Post image for The Perpetual Start-Ups

(This post is a part of the Financial Adaptation blog salon curated by Adam Thurman for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas).

Organizations require successful financial and organizational structures to survive.  Much like their human staff, they cannot thrive on a restrictive diet.  Doing more with less results in weaker muscles and fatigue.  Rather, success is found in a lifestyle change.  A healthy organization has a similar holistic framework to its personnel.  Nutritious fuel, exercise and recharging equate to three frameworks of business success: a definitive and desired value proposition for the community, strong decision making system, and a nimble frame.  While these may seem obvious, concepts are difficult to put into practice. I want to offer some resources for leaders and managers to begin considering how to move their organizations from surviving to thriving in the new economy.

My career path, maybe my personality, travels at the intersection of theory and practice in arts management – this results in a managing director / professor identity. Long story. But, at this intersection, I have found a few (let’s say 3 ½)  highly reliable concepts and resources to help guide organizations to success.  The first is Jim Collins’ book GOOD TO GREAT.  Not the Social Sector re-write (it doesn’t really work for the arts in my opinion, and I’m not sure it works for social sector nonprofits). Go to the original excellent book.  Yes, the book is about for profit great institutions. But non profits and for profits are both businesses with a goal to succeed.  The frameworks are different and those will be addressed in later resources. For a short cut, you can read the following summary by Collins (http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/good-to-great.html).  The take-aways for nonprofits come from his core principles:

  • The Hedgehog Concept:  What do we do best in the world? What is the economic denominator that runs our business engine? What are our core people passionate about?
  • Who first, then What, a.k.a. “Get the Right People on the Bus”:  This is exceptionally true in a service economy like a nonprofit theatre.  We know that the right cast makes a show, but the same is true for our administrative side.
  • The Stop Doing List:  You can’t do it all. Stop trying to. Make stopping a priority until you are down to your hedgehog. This is the big stuff (programs that no one really knows why you do them anymore) and the small stuff (hours on emails that would take 3 face to face conversations for a total of 45 minutes).
  • The Flywheel Effect: Small, consistent steps build momentum.  Once momentum is gained, it begins turning itself.  Sort of like Malcolm Gladwell’s TIPPING POINT but for business operations.

Number 2: Focus on your impact and your value to your community. How do you define all of those concepts? Impact? Your community? Precision in your definitions and transparency across the organization is the key to success. I recommend reading a lovely (and short) article called “Delivering on the Promise of Nonprofits” by Jeffery L. Bradach, et. al. published by the Harvard Business Review. Conceptually, the article echoes Collins’ Hedgehog Concept and Stop Doing List but with new language and a strategic planning for nonprofit focus.  Very simply, yes, the mission always comes first, but your mission needs to be articulated specifically with an understanding of

a)      The specifics of the community you serve.  Who do you want to impact and how many of them?
b)      How does your impact occur? What change is occurring and why?
c)      How do you know you’ve succeeded?

Once you know those pieces to your puzzle you can begin to set out your plan.

Number 2.5:  Strategic planning means nothing without a strong understanding of your organization’s decision-making structures.  Strategy is only as strong as the decisions that are made on a daily, weekly, monthly basis to move the strategy foreward.

Number 3.5: Nonprofit theatres are perpetual start-up companies.  This idea is less formally articulated by others in the sphere of books and business articles.  So what brings me to this conclusion?  Numbers and structure. Clearly young, new theatres are like start-ups, but 20-year old enterprises feel more stable. But are they, when you look inside at their engine? Theatres create multiple new products and offer them to the marketplace every, damn year.  We are constantly in a new-investor cycle (aka donors, corporate sponsors, etc) sharing with them new ideas and new products (our season).  Our budgets typically end up somewhere in the same range, but the insides can vary greatly from year to year depending on our seasons.  Finally, our marketing departments spend significant time finding new markets, also called acquisition mode versus subscription mode.  I suggest you begin perusing management literature for start-up companies and you might find some interesting ideas you can bring into your company to help with concept development, human resources, and even communication strategies.  Eric Reis’ THE LEAN STARTUP is one place to begin. Interestingly, if the arts begin thinking like startups, perhaps they will find greater synergy with younger audiences – a pleasant, unintended consequence?

At the end, theatres are only as strong as their artists and their audiences.  The more we feed resources to that flywheel the more impact we can create.


Dr. Brett Ashley Crawford is a professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Master of Arts Management program and is executive director of www.technologyinthearts.org. She has worked extensively as a professional theatre manager and as professor in both arts management and theatre history. She spent the last 6 years working as Managing Director with Imagination Stage, an arts education and professional theatre located in Bethesda, MD. She has worked in management and production her entire career in theatre, film, and arts festivals from NY to TX. She has presented lectures and workshops across the US and internationally on marketing and audience development, technology and the arts, and production management to audiences including guests of the Department of State, Arts Presenters, the University of Helsinki, and the UC, Santa Cruz.

  • KathyJ aka theaterkatATL

    Really interesting. Is there a way to bring individual artists — designers, directors, dramaturgs — into the discussion in some way, do you think?