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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Great emails, great results

by Jini Stolk

Speaking of emails. I said in a recent post that “good online fundraising rests on a very firm basis of excellent email capture and communications” so I think it’s only fair to say a few words on how to do that in our new CASL age.

Dunham + Company has been sending out a lot of useful information on this topic. I know it’s useful because I see many companies making the mistakes they warn against.

Getting people to sign up to your mailing list is all about building a relationship that leads to audience loyalty and donations. The first step, in their opinion and mine, is an email sign-up form that’s as simple as possible (requesting first and last name and email address only, requiring one click to complete); this stops people from abandoning the sign-up process. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one with a low annoyance threshold. Secondly, tell people what they’re getting into up- front, as specifically as possible: “a monthly email featuring behind-the scenes interviews and background on upcoming shows” is better than “our newsletter.” Finally, tell them what to expect once they sign up: “Thanks so much for joining our list. You’ll be receiving our ‘Behind the Scenes’ newsletter, with information on the artistic team working on our exciting new production, in the next few weeks.”

Next, getting noticed in the incredibly competitive inbox world, which we are all now painfully aware of. First Do_Not_Use_An_Alias, or “do_not_reply”, in your “From” line. I’ve often found myself with my finger on the delete button until I glance down and see that the message is from a company I want to hear from. Be as personal as possible in your message and your “To” line: the open rate increases.

From there to getting a donation? A simple form, smartphone capability, content that inspires – the U.S.-based Camp Rising Sun created the most fabulously inspiring infographic I’ve ever seen for their recent, wildly successful online fundraising appeal – and a clear, reassuring, security statement. That sounds right to me.

Adam Thurman from Mission Paradox talks about the importance of carefully planned and compelling content that people will want to read, and quotes a McKinsey and Company study that found that “E-mail remains a significantly more effective way to acquire customers than social media—nearly 40 times that of Facebook and Twitter combined“.  He’s been offering an intriguing, three and half month active and interactive online course The Paradox Guide to Great Email Marketing that he’s planning to repeat in the near future. I’d love to hear feedback from anyone who signs up: at $99, it’s affordable.

Other Sources: Signing up for Patron Technology’s white paper on “The Top Five Ways to Build Your E-Mail List” will, no doubt, get you onto their email list but if you’re looking for a new data management system it might be worth it.

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Enjoy the sun? Or get everything done?

by Jini Stolk

I was excited by a recent email about the important benefits of taking a vacation until I noticed that one of its major messages was the ease of using hotspots, web conferencing and file sharing while away. Phooey.

Did you know that a vacation can increase productivity and creativity (before you leave, as you try madly to complete every last thing on your to do list)?

Did you realize that people are often more productive and motivated after taking a vacation (despite lingering yearnings for days of unstructured happiness, pleasurable exercise interspersed with quiet reading, and beautiful views of sunlight bouncing off waves)?

Were you aware that you’re more likely to have a mental breakthrough when relaxed (although much less likely to do anything about it)?

The benefits of vacations include, we are told: greater happiness (check); increased vitamin D (double check); better concentration (what was I trying to work on before that memory of long leisurely strokes through salt water took over…?)

All this is to say that I know this set of blog posts is a bit overdue and I’m sorry, but I was taking a little time for myself. I hope you can all do the same this summer.

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Since you’re updating your website…

by Jini Stolk

How do I know that many of you are updating your websites? Because two people in the past week, and two people in most other past weeks, have mentioned that that’s what they’re up to.

Everyone’s website is in regular need of revision and updating. It’s a little like home renovations: a constant cycle of repair and maintenance, until every so often you get aggravated and decide to tear things down, move things around, and totally refresh the look.

Websites, of course, are not just about looks, although looks count. They are one of your major connections to the world outside your organization – and crucially, they are one of the most important connections to current or prospective donors (60% of whom report looking first at a charity’s website before making a gift.)

