Category Archives: Strategic Planning

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.

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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.

IT’S ALIVE!

“Do not plan for ventures before finishing what’s at hand.” – Euripides

“The little dissatisfaction which every artist feels at the completion of a work forms the germ of a new work.” – Berthold Auerbach

Today, the final piece of our rebranding puzzle will be snugly fit into place. Our new website, created by the incredible team at Studio Holladay, has finally launched!

We’ve been working with Studio Holladay throughout our rebranding process, and I cannot begin to describe how beneficial it has been to have the same smart group of folks working on all of the different bits and pieces. It is fun to see a visual representation of the creative process Holladay went through when thinking about our brand and how it would lend itself to our brochures, business cards, signage, and now, our website. We are so grateful to Iris Kavanagh and Crystal Birns, two former AC board members, who served on our rebranding committee and steered us in all of the right directions.

We had two potentially opposing goals when designing this site. We had a vast amount of information that needed to be easily accessible to the different groups we serve. But we also wanted a site that was visually arresting, colorful, and also clean and easy to view. So we tasked our designers to come up with a site that was easy to navigate while also being unusual and artful. We think they did a terrific job.

It was also important to us that our mission be front and center. That is why all of our programs and services are listed under our three core strategies: promote, connect, invest. We hope that by connecting our strategies to our programs in this way, we will do a better job of conveying who we are, what we do, and why our work is important when people unfamiliar to the Council come to our site. And we hope that our new site makes it easy for all of our user groups – Open Studios artists, teaching artists, grantees, schools, arts administrators, and so many more – to quickly and easily get the information they need.

It is tremendously satisfying to finally finish our rebranding process, coming just months after our permanent relocation to the Tannery Arts Center. Now, we as a team finally feel we are home, in many senses of the word. We have a name that makes sense, a brand that reflects who we truly are, a website that will help us be of service to our community, and a strategic plan that challenges us to be our best and highest selves, both as individuals and as an organization.

I am so grateful to the two board presidents who were leaders in this process. Marcella Alligham was our board leadership when we launched the plan, and Linda Charman accepted the mantle halfway through and finished the job. Both were invaluable, providing excellent guidance, motivation, and smart thinking. I’m also so grateful for Sally Green, our Development & Communications Director, who has been my partner in crime throughout this process. She may be on maternity leave right now, but her talent and warmth still reverberate through our hallways and help us make good decisions. And to all of the board and staff members who gave their time, energy, and passion to this project: thank you. I’m humbled to get to play in this sandbox with all of you.

And now, back to the work.

evolution

“When we are motivated by goals that have deep meaning, by dreams that need completion, by pure love that needs expressing, then we truly live.” – Greg Anderson

“A project is complete when it starts working for you, rather than you working for it.” – Scott Allen

Three and a half years ago, I walked into the office of the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County for my first day of work. I had just moved to Santa Cruz a week prior with my boyfriend Jon. We were still absolutely stunned that suddenly we lived three blocks from the ocean, and I had taken several days before starting the job to do nothing but read and lie in the sun.

Those were probably the most restful days I’ve had in three and a half years. Since then, I got married, got pregnant (twice), had two little boys, and made some of the best friends of my life. On top of that, for forty hours a week (we can all pretend we only work forty hours a week, right?) I devoted myself to first listening to this community – what does it need? What can the arts help solve? What do the artists, arts organizations and arts administrators need? – and then working to meeting its needs.

What I learned is there is a tremendous amount of smarts and passion in this community, and equal amounts of great work to be done. I was so fortunate to have landed in this incredible organization, one that was poised to reinvent itself and had the capability to become a true community service organization through the arts.

Three and a half years later, we’re finally there, and to illustrate the genuine evolution of this organization, we have a new name, a new logo, a new mission, a new strategic plan, and very soon, we’ll also have a new website. Our new name, Arts Council Santa Cruz County, is not a huge shift, but it better clarifies who we are, and what we do.

AC-logo-lime-horiz

Why did we change our name? Years of market research told us that though our supporters and friends were familiar with our work, those who didn’t know us were completely confused by our name. Also, there are arts councils across the country and this is simply a more straightforward moniker that accurately describes us in clear, simple terms.

