Category Archives: Uncategorized

I think it was my mother who once told me that the thing you worry about most is the thing that likely will never happen. I live by this, in a way. When I start to spiral about an issue or a problem, I remember it, and it helps me wade out of the darkness.

In the same vein, it’s impossible to know the breadth of good that can come from your actions as well.

It’s been almost two months since we Ebbed and Flowed through Santa Cruz, with our kinetic art parade, River ArtWalk, and Celebration of our river, the Tannery Arts Center, and our whole community. I’ve not been able to write about it because ten days before the Celebration, I landed in the hospital with an extremely rare condition that terrified all of us. Six days later I was out, but utterly waylaid. I managed to show up at the Celebration and even to stand upright for almost an hour, and participated in the unveiling of our Ebb & Flow Sculpture and Gathering Spot, spearheaded by the magical Kathleen Crocetti.

But the physical and emotional cost of attending the event was massive. There were so many people, such bright sunlight, so much to see, so many well-wishers, and I felt myself turning inward to protect my soul and my stomach, where my illness was centered. Ten days prior, when I went into the hospital, my first CAT scan sent everyone into a tailspin as it indicated that I should, by all rights, be dying. I wasn’t – but we didn’t know that for a couple of days. What my husband went through, what my friends and family went through, in those first early hours, I can’t imagine. All of it barely filtered through to me, in my pain and delirium. Ten days later, the day of the Celebration, we knew I was out of the woods, but I wasn’t ready for human contact, let alone a wild, wonderful, and joyful party.

But I knew I needed to be there, and wanted to be there, and it was truly glorious to see hundreds if not thousands of people along the parade route, the dozens of kinetic sculptures, and most of all, the stunning Sculpture and Gathering Spot. We energized the whole community around our river, and we created a permanent, beautiful, artful space for everyone to enjoy here on the Tannery campus.

Two months later, after a long and quiet convalescence, I’m mostly healed. I still cannot eat normally, and my energy is low. There is still an angry red mark on my neck from a hurried port that was connected there while I was in the ER. And I still feel reflective and protective and inward-facing and I hope my friends will be patient with me while I continue to emerge.

But in the midst of this, the world has fallen apart. The tragedy here at the Tannery Arts Center is unspeakable, unbearable. All of us who live and work here, steps from where the unthinkable happened, are faced every day with how we put one foot in front of the other. So many of us in Santa Cruz, at the Tannery and far beyond, feel shattered, devastated, terrified, even, sometimes, hopeless. As a mom whose heart is entirely intertwined with those of my boys, I’ve considered running for the hills, and never letting them out of my sight again.

So many of us want to do something, to be of service to everyone who is in pain, to find some light in this utter black darkness. It’s clear, though, that our time for action will be later, that peace and love and grace and quiet may be the right course, for now. But it’s been so hard to be a person of action in the face of crisis and to sit back and be still.

Hard, that is, until I spent a great deal of time looking out the window the past few days. Every time I lift the blinds, I see people at our Gathering Spot. Small crowds, big crowds, mostly Tannery residents, community members, strangers, together, talking, sometimes smoking, sometimes pacing, sometimes staring, even if not seeing, the stunning mosaics that meander around the Spot. I see children playing on the sculptures, adults with their arms around each other as they sit at the tables. I see hearts beginning the slow process of mending, or at least, sharing the pain.

All of us who worked on Ebb & Flow gave that space to this community. It was a gift the Tannery needed, and we couldn’t have known how important it would be when we were dreaming up the project. It’s a tiny thing, in the grand scheme of life, but sometimes we all just need a safe, quiet, and beautiful space where we can sit and be together. If that’s all I can do for now – well, it’s enough.

I will continue to put one foot in front of the other. I will continue to believe that my boys will be happy and safe, and I will do my best to let them discover the world without me constantly breathing down their necks. And I will give this grieving community the same space I continue to need to find our way back to each other. If and when it’s time for action, time to possibly create something else that celebrates the sweet life we’ve lost, I’ll be there. For now, I’m here. I’m quiet, but I’m here.