If you’re wondering if it’s time for a grand renovation, this is a good overview of how to analyze how your website is currently working. It talks about architecture, usability, fresh materials, content as story, staying mission-oriented, and being CMS-savvy.

Maybe you’d prefer another analogy? This piece compares caring for your website to taking care of a pet. It needs care, attention, and needs to be fed with lots of juicy content that only you can provide. Yum. Updating the website should be a whole-organization project, with everyone having the opportunity to make sure your new website, your public face, represents what you do in the most compelling and authentic way possible.

If you’re the type who likes the idea of blasting through the needless time restrictions of New Year’s resolutions, here are some helpful resolutions you could begin implementing now: go on a website diet by removing dull or outdated content; make an annual content calendar; and make better use of Google Analytics and Google Analytics Goals.

Dunham and Company’s Online Fundraising Scorecard helps you answer the question “is my website optimized for fundraising?” (hint, according to them the answer is always no – it can be made better, and the best way to do that is by continual testing and analysis).Their methodology in doing the scorecard was simple (it’s the one I use!): Sign up. See what happens. Make a gift. See what happens.

I hate to have to say that performing arts organizations were in the bottom five “verticals” (sector classifications.) It seems we don’t make it obvious enough that we want people to donate, or easy enough for people to do so.

The Scorecard is adamant that good online fundraising rests on a very firm basis of excellent email capture and communications. You must make people click, and there are ways to compose and present your email requests to make that happen.

Once someone does click onto your website, however, you’re still not home free. Too many website giving pages require too many clicks. Too many steps. Too many fields. One of the main reasons donors prefer online giving is because of its convenience. Dunham and Company’s research suggests that nonprofits are placing too many barriers between online donors and the giving experience.

Finally, what’s the deal with refusing to divulge email addresses on your site? I could see if your company were being run by Beyoncé or Kevin Spacey that you might want to limit direct access. But does it actually make sense to make it difficult for colleagues, artists, donors or audience members to email your artistic or managing director? Aren’t there better ways for them to manage their inboxes?

Anyway, this (unfortunately relatively frequent) practice makes me mad…I wonder if I’m the only one.

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Supporting the next generation with generosity and shared purpose

by Jini Stolk

I hear a lot about the need for change in the structure and leadership of arts organizations; I hear less about the many important changes that are already taking place. Don’t throw eggs: I’m not saying that the nonprofit arts have solved their problems and are all set to compete in our complicated, diverse and dynamic world. But I increasingly think that the ways artists and arts organizations are adjusting and evolving provide clues to how we’re going to arrive at a sustainable future.

First of all there is unquestionably a new generation of cultural leaders. I won’t talk about the artists, some of whom are mixing things up in exciting ways that wouldn’t have been thought of 20 or even 10 years ago. I’m thinking of the talented and capable arts managers who are coming to the fore – like Chris Lorway, Soundstreams ED and recent winner of the John Hobday Award in Arts Management; Regine Cadet, new GM at Theatre Passe Muraille; Roxanne Duncan, who’s just completed The Theatre Centre’s capital project and is moving to Vancouver’s PUSH Festival; Gideon Arthurs, Tarragon’s GM; Meredith Potter, who provides management services to three important Toronto companies; and Aislinn Rose, newly appointed GM of The Theatre Centre, to name just a few. They’re doing things around international partnerships; donor, audience, artist and community engagement; and new production and dissemination models, that are different and inspiring. And I’m sure they’re far better suited to building the next generation of audiences than me, for example.

In my next posts, I’m going to write about some of the structural changes I’m seeing – from larger companies opening their doors to newer, smaller, culturally diverse organizations; companies rethinking their mandate, size or programming; smaller companies regularly creating fluid collaborations to do large projects; companies rethinking the most basic assumptions of what makes a “company”; independent managers managing two or more organizations; evolving arts funding policies; and the potential of new concepts like shared arts platforms.