Our new logo, created by the talented gents at Studio Holladay, is designed to be as adaptable and responsive as the Arts Council itself.

ac_promoteac_connectac_invest

These graphics demonstrate how our logo can be used to illustrate the three strategies in our new mission, which is to promote, connect, and invest in the arts in order to stimulate creativity and vibrancy in Santa Cruz County. But the best way to learn about our new mission and strategic plan is to sit back, have a cup of tea, and watch this:

We call this our Vision Video, and it is an overview and introduction to our new strategic plan. It also gives a flavor of our new commitment to a culture of service, where we’ll constantly be looking for new ways to positively impact the creators and appreciators who benefit from our programs and services.

All of these shifts are a direct result of our strategic planning process, which was funded through the David and Lucile Packard Foundation’s Organizational Effectiveness program. We are so grateful to the Packard Foundation for funding this effort, which allowed us to work with some of the smartest thinkers, designers, and creatives we know. We had a big vision (and big hopes) for what this would all look like, and to be on the other end of it is just incredible.

Our new name, logo, plan, and website are not just superficial changes. They are a reflection of the shifts that have been happening here for the past three and a half years. And they have helped frame the two questions that I ask myself every day when I come to work:

What if Arts Council Santa Cruz County was the most innovative, effective, and impactful nonprofit in Santa Cruz County? What would that look like?

What if Arts Council Santa Cruz County was the most innovative, effective, and impactful arts council in the nation? What would that look like?

I don’t yet have the answers to these questions, but what I do know is that they encourage us to aim high and think big.

For a long time, I struggled with the identity of the arts council model. On one hand, I considered whether we should stay in the background, supporting organizations and artists from a metaphorical back stage, giving all the limelight to the people we serve. We typically have no bricks-and-mortar presence to speak of; we don’t sell tickets to anything; we aren’t, in a traditional sense, the creators. So perhaps it was appropriate that folks knew about our Open Studios and SPECTRA programs, but not about us, and knew about the dozens of organizations and artists we funded, but not about us. We weren’t sexy, and maybe we weren’t supposed to be.

On the flip side, I wondered what kind of impact we could have if we stayed under the radar. I wondered how we could affect community change, get a seat at the leadership tables, and truly “make shift happen” if we didn’t have our share of the limelight.

You can guess where I’ve landed on this.

Arts Council Santa Cruz County has an Open Studios program that is modeled across the country as one of the most successful and well-run programs of its kind. Our SPECTRA Arts Education program won multiple awards in its heyday and continues to change the lives of families. Mariposa’s Art is based on a curriculum so brilliant it has been bought by a school district and is now used in multiple core subject areas. Our grants program has invested millions and millions of dollars into the vibrancy of our creative community and economy. We are now housed on what will, upon completion, be the most diverse arts campus in the country. And the success and longevity of this organization is, I’m sure, one of the reasons that our creative population is so dense that we are the 5th most artistic city in the nation.

We’re sexy, darn it. And the stronger we are, the more we can serve the artists, arts organizations, schools, children, parents, and community members who benefit from all that we do. So we are going to launch into this new strategic plan head first. We are going to stick our necks above the crowd. We are going to be the big red beeping thing on the radar of both the public and private sector. And we are going to have a heck of a good time doing it. So, join us. Tell us what we are doing that excites you, and get involved. Tell us what you want to do for this arts sector, and for this community. Together, let’s see what we can make happen. I’m in. Are you?

CH-CH-CH-Changes

“Beginnings are always messy.” – John Galsworthy

“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.” – Walt Disney

“I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew.” – Robert Frost

On June 3rd, we will be publicly unveiling our new name, logo, brand identity, and strategic plan. These changes have been eighteen months in the making, and have encompassed some of the most exhilarating months I’ve had in my professional life.

I believe that change for the sake of change can be a good thing, that rewiring your neural pathways on occasion just to keep your brain nimble is an acceptable and even crucial practice. But the shifts we are working on are not just for the sake of change. We have been deliberate and thoughtful in every step, and sometimes dozens of hours of work were tossed out because a different direction became clear. And I wouldn’t say we’ve been careful – that could have hobbled our process – but we did take care with every decision. We disagreed, we argued our points, we made decisions and then changed them in light of new information, we talked about impact and perception, we talked about how we want to please everyone but can’t please everyone. It was messy.

