Anyway, I'm not certain what I expected from the meeting. I think I usually set my expectations too high, and go in hoping that just this once a group of leaders might actually do some innovative problem-solving, that, given the assembled experience and intelligence in the room, a breakthrough might occur. I don't know why I always hope this will happen -- it has never happened before in my entire life, and I've attended a whole lot of meetings.
I still think of myself as an entrepreneur-at-heart. That spirit of cutting straight to the value that you provide your patrons still motivates me even as a fundraiser. I don't think that entrepreneurs are the only ones that can do this so efficiently by any stretch of the imagination.
We have some significant barriers to doing it efficiently, though, in the nonprofit sector. Answering to a board is the biggest one as an entrepreneur rarely has to answer to anyone but their patrons. This can drag out decisions, cause conflicts that don't happen for entrepreneurs, and depending on the board, even cause enough doubt to stop innovation cold for fear of being fired where the entrepreneur only has fear of failure to stop them.
The lack of profit motivation can get in the way as well, I believe, for better and for worse. The primary mandate of promoting artistic pursuit is absolutely a noble goal, but it is clear that some of those decisions come counter to the best business decision. When it comes to keeping prices low to encourage access and letting patrons self-discriminate on price by encouraging donations, that's a positive dynamic. Not so much when artistic choices start putting limits on growth that could lead to higher budgets that can, in turn, lead to a greater capacity for the organization to pursue its mission.
A lack of study into new techniques for success seems to be a persistent theme as well. Part of that is a culture that is extremely risk-adverse, at least in the offices if not on stage (though I know we've all encountered organizations engaging in "safe" art as well for fear of ever provoking a bad reaction from an audience member, a funder, or who knows what). Another part of that lack of study is perhaps that the arts are almost the definition of a mature industry, and I get the feeling sometimes that the assumption is that we know all there is to know as passed down from one generation to the next from the stone ages (of the grand and sage old 1960s when the modern nonprofit arts era began).
Largely, everything I'm describing is about attitude really. Boards could be better managed if we chose to approach it differently, some amount of profit could be factored into decisions more readily where appropriate instead of being treated as a dirty word, investigation into new techniques could be embraced and encouraged then shared amongst professionals.
But changing someone's attitude is tremendously difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. Take it from a fundraiser.
So as one of those subversive and horrible blogger-tweeters that apparently the people in that meeting that Scott went to at the NEA think I and others like me am, I continue to open the doors to those that want change. I'm with him when he says that it's time to start innovating, thinking outside the box, and making bold choices. Let's open the doors wide to anyone that is done with the closed door meetings and toeing the company line that just keeps the powers that be in their hallowed halls.
To take it personal for a moment, I suppose, in a way, I have nothing to lose. I'm funding my ability to be a fundraiser for the arts through alternate means right now. Means that will end soon, and either I'll find a paying job with an arts company that wants an innovative thinker, specializing in individual giving, that cares more about patron and donor experiences and the value that we create throughout our interactions with our patrons than just about The Way Things Have Always Been (tm), or I'll find a new career elsewhere, likely in social media, and the brain drain on the arts sector described so well in 20UNDER40 will continue. In the larger scheme of things, I certainly don't matter that much as an individual, but if all the innovative thinkers are pushed out of the industry this way, the industry will inevitably continue to stagnate and limp along as it has been.
But the current industry leaders have to own up to that choice, to stick to old attitudes and old methods and continue to moan about how no-one appreciates the nonprofit arts industry anymore and woe to the state of the arts in the future (as if the creative sector only exists in the context of the nonprofit arts world), or to start to innovate and take risks, exploring new directions and inviting new thoughts into the marketplace of ideas available to nonprofits.