Predicting the “future”

by Jini Stolk

I’ll go out on a limb here. My prediction for 2015 is that arts organizations will adapt to new funding, producing and audience realities by moving away from expecting/assuming that healthy organizations are characterized by growing seasons, expanding budgets, and ever more senior corporate board members. Instead they’ll move towards accepting/embracing the reality that the healthiest organizations will be open and nimble, changing structures and tactics as necessary to support the work that needs to be done.

Oh wait. That’s already happening. My prediction is that it will continue. (For an insightful view of how the U.S. arts sector is responding to a similar reality, read this post written by Eileen Cunniffe almost exactly a year ago.)

Running an arts organization has never been simple (there was no easy recipe to follow.) But what used to be complicated (a difficult process with rules and techniques one could learn) has become more and more complex (where the future is unknowable, the situation changes constantly, and the only way to move forward is continuously to evolve.)

Many of us learned these concepts – and their importance to arts and non-profit management and organizational dynamics – from Brenda Zimmerman, a leading Canadian researcher, teacher, writer and innovative thinker who died way too soon at the end of 2014. Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed, which she co-authored, is an inspiring guide for people involved in innovation and social change.

Independent artists and small companies are rethinking the most basic assumptions of what makes a “company.” Many are no longer trying to form the traditional “nonprofit corporation” structure, and are creating artistically focussed producing models based on collaborations and non-traditional spaces. They’re more loosely structured, with part-time, multi-talented and entrepreneurial producer/managers. At a Business for the Arts workshop a while back, I was truly surprised by how many attendees were managing two or more companies.

STAF, one of the cultural community’s original “shared services” organizations, is responding by transforming itself from a place that provides subsidized administrative services to one that builds the skills and capabilities of independent theatre producers.

Large organizations, too, are rethinking their size and programming, opting for shorter runs, and incorporating commissioning and presenting as essential parts of their artistic mandate. In October 2012 Canadian Stage was called “The Incredible Shrinking Theatre Company” in The Globe and Mail for its radical changes to reel in costs and become more artistically flexible. Two years later, they’ve become an exhilarating and compelling cultural force.

We all have a role to play in shaking off resistance and removing the barriers to change. Both funders and those of us who might find ourselves on peer juries, have to understand the value and real costs of change, supporting those who are searching for new ways of working. As a community we should be providing time and assistance to people creating new business plans and artistic platforms.

In the words of one of our very smart colleagues, “If we wish to have a vibrant theatre community that reflects many visions we will have to push ourselves and our peers to operate ‘beyond our walls’.”

Posted in Organizational Development | Leave a comment

Digital new year’s resolutions

by Jini Stolk

We (I) may not want to, but that’s no excuse. As long as we’re communicating online, it’s so much smarter (and such a better use of our time and energy) to know how to have the greatest impact with digital communications.

This interesting piece on “digital must-do’s for 2015” has some good advice on personalizing messages, and some great links on the essential task of designing them to work fluidly across platforms and devices.

What I liked most was this challenging question: “What is the online journey you plan to take your donor on? Have you charted the course from Point A (e.g. ad or email) to Point B (donation form) to Point C (thank you email) to Point D (quarterly eNewsletter) to Point E (monthly donation appeal)?”

The answer – that planning each of these touch points simultaneously, in advance, forces you to think about the purpose each serves, how they interact and intersect, and how you can improve your donor’s overall experience – seems like a smart way to make sure your marketing, fundraising and stewardship messages are as effective as you need them to be.

Thank goodness for the stats geeks. Who else would have extensively analyzed which email subject lines increase click-through and response rates (hint: Thank You scores high). I was not surprised to see that results varied between industries and sectors: what works for commercial messages doesn’t always score high for arts and non-profits, although sometimes it does.

While I haven’t found any extensive analysis specific to arts and non-profits, I’m pretty sure this wins as the worst subject line of the year: “Do you need a 2014 tax receipt?” from The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation (offering themselves up, I suppose, to anyone frantically seeking to reduce their “tax burden” in the waning hours of the year…)

People like Nina Simon from Museum 2.0 are learning from experience that e-blasts that offer “invitations to get meaningfully involved; documentation and celebration of community members who have shared experiences, made unexpected connections, or experienced moments of ignition; and clear and welcoming language about a diversity of available opportunities where you too could have these experiences” get great click-through results – while reflecting our missions, programming, and values.

Another thing: SEO (search engine optimization) best practices are not exclusively fodder for your junk mail folder. Read more here.

Some knowledge update combined with a bit of informed communications planning and a touch of creative thinking: a new year’s resolution that’s going to be easy to keep.

