Category Archives: strategy

Is it Sustainable? Volunteers in arts and culture

An off-the-cuff remark during the recent SPARC Network Summit, was captured by Chad Ingram of the Minden Times:

“The idea that we’re all volunteer-run [in rural communities] . . . is that sustainable?” [Inga] Petri asked, pointing out that the arts is one of very few industries where people are expected to donate much of their time. “We would never imagine mining to work that way. We would never imagine forestry to work that way.” [Or fisheries for that matter: all industries that are also often located in rural or remote locations in the country.]

So why do we not need to have volunteers running mining companies, like they run community-based arts presenting organizations in many regions of Canada? Why do forestry companies not call for volunteers to support their operations or sales teams, as many arts organizations do? Why such a dearth of volunteers in integral oversight roles in fisheries or construction industries?

Don’t worry. I get it. The performing arts is a sector where labour productivity can’t so easily be increased (that Beethoven symphony requires the same number of musicians today as it did when it premiered), unlike what has been achieved in those other industries through automation and machinery with ever greater capacity requiring ever fewer people. Yet, at the same time labour costs in the arts have to keep pace with inflation and cost of living for artists and administrators (well, that isn’t always the case, but still costs have risen while productivity has not). One response to what has been called Baumol’s Cost Disease means that it is hard to imagine the arts and culture sector existing to the degree it does in Canada without massive volunteer involvement.

Volunteerism – doing useful things in an organized way without pay to make others’ and our own lives better – is a great attribute of being part of a vibrant community.  Yet, especially in smaller communities in Canada, worries about attracting, training and retaining  volunteers are common. People burn out from the demands of volunteering in the arts,  volunteering at the local hospital and any number of charitable and not-for-profit organizations.

We collected pertinent information underscoring the importance of volunteering – and inferred the great importance it signifies in terms of the arts for Canadians – in the Value of Presenting study (links to PDF):

“(…) Canadians who volunteer in the arts and culture sector gave on average more time (127 hours per year) than those in any other sector in 2010. This represents an increase of 21% since 2007, the largest increase of any sector examined at a time when 6 out of 12 sectors registered a decline. (…) When considered in terms of total hours, the amount of volunteer time equates to about 100 million hours. That is equivalent to more than 50,000 full-time jobs.

(…) in the Survey of Performing Arts Presenters … [more than] half of survey participants report more volunteers than staff. The average ratio of volunteers is 17 for each paid staff member. (…)

The profound reliance on volunteers is even more evident among presenters of entire programming seasons in small communities under 5,000 people. They are less likely to have any staff and instead tend to be entirely volunteer run. These rural organizations rely on a day-to-day volunteer complement of an average of 36, with half reporting the use of 12 or fewer volunteers and half reporting more than 12. This increases to an average of 167 during the height of their operations.

I wonder whether this reliance on volunteers is sustainable. And whether it is sufficient to off-set the cost disease that has been diagnosed. And whether it is makes sense and is fair that so many functions (we can look at them as potential full-time jobs) are filled by unpaid labour?

To be clear, arts organizations have also undertaken other strategies to alleviate the inevitable pressures, including:

  • Higher ticket prices
  • Advocacy for greater public support
  • Increase in private, corporate donations
  • Renegotiating union contracts to reign in costs

While they do not address the underlying structure of the sector, each of these strategies has bought time for many organizations, even if not all in Canada, by generating needed income.

So, where do we go from here?

Well, one place I will go is to the CAPACOA conference in Halifax, where I will discuss Digitizing the Performing Arts and explore whether that could be “the holy grail” to shifting the performing arts presenting sector’s structure toward a new model that suffers less from this dynamic.

Leadership matters: Reflecting on the Yukon Arts Summit

My mind keeps returning to the Yukon Arts Presenters Summit. I had the rare benefit of debriefing with Michele Emslie, Summit organizer and Community Programming Director at the Yukon Arts Centre, over a few days and assisting in reviewing the personal and group action plans to which participants committed.

