The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20500
Dear President Obama,
Four years ago, I wrote you on the occasion of your inauguration to ask you to consider implementing tax laws that would provide more flexible framework within which arts organizations could operate. Looking back, I think many of these ideas I outlined and cited are interesting and still relevant.
However, things have changed in the national arts and culture environment in the last four years. The movement for creative placemaking, for example, has the potential of improving the national arts and cultural landscape by fostering greater connections with communities.
However, there are some distressing trends as well. Many arts organizations, especially orchestras, have effectively ceased operations. In the case of the orchestras, this has come after some contentious contract negotiations between boards of directors and musicians.
I am not advocating for the government to prop these organizations up. As much as the closing of arts organizations is regrettable, not all companies can operate in perpetuity and must close.
My concern is that while every organization is different, these orchestras seem to be following very similar paths toward dissolution. It appears that, knowing no other way to proceed, people are looking to the example of other companies and organizations in similar situations for their cues on how to approach their difficulties. Overall there haven’t been many productive results.
What I am advocating you do during your second term is provide some direction and support for leadership training to the non-profit arts sector. I believe some of these difficulties arise from the fact that non-profit boards of directors and executive leadership often don’t receive the best education about their roles and options. With the best intentions in mind, what little funding an organization receives is directed toward delivery of programming and services rather than toward education and professional development.
The Small Business Administration provides all sorts of programs and mentoring for small business owners. Given their focus, I am not sure they are best equipped for training non-profits. Nor do I think something like this a core competency of the National Endowment for the Arts, but I am sure they know organizations who can properly administer and design the studies and training necessary.
But the services the Small Business Administration offer provides a rough model for creating something similar for non-profit organizations. Non-profit organization as a whole, not just arts and culture, are important to the national health. They provide services in many niches throughout the country.
The visibility element is extremely important. Whomever is tasked with providing the training and support should receive funding and direction to publicize their available resources on a national level: Non-profits are important to the health and vibrancy of the country and educated leadership is important to the non-profits.
As you may be aware, many states are actively trying to eliminate and defund their state arts councils. While state arts councils can certainly be conduits for the information, they may not be in a position to be the primary channel of dissemination to the arts sector. There needs to be an overall national campaign.
Whatever entity is administering this program can turn around and provide feedback and guidance to the government about the challenges non-profit organizations face and what might be done to help them help the country. Presumably the directors of the National Endowments already do this for their respective areas. A report from someone concerned only with the business/legal operating environment of non-profits will provide a valuable supplement to them and hopefully prove to be less politically controversial.
Many boards of directors are generally aware of their responsibilities for their organizations, but are uncertain how to properly pursue them. The spectre of the Sarbanes-Oxley regulations being applied to non-profits looms at the periphery of their awareness, but most are at a loss of how to proactively implement good governance to be in compliance. The fact it may be applied can discourage people from considering serving on boards.
Rather than wait for some incident that prompts lawmakers to enact greater regulatory measures, it would be preferable to help non-profits become educated about how to effectively lead and administer their charges.
I hope, Mr. President that you will consider this. By stepping forward to provide leadership in this area, you will raise the profile and awareness of the value non-profits provide to our country and the importance of strong and informed leadership to their continuance.