Tuesday, April 25, 2017

My Life As a Shameless Lover of Museums: Toto Pulls Back the Curtain


I recently gave the keynote talk for the Colorado Wyoming Association of Museums annual conference in Boulder, CO. This is the text of my remarks (you will understand the picture after you read the piece):

In thinking about what to speak to you about today, since you are all experts in museums and I am more of an observer of museums, I decided what might be most helpful is to share my personal reflections, based on my experience and a lifetime of interacting with museums. There is probably nothing I can tell you about the technical aspects of operating a museum, dealing with curation, conservation and management that you don’t already know.

I grew up in New York City, in Manhattan, with parents who while not working in the arts where stereotypical New York City culture vultures. From a very young age I was being taken to museums – MoMA, the Met, Museum of Natural History, the Whitney, Guggenheim. I also grew up in an era when even New York City public schools had regular art class for all students. Museums for me became these places of magic, of mystery, and also in many ways, an alternative playground.

At a young age, perhaps about eight, I began taking art classes at the Museum of Modern Art, which at that time had an art school as part of their education program. This whet my appetite for art even more, as I began actively making art, not just looking at it. A few years later, when I was maybe about 11, my great aunt Selma took me on a visit to MoMA, when there was a major retrospective of Diane Arbus – and this story has now become part of my family lore. As we strolled through the show, my aunt became more and more concerned because of the challenging nature of Arbus’s photographs. I, however, seemed totally unperturbed until I looked at one photo, read the wall signage, and then said “Aunt Selma, what’s a transvestite?” Neither of us remember exactly what she answered, but it clearly caused considerable consternation for my aunt as she struggled to find a way to talk to me about transvestites. But isn’t that a great example of what is great about art? We were enjoying an intergenerational bonding experience, and appreciating the art of photography from an aesthetic perspective. But then we were also having a serious, honest conversation about an important subject, gender identity.

When I was in middle school, I will admit I was not the most diligent student and a group of us kids would sometimes skip school (I know – a shocking admission!). Where did we go to hang out, especially if it was too cold or rainy to go to the park? The Museum of Natural History, which was right across the street. I spent many hours roaming the halls and exploring the exhibits, and probably learned more than if I had been in class.

I later went on to attend LaGuardia High School for the Arts, as an art major, so of course this deepened even more my immersion in art. I remember we had a special January break program where we got to do special projects outside of the school. One year I spent time experiencing the conservation and storage side of the Met Museum.  I also remember visiting Push Pin Studios, the graphic design firm of Milton Glaser, a LaGuardia alum, giving me an introduction to the commercial side of art.

This was also the height of the anti-war movement, the Black Panthers, the Puerto Rican independence movement, the Chicano movement, so we were all steeped in both art and social action. I think this stayed with me as an influence, and increasingly artists and arts organizations are working at the intersection of art and social justice.

In some ways, this deep career-driven immersion in art from a very young age also ended up in some ways damaging me. What do I mean by that? I felt that if I were to be an artist I must be a Michelangelo, a Picasso, a Jackson Pollack. Just making art and seeing where it might go did not work. The pressure I put on myself as an artist eventually became so great I could no longer really make art, and I began to explore other art forms like theatre. I also became more interested in politics. I spent a year abroad in England, studying British literature, theatre and cinema, and of course also visiting museums.

But when I returned to the States and graduated college I ended up working for a United States congressman, seemingly leaving the fine arts for the political arts, though as the “arts guy” on staff I was given the job or working on any arts-related issues. This included working on a project that many years later became what is now The High Line. One day, the chief of staff for the Congressman asked I would be interested in doing a side project. A good friend of hers was directing the education department of MoMA, which was presenting its first big blockbuster show, Van Gogh at Arles, and the education staff was overwhelmed. So, I began moonlighting at MoMA, working to create slide lectures to be used by teachers bringing in school groups. Remember slide carousels? All of a sudden a light bulb went off – despite having grown up around art as a consumer, and even as an art maker, I had never really thought about the fact that museums were also businesses, that there were people writing press releases, balancing budgets, creating education materials, raising money. For me this was the “Toto pulling back the curtain and exposing the Wizard of Oz” moment. This got me rethinking my decision to leave the arts and I began exploring graduate arts administration programs. These programs may be ubiquitous now, but back in the 70’s there were maybe half a dozen of them in the country.

I ended up doing the Masters in Arts Administration Program at NYU, and thus began my professional career in the arts. Don’t worry, I am not going to recount my entire career in excruciating detail. But I am going to try and touch on moments, stories that relate to my feelings about museums.

After a few years and a few jobs largely in the theatre world, I ended up with my first job in philanthropy, running the capital funding program for the New York State Council on the Arts. This work proved especially influential for me. It involved extensive travel for site visits throughout New York State, including very rural communities, as well as communities of color.

This is when I got to know museums and cultural groups like the Adirondack Museum (now the Adirondack Experience) on Blue Mountain Lake, the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, Eastman Museum in Rochester, the QueensMuseum, the Bronx Museum, the Corning Museum, the Fenimore Museum, and AliceAusten House on Staten Island.

I developed a much deeper appreciation of the riches available in every corner of our country, and the outsized role that museums and cultural center could play in the lives of rural communities, as well as poor urban communities.

I also developed a deeper understanding of the facilities aspects of museums. Perhaps more than any other art form, museums are about buildings, about this envelope, this receptacle, that must contain and protect the art, but also must be comfortable and welcoming. I remember one particular project very well, where a major regional art museum had been renovated with a new climate control system. Years later they noticed that some of their paintings in certain galleries had developed a filmy coating that required cleaning. After it became clear this was not an isolated problem but systemic, they tried to figure out what was causing it and were stumped. Finally, a maintenance person figured out that the climate control vents had been installed along the edges of the walls in certain galleries, with the return registers along the floor directly below. So, air was being, in effect, washed along the surfaces of the paintings 24/7, where even minor impurities were building up deposits on the canvas.

We also supported some very big projects, like the restoration of the Guggenheim Museum. There I learned that on top of the many challenges of the iconic Frank Lloyd Wright Building, like the outward slanting walls along the rotunda, that they were also having major water infiltration problems. This was not just due to the age of the building. The big problem was that Wright had designed the exterior of the building to be pure poured concrete, but after it was built someone had decided the building needed a waterproof coating, and this coating over time had trapped water in the concrete, which with freezing and thawing had opened up cracks in the concrete. Our support helped strip the offending coating, repair the cracks and restore the exterior closer to the way Wright had intended.

