Always Wear Clean Underwear Theory of Management

Collen Dilenschneider most a recent post about the factors that influence a cultural organization’s reputation. In order they are: Favorability, Mission Execution, Onsite Experience, Stability, Social Impact, Leadership, Testimonials, Business Results and Contributions to Education.

Dilenschneider starts out saying it isn’t about the Yelp/Trip Advisory reviews so I knew testimonials wouldn’t be listed near the top. I was really surprised to see that Mission Execution came in second and before Onsite Experience. My first thought was that we would need to rethinks the types of questions we were using on surveys because so few are oriented toward mission execution.

Now to be clear, Dilenschneider says this isn’t about your ability to recite your mission statement on command, but how well you have internalized and manifest your mission.

“But this measurement and its rank suggest that knowing what you stand for matters – and knowing that you take action surrounding what you stand for matters, too.”

As you might anticipate, she says many of these categories are inter-related. The perception of organizational stability is shaped by leadership and business results, the latter of which is basically financial stability.

Two of the significant observations Dilenschneider made speak to the need to always be working on cultivating a good reputation as a hedge against times of crisis. Or to metaphorically employ my grandmother’s advice – “Always wear clean underwear because you never know if you will be in an accident.”

The entities with better reputational equities prior to the pandemic seem to be faring better during it. … it seems those that had better reputation-related metrics prior to the pandemic are doing a better job keeping them for now. This may be because those institutions had already made investments in social media, for instance, and had established a reputation for engaging audiences digitally before they had to… Entities with better reputations may have similarly already been promulgating educational resources, also resulting in their coming to mind compared to entities that may be only really starting this effort now.

The web may now play an even bigger role in maintaining a positive reputation that inspires attendance. …The web – and social media, in particular – played a critical role in motivating attendance and shaping reputation prior to that pandemic. With more time spent online and fewer folks out and about, digital engagement and seeing stories from others may influence the perceptions of all of these factors influencing reputation to an even greater extent.

Not So Strange, But Does Require Effort

Non-Profit Quarterly made a post in May that just came across my social media feed today about a weekly Zoom call 200+ arts organizations in NYC are having in order to share information during Covid-19. Ruth McCambridge links to the New York Times piece that reports on this effort.

I have to admit I initially bristled at McCambridge characterizing the NYT article reporting on a story that is “pretty strange” because:

It appears the pandemic has created a sudden realization among the city’s arts organizations that they need one another for advice, counsel, and support even while they take one coronavirus-related hit after another. That has led to a daily Zoom call with around 200 leaders in attendance, coming from groups large and small and spanning organizational types.


Pogrebin finds it “notable how much they are actually acting these days like the ‘arts community’ to which they often aspire.” We call it something of a small miracle, which we think we may be seeing a lot more of as advocacy and mutual aid look increasingly central to not just our survival, but our evolution in a new landscape.

I have been regularly participating in on a number of those calls myself so I will admit that there is more coordination and information sharing across disciplines than before. It is definitely beneficial to everyone involved.

However, over the course of the last 15+ years, I have been part of organizations comprised of arts and culture entities whom regularly shared information and even engaged in cooperative grant writing. I am sure many readers have similar relationships. You know, the ones where you receive important information, but also multiple people feel their one word reply “Thanks” should go to the entire group rather than to an individual.

While I do agree with the proposition that it would be a shame these cross-disciplinary conversations faded away when the crisis passes because we are seeing greater cooperation and community than in the past, I also feel like the idea this coordination is novel news doesn’t given non-profit arts & cultural organizations credit for progress made over the last couple decades.

Also, were there a lot of commercial entities who were having conversations like these that non-profit arts organizations have been eschewing?  It seemed perhaps there was an implication of some norm that existed that cultural organizations are finally participating in. Non-profit folks are networking and sharing information at conferences, chamber of commerce meetings and rotary meetings, etc just like everyone else.

I will say though, it can be really difficult to make sure you are invited to the right meetings. If you look in the comment section of the NYT article, people were asking how they could join the call because the information wasn’t public. You had to know someone in order to receive the meeting link.

That dawned on me about a month ago as I bounced from one Zoom meeting hosted by charitable foundations to another Zoom meeting of local live event organizations (concert venues, sports teams, bars, etc.). I realized a number of people in the meeting I just left weren’t invited to the second meeting where topics like the governor’s orders on public assembly are discussed. I asked for about 20 additional groups to be invited to that second meeting and did see about eight show up to the last meeting.

Bottom line- regardless of my perceptions of how these meetings are characterized, an effort should be made to ensure they continue past the current crisis. Which means people who are invited need to commit to participating rather than blowing the meetings off. Just as important, we should continually be thinking about who might benefit from these conversations and take steps to see they are invited.


No Subscription Model Should Last Forever

I was listening to an episode of How I Built This where Guy Raz interviews ClassPass founder Payal Kadakia.

