Small City Or Small Arts Org, Getting Grants Is Tough

According to a recent piece on CityLab, smaller cities and towns have much in common with smaller non-profits when it comes to applying for grants.  They both have great need but lack the staff and resources to effectively compete for grants.

Citing the case of Jackson, MS which has been in a state of distress since 2022 when their water infrastructure failed due to flooding, the article quotes the former chief administrative officer, Robert Blaine about their lack of capacity to secure grants:

Robert Blaine, now at the National League of Cities, said one of many issues that impeded the city’s efforts to fix its water crisis was its inability to compete for and win grants due to a lack of staff to complete applications. “We really, really needed the funds, but we didn’t have the competency, we didn’t have the capacity to be able to apply for it,” he told Streetsblog in 2023.

The article mentions there is a lot of funding available from the federal government that isn’t getting spent due to this lack of capacity. Many non-profits are stepping up to help by offering training to cities about how to go about securing grants, most of which require a lot more data than most non-profit arts and cultural organizations are required to gather. Some non-profits have assembled former employees of different federal agencies or former municipal grant writers to provide advice and read drafts of grant proposals.

Additionally, the Inflation Reduction Act provided funds for technical assistance to help states and municipalities complete grants including funds to gather the required data in addition to writing the grant proposal. Since it benefits states to have their cities secure funding for projects, some states also provide technical assistance.

Though it sort of sounds like the “you need experience to get a job, but you can’t get experience without a job,” paradox to be required to write a grant to get the funding to hire people who are good at writing grants. I did appreciate the flow chart on the Colorado grant writing assistance program that shows that if your application is denied, you can modify and resubmit. Also, they appear to commit to reviewing applications within 14 days so cities will be able to maintain some momentum. I think a lot of non-profit cultural entities wish that sort of do-over opportunity was available to them with their own grants.

According to a staff member of one of the non-profits helping cities write grants, there is a similar situation to arts and culture non-profits where those with the most direct interaction with communities in need of assistance are often those without the capacity to secure the grant funding they need:

“I always look at the grant world like a spectrum,” said Relf. “At one extreme, you have organizations that know how to write grants, and they win grants, but they’re not really in the community doing the work. And then you have these organizations that have a heart for the community. They’re there every day. They just don’t have the capacity to write the grants.”

The Best Laid Audience Development Plans Oft Go Astray

Continuing from yesterday’s post about the Wallace Foundation’s evaluation of their five year audience building and sustainability initiative, In Search of the Magic Bullet, the best summary of the findings was report author Francie Ostrower’s statement:

…our analyses highlight that expanding audiences may happen, but not necessarily on the organization’s original terms. An overarching message to emerge from our findings: If organizations want to change audience engagement with them, then organizations need to be open to changing themselves.

One of the biggest assumptions the organizations participating in the initiative had was that audiences for the special audience development programs they created would eventually migrate to their central program offerings and that simply wasn’t the case.

“A symphony orchestra developed a new genre-crossing series where orchestra musicians played with indie artists, in the hopes that millennials would attend and then go on to attend main season programs. As one interviewee said, “We really thought this was going to be a gateway drug for millennials to come to . . . some more core product. . . . That really didn’t happen.”

Nor did the efforts seem to result in new audience members increasing their attendance frequency and eventually become donors.

“By the end of the initiative, however, at least a few participants were questioning what one called “this old myth of the long slow escalator.”

To the credit of most of the organizations, it doesn’t appear any expected their audience development efforts to result in the sort of increased attendance that would guarantee financial stability. They were pretty realistic about the fact that audience building was going to require long term effort beyond the five years of the initiative.

In fact,

“Another organization wants “to experiment with unshackling audience growth from earned revenue growth.”

Among some of the interesting results that came from reviewing the efforts of the initiative participants came from those who recognized that their expectations that target audiences would shift from the special programming series to the core series were erroneous. Some decided continuing the special programs was at odds with their core mission and discontinued their efforts.

Other organizations embraced the outcome: (my emphasis)

“Instead of deeming the program a failure because it did not yield crossover, the organization changed its idea of success—and did so because through surveys and other feedback they heard from people, “We love this stuff.” When organizational staff would encourage series attendees to buy a main season subscription they said, “Why would we do that? We like this stuff.” The organization decided it was important to continue the series but doing so requires them to raise money to subsidize it because, in their view, it will never pay for itself…

Others found that the new programming wasn’t gaining traction with their target audiences, but their core audiences loved the expanded offerings:

Another interviewee said: “If you go to our [latenight contemporary music series] . . . it’s not all young people. It’s plenty of older people. But edgier older people.” And, as it turns out, the age profile of most of the target group was not as young as initially anticipated.

[…]

The arts presenter found that the adventurous programming proved unexpectedly attractive to the organization’s core audience of regular attendees. As one put it, “The biggest ah-ha was actually seeing . . . ‘reverse crossover.’” Our analyses are consistent with that conclusion: While season subscribers comprised 16.1 percent of main season bookers, they accounted for fully 25.2 percent of special series bookers. This dovetails with our earlier finding that more frequent attendees are more likely to venture to new and less familiar work.

