WolfBrown: On Our Minds

What’s on my mind this month is ecological thinking. Researchers in the cultural sector have explored the idea that culture is a highly complex and interdependent ecosystem in which “resources” are exchanged between “species,” much like a rainforest. Bill Sharpe’s 2010 book, Economies of Life: Patterns of Health and Wealth, continues to resonate in my mind and work. Money is one resource that flows between species in the ecosystem of culture, but other resources are also exchanged, such as meaning, legitimacy and fulfillment. Art is a currency in the economy of meaning. This metaphorical leap allows for a critical analysis of the ecosystem of culture using the principles and tools of systems dynamics. Kyle and I are working now with a great colleague, the brilliant consultant John Shibley, on a project to map the ecology of dance in the Bay Area, developing vocabulary for describing the dynamics of the ecosystem, who the species are, and how they exchange resources. This thought process is part of a strategic planning process for Dancers’ Group, a vibrant service organization supporting the ecology of dance in the Bay Area, as a means of reflecting critically on how the ecology of dance can be supported most effectively. The planning work is supported by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Where can resources be introduced into the ecosystem such that many species benefit, but without disrupting the natural state of equilibrium that characterizes a healthy ecosystem? Ecosystems are constantly changing and naturally self-sustaining. Species persist, but individuals do not. In a healthy ecosystem, there is birth, growth and competition for resources, cross-fertilization, mutation, and regular dying and regeneration. In general, it seems that the cultural sector is becoming more interdependent — new partnerships, alliances, and co-creative relationships seem to spring up every day as cultural organizations embed themselves more deeply in their communities. As time moves on, our ability to understand ourselves — our organizations, artists, audiences, and supporters — as part of a larger ecosystem will emerge as a defining challenge and key to unlocking the potential of the entirety of the ecosystem, not just the species with access to money.


Alan Brown is a leading arts researcher and management consultant worldwide. As a principal of WolfBrown, his work focuses on understanding consumer demand for cultural experiences and assisting cultural institutions, foundations, and agencies in gaining the insight and perspectives they need to fulfill their promise.

An interesting and provocative study on America’s Creative Economycrossed my desk recently. The report was produced by the Creative Economy Coalition, a working group of the National Creativity Network.

The researchers, including WolfBrown friend and consultant Christine Harris, studied 27 research projects relating to the creative economy in order to “profile and analyze how the creative economy is currently being defined, segmented and quantified throughout the United States.” At the risk of over-simplifying the methodology, they looked at, for each of the 27 projects, the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) and the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) coding systems that were used in each study as part of its definition of “the creative economy.” Needless to say, there was little overlap of included codes. Perhaps we ought not be surprised, considering the economic, demographic, political, cultural, and geographic differences in the research areas.

I confess I’ve been skeptical of Richard Florida’s claims about the role of creativity in revitalizing communities (and recently, he has acknowledged that he has perhaps overstated the impact). I’ve been bothered by the over-reliance on an economic argument that I believe ends up short-changing creativity’s other types of impact in realms like education and community cohesion, among others. That is not to say that the economic impact of arts, culture, and creativity isn’t real or that its impact shouldn’t be exploited. Rather, it suggests that we invite skepticism and worse when we overstate or overemphasize one component of our case. That said, this research is an excellent step toward a better understanding of exactly what is meant by “creative economy.”

Should we be bothered, for example, that of the 264 NAICS codes used in aggregate in the studies, only four were selected by all 27 reports (interior design services, graphic design services, theatre companies and dinner theatres, and musical groups and artists), and only 39 were used in 75% of the studies? Actually, I think not. So much of this quest for strong advocacy data to support arts and culture resembles the blind men describing the elephant based on what part they touched. We’ve been defining “creative economy” based on what we see in our service area. That’s fine, up to a point, if a bit limited. That’s the value of this research: we can have a national dialogue about exactly what we are measuring in our claims of the impact of the creative economy. That is a big benefit as we consider ways to integrate arts, culture, and creativity more deeply into the lives of our communities.


