Nonprofit Arts Leaders: To Change Your Organization for the Better, You Actually Have to Change

Don’t let your dominant response default you into driving into that wall.

Shame, really. All you had to do was turn the wheel. (“Volkswagen Beetle crashed through a brick wall” by simpleinsomnia is licensed under CC BY 2.0.)

Let’s say you’re driving to an important meeting. There are a lot of complex issues to be discussed. Short-term problems. Long-term problems. Your company, no matter what kind of company it is, utilizes an overabundance of processes, even when things are running smoothly. But you have tasks to do, people to attract (and, possibly, repel), money to be made, and other extraordinary multifaceted tasks not only to keep up with, but to master at any given moment.

A red Camry, whose driver is busy texting the spouse, swerves into your lane from the right. With everything running through your head about the upcoming meeting, you hesitate, not really aware of what’s happening on your right. Instead of turning left, you determinedly continue forward, lose your bearings, and slam straight into a brick wall. In one nanosecond, all your priorities change. The meeting becomes meaningless. The issues that have caused you to lose sleep for weeks are suddenly unimportant. And for a good reason.

You’re in pain. That pain will dictate every decision you make, including those once-important business decisions. It’s a natural reaction. Your “dominant response” mechanism has been triggered, not by the accident, but by the pressure, stress, and anxiety at your company. The stress of the Camry clicked it up a notch, enough to send you into a brick wall.

Generally speaking, a “dominant response” is the one reaction that is most likely to occur in the presence of a given array of provocations. The pain centers of your nervous system don’t give a damn about your company. Neither do unmanaged stress, perfectionism, anxiety, peer pressure, board pressure, self-expectations, and the psychotic din attached to the clamor for success.

woman with box color
Alternately, one can try to hide from the cacophony of stress. (Photo by Ryanniel Masucol on Pexels)

It is why the kind of radical change nonprofit arts organizations need to undertake right now — the decision to use its core activities to make the members of its community better off in tangible, quantifiable ways — don’t get undertaken. It’s not the fault of the longtime leaders; that is their nature. In fact, they’re so used to choosing fame and vanity that they see no need to be a nonprofit organization. These woebegone relics of the 1970s (or the protégés of those relics) are the victims of their own dominant response to a failing system in which donors are their own beneficiaries. They rely on their dominant response to the arts crisis, a solution which empowers a system-wide metastasizing cancer of elitism that threatens to kill the sector has been to stay the course. When in stress, these folks tend not to look for diversity in answers. Instead, they value steadfastness. Stay the course. Go straight, even if it means hitting a brick wall.

They may not have the answer to the ambiguities that affect every great nonprofit organization, but they do know how to react from hitting a wall. And often, their choice in reaction is to claim victimhood.

Staying a fatal course leads to ridiculous requests of staff, board members, and community members, and those lead to the metaphor of hammering a nail with a salami, which we wrote about in 2022.


Here’s how to hammer a nail with a salami.

  1. Put salami aside. Get a hammer.
  2. Using hammer (not salami), tap nail into wood, increasing strength of tap as the nail sinks in, until nail is fully in wood. Then stop hammering.
  3. Cut salami into nice thin slices; add Swiss cheese, mustard, and sauerkraut; put between two slices of fresh caraway rye with a cornmeal crust; cut in half; and enjoy on a nice plate with a potato salad, a half-sour pickle, and a glass of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Tonic. If you’re from California, add lettuce, tomato, and avocado to the sandwich.

If anyone believes that salami is the answer to every problem, then by asking someone to hammer a nail with a salami, they’re being consistent. Consistently unhelpful, of course, but consistent nonetheless, those little hobgoblins.

Continuing a course of begging for unearned money for producing art with no impact in mind whatsoever (except for good reviews and a full house, which are selfish, internal impacts) is the equivalent of hammering a nail with a salami. And the stink of the vainglory affects the whole nonprofit arts community, even those doing the right thing by their communities.

The dominant response to the crisis in the arts in America has been to beg for money to continue to neglect the community. Arts-related money from foundations, corporations, and individuals continues to be on the wane (because little proof of core charity has been offered), so there have been recent movements to scrounge from the government coffers. Arts leaders don’t change, however. The most repugnant of those leaders will only burn through whatever money they are granted (as they did with extensive COVID funding – not all arts organizations, but way too many) and beg again and again with no concept of what it means to run a charity.

If they had only relaxed during the stress and turned the Beetle to the left, even a little bit, they wouldn’t have careened full-speed into a brick wall. In this case, “turning the wheel” is the analogy for “embracing a charitable outcome.” When you do good for those that need it, rather than those that simply want it, you’re on the right track.

But of course that can’t happen without the intent to do so. You’ve got to want to use your art in charitable terms. If you don’t, sadly, you’re among the majority of the current leaders. Merely putting on a charade of a charitable program (usually on the side, to raise money from foundations) won’t cut it. Why would you drag your feet in the cause of helping the people of your community?

The arts are what I say they are1

Make a difference. Don’t just put together a show. That’s what you’re your community members (and funders) have been telling you for years.

Foot-draggers weren’t raised that way. They don’t know how to be a charity and they don’t want to learn, either. In their minds, everyone else is causing them to fail. So, they don’t change — the leaders nor their organizations. And another beetle hits the bricks.

Just a reminder: no one cares about your June 30 fiscal year end except you. Donors look at these “fiscal year-ends” as gratuitous asks, disconnected from their own lives and giving patterns, and an arbitrary/irrelevant reason for giving. Yet another case of it being all about you, not them. In the meantime, for success in the field, pick up a copy of this book by clicking on the ad below. It’ll change your perspective for the better.

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