Later jobs helped me develop an even broader appreciation of museums and their extraordinary civic value, and also the growing diversity of types of museums – places like Dia Beacon, Mass MoCA and Storm King that were entirely about large scale art, or temporary installations or outdoor sculpture and earth art. And working at the national scale allowed me to go far beyond New York and get to know museums like the Milwaukee Art Museum, LACMA, the Perez Museum, the Gardner Museum, Seattle Art Museum, SF MoMA, the Wing LukeMuseum, Art Institute of Chicago, National Museum of Mexican Art, again just to name a few. I have probably visited literally hundreds of museums, large and small, rural and urban, art museums, science museums, children’s museums, history museums and historic houses. I was trying to calculate how many states, and I think I have visited museums in about 40 states. I became such a connoisseur of museum gift shops that a few years ago I actually wrote a whole series of blog posts about my favorite museum gift shops through the country, and became a connoisseur of museum gift shop ties, one of which I am wearing today.  

During five years in Philadelphia as Chief Cultural Officer for the City, I served on the boards of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, so I developed a Trustee’s perspective as well. Now I serve on the board of the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, which our foundation played a major role in creating.

While in Philadelphia the board of PMA grappled with a major leadership change with the sudden passing of a long-time beloved director, as well as a serious debate about the merits of a long-standing huge capital project designed by Frank Gehry. Would the $500-750 million total to be raised for the capital project be better spent on investment in programs and digital technology? Was the focus on the building distracting from needed attention on innovative programming? Were these goals mutually exclusive? There was a serious debate about this at the board level. 

And the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the nation’s oldest art school and oldest museum, historically devoted to classic figurative art like Eakins and Cassatt, had to grapple with two big decisions – would they begin teaching and exhibiting new art forms like digital art, conceptual and performance art? And the acquisitions committee proposed the purchase of a major work of video art (Bill Viola's Oceans Without a Shore) – the first piece of video art ever to be acquired by the museum (and a piece I happen to love). In the end, the board authorized the acquisition, but not without considerable debate and concern. Here we had two major museums with deep histories grappling with how to best serve the art and communities of today. This change is not easy, and there are often Trustees who may resist change, who see themselves as the keepers of a tradition, a legacy, who may not understand or appreciate new art forms or new ways of connecting art to the public.

Over the past fifty years or so we have seen an incredible geographic democratization of art, with important museums and collections much more uniformly distributed throughout the country. There is no such thing as a flyover state from an art standpoint anymore.

We have seen the growth of single collection museums – not a new phenomenon of course. Institutions like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum have been around for a long time – in their case since 1903. And in Philadelphia we had the Barnes Collection.  But now we also have the Nasher, the Broad, the Brant Collection, and here in Denver the Anschutz Western Art collection. I am not sure this is necessarily a bad thing – as I said, it has always been with us. People who amass large collections will sometimes want to donate it to existing museums, but I can understand that sometimes they may feel they assembled work with a cohesive collecting vision that would be lost if it was absorbed into an existing museum, and if they have the money and ego to build a building and properly fund staff and endow their own museum, why not. Personally, I really enjoy getting insight into a collector’s personal, idiosyncratic vision of art. Whether Barnes, or Gardner, or Broad, it is just a different kind of museum experience.

Here are some of my museum memories – images or experiences that have stayed with me…
  • The extraordinary beautiful collection of classic Adirondack lake boats at the Adirondack Museum
  • The beautiful setting and eclectic collection of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, especially the folk art circus collection
  • The wings of the Santiago Calatrava designed Milwaukee Art Museum opening on a beautiful sunlit morning, reflected in the water below.
  • The Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, where you have no sense it essentially extends on a bridge over a highway.
  • The awe-inspiring Richard Serras at Dia Beacon
  • The Gees Bend Quilt exhibition at the Whitney
  • The Aboriginal Art Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne Australia
  • The Asian Art collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including the pillared temple hall from India and the Japanese teahouse
  • The diorama cases at the American Museum of Natural History – as old-fashioned as they may seem, I still love them – part of my childhood
  • The medical oddities of the Mutter Museum
  • While it is more about the architecture than the art, walking up the staircase at the Aspen Art Museum between the outer woven wall and the inner wall of the museum.
  • Watching my toddler daughter fall in love with Nick Cave’s art at the Denver Art Museum
  • Hanging out on the roof of MCA Denver with Mark Mothersbough listening to a local band play, and talking about art, music, and cities.


I feel like museums have been a thread, a through-line for my life, the imprinted memories functioning almost like invisible tattoos that I carry with me. I am sure if I was younger, I would be covered with actual tattoos! I wish that experience for everyone. And while I have had the privilege of growing up in a family that nurtured my love art, and also have the privilege of special access through my work, this is not an experience, a way of life, that is reserved for the privileged. What do I see as the trends in museums, from my vantage point as a funder, a policy person, an avid consumer of museum content? What are the barriers to having museums for all people as much a part of life as going to work, or going to the supermarket – or to speak to the specific community we are in, as much a part of life as skiing, hiking or mountain biking? Here is a list, in no particular order:

·      The cost barrier – While it is not just about the money, we can’t ignore that money is a factor. When the Denver Museum and the Children’s Museum of Denver eliminated price barriers for kids and families, visitorship spiked. On SCFD “free” days, visitorship at the major museums reflect the diversity of our communities, and they are so crowded that members and other donors try to avoid those days. How do we ensure that every day is like that? I know it is complicated, that having a cost can place a sense of value on something, and that having admission also drives memberships, where free admission is a key benefit. I don’t have an easy answer but I do think we must continue to explore how we can eliminate cost as a barrier for those for who cost IS a real factor.

·      The image barrier – Museums, especially art museums, are perceived by people who did not grow up with exposure to them, as intimidating, as scary – not something that could ever be a comfortable part of their life. A blogger just wrote a piece called “Ten things in the arts that shoulddie” and one of them was hovering gallery guards who treat you as a criminal and not so discretely follow you around the museum, like a security guard in a department store who stalks you as a potential shoplifter. This is real, and I have seen it happen, most recently when I was at MFA Houston. Here is a non-museum example: I was attending a meeting at a country club with several other people. Three of us happened to arrive independently but at the same time, all walking from our cars to the front door simultaneously. One of the group was a woman and the third an African American man, dressed, as I was, in a jacket and tie. The guard at the front door walked straight up to this man and asked him why he was there. Did not even attempt to question me or the woman. The moment the guard saw that I and the woman knew this man he backed off, but it was a stark reminder that people of color, no matter how successful, deal with these “micro-aggressions” every day. So while this phenomenon is not always about race, it can be. Museums must relentlessly impress upon their staff and volunteers to always make visitors feel welcome.

