Monthly Archives: March 2014

Involve Me and I Learn

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” – Socrates

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi

I’m told that babies and young children often have major developmental leaps after traveling. There is something about being in a new environment that inspires the brain to do something differently, or that triggers a new understanding. My three-year-old Andrew took his first two steps in the airport on Kauai, at the tail end of a two-week vacation in Hawaii. My one-year-old first figured out that softly cooing “mama, mama, mama” (as opposed to just nondescript moaning) was a very effective way of getting my attention in the middle of the night when we were staying in a hotel in Tahoe. These may have been coincidences. But I know that the only way I can inspire change in my tired, comparatively old brain is by getting out of Dodge and going somewhere that is completely “other”, and taking real time to think differently.

Day 3 of Spitfire was the perfect cap to this experience. Andy Goodman came back and showed us that if we could change the story, we could change the world. Meaning, if we can effectively communicate the problems we are tackling and the solutions our organizations provide, we can build the resources we need to better our communities. And in the afternoon, Lizz Winstead (co-creator of the Daily Show, comedian, and activist) talked to us about how humor is a fantastic tool for activism. She’s hilarious, and, more important, she’s fearless. And thoughtful.  And that is a powerful combination.

I learned a lot over these three days. I had a bunch of “aha” moments, and many more moments of great satisfaction as common sense, best practices, and my own passion for my work at the Arts Council all came together to illuminate great possibilities for my organization. And I realize that if we don’t integrate some of this learning, we’ll – in some ways – just spin our wheels and never fully realize the Arts Council’s full potential, and fall short of the additional tremendous impact we could have in this community.

But if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have known what we were missing. It’s true that integrating what I learned into the Council’s work will take time and energy. But what would be worse: business as usual, or a little more work on our plates that will inspire the next era of Arts Council awesomeness?

The point is this: we all need opportunities to think differently. We all – as individuals and organizations – need great trainings, taught by wildly skilled instructors and attended by passionate, smart executors, so we can learn to, say, move in a different way (like a toddler’s first steps) or communicate in a different way (like a baby figuring out a deeply instinctive motivator for his mama).

In the nonprofit sector, when money gets tight, we generally cite “marketing” as the first thing to get slashed from a budget, and we bemoan the loss. I’m willing to bet, however, that professional development gets cut long before marketing.

My advice: DON’T DO IT. Don’t cut it. Fund it. Over-fund it. Got a professional development budget? Double it. Talk about it at every staff meeting. Champion it to your board. If you are a funder, be very, very smart like the Hewlett Foundation and the Packard Foundation (oh, and wait, also like Arts Council Santa Cruz County) and invest in it for your grantees. If you are a staff member, and you find a training opportunity, and your organization can afford it, and the people who are running it look smart and savvy? Don’t make excuses that you don’t have time. (Don’t even let your sweet little new baby hold you back from going – trust me on this, you’ll love the sleep.) Just do it.

Spitfire 2

Some of the faces, and smiles, of folks working to better themselves so they can better the world

We’re all too busy, we’re all overcommitted, and I’m realizing that even as I tell that story about my own work life, I also find my “busyness” really boring. Enough already. Let’s all make a commitment to expand our minds, our social networks, our skills, and our lives by investing in the professional development of ourselves and our colleagues.

Still Burning

When I was in college, one of our particularly brilliant directors – Doug Austin, if he’s still working out there – talked to us about successful performers and how we were to learn from them. In one particular lecture, he said something like, “If there is someone you admire, if they are particularly talented and do great work, find out how often they rehearse. Find out what they do to prepare for performances. Find out what their rituals are, what’s important for them. Hell, find out where they get their donuts.” The idea being, if I know where, say, Dame Judy Dench gets her donuts, and if I stalk her and figure out her favorite kind and try her donut-eating method that avoids getting jelly on my shirt, some of Ms. Dench’s awesomeness might rub off on me, along with the powdered sugar.

I desperately hope that I come home with a head-to-toe fine dusting of metaphorical powdered sugar, considering the smarts I’ve witnessed in the past two days.

First of all, Kristen Grimm, President of Spitfire Strategies. If there is any way that I could ever be as singularly good at any one thing as she is at communications, my life will have had meaning. And Andy Goodman from The Goodman Center? Come on. His presentation on bad presentations was the best presentation I’ve ever seen.

Today we fleshed out the communications planning tool that we started yesterday. This tool – called a Smart Chart – is a thoughtful way to develop a communications program around a particular issue or goal. It’s all about identifying the values of our audiences, overcoming barriers, illuminating the solutions that our organizations provide, and confirming how the world will be better as the result of our work.

Of the many powerful takeaways from today, there is one at the top of my mind: in communications, perception is more important than fact. Heck, that’s probably true in most situations if you need to move the needle on an issue. If the people you are trying to reach have an emotional connection to what you are describing, you have to meet them where they are, and respond with emotion. You can’t respond to emotions with facts.

