Art saves Detroit?

by Jini Stolk

Having just finished Toronto Arts Facts, which provides strong evidence of the value and benefits of the arts to our City, I was still stunned to discover the extent to which Detroit’s survival could be tied to its major arts institution.

The always insightful Rick Cohen describes in the Nonprofit Quarterly  how a coalition of corporate and private foundations have committed $366 million to Detroit’s underfunded and endangered municipal employee pension funds, in a “Grand Bargain” that will convert the Detroit Institute of Arts into an independent nonprofit, thereby saving its art from being sold to cover the City’s debts and protecting the collection for the public good, in perpetuity.

Detroit was, of course, a place where enormous wealth and masterpieces of art were accumulated thanks to the auto industry, but the list of foundation support for the Grand Bargain is still surprising and very impressive. “This is an absolutely unprecedented series of…commitments from the foundation community” we are told, “stretching the boundaries of what foundations might have ever considered doing anywhere.” No kidding.

Commentators have noted that this sort of social/arts/community building initiative could only have been constructed around an organization of the size and stature of Detroit’s famed Institute of the Arts, with its huge base of board wealth and influence. And I am hoping that the Grand Bargain will allow Detroit to honour its commitments to the many nonprofit agencies who were contracted in recent years to provide services including homeless programs, supportive housing, substance abuse treatment, domestic violence prevention, services for persons with disabilities, and employment training.

This type of benefit of the arts was not what we had in mind when compiling Toronto Arts Facts, but…I will add it to my list.

Note: The U.S. budget for FY 2014 was as hard to pass as one would expect. The budget resolutions put forward by the House of Representatives, in particular, proposed deep cuts to discretionary spending, major changes to tax reform that would dramatically lower marginal and corporate tax rates – and for the third year in a row took aim at federal cultural funding:

“Federal subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting can no longer be justified. The activities and content funded by these agencies go beyond the core mission of the federal government, and they are generally enjoyed by people of higher-income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier citizens.”

Or as I guess this would now have to be rephrased, sometimes these subsidies result in a wealth transfer from wealthier to poorer citizens, propelling some wealthy citizens to examine what they most value and its relation to the larger well-being of society and its citizens…

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Sprinting to catch up with sports

by Jini Stolk

The recent World Cup (remember?) made me think again about the huge emotional connection people have to sports events, compared to the more restrained connection they seem to have to the arts.

Public vs. private enjoyment, you might say. The power of the crowd vs. profound internal impact, you might add.

But Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 and the folks at Arts USA have been writing about things we can learn from the World Cup about building energy and audience for the arts, and about the kinds of experiences that create pathways to more arts participation.

Nina Simon says that the sport of soccer has been enormously effective at expanding participation in the US among youth, creating opportunities for kids at any level of talent to participate and feel connected socially. “…soccer is developing a constantly-refreshing audience by creating opportunities for kids as young as four to participate in AYSO youth leagues. AYSO goes out of its way to include kids with different abilities, with “everyone plays” as one of its chief tenets.”

And larger youth leagues become stronger, leading to stronger college teams and stronger Olympic and professional performance. And all of that leads to more audience – at all levels of the game.

She calls for the arts to develop mutual respect, coordination, and collaboration among organizations that work at different levels of expertise, budget, and scale; to focus on developing both practitioners and audiences; and to offer a wider diversity of opportunities to engage.

In essence, she challenges us to eliminate in our hearts, souls and practices all vestiges of  “elitism,” whereby we place certain types of professional arts on a pedestal above all other artistic experiences. This is not far off some of the things Alan Brown has been saying about the wide variety of engagement with the arts that bring people joy and satisfaction.

And remember, as I wrote following a recent Olympics season, sports may very well be beating us at the art of telling stories. That’s a competition that I think we should be able to train for and win.



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Damned if we do

by Jini Stolk

I’m still reeling from the anti-spam legislation, so this recent headline in the Toronto Star seemed distinctly de trop: “Generous North York Widow Flooded with Charity Junk Mail.”  This junk mail, we are told, consists of an admittedly very large number of funding requests from a variety of charities and nonprofits, some of whom she’s supported in the past: these are described in the article as “spammers.”

Unfair, unfair, unfair. We’re going to have to continue to reach out to our supporters for financial assistance by some means or other. But perhaps this is a good time to examine our consciences and practices to make sure we’re doing unto others as we would like others to do unto us.