·      Related to my previous point, everybody is part of the customer service team – my experience at a museum is immensely enhanced by staff that seems happy, enthusiastic, knowledgeable – but not too pushy. Many larger museums may outsource security, custodial or food service to outside contractors. Even if in the short run this is cost-effective I think this can be a huge challenge as you lose control of the customer service piece. They are no longer part of your team, but part of someone else’s team.

·      It’s OK to have kids in the galleries – abouth three years ago Judith Dobryzinski, an art critic and blogger, wrote a piece about how too many art museums these days were overrun with children, making it harder to enjoy quiet contemplation of the art, specifically citing an experience at the Denver Art Museum - I pushed back a bit in a comment [you can see the whole exchange in the link]. My position is that while it can sometimes be distracting, and some parents can do a better job of ensuring their kids don’t treat museum galleries like playrooms, I will take those downsides ANY DAY. Please do not limit kids and family programs to specialized education areas far away from the galleries. I LOVE that the Denver Art Museum has family activity areas spread throughout the museum, and their backpack program where young children can explore sections of the museum with their accompanying adults through a sort of activity treasure hunt. And I see the delight on the faces of most visitors without kids when they see kids doing an activity in a gallery. We need MORE, not LESS of this. 

·      Get out of your building – Museums are by their nature place-based, about buildings and real estate as well as art. And we spend so much time trying to get “THEM” into our buildings. But one thing research has repeatedly shown is that poor communities, communities of color, really want cultural opportunities in their neighborhood. Figure out how you can get more programs, even less fragile/valuable objects from your collections, out into the community. Think about community satellite locations, or touring exhibitions to community centers, schools, social clubs.

·      Take Equity seriously and make it a total organization commitment – This can be difficult work and can make many board and staff uncomfortable. Someone commented recently about the growing presence of “diversity, equity and inclusion” in arts conferences, that “this is not a track,” meaning conference should not be creating equity tracks, where attendees can choose whether or not to attend such sessions. It should be woven into the fabric of the conference – keynotes, staffing, sessions NOT on equity topics. I have often heard from the staff-people running diversity or community outreach departments at museums that they feel marginalized. They may be the only professional staff of color. They may feel a “box was checked” by hiring them and creating such a program. Does the organization, from the Board, to the President or Director, to curators and department heads, embrace this work. Are these issues something you think about in hiring, in vendor selection, in marketing and communications, in wayfinding and facility design? And related to this, if to reach communities of color you partner with organizations from those communities, truly partner with them and pay them for their time. Another thing I hear often from smaller, culturally-specific arts organizations is that now every major arts organization in town wants to partner with them on both programming and marketing. However, there is little recognition of how much these partnerships involve in terms of staff time, for organizations already stretched thin with less access to resources.

·      Have Fun and Take Risks – Museums can be thought of as stuffy, serious places. How to you blow up that stereotype? Adam Lerner at MCA Denver has been a master at this, and in fact they just got a big grant fromMellon to sort of share that secret sauce with museum staff from around the country. Not to be flip, but “Be Like Adam.” I remember when I was in Philly the Philadelphia Museum of Art did very traditional opening gala receptions for all major exhibitions – business attire or black tie, cocktails and canapes, maybe a chamber ensemble playing lovely classical music. The guests were trustees and patrons. Average age of probably 75. But one year they decided to give their first ever solo show to a local artist – photographer Zoe Strauss. Zoe specialized in photographing the people of Philadelphia who the patrons of the museum probably never see, as well as the people of poor, challenged communities in places like Mississippi and Louisiana. To Director Timothy Rub’s credit, he realized the traditional opening party would be wildly at odds with the values and work of Zoe. So, he assembled a cross departmental team of the 20-somethings on staff, gave them the opening reception budget and said – throw the kind of party you and your friends would want to go to. And they did. Tickets were $10 and it was promoted entirely via social media, selling out easily. Patron types and board members were basically told, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to come. The people who came were almost entirely in their 20’s and 30’s, many of whom had never been to the museum before. The entertainment began with one of the city’s top drumlines and dance teams from a local largely-Black high school marching through the crowd and parting it like the Red Sea, followed by a dance party DJ’d by Questlove of the Roots. It was an amazing party, like nothing the museum had every done before, and opened it up to a whole new audience.

·      Signage – I know a lot of curators don’t like to distract you from the art with signage or labels that are too large. But speaking as a fairly sophisticated museum-goer, I like signage that helps give me more info and more context, and is large enough to easily read. Now imagine the experience of someone less comfortable with the museum experience. I also really appreciate signage that helps put work into historical or cultural context. I think sometimes curators or exhibit designers take too much for granted. Because something is obvious to them they forget it may be less obvious to others. I think they also tend to shy away from what can be difficult conversations. An anecdote here – a museum mounted an exhibit of beautiful paintings of Southwestern scenes from the early 20th Century featuring many paintings of local Indians. The artists were not themselves native. While I very much enjoyed the work, I found it interesting that there was no signage talking about the issue of cultural appropriation. What did the Indians feel about being painted in this way? I happened to run into the Director and asked what the Indian community thought of this work, or the show, and was told “Oh, they hate it of course.” Now I am not arguing that this means the show should not be done. But what if there was an information panel in the exhibit that presented a contemporary Indian point of view on this work?

·      Hours and Amenities – Be Starbucks. Now by that I don’t just mean serve over-priced coffee – many of you probably do that already. What I mean is take a cue from the famous Starbucks “third place” goal – being the third place for people to hang out, after work and home. Have free WiFi in all your public areas, have comfy sofas and chairs. And stay open later. Can’t tell you how many times I rushed to get to a museum by 3:30 or 4 and then am hustled out at 4:45 as the museum tries to clear the galleries by 5. I know there are costs to this, but I am urging you to find a way to make it happen, and not just on a first Friday once a month, or even every Thursday or Friday as some museums do. Experiment, find out what works, and don’t forget to also let people know you are doing it. And be patient – it takes time for people to modify their default behavior. A non-museum example. When the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis opened their new theatre a few years – a significant very cool building that included a glass bottom cantilevered bridge over a river – they designed it to welcome people all day and late into the evening, even on days and times when there were no performances. The building had full free WiFi throughout. It also had many seating areas. You did not have to have a ticket to get into the building, only into a theatre space itself when there was a show. They had one or two coffee stations that switched over into bars in the evening. They had a full service restaurant that again was open regular restaurant hours, not just ties to when there was a show. The Guthrie became a hugely popular place in the city just to hang out, to meet people. Now I don’t have stats on whether it led to a measurable increase in audiences, but I can tell you being in that building just felt right, and when I did see a show the audience looked more like the crowd hanging out in the lobby areas, sipping a latte and working on their laptop.

