Category Archives: Leadership

If Music Be the Food of Love…

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” – Calvin Coolidge

“The golden age is before us, not behind us.” – William Shakespeare

The first time I sang onstage, I was in 6th grade, and I warbled my way through the second verse of “Winter Wonderland” in my school’s holiday concert. The first time I had a lead acting role was when I was fourteen, in my high school’s production of Godspell.

Since then, I’ve been on a hundred stages, sung in countless recording studios, performed in one-room school houses in the Ozarks and even, once, danced on a Broadway stage. Working in the arts has been one of the great gifts of my life. But working as a performing artist was also one of the most challenging of all my pursuits. (Though parenting takes that particular cake.)

The hundreds of hours of practicing my craft, of battling crippling stage fright, of the constant search for the next job, of dealing with elation one day and rejection the next – all of this gave me skills that have proved invaluable: grit and determination.

I hung up my acting hat over a decade ago, for two reasons: one, I wasn’t that great an actor and I knew it. Two, I always knew that there was something else that was truly my calling. Luckily enough, I discovered what I am meant to do, and get to answer that call every day at the Arts Council. My hard-fought grit and determination have never left me, and now I get to use them to build community through the arts.

Any artist will attest: working in the arts requires a profound sense of self, shutting out the naysayers, constantly proving your worth and relevancy, and baring your soul.

The passionate folks who are spearheading Shakespeare Play On are doing just that – with an astounding amount of grit and determination – and the world is responding.

For those of you who don’t already know the saga, in short, the University of California Santa Cruz’s Dean of the Arts pulled the plug on Shakespeare Santa Cruz (SSC) one week prior to the closing of their regular season last summer. I wrote about this back when it first happened, and won’t get into the “why” and “how” at this point. But I will say that after 32 years of being one of the most excellent Shakespeare companies in the country, and a beloved institution of theatergoers in Santa Cruz County and far beyond, the outcry was immense.

The Arts Council was, cumulatively, one of Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s largest funders. And many of us at the Council, as lovers of great theater, were also raving fans. When talk began – almost immediately – about saving SSC, we wanted to be involved. Several SSC board members stepped up and created Shakespeare Play On (SPO) with the intention of reforming the organization as an independent entity, with the same artistic integrity (and artistic staff) as SSC.

Their idea is to front-fund a 2014 season by raising $885,000 by February 1st. The 2014 season proceeds would then seed the 2015 season. (Most theaters, out of necessity, operate in the opposite direction: they expend their resources to put on a season, and then pay their debts with ticket sales and sponsorships after the season is over.) This is a very simple but smart idea. In December of last year, the Arts Council signed on as Shakespeare Play On’s fiscal sponsor. Since then, we’ve been strategizing with their board members, helping to promote their vision, and receiving donations on behalf of the newly-formed organization, and holding those funds in trust as SPO works on getting their own non-profit status.

I’ve worked in the arts and in disaster relief, and rarely have I witnessed the kind of determination exhibited by the Shakespeare Play On leadership. They’ve been unwavering in their vision, clear about their scope, and unapologetic about what they need to make this thing fly. They’ve also developed one of the most impressive Advisory Boards I’ve ever seen. It’s been thrilling to be a part of it. As of today, they’ve raised over $682,000, and done so, as they say on their website, “with only Facebook, Twitter, and word of mouth, and without access to Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s 32 years of donor, subscriber, or patron information.”

This is an extraordinary accomplishment. They still need to raise $203,000 in a very short time frame, but I’m confident that they will make it happen. And when they do, it will be a testament to the power of the arts, the passion that people feel for great theater, and the generosity of this incredible community.

Grit, and determination. With these, we can move mountains – and keep great art alive in Santa Cruz County.


“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” – Jane Addams

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” – Mother Teresa 

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of leading a discussion about the arts at Civinomicon 2013. This conference was touted as a “civic hackathon”, with an end goal of creating numerous initiatives that would benefit the Santa Cruz County community. Those initiatives are currently being voted on by residents throughout Santa Cruz, whether or not they attended the event.

The format was interesting, the crowd diverse and engaged, and there was free ice cream and beer. It takes something very compelling to tear me away from my children on a Saturday, but this was definitely time well spent. I was asked to create a presentation that outlined the state of the arts in Santa Cruz County, identify challenges in our sector, and then to facilitate a discussion during which the group would brainstorm ideas that could help improve the arts in our community.

I followed this format, but I didn’t ask the group to brainstorm ideas that could help improve the arts. Instead, I asked the group to brainstorm ideas that would help strengthen our community through the arts. There is a very clear distinction, in my mind, between the two. For me, it’s the difference between treating a symptom – such as a headache – and instead focusing on the health of your body – such as getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising, which in turn (in my case) prevents headaches. If we focus on how the arts can make the whole community thrive, then we have the opportunity to both make a major community impact as well as strengthen the arts.

Many ideas were generated, and the arts initiatives can be voted on here. As much as I enjoyed presenting at this conference, I would have loved to have joined some of the other conversations, on traffic, the environment, economic development, homelessness, public safety, and others. The arts have a role to play in all of those conversations, and we at the Arts Council want to be actively involved in solving the myriad challenges this community is facing.