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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

Radio Silence

There’s nothing more dull about folks blogging about why they haven’t blogged, but in this case, I feel it important to share. While I’ve had a hundred things to trumpet of late, I was also put on partial bed rest for the last several weeks of my pregnancy, which dramatically impacted both my personal and professional life. But, I’m here to share, that this blog is going to continue in my absence, through the many voices of the Cultural Council staff. As I’ve written, I work with some of the smartest, best, brightest, and most entertaining folks I know. They have agreed to take turns guest-blogging about our work ahead, which will include our move and complete re-branding process (which is already proving to be very juicy!).

I look forward to re-entering the world in a few months, and in the meantime, I hope you enjoy the stories from the Cultural Council field.

May your holidays be warm and bright!

“Mystery is at the heart of creativity. That, and surprise.” – Julia Cameron

“If you give people tools, and they use their natural ability and their curiosity, they will develop things in ways that will surprise you very much beyond what you might have expected.” – Bill Gates

“It is great to be a blonde. With low expectations, it’s very easy to surprise people.” – Pamela Anderson

I am a direct descendant of some of the hardy folks who trekked across the country to find a new life out west. My grandmother, whose parents were homesteaders in Colorado, was a formidable woman, tougher and stronger than just about anyone else I’ve known. Much of our family lore (and recipes, including her delicious ebelskivers) come to us from her, as well as numerous sayings that have defined my life. “There’s no use worrying because the thing you worry about is rarely what happens” is one of her most famous lines. She always maintained that you can worry all you want, but it will be the thing from left field that knocks your feet out from under you.

My life is incredibly easy when I compare it to the lives of my own mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. My mom had five – FIVE – kids, my grandmother four, and my great-grandmother six. I feel overwhelmed with the imminent arrival of my second kid. My mom was a child during the Great Depression and in her thirties when there was still a white line on public busses in the south. My grandmother was born before most women had the right to vote. My greatest struggle is paying for child care and figuring out how to be a good mom, executive, and wife, all at the same time.

But I digress. It’s the second quote above that I’m thinking about today. And it’s not just about worry. I believe this concept can be applied to almost anything, including positive experiences: anticipation, excitement, focus.  Things rarely go as we believe they will, whether we are worried or excited about the outcome, but we can be thrilled by something we didn’t expect. As in, I can be looking forward to a specific result, but it’s the surprise that will knock me off my feet. I can spend a month in 1988 hoping that R.E.M. plays “Can’t Get Here from There” when I see them in concert, but it’s their performance of “Perfect Circle” that stays with me until this day. Or I can think that a certain process or result will be the most compelling, but something else will emerge that really inspires me.

At the beginning of our strategic planning process, I was determined that this plan would have an outward focus. That we would concentrate on who we want to be in the world, how our partners and friends view us, how relevant we are to the arts landscape in Santa Cruz. And our draft plan – which is crazy exciting to me – does indeed have that terrific focus. But the thing that is really lighting my fire at the moment? It’s the work we’ve done on our internal culture and operations. Yawwwwwwn, right? Bear with me here. Because our culture and operations will directly impact how effective we are, and how we are experienced externally. Plus, I’m an unapologetic geek about this stuff.

All I’ve ever wanted, professionally, is to spend time with people who share a similar passion and work ethic. I crave being part of a strong team where empowerment, respect, and inspiration rule the day. And also where positively challenging one another is de rigueur, as is acknowledging that successes are due to the work of the whole, not just the property of an individual. I believe the Cultural Council is becoming such an organization. And our draft strategic plan supports that assertion.

Soon enough, the full plan will be public, but let me share some tidbits. Here are two of our new “core values”, along with how we define them:

Effective, professionally run: The CC seeks and hires the most talented, collaborative, and thoughtful leaders possible for all levels of operational and program support. Through regular program evaluations, financial reviews, and a strong system of checks and balances, the organization maintains a high level of integrity, transparency, and programmatic strength.

Service Oriented: The CC delivers programs with warmth and compassion to create the highest quality constituent experience. Staff members who excel at this kind of service are celebrated both internally and externally. A focus on constituent experience reminds everyone on the CC team that it is an honor to work at the Council and that we come to work each day to serve our creative community.

I don’t know that there is anything in our former strategic plan that actually discusses how it should look and feel for board and staff. This is confusing to me. If we don’t focus on who we want to be as a team, how can we influence what this organization means to the community?

