From the Archives: The Art of Fundraising

As the year comes to a close and my inbox fills with last minute e-solicitations, I’ve found myself reflecting on things I’ve learned over my 25+ years in the cultural sector, especially relating to fundraising and philanthropy. This sent me to my archives, where I found a post from 2012 that I thought was worth re-sharing. I hope you find some valuable nuggets here about The Art of Fundraising. I wish you all the best for a successful year-end that sets the stage for an inspired 2016. —AB

I’ve spent a good portion of the past two-plus decades engaged in building resources for the arts, especially through fundraising. I’d like to think that I’ve learned a few things, and shared what I’ve learned with others. Along the way, I’ve developed some maxims that reflect my experiences and philosophy about this work. Things like:

a. There is an art and a science to fundraising – you can learn the theories and techniques, but applying them creatively is where the magic happens. 

b. Fundraising doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s a team effort that embraces the full organization and involves everyone, from the intern to the trustee to the volunteer.

c. There’s nothing more important than doing your homework. Success comes from combining your passion and dedication with substantive preparation. 

d. Great fundraisers are great storytellers.

e. At its core, fundraising is community building. It’s about inspiring engagement that leads to investment.

f. The sweet spot of cultural fundraising is the intersection of program (what you offer), brand (who you are) and audience (who you serve).

g. You must be personally committed to this work and the organization you represent because you can’t feign authenticity. 

h. Fundraising is a lot like life: challenging, uplifting, unyielding, transformative. It is what you make it.

"At its core, Fundraising is community building."

Then I re-read Ken Burnett’s Relationship Fundraising and was reminded that wise souls have been sharing their experiences long before I even knew that there was such a profession as fundraising, let alone that I would explore it in the cultural sector.

In his book, Burnett summarizes the lessons he learned under the wing of Harold Sumption, considered the father of 20th-century fundraising in the U.K. Below are Burnett’s Essential Foundations of Fundraising^. (Disclaimer: I've taken some minor license here, converting a bit of Burnett's prose to American English grammar and currency, eliminating a few for redundancy, plus added some commentary of my own, in italics). Here goes:

  1. People give to people. Not to organizations, mission statements or strategies. You’ve heard it before: it’s all about relationships.
  2. Fundraising is not about money. It’s about the necessary work that needs doing. Money is the means to an end.
  3. Fundraisers need to be able to see things through their donors’ eyes. If they are to understand you, you are first to understand them.
  4. It helps if you are a donor yourself. No one should be a fundraiser without first being a donor. If you ask, you gotta give, too.
  5. Friend making comes before fundraising. Fundraising is not selling. Fundraisers and donors are on the same side. To be clear, your job as a fundraiser is to make “friends of the institution.”
  6. Fundraising is about needs, as well as achievements. People will applaud achievement, but will give to meet a need. Need is a subjective term when it comes to cultural fundraising; purpose or impact often carry more weight than need.
  7. Fundraisers need to learn to harness the simple power of emotion. Fundraising has to appeal first to the emotions. Logic can then reinforce the appeal. People respond to meaning, and they remember stories over facts. See AB maxims d and g.
  8. Offer a clear, direct proposition to which people can relate. For example, “Make a blind man see. $15.83.” Expose a child to the arts. Priceless.
  9. First open their hearts and minds. Then you can open their wallets. But if you think of your donors as walking PayPal accounts, go sell shoes.
  10. Don’t just ask people to give. Inspire them to give. Fundraising is the inspiration business. You must find your own inspiration first before you can effectively engage others.
  11. Share with your donors your problems, as well as your successes. Honesty and openness are usually prized more highly than expert opinion and apparent infallibility. Honesty + transparency = trustworthiness.
  12. You don’t get if you don’t ask. Know whom to ask, how much to ask for and when.
  13. Present your organization’s “brand” image clearly and consistently. Your organization will benefit if your donors can readily distinguish your cause from all the others. Good branding – how your patrons see and experience you – communicates who you are and reinforces your values.
  14. Successful fundraising involves storytelling. Fundraisers have great stories to tell and need to tell them with pace and passion to inspire action. See AB maxim d.
  15. Great fundraising is sharing. Share your goals and encourage full involvement. When donors truly become involved in your campaign, great things happen. See AB maxim e.
  16. The trustworthiness of fundraisers and their organizations are the reasons both to start and to continue support. Trust appears to increase in importance as people get older. See #11.
  17. Great fundraising requires imagination. Too much fundraising looks like everything else. See AB maxim a.
  18. Great fundraising is getting great results. If your results are mediocre, your fundraising probably is, too. This work is karmic – what you put out in the world really does return to you, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. 
  19. Always be honest, open and truthful with your donors. Donors will not forgive you if you are less than straight with them. Transparency isn’t a buzzword – it is your word.
  20. Avoid waste. Donors hate waste. And don’t look too slick, either. Most donors don’t want to pay for slick. Polished, yes. Slick, no.
  21. Technique must never be allowed to obscure sincerity. As all actors know, you can’t fake sincerity. See AB maxim g.
  22. Great fundraising means being “15 minutes ahead.” To keep just a little bit ahead, you have to learn to spot opportunities and take (careful) risks.
  23. Fundraisers should learn the lessons of history and experience. Anyone who wants to be an effective fundraiser needs first to do some homework. See AB maxim c.
  24. Always say “thank you,” properly and often. It’s also a good idea to be brilliant at welcoming new donors when they first contact your organization. Stewardship is not about getting the renewal – it's a way of being.
  25. Be modest and unassuming. Because it takes a coordinated effort and many people to bring in a gift. See AB maxim b.

As Burnett relates in the introduction to the second edition of his book, "Fundraising is more than a job...It is a powerful force for change...and should be an inspirational beacon of hope."* These principles have withstood the test of time, and I'm sure you have a few of your own to add. What are your favorite tenets of fundraising?


^ Burnett, Ken. Relationship Fundraising. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002, p. 28-29.

* Ibid, p. xxvii.

Methods: Design Thinking for the Non-Designer — Part 3

My prior two posts, found here and here, introduced the concept of human-centered design advocated by IDEO,* a global design firm that helps organizations to grow through innovation. I reviewed the first and second of IDEO’s three stages of design thinking, inspiration and ideation. To quickly recap, these include:


  • Framing the design challenge;
  • Assembling a diverse team to tackle the challenge;
  • Identifying what learning is needed to address the issues at hand; and
  • Conducting field and other research.


  • Sharing, reflecting on and articulating insights from the research;
  • Asking nuanced questions informed by the research that go to the heart of the problem;
  • Brainstorming to uncover workable solutions; and
  • Rapid prototyping for immediate feedback.

Now we’re ready to tackle the third phase, implementation. The good news is that this will be familiar to those of you who have done operational planning, especially in conjunction with strategic planning. This phase involves mapping action steps: identifying resources and needed personnel, projecting expenses, determining a rollout plan and timeline, launching a pilot and evaluating results. It also continues to emphasize the benefits of interdepartmental teams – what my co-author and I advanced in Magnetic as “inviting the outside in” – to ensure that different perspectives and external voices are heeded as you build towards launch. 


I’ve attempted to summarize the implementation process in a logical order, but as with all things design thinking, the sequence of steps can fold back on itself returning to any stage as you keep iterating, fine-tuning and learning as you go. Tackle the below as a team, assigning leaders to guide and “own” each activity.

  • Finesse your prototype and then head out into the world to test it live with a select group of end-users. As noted in an earlier post, prototyping can take many forms (i.e., storyboards, games, role playing, mock-ups, etc.), so choose one best suited to your design inquiry. If you’re testing a new after school program idea for youth, for example, lead a group of participants through a condensed or partial version of the program to solicit their opinions and watch their interactions. Record and use this pointed feedback to refine the program design and ready it for a pilot.
  • Create an 18-24 month action plan – what IDEO calls a “roadmap” – detailing the steps that will take your project through and beyond launch. Chart this on a calendar accessible to the entire team and keep it updated as shifts in timing occur. (IDEO advocates for a big, physical, centrally located calendar that all team members can edit using, you guessed it, Post-its®! But a digital version with multiple users can be just as effective.)
  • Think through all of the who-what-when-where-how considerations to identify the human, financial and physical resources needed for implementation. This may include additional staff or consultant expertise, institutional partnerships, office and/or program space, IT infrastructure, equipment and supplies, permits and insurance, strategic outreach and promotion, plus seed and sustainable funding (both raised and earned revenue streams). A good overview on business planning by the National Council of Nonprofits, found here, can help point you in the right direction.
  • Define what success will look like so your goal is always front and center, a visible guidepost against which to measure results. Identify the quantitative and qualitative metrics you will use to monitor your progress, and put corresponding data management systems into place at the project’s outset.
  • Prepare and institute your fundraising and marketing campaigns to reach targeted audiences. Use persuasive storytelling techniques to secure stakeholders committed to your success and loyal to your efforts.
  • Invest money judiciously in the essentials, like personnel and equipment, then launch your project as a pilot for a defined period of time (i.e., 6-12 months). Make sure to collect data and capture human-focused stories throughout, and evaluate outcomes to determine what works and what needs improvement. With this added knowledge, you’ll be equipped to head into full implementation mode using a similar process as above to scale growth.

True design thinkers advocate for continuous iteration, which can be considered the contemporary equivalent of the Japanese management theory of “kaizen” or continuous improvement. In other words, the journey is never quite over because ongoing or incremental change brings opportunity for heightened impact.

To paraphrase IDEO president and CEO Tim Brown in his now signature article from 2008 in the Harvard Business Review, design thinking is methodology more strategic than tactical. It fosters a “team-based approach to innovation…[that] feature[s] endless rounds of trial and error…[blending] art, craft, science, business savvy, and an astute understanding of customers and markets.”^ Today, Brown asserts, mastering the art of design thinking leads to creative leadership at all levels, providing a competitive advantage to any 21st-century organization. Isn’t that what we all strive for? 

With my consciousness raised, I see the application of design thinking everywhere, such as this recent article in The New York Times about designing backpacks in the digital age. To shape their understanding of user needs and wants, designers didn’t just talk to students and hikers, but other people who carry things on their backs, including the homeless. That’s certainly going to the extreme, but brilliant in its approach.