To that end, I just got a phone call from a very kind reporter who asked, “Why is the Arts Council co-sponsoring a forum about Covered California and the Affordable Care Act?” And the answer is simple: there are many people in Santa Cruz County who lack health care insurance, or adequate insurance, and we want to help solve that. Many of these people in need are artists – innovators, creators, and designers. Artists of all kinds often are contract workers, or self-employed, with no regular paycheck, no benefits, and certainly no health insurance.

I’ve been there myself. For years, as a musical theater actor and performer, I jumped from job to job, show to show. In that life, paid vacation is unheard of, and health insurance – unless you are part of the union and happen to have worked enough in the past year to qualify – is a pipe dream. I lived my life for years avoiding going to the doctor and praying I didn’t get sick or injured. It’s no way to live, not for me, not for artists, not for anyone. Farmworkers, contract teachers, hospitality workers, the unemployed or underemployed, all should have the basic peace of mind that comes with decent health insurance.

Obamacare might not work for everyone, and certainly there have been challenges with it so far. But it will give many people who have spent years living in fear of a health catastrophe the opportunity to get insurance for themselves and their children. So, in concert with more than fifteen community service organizations, we are putting time, energy and money toward “Get Covered: A Public Forum on Affordable Health Care through Covered California”. This forum, which will be on December 7th at the Santa Cruz Police Department Community Room, will help educate folks about the new law and provide enrollment assistance. In our quest to find unlikely partners to do great work in this community, this certainly qualifies, and it’s gratifying to work with such a diverse group of smart people.

So while I love being asked to talk about the arts, and to engage the public on ideas that can help elevate the arts in Santa Cruz County, what truly excites me is finding ways that the Arts Council can support the health and vibrancy of this community. “Get Covered” is a step in the right direction.

In Trust

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” – Ernest Hemingway

Week before last, I spent four invigorating days at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference. It’s been aptly blogged by Barry Hessenius, the team at Createquity, and others, so I don’t need to do that here. I do, however, feel compelled to add to the themes that others identified throughout the conference.

Ian David Moss noted the usual the conference “tracks” that popped up: arts and social justice/cultural equity, arts education, technology, support for individual artists, and creative placemaking. But the theme that came up for me, time and again, was, simply, trust.

In this data-driven, results-driven, detailed application, and interim- and final-report heavy grantmaking world, we ask a lot of grantees. We ask them to create projected budgets, we ask them to have boards of directors with a matrix to our liking, and we ask for anticipated numbers of people served without acknowledging that the world could change on a dime (such as in 2008). We ask artists to not only excel at their artwork but also at crafting grant proposals. We ask them to fit within the sometimes narrow confines of what we think is worth funding.

Sometimes, inadvertently, we ask them to lie. It can be really difficult to be a perfect fit to qualify for funding, and I’m sure many applicants put on an extra coat of lipstick and suck in their bellies when it’s time for their grant to strut down the runway.

There was some excellent and fresh thinking about this in several of the sessions I attended. Here are some of the most interesting ideas I heard:

–        Eliminate proposed budgets. They are make-believe.

–        Eliminate proposals. Base funding on the past performance of the organization.

–        Simplify final reports, and ask for two narratives:

  • How did you spend the money?
  • Tell us a story.

–        Award grants to artists based on an interview and site visit, not an application.

–        Don’t direct the organization through application questions. Don’t expect them to have a certain kind of board. Don’t have expectations around their income sources. Just look at the quality and impact of the art or project.

–        Give general operating support.

–        Give general operating support.

–        Give general operating support.

Oh, did I repeat that last one?

The National Capitalization Project, has, gratefully, brought to the forefront the idea of strengthening organizations through helping them build reserves, and it has also focused on encouraging funders to give general operating support. But many grantmakers are still resistant to these ideas. Why? I believe it comes down to trust. The donors have (or had) a vision that must be followed; the boards of foundations need to know that the money is being spent according to the wishes of the donors; and the program officers must make funding recommendations in line with board directives. And finally, the artist needs to create within the framework of his or her proposal.

With so many degrees of separation between the funder and creator, trust can be a difficult thing to engender. Also, the stories of grantees mismanaging foundation funding, though few and far between, are unfortunately sensationalized and cast doubt on the whole philanthropic process.

But by and large, the people and organizations that are awarded funding do great things. So why don’t we make it vastly easier for both the grantor and grantee to meet their missions? Think of the dollars that could be saved if grantees didn’t have to spend dozens of hours each year on grant applications, and if program officers and panelists didn’t have to spend hundreds of hours reviewing applications. There are better ways, and some of the innovative organizations at the GIA conference are putting them into practice. But it requires trust.

Arts Council Santa Cruz County has been part of the problem, too. Our Create Grants are small pots of money that fund innovative, community-benefit, small-scale projects. Grants range from $500-$3000. Up until a year ago, if the grant was for more than $1000, we only gave them 70% up front and then gave them the final 30% after the project took place. What’s worse, we required an invoice for both the initial and final payment.

When I asked why this practice was in place, I was told that we did this in case the project didn’t go as planned, or didn’t happen at all. So we wouldn’t be out the few hundred dollars of the final payment.

To this day, I feel like banging my head against the wall when I think about this. It’s a small thing, maybe, but – really? We couldn’t trust our artists to figure out something cool to do with these tiny pots of money – or trust them to return the funds if the project didn’t happen? Or not worry too much about it, in the grand scheme of things? And did we really need to cut multiple checks, ask for multiple invoices, etc. for such a small amount of funding?