Marc Goldring is a Fulbright Award-winning artist and an Associate Principal at WolfBrown with a focus on community cultural planning. He has worked on plans for Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Richmond, Virginia, and is currently working in Dayton, Ohio. He is a photographer and part-time administrative director for a community-based arts organization in Boston.


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A recent Nonprofit Quarterly headline caught my eye. It was an article discussing a topic that I know is germane to many nonprofits each year as they move through their annual budgeting process — how much profit does a nonprofit need? This is a challenging question that involves factors such as capital investment and cash reserves (although the article doesn’t directly mention this second part), among other things.

While the article provides a simple formula that may be helpful to some organizations seeking an answer to this question, it raises an even greater challenge. How do you explain complex financial issues to your board (or to fellow board members, if you happen to be on the board because of your expertise in this area)? How do you ensure that decisions are made with an understanding of their financial implications? How do you explain why you need to budget a profit/surplus (or have a contingency, or whatever other tool you may use to ensure ongoing financial viability)?

The article assumes that everyone understands that nonprofit organizations must have a surplus (a profit), which in itself is frequently a topic of discussion, especially for small and mid-sized organizations who may have board members with slightly less experience (and less financial expertise). It then goes on to explain a methodology that is somewhat complex, using terms that not everyone readily understands or is comfortable with — “service delivery model,” “assets to spending ratio,” “profit rate.”

I have spent decades working with nonprofit organizations on finances. As I imagine myself trying to explain the methodology described in this article to any of the small and mid-sized nonprofit organizations (and even some large ones) that I have worked with over the years, the challenge becomes exceedingly clear — how do you describe complex financial issues in a way that everyone can understand? This is the fundamental challenge because, as we all know, board members bear the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that nonprofit organizations remain financially viable. And not all board members are comfortable with even simple finances, much less more sophisticated analyses. That is why you have a Finance Committee, but it is still essential that board members approve the annual budget with a clear understanding of its short- and long-term implications. Raising the level of financial literacy amongst board members is critical to the long-term financial and creative health of the field.


Jane Culbert provides WolfBrown with expertise in comparative research and financial analysis. She has developed community cultural budgets for Philadelphia, Charlotte, Silicon Valley, Cleveland, Birmingham, Fort Worth, and other cities. Jane has also conducted comparative community research for a number of WolfBrown cultural and organizational plans.

Trickling UP


Typically, in the world of arts research and policy, the rule is “trickle down”: New ideas and practices designed for adult audiences gradually inform programs for youth and families. In this installment of On Our Minds we turn this approach on its head and explore how new ways of thinking about intrinsic impact, drawn from recent work with children and youth, can inform the ways in which arts organizations work with audiences of all ages.



The New Victory Theater — is a project of The New 42nd Street, located in Times Square, NYC. The New 42nd Street is an independent nonprofit organization committed to the transformational power of the arts. As a part of that larger project, the New Victory Theater focuses exclusively on presenting work for children, schools, and families. Based on their work with young theater-goers, the theater and its staff are re-defining “the event” — and along with that, where and how we ought to be investigating intrinsic impact.

As far as the “New Vic” is concerned, a performance begins with anticipation and never ends until you stop remembering and connecting to what you saw and experienced. The instant you purchase a ticket for public shows you get email connections to print and video materials that connect you and yours to the “backstory” of the production. You get invitations to free family workshops and links to creative activities to do in the days ahead of the performance designed to build insight and anticipation. Participating schools even get juicy questions to discuss en route to the performance from New Victory SCHOOL TOOL™ Resource Guides. Intermission includes a “Try this…” space where you can experiment with the characters, props, and ideas in the performance. Afterwards, on the way home, or in the days following, there are suggestions for projects, further research, and ongoing discussions. (Check out examples at their website.) In short, any given hour-long performance has been redefined — and explicitly designed — as a long-running immersion in the world of a performance. The effort is intended to build the intrinsic impact of a “single event” for young audiences, but it has everything to say to how we think about concerts, exhibitions, and performances for audiences of all ages. It should force us to ask, “When we look for intrinsic impact why do we focus on such a thin slice within the longer arc of aesthetic experience?”


Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf is a Principal in WolfBrown’s Cambridge office. She has published widely on issues of assessment, evaluation, artistic, and imaginative development and is a recent recipient of the National Guild Service Award from the National Guild for Community Arts Education.

For many years arts education programs have been caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they have been asked to demonstrate that participation yields instrumental benefits such as improving school attendance or achievement. This is problematic, as these outcomes are subject to powerful contextual influences (e.g., poverty). But when programs constrain themselves to speaking about the more realistic, intrinsic impacts of participation — learning to perform or participating in cultural activities — the reaction can be a shrug and a “so what?” In our recent work, we are developing a new middle ground by working with organizations to develop a theory of change that makes explicit how an activity, like learning to play an instrument, could have effects on other domains. For example, in our work with Play on Philly! — an El Sistema-inspired music education program — the staff has developed a theory of change stating that when young people learn to play an instrument they develop executive functions, a broad set of skills that allow individuals to set and pursue goals, and thus can help them achieve in many areas of life.

Focusing on intrinsic impacts in this way can benefit not only arts education programs for children but arts programming for audiences of all ages. It allows programs to demonstrate that participation in their program is associated with intrinsic impacts while explicitly testing their theories about how these impacts may be associated with improvements in other domains. But perhaps most importantly, it encourages programs to focus the spotlight of evaluation on areas in which positive outcomes are most likely to be observed.


Dr. Steven Holochwost is a developmental psychologist and composer. As Senior Researcher with WolfBrown, his work has centered on projects with children, including Community Music Works and the Dallas Arts Learning Initiative.

A recent study on the educational value of museum field trips may provide a model for assessing other types of arts exposure in school settings. The study, published in EducationNext by researchers from the University of Arkansas, identified significant gains in knowledge retention, critical thinking, tolerance, historical empathy, and future interest in art museums among K-12 students who went on a field trip to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art versus a control group that did not. The study further showed different levels of impact among subgroups — namely, that this particular field trip had the most impact on students from low-income and rural areas, as well as the very young (i.e., students who were least likely to have had a similar cultural experience prior). In fact, students from large towns and low-poverty areas showed little to no significant educational gains by the study’s measures. Looking purely at the study’s aggregated data would have obscured this revelation. The educational impact of a single school tour of an art museum, therefore, can indeed be measured, and if done thoughtfully, can also yield valuable insights into the diversity of impact on different segments of school-age audiences.

Conceivably, this framework for measuring educational impacts can be adapted to any arts-related intervention, such as group visits to theatre performances, visiting school assemblies, teaching artist residencies, and programs for learners of all ages. Because we know the educational impact of a work of art can differ widely based on who receives it, school-based educational programs can utilize this kind of research to fine-tune the design of their programs, as well as their messaging strategies. Arts programs of all kinds might be wise to embrace this approach to impact assessment as a valuable way to reflect on goals, improve programming, and report success.


Sean Fenton is the manager of WolfBrown’s Intrinsic Impact program and a Bay Area artist rooted in educational theatre and theatre for young audiences.

WolfBrown is pleased to announce the publication of Thomas Wolf’s new book, Effective Leadership for Nonprofit Organizations: How Executive Directors and Boards Work Together from Allworth Press.

The book focuses on one key to success in managing a nonprofit — building strong relationships between an executive director and the trustees and navigating associated personal, political, and legal challenges to an effective partnership. Dozens of case studies illuminate the issues that often impede the progress of nonprofit organizations and show how executive director and trustees can address them. Each chapter also contains a set of questions that enable leaders to reflect on the health of their own organization and also evaluate other nonprofits, as well as to create sustainable, effective business practices and productive working relationships.

Single copies are available on Amazon.com. For information on discounts on multiple copy orders, please email ingrid@wolfbrown.com or call 617-494-9300.

With the sensory overload of the holidays in full swing, I was heartened by the success this week of #GivingTuesday, a national day to encourage charitable giving at the start of the holiday season. The initiative began last year when its founder, Henry Timms, Interim Executive Director of NYC’s 92nd Street Y, asked a simple question: “On the heels of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, could we trigger a new day of giving after two days of getting?”

