Decision Not To Grow≠Failure To Grow

An article on Daily Yonder making an interesting point came across my social media feed last week.  They noted that part of the reason why rural communities are characterized as being in decline is that those communities that eventually grow much bigger are no longer classified as rural, they become a metro.   It is almost like claiming that the life expectancy of caterpillars is getting shorter despite the increase in available flora without acknowledging that the abundance of flora allows the caterpillars to transition into butterflies earlier.  This is a form of survivorship bias.

“Rural America is reported as declining in part because we no longer count as Rural those counties that grew into a Metro classification. We are measuring those counties that stay Rural which, by definition, have not grown,” stated the report.


Those that remained rural are far from homogenous, but the report stated that “they often have some economic specialization or dependence. Counties that stayed Rural and lost population tended to depend on farming, mining, or oil and gas. Counties that stayed Rural and gained population (though not enough to switch to Urban) tended to be recreation-dependent and/or retirement destinations.”

The way rural counties are classified and reclassified contributes to a skewed image of “struggling rural America.” Policy makers should consider this as they look for ways to help rural counties succeed.

This reminded me of the frequent complaint that the success of an organization or company is predominantly measured in growth. Is the number of people served or funds raised/earned greater than it was in the past? A lot of us know it is the less easily quantifiable depth and quality of the experience that can create deeper impact and lasting impressions in participants.

Heck, at about 4 pm this afternoon I got an email at my day job saying our outdoor fire escape concert series has been nominated for a special Covid Cultural Award. I would argue that a primary criteria for that was just “able to do something this year” rather than anything to do with growth.

I strongly suspect there is a dynamic at work in the non-profit sector as a whole, and the arts and cultural industry in particular, similar to the one observed in the Daily Yonder article. There are rural communities that see growth, but remain rural but there is often no differentiation between them and those rural communities that are doing poorly.

If you make a conscious choice to stay small or only grow large enough to provide sustainable salaries to staff and then reinvest resources into providing better and better experiences, you end up in the same category as groups that are just entering the field or entering your size classification.  As a result, the perception of your organization is shaped by sweeping generalizations about your category.

If others in your category are struggling to deliver quality programs or lack the capacity to do good work, then by default the belief is you are as well despite having developed an extremely stable foundation over the course of decades.

This dovetails with my frequent discussion of how economic impact is a bad yardstick by which to measure the value of the arts. Just as the authors of the study of rural communities say different measures and different solutions should be applied to rural communities, a single standard of success is not appropriate for all arts organizations.


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. (

I am currently the 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.


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2 thoughts on “Decision Not To Grow≠Failure To Grow”

  1. Great observation about the connection to survivorship bias. And linking that to the failure of misapplied measures is astute. There is a whole conversation where those two things provide a framework for much needed insight into arts institutional practice and attendant funding and policy issues. Still trying to fully wrap my head around this stuff, but always glad to share this journey with you.

    • Since you are the one that has often pointed out how survivorship bias influences our thinking, I definitely had you in mind when I was writing that post. I am glad that I am actually applying what you taught me with some accuracy.


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