Here’s the kicker: I asked if, in 33 years of grantmaking at the time, if any grantee had canceled their project and not returned the money. The answer? Never. NEVER.

*THUNK* (sound of my head hitting the wall)

We certainly weren’t alone in how our process was designed. Indeed, we were engaged in what was commonly known as “best practices”.

Obviously, we don’t engage in this anymore. For the smaller grants, we just cut checks when we sign contracts. For the larger grants, we still split up the amount into two payments, but only for cash flow purposes. No invoices, no percentages based on funding amounts, and sometimes, as I’ve mentioned, no applications, even. We still have a long way to go to cultivate a true culture of trust, but we are working to be on the right side of history on this issue.

We are giving general operating support and fully funding project grant requests when we are able. More than that, though, we are working to build a climate of trust. We have great artists here in Santa Cruz who through their work make this one of the most exciting and dynamic places to live in the world. The way I see it, we need to trust them, and we also need to do everything we can to make sure they can trust us.

The grantee/grantor imbalanced power dynamic doesn’t serve anyone. After all, it’s the artists in this community who help us meet our mission to promote, connect, and invest in Santa Cruz County arts. Without the artists and arts organizations, we are nothing. Without our support, the creators have less capacity to do their work. This is a two-way street and I was heartened by the many funders who are embracing trust – and I hope that our collective leadership encourages more in the field to do the same.

Proud Sponsors

“All truths are easy once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.” – Galileo Galilei

“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.” – Winston Churchill

I have a BFA in Musical Theater. It’s the kind of college degree that brings a smirk to many a face, as people assume I spent four years tap dancing and walking around in clown shoes. I did do both, at times, but I actually spent five years taking between 20-24 units a semester learning a deep curriculum in music, dance, and theater. Oh, and taking all of the “core” subjects required for a liberal arts college degree. Scoff if you will, but I learned how to put in the hours to get the job done, and my late-night cramming was often in the ballet studio as well as the library.

One of the most eye-opening courses I took was Directing 101. All actors need to try their hands as directors when learning the craft, and I found directing to be challenging on so many levels. Running a casting call, finding a set designer and light designer, working around numerous schedules, looking for both talent and “fit”, getting the group as a whole to deliver both professionally and artistically – it was tough work (and, years later, so very familiar).

The most enlightening element of the process was being on the other end during an audition. You quickly learn that the audition begins the moment the actor walks into the room – not the moment she begins her monologue or song. How she walks, how she interacts with the accompanist, how she introduces herself – all of it matters almost as much as her ability act or sing. Actually, the audition begins even before that – it begins when I read her resume. There I learn not just about her professional past, but how she presents herself, her writing ability, her professionalism, her artistry as expressed through simple things such as font, brevity, and design.

Being on both ends of the creative spectrum was helpful then, as it is now.

I’m back in a dual role, as the director of an arts council that is also a funder. The Arts Council is both a grantee and a grantor, at all times. We spend a great deal of time on fund development but even more time figuring out how to responsibly disperse much of those funds so they can have a profound impact on our community. I’m also aware that this dynamic may color some of my relationships with both those who fund us, and those we fund. I wish I could remove that weird power dynamic altogether, as it just feels like an impediment to real relationships with people I really enjoy. But it’s there, and all I can do is show up in an authentic way when I’m interacting with my friends and colleagues.

Sometimes, though, being in this position allows us to imagine, design, and implement a change that we think is really cool. We know what it is like to spend dozens of hours on grant applications that may or may not get funded, or may have a pathetically small return on investment. We know the frustration of wishing we could be working to meet our mission, rather than working to raise the funds we need to do our work.

To that end, the Arts Council has made some major changes to our grants program. We opened up the cycle so funding for arts projects is available year round; we simplified who is eligible for general support grants versus project grants; we reworked our grants panel so truly qualified folks in each discipline will be reviewing applications; we’re offering professional development grants to both artists and arts organizations; and we moved to a much better online system for our grantmaking. But the change I’m most excited about is our new Sponsor Grant category.

The Arts Council has been funding the arts in Santa Cruz since 1979. And there are organizations in this county that we’ve been funding for all of those 34 years, whose longevity rivals our own. There are other organizations that may not have been around as long, but which have consistently provided excellent programming for the community and maintained strong management practices.

Every year, these organizations jump through our grantmaking hoops to be considered for funding. Every year, we see their strong balance sheets, high-quality programing, dedicated and talented staff, and devoted audiences. And every year, we award them funds. Which begged the question: why are we making them jump through hoops?

Enter the Sponsor Grants. These grants are ongoing, annual funding for the strongest and most impactful arts organizations in the county, based on the following criteria:

–          Ten years of producing programming in Santa Cruz County

–          Been funded by the Arts Council for five consecutive years

–          Provide leadership in their art discipline and/or in the Santa Cruz community

–          Have strong and consistent management and board leadership

–          Have a stable or growing budget

–          Have stable or growing audiences

–          Significant cash reserves

These organizations do not have to submit a grant application; instead, Arts Council staff does a site visit with both board and staff members, and at the end of the fiscal year, the funded organization will send a basic report that speaks to the criteria above. Unless these organizations experience dramatic and negative changes, we will continue to fund them year after year. All of the hours that would have been spent on a grant application will now be spent meeting their mission and creating fantastic programming for this community. We, too will save time, not having to collect, read, and score those grant applications, so we too can spend more time focused on our mission. In return for this funding, the Arts Council is given a sponsorship package commensurate with any other donor of the same level. This way, we promote the Arts Council’s own work in the community, ultimately building our capacity to provide even greater support to the organizations we serve.

