Eat Your Strategic planning vegetables, Part II

“In any situation, the best thing you can do is the right thing; the next best thing you can do is the wrong thing; the worst thing you can do is nothing.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett

“Vision without action is daydream. Action without vision is nightmare.” – Japanese Proverb

Before I went on a tear about grant applications in my last blog, I was writing about how strategic plans and the processes to create them can and should be invigorating and inspiring. In particular, I referenced Jeanne Bell’s recommendation to not wait for a finished plan before making any major staffing decisions. I would build on that recommendation to say that if there are any major (or even minor) issues that float quickly to the top that need action, do a gut check, and then go for it.

There’s something about a planning process that can knock down structural, intellectual, and even emotional barriers. Since it forces us to look at our organization through a focused lens, and since that lens can include the viewpoints of the greater community as well as that of the staff and board, it gives us license to finally address some of those things that have been nagging at us for ages.

In our case, one of the most glaring problems we had was that we – our board and even our staff – didn’t really know how to talk about who we are and what we do. Our then-board president often described us – in private – as “schizophrenic”. She had a great point. We do so many programs, some of which are highly visible and some of which fly under the radar. And we do so much beyond our programs that is difficult to quantify or describe in laymen’s terms. (Really: what does “technical assistance” mean to anyone outside our field?) At the outset, our fantastic consultant, Nancy Ragey, and planning team made us realize that we’d been talking about what we do, i.e. our programs and services, rather than our impact. And that was our big mistake.

No one wants to listen to a litany of programs. Our “elevator pitch” was simply tiring to hear. “Oh, we give grants to artists and arts organizations; we run the annual Open Studios tour with over 300 artists; we have two arts education programs that run both during the school day and after school; we coordinate exhibitions at the County Government Center, at Santa Cruz City Hall, and at our offices; we lead the charge on arts advocacy and work with elected officials on arts policy…” and suddenly our audience is glassy-eyed and wondering when the heck they are going to get off the elevator.

Very quickly, when we started focusing on impact, we realized that this was a much more effective way to talk about just how fantastic we are. Because, by gum, what we do is great. And it’s pretty simple: the Cultural Council promotes, connects, and invests in the arts. Why do we do this? To help local arts thrive. Why is it important that local arts thrive? Well, that’s where you and I could sit down to have a nice long conversation about everything from raising happy children to creating better understanding between cultures to stimulating the economy. The impact we have is multifold, and framing it in this simple way – promote, connect, invest – allows me to find what part of what we do that lights your fire, so you and I have the chance to have a real conversation about it. And that is exciting.

We started using these three words – “buckets”, we called them – immediately. We didn’t wait for the plan to be done, and it has transformed our ability to effectively describe not what we do, but why we are important. We launched a new campaign in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, with a weekly full-page ad designed around each bucket, which led into more details about our grantees and other beneficiaries. We dropped our tag line, as it no longer fits who we are, and adopted a very simple statement: We Make Art Happen. We redesigned our marketing materials, playing with that statement and keeping our current logo but using color and brevity to communicate who we are.

Our annual appeal was unlike anything we’d done before. Rather than a long letter, we created a colorful tri-fold document that made our case. And it got a lot of attention:

We then reworked our “rack card” brochure. The previous brochure was an eight-panel text-heavy rack card that was – if you can believe it – mostly grey. Our new brochure is a tri-fold and builds on the look and feel of the annual letter. Here they are, side by side:

Which would you gravitate toward, if you saw both in a huge rack of brochures? The inside really illustrates the difference:

There was absolutely no reason to wait to implement these changes. The need to change was clear; the way to talk about ourselves became obvious quite quickly; and we had smartly dedicated resources in our marketing budget to allow us to put this into action. We have had a tremendous response to these seemingly simple shifts, which gives me all the more juice to complete our image redesign, which will include our logo, mission, website – perhaps even our name.

Now, these changes are really a smaller example of the shifts we’ve already made this year, even though our planning process is not yet complete. The process has been so informative, even mid-course, that we’ve been able to make both difficult and exciting choices. In the last few months, we’ve had some major staffing changes; we decided to move our offices to a new, permanent home at the Tannery Arts Center; and we have implemented technologies new to the Cultural Council throughout all of our programs. These choices will profoundly affect who we are and how we operate. But to have waited until our planning process was complete to make them would have meant a year of treading water, of wasting time, of wasting resources.

So, I encourage you, whether or not you are in a planning process, to take some of the best advice we got during our focus groups: Be bold. Take action. If something large or small is nagging at you, do something about it. Don’t wait.

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