Masks Still Matter A lot

Last week Colleen Dilenschneider released recent findings compiled by her colleagues at IMPACTS Experience about audience willingness to return to cultural organizations. By and large, mask wearing still matters a great deal to potential audiences.

She offers the caveat that this data was collected during first quarter of 2021 so attitudes may shift as vaccination rates increase and the weather trends warmer. However, she points out that mask requirements became the top concern in their surveys last July and the number of people identifying that as a concern only increased. In this most recent survey, it averaged 7.9 out of 10 nationally for interactions with any public serving entity, not just cultural organizations. (If you haven’t seen her data before, it is organized regionally in terms of similarity of attitudes which doesn’t always align with geographic proximity.)

Pay particular attention to the last paragraph below:

Most potential visitors lean toward masks being “absolutely essential,” despite variance by region. Nationally (and including states not shown here), those who plan to attend visitor-serving entities say that mandatory masks are essential at a value of 7.9 on a 10.0 scale. On the whole, people who plan to visit any cultural organization in the next three months consider face coverings as essential to their safety.


Not requiring masks makes a meaningful number of people in every region uncomfortable. And here’s the kicker: Research suggests that not requiring masks will have a much greater negative impact on attendance than requiring them for the vast majority of organizations.


Not only that, the top issue contributing to onsite dissatisfaction for cultural organizations is still staff members neglecting to enforce mask mandates and social distancing rules. The safety of visitors is now identified as a primary role for staff members according to guests. It’s in our best interests to take that expectation seriously.

Stop Killing Kittens

Last week Drew McManus encouraged arts marketers to break pre-Covid bad habits by renewed his plea to stop using cliched terms like “beloved.”  If you read his post closely you will notice he has been making the plea since 2014 when he created the hashtag #BanBeloved  (Which has probably be co-opted by those that oppose Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name.)

Drew asserts that every time an arts marketer uses the term “beloved,” a kitten dies.

So, you know if you won’t do it for the sake of your general community, think of the kittens.

Drew has identified a number of other objectionable adjectives, but others have reared their ugly heads and gotten over used in the interim. If you search your heart, you know what they are.

Earlier in April, Trevor O’Donnell made a similar plea about considering the language being used in marketing materials, encouraging people to focus on the audience and the shared experience.

Calling it a side-splitting, roll-in-the-aisles romp may be cute and catchy, and it may ring comfortingly familiar to older arts leaders, but it isn’t true and it’s not effective communication.

New audiences don’t respond to frivolous hyperbole. They want clear, honest, useful information that explains why your products matter to them. If what they’re looking for is a fun, stimulating way to create lasting memories with family, friends or loved ones, your job is to sell social experiences that offer lasting memories; i.e. if that memory is about sharing a funny play, you should probably say something like, “You’ll remember laughing together for a lifetime.”

O’Donnell attributes the use of hyperbole and focus on the organization vs. the audience to older arts administrators who are set in their ways. As I had noted a couple weeks back, there are a heck of a lot of advertisements for jobs at arts and culture organizations out there right now, particularly at the President/CEO/Vice-President level. It will be interesting if we see a significant shift in programming, promotional and operational practices over the next five years as a result of all this.

Time To Review – To Whom Are You Accountable?

During the Covid pandemic there has been a fair bit of introspection and soul searching about arts and culture, the role they should have in people’s lives, and the medium through which the experience should be delivered.

Now that there is some optimism about a transition to a relatively better operational environment for businesses and other organizations,  (Yes, i am indeed taking pains not to use terms like “return to normal”), it is definitely time to think about how those theories will be manifested.

Vu Le linked to an important essay by Hildy Gottlieb addressing the question of to whom non-profits should be accountable. Her primary thesis is that it is illogical to view the organization as accountable to funders & donors. She dissects the illogic of the implications of a funder accountable position. Among her best examples is the following:

If organizations are primarily accountable to donors, and a donor dies, is the organization still accountable to that person? What if it’s been 30 years since they died, and the world has changed dramatically — are you still accountable to that person’s wishes? Or are you accountable to their heirs? What if the heirs don’t care about your mission — perhaps their mother was an animal lover, and they could never understand that part of her. Maybe they even hate your organization. Are you accountable to the second and third generations of a donor who loved you, even if her heirs do not?

Gottlieb says the organizational mission determines to whom you are accountable. If your mission is serving a certain group, but they take a backseat to funders, then you are not fulfilling your mission. She addresses the concept of there being no mission to execute without the money with the following anecdote:

I once found myself in conversation with board members from a federally funded health center, who all listed patient health as their highest priority. However, one board member kept insisting, “We can only prioritize patient care to the extent we have the money to do so.”