I’ve often found that insights come from the most unexpected places. Human-centered design gives you the tools to uncover new ways of seeing and doing focused directly on those you seek to engage – your constituents. I hope my demystification of the process will encourage you to try this. And I’d love to hear from those of you in the arts who have effectively instituted design thinking as an instrument of organizational growth.

* The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA:

^ Brown, Tim. “Design Thinking.” Harvard Business Review, Jun 2008: p. 86. Print.


Food and Community: Vignettes

I’ve been reading some memoirs lately about food and cooking as a pathway to self-enrichment. I’m not sure why, really, but I blame it on my Kindle, which recommended a book about a woman with a troubled upbringing, who went to Wesleyan University and later the Culinary Institute of America and now blogs about motherhood and “cooking the world” while living in Tulsa, OK. I don’t know why the algorithm produced this book for me because I don’t have kids and don’t cook, but my sister went to Wesleyan and I have a blog and I visited Tulsa once to write about the Philbrook Museum of Art, which two years ago hosted a communal dinner showcasing ethnic foods from around the world organized by the author. From there, it’s been a slippery slope to reading about Sandra Bullock’s sister and her post-Hollywood career baking in Vermont that she parlayed into a food blog and TV appearances, and a former journalist/corporate VP who enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu to regain her sense of self.

Perhaps because Thanksgiving is around the corner – but more likely because I’ve been traveling and missing my husband’s excellent home cooking – I’ve been musing on the meaning of food and community. 

In the context of our cultural organizations, that translates to the prepared foods we serve in our cafés and bars to fortify audiences for more gallery hopping or the next orchestral movement. The posh food we provide our patrons at lavish gala dinners. The potluck meals we share with our colleagues to celebrate milestones. The celebrity chef gourmet feasts we raffle to the highest bidders. The snacks and caffeinated drinks we offer to volunteer committees to make meetings more palatable. The content rich, intimate salons we enjoy with artists and critics over pasta and red wine. The staples and leftovers we store in our break room kitchens. 

Each of these experiences serves a function, sets a mood, communicates a message and reflects who we are, as persons and as institutions. Above all, each gathering fosters a sense of community, with food at its foundation.

# # # # #

The Community Meal . Photo credit: Andy King © 2014, courtesy of Public Art St. Paul

The Community Meal. Photo credit: Andy King © 2014, courtesy of Public Art St. Paul

I’m drawn to the spirit of community created by the Slow Food Movement, founded over 25 years ago by Italian Carlo Petrini as antidote to today’s pervasive fast food culture in order to reconnect local farmers and food producers with consumers. The emphasis here is on the local, raising fresh foods germane to the local environment and preserving regional culinary traditions. It has spawned the growth of farmers markets, artisanal food purveyors and a new class of chefs and restaurateurs following in the footsteps of Alice Waters, all of whom place a high value on the environment, sustainability and quality of life in their communities.

As defined by Slow Food International, food communities represent a “group of small-scale producers and others united by the production of a particular food and closely linked to a geographic area. Food community members are involved in small-scale and sustainable production of quality products…[reflecting] a new idea of local economy based on food, agriculture, tradition and culture.”* 

This is exactly what food writer Christine Muhlke discovered when she was asked by The New York Times to study the slow food and locavore movement in the US. Wherever she traveled, she found a network “of producers, of customers, of eaters and enthusiasts…[connected by] a shared interest in food.” As Muhlke related, community in this context is “built upon conversations.”^ Isn’t this the kind of engagement we seek for our own organizations – local communities bonded by meaningful exchange and discourse? 

That potential for connection and dialogue inspired artist Seitu Jones last October to stage The Community Meal, a communal dining experience attracting over 2,000 residents of St. Paul, MN. The luncheon meal and dining table, which extended over half a mile on a street in the city’s Frogtown neighborhood, was made possible by Public Art Saint Paul and 500 volunteers. Jones’ work, which purposefully brought together food producers and institutional partners with the public, sparked discussion about local food systems, accessibility and affordability of fresh food, eating habits, gardening and family recipes. Food as community glue. 

# # # # #

I trekked with a friend over to Williamsburg, Brooklyn the other day to visit the newly opened Museum of Food and Drink, aka MOFAD. The inaugural show illuminates the interplay between scent and taste, and the work of industrial food chemists, who seek to recreate or enhance natural flavors in the lab. It’s part science, part children’s museum in feel and experience, a tad heavy on interpretation and wall text for my taste (yes, pun intended), and regrettably, there was no food art to lighten the serious tone (that’s a joke). The space is beautifully designed and lit, with well-crafted modern furniture and display cases, and the friendly gallery attendants are cheerfully attired in denim aprons. There was no food to sample, only tiny pellets dispensed like bubble gum to demonstrate the difference between real flavors and manmade. In hindsight, I'm not sure what I expected – perhaps a working demonstration kitchen producing all sorts of fragrant delights, since MOFAD’s founder is the visionary chef Dave Arnold. Alas, there was no breaking of bread with other guests on the day we visited.

# # # # #

In my formative years, I was a mad baker. Before I was old enough to go out unchaperoned with my friends, my Friday and Saturday nights were spent in the kitchen concocting all manner of cookies, cakes, breads and muffins (I don’t like pie). I progressed to the point where I intuitively knew the ratio of dry ingredients to wet and didn't need to measure, and could tell by touch and feel when the batter or dough was ready. My family happily consumed whatever I made: chocolate chip, molasses and peanut butter cookies; brownies and blondies; devil’s food cake, lemon cake and plum torte; peach cobbler and gingerbread; blueberry and banana muffins; sour cream coffee cake and Irish soda bread; English muffins and pita bread; sour dough rounds and my grandmother’s raisin bread. 

There is nothing like the rich smell of chocolate anything in mid-bake, or the physicality of kneading elastic, living bread dough and witnessing gluten and yeast work their magic overnight. Baking was something restorative I did for myself and something that allowed me to share myself with others. It was a source of pleasure – in the ritual and craft of making, and then in the giving and sharing. Ironically, in my early 30s, I was diagnosed with a gluten allergy and the mysterious ailments that had plagued me for years finally subsided when I eliminated the offending grains from my diet. This markedly changed my baking habits, because no matter how many food chemists work to improve gluten free products, they’re not the same as the real thing, as MOFAD’s exhibition made clear.

Now I only bake for birthdays and holidays as gifts for family, friends and colleagues. So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I offer my edible contribution to the genre of food memoirs with a recipe for a gluten free dessert that will make you the hit at any gathering. Here's to breaking bread with your community.

[And I promise next week to post the conclusion to my series on human-centered design.]


* Slow Food International. "Slow Food terminology." Web. 21 Nov 2015. 

^ Muhlke, Christine. "Growing Together." The New York Times Magazine. 8 Oct 2010. Web. 21 Nov 2015.

Methods: Design Thinking for the Non-Designer — Part 2

In my prior post, I introduced as relevant to nonprofit cultural enterprise the concept of design thinking championed by IDEO, a global design firm committed to design’s positive impact on humanity. I reviewed the first of IDEO’s three stages of design thinking, inspiration, which includes:

  • Framing the design challenge;
  • Assembling a diverse team to tackle the challenge; 
  • Articulating a plan that addresses what learning is needed; and then 
  • Conducting field and other research. 

Now we’re ready to tackle the second phase, ideation

Marilyn in Post-Its , by  Valtech Sweden office

Marilyn in Post-Its, by Valtech Sweden office


This stage involves analysis and synthesis of the data gathered from research and fieldwork, and then applying imagination and creativity to address what you’ve discovered. Here’s how:

  • Re-assemble as a team and share real stories from the field; actively listen to one another and reflect on what you’ve learned. Transfer salient points and insights to post-it notes – design thinkers love Post-its® and Sharpies, the more colors, the better! – and then stick them up on the wall for everyone to see.
  • As a group effort, rearrange the Post-its® into categories and identify the top three-to-five emerging themes. Then succinctly articulate “insight statements” – things you’ve learned that will be important considerations in the design phase.

For example, say your design challenge is to enhance youth participation in your after school programs, and your discovery process has revealed that young people in your community (1) don’t know much about your organization, (2) prefer to hang with and get information from friends about what to do outside of school, and (3) haven’t had much exposure to the arts. (These are “insight statements.”)

  • Translate these insights into “How Might We” (“HMW”) questions that reflect what you’re learning and that go to the heart of the problem you’re working to solve. Resist dictating a specific pathway and shape questions that will allow for a number of solutions or innovations to bubble up.

Using the above example, you could frame the design challenge by asking, How might we develop and promote program offerings to engage youth who are unfamiliar with art and artmaking?

  • Now it’s time to pass around some chocolate and start brainstorming to elicit myriad ideas that address the design challenge and HMW questions. Record the ideas in words, drawings, charts – whatever gets the point across – using a whiteboard, flip charts, more Post-its®,  magazine pages cut up into collages, etc. All ideas have merit, so don’t edit at this stage, and as IDEO urges, go for quantity over quality. Also emphasize pictures over words, which help to bring ideas to life.
  • Now step back from your design wall to digest and process all of this data to notice where there is convergence. Then synthesize or “bundle” the best ideas and consolidate them into one or two concepts that can be tested. Don’t forget to refer back to the original challenge to ensure that you’re arriving at potential workable solutions.
  • Use “rapid prototyping” to concretize your best ideas and get immediate feedback from team members to aid your R&D process. Designers utilize various tools to help make the conceptual real. Choose those that best serve your design challenge, as well as those your team is skilled at or can master – such as storyboards (freehand drawings supported by short, explanatory texts), customer journeys (narrative writing and storytelling using personas), role playing (acting and simulations), mock-ups (physical models graphically designed or sculpted from low cost materials, like construction paper and tape) and experience maps (a combination of all of the above and more). 
Mocking up rapid prototypes: Boise State University's  LaunchPad  program for student entrepreneurs 

Mocking up rapid prototypes: Boise State University's LaunchPad program for student entrepreneurs 

Although perhaps not conceived as such, the Fleisher Art Memorial engaged in a human-centered design process when it set out to attract increased participation by neighborhood residents in its on-site, art-making programs. The Fleisher is located in Southeast Philadelphia, an ethnically diverse, low-income community populated by Asian and Latin American immigrants. The art center had specifically designed programs to attract children and families to its facility, yet the community just wasn’t showing up. Fleisher staff wanted to know why and what could be done to enhance engagement.