However our managers manage, and whatever structures we use to make art, it’s become clear to me that we will be successful only if we begin to move away, as a community, from the narrative of scarcity – the notion that whether we’re funders or funded, small or large, we never have enough resources. This mind expanding piece by David Dower presents a completely new way of looking at our world.

Rather than feeling caught in a straightjacket of scarcity, constrained, unable to experiment, at odds with each other, envious – why don’t we take a few steps back and realize that we’re part of an ecosystem that’s unquestionably one of plenty. Toronto and Ontario are rich in theatre and arts spaces and companies, skilled and talented professionals, opportunities to produce, overall size of audiences, and excellent artists.

Perhaps if we focused on building bridges between the resources each of us have, by way of truly inventive sharing and collaborating, we could maximize what we have together and help each other thrive.

I wonder if our new cultural leaders are already thinking that way.

(Thanks to Andrew Taylor for linking to David Dower’s piece and rocking my world.)

 

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Rethinking the bottom line

by Jini Stolk

Peter Brown used to say that working capital in an arts organization is like a toilet seat at a party: constantly up and down. I think we can all agree that life is better when it’s up.

The performing arts are a volatile business and it can be incredibly difficult to regroup after a series of box office disappointments. Unless you have a cushion of cash to soften the blow during hard times and provide flexibility to take risks when times are better, this profession can involve constant financial struggle.

Thus the need for capital resources and a strategy to build them.

A number of smart people have written about capitalization in the arts and other nonprofits. They’re really just talking about accumulating resources to support the achievement of the mission, over time.Artistic reserves, operating reserves or working capital – all part of the same set of concepts – can make the difference between being able to invest in the art, build audiences, take risks and respond proactively vs. being hamstrung by debt and lack of cash.

It’s probably true that the only way for us to have a strong and continuing impact on society is to pay attention to our balance sheets. (Needless to say, a persistent deficit is a drag on the art and must be dealt with.)

Clara Miller, a longtime proponent of a strategic approach to creating financial health, says that while “successful coping” is often a central skill for nonprofit managers, “successful changing” requires access to capital, allowing organizations to adapt as the environment evolves. She argues that our core business strategies should include keeping funds available for upgrading technology, building talent (such as development staff!), refreshing our programs, and creating new artistic work.

Easier said than done? Obviously, building financial health at this level requires a long-term view, not just of organizational sustainability but of what’s necessary to achieve the mission. Without a strategy and an all-organization commitment to capitalization it won’t happen. Susan Nelson’s presentation to the Theatre Communications Group Beyond Breakeven: Why Capitalization Matters is a great guide to creating an effective and appropriate strategy.

Arts Action Research observed that creating surpluses out of day to day operations is more difficult than ever and recommend that anything “extra” – including new programs, new technology, debt retirement, a new facility, facility improvements, working capital and endowment – requires a capital campaign. They describe these as special major gift campaigns and say that every organization needs to always be in a campaign phase in order to meet ongoing needs. I think they’re right, and an added incentive is that fundraising campaigns are invaluable in building profile and organizational energy.

I was interested to see that Fractured Atlas posts their business model on their website: a mix of earned and contributed income, with core operations sustained by earned revenues, seed funding for growth and special projects coming from grants, and a Strategic Opportunities Reserve (a Board-designated fund built by a portion of annual operating surpluses) for special projects that can’t be covered by grants or operating revenue. Straightforward and simple, but they say that this model ensures they remain resilient and squarely focused on the needs of the community.

Just to note that the new provincial Ontario Nonprofit Corporations Act (if and when proclaimed) acknowledges the need for nonprofits to be able to build funds to invest in growth, but that recent CRA audits at the federal level seem to take a narrow view of profit by charities. If “no profit for nonprofits” ever truly takes hold as a Finance Department directive, we’re all in trouble.

For more on the role of capital in the arts, Andrew Taylor at Artful Manager has been writing some recent posts on the topic including The crazy world of capital.