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Saying thanks

by Jini Stolk

Now that you’re back in the office, I hope you’ve been busy opening donation envelopes, checking in with Canada Helps, and saying thanks to all those wonderful people who decided to end their year by helping you start yours with money in the bank and joy in your hearts.

There’s a lot of advice on the care and retention of donors, but step 1 is simple: you have to thank them sincerely and quickly, and let them know how their donation makes a difference. “Receiving a thank-you and being shown how their gift has clearly furthered your organization’s mission are the two things donors want most.”

I don’t need to tell you, do I, that all thank you’s have to be out by Friday of this week? (This year’s prize for quickest and most delightful note of thanks goes to Kaeja d’Dance.)

This piece on amazing donation thank you letters should help kick start the writing process. It’s always a bit weird to read a thank you letter that sounds…strangely familiar, perhaps almost word for word like the one you received last time. Not good.

Pictures are good, and quotes from someone affected by the donation are excellent – not just as part of your year-end thank you, but often, through social and other media. I’d love to hear more from the artists themselves – not just the AD, but the writers, actors, production team members.

Small blessings coming our way. As of April 1 you should see a drop in the transaction cost of credit card ticket sales and donations, thanks to the federal government’s agreement with MasterCard and Visa to reduce interchange fees (charges paid by merchants when they process credit card payments) to an average of 1.50% of the transaction value. The reduction for charities is promised to be even greater.

This welcome development (and, I would argue, moral victory) is in response to continuous efforts by the charitable sector led by Imagine Canada. Good work, everyone.



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Me and squirrels

by Jini Stolk

I don’t really like squirrels, for obvious reasons. This fall I purchased $68 worth of squirrel feed at the Stratford Farmers’ Market (in the form of beautifully colour coordinated tulip, fritillaria, crocus and allium bulbs) and watched the little critters nose their way through layers of hot chili powder to get at their snacks. No; I don’t much like squirrels.

However I also bought a few ears of decorative corn between shows that weekend. These came in handy at Thanksgiving, but were feeling de trop by early December. After thinking it over quite carefully, and calling on all the forces of my better nature, I put them out in the yard to be enjoyed, first come first served.

The next morning only the husks remained – but beside them was a shiny, silver-painted, woven Christmas decoration which I gratefully hung on our tree.

For 2015, I wish you many unexpected gifts, happy encounters, and joyful surprises.

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Wishes for you

by Jini Stolk

My New Year’s wishes for you are:

That your mission statement will be as beautiful, precise and inspiring as a poem.

That your volunteers will grow in commitment, numbers and happiness.

That your board meetings will be energized and focused.

That all of us (“Barely Managing Directors” included) learn to reduce stress, stay calm and be healthy.

The continued blessing of not having to implement an “active shooter program” at our arts spaces.

And don’t forget that theatre tickets make the perfect holiday gift!

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The next Canada and the arts

by Jini Stolk

The “debate over audience diversity” recently discussed by Kate Taylor in the Globe and Mail is, as was pointed out, more a necessity than a debate. And the answer to the question of where it should start seems to me to be “everywhere, in many companies, in many different ways” – until, as the wonderful Jovanni Sy of the Gateway Theatre is hoping, audiences’ attendance patterns reflect their diverse artistic interests more than their ethnic backgrounds.

The Pew Research group’s fascinating report on the demographic future of the United States (described by The Nonprofit Quarterly as “one of the most beautifully executed yet content rich interactive posts we have seen“) has been generating a lot of discussion about the speedy pace of change in racial dynamics to our south – but also about the “graying of America.” The study projects that the combination of low birthrates and people living longer is creating an American future where the average person will be much older than at any point in history. This too has huge implications for those of us who work in the arts, particularly the performing arts. The need to focus on the lifetime value of an audience member requires renewed efforts not just to bring in and diversify audiences, but also to engage and retain them over the long-term.

The author of The Next America says that “Demographic transformations are dramas in slow motion. America is in the midst of two right now. Our population is becoming majority non-white at the same time a record share is going gray. Each of these shifts would by itself be the defining demographic story of its era. The fact that both are unfolding simultaneously has generated big generation gaps that will put stress on our politics, families, pocketbooks, entitlement programs and social cohesion.”

Since the demographic changes he describes also exist in Canada, they may also up-end our approaches to audience development.

A new study by Hill Strategies Research Inc., provides a look at Diversity and Arts Attendance by Canadians in 2010, examining arts attendance by eight “diverse” demographic groups including visible minority Canadians, first-generation immigrants, Aboriginal people, Canadians with disabilities, Youth (15 to 24 years of age) and Seniors (65 and older).