Of course, many museums already do many if not all of these things I am recommending, but many do not. And as I said at the outset, I speak as a passionate layperson, as a consumer and supporter of museums, not as a museum professional.

I believe deeply in the power of museums to educate and enlighten us, to challenge us, to spark dialog and conversation, to connect us with the sweep of human civilization and natural beauty this world has to offer.


So, I close by saluting all of you, for what you do, day in and day out, to make that magic happen, often toiling hidden behind that curtain like the Wizard of Oz.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Silence - sharing a beautiful post from Grant Oliphant of the Heinz Endowments

I have been silent on my blog for quite a while - a combination of the usual press of work and family obligations that can push writing to the back burner, and a sense of shock and impotence in the face of the political discourse of our times.

I am sure I will be back soon, sharing thoughts on the arts and creative enterprise, philanthropy and cultural policy, but for now I share this excerpt from a recent post by Grant Oliphant of the Heinz Endowments:


There are truths that need to be spoken now, spoken out loud and unapologetically by people who know them to be true. Spoken with love, yes, but also fierce conviction—truths about the validity of science, the perils of climate change, the nature and price of injustice, the insanity of racism and all the other isms creeping out from beneath their ill-concealed rocks, the importance of civil and human rights and why they matter for all of us, how worsening poverty hurts everyone, the opportunities before us to create and innovate our way to a better future.

These are not partisan truths but rather human truths. They belong to no political party and can be declared off limits by no lawmaker or grandstanding commentator. And they are where we as a sector, foundations that presume to offer a vision for the future, must find our voice, in holding them out not as criticism but as the True North we still must point towards, the star we still see and hold steady in our gaze despite attempts to obscure it in tawdry distraction.

I encourage you to read the entire post. Here is the link.

Thank you, Grant, for breaking the Silence with your voice. 



Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Some Thoughts on the Americans for the Arts Statement on Cultural Equity


You would have to be living under a rock to not be thinking about equity these days, and all its related terms/concepts - structural racism, inclusiveness, privilege, etc. Just having the conversation can be a minefield, especially as someone who comes to the conversation from a position of privilege. Am I using the "right" language. Am I being aggressive/forceful enough in my approach? Am I being too aggressive? Will I offend someone by being too timid? Will I offend by being too threatening? If I verbally commit, then what will I actually do to make that verbiage actionable?

Those charged with looking at the "big picture" of the cultural life of our communities - service organizations, funders, local arts agencies - have a special imperative to think deeply about these issues and take action, both to examine their own operations for bias and inequity, and to foster these values in the field. Over the past few years Grantmakers in the Arts went through an extraordinarily thorough process of developing, approving and disseminating a Racial Equity in Arts Philanthropy Statement of Purpose. This helped trigger really thoughtful conversations and change in the funding community. Every foundation is different, and many are driven by elements of legacy, history, family control that may limit - or accelerate - such dialogue and change. What the GIA document did was empower foundation staff to at least have the conversation, and have a "field approved" document to help guide that conversation. And most importantly, the document was backed by concrete action. All staff AND trustees were now required to complete the "Undoing Racism" training of the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond. A study was undertaken of the entire operations of the organization through an equity lens, special convenings were held, and equity became a thread woven throughout GIA's signature annual conference. And to paraphrase Vu Le's recent Nonprofits With Balls post, equity is not a "track."

So now Americans for the Arts has just released its "Statement on Cultural Equity." It is an important milestone and something that all who care about the arts should read. It was developed through a long process engaging board, staff and field leaders. Is it perfect? No. Has it been a long time coming - perhaps too long? Yes. BUT, as noted above, fear of not getting it perfect should not prevent taking action, and I applaud Americans for the Arts for taking this step - it is exactly what they need to be doing in leading our field. The Statement leads with: "To support a full creative life for all, Americans for the Arts commits to championing policies and practices of cultural equity that empower a just, inclusive and equitable nation."

It is my hope that this Statement will inspire others to dig in and make this work a priority, as the GIA statement did. Already, IDEASxLab in Louisville, Kentucky has adapted the Statement for their organization. And Americans of the Arts has already begun to make equity an authentic part of their annual convention and other programs. I think the challenge Americans for the Arts has is that it has a senior leadership team - CEO, COO and eleven VPs - that is entirely White. While there is ample diversity below that level, the fact remains that the face the organization presents to the world with its senior leadership team is not reflective of our society. Having been one of those White faces for a while, I understand the challenge. Virtually that entire senior team has grown up with the organization, many there for ten or even 20+ years, and they are extremely competent and experienced. There is considerable - though vague - language in the Statement about taking specific actions, internally and for the field. So I think for many observers, the proof will be in how the Statement is made actionable - will it shape budget priorities, staffing and board decisions, programming?

Americans for the Arts - again, to its credit - has encouraged a robust dialogue in the field around the release of their Statement, opening up their ArtsBlog to an array of other voices, including this thoughtful post by Roberto Bedoya, and this post by Lindsay Tucker So. Other bloggers like Doug Borwick, who writes Engaging Matters, have also written about the new Statement, again encouraged by AFTA. Clay Lord of Americans for the Arts has written a particularly thoughtful blog post on this effort, titled "The Humble Step."

I am very sensitive to the situation Americans for the Arts is in, having once been part of the senior leadership team there, and now running a private foundation with an excellent - but not diverse - small board and staff. We do not have term limits which makes achieving a more diverse board a special challenge that will take time and patience. And the staff - which I inherited and is excellent - has not had any turnover so no opportunity to diversify yet. But that does not mean that action is impossible. We were able to expand the board by two "community trustee" slots that are term limited to two years and are designed to add new voices to the board - artists, diversity, youth. Over the past year we added our first artist to the board. and our first trustee of color.