With funding from The Wallace Foundation and aided by outside researchers, an interdepartmental team at the art center began its inquiry with a baseline study to understand the current audience. Then they held focus groups with adults and teens from the neighborhood to learn how the Fleisher was perceived. They also learned what locals wanted from the organization, summarized in three key findings: 

  • Come to Us: Residents wanted the Fleisher to be physically present in the community outside of the art center and to build relationships directly with neighbors; 
  • Show Us: Residents wanted the Fleisher to use community centers and neighborhood events to present demonstrations and teach them about art and artmaking, especially connected to their native cultures; and
  • Welcome Us: Residents wanted the Fleisher to build trust with the community and make the art center more hospitable and accessible to all.

Armed with this new knowledge, the Fleisher staff transformed its internal culture through institutional planning and best practice training in diversity, communications and visitor services. The art center also transformed its external outreach through organizational partnerships and by ensuring a strong staff presence at neighborhood events. Plus, they prototyped new offerings at community festivals and probed for residents' feedback, which they used to fine-tune activities. The end result? Participation by teens and kids in on-site programs has increased more than 10% since the baseline study, and people from Southeast Philadelphia now represent 25% of all students in Fleisher art classes, an increase of 5%, matching area demographics. A full description of the art center’s design challenge, process and outcomes is detailed in a case study published by The Wallace Foundation.


The final phase in IDEO’s process, implementation, involves live testing prototypes, seeking honest critique from your target audience, iterating and refining until you’ve hit upon a solid solution to meet real needs, business planning, piloting the new idea and finally taking it to market. I’ll bring it all home in my next post.

Disclaimer: Let's pause for a moment to address the notion of phases, which implies a straightforward, linear, continuous, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other process. In actuality, design thinking is non-linear, and moves back and forth among the three phases in whatever way makes sense for a particular project. This is what IDEO's graphic is seeking to convey, with progress that may be up and down, divergent, convergent and fluid. 

Warning: For those of you who prefer things neat and tidy (like me!), design thinking can be messy, so be prepared to surrender some control and live in discomfort for a bit. Trust me, the freedom this engenders is worth it!


The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA:, 2015.

Methods: Design Thinking for the Non-Designer — Part 1

Last summer, I gave myself something I had long dreamed of – I took a mini sabbatical for three months. My intent wasn’t to retreat or laze about soaking up the sun (although I did some of that) – it was to learn and reflect. I spent most of my time reading to inform my work with cultural organizations, exploring subjects one never has enough time for when deadlines loom. I read books on leadership, change management, organizational theory, group dynamics, mindfulness, salesmanship, social media and design thinking, among others. 

What most captured my attention was design thinking, the concepts and practices of which I was introduced to during the year I spent at the Rhode Island School of Design as interim head of advancement. I still remember one of my first conversations there with a group of artists and designers on the faculty. They were fine-tuning a corporate sponsorship proposal about a methodological approach to teaching that incorporated design thinking. It felt like everyone else in the room was speaking a different language! That’s another story, but part of this one, too –  to demystify what may seem foreign, but really isn’t.

Design thinking is a system-based, iterative, group process intended to uncover new ideas to address challenges and solve problems. Originally conceived back in the late 1960s to aid the fields of engineering, architecture and urban planning, it was introduced to the business world in the early 1990s by David Kelley. He’s a mechanical engineer, entrepreneur and Stanford University professor of design, best known as the founder of IDEO, an award-winning global design firm based in San Francisco. 

IDEO practices and proselytizes human-centered design, a non-linear, design-oriented approach focused on the end-user that can be applied to nearly any creative endeavor (how to design a new product, service, space or experience, for example) and is especially useful in innovation. The best books on design thinking applicable to organizations describe anywhere from five to seven stages of progressively linked actions, but IDEO has simplified its process to three – inspiration, ideation and implementation – which I’ll explain in a moment.

Human-centered design relies on our ability to be intuitive and to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional, and to express ourselves in media beyond words or symbols.
— From "An Introduction to Human-Centered Design," + Acumen

IDEO believes so strongly in this human-centered approach that it created, in partnership with Acumen and NovoEd, a free, online course to train social entrepreneurs in design thinking to tackle the world’s toughest problems. 

Recognizing that learning from a book is one thing and putting lessons into practice another, I accepted an invitation to participate in the course. And since design thinking relies heavily on collaboration and team-based effort, I invited Providence colleagues Jane Androski and Ann Woolsey to join me. Jane is co-founder of Design Agency, a nonprofit branding and graphic design firm, and Ann is an art historian and museum consultant. We’ve been getting together every week since mid-August to unpack the coursework and apply what we’re learning to a real life situation – in this case, how to design a retail experience for locally-raised, fresh foods targeted at a low income population.

How, might you ask, could Jane, Ann and I tackle such a challenge when our professional expertise is in the cultural sector? That was one of my Eureka moments about design thinking. I never previously understood how design firms like IDEO could address such disparate issues for a wide range of clients. IDEO has worked in the fields of digital learning, hospitality, medical products, food, financial services…you name it. I’m accustomed to working with cultural and educational organizations as a field and subject matter expert. What IDEO excels at is applying the practice of design thinking to formulate new ideas and achieve new solutions in any field.

The comparison that comes to mind is a more traditional McKinsey-like approach to management consulting, where the consultants aren’t subject matter experts either, rather practitioners of a highly developed and road-tested process that helps organizations to change. Design thinking doesn’t seem as formulaic to me as McKinsey because it’s people-focused and emphasizes the stakeholder over the corporate product, service or bottom line. (And I'm predisposed to that way of thinking, especially after my work with Magnetic Museums.)

IDEO’s process operates from a set of shared assumptions – that there is merit in experimentation and learning from failure; that making something physical trumps conceiving of something theoretical; that everyone is creative and all ideas have value; that demonstrating empathy is key to this work, as is remaining optimistic; that not knowing the answer and being open to learning leads to new discoveries; and that iterating ultimately produces the finest solutions.

There's a great deal of utility in applying design thinking to cultural sector issues, and many organizations are already doing so, with or without this labeling. What follows is my condensed version of IDEO’s process, adapted from its Field Guide to Human-Centered Design:

From "An Introduction to Human-Centered Design," + Acumen


The first phase involves framing your inquiry to allow for open-ended discovery rather than ready answers. It also involves research and learning directly from the people who represent your target market or who ultimately will be affected by your efforts – in other words, your end-users. For cultural organizations, that could be program participants, audience members, patrons, K-12 students, teachers and the like. 

Here’s how to begin:

  • Articulate the problem you’re trying to solve – what IDEO refers to as the “design challenge” – in a way that allows for flexibility in your exploration and ultimately leads to impact. This requires framing the task ahead neither too broadly nor too narrowly, which is more difficult than it sounds and takes some practice to do well.
  • Assemble a cross-disciplinary team of “thinkers, makers and doers” who bring different perspectives and experiences to the challenge. If you’re a theater seeking younger audiences, for instance, include on your team a dramaturge, marketer, set builder, educator, comptroller, fundraiser and box office attendant to ensure that diverse viewpoints inform the problem-solving.
  • As a team, develop and execute a plan that outlines what you need to learn, the preparatory research you need to do to better understand the problem at hand, and with whom you should speak to provide hands-on insights. Make sure to include “users” on all points of the spectrum, especially the extremes, i.e., the one-time attendee vs. the repeat subscriber. Break into small groups and divvy up the tasks.
  • Then go out in the field and conduct interviews with stakeholders, one-on-one and in groups, preferably in their own environments, such as their places of business, homes and neighborhoods. Be attentive to their surroundings and, with their permission, record conversations via hand-written notes, drawings, video and photography. Note the tactile, visual nature of the design thinking documentation process.


This next phase involves reflecting on your fieldwork, analyzing and then synthesizing the collected data to identify recurring themes and important insights. Taken together, these provide a guided pathway for brainstorming ways to address your challenge. I’ll delve more fully into this second phase, followed by the third phase of implementation, in my next post.

Citations & Image Credit

The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA:, 2015. 

An Introduction to Human-Centered Design. San Francisco, CA: + Acumen, 2015. 

Riffing on Aristotle: Mastering the Art of Persuasion

I jumped at the invitation to sit in on a presentation by Barbara Tannenbaum, Ph.D., speaking to this summer’s cohort of Venture for America fellows, who have taken up residence in Providence for the past several weeks. The fellows have been attending entrepreneurial boot camp at Brown University, preparing for their new roles in social enterprise startups working to revitalize cities across the U.S. Tannenbaum had been invited by VFA’s founder and Brown grad Andrew Yang to share her wisdom on the art, science and philosophy of personal presentation and professional communication.

A member of the theater arts and performance studies faculty at Brown, Tannenbaum is an expert in persuasive communication and public speaking. She is a bit of a legend around these parts, known for her engaging and forthright style, and her disarming sense of humor. She's also known for advising museum leaders, university presidents, Fortune 500 CEOs and political candidates, as well as college students. I had the privilege of meeting with her one-on-one to help enhance my own public speaking skills, and she’s as dynamic in person as she is delightful to watch on stage.

Tannenbaum knows her material so well that she effortlessly weaves a narrative targeted specifically at her audience – or at least that’s the way it appears, effortless. Her presentation is packed with so much applicable, useful information that I can barely scribble notes fast enough to keep up with her. She puts an interesting spin on the oft-repeated instruction to practice, practice, practice, and that is this: Practice beginning your speech from different points of entry so you become facile with your information. This enables you to pivot, as needed, to draw in your audience, or easily regroup from a question that may have taken things off track. 

