TRG blog: What it Takes to Change
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What It Takes to Change

Jill Robinson | April 2, 2014 11:30 AM
Photo by Martin Deutsch via flickr
Earlier this month I participated in “Where Next BC: Adapting to Changes in the Arts,” a convening at Simon Frasier University in Vancouver, British Columbia. This change-focused convening was hosted by a dozen funders and supporters of the arts and cultural sector in BC, including the Department of Canadian Heritage, and Canada Council for the Arts.

I found the convening to be both revealing and encouraging in that the discussions were designed to be framed by, as the program read, “humility and honest self-assessment.” 

Change requires honest self-assessment in a frame of personal and professional humility. Whether it’s “innovative,” “adaptive,” or just plain good, old-fashioned CHANGE—it is hard to do well. In most arts organizations, change is even harder to accept, especially when generations of standard ways of operating are challenged.

Change agents must enable, not just drive.

The discussion at Where Next led me back to findings from The Non-Profit Finance Fund’s Leading for the Future program, funded by the Doris Duke Foundation. In observing Leading for the Future participants’ attempts to accept change capital and implement change over time, they found that only 50% of participants were able to change effectively. They determined that a variety of organizational variables can make change easier. Five of them caught my attention:

1.    Organizational finances are generally healthy.
2.    Leadership is stable and the staff is collaborative, nimble and self-critical.
3.    The link between artistic development and required capital is clear to all.
4.    The organization, in its entirety, understands its business model, and is thinking about the appropriate stages of next development, not just growth for growth’s sake.
5.    The organization is serious about developing a long-term financial plan, has the capacity to measure progress/set-backs, and can change course based on data analysis if needed.

TRG agrees. We see these variables at play every day at client organizations. We strive to help achieve results that, like the variables the Non-Profit Finance Fund articulated, enable the art, enable the relationship with patrons on which most arts organizations are extremely, if not excruciatingly, dependent upon.  

Industry dialogue asserts that in 2014, organizations must consider our constantly evolving environment and change to suit new technologies, alongside patron preferences and expectations. At TRG, we would add that organizations must also have the capacity to change. As the Non-Profit Finance Fund saw, it’s often not enough to want change; an organization must also be able to implement it. Some organizations are forced to change radically to simply survive. But others are able to change slowly and develop change with less risk. We see it over and over: organizations that have strong financial results can more easily adapt and innovate.

Working capital comes first, alongside alignment for change.

Our industry’s business model is patron-dependent. We count on people visiting, attending, subscribing, joining, donating, purchasing and generally consuming the arts. That our industry relies on people engaging with art and culture will not change. We must, as a respected colleague recently told me, find a sustainable business model within that existing model.

The real question is: Is the organization’s current patron-centered business model, by default, dead? Understanding and analyzing the patron data from an organization can help determine the answer. Analysis is really another term for “understanding” or “providing context.” Analyzing patron data can tell you the story of an audience and can help shift institution-wide attention and alignment to developing loyal, sustainable patronage.

Change toward a sustainable patron-focused business model can be measured; what can be measured can be managed. And when loyalty and the return on investment of patrons becomes a galvanizing organization priority, we regularly see measurable results, such as:

  • Increased ticket buyer loyalty and return visits
  • Growth in membership and subscription programs
  • Greater philanthropic income
Growth here can result in surpluses rather than deficits, which becomes working capital for change. Which means the next stage of change—whatever it is—becomes feasible, easier. Organizations can be more nimble and reactive to the environment around them.

Change takes leadership.

Leadership must dig in and create alignment throughout an organization, around the issues that position an organization for change and that enable capacity for innovation. And this, my friends, is the hardest work of all. We recently hosted an Executive Leadership Summit in Colorado that facilitated conversation about how increased, data-driven understanding and context can help move organizations to alignment. And I’ll tell you what: some of these Executive Directors and CEOs told us it’s too hard or too late in their careers to take on artistic or board leadership and try to get them in alignment with the rest of the organization.

We know it can be done, and there are models. Look at the self-directed complete change in artistic vision of a company—Canadian Stage Company in Toronto. Check out Leading for the Future participants like our former client, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Or ask Howard Jang, the Executive Director at Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver. Howard has led innovation and change within his organization that has resulted in years of increasing loyalty in the form of subscriber growth, single ticket buyer retention and donation growth. Now he’s asking more difficult questions, including “Who are we to this community and the people in it?” and “Can we value our patrons in the same way we value our art?”  He has also led a field-leading commitment to the use of data and the Arts Club patron database to drive the company forward.

These are change agents, innovators, leaders. They and others are galvanizing teams across North America to make the necessary changes to get results, increase capacity, and, in turn, allow for further change. 

We welcome your comments below about the arts industry dialogue on change.


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Case Study: Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma

Annual operating budget up 32% in 5 seasons

Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma 
 Photo: Joseph Mills

After a poor year for earned revenue in 2012, Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma (LTO) had rebounded and was experiencing a growth spurt. In 2013, Director of Marketing Danyel Siler had turned her attention to single tickets.

Her hard work had paid off, but season tickets were still a challenge. “Season tickets were steadily declining,” she said. “The season ticket campaign had been done the same way for years, maybe even decades. And we blamed the fall on the trend that subs were declining everywhere. Our executive director, artistic director, and I all knew something needed to change, but we didn’t know what.”

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