We build on this in our “Key Operational Goals and Outcomes”.  In our key goals, we discuss having a highly-collaborative team, making investments in our board and staff members, improving customer service, and empowering our staff to ensure a proud, collaborative culture. Two of our desired outcomes are:

–          Board and staff team who are highly sought after thought leaders and community leaders

–          A highly impactful, respected, and efficient organization

To be clear, some of what is in our plan is our current reality, and some of it is aspirational. Indeed, if you polled people on the street, assuming they’d heard of us, some would say we’re already there and some would say we have a long way to go.

What’s thrilling to me is that this plan will be our roadmap. It will make crystal clear to everyone from funders to grantees to artists to elected officials what our intentions are, and not just around programming and services. We are defining our internal expectations of excellence which will directly affect everyone with whom we work. And, unexpectedly, this internal work as been as, or more, engaging for me as all of the fantastic focus groups and community dialogue. All of it together makes me incredibly excited for the years ahead.

Our fantastic board president, upon taking over the gavel at her first meeting, said, “You are either in, or you are out.” She said it with grace and strength, and what she meant was, we are here to participate, to do great work, to respect and challenge each other, to make a clear, tangible difference in bettering peoples’ lives. Be here, do the work, put your passion behind this, or find something else that inspires you to take action.

I’m in.

At your organization, in your work, are you?

Eat Your Strategic planning vegetables, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

secure rod C to post A with bolt R

When I was in sixth grade, my teacher, Mr. Leidy at Arthur Elementary in Norfolk, Virginia, handed out a “test”. It was in homeroom, and he said it was an “exercise” more than a traditional test. (This is the same guy who welcomed my hamster Hermie into the classroom as our class pet, after Hermie started getting harassed by Harry, who shared his cage at home. We thought Hermie and Harry were both boy hamsters until Harry had a bunch of nasty-looking baby hamsters. But that’s another story.) Mr. Leidy was one of my favorite teachers ever. He talked to us like we were adults and expected us to act accordingly. When it was sweltering hot in the afternoons, he’d turn off the lights, open the windows, and read us stories. When we got restless, he’d make the whole class go outside and run laps.

So this particular day, as he handed out this “exercise”, we eagerly dug in. It was one page with a list of directions on one side, and blank on the other. The directions were numbered. The first one read:

  1. Before beginning this exercise, read ALL of the directions.

And directions 2-10 were about what to draw on the back side of the page – pretty complicated stuff involving some geometry, and ultimately folding the paper into a certain shape. But direction #11 said this:

11. Ignore all of the directions 2-10, and quietly put down your pencil and wait for the teacher to end the exercise.

So, obviously, if you didn’t follow the first direction, you “failed” the exercise – and it was blatantly apparent to everyone in the room if you passed or failed.

Fortunately, I’ve always been a “scanner”. When I read a long article, or a “how-to”, or even terrible Ikea directions on putting together, say, a crib, I always scan the whole thing first, to know what I’m in for. I did the same that day. I also tend to dig in and get focused very quickly, and could just have easily missed that last direction and tucked in to the work, determined to be the first person done. Instead, I noted the last direction, put my pencil down, and calmly looked up at Mr. Leidy. Probably with a slightly smug look on my face.

Eventually, the rest of the class noticed those of us who weren’t busily drawing and folding, and figured out what they too were supposed to be doing. It caught most of them by surprise. And after a lot of laughing and what I’d now call a “debrief” about the exercise, we went about our usual classroom business. But I never forgot it.

Why have I told you this story? Because now, almost thirty years later, I’m serving on a grant panel for the National Endowment for the Arts, and I’m reminded of that day so long ago when my peers were simply not following directions.

I’m a reader for the NEA Challenge America Fast-Track grants submitted this past spring, and while I as much as anyone understand the allure and excitement of having not just the funding but also the recognition of our federal arts agency, I’m learning just how obvious it is when you haven’t read the directions – OR when you’ve read them, but are trying to ignore them, or make them work for your project – kind of like trying to smooth out creases in a folded piece of paper. Which, it turns out, is impossible.

To that end, I’ve decided to compile my own list of eleven directions – recommendations, actually – for anyone who is applying for an NEA grant. Indeed, this list could be used for almost any grant. I’m writing this because I strongly believe we should stop spinning our wheels when it comes to going after foundation funding. If the fit isn’t there, don’t bother. And if you aren’t going to take the time to craft a brilliant application, PLEASE don’t bother.