Tannenbaum quotes Aristotle’s Rhetoric (which, truth be told, I haven’t considered since my freshman year in college) about making a persuasive case, which is the intent of any good presentation. According to the philosopher, there are three types of appeals:

  1. Ethos (the Greek word for “character”) establishes credibility and authenticity. For a speaker, this is demonstrated through expertise (education and experience), trustworthiness (eye contact) and likeability (smiling).
  2. Pathos (Greek for “suffering” or “experience”) creates an emotional connection and seeks common ground through storytelling and impassioned delivery.
  3. Logos (Greek for “word” or “reason”), which Aristotle advanced as “reasoned discourse,” validates by logic, inductive and deductive reasoning, and evidence. In a speech, this would include the strategic use of data, visual evidence and expert testimony.

Great public speaking balances all three. Tannenbaum notes the imperative of establishing credibility upfront, and says it’s best if someone else – i.e., the person who introduces you – does this for you. Then it’s important to immediately address the WIIFM issue – What’s In It For Me. In other words, tell your listeners how they will benefit from your presentation. And then make sure to leave them with at least one, indelible takeaway that will make paying attention to you worthwhile.

Here are a few of Tannenbaum’s more memorable insights:

  • Remember that all speaking is public speaking.
  • Communication is about human connection. How you say something matters more than what you say.
  • First impressions are lasting impressions.
  • It’s not how tall you are that determines personal presence, but how you use space. (Think “man spreading” on public transit.) Step away from the podium, use a “steady stance” with feet shoulder width apart and arms at the sides, and fill space with open, audience-facing, confident gestures that look natural.
  • Make eye contact with your audience via their “third eye” – that space on the forehead just above eye level. And be sure to take in the whole room, slowly looking forward to back, and side to side, to engage everyone.
  • Rid your speech of “vocal non-fluencies” and fillers – um, er, ah, well, you know, to be honest, just, really, sorta – because they’re distracting and make you sound less knowledgeable and even untruthful.
  • “Operationalize the benefits” of your presentation by stressing the values and beliefs that matter to your audience, finding common points of intersection.
  • Encourage questions from your audience members and don’t consider them interruptions, rather as aids to understanding what they need and want to know.
  • Embrace the “pregnant pause.” Use it for effect to let a point sink in, or take a moment to compose yourself and find your place, or think through an answer to a challenging question.
Wonder Woman is a trademark of DC Comics.

Wonder Woman is a trademark of DC Comics.

My heart went out to the VFA fellow, who was asked to present his project to the group before Tannenbaum shared her pointers. He telegraphed his discomfort by shuffling to the front of the room, leaning awkwardly on the podium, and reading quietly curled over his paper, barely lifting his eyes to engage his colleagues.

Did I know that feeling of unease! Standing up in front of a crowd used to make my heart beat unnaturally fast and my mouth go dry. But I have learned that practice does help, enormously. And so do a few shifts of perspective. I have since reframed my nervousness as excitement. Thanks to Harvard associate professor Amy Cuddy and her research, I now “Power Pose” like Wonder Woman before heading on stage to increase the testosterone and decrease the cortisol coursing through my veins while elevating my confidence. Plus, I think of myself as a teacher, eager to share my knowledge with others for their benefit. 

What have you found works for you?

Beyond Guessing: The How-to of Audience Engagement

The nonprofit arts community owes a great deal to Lila and Dewitt Wallace, who founded Readers Digest, an early 20th-century precursor to the The Huffington Post (sans all the cute cat and dog videos). Their self-made fortune endowed The Wallace Foundation, which was created after their deaths to advance their abiding beliefs in the societal benefits of educating youth, as well as experiencing art. For over two decades now, the Foundation has committed its resources to helping to develop new audiences for the literary, performing and visual arts. This work couldn’t be more welcome, as new studies have confirmed a continued decline in cultural participation, especially for traditional art forms.

I recently met with Daniel Windham and Lucas Held, the Foundation’s arts program director and communications director, respectively, who explained that Wallace’s focus on the “architecture” of arts organizations — both institutional infrastructure and the field-wide ecosystem — as a conduit for the arts comes directly from Lila Wallace. Interestingly, they noted that Wallace considers itself a research institute that uses its grantmaking to answer critical questions as a way of furthering its goals. This underscores why, since 1996, the Foundation has invested heavily in commissioning research and publishing reports to serve the field, much of which is readily accessible online.

Photo Credit: Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra at Lincoln Center in New York, 2013

Photo Credit: Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra at Lincoln Center in New York, 2013

The most recent of these reports — The Road to Results: Effective Practices for Building Arts Audiences and Taking Out the Guesswork: A Guide to Using Research to Build Arts Audiences — showcase both lessons learned and how-to methodologies in audience development. The knowledge shared in these well-written materials, gathered and analyzed by market researcher Bob Harlow, is based on data from the Wallace Excellence Awards recipients, 54 organizations in six U.S. cities, which received funding between 2006 and 2014. 

The reports are a treasure trove of useful information and highly recommended reading for any arts organization seeking to expand or diversify its outreach. Road to Results offers nine practices illustrated by 10 case study organizations that adopted strategies to successfully engage audiences new to them. Taking Out the Guesswork is, literally, a step-by-step, DIY guide to audience research — how to plan, conduct and evaluate market research, and then apply the data to develop targeted audiences. The appendix is chock full of sample tools and templates, too. 

At the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) annual meeting in Atlanta this past April, my co-author, Beth Tuttle, and I had the pleasure of joining Lucas and two of Wallace’s grantees from Philadelphia — Chris Taylor of The Clay Studio and Magda Martinez of the Fleisher Art Memorial — to address the overlapping lessons of Road to Results and our book, Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement. AAM was kind enough to feature a write up of our presentation in its July-August 2015 Museum magazine, a pdf of which can be found here.

Here are just a few takeaways from the reports, much of which dovetails with the learnings from Magnetic:

  • Transformation begins with awareness that change is needed. And it's most successful when outreach goals align with organizational mission and values, and are co-created by many stakeholders working in collaboration. Leadership from the top is needed for change to stick.
  • Be open to what you hear and learn from your community, as it may well differ from your assumptions. Use research results to inform decision-making before moving forward.
  • Utilize design thinking strategies to test and prototype new ideas as a way to keep costs contained.
  • Cultivate an attitude of ongoing learning, because this kind of engagement effort works best on a continuum. And cultivate patience, because creating change takes commitment over a longer term.

Wallace is now funding 26 performing arts organizations across the country in tandem with its next phase of research. The Foundation’s intent is twofold: to discern how arts organizations can attract new audiences while retaining current ones, and understand the relationship between audience development and financial sustainability. 

So keep an eye on Wallace, because there’s sure to be great new information forthcoming. And in the meantime, download and digest these reports, because there’s no more excuse for guessing when it comes to engaging new audiences.

Lessons from a Turnaround Artist

The recently announced $150M gift to Yale University from Blackstone Group CEO Steven Schwarzman to build a new performing arts center on campus sent school administrators to seek the counsel of Michael Kaiser. Former director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, Kaiser currently chairs the Devos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, providing consulting and training services to arts administrators and trustees.

This news sent me back to my bookshelves to dust off Kaiser’s 2008 book, The Art of the Turnaround. I thought I might glean some insights about building and programming a new cultural facility from scratch while avoiding the need for turnaround strategies that Kaiser has employed throughout his impressive career. 

In rereading his practical, born-of-experience philosophy, I was put off again by the fact that Kaiser writes in lots of “I” statements throughout the book, which can leave the impression he single-handedly orchestrated the transformations of the five performing arts organizations he profiles (all organizations he led): Kansas City Ballet, Alvin Ailey American Dance TheaterAmerican Ballet Theatre, Royal Opera House, and the Kennedy Center. (For the record, he does make a disclaimer in the short acknowledgements section of the book, citing various individuals who assisted his efforts.) Certainly, inspired leadership, imagination, strategic focus and hard work like that demonstrated by Kaiser are crucial to any cultural organization, but no one goes it alone. Leaders are important, but so are followers.

Superman Turnaround  by  Mark Hossain . Superman is a trademark of DC Comics. 

Superman Turnaround by Mark Hossain. Superman is a trademark of DC Comics. 

In spite of this, Kaiser offers some truly useful advice. Here’s my summary of his Ten Rules of the Turnaround*, with my own thoughts thrown in:

  1. Choose a leader with vision, courage, and keen communication and negotiation skills, someone who works incredibly hard and earns widespread respect from all stakeholders. Such a leader must simultaneously be catalyst, guide, facilitator, consensus builder and doer
  2. Lead with a plan that outlines a strategic vision for the future within the context of institutional mission and goals, one that considers the competitive environment, as well as organizational assets and ailments. The plan must be actionable, both operationally and financially, and based on a very simple premise, according to Kaiser: “Good art, well marketed.” (See #s 5 and 6, below.)
  3. Prioritize increasing revenue over decreasing costs. A fan of the adage, “You can’t cut your way to growth,” Kaiser believes that most arts organizations don’t have much fat to trim. Instead, he recommends investing in strategies that boost contributed and earned income. Both of these rely on stellar programs to engage patrons and audiences alike, as well as operational efficiency. 
  4. Let go of the past and focus on what’s ahead. Recognizing that finding fault and casting blame does nothing to move forward from whatever stressful situation an organization finds itself, Kaiser recommends not looking back. (While I agree that a no-fault approach has merit, I would advise that objectively examining what transpired can be useful in distilling lessons learned and instilling accountability.) He urges addressing immediate issues (like deficits) and then laser focusing on “artistic programming, board development, donor and press cultivation, and other activities” that will support a sustainable future. 
  5. Plan ahead, far ahead. Kaiser believes in the bold gesture and mapping a programming schedule five years out. This allows sufficient time for artists to create new work and for organizations to raise money, negotiate partnerships with other institutions and cultivate advance press, all of which help to garner audiences and needed resources while building (or rebuilding) institutional profile.
  6. Don’t cut the marketing budget! Although it’s often the knee jerk reaction in times of financial distress, Kaiser admonishes resisting this impulse and doing the exact opposite. Invest substantially and strategically in promoting upcoming artistic and educational programs, and develop brand by marketing the institution. All of this is best orchestrated via a well-crafted marketing and communications plan.
  7. Designate one spokesperson to control external messaging, and focus only on positive, mission-oriented, good news storytelling. Indeed, this is critical in a turnaround situation where working to shift public opinion is essential, but a healthy organization can and should support multiple spokespeople to reflect the diverse talents of the leadership team, both staff and board members. Kaiser makes a good point, though, that these messages should be coordinated and managed, ideally by experts in PR and marketing.
  8. Fundraise for gifts large enough to make a difference. Kaiser has learned from experience that funds to fuel institutional transformations primary come through raised revenue, not admissions or the box office. (The same is true for startups or capital expansions.) So focusing attention on major gifts fundraising is imperative. Like me, Kaiser believes in pursuing “right-sized” contributions that are consistent with operational budgets and giving thresholds, and within reach of a sufficient number of donor prospects to make goal. It's worth reiterating the importance of doing your homework to find the strategic intersections between donor capacity and passion and institutional vision and needs. 
  9. Restructure the board. Show me a struggling cultural nonprofit and I’ll show you a weak board inadequately supporting organizational well-being. Frail boards usually equate to anemic fundraising results, which only keep organizations in a constant state of crisis. Kaiser maintains that arts leaders must objectively evaluate their current trustee rosters, rotate off those who can’t make the needed financial commitment, and recruit new members who can and will. I’d also advocate for identifying the qualities and expertise needed for optimal board service, including philanthropic capacity, then assess where there are gaps and seek new candidates to fill those gaps. And then prioritize board engagement – Kaiser asserts that each trustee should receive meaningful, personalized communication from senior staff at least six times annually.
  10. Be disciplined about following the plan. Driving a successful organizational transformation requires “balancing competing needs,” as Kaiser notes, and staying focused on priorities and immediate goals. Crisis creates urgency and that can be used as an effective rallying cry to collectively work the plan, focus on solutions and produce what leadership and change agent guru John Kotter calls “short-term wins” to keep the momentum going.