I love messy. Not in my home, but in a group process, I think messy is great. Messy means people aren’t going with the flow, they aren’t agreeing out of apathy, and they are willing to stake their claim and dig in and see what happens. And that happened pretty much every step of the way. The most satisfying thing about messy? It’s when the mess gets cleaned up, and everyone is satisfied with the results. And that is where we are now, as an organization, with our new plan.

After all of this is unveiled, however, the real work begins. We have to implement this plan, and we have to strive toward the impact that we are determined to make in this community.

I worked as an actor and performer for many years prior to become a nonprofit executive. One of the reasons I quit acting – and there were many – is that I came to a major realization that I preferred rehearsal to performance. I loved both the discovery process of rehearsal, and the insta-family feeling that is often created between cast and crew members as they flesh out a show. I love process more than product. So the challenge for me is to see this strategic plan not as a product, but as an animated guide – a coach, even – to push me forward in this work. Goodness knows there are plenty of stretch goals in the plan, and I need to breathe life into those goals and have them frame my work every day.

Nina Simon of the MAH was recently awarded a Nextie, which honors young people in this community who are making a major impact. In her acceptance speech, she encouraged everyone in the room to reach out and offer their help to others who are working to make great things happen in Santa Cruz County. I heartily and enthusiastically second that idea, and indeed, I walked up to her and said, “Nina, you scratch my itch.” But this idea – that we can pretty much do whatever great things we want if we work collectively – is a driving force behind our new strategic plan.

So, my challenge, to myself, and to the Cultural Council, is to do just that: reach out, get involved, push forward on our vision, and if the time calls for it, get messy. There’s plenty of work to do in this community, and plenty of folks who are ready to get involved. Let’s get started.

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.

Labor and delivery

I currently have 50% more blood in my body than I did seven months ago. My heart is working almost twice as hard as it was pre-baby, pumping more blood at a faster rate. Even my lungs – which are highly compressed by my baby and its cocoon – are taking in 30% more oxygen than before. It’s no wonder that I get dizzy so easily, that walking a few blocks is challenging, and that at any given moment, I could put my head down and drop into deep sleep.

It’s hard, though, to remember exactly why I feel so strange. Because it’s not just that I’m cooking up a baby; it’s that the infrastructure of my body is fundamentally changed by his presence, which creates ripple effects throughout all of my systems.

Tonight, along with our consultant and planning team, I will be presenting our new, final (hopefully) strategic plan. This plan has been gestating just a little longer than a baby – ten months – and may also create fundamental changes in the Cultural Council. For my body, the changes are temporary. My baby-making organs will shrink down to their original size; my ligaments will eventually stop being wacky-elastic; my beach ball of a belly will deflate and (ye gods willing) return to some semblance of what it once was. Of course, my external life will be forever altered, with two little boys defining my life, love, and priorities from now on. But I will largely return to who I once was, if not emotionally, at least physically.

The strategic plan will have a different effect on the Cultural Council, if we do this right. As I’ve mentioned, some of it reflects who we have already become, some of it is aspirational, and some of it downright scary, with goals that will really stretch us. But my hope is that it forever moves the organization toward its best self. We plan to implement the plan’s recommendations in a smart and thoughtful way, put our resources behind it, and make intentional shifts that do not leave room to settle back into our current, more comfortable grooves. I suppose this is the challenge for any organization or program that alters its strategy – to make sure that the change is positive and lasting.

We’ve already had some significant changes in the past three years, and even more in the past several months. Some incredible talent and wonderful people have recently left the Cultural Council and transitioned on to the next great things in their lives. We will miss them and the wealth of knowledge and institutional memory that they brought to the organization. But I feel incredibly fortunate because our current staff team is just extraordinary. Whenever I walk into our front doors, in order to get to my office, I have to walk by every single staff member’s office, as we are almost all in a row with mine at the end. And as I walk, the closer I get to my office, the more jazzed and inspired I get. Each person I pass is so damn smart and funny and fantastic and talented – and they enjoy each other, and enjoy their work.

I count myself incredibly fortunate to be among such people every day. And I will call on them – and, of course, our equally fantastic board of directors – to contribute to making the necessary shifts that will allow us to be who we need to be in this community. Our collective “baby” – this plan that has taken us ten months to create, that made us (or at least, some of us) think differently and lose sleep and disagree and debate our values and ultimately brought us to consensus – will not dramatically change the world, necessarily. But it will give us permission to explore, create, and hopefully do great things within its boundaries and framework.

