That Great Experience Two Years Ago? Seems Just Like Yesterday

A confluence of events and information made me realize that it might be time to revisit the subject of one of my favorite posts.

Last week I was talking to one of my staff about who to include in our season announcement mailing list. I told her we should reach back at least 2-3 years and then cited the fact that people maintain an emotional investment with an arts organization for 2-4 years after a visit.

When I mentioned this, I was thinking about a talk given by Andrew McIntyre  back in 2011 that I wrote about.  He talked about a number of people in focus group conversations that gushed about the great experience they had at a show last year….except that it was 2+ years ago. In their minds, they were still connected with the organization and considered themselves frequent attendees and supporters.

Thanks to Arts Midwest for maintaining the video link, you can watch it. Still very much relevant today and caused me to re-evaluate the concept of butts in the seats to be brains in the seats.

When I was catching up on reading my backlog of blog posts by others this weekend, I saw that Colleen Dilenschneider recently covered the same topics in two recent posts.

In the first, she mentions this same idea about people re-engaging on a roughly two year cycle (her emphasis):

We at IMPACTS often encounter a myth among cultural executives: That audience retention means that people come back every year… and if they’re not coming annually, then you aren’t retaining them as visitors.

As it turns out, this is a high bar – and one that does not line up with actual visitor behavior.

Museums have members and performing arts organizations have subscribers who may visit specific organizations more than once per year. In reality, most people who visit cultural organizations do not visit another organization of that type in two or more years.

She goes on to talk about how there is a disconnect between thinking about attendance in annual terms and actual human behavior. This can be an important consideration in regard to efforts to increase inclusion and diversity. Measuring success on an annual basis may cause you to misinterpret flat attendance as failure. The fact may be that you have doubled the number of people who feel invested in the organization over a two year period– it is just that attendees from the first year may not have started to cycle back to the organization. Your efforts may not bear visible results for three or four years when people begin returning in larger numbers.

In her second post, she warns arts organizations not to assume that people who buy memberships but don’t use them are disengaged with their organization. For many of the most highly engaged people, purchasing a membership is viewed as one of the best ways to support their organization. They are motivated by their passion for the organization, not by the availability of membership benefits.

Not only are the infrequent visitors more likely to buy a more expensive membership than those who regularly attend, they are also more likely to renew.

One reason these members aren’t visiting may be because they don’t live near the organization. (We’ve found that the more admired a cultural organization is perceived to be by the public, the higher percentage of non-local members it has.) Like non-visiting members, non-local members buy more expensive memberships and are more likely to renew them!


People believe the single best way to support a cultural, visitor-serving organization’s mission is to become a member. (Yes, even more than becoming a donor.)

We also know that mission-based members – people whose primary motivation to become a member involves supporting the organization and its mission – are particularly valuable

As Dilenschnedier is wont to do, the second post has a video that wraps up the concepts of both entries pretty well so be sure to check it out.

More Creative Expression That Touches The Divine

This is turning into a video heavy week with my posts. With all my talk about helping people recognize their capacity for creative expression, this seemed to be a ready made example.

The BBC website hosted a short documentary video of women in southern India drawing kolam. (Unfortunately, the video doesn’t embed well so you will have to follow the link.)

Every morning they will create intricate designs with rice flour near the thresholds of their homes. Foot/car traffic, weather, animals and birds wear it down/consume it over the day and they start again the next morning. (Though the materials seem remarkably resistant to smudging and dissipation as vehicles drive over it.)

There is a belief that the practice will bring protection on the household. One of the women interviewed says it is a great stress reliever for her. The women also see the designs they create as an expression of their inner selves.

The two women who are the primary focus of the video participate in a competition so you will definitely want to watch to video to get a sample of the broad array of designs the dozens of competitors have developed.

Better Civic Pride And Well-Being Is Just A Short Walk Away

CityLab ran an article from The Atlantic today discussing how the availability of amenities like libraries and cafes within walking distance of your home bolstered civil society and personal well-being in that neighborhood.

A new study shows that living near community-oriented public and commercial spaces brings a host of social benefits such as increased trust, decreased loneliness, and stronger sense of attachment to where we live.

If this sounds interesting, read the whole piece because it offers much more detail about how this situation increases civic participation and trust in neighbors and local government.