One particularly exciting element of this category is that it’s not just about budget size. Some of the organizations in the cohort are major institutions – the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, the Museum of Art & History – but others are much smaller, such as the Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center and Pajaro Valley Arts CouncilKuumbwa Jazz, the Santa Cruz County Symphony, and Tandy Beal round out the group, representing a broad range of artistic disciplines. These organizations also serve communities from the border region near Monterey to the far north county.

There are many other wonderful organizations in this community, of course, and some are close to qualifying for this grant. We hope to help elevate these organizations so they too can join the Sponsor category. Indeed, we are creating another new exciting grant category designed to help a cohort of organizations take the next step in their development. But that’s news for another day.

The Sponsor Grant category – and indeed, all of the major changes in the program – is the brainchild of our Grants & Technical Assistance Manager, Jim Brown. I can only take credit for being smart and lucky enough to talk him into joining our team just over a year ago. A former Executive Director of both the Diversity Center and 418 Project in Santa Cruz, with a background in in the tech world, Jim hadn’t had direct experience as a grants manager. But he did have experience as a grantseeker, and as a natural innovator and great thinker, he was able to completely re-think how we can make an impact with our funds. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

Balancing Act

“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.” – Alain de Botton

“Having children is like having a bowling alley in your brain.” – Martin Mull

“I’d love to come to your conference. I’m a nursing mom. Do you have a place I can pump?” – me

As a kid, I used to count the days until summer vacation. Now, at the beginning of each fiscal year, I count the days until I get to start planning my conference schedule.  I love looking at the year ahead to see what’s being offered, where it’s happening, and who is going to be there that I can’t miss. I get almost as excited for conferences as I do for vacations, as these experiences feed both my passion and my soul. I find I learn best when I’m taken out of my comfortable environment and placed in a new space with strangers and friends I don’t usually get to see. These experiences are invaluable for my work, and my spirit.

But my attitude toward these opportunities has changed in the last few years. Now I weigh the benefits of the conference against the time spent away from my little boys and husband, and the scales are pretty weighted toward my family. Working a full-time job and being the parent of very young children is the greatest challenge of my life. And, sadly, our society is not set up to help us parents balance these great responsibilities.

There are many obstacles that working parents have to overcome, every day. We struggle to feel successful at anything, because there never seems to be enough hours in the day to truly serve our work and our children. One of a dozen issues I face every day is how, when, and where to pump. I’m a nursing mom, and though some folks still feel squeamish about hearing anything tied to that particular anatomical part, pumping is a constant reality and necessity for working mothers committed to being the primary source of nutrition for their babies.

To be clear, I hate pumping. I hate it. When Alex is a year old and I don’t have to pump anymore, I will gleefully set my pump on fire and send it flying off the tallest building I can find. But until then, it’s the machine that helps me take care of my baby, and where I go, it will too.

But I can’t let pumping – or parenting – completely derail my professional life. So it’s time to get back in the conference saddle. I’ve missed too many in the past few years. To that end, I’ve been exploring my options and I’m delighted about what’s coming up. Next month, for the first time, I’ll be attending the Nonprofit Management Institute at Stanford. I haven’t been at the Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) conference in two years, so I’m excited to be attending this October. Other excellent opportunities are lined up for the winter and spring. These events are critical to my success at the Arts Council, as they connect me to great thinking in the field, fuel my passion, and deepen my ability to serve the arts both locally and nationally.

As I contemplate these opportunities, however, I have to consider how I can manage my commitments. And so every time an intriguing event comes my way, I pick up the phone, call the event organizer, and tell them that I’d very much like to participate, but is there a place I can pump?

To a person, I’ve been the first one to ask them this question, which I find both surprising and sad. What have other nursing moms done? Have they just not participated? Or have they pumped in a bathroom stall? Or in their car in a parking lot? Or have they been too shy to ask the question? There’s one conference that I’m not attending due to schedule conflicts, but I was particularly distressed that they didn’t have a ready answer for me, since the conference was all about empowering women in the workplace. We cannot empower women, or parents of either gender, in the workplace if we aren’t anticipating their basic needs. True, not every woman with a baby is pumping, but it’s my guess that thousands of women currently working in Santa Cruz are pumping, and maybe even pumping as I write this. While pumping.

The good news is, all of the conference organizers I’ve talked with eventually said “yes”, that they could accommodate my needs (which are pretty simple: privacy, a table, and outlet.) Indeed, the Arrillaga Alumni Center at Stanford, which is the venue for the Nonprofit Management Instituted, has a room reserved for nursing mothers. But why isn’t this the norm?

I travel a fair amount for my work, and engage with cultural leaders and institutions across the country. And I hear time and time again about how these institutions want to attract young, energetic, dynamic leadership. When I was in my early 30’s, I heard a great deal about the looming “leadership gap”, where major institutions in both the for- and non-profit sectors were terrified that their CEOs were going to retire and there wasn’t enough talent to fill their shoes. (All of the young leaders I was connected with at the time thought this was hogwash, because we were all ready and able to jump in, but that’s another story.)