The article talks about “charities that routinely share mailing lists.” As far as I know, the routine sharing of mailing lists was severely reduced (in the arts sector certainly) with the passage of the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which came into force between 2001 and 2004. Under PIPEDA, organization are required to clearly inform people why they’re collecting personal information, including mailing addresses, and get their consent for all uses; they have to limit the amount and type of information gathered to what is necessary; and they can’t use or disclose personal information for any reason other than the purpose for which it was collected and for which they have consent.

The Act doesn’t exempt charities or nonprofits from these requirements, although collecting membership fees, compiling a list of members’ names and addresses, mailing out newsletters, and fundraising are not considered commercial activities and do not fall under the Act. But selling, bartering or leasing donor, membership or other fundraising lists is definitely precluded without specific consent. The Act does allow the use of a simple opt-out process to obtain consent, and it looks like some charities are still assuming consent unless otherwise notified – thereby annoying elderly widows, middle-aged marrieds, and young singles.

We really don’t want to flood potential donors with so many appeals that they become disgusted, and we should be very careful indeed about sharing, much less selling, our lists. These are practices guaranteed to backfire, breaking the trust between charitable organizations and the people who care about them.

Again, I can’t think of any arts organization that abuses their donor relations in these ways. But in an age where intimate details about donor prospects, and really anyone else, are easily found online – and where donor research through the web is now an important part of every fundraiser’s tool kit – all of these privacy regulations seem a bit fruitless and recherché.

Just remember that there is abundant evidence that charitable giving is a powerful secret to happiness, health and even material prosperity. But these outcomes definitely rest on a relationship of shared caring and trust between charitable organization and donor.


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Realizing the full potential of your events

by Jini Stolk

We’ve all organized events where, at the end of the night, we ask ourselves “why?” We may have had a good turn out; all the work that went into getting in-kind donations may have paid off in auction income. But…did we develop new supporters? Did we engage attenders so they’ll come back to see our shows?

I clearly remember the sinking feeling when the answer to these questions was a whispered “no”.

I’ve rarely found as good, easy and sensible advice about how to turn events into long term development activities as in this piece by Sheldon Wolf in the Nonprofit Quarterly.

If you (and your staff and board) like talking to people, if you’re interested in listening to them and getting to know them, you’re on your way to involving your event attenders in your mission.

If you’re wondering how to encourage board members to embrace their role as ambassadors for your company, look no further.

Development professionals develop relationships with people…excellent interpersonal skills are central to our work.”


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Just the Arts Facts…

by Jini Stolk

“What do we really know about the arts in Toronto?” was the original, seemingly simple question that led to four months of research and the publication of Toronto Arts Foundation’s Toronto Arts Facts.

Arts Facts compiles recent data from a variety of statistical surveys and research studies on Toronto’s arts and their place in our economy, tourism, communities and quality of life. Kate Taylor’s article in the Globe and Mail focused on the Facts’ anticipated prominent role in the municipal election campaign , where it will no doubt be useful in building awareness, among candidates and voters, of the size and impact of the arts in Toronto.

But there may even be a few surprises in Toronto Arts Facts for those of us working in the arts. Did you know that: arts and culture contribute $11.3 billion annually to Toronto’s GDP? that 174,000 Torontonians work in the culture sector? that our creative workforce has grown at more than twice the rate of our overall labour force? that Toronto is home to 93% more artists than any other Canadian city? or that every $1 the City invests in the non-profit arts sector generates $12.46 from other levels of government and the private sector, and $8.26 in earned revenues?

Toronto Arts Facts also tells a compelling story about how the arts enliven and enrich Toronto’s neighbourhoods and local businesses, help young people gain purpose and confidence, enhance the livability of our city and build local pride. Their central role in the creative economy, and in developing the engaged citizenry and social cohesion on which Toronto’s continued growth and prosperity depends, has become the focus of many studies and articles.

It’s not surprising but good to know that 70% of Torontonians regularly attend arts events or donate to the arts, and about the same number believe the arts improve the quality of life and benefit the community. The fact that people living in Toronto participate in and value the arts so enthusiastically speaks to those harder-to-measure arts impacts such as communal belonging, empathy and mutual understanding necessary to a multi-cultural community like ours.

Andrew Taylor recently wrote about the importance of studying and analyzing our world. He quotes Zora Neale Hurston (author of Their Eyes Were Watching God): “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”

The purpose of documents like Toronto Arts Facts, I would say, is to really understand what the arts contribute, busting myths about “frills” and “nice-to-haves not need-to-haves.” Working on this project with my colleagues Kathleen McLeod and Kasia Gladki has reinforced my belief that the arts community needs to collaborate to undertake more research and fact-finding, work to align its surveys to previous studies in order to fill in research gaps and build comparable statistics, and share the results more actively across sectors and with the public.