This list is written from the viewpoint of a panelist, or grant reviewer. Let’s begin:

1. Read the guidelines. Duh, right? But don’t just read them. Read them ten times, and make absolutely sure that your program or mission is a fantastic fit. If the guidelines say the foundation will only fund small, one-time projects, don’t apply for a grant for your 10-month multidisciplinary season and say that the funding will be used for what you do during a certain month in that season. It just doesn’t work. And don’t apply if you have to look at your mission through beer goggles to make the fit work.

2. Story matters most. But so do numbers. Tell your story, and do it succinctly. Back up your story with statistics. Don’t let your application be ALL story, because then it sounds mushy and unsubstantiated; but don’t let it be ALL numbers because that is boring and doesn’t speak to the soul.

3. Give us some meat around the evaluation. Evaluation is the weakest part of basically every grant application I’ve ever read. Don’t just tell us you are going to survey your audience members. Really, we won’t believe you anyway. But if you tell us what you will ask them, why it’s important, and what you’ll do with that information, we’ll at least think your intention is sincere. If you can, include an example of your survey. If your project involves kids, find ways to get feedback from them. That stuff is always juicy.

4. If the grant requires you to reach underserved audiences, make darn sure your project actually does that. Hosting a project in, say, a rural community isn’t enough. How will you target those audiences? What about your project will be compelling for them? How will you ensure they have access? Why do you think they’ll care about what you are providing? Which brings me to…

5. There is no “if you build it, they will come” in the arts world. If your grant application is about community engagement, you need to demonstrate how you will actively engage the community and get their butts in your seats. You can describe this (traditional media, social media, etc.) but we also need to see a line item in your budget that matches the scope of what you want to accomplish. And what non-traditional means will you use to reach non-traditional audiences? And audiences that speak languages other than English? Don’t make us guess.

6. TYPOS MATTER. GRAMMAR MATTERS. If your project is super compelling, but there are mistakes in your application, it leads us to believe that you didn’t think the application was really worth your time, or that you don’t have pride in your work or lack attention to detail. Have three other sets of eyes read your application before you submit it, checking it for typos and grammatical mistakes. Oh – and – make sure the font is the same throughout, or we’ll be able to tell where you copied and pasted information from other grants. We all do that, but it’s a dirty little secret that should be kept secret.

7. Make sure your application is consistent. Many applications ask for basic information on the first page that you’ll repeat elsewhere, such as the name of your project, your request, and the budget. Make sure that the information you put on the first pages match what is in your narrative and budget pages. Really. Check it again. Right now.

8. Keep your budget detailed. I don’t need to know what you are spending on paper cups, but give me enough information in the budget that I can see that you know what you are doing. If it’s a festival, break out, say, rental costs, artist fees, publicity, insurance, etc. You’ve usually got at least 10 lines – use them, so I know you’ve done this before and have a true sense of what it takes. As opposed to just listing “festival costs” with a lump number.

9. Give us work samples that mean something. Pictures of performers are nice and all, and can convey some artistic excellence if they depict great costumes or sets, or the beautiful lines of a ballet dancer. But for the most part, a picture of a performance does nothing for my soul. If you are applying for a performing arts project, GIVE US VIDEO. Even if it’s from your iPhone. We cannot truly determine the artistry of a performance without experiencing it. Oh, and? If the guidelines say to identify work samples with track numbers and timing, identify your work samples with track numbers and timing. OK?

10. Make the application easy to read. For each narrative section, identify what you will cover by repeating an abbreviated version of the question. Don’t make us guess what you are supposed to be telling us. We’ve read thirteen other applications already that day and our brains are squeezing out of our ears. And don’t repeat narrative tidbits, even if you think what you said before was awesome – we got it the first time. Don’t pack every page with text – keep enough white space that we tired panelists can stand to look at your narrative. And DO NOT EXCEED WORD OR PAGE COUNTS. Your extra bits will just be cut out.

And finally…

11. Assume your readers are smart and savvy but not knowledgeable about your project and region.  Don’t insult your readers by padding your application with too much unsubstantiated touchy-feely stuff. Don’t think we won’t notice if you try to shoehorn your boot-shaped project into our glass slipper. Do give us clear, concise, and compelling information about your organization, why you are unique and fantastic, and why your community so clearly needs your project.

