WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Staying Young

July 11th, 2011

In certain art forms, age is a sign of maturity and wisdom.  In the field I know best, classical music, I have had the pleasure of hearing memorable concerts by pianists in their 80s (Rudolf Serkin, Menahem Pressler) and their nineties (Arthur Rubenstein and Mieczysław Horszowski- the latter at the age of 99!) Writers and painters can also be found quite active after three quarters of a century.  But there is one artistic discipline where age is almost universally considered a liability- dance.  A dancer is essentially an athlete, and like our sports heroes, they often have very short careers.  So I was delighted to read in the very same week that two of my dance idols are alive and well and active, well into their 70s. Edward Villella, at 75, was back in a Miami Beach gym strapping on his boxing gloves, which, along with dance, were very much a part of his youth.  After his remarkable career at New York City Ballet he founded the Miami City Ballet and has led the group ever since.  Then there is Jacques D’Amboise, a year older than Villella, who is currently promoting a new book which talks not only about his remarkable career at New York City Ballet but also a second equally impressive career founding and running one of the country’s most successful dance education organizations, the National Dance Institute.  What is the secret of these and so many other active creative people who keep going after seven decades or more?  Perhaps it is that they always find new ways to exercise their creative juices – the best prescription anyone has ever discovered for staying young.

In the early 1990s, I facilitated a meeting of artists as part of a strategic planning process for the Massachusetts Cultural Council . We met in a beautifully restored theatre, whose brilliant Gilded Age surroundings contrasted with the prescient words of one passionate artist-entrepreneur at this early moment of the Internet’s development. He rose to argue that as new forms of media were developed, artists would be called upon to create content and must be willing to enter new arenas – video games, web site design, and so on. Back then, this seemed like a pipe dream.

Times change! The options for artists seeking employment have clearly expanded since those days. Some interesting new research, conducted as part of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), indicates that arts training pays off in the workforce (contrary to the cliché of artists furthering their careers by waiting tables). For example, “…92% of those recently graduated artists who wished to work currently are, with most finding employment soon after graduating. Two-thirds said their first job was a close match for the kind of work they wanted.”

My guess is this has happened because artist training is embracing a more entrepreneurial stance. The New England Conservatory, for example, has instituted a program called “Entrepreneurial Musicianship” (that WolfBrown helped design) to consolidate and expand its music industry and business training programs to better prepare graduates for the realities of building a meaningful career as a musician.

These changes notwithstanding, artists still have a hard time earning a living. Indeed, the SNAAP research indicates that “…almost a third (30%) of former professional artists and those who wanted to be an artist but did not do so pointed to debt, including student loan debt, as a reason to find other work.” Click here for a summary report.

What other examples of an entrepreneurial bent to artist training programs are there? How has professional development for artists evolved since the primary means of content distribution has become the Internet?

Understanding Form 990

July 11th, 2011

As I have mentioned in previous On Our Minds, nonprofits are under increasing scrutiny by donors and funders. One way donors and funders exercise this scrutiny is by reviewing an organization’s Form 990, which is now readily available through organizations such as Guidestar (www.guidestar.org) or even on an organization’s own website.

The current version of Form 990 includes a number of questions that ask about various governance and financial policies. Some of the questions deal with things that are about legal requirements for nonprofit organizations (including topics such as lobbying and unrelated business income) and some are about policies that are not (yet) required but that are highly recommended (including conflict of interest and whistleblower policies). The answers to these questions have implications for how donors and funders may view your organization and its quality of management and oversight.

I recently came across “Fearless Filing: Conquering Form 990′s Governance Questions,” an e-toolkit assembled by BoardSource that can help you deal with these questions before a donor tells you he or she doesn’t like what they are seeing.  This toolkit provides an excellent overview of procedures and policies that are required of nonprofit organizations in today’s world of ever-greater scrutiny and increasing requests for transparency.

Last month, the IRS released the names of over 275,000 organizations that have lost their nonprofit status by virtue of not filing the appropriate annual tax returns. Almost half of these organizations have been defunct for years, but there are undoubtedly a few that are not. Once nonprofit status is revoked, any contributions made to the organization are no longer tax deductible (though contributions made in the past remain deductible). The IRS has also announced steps for organizations to follow should they appear on this list.  The list is provided by state and can be sorted by city or town. Take a look! If you see an organization that you think should not be on the list, help them out and let them know about what they can do– many of those on the list were apparently included by mistake.

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