Capacity Building and Resilience

What Participants Learned through ArtsLab

Sarah Lutman and M. Christine Dwyer

Arts Midwest’s ArtsLab program recently released Capacity Building and Resilience, a report that investigates how small and midsized arts organizations learn, adapt, and grow. Examining the experiences of eight organizations participating in this leadership and strategy development program, this report identifies four capacities that have helped organizations in Minnesota and North Dakota thrive in the face of operational challenges, staffing and leadership changes, and shifts in funding. Key takeaways offer insights for similar organizations seeking to build their resiliency and for grantmakers supporting the arts and culture sector.
The following is an excerpt from Capacity Building and Resilience.

Small and midsized arts organizations are key contributors to community vitality and identity. What are the best ways to help them thrive? That is the question posed by this study, which uses participant experiences in the ArtsLab program to identify activities and interventions that fostered learning and capacity building in eight important community-based arts organizations in Minnesota and North Dakota.

This is not an evaluation of ArtsLab per se. Rather it’s an inquiry into questions of learning and resilience. Every organization has ups and downs. Founders depart, economies fail, grants are won and lost, and roofs leak. How do small organizations learn to adapt and thrive? What capacities do they draw on for their resilience? How have they learned to see and create opportunities for growth and development? And what do the organizations themselves say when they reflect on this?

This study is based on in-person visits and interviews with board, staff, and artists from eight of the thirty-nine organizations that participated in ArtsLab between 1999 and 2014. The organizations profiled were selected to include geographic, community, and discipline diversity, as well as diversity in the main opportunities and challenges tackled as part of their ArtsLab projects. Those selected had successfully navigated through at least one major transition or opportunity.

Organizations identified common factors that have led to this success. While money is an obvious factor, it was not the first mentioned by any of the groups involved in this study. Instead, they most often reflected on the qualities of their leadership team, and the ways they learned to work together both internally within their organizations and externally with their communities. These conversations offer important lessons for grantmakers.

Capacities in Common

A Team of Committed Leaders

Over and over, organizations described a team approach to their work that helped them build capacity, learn, and change. ArtsLab encourages this group dynamic since the program requires that at least three people from each organization participate in retreats and training activities.

The ArtsLab curriculum provides tools and opportunities for individuals to explore their personal learning and leadership styles, and to understand why diverse styles and perspectives among team members will strengthen decision making. Over the course of their two years in ArtsLab, teams spend considerable time together, away from their office settings, grappling with their organization’s future. Several organizations described this time away together as the single most important benefit of ArtsLab.

While all organizations have titular leaders, the study showed that in practice, organizations can be led from any position within a leadership team (or “guiding coalition,” to use the language of Harvard professor John Kotter). In many instances, leadership comes from artists, whether or not they are at the top of the organizational chart or are serving in the role of management, board, or as practicing artists. We consistently found that artists are powerful drivers of organizational change and development, coming naturally to change management processes based on their training and facility in artistic practice. In other instances, a board or staff member provided important organizational development insights by bringing skills and experiences from another sector to the arts setting.

The trust and dedication among the leadership team members, not the specific leadership structure itself, was the most important factor observed. Where the leadership group is active, bonded, and mutually supportive, organizations have greater intellectual and experiential resources to draw on, and more moral support and camaraderie when addressing challenging questions, opportunities, and transitions.

Knowing What Not to Do

Organizations reported that over time they learned to express their values clearly and to hone and formalize their decision-making processes. They developed a strong sense not only of what to do, but also of what not to do. The ArtsLab curriculum supports this learning by asking organizations to create a “strategy screen” that identifies the questions that should be answered before a decision is reached. While faculty described these activities as introducing new ways to refine strategy, organizations used different words to talk about this process. They experienced the activity as values-driven and rooted in conversation about the need to make important organizational choices based on shared values.

Small organizations are often the sought-after partner of larger organizations, especially since small organizations are frequently connected to desirable new audiences that larger organizations would like to reach. Clarity around organizational values, and an agreed-on strategy screen, helped several ArtsLab participants focus on their most important strategic activities, while feeling confident about rejecting other proposals, even those from desirable partners and funders. This clarity also helped organizations know which opportunities are aligned with their values and strategy, and should be vigorously pursued, with good results.