Here’s the thing: I’m not immune to some of the above. I intend to go back to this list whenever I submit a grant, because I’ll forget some of these recommendations; I’ll try to do some shoehorning or tap-dancing when I see a great funding opportunity. But let’s remember: when we do this, we waste our time, the foundation’s time, and the panelists’ time. Add those hours together, and think about what could have been accomplished, by all of us, with all of that precious time.

eat your strategic planning vegetables

“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” Dwight D. Eisenhower

“We always plan too much and always think too little.” – Joseph A. Schumpeter

“The reason that everybody likes planning is that nobody has to do anything.” – Jerry Brown

Few things in life twist my knickers like having to do things simply for the sake of doing them. The “because I said so” parent justification has roots far and wide in our society, and it drives me batty to this day when I – or anyone else – is expected or asked to sit down to keep a seat warm, hypothetically speaking. And when that “seat” is something that takes serious resources, energy, emotion, thought, time… I just have no patience for it. Especially when that something could spark a flame, or even a sea change. Strategic planning can be, unfortunately, a perfect example of doing something because we are expected to – because someone – board, staff, funders – “said so”.

I was struck by Jeanne Bell’s recent blog about the executive director’s role and attitude in strategic planning. She makes some excellent points about how the ED needs to have a strong voice and vision for the plan. She also underlines some of the issues surrounding this kind of work that greatly impacted how I approached our planning process.

Jeanne included a table near the end of her article that lists some “old executive” and potential “new executive” stances about strategic planning. Some of the “old” ones are just depressing: “I have to start a new strategic plan because my last one just expired.” “It doesn’t matter if the plan is particularly strategic or clarifying, we’re finally done and I have something to send to funders.”

Be honest: how many of you execs or staffers have heard these sentiments, or actually had these thoughts? In this age of new transparencies, of tough debates about business models, of foundations having conversations about supporting strong budget sheets rather than pennies on the dollar for program support, why aren’t we tearing this apart, too? Why aren’t there more conversations about the effectiveness and usefulness of strategic plans? I wonder: when a foundation asks for a strategic plan from an applicant, is it seen as a routine application attachment, or is it thoroughly explored to see if it is relevant and useful?

To that end, why don’t more foundations support strategic planning?

Here’s where I have to give huge props to the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, whose Organizational Effectiveness (OE) grantmaking is, in my mind, one of the most effective and useful funding programs in California. My wonderful Packard program officer once joked with me that the Cultural Council is a “Frequent OE shopper” and I said, “damn right”. Their OE program has allowed us to do incredible things that strengthened who we are and our ability to serve.

I started our strategic planning process with three unwavering ideas: I was not going to spend the better part of a year developing a document just because it’s something my funders required; I wanted a plan that, once finished, would not spend a day collecting dust on a shelf, because it would give us brilliant direction as we adapt to whatever the world throws our way; and finally, that if we were going to do this, the process would be priceless, and as relevant as the plan itself.

None of this work that we do in the nonprofit sector is worth it unless it is engaging for us personally and makes a huge difference to the people we serve. Sure, there are things we must do that maybe we don’t want to, from cleaning the employee toilet to speaking publicly about our causes to sometimes-unfriendly crowds. But that stuff is all a means to an end, and ye gods, a strategic plan should be something that inspires during the process, and keeps us focused and grounded when it is put into practice.

Organizations thinking about creating or renewing a strategic plan have a terrific opportunity to empower and engage the board and staff and to deepen relationships with their communities. Strategic planning processes can illuminate clear needs almost from the beginning, and help guide thinking and even decision-making long before the final version is done. (More on this in the next blog.) The process can be a way to identify supporters you didn’t know you had, to reawaken passion for your mission in folks who haven’t been involved in years, and to remind yourself why you love your job and the people with whom you work. Strategic planning should be a joy, not something you undertake just because you are expected to, and the result should help your organization spread its wings. Nothing less should do.

Work in progress

“Be bold, be not afraid – change is good.” – arts organization

“We need to figure out who we are, communicate it, and deliver on it.” – staff member

 “We are the most connected organization you’ve never heard of.” – board member

What would move the Santa Cruz arts community from good to great? What are the most important functions of the Cultural Council? If you could give one piece of advice to the Council staff and board, what would it be? These are some of the questions that we’ve been asking the community over the past few months, and boy howdy, did they answer.

