So how can eliminating risk actually increase the ‘risk of failure’ to an organization?
Michael M. Kaiser, President of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has long advocated taking more risk precisely when times appear particularly difficult. He remarks that due to difficult times “We have been scared into thinking small. And small thinking begets smaller revenue that begets even smaller institutions and reduced public excitement and involvement.”1 This last piece, reduced public excitement and involvement, is the real risk of failure.
With continuing economic distress negatively affecting all sources of contributed revenue from government to foundations to corporations, we must rely even more heavily on the passion and enthusiasm of individuals who buy our tickets and support our activities because they believe in us. That passion and enthusiasm however is not inexhaustible. It must be renewed every year with new exciting productions, exclusive opportunities to get closer to the artists, and compelling anecdotes of the impact arts education and outreach activities have on young people and their parents.
Renewed passion in our patrons powers everything. It fuels positive word of mouth, encourages others to support our efforts, and results in decade long relationships. Look at the randomly regular large estate gifts that come to organizations from donors who were essentially unknown prior to their gift. It is the regular renewal of their passion and enthusiasm over many years that drive that sort of support.
There is also the challenge to the organization. Embracing the new and artistically provocative project renews the passion and enthusiasm of its staff, artists, and volunteers. Paid staff and volunteers alike need risk to renew their passion and enthusiasm. Without the passion of staff and dedication of volunteers for what we do, we could not continue. There is nothing more discouraging than a dispassionate staff and a disinterested volunteer board. Risk is the antidote to apathy.
The conundrum then is to embrace that which is artistically provocative and will build public excitement, ticket sales, and contributions while bringing along a typically risk averse volunteer board who wants assurances that the financial risk is low. The two cannot exist together. This is not to imply that everything we do must be provocative and high risk. In fact it is a balanced mix of each that works. Continue to do activities that are popular with your audience, but add in some truly risky provocative artistic projects that will set people talking. Not everyone will like it. Those that don’t will be passionate about their dislike which is fine, but everyone will get a renewed jolt of passion and enthusiasm which is the whole point.
1 How to Save the Performing Arts: Five Key Issues By Michael M. Kaiser
Originally found in the editorial section of The Washington Post on December 29th, 2002
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