Ironically, Kaiser’s most recent book, Curtains?: The Future of the Arts in America, doesn’t paint a rosy picture for cultural organizations, especially those that advance more traditional art forms, such as opera, ballet, classical music and theater. Studies by the National Endowment for the Arts released in January 2015 underscore Kaiser’s pessimism and confirm the decline of in-person arts participation (i.e., going to the theater or symphony) over the past two decades, while digital participation (for example, accessing culture via the Internet) has grown.   

But various reports are contradictory. There’s still a big appetite for art making, as evidenced by the increase in student enrollment and graduation in fine arts disciplines, and for arts engagement, such as the out-sized crowds jamming this Carolina Beach street art festival or the record attendance at Broadway theaters this past year. Such is the bet that Yale is making, and presumably Kaiser will offer similar counsel to the school as he did in a recent WQXR radio interview with Naomi Lewin:

  • Focus on the new. Foster exciting, innovative programming. Don’t play it safe. Produce large projects, like festivals, that excite and invite participation.
  • Enhance community-wide standards for arts education.
  • Make it fun, engaging and accessible to be a donor, at all levels. 

And I would add take the time to articulate organizational vision and the “why” behind investing in creativity and cultural resources to provide perspective over the long-term. For further insights on institutional transformations in the museum sector, check out the book I co-authored with Beth Tuttle, Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement.

* Kaiser, Michael M. The Art of the Turnaround: Creating and Maintaining Healthy Arts Organizations. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2008, pps. 1-14.

The Winning Bid: Do's and Don'ts for RFPs

At last month’s American Alliance of Museums 2015 annual meeting in Atlanta, I sat in on a facilitated conversation organized by my colleagues in The Museum Group. About 30 people gathered to address the sometimes discordant dance between clients and vendors in the Request for Proposals (RFP) process. The purpose of the discussion was not to “whine” about unfriendly or exploitive practices, as our host, museum content developer Carol Bossert, instructed the group, but rather identify best practices that benefit all parties. Carol was joined by exhibit designer and fabricator Paul Orselli and project manager Barbara Punt, who each added depth and perspective to the discussion.

Informed by the TMG conversation, the below Do’s and Don’ts are meant as a helpful guide to cultural organizations issuing RFPs to ensure a fair and equitable process based on mutual respect and trust between client and vendor. —AB

Let’s say you’re a new manager who has determined that your organization is in need of outside services – such as master planning or brand development or direct mail implementation – that your in-house team doesn’t have the time nor expertise to handle. And let’s say you’ve also determined that the best way to solicit such services is through an RFP process, but you’ve never actually administered one before. What now?

Start by asking your colleagues for some sample RFPs to acquaint yourself with how they’re written and what they contain. Here’s a good example and a good template. And then allow sufficient time to think through your needs, craft a solid request and run a fair process. Here’s how: 

Do This

  • Clearly define the scope of work for the requested services, the need or challenge to be addressed, and the anticipated end result. Provide substantive background information on your organization, programs and strategic direction so that vendors have the necessary data to respond appropriately and specifically to your stated goals.
  • Establish realistic budgetary parameters and convey this information in the RFP. This can be provided as a set or not-to-exceed number, or a budget range, and may require doing some preliminary homework to learn what the requested services typically cost. Why are budget guidelines important? Because they signify to vendors that this is a genuine project and you’re not just seeking free advice (see below), and they offer a sense of project scale (i.e., $30K vs. $300K) and institutional capacity, all of which is helpful to vendors in crafting a suitable response.
  • Outline the RFP process in detail, set a realistic time frame, summarize the deadlines and then maintain the schedule. A typical timeline includes the following: RFP release date, Q&A deadline, submittals deadline, proposal review period and telephone interviews, finalists notification, finalists interviews, vendor selection notification, and contract start and end dates.
  • Identify the information you will need to assess a vendor’s proposal – for example, the firm’s qualifications and past experience, methodology and deliverables, background on the project team, the cost and breakdown of fees, subcontractor arrangements, projected timeline, sample past projects, references, etc. – and outline all of this in the RFP.
  • Articulate in the RFP the objective criteria by which respondents will be evaluated – i.e., the overall quality of the proposal, firm credentials and expertise, price, vendor’s geographic location, and whatever else is important to you. Recognize that there is subjective criteria, too, such as how well the firm communicates and interacts with all of your representatives, the rapport you develop in the recruitment process, and peer references. Then consistently and fairly apply the same assessment measures to each proposal.
  • Consider a two-phased process, beginning with the submittal of credentials through a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), followed by an RFP provided to a select group of vendors that you have narrowed to no more than five bidders. This truncated process makes it easy to weed out unqualified firms and focus in-depth attention on the handful that can deliver what you need. For a sample RFQ, visit here.
  • Create and implement a marketing plan to distribute your RFP, determining in advance if your process is open to all or if you intend to approach a predetermined list of qualified firms identified through peer networking and outreach. If open to all, establish a page on your website to promote and share information about the RFP process, and use traditional and social media marketing channels to promote the opportunity. If proceeding with a select group of vendors, communicate your intent via email.
  • Allow a time-limited Q&A period for vendors to pose questions regarding the RFP, then respond thoughtfully and honestly to each. Post both the questions and answers for all potential responders on the RFP webpage or distribute via email to those on your selected list.
  • Be open to original, creative responses that may not take the form of a written proposal. Depending on the services requested, this could even be a review criterion. In the TMG conversation, someone mentioned an inventive proposal submitted in the form of a short documentary video, which was rejected by the selection committee because of its "unorthodox" presentation.
  • Organize a two-phased interview process. Ask a member of the selection committee to conduct initial telephone interviews with the responding vendors, and then invite the finalists for an on-site meeting with the committee. For each, prepare in advance a protocol of questions that all vendors will be asked, but be flexible enough to allow genuine conversation to develop. Be sure to ask the vendors why they want to work on your project and what they offer that sets them apart from their peers.
  • Allow for finalist interviews that are longer than one hour in order to solicit in-depth information about a vendor, the firm’s working methods and past projects. Request in advance short bios of the vendor’s personnel who will actually be doing the work on your project and require them to be present for the on-site interview. (This is helpful because sometimes a firm’s principals who make the pitch are not the same ones who deliver the services.)
  • As an RFP reviewer, take your role seriously. Familiarize yourself with the evaluation criteria, read and make notes on all of the proposals in advance and come to meetings prepared to discuss them with intelligence and forethought. Once the finalists’ selection process has concluded and a vendor has been chosen, require and check references, as you would with any potential new hire. Then be timely in contacting the other firms who submitted proposals and politely tell them their services were declined, and why, if they inquire.

Act with integrity, trust, respect and especially kindness throughout the RFP process.

And Don’t Do This

  • Do not ever issue an RFP if you are merely fishing for free ideas. This is unethical. Acknowledge that it takes time, effort and money on the part of vendors to respond to RFPs and they are generously sharing their expertise in the hopes of working with you. Respect the process.
  • Do not circulate or share the contents of any vendor’s proposal beyond the selection committee. Treat each proposal confidentially and as a work product owned by the responding vendor and use the submittal only to determine whether or not you will hire that vendor. (This does not apply, however, if you are a government entity and all of your activities are required to be public.)
  • Avoid overly legalistic and formal language in the RFP because this can inadvertently communicate an antagonist stance on your part to working with outside contractors. The letter of agreement that you will subsequently sign with the vendor you hire will have legalese enough for everyone!
  • Do not request multiple printed copies of the response submittals. Accept and circulate only digital proposals, as this will convey the value of sustainability that your organization presumably upholds.

Now Get Started!

Two final takeaways from the TMG discussion: Act with integrity, trust, respect and especially kindness throughout the RFP process. And treat your vendors like partners rather than contractors. This will only well serve everyone in the end. 

For further insights from Carol, Paul and Barbara on this subject, visit the ExhibiTricks blog.

The Science of Work Culture: Placemaking

This is my second post in a series on the cultural workplace, inspired by the new book, The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, by Ron Friedman. The first post, The Science of Work Culture: Freedom to Fail, can be found here.

