How Will Non-Profit Law Change To Meet Shifting Expectations?

Gene Tagaki raises some interesting thoughts over on the Non-Profit Law blog on the question of how legal concepts and structures may need to adjust to reflect changing values in the non-profit sphere.  He lays out some thoughts in regard to Charitability, Philanthropy, Governance, Technology, Fundraising, Advocacy, and Employment.

I provide this list with the intention of sparking enough interest in folks to read more deeply because I am only going to touch on a few ideas that popped for me.

One question he raised was whether the IRS would need to adjust its definition of 501(c)(3) entities:

“Would relief of historically discriminated groups of individuals without regard to poverty or distress now qualify as charitable? Would the sale of alternative energy sources for personal use be charitable even if at market rates?”

Tagaki also points out that there is a growing shift in how fundraising is accomplished and how the work of social good is being framed. He notes that crowdfunding focused on supporting a specific project or individual versus organizations which help many. He also cites corporate efforts to “charity-wash” their activities by positioning themselves as reducing social problems.

“Fundraising trends also raise other legal concerns as nonprofit fundraisers face competitive pressure from those raising money from crowdfunding platforms to help specific individuals rather than charities, businesses proclaiming to do more social good than nonprofits, and entrepreneurs looking to both help charitable causes while creating for themselves an opportunity to earn substantial amounts of money.”

Finally, Takagi observes there is a trend not only toward remote work, but also shared leadership of organizations. This approach is likely to exist in tension, if not complete conflict with a hierarchical board governance model legally required of nonprofits in the US.

“Many organizations are struggling with this movement as there are clear and proven benefits with traditional hierarchies and the law is built on boards having ultimate responsibility and authority over the activities and affairs of their corporations. But there are shifts in power that are possible, and laws or regulatory guidance that confirm the appropriateness of certain delegations of authority may be helpful. What are some of the distributed leadership systems that would be helpful if recognized by sector leaders as good practice and by lawmakers and regulators as acceptable?”

As always, many things to think about for the future.

The Audience Seemed To Enjoy It

Occasionally there has been discussion about how the standing ovation has become the default response at the end of a performance.

Not long ago, Seth Godin made a short post about expectation and delight.   He notes that when expectations are too low, there is no opportunity to even connect successfully whereas when they are too high, the sense of delight at an experience disappears.  He posits that the more successful you are, the more difficult it is to reach that point of delight because expectations are so high.

It almost sounds like advocacy for calculated mediocrity. But his next observation suggests that feedback like standing ovations make it difficult to determine if you are actually delighting audiences or not.

Often, this is replaced by the cognitive dissonance of sunk costs and luxury goods. People assert delight because they think they’re supposed to, because they don’t want to feel stupid–not because you’ve produced anything genuine.

This is a problematic element of group dynamics. You don’t want to be the only one sitting down when everyone else is up clapping, so you get up too even if you aren’t sure you enjoyed the experience. Others that are also feeling a little neutral about the experience are left to wonder what they missed that everyone else got and rise to their feet slightly bewildered. And so on and so on.

The artists are left thinking they did better they thought or at least the audience didn’t catch on to the flaws.

The folks who felt their experience was a little “meh” are likely inclined not to return and the venue administration don’t quite know why this is because these folks don’t feel anything strongly enough to fill out surveys. And after all, there was a standing ovation.

Capacity To Synthesize Creativity

I have been a firm believer in the idea that everyone has the capacity to be creative so I read a piece on The Conversation discussing how creativity doesn’t occur in a vacuum with great interest. In particular, the article discusses Edward P. Clapp, of Harvard University’s Project Zero reflections on a recent Beatles documentary which employed lengthy archival footage of the band’s work creating the Let It Be album. Clapp asserts that songs like “Get Back,” sprung forth from Paul McCartney’s mind in two minutes, as a result of years of social context and the artistic dynamics in the room.

But he also emphasizes principles highlighted by researchers who have examined the phenomena of creativity: in this solitary time, they draw on past collaborations. They also engage with the technologies or tools of predecessors and they “work in relation to an often complex polyphony of current and historical audiences.”

For example, there was a social movement in England at the time to have black immigrants from former colonies to go back to their countries.  Likewise there is a pervasive undercurrent of class distinctions in England which can lead to a sense of imposter syndrome.  Apparently, McCartney’s desire to get back to live touring is a frequent topic of discussion in the documentary.  And, of course, the band was going through a fair bit of conflict and tension during the recording of the album.

Similarly, during the “Let It Be,” recording sessions, the band played/jammed on over 400 tunes of all genres, all of which created a mood and informed how the members and participating musicians were thinking and processing the experience.

Making Venue Upgrades Pleasant For Everyone

I don’t remember exactly how, but I became aware of a grant program administered by the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta (CFGA) called “A Place to Perform,” which supports the efforts of arts groups to access performing arts spaces.

A Place to Perform is an initiative of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta  created after the theatre space of the 14th Street Playhouse became unavailable to a wide range of Atlanta’s nonprofit performing arts organizations. Historically, A Place to Perform has provided grants to nonprofit arts organizations to assist them financially in gaining access to performance venues so they can produce performing arts experiences for the public throughout the metro Atlanta region.

This struck me as a great idea. Throughout my career I have frequently worked with groups who were looking to take the next step up from where ever they had been performing before. Often it was because they were attracting audiences that were too large for the spaces they used in the past or they wanted to do a show with higher production values.

Thinking about these experiences, it occurred it me that a program like the one for Greater Atlanta should also offer additional funding or include the services of some sort of guide/stage manager/technical adviser to help groups make this sort of transition.

A problem the venue staff of places at which I have worked repeatedly encountered with groups trying to make a transition from a space with smaller audience and technical capacities was a disconnect between what they envisioned and how to accomplish it.  Now granted, we often ran into the same issue with some repeat renters who seemed to start from square one year after year, but at least we had notes from early shows upon which to build.

With brand new renters it often difficult to just get to the point of creating an accurate estimate for equipment and especially labor.  Having a lighting and sound change, a curtain flying in while a set piece flies out and microphone packs being transitioned to other people can mean 10 people paying very close attention to what is going on where you had three at the smaller venue you were at previously.

If a grant program paid an experienced person to sit down and talk through your vision with you and then communicate that to the venue or even fund the person to coordinate those details through the run of the show as a stage manager or production designer, that would help the whole experience run smoother for everyone.

And yes, there is nothing keeping groups from including that in their grant application –except they don’t know that it will be helpful to have a consultant. Best approach might be to have something in the grant application and any applicant Q&A sessions encouraging people to think about whether they might need help and including it in their budgets.

This is not to say that venue staff can’t help. Every place I have worked, the staff has been willing to provide advice and patiently work with new groups. In a couple cases, staff has provided planning documents and templates which cut days off the rehearsal process.  The biggest problem has always been surprise additions which ends up over working the staff and raising the final bill for renters.