And we have taken many specific actions in our programs and funding. The theme of the annual retreat for our Livingston Fellowship Program - a high-level leadership program for nonprofit CEOs - last year was racial equity. It was a very powerful, uncomfortable and moving experience for all the participants - not perfect, and generated much raw emotion - but, again, the conversation started and has only deepened since. We brought in Donna Walker-Kuhne to engage in a series of focus groups with local cultural leaders on how to better serve the full diversity of our community, resulting in a very informative report and the formation of a cultural equity working group that has been meeting regularly to learn, share, and advance this agenda. And we have made equity an important component in our funding decisions, adding grantees or expanding grants to an array of culturally-specific and disability-focused organizations like Su Teatro, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, Phamaly theatre company and Museo de las Americas. We have also made review of accessibility and outreach and internal equity efforts a part of the review of our general operating and project support grantees. We have made a conscious decision that with our grantees we won't provide special funding for diversity initiatives - to echo Vu's point, we do not believe equity is something you only do if you get special funding to do it. It needs to part of the fabric of how you operate. (The exception is that we may fund special initiatives that benefit the larger community, rather than a single organization, like our work with Donna).  These are just a few of the actions we have taken.

So I hope the field will not dismiss this Statement from Americans for the Arts because it is not as aggressive as they would like, or uses the word "ability" instead of "disability", or includes fewer specific action items than some would like. As Clay notes, let us all engage in this work with humility, with the knowledge that there is no perfect way to do it, that we are flawed, that many of us bring to the table our privilege, or our hurt and pain at living with bias every day. But fear of difficult conversations, fear of not saying (or writing) the right thing or using the right language, should not stop us from the conversation, the journey. To be honest, the future of the cultural sector, and of our society as a whole, depends on it. Inaction is not a viable option.




Monday, January 11, 2016

Creative Placemaking in Israel

I recently spent several days in Israel engaged in an initiative to elevate the conversation around creative placemaking in the Negev region of Israel. For context, here is a map of the region:



The Negev region is about a 60-90 minute drive south of Tel Aviv. It has historically had a somewhat negative reputation, as a place you would not want to live in unless you had to. Back in the 50's many Russian immigrants were settled there after World War II. Later, it became the home of the Ethiopian Jewish population when they emigrated to Israel, and it is also home to many Bedouins. Coincidentally, the New York Times recently ran a story on the Bedouin population in the Negev and its economic challenges.

LtoR - me, Jane Golden, Mayor of Netivot Yechiel Zohar
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has a "sister city" relationship with the Negev city of Netivot. About three years ago, the Federation helped support a Creative Economy conference in Netivot to raise awareness of the role the arts and artists could play in the economic vitality of the city, and I was asked to be the keynote speaker. Jane Golden of the Mural Arts program also participated as a speaker, and Mural Arts later worked with the community on the creation of a mural on an iconic water tower at the entrance to the city.

Two factors have since focused even more heightened attention on the Negev region. First, the population explosion through the country and the skyrocketing cost of both residential and commercial space in Tel Aviv have driven individuals and businesses to look to the relatively undeveloped and more affordable Negev region. In addition, the Ministry of Defense has  started a process of moving all their centralized military operations (intelligence, training, technology, etc.) to the Negev region. They have had to face the fact that the senior military officers and their families who will need to relocate do not have a high opinion of the region and this is something that must be changed (both the actual livability of these communities and the perception). Here is an interesting article on the importance of how a community is perceived.

So a coalition has formed - something they are calling the "Smart Partnership" between a group of seven local Jewish Federations from the Jewish Federations of North America (each of which has a relationship with a Negev community), the Negev Development Authority, and the Ministry of Defense. This coalition has embarked on a multi-faceted creative placemaking effort targeting the Negev region. A masters degree program in creative placemaking has been launched at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in their urban planning school. And a similar undergraduate training program has been created at Sapir College, a Negev college with very strong arts training programs. Guiding this work has been Boaz Israeli of the planning and strategy firm, Praxis. A good overview of this entire effort is available here.

Another key component of this effort has been something they called the Creative Placemaking Master Class, which I was asked to lead. This was actually a series of talks to different audiences, as well as site visits and meetings designed to stimulate thinking around creative placemaking. My work began on December 26th, with a preparation meeting with many of the organizers of the program, followed by a personal meeting with Yossi Sharabi - who I had met on my last trip when he was Director, Culture, Society and Leisure Administration, Jerusalem Municipality (where he was doing really innovative work!) - who is now Director-General of the Ministry of Culture and Sport; also at the meeting was the new Director of Culture for the agency. The key goal of the meeting was to persuade the national cultural agency to join this partnership, and embrace the role of creative placemaking in the Negev, which they agreed to do.

On December 27th I met with a group of civic leaders in Netivot and toured the City, looking at an array of potential sites for creative placemaking. For example, the main "downtown" of the City is anchored by several municipal buildings with large plazas - all typical 70's era awful concrete dead space. How could these places be transformed both physically and through programming to become the beating heart of Netivot, bringing all the different communities together and presenting a different impression to those entering the city? The water tower with the mural is also located here. In addition, there is a staggering amount of new construction underway -  in effect a literal doubling of the city, with new residential construction as well as schools, parks, roads and other infrastructure and a new rail connection of Tel Aviv and the north. How to make this brand new - frankly sterile - area vibrant and exciting? How to connect it to the rest of the city so Netivot does not become a "tale of two cities."

I also met with a class of middle school Orthodox Jewish girls who were working on a project to help creates some context for the mural. The mural, which engaged many in the community in the process - their faces were painted and then photographed - had inadvertently created some negative backlash. To satisfy Orthodox concerns about including recognizable faces/people in the mural, all the images were distorted and rearranged to create an abstract pattern. The citizens, however, were disappointed to not see their faces in the mural. The students are learning stop motion animation skills and making films that describe different aspects of the process in fun, engaging ways, Lively signage will then be installed in the plaza below the mural that will connect to an augmented reality app that will allow visitors to view the animated films projected onto the water tower. It was exciting to see these young girls who had never been exposed to the arts getting deeply engaged in both art making and connecting that art to a civic objective. They were inspiring...

Chatting with Ben Gurion University President,
Rivka Carmi
The day ended with what they called the "main event" - a "top level" talk on creative placemaking at Ben Gurion University in Be'er Sheva. The audience consisted largely of Mayors and other municipal staff and planning types, and the talk was preceded by a reception. The President of Ben Gurion made welcoming remarks. And prior to the reception I was able to meet with some staff from the Merage Foundation in Israel, which is affiliated with the Merage Foundation in Denver. Merage Israel is also focused on the Negev region but had not previously been engaged in this collaborative effort, so a fortuitous outcome of my involvement was being able to make this introduction. It was also announced at this event that the Jewish Federations of North America would be launching a Negev Creative Vitality Initiative Challenge, modeled on the Bloomberg Challenge, to fund some specific creative placemaking initiatives.