Over the course of my career, I’ve endured my share of less than hospitable physical work environments:

  • An office filled with broken down, mismatched, scarred furniture that even the Salvation Army would have rejected, with extension cords running every which way that the facilities guy noted as hazardous, but did nothing to correct. 
  • An interior space devoid of natural light, illuminated only by buzzing fluorescents, where fresh cut flowers never thrived and were lifeless by the next day.
  • A without walls, open plan workspace populated by architect Hani Rashid’s designer pods (that are fortunately no longer in production). Sure, they were cool and mod looking, but they offered only the appearance of privacy, scrimmed as they were with fabric that resembled the perforated lining of men’s swimsuits. Plus, they had virtually no storage, were rickety and didn’t hold up well to normal use.
  • A public showroom of polished brass and gleaming mahogany hiding the dark, dank quarters for staff, where a tarp had been strung over our heads to catch plaster falling from the ceiling and raining down on our desks.
Knoll’s 21st century take on the office cubicle. Image credit: Asymptote Architecture, 

Knoll’s 21st century take on the office cubicle. Image credit: Asymptote Architecture, 

I never felt that I did my best work in these spaces, and when I was under deadline for big writing projects or assignments that required uninterrupted concentration, I chose to work from home. The crappy furniture, poor lighting, chilly temps, lack of privacy and heightened noise levels weren’t geared for knowledge workers, and communicated that organizational leaders didn’t really understand how physical environments can either enhance or impede productivity.

According to psychologist Ron Friedman in his recent book, The Best Place to Work, a myriad of studies have shown how office design can contribute to employee well being, innovation, teamwork and heightened performance. To optimize the physical workplace, the author recommends moving away from the “one-size-fits-all approach” and providing a variety of environments for people to perform at their best. 

Interestingly, in an earlier blog post, I noted that a 2002 study revealed a key trait of resilient organizations to be the range of workspaces offered accommodating different types of work and working styles, including the option to telecommute. Friedman likens this to a college campus, where there are numerous facility options for students to self-direct their learning, such as the classroom, library, cafeteria, gym, dorm room, etc.

Friedman aggregates the findings of several research studies and shares how to enhance what I’ll call placemaking in the workplace. Cultural organizations that prize creativity, productivity and community should consider incorporating the following into their office mix:

  • High ceilings, which, believe it or not, free the mind and help to foster original thinking.
  • Color, coordinated to support certain kinds of functions; for example, red for detail oriented work because it “causes us to become more alert and vigilant,” or blue and green for inventive thinking, because these colors “make us feel safe and improve our creative output.” (More information on the fascinating world of color theory can be found here.)
  • Real sunlight and a view of nature, because we humans feel refreshed, have lower blood pressure and are “happiest when we’re close to the outdoors.”
  • Live plants, fresh flowers, aquariums and even images of landscapes, because they make us feel “healthier and more energized.”
  • Spaces that can be personalized, which engender a “sense of ownership and belonging.”
  • Distinct private and communal spaces that support quiet, contemplative work and interactive collaboration and collegiality.

Last fall, the World Green Building Council issued a report connecting good office design and greener buildings with enhanced worker health and productivity. It identified six workplace characteristics that affect employee well being and performance: indoor air quality, thermal comfort, lighting and views of nature, noise and acoustics, interior layout, and active design. To help organizations assess workplace conditions as a prelude to changing them for the better, the Council offers a DIY survey guide that addresses physical, perceptual and financial metrics.

No money, you say, for a new office or a wholesale makeover of your current one? Good design doesn’t have to cost a lot. Aesthetics matter to the cultural worker, so form a small working committee representative of the full staff to explore what’s possible and practical. Here are some ideas:

  1. If your office doesn’t have windows or access to the outside, install energy saving, full spectrum daylight lightbulbs. Add some shade loving plants (and make sure someone volunteers to keep them watered). Paint some colorful accent walls. And hang some employee artwork and photos, including landscapes and nature scenes.
  2. If your office is a mash of cubicles, partition some private spaces with removable walls to create offices that staff can reserve for quiet work, and buy some noise-cancelling headphones. And let your staff decorate their workstations to enliven their surroundings.
  3. If you have lots of private offices, turn one of them or an extra conference room into a communal workspace with modular furniture that can be configured for different tasks.
  4. Add some shared amenities, like a good coffee maker, refrigerator, water cooler and comfy chairs to promote socializing and employee interaction.
  5. If your furniture is junky, buy some well designed and inexpensive items from discount retailers and then apply some ingenuity. (For inspiration, look at these Ikea hacks for home offices.)
Creating a private space from a removable partition wall. Image credit: Cherry Tree Design,

Creating a private space from a removable partition wall. Image credit: Cherry Tree Design,

And here’s another insight from a recent Harvard Business Review article by marketing professors Boyoun (Grace) Chae and Rui (Juliet) Zhu: Make an effort to be tidy because working in a mess undercuts your ability to persevere and perform well. 

Friedman reminds us that workplace design can be utilized as a marketing tool to reflect organizational vision. In other words, it can serve as a form of branding, what Cornell University professor emeritus Franklin Becker calls “organizational body language.” It’s important that the message conveyed is consistent – if you claim to be pioneering, but your office is full of beige cubicles, think again.

So what's the takeaway here? “Engaging employees is about creating an environment that positions people to do their best work,” writes Friedman. Which means placemaking is just as important as content making.  


Friedman, PhD, Ron. The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. New York: Penguin Group, 2014. Kindle file (part 1, chapter 2).

The Science of Work Culture: Freedom to Fail

As a late convert to Twitter, I’m a huge fan of the platform’s seamless connection to people and their disparate ideas, perspectives and stories that would otherwise be difficult to access without spending every day glued to the Internet or public library bookshelves. It was through Twitter that I was introduced to the work of Ron Friedman, a University of Rochester trained psychologist and expert on human motivation. 

I was particularly drawn to his latest book, The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, not only because I was compelled by the subject matter, but because the subtitle and cover of his book looked and sounded remarkably similar to my co-authored book, Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement, published in 2013.

I was intrigued by the fact that graphic designers at two different publishing houses ended up choosing a nearly identical image and layout to illustrate what are, in essence, books about transforming workplaces into cultures of excellence and high performance. Regardless of any coincidence, for those of you seeking to create work environments that foster creativity, nurture innovation, support high productivity, and attract and retain top talent, Friedman’s book is a worthwhile read (and so is Magnetic, if I can toot a horn here).

Magnetic Cover.jpg

Friedman assimilates a significant amount of current scientific research on human motivation and shares it with his readers in an easy-to-digest format that can be directly applied to the workplace. Over the course of this and a few future posts, I intend to share some of Friedman’s writings that I've found to be particularly germane to the cultural environment.

Embracing Failure 

The exponential growth of entrepreneurship and innovation as the business model of the 21st century has generated a lot of talk about embracing failure as the key to success. Besides being the mantra of Silicon Valley, what’s really behind this concept?

According to Friedman, it has to do with the nature of creativity. 

To paraphrase the author (who is summarizing the work of social psychologist Dean Keith Simonton), highly creative people are marked by their broad range of interests and ability to combine incongruent bits of information and ideas to create something new. They also tend to work harder, generate more ideas and produce more than the average person, both feats and flops. They push at the boundaries of their current abilities and persevere in the face of failure. 

Organizations that bring out the creative best among their employees help them to focus on “the possibility of gain” rather than “the possibility of loss.” Friedman speaks of this in clinical terms of “approach motivation” versus “avoidance motivation,” both of which have psychological and physiological influences. Because the former concentrates on achieving positive outcomes, it supports blue sky thinking and experimentation. Conversely, the latter fixates on preventing negative outcomes, and thus results in narrowed perspectives that dampen creativity. “When avoiding failure is a primary focus,” Friedman says, “the work isn’t just more stressful; it’s a lot harder to do.” 

Innovative organizations make allowances for mistakes, which over the long run, “can elevate the quality of [employee] performance.” Friedman points to research by Harvard University professor Amy Edmundson, who found workplaces that didn’t penalize staff for making mistakes fostered environments where team members felt safe to openly admit and discuss errors. This enables learning and “turns failure into progress.”

“The best way to minimize failure,” reports Friedman, “is to embrace it with open arms.”

That seems easy to understand in the abstract, but how does this manifest in the cultural workplace? And what happens when an important project turns out to be a dud?

Case Study: Greensboro Science Center

These are questions I posed to Glenn Dobrogosz, executive director of the Greensboro Science Center (GSC) in Greensboro, NC. The GSC is part zoo, part aquarium and part natural science museum. It’s also one of the six museums profiled in Magnetic.

Dobrogosz emphasizes the importance of fostering a culture that gives employees both “permission and freedom to ideate and create.” Such autonomy and authority “builds alliances of trust with staff,” he says, “who then come with ideas to solve problems. We reward risk takers and give the freedom to fail to individuals who show themselves — by their attitude, desire to invent new things and belief in our mission — to be worth the risk.” 

Last year, Dobrogosz assembled an internal group called the Innovation Committee, comprising six senior and middle management staff members who bring expertise in exhibit design, education, technology, operations, plus financial and human resources. Acting much like angel investors, they vet new program and project ideas, ask critical questions, and discuss organizational objectives and mission delivery “with brutal honesty” to determine if proposals should be greenlighted. He outlined three primary review criteria: (1) Does the proposed idea offer a competitive edge to GSC and enable it to be first in doing something new or in a new way? (2) Is it fully aligned with the Center’s vision for the future? And (3) does GSC have the time and resources to do the project well?

Dive bombing with the penguins at Greensboro Science Center. Image credit: Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc.

Dive bombing with the penguins at Greensboro Science Center. Image credit: Cambridge Seven Associates, Inc.

This approach has led to a number of highly successful new enterprises, among them, the SciQuarium, which opened in June 2013. A 22,000 sq. ft. extension to the Science Center, it features exhibits dedicated to species that live in diverse aquatic ecosystems, including predatory sharks, stingrays and moray eels, as well as cute penguins and otters. Dobrogosz noted that the SciQuarium was a huge gamble, not only because its $8.7 million price tag was financed by a public bond, but because no one had ever before built an inland aquarium in North Carolina. Fortunately, this risk returned reward, and the SciQuarium attracted over 430,000 visitors in its first year of operation, outperforming GSC's previous highest grossing exhibit by 35 percent. It also garnered GSC its first $1 million gift from a patron wowed by its potential.

But what about that dud?

Dobrogosz described a new orangutan exhibit envisioned as an extension of GSC’s Animal Discovery program, allowing visitors to experience primate adaptations in a natural environment. For a number of reasons, the effort didn't pan out. “Regional leaders and potential donors didn't connect with GSC doing ape research (cognitive behavior research) as part of our mission," he said. "And an MBA study showed limited ROI due to the cost of taking care of very husbandry-intense animals." 