If all goes well tonight, and the plan is approved, tomorrow will be more than just a new day – it will be the beginning of the next 33 years of the Cultural Council’s life. It will take us some time to get the plan ready for publication, as well as to finalize the “Vision Video” that will be a new way to experience and understand the plan. But, soon enough, we’ll get it launched. And that’s not all. In the next several months, we’ll fully redesign our identity (including our logo, marketing materials, and how people visually experience the Cultural Council), redesign our website, and move to the Tannery Arts Center campus.

Fundamental changes, indeed. I hope my body eventually returns to something resembling its former self; I hope the Cultural Council transforms, in the best possible ways, for good.

Our Dent in the Universe

“We’re here to put a dent in the universe.” – Steve Jobs

CC board and staff members do a teambuilding exercise with Mt Hermon staff

In late January, the Cultural Council board and staff kicked off our year-long strategic planning process with a day-long retreat at Mt. Hermon. We spent seven hours debating, among other things, what “dent” we want the Cultural Council to make. And we also got to run around outside in the gorgeous sunshine.

This new blog, which I intend to pen with regularity, will chronicle our planning process. My intention is that the process, and the plan itself, will be engaging, exciting, and, most of all, exceedingly useful. Many a strategic plan sits on a shelf gathering dust from the moment it is completed. And planning processes – hours sitting in windowless rooms drinking microwaved coffee and wordsmithing tag lines while attempting to divine what the future will look like – who wants to go through that? But – if the process could be different, if it could be useful and informative and energizing – now THAT is worth the time.

Board members Mark Sachau, Crystal Birns, and Christa Stiner contemplate a future vision of the arts in Santa Cruz

To that end, we have engaged consultant Nancy Ragey, who is the perfect fit for this work. She took us through what was a really promising day that got our creative juices flowing while also starting to define the big questions that we will ask during the planning process.

“Thank God we didn’t do a SWOT analysis.”

Feedback about the retreat was overwhelmingly positive. One board member said it was the best retreat he’d ever attended. And I overheard a staff member say the above quote. (For those of you who haven’t done this a million times, “SWOT” stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats, and is a time-honored technique. The problem is, it’s such a tired exercise that what value it has is lost to the people involved, who now just roll their eyes and check email on their iPhones when the big sticky paper gets taped to the wall.)

For the plan itself, I’m not interested in one that has very specific, time-bound tasks as deliverables. Instead, I want a visionary guiding framework that pushes us to make a long and lasting impact in our field. And I want a process that is so meaningful to the board and staff that they become lifelong, passionate, raving fans and advocates of the arts and the Cultural Council, even after their tenure with us has ended.

So why blog about this? I want you to see how we are going to make this particular sausage. I want the community to know where we think we should be going, and to give us feedback as we move the process along.

“Serve the music, not yourself.”

John Larry Granger, the long-standing artistic director and conductor of the Santa Cruz Symphony, shared this quote when he won the Gail Rich Award earlier this year. It struck me because it beautifully and succinctly articulates how I think the Cultural Council should approach our work – and how we could frame our strategic plan.

At the retreat, I outlined my vision for the Council. In my view, the strategic directions of our current 2009-12 plan were more inwardly focused: repositioning our programs, increasing funding and services, building our own capacity. I believe that, in order to thrive in the coming years, we need to be more outwardly focused. But what does that mean, and to what end? If we are successful in these shifts, what would be different five years from now?

  1. We transform how people value the arts in their lives.
  2. We become more service-oriented.
  3. We create better tools to tell our story.
  4. We make every donor, grantee, artist, and constituent who works with us a raving fan.
  5. We become innovative and nimble, while remaining strong and stable.

Board members Stephanie Schriver and Pearl Vickers, staffers Megan Searcy and Joyce Magallanes, Board President Marcella Allingham and staffer Ann Ostermann enjoy a timeline exercise

These are the five pieces of pasta I threw against the wall at the retreat, and I don’t know which of them will stick. And some of this might lead to significant change in the organization. But the only thing we can count on is change, which we can choose to guide, or choose to let it happen. If we guide it, great things could be in store for us. The most successful organizations in the world are masterful at change. Will that be us? I hope you’ll go on this journey with us, through reading this blog, and find out.