Alan Brown’s A Study of College Student Preferences towards Music and the Performing Arts for The Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth College provides insights into how to draw the elusive young adults audience into arts programs and how to engage the next generation of audiences. The research is available for download from


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Questions from the floor

by Jini Stolk

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the energy of the arts board members attending my workshops on The Art of Good Governance: Getting the Basics Right. The Get on Board project, a partnership betweenthe Toronto Arts Foundation and Business for the Arts, is clearly meeting a need: our board members are eager to learn and engage in discussion about their important work.

Many people had questions during the workshop about the Ontario Not-for-Profit Corporations act: the best summary of what we can expect with ONCA is on the ONN’s website here.

One attender sent a welcome note following last week’s workshop at the North York Centre for the Arts, pointing out that I hadn’t mentioned some absolutely basic board responsibilities such as attending meetings, reading the agenda and materials beforehand, asking questions about issues you don’t understand, donating to your organization, and going to its shows and events. So very true. I shouldn’t take these things for granted.

He included among these basic requirements that board members should maintain confidentiality about board and organization matters, and support a united board position outside of meetings. In fact, I’ve been wanting to write about this very issue.

It struck me that the Globe and Mail’s detailed article about the decision by the Royal Ontario Museum’s CEO to leave before the end of her contract, was based in part on interviews which certainly breached the confidentiality of the boardroom.

That and the sexist undertones to the resulting article – which many other people noticed and have mentioned – rubbed me the wrong way.

Although I don’t know anything about the inner workings of the ROM, it seems inevitable that anyone leading the museum – even if they were male and an experienced “networker in Toronto society” – would face significant challenges following its renovation, including increased operating and maintenance costs, a dearth of good exhibition space, and inflated post-reno audience projections.

The ROM as a whole can’t be pleased that internal board dissatisfactions have hit the news. They look bad on the institution, and could discourage people “from away,” with fresh perspectives and ideas (particularly about the necessary task of making sure the ROM is seen as contemporary and relevant, to apply for the job.

Which are two of the major reasons why board confidentiality is a must for any arts organization.

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Good governance includes diversifying boards

by Jini Stolk

The Art of Good Governance: Getting the Basics Right, a workshop I presented on November 17th, was the kick-off to Get on Board, a new project of the Toronto Arts Foundation and Business for the Arts to strengthen the arts community by bringing members of arts boards together to learn and share. Forty devoted members of music, dance, theatre and museum boards, large and small, convened at the always festive Spoke Club to hone their governance skills, gain a better understanding of their roles and responsibilities, and discuss some of the most important ways they can help their organizations thrive. It was lively, lots of fun, and if you missed it, don’t despair – it’s being repeated on December 9th at 5:30 at Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York (right on the Yonge subway line.) You can register here.

The workshop, at an hour and a half, was only long enough to skim over some very important and complex topics, which we may address more deeply in future sessions. But in the meantime I’ve been thinking about one of the interesting questions from the floor, about identifying and cultivating board prospects from diverse backgrounds.

It’s easy to say that boards and staff of arts and nonprofit organizations should better represent the diversity of our communities – but it seems harder to put into action. Look around.  Arts boards tend to replicate themselves, even when we know it’s wrong, limiting, counterproductive, and even somewhat embarrassing in the midst of Toronto’s dynamic multiculturalism.

I found a recent piece in The Globe and Mail on counteracting bias in hiring which I found to be relevant and helpful. It acknowledges that certain types of unconscious bias – such as the tendency to prefer, because you feel more comfortable with, people who are like you; and the tendency to judge people on recent events rather than long-term records, which disadvantages newcomers – are common to human nature, but have to be overcome if you want a diversified workplace (or board.)

Author Erin Anderssen described a controlled experiment in which one group of managers was allowed to choose a snack each day for a month, while another group was asked to choose all 30 snacks for the month. The first group went back to their favourites, over and over again, while the second group chose a variety of snacks. This principle was then applied to overcome unconscious bias. Simply by adopting the process of comparing resumes together, rather than one at a time, managers chose more diverse teams, based on a wide and balanced variety of skills.

This struck me deeply and personally (although I have to say that I still miss my daily sushi from The Lunchbox on Richmond Street, which even I knew was boring.)

Donna Walker Kuhne remains the best possible guide to on how to help people from a diversity of backgrounds build personal connections to the art, and the importance of going to the communities we want to invite into our spaces, listening to what they say, and creating a plan based on what they tell us.

According to Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 the James Irvine Foundation has a wonderful new report, Making Meaningful Connections, by Holly Sidford, Alexis Frasz, and Marcy Hinand, about the common characteristics of arts organizations that successfully and continuously engage diverse audiences – and consciously seek to diversify their boards and staff.