Even though a lot of energy and resources had been expended, GSC scrapped the plans, without repercussion to anyone involved. The staff kept at it, though, trying to connect the public experience with the animal experience – and a new concept soon evolved.

They developed the idea for a treetop adventure course that mimics animal behavior. Sky Wild, which is currently under construction, will feature seven zip lines over 30-45 feet in the air, with 60 events that correspond to animal behavior, such as frogs hopping among lily pads, and gibbons (a kind of ape) brachiating* in the trees. (*A new word for me, too, which means using the arms to swing from branch to branch.)

Greensboro Science Center's new Sky Wild treetop adventure course. Image credit: Greensboro Science Center.

Greensboro Science Center's new Sky Wild treetop adventure course. Image credit: Greensboro Science Center.

Dobrogosz and his team have learned one of the abiding lessons about success and failure that Friedman recounts in his book. They innately understand the importance of what the author refers to as “[mining] the failure for insight…[to] improve [the] next attempt.” Friedman asserts, “The more solutions you generate, the more likely you are to stumble upon a winning combination.” In the case of Sky Wild, GSC is pretty certain they've stumbled correctly — or more appropriately, zipped — though they won't know for certain until the new exhibit opens next spring.

Actor and independent film impresario Robert Redford recently said it best: “Not taking a risk is a risk…[and] it's important to fail…[even though] failure's not fun...I grew up in a world that said failure is the end of the road. It's not. It's a step along the road.”


Friedman, Ron, PhD. The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. New York: Penguin Group, 2014. Kindle file (part 1, chapter 1).

Phone interview with Glenn Dobrogosz, 23 Dec 2014.

The Lessons Behind Why It's Never Too Late to Learn

Earlier this year, I was looking for an outlet and respite from work, so I decided to take lessons and learn to play acoustic guitar. I grew up in a musical family – all of us played an instrument and sang at church and in school choirs – so turning to music seemed a natural choice, even though it hadn’t been part of my routine for a long time. 

A formal living room similar to my piano teacher's, albeit with higher ceilings. Photo credit: , October 3, 2013

A formal living room similar to my piano teacher's, albeit with higher ceilings. Photo credit:, October 3, 2013

In fact, it had been over 30 years since I took piano lessons from the Vienna-born, classically-trained, diminutive Mrs. Troy in her low-ceilinged, 18th century cottage filled with silk-upholstered antiques in the New England town where I was raised. Like my teacher and her home, my piano lessons were very proper: she assigned scales, exercises and pieces by Bach, Mozart and Schumann. At each session, I played while she gently corrected me and marked up the expensive sheet music with her perfect penmanship.

I was a good student and by all accounts a fine player by the time I went to college and gave up the piano. But I retained a good ear, have natural rhythm and can still read music. So I thought returning to music would be fun and entertained a not-too-distant future vision of pulling out my guitar after a nice evening meal and playing some old Joni Mitchell or James Taylor harmonizing with my husband.

Mark Cutler in his studio. Photo credit: The Providence Journal/Freida Squires, December 17, 2013

Mark Cutler in his studio. Photo credit: The Providence Journal/Freida Squires, December 17, 2013

By sheer good luck, I found my way to the East Providence studio of Mark Cutler, formerly front man of The Schemers, a wildly popular 1980s rock band from Providence, RI. His studio is cluttered with guitars, electronic equipment, computers and mismatched furniture. In his dark T-shirt and jeans, Mark is the real deal, a charming, talented musician and songwriter who has never stopped making great music, with a rich singing voice that marries Tom Petty with Bob Dylan and guitar playing to rival Eric Clapton. Fortunately, he loves to teach people how to play guitar and write songs, which he does when he’s not performing solo, writing film scores or leading his new band, Men of Great Courage.

But as I all too quickly realize, learning to play the guitar with Mark bears little resemblance to my past formal piano instructions. Each week, he shows me new chords and strumming patterns and how to play some classic songs, like the Stones’ Dead Flowers or Don Gibson’s I Can’t Stop Loving You. He scribbles notes on lined paper and hands me song lyrics annotated with basic chord changes. We play together the songs I practice – I try to keep a simple beat while Mark improvises and makes his strings sing. I long to do that, but the 10,000 hours needed to produce this kind of mastery, as Malcolm Gladwell references in Outliers, are a long way away.

I can’t yet say that this is fun. Actually, it’s work that requires daily practice. I’m often frustrated because I want to go farther and faster than my current knowledge and skill allow. Mark is a kind and patient teacher, but I’m embarrassed in front of him when I play wrong notes or veer off rhythm or can’t remember a chord progression. I feel like I’m learning a foreign language. (Well, I am – it’s called "Tablature," which is shorthand notation for fingering fretted instruments, and it doesn’t look anything like the staffs and staves and notes that I remember from my days with Mrs. Troy.) Uncharacteristically, tears well up when I can’t make my fingers stretch to reach the right strings or hold my wandering fourth finger on the E.

I’ve been reflecting on what it’s like to learn new things as an adult and how different that is from learning as a child. I don’t remember studying piano to be as difficult – maybe my mid-life brain is simply less malleable than when I was younger. Many of us in the arts community strongly believe in lifelong learning and I’m experiencing on a very personal level how the act of learning something entirely new as an adult, though challenging, has great merit. University of Stirling (Scotland) emeritus professor of education John Field reports that lifelong learning, among other benefits, is “associated with better health, higher levels of social and civic engagement, and greater resilience in the face of external crises.” 

New research by UK neuroscientists Victoria Knowland and Michael Thomas confirms that that the brain is most responsive to input during early to middle childhood and “plasticity” does wane with age. But they conclude adult learning is optimized when these seven key elements are in place:

  1. Practice, which is essential to achievement.
  2. Motivation, both self-directed and supported by others. 
  3. Learning from a real person with real materials, which is more effective than passive presentation (i.e., sitting in front of a computer and watching a videotaped lecture).
  4. Starting with the fundamentals and moving on to “higher order” skills.
  5. Providing a quiet learning environment.
  6. Making connections with pre-existing knowledge that the adult student already has.
  7. Ensuring rest and a good night’s sleep.

What does all of this have to do with the cultural workplace? We’re constantly asking our staff members to learn new things or embrace new ideas – we upgrade to a more complex database management program that we expect our teams to master; we urge participation in professional development workshops or conferences to enhance skills in any number of areas, like management, fundraising and marketing; we adopt new modes of conduct that shift internal cultures and expect everyone to follow. All of these require active learning and the right environment in which to learn. 

Our 1964 Gibson B-25 beauty.

Our 1964 Gibson B-25 beauty.

According to a May 2010 report by The Maritz Institute, the right adult learning environment can foster “behavioral change and improved performance” in the workplace. That environment, as underscored in Knowland’s and Thomas’ more recent research, recognizes that learning is a process requiring time for assimilation (aka practice). It also requires drawing on past knowledge to build bridges between the known and unknown (like me trying to find connections between piano and guitar playing). Social interaction is key, as is bringing emotion into the learning process and engaging multiple senses to create a deeper, more memorable experience. (It seems my welling up on occasion is a good thing!)

As we encourage learning in our teams, let’s make certain to provide a supportive environment to learn and give our people the time and tools to make the learning stick. And give me six more months and I’ll let you know how things are going with the guitar. It really is never too late to learn.

Improvising and Going with the Flow: How to Bring Vacation into the Workplace

The stone facade of our 16th-century rental in Todi, Italy. 

The stone facade of our 16th-century rental in Todi, Italy. 

My husband and I had the great fortune to be invited to join a dear friend, her fiancé and eight of their close pals for a celebration of some milestone birthdays. Our rendezvous point was a gorgeous, circa 16th-century villa in Umbria, Italy with modern amenities, 10 bedrooms, six bathrooms and two kitchens. Obviously, some sharing was going to be involved. 

We were a motley but fascinating group ranging in age from early 30s to 80, of disparate life experiences and talents brought together under one roof to toast our friends while enjoying the breathtaking beauty, rich history and agrarian lifestyle of central Italy. We comprised:

A special events maven

A former hedge fund manager 

A painter

A specialty tour operator

A singer and theatrical performer

A former retail executive

A dancer and choreographer

A professor

A sales director and publisher

A marketing and communications specialist

A realtor

And me, an arts administrator and consultant.

There was no planned itinerary, save for the birthday party scheduled for Saturday evening. But prior to our arrival, our consummate hosts had sent each of us a detailed package about Umbria, supplying information about the house, houseguests and noteworthy medieval sites all within an hour’s drive of our home-away-from-home for the week. We were free to lounge, forage and wander around, on our own or together with our housemates.

There were few house rules:

  • No wet glasses on wood furniture.
  • Only plastic by the pool.
  • Stay clear of the kitchen around meal times unless unloading groceries, cooking or cleaning.
Dining al fresco under the pergola.

Dining al fresco under the pergola.

Somehow, with just a hint of structure (thanks to great pre-planning by our hosts), the week came together seamlessly, like a loosely improvised dance cooperatively choreographed by all 12 of us. Although we had few things in common beyond deep affection for our hosts and a shared love of culture, we enjoyed getting to know one another and learning where we hailed from, how we spent our time and what made us all tick. We soon settled into an easy rhythm – breakfast and strong coffee at home in the a.m.; sightseeing, lunching and shopping in the comunes and cittàs of Todi, Deruta, Orvieto, Perugia and Assisi during the day; swimming and sunning in the afternoon; and dining together al fresco every night under the clay-tiled pergola.

Without being asked or directed, everyone pitched in to the communal experience. Some cooked, some cleaned, some shopped, some drove, some navigated, some tour guided, some became experts at the confounding Italian appliances, some entertained, and some fed the cat.

And throughout, all of us talked. Dinner table conversation was abundant, meandering and rich in personal storytelling. I will admit that a couple of times I found myself bristling from viewpoints I didn’t agree with. But I was on vacation. “Just relax and listen,” I’d say to myself, “Everyone has a right to his or her opinion. Go with the flow.” That attitude, lubricated by delicious Umbrian wine, made for engaging encounters and one of our best vacations yet.