Kristen gave a great example: her husband was 45 minutes late for dinner. She freaked out when he finally arrived, and started yelling, “You don’t love me!” He started explaining that his meeting ran late, that he couldn’t get a cab, and she was getting more and more worked up because the details didn’t matter. It wasn’t until he stopped and said, “Honey, I’m so sorry. I love you. This will never happen again,” that she calmed down. The facts were irrelevant. The emotion was all that mattered. (If my husband is reading this, he’s probably both rolling his eyes and nodding his head.)

We also learned how both humor and emotion, and very well-done visuals, can be tremendously effective. Here are two excellent examples:

This one was, I admit, so targeted to someone like me:

Follow the Frog.

And this one shattered me:

Imagine a World Without Hate

Both incredibly effective narratives, for very different reasons.

My mind is about to melt out of my ears, and I have only one more night to get an irresponsibly wonderful amount of sleep, so I cannot share more at the moment. I will, however, write more about what I’ve learned as I work to integrate it into the Arts Council. Getting whacked over the head with a bunch of awesomeness can be overwhelming; bringing it home and making it work for the Council will be a whole separate kettle of kittens. But if we can make that happen, I believe the difference will be profound.

Fired Up

“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.” – Aristotle

I’m writing from the heart of Washington, D.C., just six blocks from the White House and a few light years away from Santa Cruz. I’m here for the Executive Training Program through Spitfire Strategies. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funded my trip here, and my gratitude to them is matched only by my enthusiasm for the work. One of the best things about this training is that it’s cross-sector – there are nonprofit executives here working in river conservation, education, health, leadership, philanthropy, farming, wildlife – and only one other arts organization. It’s fantastic to learn from not just the think tank that is Spitfire, but also from the brilliance of the collective group.

This is also my first extended trip away from my little boys. While I could barely breathe from missing them as I fell into bed last night, I also experienced 9 1/2 hours of uninterrupted sleep for the first time in almost four years. If it’s possible to be both drunk and hung over from sleep, that’s how I felt this morning when I woke. But I digress.

A few preliminary observations about my time here:

1. I’m the only one in D.C. with hair down to my butt, a powder blue puffy winter coat, and a bag full of knitting. But, I’m a nerd anywhere I go, so this isn’t such a big deal.

2. It’s 30 degrees out but there are lots of men walking around in sport coats and ties but no jacket.

3. Women here wear pantyhose. Or is it just called hose? And where does one buy such a thing? This is the strangest thing I’ve seen yet.

4. It’s incredible to be in a city with such (comparatively) old and beautiful architecture, and where so much is happening, all the time.

While I delight in being a tourist, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to learn how to build the overall communications capacity of the Arts Council – to create our communications strategy, to help us tell great stories, and to do a better job of connecting with the people we serve, and the people who support us.

This was our first of three days, and it was intense. I imagine that the work we are doing would benefit any organization, or for that matter, any business, large or small.

We started by tackling our “brand strategy”, and “brand promise”. And yes, when I hear those phrases, my eyes roll back in my head at what sounds like really dull jargon. But what we are talking about when we use those terms is juicy stuff: the personality, the core beliefs, the very DNA of our organizations. We also discussed, at length, what we don’t do, what we are not. My list for that was pretty long, and included the following nuggets:

– We don’t make art. (We make art happen.)

– We don’t have a strict top-down management structure.

– We aren’t quiet.

– We are not too busy to listen.

– We do not operate solely in the arts world.

It’s eye-opening to clarify what you aren’t, so you can better articulate who you are.

We also did an exercise called “Best in the World”, where I was to distill what the Arts Council is truly gifted at as an organization. The Council runs great programs. But here is the thing that I believe is beginning to set us apart:

“The Arts Council champions the arts as a means to address and even help solve broad community issues and challenges.”

This is a newer focus for us, and other organizations (namely the MAH) are also doing great work in this arena, but it’s a movement that I think is critical to our long-term success, and the success of our community. I’ll be writing about this a great deal more in the near future.

One of the most illuminating elements of the day was a self-assessment we each conducted on our organization’s communications capacity. We rated our organizations on how far along we were in sixteen different areas. And… the Arts Council isn’t at the bottom of the barrel, but we are also far from the cream of the crop.

When you are deeply passionate about your work, it’s hard to point a magnifying glass at it and be objective about your strengths and flaws. But it’s also a relief to acknowledge, in black and white, where you fall short, so you can name the problem and consider how to address it.

Want to take a crack at it? Consider your organizational or business communications strategy. How would you rate yourself on:

– clear communication objectives

– a written communications plan

– someone in charge of implementing it

– talking with your board, staff, and volunteers every week about it

– a rockstar elevator speech

– tailored messages

– everyone from interns to executives being trained spokespeople

– a crisis plan

– refreshing your messages based on current realities

– an excellent system for measuring progress

– ultimately, a strong, recognizable brand

That’s only about half the list. And it’s all  important.

Equally important is getting out of my comfort zone and into a room of thoughtful people and skilled consultants who are giving me the tools to transform how the Arts Council communicates – and therefore transform how successful we can be. I’m very much looking forward to day 2. And, perhaps, 10 more hours of sleep, starting now.