David Dombrowsky, Executive Director of Center for Arts Management and Technology, retweeted an article from Inc magazine about exit strategies for non-profit entrepreneurs asking, “Can you think of arts examples?” Since the Inc piece is about entrepreneurs using their exits strategically to help their organizations grow/transition, my assumption is that Dombrowsky is asking if anyone can think of a person who has done so in the arts. I can’t.
I have covered the topic of succession planning or the lack thereof a number of times on this blog. Most arts organizations haven’t addressed the absence of a succession plan much less examined if that plan considers how to leverage the departure of the founder/executive director to their benefit. I will be honest and say that outside of signs of mental instability it never occurred to me that the departure of the founder could be cause of increased confidence. At best, a well executed transition could maintain existing confidence that might grow as a successor proved their mettle. At worst, a poorly handled transition (or complete absence of a plan) could be cause for alarm and unease.
Says Susi Soza in the Inc piece,
This leads up to the second reason why exits are so important: They signal to the market that an organization has reached a certain level of financial sustainability and scale. Exits are, by definition, big, and for a company founder to achieve an exit—whether by acquisition, a mezzanine round, or an IPO—that means it has achieved significant milestones in terms of revenue, profit, and market validation.
In the non-profit social entrepreneurship space the word exit appears like a misnomer. How can you have an exit for an organization with no owners?….
Non-profit social entrepreneurs would benefit from exits just as much as their for-profit peers. I believe more non-profit exits would actually attract additional capital to the non-profit space as it does in the for-profit space. Donors are persistently frustrated by fragmentation and duplication in the non-profit market, and I believe exits – whether by acquisition, merger, or even just closing down shop – would bring some welcome consolidation and efficiency that would provoke additional philanthropic investment.
Exits are also important for organizational realignment and revitalization. In the for-profit world, exits are often accompanied by changes in leadership team and business strategy. Unless businesses build exits into their lifecycles, non-profits rarely have catalytic events to spur these types of transitions. Furthermore, succession planning and transition beyond the founding social entrepreneur are often neglected because there are no unambiguous end points in sight. What if non-profit social entrepreneurs could aim toward an exit that came with a $50,000 bonus to do with what they wished?
While her observations are mainly directed at the social rather than arts sector, there is still a lot that is applicable. The comments about donors being frustrated by duplication of effort especially resonated with me. Partially because I am meeting this weekend to discuss governance of our booking consortium after we absorb our sister organization. But also because the idea that there are too many non-profit arts organizations conducting similar operations in the same geographic area is more frequently discussed these days.
I recognized her point that there are not too many widely recognized milestones against which non-profits and their supporters can measure organizational growth. With that in mind, a clear plan for recognizing transitional moments can be valuable. I also like the idea of working toward a $50,000 bonus. Something like putting $5,000 away annually for 10 years, but not adding to it if the leader stays past the agreed period might provide an incentive to move along.
Of course, that only works if everyone has been working toward grooming a successor. If they haven’t it becomes too easy to fall into the trap of deciding the current leader is the only one qualified to direct the course of the organization and extending their tenure and bonus.
But briefly back to Dombrowsky’s question. Are there any arts leaders who have done this? Even if it is only a handful, their example provides a template.