Collaboration techniques

by Jini Stolk

My coffee shop has a lot of artists. I like observing as they discuss a screenplay, script, or production. Ideas are bounced from one person to another; notes are made; concepts are sketched out; and once the last latte is finished, everyone has a better sense of what the final product will be, and a clear idea of next steps and their own to-do list.

I’m still wondering whether collaboration is a skill or instinct but Tonya Surman adds something important to the discussion in this piece about a seldom discussed truth: that successful collaborations are always founded, at least partially, on self-interest. (With Creative Trust, the founding steering committee was crystal clear about potential benefits to the community, but we were also aware that each of our companies would benefit in ways that wouldn’t be possible without a collaborative approach.)

It’s important to understand what motivates us as people and what leads others to act, when we’re working to shift culture and systems.

Here’s a piece on A Collaboration Workbook: How Six Brooklyn cultural Institutions Developed a Capacity to Diagnose Community Need and Respond with Collaborative Programs, prepared by Alan Brown, Karen Tingley and John Shibley for Heart of Brooklyn. “Over the two-year period from 2011 to 2013, the six Heart of Brooklyn (HOB) cultural institutions (Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Public Library, Prospect Park Alliance and Prospect Park Zoo) designed, pilot tested, and evaluated a process for conceiving and implementing collaborative programs that address community needs.” The workbook “distills what was learned, in hopes of advancing the field’s understanding of how cultural institutions that share the same community can find common ground and build an organic and robust approach to collaboration.”

Approaches developed during the project include:

  • Organizing for collaboration, and the question of leadership;
  • A public value audit to find areas of common ground regarding stakeholders and programmatic resources between multiple organizations;
  • Community research that allow partners to learn directly from specific interest groups in the community;
  • Idea generation, the process of synthesizing data and proposing creative solutions to problems, and then prioritizing those ideas;
  • Moving potential collaborative ideas through a “product development funnel,” resulting in better ideas to which all of the collaborating organizations are more committed.

The report also discusses the pros and cons of having a central “backbone organization” to support collaboration (e.g., Heart of Brooklyn), versus distributing responsibility for collaboration across the partner organizations.  (All work products are described in the workbook appendix, and may be downloaded from the BSCN website).

It’s definitely a “big organization” approach to collaboration, not much like my coffee shop clusters who seem to have a more practical, get-it-done attitude.

Obviously we should all remember that among the types of people who get on everyone’s nerves in nonprofit organizations are “people who suck at being team players. They’re all like “Meh, that’s not in my work plan” or like “sorry, I can’t help you clean up after our organization’s giant event because I made other plans.” We’re warned, ominously, that “A day will come when you think you are safe and happy, and your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth. And you will know the debt is paid.” (one of “10 Game of Thrones quotes you can use at work”).

And yet…I just heard one of Canada’s most beloved and respected playwrights say, when asked about collective projects, “We’re all humans and we want what we want.”

I guess this brings us back to Tonya’s point about self-interest: unless people see it and feel it, collaboration doesn’t really work all that well (perhaps not even after a public value audit has been conducted.)


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On diversity

by Jini Stolk

We all read Joseph Recinos’ Where are the Minority Voices in Theatre. I know we did.

Here are some thoughts I think are relevant:

  1. Vu Le finds recent stats on diversity in nonprofit leadership in the States (only 8% of board members are people of color; nearly a third of nonprofit boards don’t have a single board member of color; only 7% of CEO/EDs are people of color; only 18% of nonprofit staff are people of color; only 5% of philanthropic orgs are led by people of color) to be alarming. He argues, with all his normal passion and persuasiveness, that the solution is not to increase the demand for diverse leaders, but to increase the supply. He says we should be increasing funding of communities-of-color led nonprofits; supporting pipeline programs bringing leaders of color into the field; funding leadership programs specifically targeting leaders of color; supporting up-and-coming leaders of color; changing hiring policies and practices; and changing inequitable nonprofit dynamics, especially funding dynamics.
  2. In England, a debate on Class, Race, and Classical Music (although I would argue that this discussion should not be limited to the classical music field) tackled the idea of who classical music is for, why we think it’s important for the whole of society to have access to it, and what the institutions of music education and musical excellence can do to become part of people’s lives who wouldn’t otherwise have access or opportunity to be involved. According to Tom Service in The Guardian, “the debate felt to me like the start of a big and essential discussion…, cutting to the core of the values and motivations of music education in general, and throwing up challenging questions for the future.”
  3. Alan Brown, in this short piece, wonders why so few artists are to be found at national (mostly U.S. and U.K.) arts conferences, and argues that bringing artists into the center of discourse on critical issues facing the sector is one of the few hopes we have for solving real problems. “Their voice is sorely missing in the breakout sessions and hallway conversations that shape the field. What is the point of talking about topics like audience growth and creative health without artistic decision-makers in the conversation? Too many panel discussions are one-sided debates — an endless loop of talking about change without change agents in the room.”


