Long-Term Nonprofit Planning? As Easy as Driving

Perhaps the greatest challenge a leader in the nonprofit arts sector faces is how to maintain focus and engagement with long-term planning. The daily vicissitudes of putting out fires and meeting immediate needs tends to consume all their time, energy and often resources. While it’s easy to understand why this happens, it’s essential to carve out part of every day to consider long-term issues. Not to do so is a fundamental mistake that weakens an organization (or an artist’s practice) and can lead to failure.

Simon Sinek

Simon Sinek

An important advantage of persistently considering the long-term is that it can keep the focus on an organization’s “Why” and how the organization meets that “Why.” Simon Sinek, the social commentator who works extensively with corporations, the Department of Defense and think tanks, proposes that successful organizations always “start with why.” All too often, Sinek says, organizations focus on or get trapped by their “How” and their “What,” losing the core essence of their value. Those that remain focused on their “Why” are stronger and last longer than those that do not maintain such a hierarchy of priorities.

It is easy to be deceived into thinking that quotidian crises are the only ones that matter in the moment. Such action, however, conceals the fact that organizations fail over the long-term and not in the immediate. For example, in the late 1980s, the Oakland Symphony, following a long struggle of under-capitalization and tight resources, and despite periods of resilience, closed after a half-century of serving its community. Subsequently, a deep study was conducted into the factors that led to the Symphony’s demise. The result was a portrait of how macro and long-term trends went undetected or unaddressed in the Symphony’s daily operations, undermining its health and its ability to operate.

The Oakland Symphony Autopsy

The Oakland Symphony Autopsy

The report’s level of detail is impressive as it looks at aspects of the Symphony’s operations and failure. At its core, the report finds that when facing declining audiences, a loss of identity (another way to say they lost their “Why”), shifting demographics, and inhospitable macro events in our economy, the board and the management failed to engage in effective long-range planning and action — and this was despite creating five strategic plans during the period under review. The Symphony consistently raised sales revenue projections and capital expenses, grew programming and engaged in a flurry of marketing attempts to bolster sales, but all it did was confuse whatever audience still existed.

Tellingly. the report features this statement:

“The scope of the study was to be retrospective only, focusing on the last ten years of the fifty-three-year-old organization. In some cases, however, relevant factors were traced as far back as twenty years.”

The decline and closure of the now-resurrected New York City Opera points to similar failures in addressing long-term issues.

NYCO Logo

NYCO Logo

In that case — and as repeatedly reported in the press — NYCO concluded that a panacea in the form of a new home would mitigate its serious structural issues. Not unlike the Oakland Symphony, declining audiences, expanded programming, capital expenses associated with looking for a new home for many years, and chronic operating deficits plagued the company over a number of years. After failing to find that magical new home, the company made one final, desperate decision: to engage a controversial artistic director and to stop performing for two years in order to renovate its home. Hanging on through many seasons as the company’s position weakened, NYCO pursued imagined silver bullets as long-term issues continued to erode its ability and capacity. Like the Oakland Symphony, the company was finally in such a weakened state that it had to rely on depleting its endowment principal to fund its operations, a sign of true desperation; and then it filed for bankruptcy.

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In both of these cases, significant institutions succumbed after inadequately or improperly addressing their long-term issues. To be sure, both companies faced uncontrollable bad-turns; all companies must deal with whatever external events they face. But these companies also showed a certain institutional blindness or inability to properly assess the reality of the environment in which they operated, which turned out to be a fatal flaw.

In the battle between Hayek and Keynes, history wins.One of the greatest challenges in undertaking long-term planning is how our own experience can color how we consider our issues. Political strategist David Axelrod recently asserted, for example, that “[o]pen-seat presidential elections are shaped by perceptions of the style and personality of the outgoing incumbent.” Earlier this month, we saw how, in New Hampshire, the differing experience of two generations of women caused significantly different reactions to the prospect of electing the first female president this year. In an even more dramatic example, the late historian Tony Judt and historian Timothy Snyder argue in “Thinking the Twentieth Century” that the two main competing economic positions today — small, non-interventionist government vs. government intervention to improve the lives of citizens — flow directly from the earlier experiences of influential 20th-century giants, such as Friederich Hayek and John Maynard Keynes. Hayek, coming of age during the tumultuous interwar period in Austria, concluded that all government intervention sooner or later leads to totalitarianism. Keynes, coming of age in the late Victorian era and early 20th century, saw that government action led to vastly improved lives in England, and advocated for state action when economies need help.

Causation patterns similarly work in the arts sector. Veteran artists and administrators, facing changing funding priorities, demographic shifts and technological advances overturning the industry they knew, pine for what they believe was a past world of stable funding and economics from the second half of the 20th century. For younger artists — who, like the younger feminists in New Hampshire, have not grown up with that same experience — there is an attitude of just getting on with their work and careers. They look at what is in front of them differently than those with a lens on past experiences.

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Taken together, then, the challenge for anyone building or maintaining a nonprofit arts institution or career is how to deal with daily challenges in such a way that decision-making is aligned with long-term priorities. This balance is even more difficult to maintain if the person is looking through the lens of the past — that is to say, if they are not fully situated in the present. I believe there is a practical and easy way to model how to address this conundrum — to find that necessary balance.

As thinking animals, we unconsciously shift our viewpoints in order to sift through the massive data and stimulation we receive and to pick out the relevant bits of information. Consider how we synthesize information when driving a car. As we move forward, we constantly shift our attention from the distant road before us to the near — say, the dashboard — and to the side and to the rear. Simultaneously, we take in information peripherally, aurally and instinctively. The result of managing this synthesis is that we can proceed at high speeds without colliding.

Fairly recent technological developments have given us very comfortable tools to move this autonomic function into our consciousness and, thereby, to use it in our professional work. In the 19th century, photography altered our relationship to the world around us. Then, moving images showed us the world over time. Then, the introduction of editing images introduced a shifting viewpoint — what filmmakers consciously use to tell a story. This progression — of seeing the world over time through shifting points of view — elevates the natural, innate means we possess and use to process information to the level of a tool that we can put to work to achieve our goals.

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Given our ability to seamlessly traverse such a landscape whether as a driver in a car or a spectator at a movie, we can apply the same tools and processes to our management and analysis at work. I’d argue that focusing solely on the daily issues of an organization is like driving a car with a fixed gaze at the hood. For us to expect that the vehicle will not crash sooner or later is wishful thinking — and dangerous — at best. But if it’s so easy to drive a car or watch a movie, if it’s so easy to flow back and forth through shifting viewpoints, why should it be so difficult to do this in our management and planning at work? All we need do is carve out time each day to consider the short-term in the context of the long-term.

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