Another response I appreciated came from organizations that decided to target geographic locations experiencing vibrancy rather than a specific age or racial demographic. I liked the fact they were taking a different perspective from some of the other participants and were making an effort to study the audience there. I don’t know that many arts organizations are particularly adept at studying audiences so honing that skillset on a readily available group made sense.

Explaining their reasoning, one interviewee said: Why wouldn’t we want to study the audience, which is on our doorstep? And we know that the people who live downtown . . . that they’re skewed a little bit higher in terms of income, that they’re skewed towards financial, towards cultural entertainment and participation. That’s why people move downtown. So why wouldn’t we want to engage with those people?

The organization anticipated that the downtown area would include a younger audience but chose not to define their target in age-based terms.

One interviewee said, “Most organizations want to focus on the young audiences because. . . that’s the solution to filling in the gap left by the aging outpart of the audience. But I think that wasn’t as interesting to us as the idea of . . . dynamic new growth that was happening [here].”

Finally, I really appreciated this statement about arts and cultural organization needing to move beyond assumptions and internal focus to genuinely listen to audiences and reflect on what they are saying:

Further, as one dance company interviewee said, “It’s very easy to make incorrect assumptions that are consistent with your building, your time, the staff available time.”

An overarching implication of the BAS organizations’ experience is that these assumptions exist, and they need to be examined and addressed. Otherwise, arts organizations risk talking past, rather than speaking with, those they want to reach. That said, this may be a stance that does not come easily to large, established nonprofit arts organizations that have in the past, perhaps, been more able to take their prestige for granted or rely on a steady stream of subscribers willing to commit to a season program curated by the organization.

One interviewee said with some exasperation:

There’s a mentality in the arts that if we build it, they will come. There’s a mentality that we know better than the audiences what they should like. . . . “You need to sit in the seats and love what we do.” There are people who give great speeches about how, just trust that the audiences that like what you like will find you. I mean it’s like, I just want to throttle those people.

Magic Bullet May Have Missed, But The Ricochets Hit Valuable Things

Last Monday, Ruth Hartt sent out an email newsletter noting that the Wallace Foundation’s five year, $52 million Building Audiences for Sustainability Initiative basically failed to identify any definitive way to achieve that goal. I have been following Wallace Foundation efforts for years so I was surprised I had missed this news. But sure enough, back in February they released In Search of the Magic Bullet which said just that.

There was a lot of interesting insight in ..Magic Bullet so I will probably take at least two days covering what they discuss. Today, I thought I would address Ruth Hartt’s suggestion that the effort failed because the focus was on the “assumption that demographic characteristics drive consumer behavior” rather than on the problems audiences seek to have solved/outcomes they seek.

There is a difference between saying you want to attract younger, more diverse demographics and learning that people in these demographics seek an experience at which they can relax and share with friends among people like themselves. Providing that experience may involve decisions about programming, timing, framing of the experience, staffing, messaging, etc that differ from what the organization is currently doing. Then there may be other problems to be solved like parking, traffic, and babysitters which the organization over which may not have control, but may be able to facilitate.

A few weeks back, I made a post about research indicating what helps people feel welcome at arts and cultural experiences. It wasn’t just seeing themselves reflected in the programming, stories, and people depicted, but also seeing themselves reflected in the audience and staff circulating through the lobbies, galleries, and walkways.

Despite indicating the initiative failed to identify definitive answers, the reflections by staff of organizations participating in the Wallace Foundation effort show they had started to understand where there had been disconnects with target audiences. And there were absolutely changes groups made that saw significant results, including:

“…hiring paid concierges, to diversify its front of-house staff in terms of age as well as racial and ethnic diversity. The organization viewed this as an important part of conveying a welcoming environment to diverse audience members. According to one interviewee it “has actually been remarkably potent as one simple change.”

One realization shared by multiple organizations in the Wallace initiative was that internally/insider focused promotional messaging had no traction with new audiences:

Repeatedly, and often through market research, organizations learned they were communicating in ways that reflected their values and using language that may have been meaningful to those in the arts—but that did not resonate with audiences they wished to reach. The consequences were communications that undermined, rather than facilitated, the goal of attracting new audiences.

[…]
For example, one performing arts presenter learned:

Images that we thought, from years of being in the arts, were the most appealing . . . really meant nothing to many of the audience members. . . .They were replications of our own beliefs. . . . We always put forth the notion of the art and the aesthetic. And for many of the audiences we were trying to reach, price was much more important. Now we just say upfront, “This is what it costs.” . . . That was one of the most important lessons that we learned….

