To Do Or Not To Do In A Time of Crisis

Should nonprofits, particularly arts organizations, follow the corporate formula to navigate an economic downturn? In a time a crisis such as the one we are experiencing right now, should they also downsize, make cutbacks, do less marketing, trim adverstising, shorten hours, or eliminate programs altogether? Not according to Michael Kaiser, President, of the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Take risks is what he recommends. Are the arts organizations that he has been taking his message to on his 40+ state-stump listening? Should they? Perhaps. Kaiser is an internationally acknowledged visionary turnaround expert. In the past, he has pulled back from the brink such venerable companies as the Royal Ballet of London, Kansas City Ballet Company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre to name a few. A trained economist, Kaiser is also a self-proclaimed marketing impresario: for example, Kansas City Ballet went from the “company that can’t make payroll’ to the “chief cultural exporter of Kansas City.” What is his winning approach? Get people excited, get them onboard and expand the base. Step One, along with that organizational strategic plan have a five-year plan for programs. As a former museum director, I know that exhibits need to be planned two years out at the very least. Kaiser shared how the Kennedy Center plans out at least five years. This gives a wide enough window to collaborate and form partnerships that are both artistic and financial. Next, Kaiser focuses on his marketing: one type is “institutional,” another “programmatic” and yet another is what he terms as “missionary” using social media to reach new audiences and outliers. The key here is not a matter how you define the marketing but rather that the organization sees it as diversifying the project portfolio bearing in mind that it is based on community: involving various groups on different projects and making lots of new relationships along the way. People want to be excited–they need to be excited and this is the organization’s best resource–awakening people’s passion. For example, Kaiser has made the Kennedy Center’s announcment of its upcoming season a highly anticipated annual event that draws as its audience a press presence that can be likened to the White House Press Corps. What might be helpful to small organizations is a primer-like list that I compiled for small museums on involving the community in exhibit planning at a past annual meeting of the American Association of Museums. Written a decade ago,the points I outlined still align with Kaiser’s approach.
You can view the primer at

To read more on the Kennedy Center’s upcoming 2010-2011 season go to

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