By Jenny Clarke
Executive Directors in the non-profit arts sector can affirm that running an arts organization is never plain sailing. Gail force winds and crashing waves blindside arts leadership on a fairly regular basis in the form of lost funding and donors, artistic disappointments, staffing meltdowns, lackluster audiences, facility failures and the constant struggle to make ends meet.
But COVID-19 is a blizzard of all blizzards that has dumped crushing amounts of snow on the entire field and everyone around it – with no thaw in sight.
Analogies aside, surviving the challenges the pandemic has brought is going to require resilience deeper than any Executive Director has ever needed to solve every day dilemmas. And in the way that no two arts organizations are alike, the pathway to survival will look different for each entity.
Executive Directors and their staff members are experts at deflecting bad news in the normal way. When disaster strikes in one area, they are adept at pulling attention towards something that’s going well. A production opening is delayed but the arts education work in the schools is thriving. A big multi-year grant was not renewed but the gala was better than ever.
When the whole operation has been struck into silence and numerous income streams have dried up overnight, it instantly becomes harder to quickly find the “good news.” Messaging in survival mode rather than artistic or institutional growth mode is a lot less “sexy” and might not lift the organization from the crowd of bad news inundating everyone’s e-mail accounts.
So how do we start to build a more positive view and message? The answer, as always, is to make a plan. Figure out what you can do, who can help, what resources are needed, when you can implement each step and how you can communicate your forward-thinking perspectives.
The following is a list of points to consider – some will work for you and others might not. But they may just help you move from a sense of loss and dread to a point of planning for the future – one that may not look the same as the past but perhaps has new possibilities.
- Don’t go it alone – find a knowledgeable critical friend to talk to about where things are and how to get through, or create a small group to brainstorm solutions.
- Engage your board and look for constructive ways they can help you. Make sure they have the tools to help you raise funds. Keeping the lights on may not incentivize the board member or their donor friends. Focusing on the programs a board member values most and talking about how s/he can help you continue to offer them in the new reality will be more effective.
- Take one more look to make sure you’ve maximized all your potential income to date, including: insurance claims; special COVID-19-related grants; other outstanding grants that require reports to receive final payments; outstanding donor pledges and outstanding fees for contracted services.
- Dig deep into your organization’s creative minds. Move beyond what you can’t do, even though it’s the main focus of your mission, such as your performance season.
What can you and your staff and artists do to plan for the future? What action can you take now to:
- Demonstrate your ingenuity and resilience to your board, donors, constituents, community, staff and artists
- Contribute deeply to your future artistic work
The list of possibilities is endless – here are a few to get you started
- Continue to explore video, podcasts and radio as a way to share artistic work, such as an artist spotlights, artist demonstrations, choreographer or writer conversations, short masterclasses or demonstrations, and performances
- Continue to find ways to move education programs online and create a plan for maintaining relationship with schools and communities so that programs can be reinstalled when the time comes
- Create online “events” or a series of events, which you can promote to your community and beyond on social media and that you can invite donors to support
- If you are already commissioning, work on your next project – and if you’re not a commissioning organization, look at ways to start. Supporting creative artists at this time is crucial and likely to garner support from your donors
- Start a new blog series on an aspect of your work and utilize it in social media and in your community to show you are still active. Invite others to contribute to your blog
- Look beyond your walls and reach out to your local or artistic community to see how you can engage in new ways, through collaboration, sharing resources or planning future projects
- Explore your archives and see what resources you have which you can utilize to enrich your content while live performance is not possible
- Create an archive if you don’t already have one
5. Stay in touch with your constituents and donors
- Don’t be shy about asking for support and contacting your constituents frequently with news about what you are up to
- Engage your board in raising funds based on your mission and programs and what you are doing to move forward
- Make contact with your stakeholders as personal as possible
The arts are a truly unique place and the people who lead arts organizations and institutions and those who choose the arts as a career are truly exceptional. Tough as the times are, we will find a way through because for most of us, the arts are what we have to do and in whatever form, we will keep doing it.
For assistance with COVID-19 planning or to discuss your ideas in confidentiality with a “critical friend,” contact Jennifer Clarke, Consulting Partner, Rumohr and Clarke – firstname.lastname@example.org