WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Simple Gifts

December 5th, 2013

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.

Audience Participation

December 5th, 2013

The lights dim, my pupils dilate, the curtain draws. As the anticipation builds, I’m reminded of a roller coaster: the slow clicks of the train as it ascends the first hill. Music stirs, and movement erupts. The tension in the performance rises, manifesting in angular and twisted shapes. I grow anxious. Suddenly, the dancer’s movements grow soft and supple, seemingly reacting to me. It’s as though we are connected, intertwined in our own dance of lead and follow.

Yet I am not on stage. I’m in the audience. In my seat.

When we sit in a theatre, we are not merely “passive observers.” We engage in a continual exchange: the artist on stage transmits a message; we receive and refine said message; then we remit our interpretations and reactions back to the artists, beginning the cycle all over. This relationship between performer and audience — what Erika Fischer-Lichte refers to as the “autopoietic feedback loop” — is complex, with numerous factors at play (e.g., an audience’s proximity to the stage, the quality of the performers, the use of the “fourth wall,” etc.). However, all else being equal, I think we can start to boil this notion down to a basic concept: there is a give and take between audience and performer.

The artist’s “gift” is quite clear (i.e., the performance), but what is less explicable is the audience’s role in reciprocating. While often abstract, this feedback can also manifest tangibly: a standing ovation, a yawn, or even the absence of sound. And while audiences are ostensibly aware of the many ways they offer feedback to performers, I wonder if they are as aware of the effect this feedback can have on the very performance they are viewing.

As the holidays are in full swing, and we all bustle about attending those annual productions of The NutcrackerA Christmas Carol, or perhaps a sing-a-long of Handel’s Messiah, I hope we can all take a moment and think about the role we play as audience members. Let us be reminded that observation is active and does not operate in a vacuum.


Kyle Marinshaw is a consultant in WolfBrown’s San Francisco office. He is currently managing a two-year impact assessment project for a regional arts organization and leading a strategic program evaluation study for one of the country’s largest presenters. Kyle danced professionally for several years before pursuing a career in arts management and cultural research.

Elizabeth Whitford, Executive Director of Arts Corps
Chicago, November 2, 2013


The National Guild Service Award was established in 1989 and is conferred annually to an individual who has given exceptional service to the National Guild and to community arts education. Some of the prior recipients of the Award include: Margaret Perry, Michael Yaffe, Kalman Novak, Alice Pfaelzer, Azim and Lolita Mayadas, and Betty Allen.

The recipient of this year’s award is a leader in our field for whom I have great admiration. I am proud to present the 2013 National Service Award to Dennie Palmer Wolf in recognition of her lifelong dedication to advancing access to arts education and building the capacity of the community arts education field to increase its impact on the lives of students and communities.

Dennie is a principal researcher at WolfBrown, an international arts research and consulting firm. She has a doctorate from Harvard in developmental psychology, and she served as a researcher at Harvard Project Zero for more than a decade. At WolfBrown, Dennie pioneered evaluation that builds the capacities of schools, cities, and cultural organizations to support young people’s development as the next generation of thinkers, innovators, and creators. In recent years, Dennie particularly focused on supporting a number of city-wide and regional consortia and initiatives that build systemic efforts designed to support critical and creative learning in and out of the school day.

I first met Dennie a few years ago when I had a special opportunity to tour the Weill Music Institute’s Musical Connections program, for which she was serving as an evaluator. My first impression of Dennie was that she was cool. You know, like “New York cool”.

My second impression was that she was really smart. She was developing a rich, full-spectrum approach to evaluation in areas many of us doubt can be measured: the impact of a one-time, powerful music experience during a time of duress; the way arts learning might impact the activities a young person chooses to engage in throughout their day.

My final impression from that first meeting, perhaps counter to my stereotypes of “New York cool” and Carnegie Hall, was that she was completely unpretentious and accessible. I saw her on the floor engaging with kids naturally, welcoming of critical feedback and never defensive.

I was able to confirm these first impressions and get to know Dennie much better when I asked her to come help Arts Corps with some work we were doing to expand classroom-based arts assessments to include 21st century skills for Seattle Public School arts classes. This effort is part of our city-wide arts education initiative now called the Creative Advantage.

A significant part of this work involved collaborating with district arts teachers; some of whom, after years of feeling professionally marginalized, initially approached the task with wariness. We knew that one of the most important tasks of the project was to build trust with the teachers, and Dennie was able to do so quickly through her special mix of expertise, openness and responsiveness.

Dennie also proved to quickly learn our school district’s unique context and to be pragmatic without sacrificing quality. My initial inclination was that we needed to dump the old arts assessments and start anew. Dennie helped me recognize the value of what was already in place, and instead, look to build off of those strengths. Through Dennie, I learned to strive for incremental changes toward greater depth and quality in instruction and learning when working in a large system, such as the school district. And, through relationship-building, pragmatism and responsiveness to the context in which we were working, we have in fact exceeded our expectations around the level of quality of the new arts assessments in Seattle Public Schools today.

I know that many of you here today have also had the great privilege of working alongside Dennie, and I have no doubt there is much more you could add in celebration of her incredible service to this field. So without further ado, please join me in congratulating Dennie Palmer Wolf.

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