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Arts & Culture vs. Human Services: The Smackdown

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So, many of you know that my career has mostly been spent working with arts and culture nonprofits, particularly museums and historical societies. Only recently (within that past six months) have I had more regular contact with human and social service nonprofits. At first, I was a bit hesitant to enter this arena; I thought it might be vastly different, and my 18+ years of experience would simply evaporate. To my relief I found that while there are differences, many, many of the same issues come up regardless of what type of nonprofit agency I'm dealing with. (Another consultant friend of mine says, "No matter how different a project seems when you start it, they all end up being the same project in the end.")06944X-mission-money_matrix.jpg

There is one notable exception however, and that is the area of grant proposals. To wit: I am currently working on a proposal for an historical society to request $2500. The narrative so far stands at eleven single-spaced pages, plus attachments, and the program officer is asking for more. It's taken me about 12 hours of consulting time so far, and will probably come to 15-20 hrs altogether. At the same time, I just finished a proposal for a social service agency requesting $5000; it was a three-page fill-in form plus attachments. It took about 8 hrs of consulting time all told. The first proposal will need six copies, and the second just two.

So what's the point? Simply this: the arts & culture field is too much in the habit of making long and torturous arguments in order to convey concepts such as objectives and impact. In the human and social service arena, things are more concrete, direct, and outcome-focused. Part of the reason is obvious: it's very hard to quantify the impact a museum program has on its participants, for example. We can't hold a yardstick to someone's head and determine that they are smarter going out than when they came in, whereas a soup kitchen can count the meals provided. However, I've learned that social service agencies don't necessarily quantify results either. Desired impacts can be much more nuanced than simply the numbers of people served, and focused on goals that apply to broader society. The difference is, these kinds of agencies are 1) more comfortable with the whole idea of describing impact, and 2) are quite good at expressing succinctly what it is they do, whom they do it for, and how it makes the world a better place. Apparently, the funders who are receptive to their requests know this, and construct their applications accordingly.

I think the human service agencies have a real competitive advantage in this respect, and I suggest that arts & culture organizations become much more comfortable with thinking of themselves as outcomes-driven. Really, it's not that bad. I guess the reluctance has been due to the fact that when one starts discussing the actual impact of the museum or historical society on its audiences and broader society, the question inevitably arises, "Are we actually making an impact at all?" I've been in board rooms when that question comes up, and everyone says, "Yes, of course," but then no one can articulate the impact. This is a major warning bell for the long-term survival of your institution. 

There are ways to pick apart that question in order to tease out the answer. They start with truly understanding what the organization's current market identity is, and what its unique competitive advantage is - what I call the essential difference. Have you thought about this? I'd love to hear from you.

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