These issues were on my mind Saturday as I was attending a block party in the nearby Pleasant Hill neighborhood here in Macon, GA. Pleasant Hill has been a historically black neighborhood since the professional class started building homes there in the 1870s. However, in the 1960s the neighborhood was bisected by the construction of I-75 and portion of those buried in the cemetery were disinterred. Conditions began to worsen as people moved out of the neighborhood.

Now with the widening of I-75 carving more of the neighborhood away there is attention and effort being paid to improving the conditions. A colleague of mine has been an energetic crusader in this regard and has been awarded a number of grants in support of her proposed projects.

The block party on Saturday was part of one of these projects. She and some others had gone door to door asking people what they would like to see happen with an abandoned community space. Five designs created based on that feedback were on display at the block party on Saturday. People were invited to vote for their favorite design by placing a colored dot on a poster board.

Since I know that there is often a lot of will behind building a space, but less support for operations, I was evaluating the plans for sustainability. All of them had some elements associated with artistic programming, but some emphasized the creation of community gardens. Another had some retail space with barber shops and nail salons. Another was oriented toward counseling services, study spaces and writing programs. Two of them were totally about artistic expression. There were dance studios; spaces for painting and drawing and performance spaces.

Most of the dots were ending up in the columns of these heavily arts spaces. I sighed inwardly. Those would be some great spaces, but they didn’t seem optimized for self-support. One of those designs might get built, but was there a plan to support it? (Good lord! This sounds just like the funder rational I often criticize. I have been infected!)

Besides, didn’t they already have activities like that at the much larger community center across the street?

No, actually they didn’t.

I walked across to see what was in the community center and it was quickly clear there hadn’t been any activities or staff of any kind in there for quite a few years.

This might be even more of an argument for a self-sufficient design, but it also possibly provided insight into the preferences of the voters.

People were drawn to the project designs that would provide them with what they didn’t have — a place to participate in some basic creative expression. Kids were congregating in front of the pictures of people taking dance and art classes because they didn’t have access to anything of the sort.

I was considering whether I wanted to write about this today as I walked back to my car on Saturday. The article on CityLab decided me because the idea that such places create stronger community bonds and a sense of identity aligned so strongly with what I felt I was observing.

Some Reasons Acquiring New Customers Can Be Expensive

As so often is the case, Seth Godin recently made a post many elements of which are often cited as mistakes arts organizations make.

It should be noted that the things Godin lists are not meant to apply specifically to arts organizations. As often as we talk about how it is not appropriate for non-profits to be run like businesses, it is important to remember that since we are both trying to appeal to human beings to use a product or service, there are still a whole lot of problems we have in common.  The over arching philosophy and motivation which guide the responses to these challenges is what often differentiates non-profits from for-profit entities.

The fact the post is titled, When your project isn’t making money,” doesn’t mean it is aligned to businesses with a profit motive. Non-profits need to make money to pay their expenses, after all.

Of the 16 or so issues he identifies under the “It might be that your costs of acquiring a new customer are more than that customer is worth” subheading, only about 4-5 aren’t directly applicable to non-profit operations, and it only takes the slightest bit of imagination to see parallels.

Here are some of the more significant issues he lists. You have probably seen many of them mentioned before.

Because there’s a mismatch between your story and the worldview of those you seek to serve.

Because the people you seek to serve don’t think they need you.

Because it costs too much to tell these people you exist.

Because the people you seek to serve don’t trust you.


Because you’re focusing on the wrong channels to tell your story.
(just because social media is fun to talk about doesn’t mean it works)


Because the people you seek to serve don’t talk about you, thus, you’re not remarkable.

Or the people you seek to serve don’t like to talk about anyone, and your efforts to be remarkable are wasted.

Because your product doesn’t earn traction with your customers, they wouldn’t miss you if you were gone–the substitutes are easy.

Because even though you’re trying hard, you’re being selfish, focusing on your needs instead of having empathy for those you seek to serve.

Issues of lack of awareness, lack of trust, selfishness, competing substitutes are all topics of discussion in the non-profit arts community.

In fact, you may not associate some of Godin’s points with for-profit businesses. Do you immediately associate empathy with those whom you seek to serve as a characteristic of a for-profit business?

If you think about it, when call a customer or tech support number with a sense of dread and get your problems solved within five minutes, you may have been dealing with a company employing empathy for those they seek to serve. (Or at least one making an effort to retain your loyalty)

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