‘The Turnaround King’ shares tips for troubled nonprofits
Representatives from local nonprofit arts organizations filed into Kingsbury Hall Thursday morning to meet the man with the expertise to ease their financial woes.
Michael Kaiser, the president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., has been dubbed "the Turnaround King" for his work with struggling art organizations.
He has 25 years of experience working with arts institutions and currently provides management consultations to more than 650 organizations. His work focuses on the performing arts but extends to all nonprofit arts programs.
Last year, Kaiser launched "Arts in Crisis: A Kennedy Center Initiative," a 50-state tour to address the challenges facing nonprofit arts organizations today. He joined discussion facilitator Margaret Hunt, Director of the Utah Division of Arts & Museums, Thursday to address issues such as fundraising, budgeting, and marketing.
Salt Lake City is the 68th city on Kaiser’s 69-city tour. By the end, he will have spoken to more than 11,000 people. He said he expects economic challenges for nonprofits to persist for at least two more seasons, but told the audience he was encouraged by what he has seen across the country "I’m overall very optimistic and excited. Arts organizations are really resilient," he said.
He stressed that the No. 1 priority for arts organizations in difficult times is to remain focused on their craft and the service they provide. "What makes an arts organization successful is when they do good art," he said.
The healthiest arts organizations have mastered a self-reinforcing cycle, Kaiser explained. They build a family of donors, members and subscribers; generate revenue through that family; and utilize effective marketing to extend the family and increase revenue.
The initial response to the financial crisis for many organizations was to cut programming, he said. However, cutting the number or quality of productions results in losing members of the family and thus decreasing revenue. It’s a slippery slope that can turn into a vicious cycle rather than a beneficial chain, he said.
"I always argue, cut everything else but programming," he said. "My staff will tell you, I squeeze every nickel until the buffalo poops."
Another key to success is long-term artistic planning, Kaiser said. The most problematic trend he sees among arts organizations is waiting until the last minute to plan their seasons. "I believe in planning art five years in advance," he said. "If you rush it, your art won’t be as good."
Just because the economic future is uncertain doesn’t mean organizations can’t plan ahead, he said. "I believe we have to be thinking ahead because [if we don’t], when the recovery comes, we’ll get left behind."
Planning years in advance enables organizations to present major, transformative projects. Kaiser encourages taking risks as long as there is ample time to find the resources to pull it off. "It’s those projects that get the community talking about you," he said.
The way to get people talking is through marketing. Kaiser differentiates between programmatic marketing, tactics designed to promote one program, service or show in an organization’s repertoire, and institutional marketing, which promotes the organization as a whole.
Examples of institutional marketing include appearing in local media and organizing performances at community events. Kaiser advises small organizations to strive for institutional marketing activities three to four times per year
He also encourages organizations to take advantage of the Internet, which "provides free distribution of an unlimited amount of information." He recommends http://www.artsmanager.org as a comprehensive resource for those in charge of arts planning.
Following the lecture, Kaiser took time to talk to The Park Record specifically about the unique challenges for arts organizations in resort areas driven by tourism.
"Tourists are a challenge," he said.
He recommended that local organizations increase the frequency of marketing hits and strive to build regional or national fame to attract outside visitors. Even if an organization only offers programming for one season, it should be working to create visibility year-round, he said.
He reemphasized that the Internet is "a great device for appealing to tourists" and that it’s important for arts organizations to maintain active websites with constantly changing content "Otherwise people won’t come back," he said.
In an area like Park City, Kaiser said it’s especially important for arts organizations to work together and he suggested establishing a central website with links to individual organizations’ sites.
Kaiser’s book, "The Art of the Turnaround," is available online at http://www.artsincrisis.org and at major retailers. He plans to release a new book, "50 Questions Every Arts Board Should Ask," in September.
10 rules for troubled organizations:
1. There has to be a leader.
2. That person must have a plan.
3. You can’t save your way to health.
4. Focus on today and tomorrow, not yesterday
5. Extend your planning calendar
6. Marketing is more than brochures, advertising and email blasts
7. There must be one spokesperson and the message must be positive.
8. When you’re about to go bankrupt, focus on big givers.
9. The board has to be willing to restructure itself.
10. Have the discipline to do the first nine steps.
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