Seven Hour Thank you Letter

I have just started the first fundraising campaign the theatre has had in about three years. Prior to assuming the job, the temporary theatre director was also the executive director of another arts organization. Because of the conflict of interest with soliciting donations, he didn’t run any campaigns.

At the 1.5 week mark, we have had some modest returns though we have also seen donations from people who haven’t previously contributed which is always good.

Because the current thank you for your donations note has been used for many years, I have been working on a new thank you letter. Now it may seem like an easy thing, but I had a theme I used in my appeal letter and wanted to complement that theme with my thank you letter.

Essentially, I am trying to educate my audience about what sort of things their money is going for. It always seems to me like fundraising campaigns underscore the sexy aspects of what the money goes toward and downplays the less prestigous stuff. Either that or the appeal is so vague, you don’t know what the money is going for.

I take my inspiration, in part to a post on Artful Manager from two years ago where Andrew Taylor suggests arts organizations have a discussion about “worst practices.” My letter is a long way from mentioning mistakes we made, but that entry got me to thinking that references to less sexy, but essential needs, over time will more broadly inform my audience about elements beyond the curtain line that they can impact and feel good about.

My aim is to let people know what sort of things the money supports without making it sound so unsexy they don’t see any worth in giving again. While we aren’t buying reams of people, we are making purchases that are important to the safety of our operations and contribute to hospitality for our artists. If you aren’t in the business though, it is difficult to appreciate the significance of the materials and how grateful we are to have the funding.

Thus why it has taken me seven hours across three days to write the dang letter. I had a lot to say and then distilled the concepts down to a shorter letter, rewrote that, showed it to people, rewrote some more, rewrote, rewrote, etc, etc.

I did much the same thing with the appeal letter. But of course, I was asking for money at the time so my incentive was obvious, right? My thank you note is part of what I hope will be an ongoing relationship with my donors and ticket buyers so it is just as important as the appeal.

I want to take every opportunity I have to tell them the different aspects of my theatre’s story while attempting to avoid cliche phrases and common platitudes. I want to set my organization apart from the letters they are getting from the other non-profits by writing something different, something interesting…something brief…something sincerely gracious. And it all has to look effortless.

But it ain’t.

Filling The Quiet Places

I was climbing a sea cliff this weekend when I noticed a lighthouse I had been looking for fairly close by. Even better, from my vantage, I noticed the trail that lead to the lighthouse as well. I descended and walked back to my car for water and sneakers (I know I am becoming more local because I am doing bizarre things like clambering up cliffs in sandals rather than “proper” shoes.)

As I was making my way across a field toward the trail, I had to walk over some loose chunks of basalt. Despite testing the stability of each rock, one tilted beneath me and I ended up scraping up my hand, knee and a good portion of my lower back. Undaunted, I pulled myself up, washed my wounds with my water bottle and continued on…until I saw a tour bus pull up and disgorge a horde of folks.

I have already established that I am rather anti-social so regular readers may not be surprised to read that human company stopped me where wounds dripping blood didn’t. It was more than that though.

We have all read or had experience with people with poor cell phone etiquette and that is annoying enough. But I have really come to believe of late that people are afraid to be alone with their own thoughts and feelings. I was over at the Kilauea volcano last Christmas and as my mother and I approached the awesome vista, a woman behind us pulled out her cell phone and related moment by moment to a friend.

Perhaps she was just being an idiot, but many incidents similar to that make me wonder if she and other people just don’t know how to process magnificent sights like that without the insulation of a television or computer screen. In order to cope with the swirling emotions they are experiencing, they need to distract themselves with technology.

There is a safety in movies and television. Even the roller coaster in an amusement park has all sorts of safety mechanisms. But you can walk right up to the edge of the Grand Canyon and there aren’t any safety rails (or at least there weren’t the last time I was there.) While it isn’t the mythical abyss staring back at you, it is pretty overwhelming and frightening to stand there with nothing but your own caution and restraint to keep you from falling in.

It makes me wonder if as many people have attention deficit disorder as seem to. It may be more the case that rather than deal with reality which brings creeping thoughts of economic, social, personal, spiritual, educational, etc., woes and concerns, people are seeking solace and distraction in phones, PDAs, computers, video games.

So what does this all mean to arts management? Why did I choose to categorize an entry that starts with a story about my bloody knee as Audience Relations rather than General Musings?

As I drove away from my hiking excursion, it occured to me that arts people trying to educate new and existing audiences about what they do not only have to instruct people about understanding their art form, they have to make them comfortable with the personal silence needed to process the experience.

The idea that you have to stop and think about a work probably seems self evident when you teach people what to look/listen for. But it may be a false assumption these days. In days of instant gratification, if you have taught someone to look at an artist’s use of light, he/she can deal with Rubens even if they had no previous exposure to Baroque art. However, if they come in contact with an artist who has no concern for use of light, the viewer, having no familiar point of reference may quickly pass by. Even if their teacher constantly used the phrase “what is the artist trying to do”, they may not stop to consider that question when faced with unfamiliar elements.

It may not be enough just to “teach a man to fish” anymore. Now you have to teach the person the critical thinking skills to recognize they are in a situation when the goal of getting fish from the water remains the same, but the fishing tool provided is not appropriate in this situation.

