Prepare For The Swarm

Since I did a post on ideas that must go earlier this week, I thought it would be a good opportunity to draw attention to a document the Independent Sector put out on Nine Trends Affecting the Charitable Sector.

The document is only 6 pages long so it is a quick read, but the point that caught my attention was #4, “Swarms of individuals connecting with Institutions.”

Individuals will be more strongly aligned with causes and less to the organizations that advance them. As they become increasingly sophisticated at swarming, individuals will often sidestep organizations that are not equipped to partner with them. At home and abroad, swarms will direct their efforts at addressing market and government failures in new ways, with solutions that seek to either fill in the gaps where infrastructure is lacking or provide alternatives to existing services.

…Institutions will need to become agile in a variety of new ways: by listening deeply, responding in real time, providing platforms that enable and accelerate existing swarms, and by leading swarms themselves. In parallel, part of the sophistication that swarms may gain is a far greater ability to draw on institutional capabilities, which could be instrumental for sustaining their impact over time. Associations will face particularly strong pressure as technology makes it easier to connect with peers and access new information and resources with minimal overhead, both at a distance and in person.

As a result, the dominant culture of leadership across society will continue to gradually shift from central control towards broad episodic engagement; being adaptive, facilitative, transparent, and inspirational will be increasingly valued. Particularly in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, leaders will continue to use formal authority as an essential tool, but many will emerge whose power is drawn from informal influence.

While the Independent Sector document couches their predictions in terms that seem applicable to groups seeking change in social, legislative and public health areas, the same expectations may end up applied to the arts once people begin to realize success in these other arenas and begin to expand their ambitions.

The most obvious manifestation might be if professional-amateurs (Pro-Ams) wanting to share their work in a live interactive setting approach an existing arts institution looking for a venue at which to base their project and find that the organization is unable/unwilling to assist them. In that case, the Pro-Ams may develop an alternative method and bypass established entities.

Even though bloggers like myself often write about the arts field as if it is stuck in a rut and afraid of innovation, I actually feel that as a field we actually have a leg up on other types of organizations in the non-profit sector when it comes to being open to either helping someone realize their vision or partnering with them on a small scale to make it happen.

Maybe not on big stuff requiring major investment, but on things like experimental, site specific works in the local park (or parking garage).

The inflexible element will be one arts entities run into¬† perennially¬† – the spirit is willing, but the bank account is weak. The answer may be: “Yes, but next year when we can muster resources,” when the swarm members want to accomplish something with more immediacy.

There is no easy answer to that because you can’t just hold money aside on the off chance that someone is going to pop in with a proposal that matches what you can bring to the table. On the positive side, the swarm may be able to rally the necessary support for this one project.

The Independent Sector mentions the episodic nature of these efforts to mobilize so you wouldn’t be able to count on regular support, but the fact you were flexible enough to participate/partner may generate the informally based influence they talk about at the end there. That may be enough to allow you to solicit support from sources whose radar you had never been on before.

Who knows, maybe a local swarm will “direct their efforts at addressing market and government failures” in the arts.

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 ( 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. (

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.


Leave a Comment