I am struck by the leadership capabilities that underpinned the success of the summit; qualities that go beyond being adaptable or seeking to be relevant to stakeholders.

Design thinking applied

Rather than define and solve a specific problem, the organizers held themselves to a different standard based on a broad goal: strengthening the Yukon arts presenting eco-system. Making such a broad goal central meant that much effort was spent on creating the conditions in which participants could discover and define the actions that were important to them. At heart of this design thinking approach lies understanding that a combination of empathy, creativity, analysis and synthesis as well as having explicit spaces for convergent and divergent thinking are essential. In short, by taking this approach, organizers succeeded in creating a space in which a diverse group of participants could learn, reflect, be inspired, meet and talk together and arrive in new places together.

Co-creating an intentional journey

There was no pre-defined destination, no agenda in terms of specific outcomes, no boxes to check off, no need for linear progression. Rather, there was an invitation to join together on a journey of discovering common ground and action priorities.

The organizers were focused on empowering participants from the start, knowing that the summit is its participants. They asked potential participants to co-create the content through soliciting feedback on hot topics and burning issues. 60 responses came in! Organizers listened carefully and found five key themes to address. An important  effect of this open, listening approach was that the tone of the summit, its ownership was already in the hands of participants well before they could even register for it.

Deep respect and trust in each person’s wisdom

The organizers showed a deep, easy respect for each person and their knowledge and experience. This was apparent in every facet, including activities like:

  • The Friday morning networking exercise using a photo, paper and markers to answer four questions: who are you/ what do you do, what is your hope for the future, what can you contribute to the summit, what do you need from it.
  • A gift exchange: each participant was asked to bring a gift that represents something about them, their work or their community (using their imagination rather than pocket book). These gifts were randomly distributed at lunch and then everyone read the brief note that was attached by the giver and talked about what significance this gift held to them. There were all kinds of wondrous giver-receiver match ups and the exchange made for a profound sense of connection and some fun. 100+ people managed to share in plenary over lunch while staying on schedule for the entire conference.
  • Each day’s opening reflections, ranging from an elder’s prayer to Haiku to Gramma Susie.

Wisdom comes from many places and, in particular, the spaces in between.

Action-oriented

The summit schedule was action-packed, not because of featuring talking heads or experts, but because of its focus on facilitation, conversation, meeting and thinking together, and action planning. (As a speaker, I felt I was well briefed heading into the summit!) As a result this summit produced several big ideas and actions through collaboration, rather than consensus. Perhaps most important, it resulted in the ownership of these ideas residing within the community itself, owned by various champions and those who gathered around these big ideas. Conference organizers didn’t get a long task list back, but rather received a strong mandate to remain stewards of the process, facilitate the next steps and to continue leading by encouraging leadership from within the arts community.

Using Open Space methods, participants pitched these initiatives for discussion.

Using Open Space methods, participants pitched various initiatives for discussion and to see which ones were strong enough to warrant concerted action.

A network = An action community

I believe we are seeing a profoundly different kind of arts presenters network emerge in Yukon. Not one that becomes a membership-based service model over time and that might suffer the eventual difficulties that have become so well documented for many membership-based associations; but a living, breathing, creative community that gathers around common actions (which require a just large enough group to be interested in working together), that is highly responsive to emerging and changing needs, and that delegates authority to all participants while benefiting from unhurried and effective stewardship provided by the Community Programming Director at the Yukon Arts Centre (YAC). Finally, YAC is ideally positioned for this role as it is a territorially created arts centre whose mandate includes strengthening arts as an important cultural, social and economic force in the Yukon Territory as a whole.

This close-knit, open network grounded in shared leadership and personal commitments, will show us how big ideas can be realized through concerted actions – unfettered from needing to establish narrow service priorities or delegating authority to a few (like a board of directors) – and thus able to grow and shift as the situation warrants.