Carrying the flag for ArtPlace America!
The goal was to give a succinct overview of what this thing "creative placemaking" is, how it evolved, as well as an overview of how it has been implemented as a concept in America. So of course, I covered the work of the National Endowment for the Arts program Our Town as well as ArtPlace America. Then a good half or more of the presentation was dedicated to providing a wide array of examples of creative planning in action - urban and rural, facility driven and programming driven, etc.

I also covered the challenges of creative placemaking - issues of measurement and outcomes, the danger of being an agent of gentrification, needing to respect and value the local culture and community. The hostility shown by some artists and arts organization towards the role they might play in community transformation, feeling that it somehow diminishes their artistic purity.

Later in my trip I was able to visit the Fringe Theatre
The next day began with a much longer version of the same presentation at a different Ben Gurion University site, this time to an audience largely of students and professors (from both Ben Gurion and Sapir College), as well as artists, creative entrepreneurs and arts organization leaders. In addition to my talk, three local case studies were presented, including the Fringe Theatre of Be'er Sheva, the Red South Festival - a festival built around the local Anemone blossoms, and Muslala, a really interesting Jerusalem organization that has used the arts to bring together the Jewish and Muslim populations in Jerusalem. I was asked to respond to and critique each of the case studies.

Speaking to funders in Tel Aviv
Later that day we returned to Tel Aviv, where I spoke to a group of the heads of several of Israel's leading foundations. This was another variation of the basic creative placemaking talk, this time tailored to the interests of funders. What is their role? What are their questions? An interesting side note: One of the participants heads the Pratt Foundation in Israel, created by the late Richard Pratt and his wife Jeanne. Richard was the Chairman and CEO of Visy Industries in Australia. Years ago, when I was President of the Arts & Business Council, I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Australia and meet Richard Pratt and his wife, and have dinner in his home - he was the Chairman of the Australian Business Council on the Arts. Pratt, who was Jewish, had also established a foundation in Israel. He was truly a wonderful man and great lover of the arts and it was nice to reconnect with his legacy.

The next stay consisted of doing site visits to Ofaqim and Be'er Sheva, to tour the cities with their civic leadership and look at both creative placemaking successes, as well as challenges and opportunities. In Ofaqim I visited an arts center that had been created in an unusual concrete dome structure. The dome had been recently transformed into a mural generated and painted by young people from the community under the supervision of a local artist. We also visited an interesting overgrown stream and pathway that had previously been a sewage ditch (sewage since redirected into underground pipes). This "artery" connects two important areas of the city and plans are afoot to make it their "High Line"
using landscaping, art and design to turn it from an eyesore into a major spine of the City. At one end of this path is a HUGE abandoned textile factory that used to employ many in the community. We also discussed the potential of this building becoming their MassMoca - a great model because they would like to integrate arts activity as well as commercial creative businesses.

Talking creative placemaking to the tech folks...
We finished the day at Be-er Sheva where I made yet another formal presentation to a group of technology and creative entrepreneurs located in a newly opened tech center, and visited the Abraham's Well  visitor center (yes, that Abraham from the Bible, and this is - presumably - his actual well) for a presentation on the arts, tourism and creative placemaking efforts underway in the City. We visited the Old City, which they are working to cultivate as a vibrant community for residents and visitors, and as part of that tour also visited the Fringe Theatre, which had presented a case study the day before.

And that completed my Creative Placemaking Master Class work in the Negev - an exhausting - but very rewarding - few days. Got to meet so many dedicated, passionate and interesting people.  I was particularly struck by the uniqueness and exciting opportunities of having a nation's defense department embracing the value of creative placemaking. I was also struck by the potential of creative placemaking to play an important role in bringing together different communities that can be more fractious and divided by race and religion than even we are in America. The pace of development and change taking place in the Negev region is unlike anything I have ever seen before and I look forward to following what flows from this work I was a part of.

Yes, that is Abraham's Well in the foreground!
I did have my family with me for the trip and we were able to spend some time beforehand and afterwards enjoying our time together without work (of course, Sophie and Esme had all the time while I was working to explore Tel Aviv). We visited Jerusalem, Old Jaffa and Caesarea (a site with incredible history on the coast of Israel north of Tel Aviv), and we connected with some long-lost Israeli relatives I discovered on my last trip - long story, the telling of which would make this already lengthy blog post ridiculously long!

A copy of my full "Creative Placemaking: What Is It" Why Does It Matter " presentation can be found here.



Esme "performing" at the Caesarea Roman Coliseum 





Friday, July 17, 2015

The SECOND Most Important Relationship in a Nonprofit

Note: This blog post was originally published in the July/August, 2015 issue of Nonprofit Colorado, a publication of the Colorado Nonprofit Association

I think we all might agree that the most important relationship in the success of a nonprofit organization is that between staff leadership and board leadership: the president or executive director and the chair. Executive directors MUST prioritize this relationship, and realize that its success – or lack thereof, can effectively trump almost everything else they do. Can an ED on their own effectively recruit high-level board prospects? Can they make peer-to-peer asks of major donors? Can they align trustees to support the most effective strategic direction of the organization? Can they effectively motivate and inspire trustees to perform at the highest level as trustees, and to gently but firmly move them off the board when they are not contributing? I would answer to all these questions almost invariably, no – these functions require leadership from the chair, to be done to their maximum effectiveness. Therefore an effective CEO must devote considerable effort to ensuring the right person is in the chair role, and that they develop and maintain a strong, honest working relationship with the chair. There also must always be strategic focus by both on the chair succession plan.

That said, I believe that in most cases the second most important relationship is between the CEO and their director of development (or VP of development, VP of advancement – whatever title is in use – for this article we will use director of development as a generic term for all). This may seem self-evident, but in my experience it is relationship that is not given enough attention. Recently I spoke to a group of current and past participants in the Institute for Leaders in Development and was asked “what more could be done to strengthen the fundraising sector and help retain quality directors of development in the field?” The original motivation behind the ILD program was to professionalize the development sector in Colorado, and to create a peer learning and mentorship network that would address the challenge of low morale and high turnover in the profession. My answer was “train EDs on how to be strong partners to their development leaders and staff.” All the training in the world of development professionals will have minimal impact if they are not working with CEOs who understand their role and can honestly communicate about development.

So what are the issues that tend to get in the way of a successful working relationship?

