Survivability and Sustainability in a Time of Chaos

Posted on: May 28th, 2020 by Steve Smith GALA Articles No Comments

Survivability and Sustainability in a Time of Chaos

COVID-19 has turned the world of performing arts—especially choruses—upside down. As of this writing, we don’t know when it will be safe for choruses to rehearse and perform together again. The decisions we make for our organizations in the coming weeks and months will determine how our choruses survive the immediate crisis and adapt to sustain themselves through unpredictable times. Smart strategies for organizational survival require tactical urgency, but are rooted in the healthy behaviors that—in more normal times—sustainable nonprofits cultivate.

In small and mid-sized choruses, if we think of sustainability at all, it is usually identified as a financial metric. But in my experience sustainability is more than that: it’s an ongoing journey, not a destination. I define it as fulfilling your mission with excellence and consistency over a prolonged period of time. Healthy organizations don’t reach a certain bank account figure, check a box, and declare that they have become sustainable. Instead, smart organizations understand that consistent results are achieved by creating a healthy internal culture that informs how they make decisions.

As an overview, here’s what I believe contributes to a sustainable nonprofit:

 1. Shared Vision and Direction

If we are not all rowing in the same direction, we will not pass go and we definitely will not collect $200. An organization that fights about—or obsessively revisits—its purpose and strategic direction is incapable of prolonged success. Ongoing self-evaluation and adaptation is healthy, but if there isn’t general consensus on why and how you do what you do, you will never achieve ongoing success.

2. Respectful and Inclusive Behavior

Leading small non-profits—especially those rooted in social justice—can be brutal. No one should get a pass for leadership that is unethical, unkind, or incompetent. But those who are selected to lead deserve space to do their work, patience when they make (and correct) mistakes, and a process of accountability that is fair and humane. Conversely, those who lead must act with inclusivity and seek out and give balanced consideration to the voices and needs of the many facets of their community. Getting that balance right is hard, but if your organization smells of drama or leaves a trail of bloodied and discarded former leaders, you may be in a horror film, not a chorus. If the call is coming from inside the house, you are not on a sustainable path

3. Financial Rigor

Yes it’s about money, too. Financially sustainable organizations live within their means AND work diligently to expand their means by growing their earned (ticket sales) and unearned (fundraising) revenue. Living within your means also includes consistently putting at least a little bit aside for a rainy day. As a start, choruses need to understand that budgeting up to the “break even” line isn’t good enough. Success means restraining your short term ambitions enough so that you can begin to set aside a safety net.

Nonprofit experts say that organizations should have 6-9 months of operating reserve — in practical terms call it half a year’s cash set aside as a safety net. I agree this is ideal, but it is also excruciatingly hard to pull off. However, even a month or two is better than zero and will give you financial options in a crisis.

4. Avoidance of Magical Thinking

We are passionate about our choruses and we know the impact they have had on our own lives. This gives us energy and daring to do our work. But this passion can also blind us to reality. Pride in our work shouldn’t cross the line to self-importance. Our supporters may like us a lot, but that doesn’t mean they all feel like we’ve changed their lives. Concert venues and music publishers don’t tear up bills just because what we do is important. Viruses don’t go away just because we want them to. I know this feels like tough love, but to quote Sondheim: Don’t fall apart at the seams/ It’s called letting go your illusions/And don’t confuse them with dreams.

So you might be thinking sustainability sounds like a fantastic goal, but get real — we’re in the midst of an existential crisis. How does our organization survive to September…or December…or who knows when?

Every situation is going to be different depending on your structure and resources but I’d suggest that you start by answering this question: what do we need to do now to be certain that our organization is still alive and financially viable when we can resume singing in person for audiences. In person. For audiences. It is great that some choruses have the resources and ability to develop creative online alternatives during this “waiting period.” But here’s my caution: as choruses, our core business model is not going to change over the next 6-18 months. In my opinion, organizations should not expend resources on these interim activities if they can’t first ensure that they have a plan and resources set aside to resume traditional programs when it is safe to do so.

As a framework to think about what survivability looks like for your organization, consider working through the sustainability model backwards.

  1. Avoid Magical Thinking: I know it’s painful, but strip away the illusions. As Good to Great author Jim Collins puts it: “confront the brutal facts of your current situation.” Make a list of the things you can’t control (put it aside) and a list of the things you can at least partially influence or mitigate and focus only on those.
  2. Financial Rigor: To survive, I think many organizations with limited resources are going to need to go into a degree of suspended animation for a time, which conflicts with our innate desire as artists and activists to do something. This is painful. But remember to put on your oxygen mask before you help others. Create that list of the minimum financial resources you need in place in order to restart and focus there first. What free or almost-free ways can you support your internal community for now? With earned income largely off the table, what realistic capacity do you have to fundraise during this crisis (see above, magical thinking).
  3. Respectful Behavior: As we have seen on the national and state levels, a crisis can bring out the best or the worst in us. Choose now to expect the best from people. Those who can’t act with civility and good intention are a liability for your organization now — and in better times. Let them go and build a more cohesive organization.
  4. Shared Vision: If your chorus could be doing better with rowing in the same direction, why waste a good crisis? Use some of the time you would normally be singing and producing concerts to instead dig in to values and mission work. As awful as it is, this societal pause is a unique opportunity to engage with your singers and solidify the foundation of your organization.

One last Sondheim reference in conclusion: Art isn’t easy. It will take hard work and courage just to hold on, but trust that our voices will be needed, welcomed, and cherished more than ever when the health crisis subsides. The work you do now, bit by bit, piece by piece, will help make sure that your organization survives to sing again and has the opportunity to sustain itself into the future.

Steve Smith
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