As part of our strategic planning process, we held 17 focus groups. We talked with artists, arts organizations, educators, funders, and community members – including those who aren’t very connected to our work. Our purpose was to get a clear sense of how the community views the Cultural Council, what they think of our work, and where they think we should be going. It was fascinating. Some of what we heard was inspiring; some was challenging. None was a huge surprise. Some feedback confirmed some nagging suspicions I’ve had about areas where we are falling short. All of it, collectively, has inspired action – which will play out over the coming months and years.

The quotes at the top of this post came from the sessions. I didn’t sit in on any of them, as I didn’t want my presence to affect any of the feedback. I wanted it to be as candid and honest as possible. Thankfully, this is not a community that holds back. And now we’ve got a host of juicy, unattributed quotes, thoughts, and ideas that are driving me to – finally – boldly take action. I’ve been at this organization for just shy of three years, and that’s plenty long enough to find my footing, learn the culture, and explore the community. Now it’s time to do something and figure out who we want to be in the coming years.

In late July, we held a full-day strategic planning retreat at the lovely Seymour Center. The full staff and board were present, and it was a brilliant day. The best thing about it? People disagreed with one another. They respectfully fought for their positions and passions. They chewed up ideas and spit out new ones. Board and staff members alike challenged and inspired one another. I’ve long said that all I really want from my workplace is to be around people who care deeply about the things I care about, and this was in sharp, beautiful relief during our retreat. There was no mindless group-think; instead, people came at issues from different directions, navigated some choppy waters, and came together at the end with some really fantastic ideas.

All of this was informed by not just the focus group research, but also a detailed competitive analysis of our current environment, a trend analysis, and business model research. This process is as thorough as it is engaging. The most heartening thing to me is that the vision I shared with the board back in January – that of the Council become more service oriented, of it creating raving fans, of doing a better job telling our story, and that we focus on transforming how people value the arts in their lives – is coming to life.

In the coming months, we’ll refine this work, complete the plan, and figure out how to put it into action. From the outset, I wanted to create a planning process that was as or more valuable than the plan itself, and for the plan to be a highly useful means for making great decisions. There are few things more exciting than seeing a vision come to fruition – and that’s where we’re headed.

In the meantime, to get a taste of not just one of our fantastic programs, but also of the way we are learning to talk about what we do, I invite you to learn a little bit about how we are affecting children and youth in this county. Enjoy!

Movin’ on up

“I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it, but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

“If there is anything that we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves.” – Carl Jung

It’s official: the Cultural Council is moving to the Tannery Arts Center (TAC). There was an article in Santa Cruz Sentinel about it today, along with a silly picture of yours truly looking off to the distant future in front of a construction zone.

It took the Cultural Council (CC) ten years to make this decision, for a host of reasons. We’ve been involved with the TAC since its inception, with shared board members, participation in focus groups and community meetings about the shape and future of the campus, and the participation of TAC artists in Open Studios and as grantees. Through the years, the TAC board was interested in the CC having various roles on the campus: everything from general management to fundraising to programming partner. This last element is where we, in the end, found agreement.

The Council will continue to focus on our current programs: arts education, Open Studios, grants, exhibitions, and advocacy. But we know that by virtue of being on a campus teeming with artists and arts organizations that we will find inspiration and motivation to help activate the campus for creative people county-wide. And we are excited about the prospect of finally being located in an artistic environment, as opposed to generic office buildings (as lovely as our current office is).

Some of our stakeholders have expressed concern about this move. How will it affect our county-wide mandate? How can we ensure that our own identity will remain intact, now that we are a part of the campus? I understand these concerns. Ultimately, though, it is a financially sound move, which will help support our programs AND our county-wide mandate. I think we’ll actually have the opportunity to be more visible, and have greater clarity about who we are and what we do. We should be surrounded by artists and arts organizations, and our intent will be to draw creatives from the whole region – if not the whole world – to Santa Cruz County’s one-of-a-kind arts campus.

These days, I don’t think the Cultural Council could be accused of “lying at anchor”. But nor do I think we are done changing, not by a long shot. This TAC news is just part of the momentum that we are building, and the changes that we’ll be announcing in the near future. We are working to realize our vision of being of greater service to our community, and for those who are uncomfortable with change, I gently encourage to consider Carl Jung’s quote above.

