While You Worry About Business Slowing Down, Prepare For A Sudden Ramp Up

The Conversation site had an article about the impact of Covid-19 on entertainment venues and events last month. (h/t to Artsjournal.com)

Authors Chris Gibbs and Louis-Etienne Dubois urge event managers to be cautious about making decisions to lay off or idle staff.  You may have seen similar warnings in other places about losing people who represent institutional memory and crucial relationship points with audiences and donors. The authors additionally note that dismissing the wrong people may hinder responsiveness and agility when everyone ramps up their activity all at once.

Live events and entertainment are people-based businesses that rely on the creation of emotional experiences and human interactions. Shedding too many employees, or the wrong employees, may impede the ability to resume operations when the crisis ends.

The author of an article in Harvard Business Review about management in uncertain times also suggests taking pragmatic actions and cultivating emotional steadiness in order to support employees and make them feel better than doing nothing.

In addition, a common response to crisis is to maintain customer engagements so that they return when the conditions allow. This is even more critical now knowing that companies are likely to relaunch all at the same time and engage in a costly battle for audiences’ limited attention. Employees should be encouraged to keep their companies’ name out there by connecting with customers in surprising and unexpected ways.

Many organizations are already doing a lot in the way of providing content and other touch points which will help keep them at the forefront of people’s minds.

My staff has been having conversations trying to anticipate whether audiences will be clamoring for something to do as soon as restrictions are lifted or if they will be hesitant to venture out until a few weeks later. That is why I have been following Colleen Dilenschneider’s surveying on that question so closely.

The other thing we are concerned about is whether we will have enough stagehands to work larger events. Supermarkets and Amazon are looking for more employees. If people in our stagehand pool find work in these places and decide to stay once things loosen up, it will be great for them to have more consistent employment, but that will impact us.

And if there is a flurry of activity from summer concert series in the region trying to return to activity, we will be competing for staff against organizations with potentially deeper pockets than we possess. So even as we worry about how the epidemic is impacting current operations, we have to be thinking about all the implications a return to activity might hold.

You Know You Have Developed Good Relationships When A Coal Miner Supports A Solar Power Project

About two years ago I briefly mentioned a presentation made by Ben Fink at a conference about a community solar project Appalshop was working on in the heart of Kentucky coal country. Fink recently had a piece on the Brookings Institution website that went into detail about the where the effort stands today.

I wanted to point to it as an example of a cultural organization working in productive partnership with a community whose politics might strongly differ from their own .

The solar project wasn’t something Appalshop decided to do whole-cloth because they thought it was the right thing for the community. It was built on the relationships and trust developed over the course of years while working in partnership on other projects that aligned with the interests and needs of the community.

Results of this community wealth-building work have included expanding an award-winning farmers’ market into a community kitchen, reviving Kentucky’s oldest community square dance, and starting a brick oven bakery where neighbors recovering from addiction and incarceration could find work.

Despite being in the middle of coal fields, one of the biggest challenges facing companies and organizations was rising energy costs that threatened the existence of everything from the local markets to the volunteer firehouse.  While solar provided a solution to this ironic situation, being located in the middle of coal fields also made it a hot button issue.

Bringing solar to coal country was risky. Coal had been king for generations, and there was plenty of propaganda accusing solar supporters of siding with “elite, anti-coal activists.” It would have been easy to assume “the community” would oppose the project—except for the fact that the community was the one running it….

[…]

But the relationships built through the CCED process remained strong; the fire chief, a former strip mine boss and lifelong right-winger, continued to champion the project.

This work is not about changing residents’ political views. It’s about neighbors coming together across differences to create a new story about the place we all live in and love. To some, it’s a story about saving the planet. To others, it’s about saving money or fighting an energy company. But to everyone, it’s about supporting our communities and the centers that keep them strong.

The reference to the fire chief remaining a supporter was a testament to the strengths of the relationships they built. The fire house was a partner in the solar project but backed out when a gas company guaranteed the firehouse would never lose its gas supply. The fact the fire chief remained a supporter illustrates that his involvement wasn’t just motivated by desperate need.

Fink suggests that the relationships they formed helped overcome the perception that life in their community was a zero-sum prospect where what was better for someone else meant you lose.

Streaming And Providing Content Is Well And Good, But What’s Next?

Last week in reaction to my post about Colleen Dilenschneider’s suggestion that cultural non-profits continue their marketing efforts during the Covid-19 shutdowns with a shift in focus, Carter Gillies made a number of comments on my post warning about making the marketing all about the organization rather than outwardly focused on the needs of the community.

So it seems absolutely vital that we take as much of the cues for misperception off the table. Even if we are not actively ‘selling’ anything, we can’t let the public be confused that our motivation at this point is somehow still about ‘us’. The Starbucks CEO was absolutely terrified that his attempts to remedy racism would be seen as more marketing. Marketing in normal circumstances is, well, normal. In a climate where the focus is so narrow, as it is today, we must pay special attention to doing what is right FOR the community, whether-it-is-right-for-us-or-not. If we are perceived as merely doing what it takes to promote our own identity and importance this will quickly backfire. Even saying organizations should be “maintaining high levels of awareness and being top of mind in the meantime” sounds offensive and selfishly oriented.