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Giving Tuesday

by Jini Stolk

Mea culpa. I was intending to write about Giving Tuesday in time to offer a little practical advice to those of you wading in this year. But by the time you get this it will all have been either a grand success or a bit of a disappointment. Perhaps I can help you analyze where you went wrong, or right, for next year.

First of all, I was a bit surprised by the large number of Black Friday pitches by performing arts companies. It reinforced the sector’s entrepreneurial, revenue-focused talents, but wouldn’t it be lovely to change the name of the ominous and negative sounding Black Friday, which calls up the image of a dark cloud of enforced shopping? Could we call it Sparkling Silvery Friday where arts organizations are concerned?

By whatever name, the variety of offers from companies large and small, from gift certificates (Stratford, very appealing offer), concert tickets (Tafelmusik 40% off; Koerner Hall 20% off but with a large choice of concerts), subscriptions, recordings and swag was impressive.

For Giving Tuesday, Canada Helps was much involved in promoting the “movement” and providing advice for participating companies and donors. Appeals varied, with Harbourfront’s unique gift offers being particularly creative. Most companies just appealed for donations, or asked for year-end gifts. Here are some good online giving tips for Giving Tuesday and beyond. Here’s a summary of methods used by Giving Tuesday 2013 participants whose campaigns were particularly successful, including integrating it with existing campaigns and persuading a local corporation to match pledges. TechSoup Canada provided a super useful checklist of things to do in the month leading up to Giving Tuesday.

This is an excellent reminder that visual images always trump text in reaching out and telling our stories: it’s part of our brains’ hardwiring!

This Imagine study says that a majority of Canadians plan to give to charity this holiday season, but that many are concerned that their donations will support overhead! On that hoary topic, read this spirited and very funny defense of general operating funds, without which no charity can successfully deliver services or value.

And this reminds us that you can’t reinvent the wheel around the core activities of fundraising. What is important is to first understand what the wheel looks like and then manage the process with passion and vigilance.

The Vigilant Fundraiser: 12 Steps to Fundraising Success is available by clicking here to order; it costs $24.95.

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The different moods of quality

by Jini Stolk

Maybe it’s in response to being bombarded by…stuff…at this time of year, but I’ve been thinking about excellence (or quality) in artistic work.

Do I know it when I see it? I think I do, but I’m always intrigued by the variety of responses to a piece of work and try not to presume that my own opinion is the only one that’s valid. I’m particularly happy when the critics like something I don’t, because I root for everyone’s success and I’m pleased that they’ve found something to appreciate that didn’t ring my bells.

Like many of us, however, I get a bit sniffy when they pan something I loved. But the best defense is a good offense and the abundance of comment on blogs and social media makes it possible, as never before, to highlight alternative opinions. Lyn Gardner of The Guardian, talks about the continuing need for many different types of criticism and about reviews as a product of critics’ experiences, prejudices and in some cases, what they had for lunch. One of Canada’s finest theatre and dance critics Max Wyman, wrote about the privilege and minefields of “this very public form of personal growth and exploration.”

Nina Simon from Museum 2.0 recently reminded me that quality is judged by specific expectations and preferences, which change even throughout a person’s lifetime. She identifies ten different kinds of quality in arts experiences, leaving plenty of room for differences of opinion and a whole variety of ways to value and evaluate a piece – or an entire program – of work:

  1. AESTHETIC: is it beautiful?
  2. TECHNICAL: is it masterful?
  3. INNOVATIVE: is it cutting edge?
  4. INTERPRETATIVE: can people understand it?
  5. EDUCATIONAL: can people learn from it?
  6. RELEVANT: can people relate to it?
  7. PARTICIPATORY: can people get involved or contribute to it?
  8. ACADEMIC: does it produce new research or knowledge?
  9. BRIDGING: does it spark unexpected connections?
  10. IGNITING: does it inspire people to action?

Andrew Taylor warns about the tendency to “place a populist frame around creative work”, thus discounting the gift and craft of true artistry – something I sometimes worry about when reading studies on arts engagement even by my beloved Alan Brown. Taylor linked to this beautiful interview with one of my favorite authors, Colm Toibin where he talks about the hard and demanding craft of writing and the assumption that he’s a ‘storyteller’ from the long cultural tradition of Irish storytelling. “I hate being called a storyteller, because I’m a novelist. In other words, I hold and wield textures and tones and language. And if you think that it’s natural for me to do that, it is not.”

That comment was masterful, understandable, helped me learn, produced new knowledge, sparked unexpected connections, and inspired me to action.


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