We’re starting what I hope will be a wild and wonderful ride. And very soon, we’ll start telling our story in a new way, so the community we serve has a better understanding of who the Cultural Council is now, and who we are becoming. Stay tuned.


converting currency

“I can make more generals, but horses cost money.” – Abraham Lincoln

“I don’t want to make money – I just want to be wonderful.” – Marilyn Monroe

Ahh, budget season.

Most nonprofits have spent the last several months trying to divine the future. Budget forecasts, funding “pipelines”, confirmed vs. anticipated revenue, and plain old hopes and dreams all get funneled into what is ultimately known as the “approved budget”. For a few lucky organizations, 90% or more of the approved budget is based on known quantities. For the vast majority of organizations, budgets are no more than our best guess.

Like many fellow nonprofit leaders in Santa Cruz, I spend the months of April through July attending budget hearing after budget hearing in all five jurisdictions, sometimes waiting hours for my (literal) two minutes to stand in front of elected officials to ask for continued support. As the flashing red timer ticks down the seconds, I try to educate, engage, and inspire the five or seven folks who have just heard fifty similar pleas. Even better, I often end up speaking after numerous social service leaders, who bring their differently-abled children, their wheelchair-bound seniors, their homeless families, all of whom benefitted from public funding. When it’s my turn, what can I say?

What I say is the truth: that I’m honored to be in the company of these incredible organizations that feed, clothe, and house the needy. That I represent the thousands of artists and arts organizations that feed the soul and the spirit; that connect everyone in our community; and that inspire and lift us when things are tough. And that we aren’t there for a handout: we are there to be a part of the solution.

I tell them that the nonprofit arts industry in Santa Cruz generates $32 million in economic activity every year. That attendees to arts events in Santa Cruz County spend an average of $30.29 on food, lodging, and transportation above and beyond the cost of the event. That our nonprofit arts generate $14.47 million in household income to local residents and delivers $2.86 million in local and state government revenue. What this means is that the arts not only knit the fabric of our community; they also can generate the public funds necessary to support social services that our community desperately needs.

We are lucky in Santa Cruz. For 33 years, all of the jurisdictions in the county have funded the arts through the Cultural Council’s grant-making program. But every year, that pool of funding shrinks, and every year, I have to make the case as to why the arts are one of the smartest public investments the cities and county can make.

Above and beyond the work I have to do in the public funding realm, however, is the actual budgeting process. I used to dread budget season, because I would look at the year that was passing, and the year ahead, and wonder how I could make sense out of what might happen. Now, though, I find crafting next year’s budget to be an incredibly exciting process. The budget is not just revenue and expense targets: it’s our mission. How will we make a major impact with the resources we have? How will we change lives? Who do we want on our team? What will we need to stop doing, so we can do something else that could be transformative? What smart risk-taking should we build in?

This year was difficult. We had income reductions that forced staff changes that were painful. We had to eliminate our major fundraiser because, although it was a wonderful party, it was not yielding enough return on our investment. And we are losing some incredible team members due to retirement and transitions. But… we are also promoting some thrilling new talent. We’re going to be able to increase the amount of funds we grant to artists and arts organizations, including funding new applicants to our program as well as professional development for all kinds of artists, from musicians to actors to sculptors. And we are building a visibility campaign that will finally allow us to tell our story, and the story of Santa Cruz arts – in a vibrant new way.

One of the smartest things I did this year in regards to our budget was contracting with the Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF). I asked them to review two years of past finances and our current draft budget with several questions in mind: is it mission-driven? Is it highly strategic? Where are the opportunities that we can’t see, because we are so close to it? The result was a whip-smart memo that helped inform both difficult choices, and a smarter use of resources. I can’t recommend NFF highly enough.

Next Wednesday, our budget goes to the board for approval. I’m proud of the work that went into it, and more than ever, I see it as a strategic tool that sets our priorities rather than an albatross by which I have to measure my successes and failures each month. Budgeting is never easy, but it can be inspiring. In thinking about Marilyn Monroe’s quote above, it turns out, I want at all: I want to generate money for this organization, AND I want to do wonderful work. I hope our budget for this year allows for both.