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It’s easy bein’ green

by Jini Stolk

As we prepare for Earth Day (April 22, coming up soon), I thought we could start with something simple – something we can all tackle without special expertise or additional expense.

This piece by Leanne Hitchcock for Hilborn, talks about how to organize an environmentally friendly event – from choosing a city with a good transportation system (gosh, I hope Toronto still qualifies), to providing public transportation passes (for performers, volunteers, guests?), using email to send materials, and promoting the event using social media.

Use recycled paper when you can (Step Forward Paper made from recycled wheat waste, gave a presentation at CSI last year); and recycled ink. Reuse materials on site, reuse linens and choose centerpieces that are sustainable, such as plants. Use technology like TIFF’s event app for schedules and tickets. Provide recycling bins for bottles and paper; better yet eliminate bottled water entirely. Choose a responsible caterer who uses locally sourced food; donate your leftovers to an organization like Second Harvest. Don’t (just) provide a map to the closest parking lot; let people know about the nearest transit stop.

I bet you’re already doing 75% or more of these things. Make Kermit the Frog proud: do them all.

Broadway Green Alliance (BGA) has teamed up with The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to offer advice on eco-intelligent products and practices for theatres across the(ir) country…and we, in this country, are welcome to make use of it.

And don’t forget that Toronto-based organizations may be eligible for the Sustainable Energy Fund Financing program for Non-Profits. Cut-and-paste project information onto this simple, informal “Intent to Apply” form and program staff will respond quickly with feedback.

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Words from on high

by Jini Stolk,

Pope Francis – the very definition of an impeccable source – has been laying down some home truths about weaknesses and shortcomings within the Vatican bureaucracy, which can affect “any administrative organization (or) community …and can strike at both the individual and the corporate level.”

Here are some leadership failures to avoid (or else…?):

Losing our sense of mission (described by the Pope as “having “spiritual Alzheimer’s” or “existential schizophrenia,”) i.e. depending on the here and now, on our own passions and whims at the expense of the higher vision, or limiting ourselves to bureaucratic work and losing contact with reality and concrete people.

Committing the “terrorism of gossip,” a sickness of cowardly people who, not having the courage to speak directly, talk behind people’s backs. Ouch.

Being indifferent to others, “When, out of jealousy or cunning, one finds joy in seeing another fall rather than helping him up and encouraging him.”

Having a “funereal face,” when, in truth, “theatrical severity” and sterile pessimism are often symptoms of fear and insecurity.

Forming “closed circles” that seek to be stronger than the whole, thus threatening the harmony of and harming the community.

Also feeling immortal, immune or indispensable; and working too hard: “Rest for those who have done their work is necessary, good and should be taken seriously.”

I’m off to Mexico for a week; hoping for your blessing.

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Paying artists

by Jini Stolk

My heart breaks every time I hear a talented artist say they’re not going to pay themselves in order to get their show on stage. I know: that means I spend a lot of time broken hearted, but I think it’s a problem we should be talking about more often.

Without question, the world of the artist is changing. The cultural industries in particular (book and magazine publishing, sound recording, TV and film production) are in the midst of a transformation whose end point no one seems able to predict. It makes my efforts on the Association of Canadian Publishers’ Copyright Committee many years ago seem laughable. Personally, I do not know how musicians can continue creating music in our world of free downloads, nor how writers will be paid for their work.

Even the Toronto Public Library – either bowing to the inevitable, or embracing today’s distribution models – offers free downloads of ebooks, audio books, magazines, videos and music. My friends love the ease and accessibility: I worry about whether/how much the artists are being paid.

