What Non-Profit Arts Idea Must Die?

Last week I was re-reading a Brain Pickings post I had bookmarked months ago about the book, This Idea Must Die: Some of the World’s Greatest Thinkers Each Select a Major Misconception Holding Us Back.

I planned a post asking my readers what idea they thought was holding the arts back. But before I did, I wanted to get a handle on what I thought was holding us back.

Even though it is in the news often these days, I don’t think forbidding people to use their phones, etc in a performance is holding things back. While it is certainly a point of contention right now, societal expectations of behavior in a performing arts space have evolved over time. I think we are in one of those transitional phases right now and suspect things will stabilize around a set of norms in the next decade or so.

The same with the idea that a performance must happen in a dedicated space or a physical space at all now that virtual options are available. Performances have happened in amphitheaters, pageant wagons, tennis courts, saloons, theater/concert halls, site specific spaces, warehouses, etc, etc. Again while there is currently a lot of angst about the setting, timing and modes of delivery, these factors have been acknowledged and things seem to be progressing, albeit with fits and starts.

Something that did occur to me as a factor holding the arts back was the idea that an arts organization must be a non-profit. There has been a lot of talk about alternative models that are available, but few people have pursued them. While some people will organize themselves as a for-profit entertainment company, the vast majority of people who dream of starting a company seem to default to non-profit.

In that respect, Drew McManus’ Venture Arts Incubator is one of the few places that is specifically saying we will help you develop your arts related business as anything but a non-profit.

With all this percolating around in my head, I had something of an ah-ha moment with Vu Le’s Nonprofit with Balls post about changing the term non-profit sector to something else.

Some of his ideas are more appealing than others. I am partial to the terms “Mission-Driven Sector,” “Public Benefit Sector” or “Community Benefit Sector.”

In the end, Vu suggests the non-profit sector faces more pressing concerns like mismatches between funding priorities and actual needs, overhead and poor work-life balance to be worrying about what the sector is called.

While this is true, a number of the other problems he mentions are related to perception and can be at least partially alleviated by a change. For example, for-profit sector discounts the work of non-profit organizations; people think non-profits–and their employees–aren’t allowed to make money.

Then there is the corresponding belief by non-profit staff that anything less than an 16 hour day shows lack of commitment. Besides, lack of free time helps you save what little money you make since you are too exhausted to do anything.

Yes, superficial changes by itself is not meaningful change.

Except those of us in the arts know that superficial illusion can be absolutely convincing and influence perception. After all, we have people trying to plug their phones into fake outlets. And how many actors who have played doctors have been asked for their medical opinions by fans?

For those who follow politics, I probably don’t need to tell you how many misnomers are applied to laws, policies and positions to make them sound more appealing.

The perceptual issues associated with the terms non-profit or not-for-profit certainly aren’t the only ideas that we need to have die. But if nothing else, a more effective marketing and PR campaign is needed, if only to convince our current and future selves/employees that we are deserving.

So while we are on the subject, what other ideas must die?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


4 thoughts on “What Non-Profit Arts Idea Must Die?”

  1. ‘Some of his ideas are more appealing than others. I am partial to the terms “Mission-Driven Sector,” “Public Benefit Sector” or “Community Benefit Sector.”’

    How would you distinguish those names from a B-Corp?

    • In that case it was more a change of terminology than tax status. But as I look back, I see I may not have made a clear transition from organizational tax status to Vu’s ideas for rewording.

    • John-

      A thought that popped up overnight. Is it necessary to have a name that distinguishes from a B-corp if the goals are similar? There are many ways to organize a corporate structure in the business sector. I am not sure there needs to be a name that distinguishes between the tax structures of organizations/companies that belong to the Public Benefit Sector.

      I would be more concerned with a company trying to Greenwash/Charitywash their reputation by categorizing themselves as part of that sector.

  2. Nonprofits used to be referred to as “voluntary organizations” but, unfortunately, that gives the impression that the staff is unpaid.


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