Every time I go to a conference, I inevitably hear about an arts or non-profit organization that is doing something “revolutionary.” For one reason or another, they are doing something to make their operations more sustainable, have a greater impact on their community, or connect with their stakeholders in a new and meaningful way. And everyone around the table sits and wonders “why can’t I (or my organization) be like that?”
Except for one time, when I was invited to present on behalf of my organization. I was running a mid-sized arts organization that had experienced a large number of dynamic changes and growth over a short period of time. After highlighting some of our successes in the past twelve months, an audience member raised their hand and asked a key question- how did we start doing these things? And how did we decide that some of these ideas were worth doing?
The very simple answer is that we started saying yes.
The longer answer involves intentions. More specifically, I like to think that everyone has good intentions. That when a potential partner or stakeholder contacts you with a great idea, that their enthusiasm alone is worth entertaining. When they made their initial pitch and asked if they could tell me more about their idea, I simply said “yes.” And listened to it all before asking any questions, or followup or making a judgement as to whether the idea was a good one or not. It never took more than ten minutes of my time at the onset; but the impact was dramatic.
Sometimes, the idea was horrible. It may have not made sense logistically, it may have not been financially feasible, or it may have just not fit within our mandate. In those cases, after listening, I’d explain why a collaboration or the initiative wouldn’t be possible, thank them for their time and part ways. That investment of time on my part was small, but it said to the potential stakeholder that their thoughts and opinions mattered- and frequently, they would think about my feedback and come back with something else. Even better, sometimes they’d become advocates for the things that we needed to make their ideas possible, which led to materials and infrastructure that made our organization stronger.
Sometimes, the idea just needed tweaking. It may have been a good idea at its core, but their vision may not have reflected the realities of the organization. In those cases, we’d engage in a dialogue to see if a resolution was possible. Sometimes it was, and sometimes it wasn’t. Again, the investment of time wasn’t usually significant; but it frequently built new relationships, or made old ones stronger.
When I was lucky, the idea was wonderful, and we’d move ahead. Those partnerships required a greater investment of time and resources, but introduced new audience members to the art that I was creating, and introduced my audiences to a new art form or artists as well. The result was that our organization became more entrenched in the community, and our audience grew. Our current audience found a value in the art that they may not have previously felt before. This led to a significant increase in programming, ticket sales, subscriptions, increased donations, and increased community engagement- all important metrics that we think about when wanting our art to grow and make a difference.
In all of these scenarios, when someone who was not involved in the day-to-day operations of the organization came forward with ideas, they did not just offer their idea; they inadvertently were offering their social capital and investment. There is an opportunity to turn those individuals into strong and ongoing supporters who can invest in your art in ways other than just their ideas, regardless of whether a collaboration occurs or not. And by building a community of supporters, artists and organizations can increase their own capital- a larger group of potential advocates, donors, attendees, volunteers and/or participants. By providing them with a positive experience, those individuals can attract new individuals who may have other new ideas or offerings, allowing your art to grow in ways that can be revolutionary.
All it takes is a few minutes of your time and a yes.