But here’s the thing: if you want young leadership, you have to be prepared for the priorities of the young, and that often means starting families. I’m not ashamed to admit that before taking my current job, I asked a very pointed question: does the insurance policy cover maternity benefits? I knew I wanted to have children, and I knew I could do it and be a successful ED – but only if I wasn’t terrified about having to pay out-of-pocket for my health care needs.

But insurance is only the beginning. There are many things to consider around parenting issues if your organization wants to attract and keep young talent:

–          Does your organization have maternity and paternity policies that go beyond the (pathetic) federal requirements?

–          Are you willing to let parents (or anyone, for that matter) work flexible schedules?

–          Are you willing to create personnel policies that help young parents fulfill their parenting responsibilities? (A place for pumping is just one example.)

When organizing events or conferences, there is also much to consider. What about proactively making the conference appealing and accessible to young parents? There are many ways to do this, but here are two:

  1. On the conference registration, the form always asks if the registrant has special needs, such as wheelchair accessibility, hearing aids, even vegetarian meals. How about asking if the registrant will need a space to pump or nurse (if the parent is bringing the baby)?
  2. When providing event information for multi-day conferences, how about including child care referrals for qualified nannies willing to come watch children in the hotel room at night, so the attendees can attend the evening events?

Does this seem over the top? I don’t think so. These are small suggestions that in my mind need to seed a revolution on how parenting is prioritized in our corporate (and sometimes our nonprofit) culture. We do a terrible job of taking care of parents in this country. We value being overworked and overtired. We create job structures that reward time spent at desks rather than accomplishments in our communities. And we rarely celebrate the millions of people who manage to juggle kids and work and do their absolute best to be of service to both.

When you’ve got a little one at home and a big job at work, you feel as though you never have enough time for both. So the least we as nonprofit leaders can do is smooth the way, be thoughtful about how we structure our organizations and events, and work to make parents of young children feel a little more welcome.


culture shock

“Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.” – Peter Drucker

“Culture is the process by which a person becomes all that they were created capable of being.” – Thomas Carlyle

“I always arrive late at the office, but I make up for it by leaving early.” – Charles Lamb

I was just having lunch with a friend, who halfway through her veggie burger got a panicked look on her face and started wrapping up her sandwich. “I’m scared of my boss,” she said frankly, “and I better get back to work.” This woman is a 30-something-year-old creative professional, extremely talented, with children, who works in an environment where she is as likely to get a verbal flogging as she is to get flowers from her boss. “It’s like an abusive marriage”, she said. One day her boss is hollering at her for a misstep she couldn’t have possibly avoided, and the next day he calls the full staff together to tell them all what a great job she is doing.

This makes me see red.

There are so many ways to be a great manager, and so many ways to be a terrible one. I strive every day to not be included in the latter category, and though I don’t always succeed with flying colors, there are some things about management I absolutely believe to be true: great management requires a certain skill set that can be learned, but it also requires some incredibly important assets, such as humility, respect, gratitude, willingness to take responsibility when things go poorly, and an ability to give credit to others when things are going wonderfully well.

The problem is, people with these skills aren’t always the ones in charge. Often it’s the people with the deepest pockets, or with the best political connections, or who have been there the longest, or who are best at working the system. This is true in organizations and companies small and large, and in my mind, explains why there is so much dysfunction and mismanagement in the workplace. If you polled all of your friends, how many of them would say they loved going to work? Felt absolutely valued? Felt inspired and supported?  Felt like they are making a visible contribution that was acknowledged and rewarded?

Even more than that, how often do people even consider that where they work could be a source of joy? That it could be different? That it could be shaped by all of the people involved? Obviously many people do love their workplaces, but the majority of folks I know describe their work lives to be somewhere in a range from “tolerable” to “soul-sucking”. I can’t see any reason for this.

But, of course, I’ve been there. I worked at the huge company where we signed in for the day using our thumbprint on a computer that rarely worked, with all of us squirming in line as we desperately tried to clock in during our allowed six-minute window. I worked in the department where I routinely got in trouble for coming in to work too early. I worked at the restaurant where a good Saturday night was when I didn’t come home crying after being berated by the owner. I worked for the manager who took credit for every great thing others accomplished. I worked for the CEO who, upon hearing about a fantastic new opportunity I had, so belittled and undermined me that I spent weeks wondering if I was indeed good enough to jump to the next level in my career.

I can look back now with a lot more sympathy and understanding for these managers than I had at the time. Many of them were insecure themselves, or frustrated, or in over their heads. Or simply didn’t have the skills they needed to manage people. Which begs the question: why they heck were they in charge?

CEOs, directors and mangers have the opportunity – in fact, the responsibility, to make work a place where people want to be. Office culture needs to be intentional, not happenstance, and like any important relationship, it takes work.

We talk about culture all the time here at the Arts Council. Indeed, it’s a major element of our strategic plan. This is still a work in progress, and the learning curve stretches ever upward, but we’ve found some practices that work for us. We celebrate each other’s accomplishments, we share the burden when we screw up, we take the time to acknowledge each other for great work or for being helpful, and we challenge each other to both stretch our goals and to take significant time away from work. For my part, I don’t care exactly what time people show up or when they leave: I just care about the quality of what they get done while they are here, and how they treat each other and every person with whom they interact while “on the clock”.