I can definitely commit to curiosity and lots of future poking and prying; and I’m hoping that this project becomes the first of many bringing together researchers and arts leaders to understand the power of the arts in Toronto.

Toronto Arts Facts is available on the TAC, TAF and Creative Trust websites, and is being printed as a booklet for targeted distribution. Its findings will provide supporting information for the recently launched “Toronto Loves the Arts” in celebration of the Toronto Arts Council ‘s 40th anniversary. The goals of this campaign are to generate conversation and increase public pride and ownership of the arts in Toronto. Stay tuned to #TOlovesTheArts and Toronto Arts on Facebook .



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by Jini Stolk

I’ll bet you thought I was going to say “audiences.” No. I actually want to talk about how we relate to our most important resources: the people who work in arts organizations, producing, promoting and generally supporting the art in an astonishing variety of ways.

When I meet with people eager to find work in our field I can’t help but be enthusiastic about the satisfactions of my own career. But I often wonder what we’re offering young people at the beginning of their arts careers.

I think we can all agree it’s not high salaries or stable employment with good benefits.

The Nonprofit Quarterly, as it so often does, provided useful insights in a piece about recruiting and retaining excellent staff given our inability to “compete” in traditional ways. Recent research in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, it seems, concludes that today’s workers value the same things Studs Terkel wrote about in his groundbreaking book Working.  I remember the rush of validation in reading that most people “search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short for a life instead of a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

These are things we definitely can offer, if we’re smart and purposeful about it, to the 174,000 (and growing) Torontonians who work in the arts because they want their work to have meaning.

Recent studies also say that people want a say, influence, participation, and voice at their workplace.

They find work meaningful when they’re involved in an organization with a larger purpose, where their work makes a positive difference to society; where they feel a sense of ownership and involvement in how the work is done; where they see and understand how their work fits into the larger mission of the organization; where there is a collective sense that everyone’s working together towards a goal; and where healthy and happy relationships are fostered and maintained.

Workplaces that engage workers’ spirit and intellect are more productive and produce greater customer satisfaction by means of the high quality, responsive service and communications that people certainly expect from arts and other social benefit organizations.

We should be workplaces of choice. We have mission and purpose at our core; we highly value the participation and engagement of staff and constituents; we believe in respect and equity and in each person having her own voice; we want to encourage fairness and collaboration…I sincerely hope.

These things may not always come easily – human relations are tricky; our best laid plans go often awry – but they are what set us apart, and what we can offer employees to keep them engaged and committed even when we don’t have any extra room in our budgets.

There is a particularly jarring disconnect when an organization devoted to creativity, collaboration, caring and equity turns out to have different standards when relating to their own staff. If the word gets out, organizations can lose an enormous amount of trust and good will which may be difficult to regain.


Helpful and interesting things to read on this topic:
Turkel, Studs. 1974. Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Tom Terez, 22 Keys to Creating a Meaningful Workplace. Holbrook, MA: Adams Media, 2000.

Management be Nimble by Adam Bryant, The New York Times

Learning is the work week by Harold Jarche


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Finding space

by Jini Stolk

From the moment I heard about SpaceFinder, Fractured Atlas’ online venue database and rental system, I hoped someone would find a way to bring it to Toronto. I’m incredibly pleased that TAPA, ArtsBuild Ontario and WorkInCulture, with the support of the Metcalf Foundation, are launching SpaceFinder Toronto this fall.

Once it’s fully functional in November (but they’re accepting space registrations now; you should get yours up on the site as soon as possible) it’s going to be an invaluable tool for artists and arts organizations looking for space for rehearsals, performances, meetings, launches, and special events.  The benefits of one-stop searching are huge: Fringe producers are going to be in heaven, and I imagine that party and event planners are also going to be pretty excited.

What particularly excites me is that SpaceFinder Toronto should become an invaluable asset to companies who run their own venues. As we know, most don’t have the time or staff to make sure their spaces are fully rented out, but all would benefit from extra rental income.

In New York, the Municipal Art Society is beginning a year-long project to explore the role of civic spaces in cities and discover ways to reinvent these spaces to meet new community needs. One of their goals is to create a broad national dialogue about the critical role that civic spaces play in city life. This is a conversation I’d love to be part of.

It’s sometimes been an uphill battle to gain recognition of the uniquely important role that venued companies play in our cultural ecosystem. There’s still a great gap in collaboration and support from the heritage community; and arts funding doesn’t fully recognize the particular strains of running a space nor the community benefit  provided – which goes well beyond arts access and includes fostering community identity and neighbourhood development.