Unrealistic expectations – this can be a special challenge for a new development director. There can be an expectation that they arrive like a fairy godmother, and can wave their magic wand and make contributions materialize. Of course, there is a reason the profession is called “development” – relationships must be cultivated over time. Even the most seasoned and accomplished professional will not be able to quickly turn a $1,000 donor into a $100,000 donor overnight, or turn someone totally new to the organization into a major donor. Related to this is the assumption that a top development professional is like a salesman with their “book” of customers who can just bring donors from their previous job to their new one. Of course, they will have donor relationships, but that does not necessarily mean that a donor they worked closely with at a museum is going to have any interest in early childhood education. A CEO must be patient, must understand development is a process and a system, and have the skill and experience to be able to know if their development director is implementing the right strategies and building the right relationships. They also must sometimes help “translate” that understanding to the Board and help the development director educate the board about their role in the process.

Too much emphasis on “credit” for gifts – It can be extremely undermining when a CEO fosters a culture that over-emphasizes who gets credited for a gift. I understand metrics are needed and people need to have goals, but effective development is a team effort. It works best when everyone’s goal is resource development in support of the mission. When a development director works hard to cultivate a prospect and set them up for an “ask” by the CEO (or board member), and then is told that since the CEO closed the deal, or the prospect was already on the prospect list, that they will get no credit for the success of the gift, this is demoralizing and deflating, especially so if it happens repeatedly. The ideal CEO eagerly shares credit, realizing a successful team ultimately reflects on them as well. The successful development director applies this same approach within their team – a major gift that is “triggered” by an event should be considered a result of a team effort that put on an inspiring event, and that perhaps cultivated that donor years, making them ready to act on a major gift.

Insulating the development director from the board – sometimes there is a fear that the development director will not work well with the board or might somehow threaten or overshadow the CEO. To be effective, a development head MUST work closely with the board. If they can’t do it, or can’t be trusted to do it, then they should not be in their role. A CEO should be thrilled to have a development director who can work with the board, not just the development committee, but all trustees. Trustees are a critical component of successful resource development and the development lead must build strong working relationships with as many trustees as possible to be successful.

Not including the development director in Nominating Committee/board recruitment efforts - This is especially true as a board transitions from a working board to a board focused on higher level strategy and resource development - the development director must be involved in board prospect evaluation. Will a prospect fill a development gap in the board? Will they really be able to deliver what they are perhaps promising? Not that their opinion should drive decisions, but it should inform them. A CEO – and board – should welcome the input provided to the process by a development director.

How many directors of development have been demoralized – sometimes to the point of leaving the field, or engaging in frequent turnover – by the challenge of working with CEOs who undervalue them, don’t understand the complexity and nuance of the development function, take credit for their accomplishments, don’t provide the necessary support or staffing? Having been one of those CEO’s for a good part of my career, these lessons are personal and were learned the hard way by me. Hopefully I have not been one of the worst offenders in this area.

I am also a big believer in unifying development, marketing, communications and PR within a single department. In today’s world all these functions are so interrelated it is much more efficient and effective to have them combined. It also improves the development/CEO relationship because development is no longer “competing” for CEO attention focus and budget with these other functions, as they are now integrated. This results in a single senior-level staff relationship around resource development (earned and contributed) as well as communications. Of course, universities and health care have for many years had External Relations departments, but this structure is becoming increasingly more common in other nonprofit sectors, I think for good reason.
Another aspect of the CEO/director of development relationship is the tendency for CEOs to sometimes give lots of leeway to a development professional who “brings in the $” even if they are a poor colleague and/or supervisor. This can be damaging as fundraising is a team effort, and even though someone may be a top performer by the narrow standards of, let’s say, shepherding a major seven figure gift, if they are also creating poor morale in the development team, leading to high turnover and perhaps even alienating other donors, their value may in fact be more than offset by their damage.

The same can be true, of course, of a trustee. Years ago I had to deal with a situation where the largest individual donor to the organization, a trustee and vice chair of the board, was also highly polarizing, alienating other donors, fostering conflict and tension among trustees, and terrorizing staff. She demanded the firing of the development director, after what she deemed to be insubordination – it was true, the development director lost their temper at her, though only after being provoked. This was a demand I ultimately gave in to because I did believe the development director’s lack of self-control was a serious concern, and the resulting ongoing battle with a senior trustee would have made her ineffective in her role. Ultimately, this donor/trustee was moved off the board, a very messy and costly loss, but in the long run it was best for the health of the organization.

So as we celebrate the success of Institute for Leaders in Development, and we as a field look at how we cultivate development leaders, let us think about how we also cultivate nonprofit CEOs who can be strong, knowledgeable, respectful partners with their development leaders. The field, and the people and communities we serve, will be the beneficiaries.




Thursday, June 18, 2015

Lessons in Leadership from Reynold Levy, via Tim McClimon

In his blog (CSR Now!, highly recommended) Tim McClimon, President of the American Express Foundation, recently devoted a couple of entries to re-capping an interview he did with Reynold Levy, whose book They Told Me Not to Take That Job: Tumult, Betrayal, Heroics, and the Transformation of Lincoln Center, recently came out. Tim worked at the AT&T Foundation during the time that Levy was president there, before assuming the presidency of Lincoln Center.

Tim recaps some of the 25 leadership lessons that Levy lays out in his book. I thought it would be valuable, given the commitment of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation to leadership (a focus we have in common with the American Express Foundation), to share some of these by excerpting from Tim’s blog. If you want more visit Tim’s blog, or better yet, buy and read Levy’s book!

I think his advice resonates – perhaps because it mostly mirrors what I have learned in my career. (It's always gratifying, I suppose, to have some of our perspectives externally reinforced.) Ren was not always the easiest person to work with or for (as I think he would readily admit), but he was highly respected, and highly successful, and therefore is worth listening to and learning from. What follows is from Tim's blog, with his permission, excerpted and slightly adapted.

* * *

He begins his chapter on leadership lessons with this one: The Art of Employee Recruitment and Retention -- generally regarded as one of the most important responsibilities of any CEO, but one that is sometimes disregarded in the nonprofit sector. "I am always on the prowl, seeking energetic, intelligent, curious, and ambitious new employees who wish to achieve extraordinary results," states Levy. "I look for both solo actors and team players, recruits brimming with the confidence to go it alone if necessary and able to work with others productively, whenever desirable." But, his confidence comes with a price: quoting David Rubenstein, he observes that he has "never encountered an outstanding performer in his professional life who worked from nine to five."

On the other hand, another lesson is Seek Work-Life Balance. While recognizing the need to achieve a balance across all aspects of one's life, Levy suggests that leaders should think of their lives in phases that "may require you to defer gratification and to sacrifice, at work and at home." In fact, he suggests that "to aspire at any given time for complete harmony between meeting the unpredictable challenges of the workplace and satisfying the often surprising needs of your children, your parents, your spouse and your friends is an open invitation to frustration."