Elizabeth Renzetti in the Globe and Mail worries about it too: “If the artists starve, we’ll all go hungry.” Could it be true that Pharrell Williams has made just $25,000 in royalties from Happy’s 43 million downloads? Or that a Toronto songwriter whose song had 260,000 downloads and made it to No. 3 on the Billboard chart hasn’t gotten a penny in royalties? Although Pharrell looked like he was doing pretty well when I saw him at the Oscars, I doubt most Canadian songwriters are prospering quite as much.

Darren O’Donnell started a schitt-storm on Facebook and Q, arguing (what might be true to a certain extent) that being an artist involves more email answering these days than creative breakthroughs. Of course other professions (arts management being one I can think of) offer creative opportunities, deep satisfactions, and the possibility of having an impact on the world– but we’re not, for all that, creating lasting expressions of the highest achievements of the human soul.

It’s unfair that we now expect all artists to be entrepreneurs (there’s an entire journal devoted to Entrepreneurship and the Arts). There are many compelling artists whose work we don’t want to lose but who just don’t have those skills.

Of course, the arts is not the only non-profit sector which rewards its most talented and committed workers with lousy compensation, we’re reminded by Nonprofit with Balls’ Vu Le, who says that “We’ve developed some no good, very bad habits.”

But as the Arts Advocate’s New Year poll of readers revealed, a large number of cultural workers believe that paying artists adequate fees, and  amending the Copyright Act to better protect creators are crucial issues going forward.

This brilliant essay by William Deresiewicz describes the evolution of humankind’s concept of “the artist” from hard-working artisan to solitary genius to credentialed professional to the emergence of the artist/entrepreneur. I read it with huge appreciation for the truth of his insights – until the last sentence, which made me cry.


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Fundraising tips

by Jini Stolk

It’s always interesting to look at the stats. According to Statistics Canada and the team at Hilborn the vast majority of Canadians (82%) made financial donations to a charitable or nonprofit organization in 2013. And, between 2010 and 2013, the total amount Canadians donated to charities or nonprofits  increased by 14% to $12.8 billion.

Yay Canada, and I mean that very sincerely. But…did some of that increase come your way?

This piece lays out the advantages and disadvantages of raising funds in a small non-profit. Some of the important advantages include the ability to respond quickly to opportunities; the ability to set your own course; a close and passionate connection to the mission; and, often, the continuing involvement of a visionary and compelling founder.

This piece by Jerry Huntsinger in SOFII approaches the same topic in a different way, providing 13 good solid suggestions for fundraising in a small organization.

Have you ever wondered about the purpose of a thank you letter? The real purpose? The reason why a good thank you letter can forge strong and long lasting bonds between you and your donors?

Is calling donors really the best way of retaining them and upgrading their gifts? I’ve heard from donors who prefer a beautifully written and personally signed letter of thanks, but many others genuinely appreciate the personal touch of a phone call.

Have you been brave enough to initiate a planned giving program? Why not? I just spoke to the development director of a small arts org that has been having surprising success with bequests. Here are a few tips on getting started.

Finally, words from the trenches. I found this interview with Jennifer Hobbs, Director of Sponsorship at Hoc Docs, and Jason Maghanoy, Senior Development Officer at Canadian Stage (mentor and mentee with Business for the Arts’ artsVest Mentorship Program), a useful reminder of the many joys of engaging passionately in the task of developing mutually supportive relationships with some of the 82% of Canadians who contribute personally to the causes they believe in.




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Win win win

by Jini Stolk

As you know, I was entranced by British ceramicist Claire Twomey’s installation at the Gardiner Museum – so much so that I joined hundreds of other enthusiasts for the Free Art Piece by Piece opportunity at the close of the show.  Who wouldn’t be willing to stand in line on a winter Sunday afternoon to receive one of the exhibition’s ghostly white statuettes? I was excited.

“The general public may take one figurine per person only, free with admission. Register in advance to gain priority line access. Gardiner Members get advance access from 12 to 1 pm.” The rules were clear and the experience was, in general, a happy one. But being me, I couldn’t help thinking about all the ways in which a lovely idea could have served an even more powerful audience engagement purpose – closing out the Gardiner’s 30th anniversary year with a bang.