Many companies in Toronto have poured enormous energies recently into renovating or building beautiful, successful new arts spaces. We should all be supporting and assisting them in every way possible - in order to avoid the sad crises of overexpansion, debt and financial meltdown we’ve been reading about in the States.

That’s why The Trillium Foundation’s increased emphasis on capital grants, in their redesigned granting programs starting 2015, is so welcome.

So is SpaceFinder Toronto. Bravo to all!

For More

The New Barn-Raising is a new tool kit from Detroit on sustaining civic spaces.

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The joys of reading

by Jini Stolk

Something’s wrong. How can it be that a light and breezy article about summer reading includes a tip like this: “Any book, which enhances knowledge. No fiction.”(The grammatical and punctuation mistakes might indicate that this tweeter needs to read more fiction, not less…)

This war on fiction comes up more and more often. Some CEO’s are proudly too busy to read anything but nonfiction; people say that time is too short, and their need for information too great, to read novels.

An essay in the June issue of The Atlantic, reviewing two new studies of “the novel”, is an almost unbelievably engrossing and moving piece on how books and readers shape each other. William Deresiewicz describes the way great novelists, by continually reinventing the form, also reinvented what it means to read, and to learn about the world and ourselves through reading. Novels are exceptionally good, he says, at making us feel what it’s like to inhabit a character’s mind.

I hope the anti-fiction attitude is not seeping down to children, although I fear it might be. The Action for Children’s Arts was moved a few years ago to draw up a manifesto on children’s rights to arts and culture, including the simple statement that Every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts. La Baraca’s interesting Charter of children’s rights to art and culture is more detailed.

Richard Griffiths, who starred as the teacher in The History Boys, said in an interview: “The inculcating of enthusiasm for intellectual ideas and improvement of the human condition, what is it to be in love, what is it to discover the meaning of loyalty, treachery, cruelty, kindness, sweetness, sourness – these things shape every one of us for the rest of our lives, and they’re not debated any more, they’re not understood any more, they’re not addressed any more by the school curriculum.” He says that the educational establishment has moved away from dealing with this type of knowledge because “there isn’t an exam for it.”

Except, he adds, “The exam is life.”


Further reading (not novels!)

The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt, Harvard/Belknap

What Writers Can Learn From ‘Goodnight Moon’ By Aimee Bender,

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Anti-spam spam

by Jini Stolk Like you, I’ve been overwhelmed by an onslaught of anti-spam compliance emails over the past few weeks. I’ve heard from companies whose messages I’ve been receiving, in some cases for the last twenty years, and with whom I have an established and very happy artistic and commercial relationship. I’ve heard from organizations who provide good, useful professional content which I want to continue to receive. I’ve heard from companies whose emails have been of marginal interest, but with whom I want to stay in touch for a variety of personal and professional reasons. I’ve heard from organizations whose messages I barely remember receiving, but whose occasional updates I think I might find interesting. I’m distressed by the amount of time, energy and fear behind our community’s response to this badly-designed and ambiguous legislation, which was put in place prior to any consultation with the nonprofit or charitable communities. The Ontario Nonprofit Network responded immediately and firmly once we understood the potential negative impact of Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL) on the nonprofit community’s relationships to its supporters – and especially on arts organizations which rely heavily on earned income through ticket sales. We argued that “the…legislation has…inadvertently caught our sector’s community-building activities in the legislation and regulations, which will have serious repercussions for the sector and… (may)… discourage and constrain how Canadians engage in their communities.” One of the probable negative results we identified is certainly rolling out as we speak: that our communications lists, built with great effort over many years, could be devastated by people’s lack of an active decision to “opt (back) in” – or by a rash of hasty “unsubscribe” decisions which even I’ve had to steel myself against given the crazy flood of messages and the universal human desire to reduce our daily inboxes.

THE GOOD NEWS: The arguments we and others put forward resulted in important changes to the regulations, which are well summarized on ONN’s website, on Imagine Canada’s website, and by charity legal experts Miller Thomson (check out this great link by them as well) and McMillan. These should keep panic at bay, and reassure you that you do not have to delete existing names from your mailing list if they have not actively re-subscribed as of July 1:

  • fundraising messages by charities, and other activities beyond the usual CRA definition of fundraising including “organizations, such as arts groups and cultural institutions, promoting ticket sales for upcoming events,” are exempt under the legislation.
  • if commercial activities are undertaken to carry out a charity’s mission, and the funds go directly to the charity to support its work, then it likely falls under the exemption.
  • messages from registered charities offering services which may benefit individuals, where there is a cost-recovery element (for materials, for example) are exempt.
  • We understand that charities’ existing lists might be considered as having express consent as long as the organizations have a working unsubscribe option in their communications.
  • the legislation allows three years to fully comply; anyone who has previously signed up to receive your emails does not need to sign up again, but in framing future communications you should encourage everyone to actively opt-in – especially if you’ve built your mailing list through a variety of methods (like collecting business cards) which didn’t explicitly explain that ongoing email communications would follow.
  • you must include a noticeable unsubscribe function in all e-messages, now and in future.
  • you will need to obtain express consent from now on as you grow your communications lists.