When I was writing about Dilenschneider’s post, I was envisioning that she was encouraging organizations to provide content on social media about streaming events, online activities, creative projects you can do at home, pretty much as they are doing now.

Keven Karplus chimed in with a comment pointing at such a home activity that the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History had recently posted.

So it didn’t really surprise me when the erstwhile director of Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, Nina Simon, made a post on Medium wondering if this spate of event streaming and online activities was really the best approach. I had been harboring the same questions about whether the rush to provide content would ultimately be in the best interest of the arts and culture community.

Part of my concern was that organizations might be providing validation that a virtual experience was as good as an in-person experience. If the organization is able to pull this sort of thing out of their back pocket in a week, then they have the capacity to provide it on a continuous basis, right? Many people may not realize that a lot of the content is archival and was never intended to be seen by an audience.  American Theatre has a great piece that talks about many of the factors that are weighing on people’s minds as they make content available.

In her post Simon writes,

And it makes me wonder: is this the most meaningful way cultural organizations can contribute — or is it just the fastest way?

I’m not opposed to these offerings. I can see the hope and pleasure small snippets of art, music, history, and nature provide. But why are we doing it? Are we doing it based on some kind of expressed community need? Are we doing it with an eye towards serving communities that are struggling most? Or are we doing it to assure ourselves that we are “doing something,” to assure our donors we still exist— and that our jobs are worth keeping (which is in itself important!)?

You could argue that these organizations are contributing what they do best. But we’re a creative sector, and I think we could get more creative. In the race to deliver, I worry we may distract ourselves from the potential to envision and deliver true community value.

She lays out four steps she is using to figure out how to best contribute. As I read them, there was nothing I hadn’t heard before regarding connecting with new segments of the community. Only, now that there is less activity in our organizations, we have more time and energy to focus on following these steps.

1 – Select A Community Focus – she gives the example of homeless, elderly, nurses, but they can be any group.

2- Listen To The Community – While you can’t physically meet with people associated with your chosen segment, you may have the time to use social media to research, identify leaders, resources and challenges that face the community

3- Map Your Skills and Assets – I have to quote Nina directly here because she points out assets you may not think of (i.e. lending a lonely family member your dog)

If you’re exploring this as an individual, you might have assets like your time, your bilingualism, or your ability to cook. As an organization, you might have assets like a building, a digital following, or the ear of the mayor.

For me, the most important part of this step is creative dot-connecting. How can you use your creativity to make unexpected connections between what is desired and what you have? These connections don’t have to be huge to be meaningful

4- Check Your Assumptions – Nina points out she didn’t just drive to her sister’s house with a 70 lbs dog and drop it off, she had a conversation first. Nor should you decide what the segment of the community needs from you before marshaling your energy and resources.

Toward the end of her post, she encourages moving fast when there is an obvious way to contribute, but move slow when the path is not obvious or creativity could yield better results. She lays out a deliberate approach she is using in applying the four steps above and estimates it will be three-four weeks before she comes up with something concrete and useful.

As I do with many of my posts, I encourage readers to read her whole post in depth rather than relying on my imperfect synopsis. Especially since she lays out her argument much more convincingly than I have.

Imagine That, Creative Expression Retains And Increases In Value In Difficult Economic Times

By now you have probably heard about all the residents of cities around the world who have emerged on balconies and rooftops to sing together or provide impromptu concerts to those in their neighborhoods.  Imagine all the economic value they are generating with this creative activity! Surely it will help sustain the commerce of their communities in this difficult time.

Except, no it won’t. No one is doing any of this to bolster the economies of their communities, they are doing it to bolster a sense of hope and solidarity among their neighbors.

If there was any time to illustrate that the value of creative expression is independent of economic outcomes, it is now.  People are singing together across streets and alleys. Libraries are streaming their staff reading books. Organizations are providing creative activities that families can do at home together as downloads or video demonstrations. I saw a link to a public radio story about a group in NC who will provide a 30 minute virtual concerts to loved ones.

The biggest danger is the one that  has always existed–the assumption that if you were willing to provide this content for free during tough times, you can find some other means of support during better economic times.

Yet there is also the opportunity to turn around and say, when people were scared and panicking about whether they had a sufficient supply of toilet paper, expressions of creativity forged bonds between citizens, buoyed their spirits and gave them hope.  Artists provided a great service in maintaining the mental, spiritual, and emotional well-being of their community in a time of national angst. While this activity normally does yield economic benefits in a ratio significantly greater than the funding inputs, the real value creatives provide is unrelated to the economy.

While we may say these things all of the time in different ways, right now there are a lot of examples floating around broadcast and social media one can reference when making the case for support to funders.

In addition, while you wouldn’t necessarily want to continue doing something for free indefinitely, there is also an opportunity to leverage processes and expertise you may have developed communicating and providing content from afar into a more significant program. (i.e. You never had the time and resources before to stream content until your priorities were shifted for you.)

Likewise, once the current crisis is over, there will be an opportunity to hopefully solidify any relationships your activities for those in isolation have helped you develop.

In the meantime, pay attention to all the ways in which creative expression is exhibiting its value to society and take notes for later use.

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