Power of the People: Yukon Arts Summit makes change

Over 100 performing and visual arts presenters from across Yukon gathered during four days in November to develop concrete action plans for a strong, unified arts sector. The summit was designed to create a space where all participants would shape the outcomes – at once encouraging collaboration and inviting each person’s leadership. It was remarkable to be a witness – and contributor – to this process.

The energy in the room was unlike anything I have ever experienced.  The work that got done, the plans that were committed to, will transform the way the Yukon arts and cultural communities work with each other, and present themselves to their stakeholders, the rest of Canada and beyond. People here not only dream big, they make big things happen. It seems they can’t help it; it is in their nature.

The summit outcomes will prove their transformative power over the next weeks, months and years.

Yukon Arts Presenters Summit

Breakout sessions brought people together to reflect and to pollinate new thinking.

Several key elements came together to create a summit like no other I have ever seen:

  • An attitude that set out to “Help the Best get Better” and that delivered. Indeed the best had gathered together at this summit: 100% of First Nations Cultural Centres attended, as well as 86% of the First Nations in the Yukon, and the same proportion of all the communities across the territory. All participants had a voice and used it, shared experiences, told stories and offered new thinking that could create significant change. Both performing and visual arts were actively included, and many artistic disciplines within these were well-represented. Presenters, producers, practicing artists, funders, board members and consultants all worked together throughout. Just imagine such a truly inclusive gathering of active, ready-to-work participants in BC, Ontario or the Maritimes!
  • Action-oriented summit design. There were only 5 presentations/ workshops during the summit: place-based cultural tourism, collaboration, network development, marketing and funding. Each was followed by three local responders, rather than the often used Q&A format, who reflected briefly on each presentation (what resonated, what didn’t and action items) , followed by professionally facilitated breakout sessions designed to connect, reflect and plan.
  • Deliberate creation of spaces for reflection, and spaces for action planning. This was ingenious. The summit organizers invited participants along this journey, always stretching themselves along the way, and by day 4, the work had been done to achieve agreement on several major community-led initiatives: to establish a collaborative network of presenters, create a touring network, establish a network for First Nations Cultural Centres; and to put the arts and cultural sector into the driver seat in terms of their contribution to Yukon tourism.

As an outside expert I was asked to participate in the whole conference. For me that meant there was a great deal of casual, hallway type conversation about anything that was on participants’ minds, mixed with formal opportunities to meet whether in a MatchUp program or over dinner. As a result I formed much deeper, richer connections with carefully thinking, smart people from all parts of Yukon, who were exploring how to use their understanding, new information and leadership for their communities’ benefit and the greater good. Listening and asking good questions can be much more powerful than speaking or telling.

My hope is that this new kind of close-knit, yet open network, grounded in shared leadership and personal commitments for specific actions, will become a beacon for established and new networks elsewhere.

 

Marketing Trends: New Media as The Media

Marketing has changed irrevocably over the last 10 to 15 years. While the harbingers of consumer power were evident in the late 1990s, with the advent of the Internet and mobile and then smart phones, the changes have now solidified and they continue to accelerate.

The web is no longer a new media. The body of knowledge and practice of integrated marketing has grown up.

Integration of websites with social networks and mobile apps

Youtube was launched in 2005, Facebook and Twitter came into the public view in 2006. Barely approaching a decade old they have an unprecedented reach ranging from 500 million to 1+ billion users.

Recently, smart phones with touch screens, tablets and e-readers with web access have become ubiquitous.

Great websites have evolved from early “brochure-sites”, UseNet groups and List Serves to well functioning hubs of branded transactions with considerable social media integration and mobile connectivity.

Seemingly limitless access to information, easy consumption of entertainment, and creation and sharing of content and experiences have transformed how we behave, what we expect and what we want.

Contemporary marketing more than ever is about compelling stories, co-creating meaning, and making research and purchases easy and immediate. The increasing integration of services like Youtube, Facebook, Twitter and many more – with both desktops and mobile devices and within websites – creates new dynamics between organizations and their customers.