I’m 100% clear that every single one of our accomplishments has been a result of incredible team effort. And when I screw up, or when I’m feeling unsure about a choice, my staff is second only to my husband in my list of go-to people for advice or soul-searching. Because they are as smart and talented and trustworthy a group as I’ve ever known.

It’s not a perfect working situation, but we work very hard to make sure it’s damn close.

What is this to do with the arts, you might ask? And I say: everything. The arts are about connection, about self-expression, about humanity, beauty, rigor, questioning, inspiration, common dialogue, communication, heartbreak, joy. The arts are a major way we relate to ourselves, each other, and the world. Here at the Arts Council, we work to connect families with children, artists with resources, organizations with the community. And if we tried to do this work in an environment of fear, of clock-watching, of shame, then the work itself would be inauthentic and our impact would be minimal. If we believe in the power of the arts to connect community, and we don’t start that connection right here at the office, then our work will not ring true.

I’m confident that everyone who works here at the Arts Council loves their work (at least most of the time!), and enjoys how we work. I see them wrapped up in their passions, knee-deep in the thick of their chosen focus, and I hear them laughing and genuinely enjoying one another. The only credit I take or deserve for this is having the ability to attract truly wonderful and talented people to this organization, and to retain equally excellent long-timers who are still completely engaged and excited about their daily grind. And then engaging all of them in a process to co-create an atmosphere where we are all inspired by the work and excited to do it together.

None of this is by chance. All of this is intentional. I want to love my work, and love the people I get to do it with. And I do. But it takes focus, determination, and energy. And it takes the understanding that the culture at work is as important and deserves the same kind of attention as the work itself.

More on this in the weeks ahead. And I’m curious: what practices are in place at your organization that help you enjoy your work? And, if you can share, what practices are in place that don’t work for you? Of all of the conferences and workshops and professional development opportunities that filter through my inbox, I see so many focused on “leadership”, but so few, if any, dedicated to office culture. So perhaps we can start that conversation, and that learning, right here.

the best policy

“The real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.”  – Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde

Why is it so difficult to be honest with people who give us money?

One of my program staffers is struggling with a project partner.  This partner did not hold up his end of the work, which affected the project and the people we serve. And when it came time for the foundation which funded the project to do a site visit, my staffer had difficulty being fully honest with the foundation program officer, even though the problems were all too clearly illustrated during the visit, and even though the problems were not our fault. We all want our programs to succeed, and to continue, even if they don’t operate under ideal circumstances, and we are loathe to admit that something didn’t work well when generous donors are in the room.

In a similar vein, I personally am excluded from conversations and meetings sometimes when my role as the director of an organization that also acts as a funder is front and center.

I find all of this deeply frustrating.

When I was cutting my teeth at my first job as an executive director, I didn’t know that my colleagues in similar positions tended to shove the dirty laundry into the closet when the funder came to town. I didn’t know that it was the norm to sugar-coat and play up strengths. I had been working in disaster relief where it was important to paint achingly honest pictures of what was going on so the world would sit up and take notice. And I carried that practice with me into my work in the arts.

Then, one day, after I’d managed to get a major foundation funder to pay attention to (and fund!) my wee arts organization for the first time ever, I got a call from my program officer (who has since become a treasured friend) who said, “I find your honesty so refreshing – and it really helps me do my job better.”

I know this is old news. And I know that many final reports now specifically ask grantees to report on what didn’t work, what happened that was unexpected, etc. but I think that often, this is the only time that we as a sector open up to talk about what didn’t work. It’s relegated to a few sentences in a long narrative and surrounded by colorful language about just how awesome the organization is, regardless of whatever hiccup we own up to.

But here’s the thing: we aren’t helping each other when we don’t talk openly and brazenly about what went wrong. When I’m not at the literal table when specific challenges are being discussed, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I can’t affect any change. And I’m not just a funder: I’m a human being, who longs to do the right thing, to show up for my colleagues, to make an impact, and to connect with people whose passions I share. Why cut me out of the conversation? Why cut any funder out of the conversation?

I think that grantees often forget what actors often forget: that the funder, and the casting director, desperately want you to help them solve a problem. For the casting director, solving the problem means finding an actor that fits the part. For the funder, solving the problem means finding a person or a group that can help meet the mission of the foundation. No one is doing anyone any favors here: we are all helping each other do what we were founded to do. When the Cultural Council provides meaningful artistic experiences for children, we are helping the foundations who fund us meet their own missions. When a Cultural Council grantee provides free dance performances for a solid week throughout downtown Santa Cruz, those dancers are helping us meet our mission. This is a cycle of support in which all parties should be a heck of a lot more equal.

But until we own up to our shortcomings, until we freely admit that some wild thing we tried didn’t work, until we stop treating our funders like parental figures rather than partners, we’ll continue to rob each other of deeper relationships and opportunities to make great things happen.

It’s also true that we need to share with our funders when something in the grantee/grantor relationship isn’t working. Are there issues with a staff member? With the application process? Or… with a project partner who is also in a relationship with the funder? We need to be brave enough to face these issues head-on.

My program staffer is a perfect example. She’s whip smart and fearless and is circling back with the funder to have a more honest conversation about what is going on with the project. One of the reasons she feels able to do this, now that she has a little distance from the site visit, is that the funder has made a practice in engaging the staffer in meaningful conversations about the project. It is definitely a two-way street of communication and respect.