At first I was just drawn to listen because Kadakia presented a familiar story of someone who loved dance and continued dancing even as she was studying Operations Research and Economics at MIT. As I got into the story, I realized it held some lessons about discounting and subscriptions for arts and culture non-profits.

It was the desire to dance that lead her to found the earliest iteration of ClassPass. She was looking to take a class in NYC and couldn’t figure out time, place, price and transportation. She struck on the idea of making a search engine that would unify this information and allow you to find and make reservations for classes in the way OpenTable allows you to make restaurant reservations.

The idea was so compelling to people that when her boss at Warner Music called in her to ask why she was quitting, she walked out with a $10,000 check from him as an investment in her unformed company. While the company was feted with great fanfare, it took 10 days before they had their first reservation. Kadakia says that is when they approached the dance & exercise studios to get a sense of customer behavior and realized that unlike plane and restaurant reservations where people have already made a decision they are going to fly or go out to eat, people looking for classes  (this is ~2012) hadn’t decided to take a class.

This is where the lessons about human nature, discounts and subscriptions starts to kick in (about 34 minutes into the show.) As Guy Raz observes, in the course of about 5 years, Kadakia ends up running 5 different companies because the business model changes so drastically. (It may not seem drastic on a small scale, but when you realize she goes from raising around $40 million in her second round of funding to a recent $1 billion valuation, each change has big implications.) Kadakia says each time they changed the model, human behavior changed on them.

One of the first things they did was offer 30 day passes to a range of different classes. They promised studios around 70% of people would convert to more permanent students. It ended up about only 10% did which Kadakia admits was unfair to the studios. What they discovered was that people were continuing to take classes by signing up with a new email address. Now, my first instinct was to accuse them of gaming the system and curse them under my breath.

Kadakia and her team may have done that, but what she said they realized was that people enjoyed being able to attend a variety of classes. Instead of $45 for a 30 day product, they moved to a subscription model for $99 where you could take up to 10 classes a month, but no more than three at the same studio. Eventually they moved to an unlimited class model.

As the company grew, the fitness industry of spin, barre, bootcamp, etc classes was growing as well and they began doing business with bigger, more marquee names. This raised the average per-class rate they had to pay to studios. Kadakia says they reached a place where they were faced with adopting the business model most gyms use where they are counting on you not exercising in order to make their money. As someone who both continued to dance and took classes every day, she felt the idea of betting against their customers was anti-ethical to their founding principles of getting people to exercise.

Faced with the prospect of having a lot of people angry at them for drastically raising the price of the unlimited pass, they moved away from that as their core product and now package classes differently.

As referenced earlier, one of the main things I took away from this was that sales and subscription models not only need to be structured differently for different communities, but potentially changed up across the lifespan of your organization because audience dynamics and expectations are likely to evolve. I fully expect most venues will find the ticketing model and policies they had in place pre-Covid won’t as fit well for audiences now.


Do We Need Hysterical Strength To Bring About Required Change?

It appears Indiana University’s Center for Cultural Affairs was having some sort of virtual convening around the topic of New. Not Normal: Artists, the Creative Sector, and Innovation after the Pandemic. I only became aware of it because I was starting to see the videos recorded by some of the featured speakers appear in my Twitter feed today.

I watched the videos by economist Tyler Cowen and self-described philanthropy wonk Lucy Bernholz, both of whom had some thoughts about what the post-Covid future held for the arts. However, the person who envisioned the greatest necessity for transformational change was artist/activity Marc Bamuthi Joseph.

His suggestion was that instead of paying artists to create new works, they should be contracted to lead organizational leadership and stakeholders through a process of envisioning the role the organization should play in the community. In his words, rethinking theater as a site for creative wellness. This is based on the assumption that performing arts organizations can no longer exist with the goal of filling every seat. Even absent restrictions by governments, people will be reticent to return.

As an aside, something that has occurred to me that one has mentioned. If there is any group that turns out to attend performances in sufficient numbers to make an event financially viable, assuming they don’t become severely ill, their influence on what happens in arts and cultural may be cemented for decades to come. Depending on who constitutes that group of attendees, it could either be productive or detrimental in the long term.

Joseph says the smart performing arts entities will be those that embrace

“…social practice artistry, public health, fiscal health, brand expansion, digital production, embodied creative commons…how could currently empty theatres and music halls be utilized in service of social health, used as food service platforms, or testing sites or polling places or spill over waiting rooms for hospitals.”

Near the end of his video, citing the superhuman feats people are capable of when faced with a situation of alarming urgency, he suggests that the pandemic provides both the motivation and “hysterical strength” to rescue the collective arts and culture community from the threat being faced. Though he likens the strength of courage to that of survival so he may not be suggesting we are experiencing a type of disaster that gives rise to instinctive terror.


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