The bad news is, this probably will take a major shift in mindset and way of life rather than the intermittent interaction with the arts to achieve. (And that isn’t even acknowledging that this is even more to do with less funding available.) It has to be schools, arts people, Oprah and Dr. Phil and then some talking about it.

The good news is, recently groups have started to really advocate getting away from technology (but is it enough?) I have seen TV ads in the past week or so for the Take Me Fishing website and read an article about a book titled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.

These efforts obviously don’t address contemplation of the arts directly, but do advocate activities where people have to spend quiet time with their thoughts (lets hope the lake has poor cell phone reception) and critical problem solving skills (like alternative routes that avoid crossing a field of jagged basalt) that allow people to formulate alternative criteria with which to assess a painting.

Took Myself To The Orchestra

Drew McManus over at Adaptistration anointed May as “Take a Friend to the Orchestra Month” He has devoted many of his blog entries this month to following people’s experiences.

Since he listed a concert by the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra as one to see, I thought I would try to take it in. I was coming down with a cold so I wasn’t sure if I was going to go so I didn’t try to get a friend to come along.

Since he provided the impetus, I will probably send my impressions along to him first before deciding to post any of them here. Also, I have gotten sicker since I attended and don’t have the stamina to write much today.

However, Drew took Jerry, brother of WNYC host John Schaefer, to Carniege Hall to see the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Jerry had never been to the symphony before and today they met with John to discuss the experience on air. Check it out here. There are a lot of great observations made by Drew and Jerry about the experience and about the larger topic of classical music attendance. (And John congratulated Drew on getting Jerry into the symphony where his 40 years of effort have failed.)

Check the radio show out and the entries that fall under the Take a Friend.. topic on Drew’s blog.

Rousing Passion

There is a really great speech that Neill Archer Roan made to the American Symphony Orchestra League about dealing with controversy.

The point of contention was a decision by the Oregon Bach Festival to perform Bach’s St. John’s Passion in a season themed “War, Reconciliation and Peace.” A local paper asked “How can reconciliation and peace be represented by a musical work whose text has been an incitement to genocide?”

The problem, according to Neill, was that Passion Plays were performed in Nazi Germany to incite anger against Jews and even before that, the worst pogroms always coincided with Easter. (The time during which the plays were historically performed.)

Even worse, the local temple was vandalized by skinheads who shot up the place with guns and spray painted hate filled slogans not nine months before the performance of the piece.

To compound things, the temple’s rabbi was on the Bach Festival’s audience development steering committee. In addition to the Passion piece, they had wanted to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the end of World War II by exploring the works of Jewish artists who had been interred in concentration camps. The rabbi’s guidance about how to handle it with sensitivity was fairly key.

As people learned more about the controversy surrounding the Bach piece, the rabbi and Neill had long conversations about it. The rabbi eventually removed his involvement with the festival because of their resolution to perform it.

What Neill says next really caught my attention because I think it something every arts person embroiled in controversy needs to remember (emphasis is mine):

Any person or organization whose artistic work engages in raising issues which engross our minds, hearts, and polity must expect-even bless-the exercise of conscience, even when that exercise takes the form of withholding support, fierce and active opposition, or even condemnation. As artistic organizations, we may own the work, but we do not own the issues. We may hold the match, but nobody holds a conflagration. We should not be surprised that someone we view as principled enough to be invited to serve on a Board or Steering Committee might also be principled enough to withhold the imprimatur of their good name in affairs that they cannot, in good conscience, support.

What the Festival decided to do though was engage the community in a discussion/debate about the work, “about the dynamics and origins of bigotry, even when that bigotry seemed to spring from the dominant culture’s holiest of stories.”

“By opening up the matter to the community at large and inviting their reflection on the matter, a situation that could have seriously damaged our organization wound up strengthening it. During these times, when people are becoming increasingly disenchanted with institutions, there is no better lesson from my experience that I can offer you today than to trust your public if you want them to trust” you

Much to Neill’s surprise, the local Christian clergy were very open about admitting the anti-Semitic history of their faith and lent immeasurable support to the discussion effort. This support was sorely needed because everyone, including Festival donors, long time patrons and board members were angry, frustrated and confused by the controversy. It was only through continued discussion that people finally began to understand the entire situation. In Neill’s mind, short efficient statements are too abrupt and alienating to be effective solutions in a controversy.

The churches got on board and condemned anti-Semitism from the pulpit the Sunday before the piece was performed and again the night before at a Reconciliation.

The night of the performance a rabbi and his wife handed out flyers asking people to stand and turn their backs on offensive passages. People stayed away and donors withdrew their support.

Says Neill:

Personally, I felt buoyed. In a society where the arts are often thought of as the “toy department of life,” at least on that evening we were no longer on the periphery of community life. We performed the St. John Passion, but in a new context. A deep and principled discussion of meaning, history, and accountability had occurred. We had not only talked about reconciliation, but lived its possibilities.

I am sure the experience was nerve wracking at the time and not something one would wish on oneself ever. I think it is a mark of a good artist though to not only recognize when one is in the presence of great art, but to also acknowledge that it has provided an opportunity for growth and transformation. (Granted, those of us who have gone through puberty can attest that growth and transformation is more exciting in the abstract than in reality.)