WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Focusing on Creativity

February 17th, 2011

Createquity is a blog written by Ian David Moss, Fractured Atlas’ Research Director. His “top ten” list of important arts policy stories was posted late last year, but if you missed it, it is well worth a read (and not just because he highlights WolfBrown’s work). New ways of measuring impact, new priorities for the focus of public relations and advocacy, new organizational structures, and more- taken together, the ten stories signify a startling degree of change in our field.

Clearly there’s a lot going on. What I find most interesting is the focus on creativity expanding beyond the traditional sphere of “arts and culture.” I notice increasingly complex ways in which people actively claim or reclaim their creative selves: through new performance types, new and unusual venues, and new forms of media, among others. This article highlights the ways in which arts organizations have started tapping into the interest in flash-mobs and the role of social media in their formation. In fact, Clarke Mackey’s Random Acts of Culture focuses on “vernacular culture” which gives priority to engagement and tends to focus on participation more than our customary European forms do.

As someone who works on planning for and with local arts agencies, I see this expanded focus on creative participation as a major step forward for our field. Of course the message about the creative economy is being heard (perhaps a bit too loudly, according to some). But I hope we can think more broadly about creativity and its impact on education, communities, and our lives in general.

How would your community – or your local arts agency – look if there were a stronger focus on supporting and enhancing access to creativity?


Nonprofit Indicators

February 17th, 2011

Nonprofits are subject to ever increasing scrutiny from both institutional and individual donors, many of whom are equipped with online resources that evaluate their operational effectiveness. I recently listened to Network for Good’s interesting webinar on this topic entitled “Uncharitable?”. Participating were Dan Pallotta, president of Springboard and the author of Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential, Ken Berger, CEO of Charity Navigator, and Bob Ottenhoff, President and CEO of GuideStar.

Pallotta challenges the reliance on financial indicators (specifically overhead as a percentage of expenditures) to determine an organization’s worthiness for contributed support. This measure, he feels, is one derived from assumptions that are more appropriate in the for-profit sector,and is misguided as a measure of a nonprofit’s effectiveness. Are there organizations that spend too much on overhead and not enough on effective programs? Certainly there are some, but given the variety of challenges facing nonprofits, can this metric really be standardized and used as a basis for comparison? But then taken as a whole, what metrics do accurately represent the realities of the nonprofit sector?

These are not just theoretical questions as thousands of donors today rely on existing measures of effectiveness as defined by organizations like Charity Navigator and GuideStar, both of which have expanded their information offerings. According to Ken Berger, Charity Navigator is revamping their rating system to include transparency, best practices, and accomplishments in addition to financial indicators, and Bob Ottenhoff says that GuideStar has recently expanded the kinds of information that nonprofits can submit to include more information about mission, programs, and how successful they are at meeting their goals.

Are these the right measures (or at least more precise)? What role should we all play in developing more effective measures? To download a transcript or audio version of this thought-provoking webinar, visit the Network for Good website (free registration is required for downloads). Both Ken Berger and Bob Ottenhoff have posted follow-up responses as well.


How Trustworthy are Charities?

February 17th, 2011

Given that much of WolfBrown’s work helps organizations demonstrate accountability through rigorous evaluation of their programs, I found a recent article in The Economist quite interesting. The article states that “70% of Americans trust non-profit outfits more than government or business to ‘address some of the most pressing issues of our time.”

A survey by the Center on Philanthropy of affluent households found that over 36% had a “great deal of confidence” in nonprofit organizations to solve domestic or global problems (fewer than 10% felt the same of corporations). The Economist posits that much of that trust may be tenuous due to the fact that “warm sentiments towards charities may be based on a wider misunderstanding of what they do and how much they cost,” and points to the anger that erupts over charity scandals like those involving Unicef in 2008 or the Red Cross in late 2001.

Accountability rests on transparency and thorough evaluation. This involves not only nonprofits making facts and figures public, but their funders as well. One positive recent trend among funders is to publish the results of evaluations on their web sites (For examples, see WolfBrown’s evaluation of the Knight Foundation’s “Magic of Music” program, or this recently-released report for the Nonprofit Finance Fund. The increasing availability of comprehensive analysis drives transparency, reduces reliance on financial indicators to appraise nonprofits’ net impact (more on that from Jane below), and increases awareness of how nonprofits operate.