One dance company hoped to attract new audiences through informational and educational programming. The problem? They realized their communications about these programs  “were really geared towards…people that were very familiar with both the art form and what [we] offer.” But one thing they learned from focus groups: “Nobody wants to be talked down to about what they know or don’t know about the art form.” They altered communications about the programs to “make sense to people who maybe hadn’t been around a ton of [dance].”

Similarly, some of the arts organizations realized that not knowing what the experience would be like was a barrier to participation and made changes to their website to better explain or created videos that illustrated what attendees could expect.

Asked one interviewee rhetorically:

Who would go to a new restaurant without checking online to see what the experience was going to be? And we realized that from the consumers’ perspective, they’re thinking about the theater in the same way. So they really wanted to know; okay if I go to see this play, what kind of experience will I have?

In some cases, those videos backfired and the organization shifted gear. In focus groups, one organization was told the videos made the experience look “bougie”, unwelcoming, and off-putting. They decided to record attendees talking about the experience in their own words.

“Rather than someone telling you why you should like coming, we sort of flipped it to; here are people in their own words saying why this is something exciting to them and fun for them.”

Some organizations realized they needed to change the framing of their experiences in order to appeal to the younger audiences they were targeting. Among the barriers identified in focus groups was limited leisure time and competition not only from other arts groups, but other social activities.

Gen X members’ desire to spend their limited free time on social experiences. That desire reportedly included a wish for a full experience, with a “transition” from daytime activities into the theater experience rather than just coming for a play and leaving.

Speaking to the target audience’s perceived desire for a full and social experience, the organization held the series in a smaller theater space adjacent to a café\bar (both of which were additions to the theater’s existing venue). For one interviewee, the main thing learned about their target audience was that “providing [Gen X] with the whole night out, the whole experience, the place to eat, drink, art, and converse, is what they like.”

I just want to say, as a member I am glad someone was actually targeting Gen X and labeled them as a younger audience.

The same theater realized it was futile to try to “mold audiences for different genres” and instead changed the framework of their programming to suit the audiences. In this case, instead of expecting audiences to arrive at a specific time and sit in the theater until a show was over, they provided experiences where it was acceptable to get up and move around occasionally.

So even though the Wallace Foundation initiative was judged to have failed to find their “magic bullet” it appears the foundation’s support did provide organizations with the capacity to try new approaches and lead to some introspection about the results.

There is much more I haven’t covered which I intend to touch upon in coming days.

Perception of Crime Is Impacting Urban Based Arts Orgs, Change Of Framing Is Required

Yesterday there was a report that the rate of violent crimes and some property crimes fell in the first quarter of 2024.  However, that may come as weak comfort to urban based arts organizations because there is still a perception that crime rates are high in urban areas. A recent post on Know Your Own Bone by Colleen Dilenschneider’s team says this is impacting people’s intent to visit arts organizations in urban settings (subscription required).

When compared to 2019, respondents in the first quarter of 2024 indicated less willingness to visit urban based arts and cultural entities. What surprised Dilenschneider’s team was that nearly 50% of people living in urban areas indicated they were less likely to visit an urban based organization.  The further people lived from a city, the less likely they felt they would visit an urban arts organization. Of course travel distance likely was a factor in diminished intent to visit. However, the overall results align with data about  decreased attendance at Broadway shows by people living in NYC suburbs.

Some of the contributing factors Dilenschneider’s folks cite is the lack of activity in urban settings–fewer office workers leads to less bustle and activity on the streets, in restaurants, cafes, storefronts. The lack of activity can help feed a perception of a place being unsafe even if there is no data to back it up.

You may have noticed something: We’re talking about crime perceptions increasing, not necessarily actual crime statistics.

Research suggests that violent crime is declining, but Americans still feel less safe. Though there may be a delta in actual crime vs. perceived crime, it may not matter. Whether it’s real or perceptual, potential audiences are increasingly citing crime as a reason to stay home.

In terms of the crime people cite as creating a disincentive to attendance, it varies according to where people live. In some cases, it is a sense of vague unease about urban environments rather than anything specific.

The top four crime barriers are all the same but in a different order for urban, suburban, and exurban audiences (homeless/unhoused populations, panhandling, news stories, drugs). Audiences who live further away from an urban area rely more heavily on “news stories” in shaping their crime perceptions. “Do not know” also makes the top ten for suburban and exurban potential visitors who cite safety perceptions as a primary reason why they do not visit despite their stated interest in doing so. However, they cannot put their finger on exactly the source of their crime-related concerns or the kind of crime that is most worrisome to them when it comes to visiting their nearest downtown region.

In terms of how to combat this perception, Dilenschneider’s team suggests focusing on the macroenvironment in which your organization operates. Instead of promoting a visit to your organization as an isolated experience, place it in the context of the amenities of the whole neighborhood:

“Is going to the museum worth venturing into the city?” may not be enough on its own to overcome negative perceptions.

“Is going to the museum, walking along the waterfront, exploring the historic district, sipping a cocktail at a café, and then enjoying a terrific dinner worth venturing into the city?” likely represents a very different calculus for visitors.