Seeing from the Outside In

The ArtsLab curriculum asks organizations to create environmental scans of the people, places, ideas, and trends that influence their work. Then they map the connections. Several organizations reported profound shifts in outlook after considering this outside-in orientation. They were able to make changes in their approach to audiences and constituents and to identify new alliances and resonances. This frequently led to increased income, larger audiences, and other benefits.

Tools made available through ArtsLab include low-tech audience and participant surveys, informal focus groups, and social media engagement. Colleague organizations within the ArtsLab peer learning cohort also provided important reference points for participants, fueling sharing and discovery among the groups through conversation and comparison.

Guided by a Sense of Purpose

Notably, organizations expressed a deep sense of obligation to a lasting purpose beyond their present-day activities, challenges, and plans. Their sense of existing because of and on behalf of community is a distinction that ArtsLab did not create in the participating organizations; it is one these organizations inherently embody. Almost by definition, community-based arts organizations understand that they are advancing multiple agendas beyond the art itself, whether for economic development, social justice, creative placemaking, or all of these and more.

Participants value the way ArtsLab has validated and recognized the purpose and contributions of community-based arts organizations. As one of the few sustained efforts to support small and midsized arts organizations in the region, ArtsLab shines a bright light on the role these organizations play within the ecology and diversity of the arts sector.

Takeaways for Grantmakers: What Organizations Said about Grantmaking Practice

Organizational interviews revealed fresh insights for grantmakers. Leaders provided key observations about the grantmaker behaviors that make progress more difficult. This feedback from community-based arts organizations offers important insights to the grantmaking community, as grassroots innovators are key partners in the work many grantmakers do.

Change Takes Time

Organizations observed that grantmakers expect nearly instantaneous progress toward measurable objectives, even against blustery headwinds. Community-based organizations are often addressing multiple objectives that include long-standing social equity concerns; results may take decades — not months — to achieve. Rural organizations are particularly challenged: the limited human and financial resources available make them doubly constrained. Grantmakers who partner with community-based organizations should consider a long time horizon.

Lean In When Organizations Are Struggling

Organizations that were dealing with leadership transitions or other major organizational disruptions reaped specific rewards from ArtsLab’s peer learning approach, from its consulting capacity, and from the grants provided. These organizations suggested that without ArtsLab, they might have been penalized by a wait-and-see attitude from funders. Instead they described deep benefits from the lean-in approach available to them through hands-on help from ArtsLab staff and from their peer organizations.

For grantmakers considering investments in organizations that are struggling with change and disruption, look for evidence of resilience factors: a dedicated leadership team, commitment to the organization’s cause, and the ability to see the situation with an outside-in lens.

Promote Asset-Based Philanthropy

Organizations are frustrated with the problem/solution framework of grantmaking organizations that ask, “What problem are you trying to solve?” as their opening inquiry. Instead, these organizations are working to strengthen and build on community assets like artistic expression, storytelling capacity, and local economics — to build not to fix. Individual organizations cannot by themselves prevail against philanthropic trends without help from sympathetic funders. The cultural sector needs more grantmaker voices willing to bring asset-based ideas and results to the forefront of discourse.

Advance an Entire Enterprise

Project-based grants that strengthen one element of the enterprise without taking a total organizational view are particularly difficult for small organizations. New projects at any scale require investment in new capacity. Without a grant sufficient to cover both the project and the required capacity, organizations can be whiplashed and stretched beyond what is healthy. The continuous pursuit of project grants leaves organizations with weak infrastructure and diverts focus from long-term, sustainable capacity-building efforts.

In Conclusion

To spend time with leaders of small and midsized organizations is to be inspired. Their tenacity, ingenuity, relationship to community, and artistic commitment offer lessons not only for grantmakers but also for all arts organizations seeking relevance within today’s fragmented cultural landscape. By offering authentic and direct cultural experiences at the grassroots level, small organizations meet people where they live, work, and play — reinforcing community identity, building connections, and creating meaning and value. It is difficult to imagine our communities without their important contributions.