What struck me as refreshing about Timms’ approach was the selfless way in which he set up #GivingTuesday not to be of primary benefit to the 92nd Street Y — a nonprofit organization that relies on philanthropic contributions — but to raise consciousness generally of the societal benefits of charitable activities. The 92nd Street Y has even been careful to brand its involvement in a self-effacing way, with only a small logo at the bottom of #GivingTuesday webpages. By focusing its energies on helping others, the 92nd Street Y is “walking the walk” for the #GivingTuesday core value of giving, rather than getting.

I have often wondered whether nonprofit arts and culture organizations, in spite of inexorable pressure to generate philanthropic support, would be better served in the long run by pleading a little less often for direct contributions and a little more on behalf of others in the communities they serve. In his book Give and Take, Wharton organizational psychology professor Adam Grant contends that “most people operate as either TakersMatchers, or Givers. Whereas takers strive to get as much as possible from others and matchers aim to trade evenly, givers are the rare breed of people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return.” Grant’s premise is that Givers (assuming they figure out how to avoid being exploited) are invariably more successful than Takers or Matchers. According to the New York Times, Grant’s research also demonstrates that “helping is not…a time-sapping diversion from the actual work at hand; it is the mother lode, the motivator that spurs increased productivity and creativity.”

So, if “nice guys can finish first” by focusing on service to others, the question is whether nonprofit groups can, too.  If charitable organizations act collectively to raise awareness of the needs of others and encourage contributions that may go elsewhere, would they raise more funds than they can by pushing for end-of-year direct contributions?


Joe Kluger is a Principal in WolfBrown’s Philadelphia office and wishes everyone much health and happiness this holiday season.

Whenever I work with a nonprofit board on major gift fundraising, I intone the First Axiom of Resource DevelopmentFundraising is not about asking for money; it is about building relationships. I also present Laura’s CorollaryThese relationships are built on mutual passions, reflecting (1) the personal experiences of the board member and the funding prospect; (2) the societal issue(s) being addressed; and (3) the nonprofit’s mission. An “ask” should be an opportunity for the donor to express deeply felt connections to the cause in question and to feel like an agent of change. In my experience, if donors don’t see a gift as an opportunity for self-fulfillment (and, admittedly sometimes self-aggrandizement), they don’t write much of a check, if any at all.

I was introduced recently to the idea of a “Jeffersonian Dinner,” a donor cultivation model that addresses the three elements of Laura’s Corollary — beginning with personal experience, then connecting that experience to the larger trends and challenges in society, and then exploring the role of the nonprofit organization in addressing those challenges. The Generosity Network website lays out the advantages of this approach: A Jeffersonian dinner “enlists new allies…. helps to create and disseminate ideas…. expands attendees’ networks…. and spreads knowledge about and interest in your organization.”

Here’s how it works: A dinner host invites eight to 12 people with diverse expertise, interests, experience, and networks. Each invitee provides a brief biography, which is sent to the group in advance along with a “starter question.” The question is designed to elicit personal stories relating to the topic of the dinner. For example, if the dinner is focused on the role of museums in K-12 education, the question might be, “Tell us about a childhood experience in a museum that had an impact on your life, and why.” A moderator manages the conversation, which moves from personal stories to their connection with larger interests of the group around the topic, and then to the work of the nonprofit, how the organization could further its mission, and attendees’ interests in following up on the discussion.

The dinner echoes the purposeful nature of Jefferson’s own gatherings and follows his rules for dinner guests at Monticello: only one conversation at the table — no one presents, no one monopolizes, no side conversations, and everyone participates. I have not yet had an opportunity to work with a client to try a Jeffersonian dinner, but the model is building its track record and enthusiastic practitioners. I would be interested to hear from any readers of this edition of On Our Minds who have convened such a gathering.


Laura Lewis Mandeles has been with WolfBrown for more than 20 years in the Washington, DC area office. She has led numerous strategic planning processes for cultural organizations of all types, and provides a range of resource development services, including feasibility studies, development assessments, fund-raising counsel, and case development.

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