No doubt we would all like to receive less spam, but I haven’t received one single message from anyone who is actually spamming my inbox and I don’t expect to. Adding the SPAMfighter program to my computer has done a nice job of cutting down on the spam I used to receive. I was going to end this post by comparing and contrasting the several hundred messages I’ve received in the past few weeks to identify “best practices” in CASL messages, but I don’t actually have the heart to criticize anyone who’s been trying to comply with this difficult to understand legislation. I will simply say: make things as easy as possible for people to sign up, donate, or otherwise show support for your wonderful organization. One click good. Four clicks and a page of information capture bad. I will instead end by saying that I am deeply grateful to those of you who continue to receive and read my messages, which have no commercial purpose but which aim to involve the community I love in an ongoing discussion of how best to sustain and grow our organizations, our art, and our audiences. If you ever wish not to hear from me again, please do unsubscribe by clicking the link at the bottom of each of my newsletters and understand that I have valued and appreciated the time and interest you’ve shared with me over the years.

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I’ve looked at boards from both sides now

by Jini Stolk

I don’t know whether Joni would approve but it’s Canada Day weekend and her beautiful poetry is never far from my mind, at any time.

It’s sometimes easy to focus on the negative side of nonprofit boards, because we hear so frequently about personal clashes and struggles for control – or alternatively, lack of engagement and commitment. Yet boards can be such powerful partners in building an organization and its mission. I was just at an event where the mutual fondness and respect between the CEO and a long-time board member was underlined by the board member’s overwhelming passion for the organization. It was clear that she was finding her board work to be a perfect platform for expressing her personal values and commitment to community; as a result, she was a powerful and articulate ambassador.

Perhaps one of the keys to this kind of success lies right at the beginning, in careful board recruitment. Arts Action Research has long talked about “casting” the board, which provides instant clarity to many artistic and producing/managing directors (who must, of course, be thoroughly involved in the choice of new board members.) Shared values, commitment to the vision, a collaborative work style, contribution to diversity of background and perspective, and the ability to fill a particular role are as important as professional skills and number of contacts.

All of that should be clearly defined and discussed from the first exploratory meeting between the board prospect, board chair/nominating committee member, and managing/artistic director.

There’s a ton of interesting information on board recruitment from organizations like Canada’s Muttart Foundation, the popular database provider Wild Apricot, Help4Nonprofits and many more.

Unless they’re specifically focused on arts boards, these sites are unlikely to emphasize the role of the managing and artistic director in board recruitment, or to say that your search should begin with your audience. Arts organizations really are different in some important ways from other nonprofits.

Looking, now, from another side, a good board rarely makes itself. Skilled and perceptive board management is always behind the best arts boards and that part is definitely up to you, managing and artistic directors. Working together. In beautiful concert with the board president and/or other committed board members who thoroughly “get it” and are not interested in implementing rigid policies, but in providing insight and direction that will protect and sustain the organization’s core purpose.

Some of the best recent writing on boards is coming from Simone Joyaux on the SOFII website. She differentiates in a very interesting way between the board and its board members. The board, she says, does corporate governance, and it does that only when together at meetings; all other contributions are made by board members, the individuals who make up the board. She’s very persuasive and thorough about defining the expectations of board members from the start.

Ultimately, both board management and board leadership are areas where experience and empathy have to come into play.

A professional advice column in The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business recently featured an achingly familiar letter from the executive director of a charity: a new board chair and some new members were challenging the ED’s performance and questioning their skills; pushback was being characterized as disrespect; secret meetings were being held. How horrible, but the ED’s response seemed to be equally wrong and unproductive. Some of the advice offered was simply unbelievable: “try swimming, boxing or yoga” to help purge negative feelings and “make your dealings with ornery stakeholders more agreeable and productive.” Yeah, that could work…

Once you’ve finished your workout, it might be a good idea to take a very deep breath, remember that you’re dealing with human relationships, test your responses against what you know from other personal and professional experiences, ask your friends and colleagues for measured advice, implement more open and honest communications, and perhaps pick up a copy of YOU and Your Nonprofit Board: Advice and Tips from the Field’s Top Practitioners, Researchers, and Provocateurs.




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