As funders, we should strive to be in the same practice of openness and willingness to talk and engage. As grantees, we should insist on being brutally honest about the work of our organizations when talking to our funders, and even use foundation program officers as sounding boards when things go awry. If we don’t do this, we all miss out on empowering and enlightening our field.

back in the saddle

Four months is both a flash in time and an eternity, it turns out. I’m just back from my maternity leave and reeling from the abrupt transition from full-time mom of a wiggling little fleshbot to full-time executive director of an organization on fire. And not a fire that needs to be put out, but one that I am very excited to feed and fan.

I did hire a brilliant interim executive director (the wonderful Nancy Ragey) to shepherd the organization along in my absence, but it turns out, the good folks of CCSCC didn’t have time to contribute to my blog, as they were up to their eyeballs in some pretty cool work. But I’m back, and ready to jump in.

Before I fully dig in to all of the crazy wonderful stuff headed our way – the roll out of our new brand identity and new name, the celebrations we’ll have about our new location on the Tannery Arts Center campus, the rework of several of our core programs – I have to figure out how to be both a high-functioning mom AND a high-functioning executive director. Or, at least, I have to pay attention to the conflict these two all-consuming jobs create and consider what I can do every day to feel successful at both. It’s only my fourth day back, and it seems the universe is thinking about these things, too, as my email inbox featured a very timely post from Thomas Cott. His “You’ve Cott Mail” this morning is all about “the impact of parenthood on those working in the arts“.

His post focuses on artists, rather than arts administrators, but I do consider my work to be my art. I spend more time with my colleagues than I do with my husband or children, so this had better be my art form. And the articles in Cott’s post ring true for me, loud and clear. One references the imbalances I’ve already discussed on this blog: “lack of paid parental leave, inflexible work hours, and a career clock that collides headfirst with the biological clock” but identifies the more personal side of these challenges as the real conflict. Ellen McSweeney, in her New Music Box blog, says “At first glance, you might think that the field of contemporary classical music doesn’t have a whole lot in common with the high-powered corporate tech world. And you might also think that, in the arts, women have an easier time rising to the top. [But] leadership imbalances persist in both artistic and administrative roles.”

These imbalances often exist not just because glass ceilings are still firmly in place, but also because, according to research, we women worry a lot more than men about whether or not we can have careers and children. And with that worry comes other nasty emotions. Cott references Susan K. Perry, Ph.D.’s blog: “Guilt comes with the territory, it seems to me. And even when you try to make everyone happy you fail.”

This last statement is more of a greater truth, but it hits home all the more when you are a working parent. I spend almost every minute of every day in service to my kids or my job, and the prospect of failure (as my warped brain defines it) hovers around me, constant as a shadow. I found the work/kids/marriage/life balance very challenging after my first child was born, just over two years ago, and now that I have a second little boy, it’s all the more intense.

Parenting, if you choose it to be, is one of the strongest forms of activism. You can choose to help create a better world through raising children who believe in respect, kindness, courage, love, and service to those around them. So as much as I am consumed with love for my boys, I also believe that if I do my job right, they will have at least the opportunity to do great things on scales small and large.

And yet, I feel I have something to offer the world beyond two healthy, happy little boys. I believe that my community is worth my blood, sweat, tears, and time. And I believe that the arts can transform lives, and that the arts are the vehicle through which I want to make a difference. And so I’m here, in this office, rather than home with my boys. Because I want to do both: be a great parent, and a great executive director. I want my boys to feel secure and loved and capable of whatever they want to do, and I also want this community to thrive with endless opportunities of engagement, expression, and inspiration. And, obviously, these two wants are deeply intertwined.

So I choose to do both. The challenge for me, every day, is how to do both well. I don’t have clear answers, and I think “success” will look a little different, every day. At the moment, all I can do is dig in, and get started.035

being the change

“Don’t agonize – organize.” – Christine Pelosi, quoting her mother Nancy

I turned 40 years old this past June. My life has changed dramatically over the past four years – I now have a brilliant husband, a wonderful son, another son on the way, a job I adore, and a home in one of the most magnificent places in the world to work and raise a family. Though I’m basically always exhausted, due to the motherhood + full-time work equation, I still am keenly aware that my life is amazing. But sometimes I wonder about my personal impact on the planet. Am I making the kind of difference I believe I was born to make? When I leave the planet, will I have left it different and better? I know that just being a great mom can change the world, and if I can do that, terrific – but I also wonder about my personal and professional impact and who I want to be beyond the circle of my little family.

Well, last week I got a pretty big kick in the rear. I attended the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce’s Women in Leadership Forum, aptly entitled “Making SHIFT Happen”. I was a little wary of cheesy empowerment stories and bad music (and yes, I heard Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” a few too many times) but overall, it was incredible. It began with an interactive lecture by Melanie Stern, who took all 200 of us through the “True Colors” personality profile to determine our dominant personality type. Having been through Meyers-Briggs and a half a dozen other kinds of platforms of this ilk, my result was not surprising (I’m a blue, it turns out, and an ENFP, thank you very much), but what did surprise me is where my colors are “dim” – i.e., orange. Orange is the color of big risk-takers and extroverts and energy and living life to the fullest. I think this color has dimmed for me since becoming a parent, but I do hope to “brighten” that color a bit in my professional life. And according to Melanie, such things are possible!