Today, website pages can be shared with a push of a button to a user’s social media universe. They can be used to amplify a use’s own brand and they can be used to ridicule or support an organization or a product. It can raise awareness, start conversations or elicit sales through these wider social networks. Similarly, organizations are cross-linking their web sites and social media presence to provide a seamless user experience, going where users are.

Do-it-yourself

Websites used to be expensive custom installations, with the best requiring substantial user research and expert programmers.

Today, WordPress and similar services have become robust DIY web tools that work well, have extensive plug-in options for customization and keep costs low.

Many of these off-the-shelf options also have an embedded option to create a mobile-friendly version of a websites. This is important as more and more users visit websites using their mobile devices and their much smaller screens.

Mobile applications

The ‘appification’ of the online experience has advanced rapidly in the last five years to the point, where man of us retain little awareness that apps use online content, i.e. content that resides on a server elsewhere. The best apps are content and feature rich, while super simply to use.

Festivals have embraced them to deliver a variety of information and on-site experiences. Here again, there is a build it once and sell it many times philosophy, enabling affordable, ready-made solutions to almost any size event.

Today, apps live on non-standard operating systems, i.e. apps are developed for the various platforms of smart phones. That means, if resources require development for just one platform, considerable thought has to go into who the target market is and the dominant platforms in use.

The power of accessing rich content through tiny devices that one carries everywhere creates a brand new dynamic of relationship to and expectation of brands.

New marketing mind set in performing arts

Here are three vital elements to performing arts marketing and by extension a thriving arts scene:

1. Arts and cultural research has confirmed time and again that the performing arts sector is not a zero-sum field. Rather, Canadians become ever more likely to attend based on prior attendance at cultural events and performances. These behaviours are strong predictors of attendance while basic demographic factors are much weaker. That means, competition in the performing arts is not other performing arts organizations but rather all the other ways people spent their leisure and entertainment funds. Community-wide, true partnerships should become the rule not the exception in the performing arts.

2. I have a growing body of work that recognizes that performing arts are not only a show on a stage, but that all surrounding aspects contribute to the audience experience either positively or negatively. It is about full experience design.

This graphic represents key elements of the audience’s arts experience that can and should be fully designed. All have the power to make or break the audience experience, put up barriers to it or enhance it.

It means applying end-to-end design thinking including all the ways in which audience members can amplify the arts organization’s message and reach among their own networks.

Pricing and packaging are aspects that are often taken for granted due to a persistent belief that the arts do not suffer from sticker shock; that if someone really wants to see a show they make it happen. Well, price elasticity is real in the arts, too. The higher the price the fewer people will consider attending. Therefore, considerations should be given to how to price shows that are not expected to sell out at a given price point or that are not selling out despite seemingly well-founded expectations of that. Each of these aspects merits full consideration in your planning and in your evaluations afterwards.

3. Another important idea is that marketing materials are designed for specific purposes to address where a member of the target audience is at in the purchase decision process. Arts marketers need to use the full array of tools in research and evaluation to see how their marketing programs are creating the desired response or not.

An arts marketer’s job is not merely to sell the workhorses of the performing arts – anything by Beethoven and Mozart, Nutcracker and Swan Lake, Shakespeare –  but indeed to lead larger and larger audiences to contemporary, current live professional performing arts experiences that they don’t already know.

To do this requires the integrated use of contemporary marketing strategies and tactics. It is about compelling storytelling, co-creating meaning, and making research on events and purchase of tickets easy and immediate. The increasing integration of services like Youtube, Facebook, Twitter with both desktops and mobile devices and within websites creates new dynamics between organizations and their audiences. this is a good thing.

Today, website pages can be shared with a push of a single button to a user’s social media universe and it can raise awareness, start conversations or solicit sales through their social networks. Similarly, organizations are cross-linking their web sites and social media presence to provide a seamless user experience, going where users are.