Moses Had No Buy-In

February 2nd, 2011

If you’ve often wondered why Moses and the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert, it’s probably because Moses presented the “Ten Commandments” without first reading Buy-In, a new book by John P. Kotter and Lorne A. Whitehead that deconstructs why good ideas get shot down. The authors use a hypothetical case study about a community library to showcase four primary tactics – confusion, death by delay, fear mongering, and ridicule or character assassination – which some people use in meetings to derail consensus around even the most obviously logical decisions. Kotter and Whitehead offer group leaders specific responses to defuse 24 variations on attacks used by naysayers to hijack meetings. They also outline a five-step strategy for obtaining enthusiastic group support for your ideas:

  1. Gain people’s attention by allowing the attackers in and letting them attack.
  2. Win the minds of the relevant, attentive audience with simple, clear and commonsense responses.
  3. Win their hearts by, most of all, showing respect.
  4. Constantly monitor the people whose agreement you need: the broad audience, not the few attackers.
  5. Prepare for these steps in advance.

The “Ten Commandments” are undoubtedly one of the more enduring lists of guiding principles ever developed. To avoid your good ideas taking 40 years to be accepted, I recommend using Kotter and Whitehead’s methods to get real buy-in.

Crowd-sourcing is the application of democratic principles to content and decision-making, from the design of cars and sneakers, to selecting winning performances (à la American Idol). While its implementation in the arts may send shivers down many aesthetic spines (particularly in criticism, where the most votes means the best painting, musical composition, novel, etc.), the practice opens an important debate about new forms of talent and cultural engagement.

A new instance of crowd-sourcing widens this discussion still further: for the last 50 years, the University of London has been transcribing the papers of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, publishing 27 volumes. More than half of his output remains to be processed. Beginning last fall, the editors invited anyone with time and interest to join the team. In four months, more than 300 people have signed on and have since produced over 400 transcripts. Here, too, there are shudders. Scholars working on other archives such as the Lincoln papers, who tried similar efforts, point to error-laden results simply not worth the time.

But think about this as more than scholarship- could libraries, archives, or museums use crowd-sourced projects as a way to develop a devoted, informed membership? Suppose every American history or humanities class in New York City (or Houston, or Anchorage) took on one such project – each student learning an era well enough to infer the handwritten words, the habits of scholarship, and a deep appreciation for those institutions that save the record of our past thoughts, wishes, and hopes. Research at WolfBrown confirms that people who played an instrument are the most likely to be concert-goers- in the same way, could transcription or other simple forms of conservation lead to life-long engagement?


Preparing for Change

February 2nd, 2011

During a recent trip to New Orleans, I reconnected with an urban planning friend, now a professor at University of New Orleans. We exchanged many stories about our respective studies and project work. Since then, I’ve been mulling over the effects of severe population loss in cities – one of her research topics inspired in part by Hurricane Katrina’s effect on the city. Katrina forced New Orleans to undergo dramatic changes in a short period of time, thereby demanding the development of community revitalization strategies. Most of us are familiar with arguments and examples of arts as a means of community development, a driver of urban revitalization, beautification and business development.

A recent Mission Models Money (MMM) paper, titled “Sustainable Ability,” argues that we should now focus on art’s ability to elevate the importance of intrinsic values in order to adapt to changing conditions, and hopefully resolve or mitigate larger problems such as climate change. In this argument, intrinsic values refer to “what matters on the inside…aspects of ourselves that value community, family, connection to others” that often act as a greater motivator for change than scientific evidence. MMM and others (e.g., The Canadian Geographer’s 2004 article “Reimagining Sustainable Cultures: Constitutions, Land and Art” by Nancy Doubleday, et. al.) assert that the arts act as a galvanizing force to strengthen and heal communities. The arts are a vehicle for solving complex issues through re-imagining the future and highlighting different perspectives, and an agent for changing ingrained and destructive behaviors. In other words, community and cultural resilience is a byproduct of a thriving creative sector. A recent Arts Council England paper – Making Adaptive Resiliency Real- explains the importance of arts organizations in the local sphere, why it is important to understand what is happening in the external environment, and how one’s work is interrelated to community health and vibrancy.

New Orleans changed overnight, without much warning. Most communities have experienced similarly quick shifts and are anticipating others that will manifest on a much slower trajectory. How can we harness our collective creative voice to anticipate and adapt to change, as we experience it, or better yet, before it occurs?


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