Now that I’ve returned to the real world, I’m keen to hold on to that attitude and translate it to the workplace. Here’s what I’ve taken away from the experience:

  • Assemble a group of interesting, accomplished people of various talents. 
  • Provide some structure. 
  • Give everyone an opportunity to participate and contribute. 
  • Welcome diverse perspectives and embrace all as valid. 
  • Appreciate both the individual and the group.
  • Pitch in and work together, despite differences.
  • Improvise as needed and go with the flow.

I invite you to do this, too. You’ll be amazed at the results, and the richer for it. And when you’re not working, visit Italy.

The fertile landscape of Umbria.

The fertile landscape of Umbria.

Gratitude: An Art Form

I remember reading a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer from late summer 2012 describing President Obama’s seeming discomfort spending time with his campaign donors. His first social secretary, the stylish Desirée Rogers, was criticized for not doing enough to make patrons feel special. Mayer quoted a major Democratic donor complaining, “There’s been no thanks for anyone!...I don’t think they have a clue who I am. I don’t think they even know how much I gave.”

Unfortunately, presidential campaign donors aren’t the only ones who feel unacknowledged by the people and organizations they support. I hear this too often when I talk with philanthropists. As Laura Bush’s chief of staff, Anita McBride, told Mayer, “Donors are called on to do a lot. It doesn’t take a lot to say thank you.”

Actually, to say thank you well and with meaning does and should take a lot. Most all of, it takes intentionality, sincerity and true gratitude. In the world of fundraising, political, cultural or otherwise, stewardship (expressing appreciation) is as critical as solicitation (making the ask). If stewardship is handled in a ham-fisted way, or viewed and thus communicated to donors as a distasteful obligation, then you’ll end up like Desirée, needing to find another line of work. 

Writing a note of thanks takes only a few minutes out of your day. Just do it.

Writing a note of thanks takes only a few minutes out of your day. Just do it.

There’s an interesting upside to saying thanks, according to Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis and the author of Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. People who mindfully adopt what he calls an “attitude of gratitude” are happier, healthier, have stronger, more resilient relationships, accomplish more, and feel more satisfied. I believe the same is true for organizations that show genuine appreciation for their people, including their supporters. (I wrote about giving recognition to staff in an earlier post.)

So how can you thank donors and make it really mean something? Here’s a quick list of eight ways to recognize the generosity of your benefactors infused with some heart:

  1. Acknowledgement letters – Even though these are required by the IRS for gifts of $250 or more, they don’t have to be perfunctory and boring. Keep your letters fresh and current, and use them to share information about upcoming activities or milestones achieved, plus send them within a few days after receiving a gift. Timeliness matters, and so does customization. I once encountered an organization that hadn’t changed its standard acknowledgement letter in a decade. That couldn’t have been terribly meaningful to the donors who gave annually over those 10 years…
  2. Thank you calls – You won’t believe how much donors are pleasantly surprised by simple phone calls to say thank you. Ask your senior team or a small, rotating cadre of trustees to make calls on a monthly basis to your top patrons, or to those who recently renewed or increased their giving. It’s a modest investment of time and goodwill that pays off in donor loyalty.
  3. Activity reports – These are primarily produced by grant officers who must regularly report to institutional funders on the use and impact of grant monies. The same approach can be adopted for trustees, individual donors and even lower level members, each of whom can be sent a personalized, year-end “this is what you helped to make possible” letter. Although there are varying schools of thought, to be truly in stewardship mode, you should never include a follow up ask with your thanks.
  4. Donor rosters – Whether via signage installed in your building or roll calls published in annual reports or quarterly e-news, listing your patrons (and spelling their names correctly) is another advantageous way to provide public recognition for their giving. It also communicates the vital role of philanthropy in your organization.
  5. Invitations to (free) exclusive programs and social events – Obama’s disgruntled donors were upset, according to Mayer’s sources, because he had been “reluctant to pose with them for photographs” at White House parties. Social gatherings – like receptions, private dinners, behind-the-scene tours or special performances – are some of the best ways to give extra care to your donors and get to know then in a more relaxed setting and festive environment. Don’t overlook the growing enthusiasm for candid selfies on social media, which benefit your donors and your organization.
  6. Occasional notes, emails, calls and birthday cards – Once a gift has been received and acknowledged, don’t make the mistake of only being in touch with your patrons when you need further assistance. Take the time to send them a handwritten note (on beautiful notecards) or an email with photos and an update about a program they supported, or call to share some news or ask an opinion – the same impulse you have reaching out to a friend. And sure, birthday greetings can feel a bit clichéd, but at least send them to your trustees!
  7. Appreciation events – Gathering for the sole purpose to say thanks can be as simple as breakfast and a talk or as elaborate as dinner and a performance. At the Guggenheim Museum, my staff and I launched an annual appreciation breakfast for funders. We assembled a PowerPoint presentation set to music with images of the various things that they had supported over the past year – basically everything at the museum. It was both eye opening and gratifying for the funders to see how much they had contributed to the lifeblood of the institution.
  8. Thank you videos – Truth be told, I think most of these are either pedestrian or kinda corny, but if you want to create and e-circulate an artful video for your donors, here’s some advice from fundraiser Adrian Allen.

Expressing gratitude should be a natural, heartfelt response to any donor who makes an investment in your organization. Inculcate stewardship into your DNA and you might just be the happier for it. Certainly, your donors will be. Honestly, there’s no magic to any of this. Be intentional. Be timely. Be creative. Make it relevant. Make it personal.

Get Back on the Bike: Cultivating Organizational Resilience

Andrew Talansky finishing the 8th stage of the 2014 Tour de France. Photo credit: Laurence Cipriani/Associated Press

Andrew Talansky finishing the 8th stage of the 2014 Tour de France. Photo credit: Laurence Cipriani/Associated Press

It was one of many heartbreaking images in this year’s Tour de France, the legendary bicycle race through the French Alps. Fatigued, bruised and wounded after two serious crashes, Andrew Talansky, a promising young American rider, slowed to a stop and dismounted, oblivious to the picturesque mountain vista behind him. With tears spilling from his eyes, Talansky listened while his coach quietly spoke to him about deciding whether to continue in the race or pull out.

And then the unexpected – in the face of enormous setback and overwhelming odds, Talansky got back on his bike. Accompanied only by the team car, the Voiture Balai (aka the “broom sweeper,” the van at the end of the race that picks up stragglers) and a few dedicated fans, he battled his way, mentally and physically, to the finish line within the proscribed time limit.

Talansky showed not only immense personal courage and grit, but resilience, what the American Psychological Association defines as "the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, [and] threats." 

Resilience is a trait that can be learned, say Drs. Dennis Charney and Steven Southwick in their 2012 book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. They note that intentional practices, such as cognitive reappraisal, mindfulness meditation, even yoga, can help to shift how to think about situations to overcome emotional stress and persevere. 

Cultural organizations certainly have experienced their share of adversity and trauma, especially since the recession, and some very much in the public eye – consider, for example, the Detroit Institute of Art’s life threatening ordeal caused by municipal bankruptcy. Most often, such distress presents in the form of strained resources – overly ambitious programming, unrealistic audience projections, under-realized earned and contributed revenues, unanticipated leadership transitions – that bring organizations to a breaking point. But like elite athletes, organizations can train themselves to cultivate characteristics of resilience, such as courage, optimism and faith, in order to navigate through dire straits.

According to researcher Michael A. Bell, there are five key traits to organizational resilience:

  1. Leadership – Resilient organizations are guided by stable leaders who set priorities, efficiently allocate resources, define and balance risk, and clearly and regularly dialogue with their colleagues. Such leaders also demonstrate the “four core attributes of [resilience] — optimism, decisiveness, integrity and open communications,” as noted by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine associate professor George Everly, Jr. 
  2. Culture – Resilient organizations create a culture of shared vision and collaboration that embraces a collective institutional mission. In addition, they also foster transparency and accountability, nurture relationships built on trust, and empower employees to assume responsibility and authority.
  3. People – Arguably the most important asset of any organization is its people, and resilient organizations ensure that their teams are, as Bell asserts, “properly selected, equipped, motivated and led.” They represent a diversity of talent and perspective within their organizations, as well as among the communities served. Resilient organizations support employees through motivational HR programs that prioritize their well-being and professional development.
  4. Systems – Resilient organizations enable distributed leadership by investing in effective management and technology systems. In other words, they ensure that the proper structures, processes and equipment are in place to facilitate communication, support information sharing and galvanize performance.
  5. Settings – Perhaps an unexpected finding of Bell’s research is the diversity of physical workplaces within resilient organizations that accommodate various types of work and work styles. Resilience is reinforced through adaptive work environments that offer desk sharing, telecommuting and other flexible accommodations, as well as traditional office spaces.

Not surprisingly, Bell concludes that resilient organizations are “operationally superior” and have impressive bottom line performance. The good news in all of this, according to Professor Everly, is that resilience can be learned and permeate an institution through modeling and mentoring by credible leaders.

Peleton, 2014 Tour de France. Photo credit: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Europe

Peleton, 2014 Tour de France. Photo credit: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Europe

So the message here is to get back on the bike, like Talansky, and keep pedaling, trusting that your talent, training, coaching, equipment, support network and team focus will ultimately prevail.

The Art of People Management

There’s lots of talk in the social media world these days about leadership – who has it, how to demonstrate it, whether it’s a trait you’re born with or a skill you can learn – while the notion of management continues to be downplayed. Management lost its luster back in the 1980s when leadership experts like Warren Bennis drew a finite distinction between leadership and management. In his seminal work, On Becoming A Leader, first published in 1989, Bennis writes:

  • The manager administers, the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy, the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains, the leader develops.
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You're Just Like Your Father!

How many of you have been admonished for this by a family member? I certainly have, but it my case, I consider it a compliment.

My dad was a larger-than-life, gregarious man with a booming voice, twinkle in his eye and warm personality to match his big bear hugs. A chemist and Navy aerologist by training, he was a manufacturer’s representative by profession working in the rubber and plastics industries (think The Graduate, only without Anne Bancroft).

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