Commentary: Efforts You Can Skip...Maybe

Joe Patti, blog Butts In The Seats, 10/19/11

From time to time I advocate for carefully evaluating the technology tools ones organization uses rather than jumping on what appears to be the hottest new thing everyone is apparently using. Not every tool is appropriate for every organization. It was with great interest that I started to read Taproot Foundation president Aaron Hurst's piece, Five Investments You Can Skip. In it, Hurst follows a similar theme in suggesting that non-profit organizations of a certain size and scope consider giving certain "must haves" a pass. Upon reading them, however, I was a little skeptical about some. The five he suggested were:

1) Volunteers. Recruiting and managing volunteers generally isn't worthwhile unless you use at least 50 per year, they do at least 50 hours of service each (or fewer volunteers and more hours each), and you invest in volunteer management systems.

2) Websites. Most nonprofits (the small neighborhood ones) would likely be fine with just a Facebook page. A template site would do the trick for slightly larger group. Only 25 percent of nonprofits need customized web design.

3) Board. There is a tremendously high fixed cost to training your board to facilitate donations (in kind or cash). If your board can't generate a large part of your budget (say, 20 percent), you are likely to find them getting in the way of fundraising success and eating up senior staff time (and increasing burn out). If that's the case, your organization would likely see more success with a smaller board focused solely on audits and the legal requirements of governance.

4) Social Media. Does it drive your advocacy, fundraising, or program success? It does for likely less than 2 percent of nonprofits. Everyone else is wasting a ton of time and energy on it. Much like my local car wash that urges me to "like" it on Facebook.

5) Strategic planning. You need a strategic plan, but for most organizations it can be a lot lighter than most MBAs want to admit. It doesn't need to be perfect and frequently should be more of a living document

Numbers 3 and 5 I can agree with pretty readily. The suggestion to eschew websites in favor of a Facebook page in number 2 seems to be contradicted by the implication in number 4 that social media, including Facebook may be a waste of time and energy. Number 1- Not investing in volunteers...seemed the most controversial of his points as reflected by the long and impassioned comments that followed. Hurst answered those objections with some research that supported his assertion that volunteer programs weren't effective below about 50 people.

"When an organization reaches 50 volunteers AND achieves an effective volunteer management model, not only do they lead and manage their organizations better, but they are also significantly more adaptable (i.e., reflect the capacity to be a learning organization), sustainable and better resourced (i.e., have skills, knowledge, experience, tools, and other resources to do their work)."

On the other hand, the way I read it, a small number of volunteers, even poorly managed, help to leverage organizational effectiveness at lower budgets. Despite the doubts that one may harbor about whether all his points are well supported, there is some validity to Hurst's essential idea that it may be worthwhile to assess whether the implementation of all those best practices everyone knows you need to be employing really provides the best return on investment. It is understandably difficult to be a confident skeptic in the face of widely recognized best practices, but these days it could contribute to long term survival.


Commentary: Theater things that don't make sense, Vol. 9

Ken Davenport, The Producer's Perspective blog, 9/22/11

I got pitched an opportunity today to be a part of a group sales catalog that was being distributed to thousands of potential group sales buyers. All that I had to do was buy an ad. Seems like a pretty good deal, right? It is . . . and I took it . . . along with the 2-3 other similar opportunities that I've been presented over the last several months from different group sales companies. But here's what I can't get out of my craw... See, the companies that put these catalogs together get Producers like me to pay for the costs of the catalog itself, the distribution, etc. and there's probably even some money left over for a profit. But when their clients pay for the tickets, they get a commission, so in a nutshell, I'm paying to make them money. Shouldn't they be responsible for advertising their own product? Without shows, don't they disappear? I hate to begrudge someone a killer business model like the above, because these companies have done a great job in convincing us pay for their marketing. But I can't help but wonder when this practice started . . . and why it continues. Like I said . . . I paid it . . . and I do think it is worth it.  And I will keep paying it . . as long as there are consistent results. If not, then we may have to find a more economical way around it.


Commentary: An abandoned letter to theatre makers

Jon Keevy ("a Cape Town theatre geek") on his blog, 10/3/11

Theatre is great. Most anyway. Actually only some. But 90% of everything is crap and people don't avoid cinemas because 90% of the films suck. Your theatre is definitely in that magical ten percent of goodness. I know this because you tell me. I can see by the care you put into your Facebook event, letting me know who the cast and director are and the dates and time while leaving out any info on subject matter so I would have a nice surprise when I come watch your show. I don't even know whether I'm going to laugh or cry. Or the way you playfully make a hideous poster and stick it up on poles all over the city, I'll certainly not forget that image no matter how much I want to. I love the sassy way you challenge Capetonians not to be lazy, because that's obviously why they don't come to theatre. Never mind that they flock in droves to night markets, gigs, gallery openings, beerfests and quirky little film festivals. Look, I don't have a degree in marketing or sales or anything other than theatre. But I can see that if you are not giving people reasons to see theatre then they won't. I go watch shows because I work in theatre, I have a professional interest. So if you see me at your show it's not because you did anything right. You can only measure that by counting strangers. TheatreSports has lasted for 18 years, which makes it a pretty successful company. It has no sponsorship or funding other than what people pay for tickets. I'll be the first to admit that our marketing is patchy at best, but we have one incredible strength: we give people the reason to see our show. We don't tell people how good we are, our awards, how long we've been running for or that theatre is an amazing cultural phenomenon that deserves support. We tell them that it's hilarious improvised comedy. And when they come for hilarious improvised comedy, we give it to them. Essentially marketing is telling people what you have for them. You cannot get people to pay to see something they don't want to and you can't get someone to come back if you can't deliver. So, semi-fictional people I began addressing at the start, look at the points of contact you have with the public - your posters, releases and Facebook/blog posts - and ask yourself what reason you're giving people to see your show.

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