So I took a sheet of paper and wrote “Values Statement’ at the top. Then I wrote, “Our primary focus will always be the health of our patients, as long as we have the money to do so.” I asked if that is what they would like to post in their lobby.

Suddenly their sense of accountability shifted.

She also notes that in the United States the organization has tax-exempt status in return for providing a public service. The reason for being and accountability is the public service and not the money. The “good stewardship” of funds that results in underpaid staff who turn over at a high rate doesn’t help the organization to advance it’s mission.

“Focusing their primary accountability on the money, we see board members spend a huge percentage of their time discussing financial matters, and often zero time discussing what success would look like in their community”

Gottlieb also debunks the sense that fundraising is a result of relationship building, the oft voice sentiment “people give to people, not organizations.” She says no one is fooled that the relationship is more than a transactional one:

Here is what “fundraising is about relationships” really tells a donor:

If you give us money, we will be your friend.
If we think you will give us money, we will court you as our friend.
The more money you give us, the more friendly we will be.
If you fail to give us money, we will eventually stop calling you.

If we truly valued donors as people, we would stop categorizing them as LYBUNTs and SYBUNTs.

So much of what she writes can easily be applied to the way arts and cultural organizations approach donors/members/volunteers. While I often say it is worthwhile to read an article, I strongly emphasize the importance of reading this one and thinking about how the opportunity for a fresh start will change the way your organization operates moving forward.

I was considering putting such an emphatic statement at the beginning of this post, but considered that anyone who read this far would be more prepared to make the effort toward this goal.

I strongly suspect being more steadfast in prioritizing mission over money will make accomplishing progress in areas of equity and inclusion suddenly much easier than it was before.

Building Connections May Not Require Improving Connectivity

A few years back I became interested in research that showed that Black, Latinx, and Hispanic people who lived near public parks don’t necessarily feel comfortable using them so a CityLab story on that topic caught my eye. The story itself discusses how mayors of cities around the country are still trying to figure out how to make public spaces more welcoming to everyone, especially as people are gravitating toward parks as places to assemble during the pandemic.

There is a lot of history that factors into the discomfort and wariness people feel in relation to parks and many cities aren’t doing the best job of it. Despite multiple police related shootings of Black men in the past few years, apparently Minneapolis is among the best cities in terms of trying to bring equity to their public park system.

“Beginning in 2011, the city’s park and recreation board started working on what she and her colleagues say is the nation’s first comprehensive racial equity plan for parks, to be reviewed and updated every year. It came up with seven criteria to ensure that park funding would be allocated to areas that needed it most — including the racial make-up of surrounding neighborhoods, the general and youth population of an area, and the condition and lifespan of the parks themselves.

“It’s not just about investment and capital planning; it’s about procurement, and youth and community engagement,” Lusk said. “It’s about staffing diversity — if they are representative of their communities — and the siting of community gardens in areas they haven’t been historically.”

When I followed links to previous stories and studies that have been done, there was one story that reinforced the need to do thorough, inclusive surveying if your goal is to be welcoming to everyone. What a study in Houston found was that Whites, Blacks and Latinos had different priorities for parks.

“…the majority of respondents replied that they wanted their neighborhoods and parks linked to biking and walking paths. The problem with that survey is that about two-thirds of the respondents were white with household incomes over $75,000…

To correct this misrepresentation, a group of researchers from Rice University, conducted another survey, … This one was targeted at African-American and Latino neighborhoods … Lo and behold, the priorities differed from those of the initial survey. As the researchers write in the report about the surveys, “More Inclusive Parks Planning: Park Quality and Preferences for Park Access and Amenities”:

‘Neighborhood connectivity to parks was not a salient issue among park users in these neighborhoods, although this had been a primary finding from the 2014 Master Plan Survey and a favored option of 31 percent of respondents in our closed-ended question. Instead, they envisioned a diverse set of new or improved amenities—most prominently, restrooms and water fountains, and an array of recreational infrastructure—in better maintained and safer parks.’

In fact, connectivity was ranked last among priorities for black and Latino Houstonians. What do they want for their parks? Not only clean, functioning public bathrooms, but also better lighting to make parks safer at night and better playground equipment that’s not prone to breaking down.

I call attention to this because many arts organizations have become more determined to be more welcoming to a wider range of their community, but may be making the wrong assumptions about what everyone feels they need.

One of the first things I paid attention to when I started my current job going on three years ago was where bus stops were located relative to my venue and how late they ran, assuming that more people would consider participating in events if public transportation was available. I know it is a big factor in my community when it comes to getting to work, but perhaps it isn’t among the top impediments for everyone when it comes to attending a performance. (It may be easier to coordinate car pooling with family/friends to a single event than getting to work every day, for instance.)

Being viewed as welcoming to more people is likely to require putting in the time to collect data and build relationships with the people who can provide an accurate picture of what is most important.

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