This mind-set approach makes clear that an organization’s brand is more than a logo applied consistently. It is how it behaves and interacts with current and potential customers. Or perhaps it reaches even further: it is an entire eco-system’s way of being and interacting in the world – and how the sector (and the communities it inhabits) thrives will depend on this concerted action.

 

Strategies to grow membership

At a recent board workshop we discussed different ways to look at the association’s membership in order to understand better how to grow it.

I proposed to look at the cumulative number of members over several years for a more complete evaluation. Typically, we look at the total number of members – or subscribers – as an annual figure and then we pay some attention to churn (non-renewing members). Growth occurs when this churn figure is lower than the number of new members acquired, i.e. more people join than drop out. Evaluating churn makes clear why the first task in an established organization is usually retention, keeping members/subscribers year after year. High rates of retention mean that growth can be achieved more readily (as long as you have not captured your entire market);  it also means that your marketing efforts should become more cost-effective as retention should cost less than acquisition.

When we look at a wider time span, for instance 5 years or 10 years, we gain a different understanding of the degree to which an organization has reached and engaged its market. Is the the cumulative 5-year figure very close to the annual figure or is it much larger?

If it is very close then you are basically stable. If you wish to grow in this scenario then you need to focus on acquisition strategies to accelerate growth.

If the 5-year cumulative figure is much larger, then you might need to think not only about acquisition but re-acquisition. Re-acquisition means re-engaging with people who have made up their mind already about the value you provide by rejecting it for some reason. Re-acquisition is quite a different task, requiring different strategies, tactics, messages and channels. Because these people are not a blank slate (they have developed firm beliefs about your organization and have perceptions founded in their personal experience) I think that re-acquisition is fundamentally more difficult than gaining a brand new member, subscriber, customer.

Strategically this dynamic has to be considering in light of your total market potential.

There are times when re-acquisition can be critical to ensure an organization’s sustainability in the long-run. Given the nature of re-acquisition, strategies designed to re-engage likely run their course over 3 to 4 years. The focus then has to shift to true acquisition because those you wish to re-engage either have done so or simply are not going to have their minds changed unless something important, and likely out of your control, changes for them.

In both scenarios, retention driven by creating value and a mutually beneficial and meaningful relationship with members remains paramount.

Igniting a SPARC in Haliburton

I was invited to speak at the SPARC Symposium in Haliburton, Ontario this spring. The organizers had a clear vision for this symposium: to bring people working in all parts of the rural arts eco-system together to explore opportunities and challenges, collaborate across communities and open new doors for exchange, resource sharing and a new kind of network focused on meeting the needs of broad rural arts communities.

With that I sought to create an opening keynote that would help establish the conversation using stories and, yes, conversation. My key messages revolved around the ideas of “where there is a will, there is a way”, and a vision of “building vibrant communities fueled by the performing arts and its community-engaged partnerships” and my proposal to consider “public engagement through the arts” where arts are a means to an ends, rather than the end in itself. I told some stories based on my recent work with a focus on small, rural and remote places across Canada to give substance to these ideas through examples. I shared some data from The Value of Presenting study that shows just how much arts presenting organizations in rural and remote communities are leading the way in community-engaged practices.

The conversation and contributions by participants throughout the talk helped set the stage for a fully engaged, working symposium. I loved the energy, the thinking, the sparks that were flying over these four days in Haliburton.

I was also thrilled to see representatives of several regional presenting networks that I have been working with over the last few years at SPARC; there is much space for collaboration, strengthening connections and learning.

SPARC organizers have turned this and all the other amazing working sessions into a unique interactive online magazine. (Sticks and Stones Productions) You can also access my keynote directly on Vimeo. (The other keynotes and videos from the conference are also available there or through the online magazine.)

Finally, my presentation slides are posted on the CAPACOA site for download .

Over the summer SPARC has turned its attention to developing a follow-up conference this fall with the aim to constitute a rural arts network. If you are interested in these ideas, check out their web presence (web, Facebook, Twitter) and get on the e-news list.