Here are a few thoughts offered with affection and respect, and relevant, I hope, to other organizations and events:

  • As we began to line up on the gallery steps we were graciously welcomed by volunteers. It would have been even more wonderful if they had been able to provide fuller information about the process and timeline. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say…
  • “Gardiner Members get advance access…” – and after 45 minutes in line I would have gladly joined up to jump the queue. A well-staffed temporary membership desk could have quickly processed the 100 or more of us who I believe would have been pleased and proud to become members (well worth it at only $65 a year, $30 for students ).
  • We would have loved to receive a flyer on upcoming shows and events.
  • The long line eventually snaked through some of the Gardiner’s fascinating galleries. Wouldn’t it have been terrific if a docent had been on hand to give a brief introduction to the collection?
  • A wandering minstrel or other musical interlude would have broken up the wait in a charming way, and the Royal Conservatory is just down the street…
  • If a special discount at the Gift Shop had been offered, I bet many of us would have taken advantage – helping clear out seasonal stock and being tempted by the shop’s beautiful hand- crafted items.

I had other ideas, but this is more than enough for now – and overall I had a great and interesting time. But an event is only a starting place for an ongoing relationship, and we all want our events to be a win for the organization, a win for the attenders, and who’s the third win for? I always forget. I guess it’s for the city itself, which gets a thriving cultural institution, well loved by a strong and growing audience.

As for the little figurine, unfired bisqueware is a fragile and ephemeral thing…but my memories of a special experience are strong and lasting.

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Control your daily schedule

by Jini Stolk

I don’t know about you, but it’s getting away from me again.

Perhaps things would be better if we followed some of Peter Drucker’s classic advice and systematically trimmed time wasters from our schedule, asking of all activities “What would happen if I were starting from scratch – would I still be doing this?”; remembered that everything takes more time than expected (isn’t that true?!); and made a periodic record of how we spend our time?

And if that hasn’t worked, how about if we realigned our mindset, reframing each situation as an opportunity and removing negative stress by eliminating the thought of failure; or activated our brains with 15 minutes of exercise before the most important tasks we have to deal with? What would happen if we got enough sleep; practiced yoga; and ate well? (Please send kale recipes, and a juicer.)

Or failing that, what if we improved our self-discipline by removing temptations; not waiting until it “feels right”; scheduling breaks, treats and rewards; and forgiving ourselves and moving forward.

Sounds like a plan.

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Asking our audiences

by Jini Stolk

Theatre Passe Muraille has been inserting a simple and appealing audience survey in its show programmes. We Want to Hear From You asks for thoughts about the show (such as “What would you say to a person who has not bought a ticket yet?” and “What part of the show had the greatest impact on you?”) along with the standard “How did you hear about this show?” and the less standard “What neighbourhood are you joining us from?”

I’m a big believer in regularly asking audience members for their thoughts and opinions by way of focus groups and on-line and exit surveys. One of the major successes of Creative Trust’s Audiences Project was our intensive audience interview sessions with Alan Brown, and our research survey on audience engagement.

Among the things we learned is that people like to be asked their opinions.

Passe Muraille spoke to audience members before instituting its 7:30 starting time, which makes it a bit of an outlier in Toronto’s theatre community which has, by and large, stuck with the more traditional 8:00 pm curtain.

I’d like to suggest that we begin asking our audiences whether an 8:00 start still makes sense (or whether, as I’m beginning to think, it’s a small but important disincentive to attendance.)

I have recently been conducting a small and exceedingly unscientific survey about this – being very well aware that my personal demographic, and the demographic of many of my friends, might not indicate a wide-spread yearning for earlier evenings. I’ve therefore been talking to people of all ages who attend all types of shows, and have found a definite enthusiasm for the idea of a 7:30, or even 7:00, curtain. Even among those who like 8:00, a few people added “only if the show is no longer than 90 minutes.” Hmm.

Here are some of the things I’ve heard.

In favor of an earlier curtain time: starting at 8:00 can make for a very late night if I’m going to work the next day; if I go home first for dinner, I often don’t feel like leaving the house again; if I don’t go home for dinner, it gets expensive to eat out every time I see a show; if I go home to walk the dog, I can still get to the theatre before 8:00; if I haven’t paid for my ticket yet, I sometimes just decide not to go; I’ve stopped going to shows in the evenings – but I love weekend matinees; I’ve reached the point where if the program says the show runs 70 minutes I feel like cheering.

In favor of an 8:00 start on weekends but an earlier curtain time during the week: on the weekend it’s great to get together at a restaurant and then go to a show, but it isn’t relaxing to do that during the week; if the show ends early on a weeknight you can still go out for a drink afterwards; I get restless if I know I’m going to get to bed late and be tired the next morning.