That being said, one of the more important leadership lessons that Levy discusses is Make it Easier for Others to Help. From personal experience, I can say that he was, and is, a master of that. 

Stay Focused, Avoid Distractions. "Intense focus leads to outstanding performance. Superior programming. Balanced and surplus budgets. Audience enthusiasm. And, a positive reception among trustees, donors and critics," states Levy. "Not being aware of all kinds of practical stuff, like the date of Mom's birthday or the capacity of the gas tank of my car, leaves me the space to keep on top of what I need to know at work, as undistracted as possible." So, in other words, don't sweat the small stuff. Leave the details to others. Don't lose the forest for the trees.

Ask Thoughtful Questions, Listen Intently. "How often have you been involved in a conversation in which those participating talk completely past one another, and pauses are not just intervals for absorbing what was said, but simply a waiting period before offering one's own point of view, uninfluenced by other participants," asks Levy. "A key to successful leadership is learning from those closest to problems and challenges." Active listening and engaged questions. This is an important skill for leaders to master, and employees will feel more energized and motivated if leaders are asking them questions rather than simply making statements.

Self Discipline. When I practiced law with former NYC Mayor John Lindsay, he would often tell young associates that one of the most important things we could do as attorneys was answering our phone messages the same day. Echoing that advice, Levy writes: "The respect people accord to those who work hard never ceases to amaze me. Return phone calls, e-mails, and paper correspondence on the day they are received. Be available, as needed, to your fellow employees, trustees, sources of funding, and key influentials. Exhibit energy. Exude optimism." This kind of best practice takes incredible self discipline and intense focus. But, the pay-off can be tremendous - both for organizations and for leaders.

Pick Up the Pace. "I have committed many more errors through inaction or delay than through timely or even premature conduct," asserts Levy. "Mistakes by omission, not commission. Mishaps by neglect, not abuse." I often recommend a similar approach that can be summed up as "Ready, aim, fire, aim, aim" rather than "Ready, aim, aim, aim, fire." I've had to learn that getting things roughly right is often more important than getting them perfect, despite the fact that I'm somewhat of a perfectionist. In our fast-paced work world, the hare beats the turtle almost every time. Finding the right balance between being quick to market and having a perfect product is critical for many leaders today.

Heavy Lies the Head. It's often said that being at the top of any organization or enterprise can be a lonely position. It's hard to know whether the advice you are receiving from employees is really accurate and not sugar-coated. And, motivating people through reward and recognition can sometimes be harder and more time-consuming than simply telling someone what to do. But, sharing in the success of others, and offering credit where credit is due go along ways toward decreasing the isolation. Levy concludes his chapter on leadership lessons learned with this statement: 
  • Running a nonprofit is never to be confused with running for office. It is not a popularity contest. There will be occasions when tough choices are necessary. They will not always be well received. The true leader should aim neither to be feared, nor to be loved, but to be respected.


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Private Foundations and Communications

Recently the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation completed a comprehensive assessment of our programs and operations, and one of the key findings was that we had not adequately told the story - or stories - of our good work and the work of our grantees. The need for more robust and effective communications was made more acute by the relatively recent decision to focus our grantmaking on arts and culture, and nonprofit leadership.

We began working with Launch Advertising - which had done similar work for the Denver Foundation - to assess our existing communications assets, strengths and weaknesses. This led to several months of deep work clarifying to whom we wanted to communicate with, to what end, with what messages, and how.

We have developed a new web site, a refreshed logo, and will be rolling out an e-newsletter, and more aggressive use of social media. (Interestingly, after lots of experimentation, our new logo is exactly the same as the old logo - same typeface, but with a different color palette, and dropping the wreath image.)

And with all of this deep thinking on our own communications needs, it got me exploring the very concept of why a private foundation should even be thinking about this stuff, and devoting any but minimal resources to it. Certainly this was the model of the past - a foundation often did not have a web site, even in the era when websites were common. We don't have to raise money, we don't have to "sell" anything, so why think about communication? I remember years ago when serving on a communications committee for Independent Sector it was a major topic of discussion that foundations were not communicating what they did, and that made the public - and Congress - uninformed of their work and value. At one of those meetings the Ford Foundation presented their then-new web site, and it was a transformative shift. The site was no longer about how to get a grant, or who got a grant (though that information was still there), but about the issues Ford cared about, and how programs and organizations (supported by Ford) were making a difference in communities.

A recent series of articles in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, (in partnership with the Communications Network) called "Making Ideas Move" is a tremendous resource on this topic. Yes, private foundations do not raise money, and don't need to "put butts in the seats," but we do care about issues that are core to our mission, and we can be storytellers. Embedded in our grantmaking are remarkable stories of people and organizations making a difference in the world, and we should be communicating those stories - to other funders, civic leaders, the nonprofit sector, and maybe even the general public. This can significantly amplify the power of our grantmaking. As the Communications Network puts it: "the power and potential of strategic communications to improve lives and spark change."

We are not alone in this shift in thinking. As we look at examples nationally, foundations like Irvine, Rockefeller, Knight, and Bloomberg, have web sites that go far beyond the traditional basic grantmaking information. Locally, Colorado foundations like Gill, Colorado Health, and Piton use their sites to address issues they care about, tell compelling stories of their grantees, and transparently share what they are learning. (I am excluding Community Foundations from this discussion, as they must solicit and communicate with individual patrons, and therefore their communications have always been somewhat more sophisticated.)

BSF Staff, L-R, Gary Steuer, Monique Loseke, Ann Hovland, Gina Ferrari
More attention to communication can also humanize and make more transparent the work of the foundation and improve relationships with grantees, which also improves the effectiveness of what we do. Our previous site, for example, had no bio information or images of staff.

This is clearly is a topic of growing interest as I was recently asked to facilitate a conversation on the topic among Colorado Foundation CEOs for the Colorado Association of Funders (CAF), as well as a similar conversation for the Aspen Institute's Seminar for Mid-America Foundation CEOs. As the initiator of the National Arts Marketing Project when I was CEO of the Arts & Business Council, and the creator of the communications efforts of the City of Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy, thinking about communications clearly has become something of a pattern or thread in my work, in very different contexts. Interestingly, at the CAF conversation some funders still expressed skepticism at why they want more robust communications if it would only lead to more grant inquiries, which they could not handle with limited staff. And clearly, being a smaller foundation, we have also had to be cognizant of the need to be able to staff our communications work appropriately.

So, visit our new web site, and let us know what you think. After all, real communication is a two-way conversation! The URL is: http://bonfils-stantonfoundation.org/