But the real juice for me was in the keynote speech by Christine Pelosi. Certainly, this is a woman who was born into a situation that was primed to cultivate greatness, but even with this background, what she’s been able to achieve in her 40+ years is humbling and inspiring. She’s only a few years older than me, and yet her national accomplishments and critically important posts are too long to list here. Even more than that – she’s just a regular ‘ol awesome human being. She met her husband only a few years ago, had her now three-year-old daughter shortly afterward, and hasn’t skipped a beat in her professional life even through those big transitions. I wonder if I could say the same. I wish I could take her out for coffee, just to find out how she balances it all, with a perspective more in line with mine than, say, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s.

Christine spoke without notes for over an hour. Obviously she’d given this speech before but it was punctuated with comments highly relevant to the theme of our gathering. She took the time to tell us that she was a huge San Francisco Giants fan and welcomed updates to the game currently being played throughout her speech. She was unapologetic about her accomplishments, and those of her family, while still being so human and accessible. And she implored – nay, commanded us – to take action of our own.

She talked about being “change agents”, though she never used that phrase. She said that we can’t always wait until we are elected, or until those who are elected are sympathetic to our cause, or until there is already a movement afoot, or even until there is a critical mass willing to tackle a problem before we take action. She said that sometimes we just need to get everything rolling ourselves and be the catalyst to make all of the above happen. And she talked a lot about the empowerment of women.

There are still far more men than women in power, across political and professional spheres. There is still not equal pay for equal work. There are still men taking credit for ideas generated by women. And there are still men and women – everywhere – who sit back and allow this to happen. One of her analogies was that of a staircase: in many situations, where men have one flight of stairs to climb, women will have two, and lesbians or transgender people might have four, five, or six flights to climb for the same job. She asked, “Have you ever been in a meeting where ‘Jane’ proposes an idea, and then five minutes later, ‘Jim’ proposes the same idea, and then everyone in the meeting erupts about what a fantastic idea it is?” This sounds so 1950’s, but it happens all the time. Christine said that this is when we MUST speak up, and say, “Jim, that is a great idea, and Jane, thank you for bringing it up!” We must all be change agents for equality, and that means, probably more than anything, that if we as women find ourselves in positions of power we must do our part to give credit where credit is due, publicly and privately. And TAKE credit, when it is due to us, whether it is men or women who try to steal it. And we must continually find ways to reach down the ladder to make sure that the climb up is equally easy or arduous for everyone.

Although there are spheres where inequality bares its fangs more frequently than others, this is still a huge problem. And there are painfully obvious examples of this. If men were the ones who had to give birth, do you think there would be any question or controversy about insurance companies covering the cost of birth control? If men were the ones who needed to breastfeed and who were typically the primary caregivers during the first few months of life, do you think America would still trail all other developed nations in federal maternity leave policies?

I know I’m treading into dicey territory here, but I bring this up to demonstrate how we can all be change agents. As a new mom, and a mom-to-be again, the maternity policy issue is one that has me enraged. The US federal maternity policy states, in a nutshell, that you can’t legally be fired from your job as long as you return within four month after giving birth. Period. No maternity or paternity paid leave, no caregiver assistance – you are “allowed” to take off work, but beyond that, you are on your own to pay and care for a wailing blob of life that will suck you and your bank account dry. (It’s worth it, but still.) And the rules are different for companies with fewer than 50 employees – which is a heck of a lot of companies, by the way. Compare us to countries around the world and it is just embarrassing. Heck, *Slovakia* pays 70% salary to new mothers for THREE YEARS! Zimbabwe, and many other African nations, pays their mothers 100% of their salaries for three months. Guess who else funds three months of fully-paid maternity leave? Afghanistan.

The United States? Zip. Zero. Now – a few states – California included – have created leave policies that partially fund salaries, with a cap. Here, we get 12 weeks of “disability” payments at roughly 55% of salary. Which is a great help. But most companies – and almost all smaller companies – have no supplemental assistance and follow the federal guidelines.

When I got pregnant, I looked at the Cultural Council’s personnel handbook, and the state and federal policies, and realized that I would not be able to afford to take more than a few weeks off to be with my new baby. This was unacceptable to me, both for personal reasons, and for the kind of organization I want to run. I worked with my then-board president, the executive committee, and a human resources consultant to see what would be possible. In the end, they were fantastic and supportive and we created a new maternity/paternity policy that provides one week of full pay and an additional four weeks of pay at 45%, to make up the difference of the disability payments – AND allowed that the employee would continue to be on the insurance plan for up to four months.

Hey, it’s not Afghanistan, but it’s a huge step in the right direction. And now, when similar organizations are thinking of reworking their own policies, and they call me to find out what we offer, I promote the Cultural Council as a model and an advocate for supporting employees as they enter into the wildest transition of their lives. And this doesn’t just help the employees: it helps the organization by creating an environment where people feel supported and cared for – which is critical for employee happiness and retention.

Christine’s speech reminded me that in this one area, I’ve been a change agent. And she’s inspired (nay, commanded) me to find other areas where I can and will make a difference. Sometimes I think that attacking the federal maternity/paternity policies might be the next big thing in my life – when my kids are older and it’s time for me to bring on fresh, new talent to lead the Cultural Council. That day is far off, but it’s good to be thinking about what I can do then – and what I can do tomorrow.

So, I ask (command?) you: What do you think needs to be fixed, in your organization, globally, or somewhere in between? And what are you going to do about it?