 

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Flow

by Jini Stolk

Have you read the wonderful book Nabokov’s Butterflies? It’s definitely different: an array of stories, poems, screenplays, selections from his novels, autobiography, lectures, letters and more about Vladimir Nabokov’s lesser known passion, lepidoptery. Butterflies.

Because most of the writings are by Nabokov the book is brilliant and strangely fascinating. But what struck me most was the amount of joy he finds in both his chosen types of work. On butterflies: “The highest enjoyment of timelessness…is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else…like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love”; “Enchanted hours! Rapture of recollection! My soul seethes…Latin names turn around in my head – and the night is warm and hazy…”; “Oh I had an enchanting, utterly sweet adventure. …I found on a linden tree near Charlottenburg station a wonderfully rare moth”; among hundreds of similar outpourings.

Artists, and it seems lepidopterists, have the privilege of doing work that engages all their deepest values, thought-processes and creativity – and makes possible a state of mind that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”. In his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he defines flow as a state of complete absorption with the action that a person is occupied with. “The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost”.

I was privileged to attend a conference some years ago organized by Mavis Staines of the National Ballet School on the topic of flow in dance, featuring Mr. Csikszentmihalyi. Being at the National Ballet School recently for an event brought it all back. Sadly (or luckily considering my career) my own moments of flow tend to happen when I’m writing grant applications, dreaming up new projects, creating strategic action plans, or even writing blog posts…

David Brooks wrote a column in the New York Times recently about a pivotal meeting between Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova which he describes as an example of “communication between people who think that the knowledge most worth attending to is not found in data but in the great works of culture, in humanity’s inherited storehouse of moral, emotional and existential wisdom.” Berlin and Akhmatova could experience that sort of life-altering conversation, he says, because they had done the reading and had the common language of literature, written by geniuses who understand us better than we understand ourselves.

I find that deeply moving, if largely unobtainable.

Nabokov’s Butterflies at 782 pages is a big book, and my library at home features a floor filled with stacks that I can’t fit onto the shelves. If anyone would like to have my copy of Nabokov’s Butterflies, just send me a note at jini.stolk@creativetrust.ca; it’s on my desk at 720 Bathurst just waiting for you.

 

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Is taking risks risky?

by Jini Stolk

The Executive Director of the Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery says she has a mantra in her dealings with artists: “I always say the answer is yes until it has to be no.”

I love that attitude – open and supportive of experimentation and risk – and the New York Times does too: they called Judy Hussie-Taylor one of the city’s notable “Movers and Shapers.” “Under her calm watch, tension is not cause for alarm, but something that opens up the possibility for new ideas.”

Andrew Taylor says that our outlook on risk is based on how confident we are when facing an uncertain outcome, whether we think we’re capable of bridging that uncertainty, and what consequences we expect from success or failure.

There shouldn’t be any such thing as a risk-averse arts organization (it seems like a contradiction in terms) – or a risk-averse arts board – but it’s easier to maintain a “calm watch” if you have a process in place to understand, analyze and plan for the consequences of taking decisions.

Ron Dembo, the author with Daniel Stoffman of Upside, Downside and Seeing Tomorrow: Rewriting the Rules of Risk spoke to Creative Trust members some years ago about risk and decision-making. His recommendations for managing risk were both obvious and profound, and involved creating scenarios to analyze the benefits and harm of taking – or not taking – an action. He was aware that regret or, in the arts, lost momentum or a reputation for timidity or complacency, carry their own risks.

That’s why financial reserves – working capital or dedicated artistic reserve funds – are so important. One of their main purposes is to protect a company’s ability to take risks by offering an option to mitigate the downside when things go wrong.

