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.

Top Of Your Pyramid Is The Bottom Of Someone Else’s

Hat tip to Vu Le at NonProfitAF for posting a link on social media to an essay on Medium comparing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need to the Blackfeet Nation’s similar concept.  Maslow had lived among the Blackfeet in Alberta, Canada for six weeks when he was developing his theories. If you read the article the question of whether he appropriated the concept without crediting the Blackfeet is a complicated one.

What immediately appealed to me was the point that while Maslow’s hierarchy ends with self-actualization, that is where the Blackfeet model begins.  To a great degree it is the difference between an individually focused society and a communal one. The assumption seems to be that the community will provide the food, shelter, clothing and safety needs that provide the base of Maslow’s model and therefore you start life working on the self-actualization part and then one moves on to contributing to the welfare and perpetuity of the culture.

The Blackfoot model describes the inverse of Maslow’s Hierarchy:

1. Self-actualization. Where Maslow’s hierarchy ends with self-actualization, the Blackfoot model begins here. In their view, we are each born into the world as a spark of divinity, with a great purpose embedded in us. That means that we arrive on earth self-actualized.

4. Community Actualization. In tending to our basic needs and safety, the tribe equips us to manifest our sacred purpose, designing a model of education that supports us in expressing our gifts. Community actualization describes the Blackfoot goal that each member of the tribe manifest their purpose and have their basic needs met.
5. Cultural Perpetuity. Each member of the tribe will one day be gone. So passing on their knowledge of how to achieve community actualization and harmony with the land and other peoples gives rise to an endurance of the Blackfoot way of life, or cultural perpetuity.

The big reason this appealed to me is that it aligns with a post I wrote last May, Creativity Is Not The Last Thing People Need

As I wrote then:

It should be noted that despite the popularity of this model, there is no scientific data to back it and studies have found that different cultures prioritize needs differently.

I mention these criticisms of Maslow’s hierarchy because it is easy to look at this pyramid and get the impression that creativity has to wait until all these other needs are met. This reinforces the idea that arts and culture are a luxury that should yield before all the necessities have been addressed. I think we all know there will always be something else that needs to be solved if you subscribe to that thinking.

When I wrote that post, I had linked to the Wikipedia article on Maslow’s hierarchy which notes the Blackfeet influence but I didn’t know enough about it at the time to understand the differences in world view to apply it.  I certainly can’t make any definitive statements about how expressions of creativity might be viewed and valued in a Blackfeet society, but from the little bit that discussed in the Medium article it seems it would be viewed as more integral to everyone’s basic identity and capacity vs. a gift bestowed/possessed by a chosen few.

Cross-Discipline Pollination For Post-Covid Arts

Following the link tweeted by Ava Wong Davies got me to a lengthy blog post by Tim X. Atack about things that need to change in theatre post-Covid.  I will initially engaged by his insistence that the arts needs to stop citing the economic value of the arts when arguing why they need to be supported. As long time readers know, I am very much in agreement with this sentiment.

…there’s a growing feeling that over a year later, the driving focus is to get back to business as it was before the pandemic – maybe, even, to take steps backwards.

That feeling’s compounded by hearing, over and over, industry leaders using the language of our oppressors as justification for business as usual. I’m so so tired of the assertion that The Arts need to be protected because ‘they give five pounds back for every pound put in,’ like some Gordon Gecko hokey cokey. It might be true, but the people we’re making this upward argument to simply Do. Not. Fucking. Care. There are easier ways to make profit, without the messy business of creating art that makes you think about things and feel stuff.

And worse, when the bottom line becomes the principle reason work is made, defaults rule. The idea of art being life-changing or surprising or transformative actually becomes a threat when the main thing you want to do is keep an existing base happy. Theatre stops being alive and becomes transactional. Experiences become about promises made in return for money, rather than invitations to be part of something new, or bigger. Even political plays stop being political and become ‘about the politics’ instead, worthy but inert, leading nowhere.

Atack also broaches a subject I have been less enthusiastic about as a post-Covid reality, the digitization of the live performance experience. He argues from the perspective of the need for cross-disciplinary competency which makes the necessity feel less objectionable to me. (Though even an introvert like myself thinks the spark of having a live interaction with another over a shared experience is irreplaceable.)

At the start of lockdown I heard one artistic director say their theatre was ‘not about to become a film production studio’. But in truth, those kind of skills and cross-disciplinary thinking were shown to be desperately needed the very second theatres started uploading what felt like 1 million appallingly made films…


… All told, we might not want our theatres to entirely become film studios. But if we don’t regularly allow film-makers, and artists of other disciplines, into our theatre culture on progressive and free-thinking terms, to cross-pollinate and diversify the form, if we don’t modernise our concept of a theatre career, when the next virus comes we might as well just shut up shop and walk away.

As I said, his entry is a good length has has many other thoughts about the dynamics of the arts industry post-Covid so it may be worth taking a read to see if anything he says stimulates some thoughts for you as well.

Things Getting Better For Virtually Singing Together

An article on FastCompany recently caught my eye that suggests a company in Sweden is helping to solve a big problem in collaborative virtual concerts. One of the big impediments has been getting music and vocals coming in from different video/audio streams synchronized.

The article quotes San Francisco Opera general manager, Matthew Shilvock, who says his organization has been using the tool called Aloha, which marries low latency technology with now very familiar video chat interfaces:

It allows a singer and a pianist to essentially be in the digital space together making real-time music—which is just transformational for us,” Shilvock tells Fast Company. “A pianist can now hear a singer breathe, and that may sound very basic, but those breath cues are the things that allow the pianist to really mold their sounds to what the singer is doing.”

“To see the emotional reaction of a pianist [who is] now finally able to hear those cues is just amazing,” he adds.

While the software is still in beta, some music schools in Sweden have been using the technology for classes since last Fall. Even if everything goes back to full in person performances that existed before, tools like this might expand the window of rehearsal periods and cut down on the travel and housing expenses previously associated with live productions.

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