For keeping the 8:00 curtain time: it’s easier because you know without thinking when the show starts.

Okay. I repeat, this was an unscientific sampling of people I ran into over the past two weeks. However, we’re all worried about audiences. This discussion of three recent studies of audience trends in the States is a must-read. In addition to confirming that the trend to our south is alarmingly downwards, it identifies reasons why the public attends arts events (socializing with friends or family members, 73%, learning new things, 64%, and supporting the community, 51%), and barriers to attendance (lack of time, 60%, lack of accessibility in terms of location for retirees, elderly, and those with physical disabilities, and lack of an attendee partner, 22%.)

In Canada, StatsCan’s 2010 General Social Survey, while interesting on the overlap in arts attendance between arts disciplines, didn’t include questions about motivations for attendance, but CAPACOA’s 2013 Value of Presenting Study shows that all age groups agree on the most important benefits of arts attendance – “entertainment, fun,” followed by “stimulation”, “experience something new”, “exposure to different cultures”, and “social opportunity”.

What this says to me is that people see our shows for social reasons, first and foremost, and that anything we can do to make it easier for them  is worth trying (or at least worth asking about.) Theatre Passe Muraille’s audiences continue to be happy with an earlier curtain, and although I have no doubt that some companies’ audiences will opt for an 8:00 pm start, I bet that others would welcome a change.

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The future of shared platforms

by Jini Stolk

I thought about calling this post “Shared platforms: the future”, but I’m not yet sure that’s the way it will go. At this point, there’s a lot of discussion, an insightful research paper by Jane Marsland and funder support for new “platforms” that take on major components of the administration of small arts and other non-profit organizations.

Marsland clearly identifies the context and motivations behind this surge in interest: “there are no longer enough resources in the public arts funding system to make it feasible for many of our artists to establish fully independent, adequately capitalized, charitable, non-profit organizations.” At the same time, “there is less desire among many artists to incorporate as a charitable, non-profit organization, because they realize it is increasingly difficult to raise the resources required to support an ongoing organizational structure and keep it healthy.” So very true.

The Metcalf and Laidlaw Foundations, with the Ontario Trillium Foundation and the Toronto Foundation, have been at the forefront of supporting and developing shared platforms and shared platform initiatives. Modeled on TIDES Canada, these can take on the tasks of board oversight, budgeting, financial and corporate reporting, grant oversight, personnel policies, and accounting for projects and small organizations – leaving independent artists and community change agents to focus their energies on programming.

Many types of non-profits in addition to the arts world’s small theatre and dance companies, indie opera groups, writers, community arts organizations, and youth arts groups, are exploring this notion. The Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) has had an active Shared Platforms working group for over four years. It identifies benefits including reducing duplication and charitable start-ups, increased efficiency and administrative expertise, nimble and responsive structures, reduced governance risk, focus on the project rather than administration, and increased collective impact.

Some groups have decided to “incubate” new initiatives – a mentoring approach with many similarities and some differences to shared platforms. This article uses the example of the Ontario Nonprofit Network itself, which spent seven years as an incubated project of the Social Innovation (CSI), the co-working space where my office is located, which has a mission to “catalyze social innovation in Toronto and around the world.” Creative Trust incubated, or acted as a platform and charitable trustee, for Picasso PRO for three important years in its development.

The way forward is not going to be smooth or straight ahead. Organizations formed as administrative support structures in the arts (STAF and DUO) have had ups and downs and are revising how they work; new, more project-oriented shared platforms are struggling to find the resources to do the job well. However, for anyone prepared to seize the challenge of starting up one or more of these new structures, the need is urgent and the potential is huge.

The Ontario Nonprofit Network recently issued a Request for Proposals to create a Shared Platform Guidebook to lay out the “must-haves” for a strong shared platform approach from a legal, governance and fiduciary standpoint, and the administration required to support those specifications.

Toronto Arts Council’s Open Door funding initiative, taking applications until April 15, aims to provide catalyst funding for big ideas and initiatives – perhaps like Shared Platforms – that have the potential to create transformative change for artistic disciplines, communities of artists and arts organizations and the arts sector at large. Project proposals for Open Door must demonstrate the potential for impact in at least one of the following areas: Market Development, New Models and Innovations, and Exceptional Opportunities.

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