Of course, there’s another discussion going on as to whether some arts organizations or indeed the sector as a whole, either defensively or without reflection, use risk aversion as an excuse not to confront gender inequity or lack of diversity. But that’s for another post…

I never thought I’d line up firmly on the side of capitalists, but this is from John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization, his 1995 Massey Lectures about corporatism, capitalism, humanism, and citizen involved democracy: “Most business leaders who preach about free markets, personal initiative and risk are not capitalists: they are managers, bureaucratic employees specialized in methodology. A capitalist has more use for other human qualities – common sense, intuition, creativity.”

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Who owns nonprofit organizations?

by Jini Stolk

After a great deal of public outcry and the departure of some long-time board and staff members, the decision to close the San Diego Opera – a 49-year-old institution of considerable importance to its community and art form – was just overturned. Emergency fundraising, in-kind community support, and cost-cutting (including an agreement by admin staff to a 10% pay cut, and willingness by singers and other union members to negotiate similar concessions) have closed the projected deficit and made it possible for the company to plan a smaller but impressive season.

I have no doubt a lot of hard work will still be needed to ensure a rosy future, but I’m particularly interested in a few aspects of this story.

One is the way in which the community rallied to save a company they cared deeply about. In less than a month, 2,461 San Diego Opera supporters contributed $2.1 million in donations through a crowdfunding campaign. Over $300,000 was raised in the first 3 days, and the median gift was $100. According to the Opera’s website: “The news was dire and the future of San Diego Opera seemed hopeless. And then you stepped up. You spread the word, donated, tweeted and posted to Facebook and, because of an amazing and dedicated community, San Diego Opera is now moving forward.”

Second, other major institutions, including the San Diego Symphony (which donated use of their venue for gala concerts), and the Houston Grand Opera (which contributed $60,000 worth of sets for Nixon in China, a highlight of the resurrected season) made significant in-kind contributions to help save the San Diego Opera.

Third, in a mere few weeks a new survival (or perhaps “revival” is a better word) plan for the 2015 season featured a budget of $6.5 million, compared to the original $17 million budget that led the board to decide the company had to close! What a clear indication that the old board and senior staff lacked the creativity, vision or will to institute necessary change, even at the cost of the organization itself.

(I don’t know the ins and outs of Opera Hamilton’s closing this January, but the press release in which it’s announced, Opera Hamilton Ceases Operations Due to Lack of Funding, quotes the Co-Chair and Treasurer as stating “we  had  hoped  a  large  donation  from  an  individual would arrive  in  time,  but  regrettably  it  did  not  materialize…” I would say that waiting for a one-person bailout in such circumstances is a mug’s game. God really does help those who help themselves…)

Back to the San Diego Opera. Fourth, and I love this one, ticket prices have been reduced for the newly announced season, with single tickets starting at $35 and an increased number of $99 orchestra seats available for each production; this is widely expected to increase attendance and possibly earned revenue. (We’ve seen it work here in Toronto, where Young People’s Theatre and the Royal Ontario Museum made savvy and successful decisions to reduce their ticket prices.)

Fifth, that so much of the discussion about SD Opera’s decision to close and disperse its assets has centred on the topic of nonprofit governance. Andrew Taylor put it nicely: “How can you disassemble something that nobody owns? Nonprofits exist as a special class of organization…Neither the public nor private sector owns them.” The governing board is charged with stewardship of the organization and its assets, representing the as yet undefined ”public trust.” “Some boards interpret their job as ensuring the success of the organization at all costs. Other boards interpret their job as ensuring the success of their mission, within the context of the many ways (inside and outside the organization) that mission might be fulfilled.” Interesting point, that.

As it turns out the San Diego Opera Association, a group of more than 850 supporters who form the Opera’s legal membership, actually has authority over the company’s assets – a fact that was apparently overlooked by the board when it voted to start selling off the assets.

The disconnect between the concept of ownership and control, which is behind many internal struggles at nonprofit organizations, is one that deserves a vigorous debate and a fuller understanding by managers and board members on both sides of the border.

Posted in Board & Governance | Comments closed
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