were hesitant to even try; they wanted us to work with austerity budgets and save our way to health. I argued that this approach had already failed them and they eventually embraced the new plan. In fact, two years later we raised $3.4 million!

Board and staff must develop and accept the turnaround plan and pursue it with vigor, excitement, confidence -- and speed. Or the problems of the organization will simply get worse.