Kaiser: Extend Your Programming Planning Cycle

Of all the things Michael Kaiser advises through his ten rules for the successful management of an arts organization, Rule #5: Extend Your Programming Planning Calendar is the one where I must hang my head in shame as an utter failure. Not because I never managed an arts organization (since I have been claiming throughout this series that his rules can be applied to all non-profit organizations). It is just that I was never able to impose this kind of discipline on the organizations where I had the responsibility (not to be equated with the authority) to do so.

Kaiser wrote in his 2008 book The Art of the Turnaround “Many organizations plan only one to two years ahead. Those in need of a turnaround even less because it seems foolhardy to plan far ahead when the future seems so uncertain. Their fears prevent them from enjoying some strategic advantages of long-term planning.” He then goes on to state that his planning calendar covered a five-year period, which is fairly typical for those who are strong advocates of strategic or long-term planning.

My best strategic planning efforts did achieve a five-year plan on paper, which means in theory. Keeping the staff on track to implement the plan was manageable, but keeping the board on track in fulfilling their duties, not so much. The folks who occupy the executive seats at the big kids’ table have short attention spans. Their terms as directors or trustees may not conveniently overlap an entire planning cycle, so they are not as interested in the things that will occur after their departure. And the board chair, who runs the meetings, may not be inclined to stay on point by requiring discussions and decisions to relate directly to the current year’s portion of the plan, let alone the entire five-year cycle. The result is a seminal divide between board and staff members as their respective perspectives on all operations, and not just the programming, are fundamentally different – maybe even diametrically opposed.

For those who persevere against this type of indolent opposition, he cites a few key benefits, which stem from putting forth the effort up front to make the subsequent days less intimidating. “You can ensure that the artists you want to work with are available. You are far more likely to raise the funding required for a large project. You are far more likely to get important advance press. You are far more likely to negotiate a successful tour.” Okay, so not all of us are concerned about going on tour. But the unifying factor in his list of benefits is the unstated dynamic of simply having more time to do the things which make your program possible.

Kaiser uses this insight to stress two aspects of a manager’s role in the art of the turnaround, donor cultivation and the development of exciting, newsworthy programs. What the five-year planning cycle did to help with his donor cultivation was to give him options to present to any donor prospect. He writes, “I never go to a prospect meeting with fewer than ten projects in mind.” And let me stress the phrase “in mind.” What you want to avoid is dumping your entire shopping list on your hapless prospect, hoping they will make your day by choosing at least one item from the list. Your best tactic is to keep the list to yourself as you listen to your prospect’s interest. Once you get to know them, which is a key step in the cultivation process, you can then present one (and only one) of your projects or programs to them, which most closely matches what you have patiently learned to be true about what they find of greatest value in their charitable thinking. It improves your chances of receiving a yes response when they know you care about them. Caring about you and your mission becomes an intuitive reflex for them as a relationship develops, which hopefully blossoms into a long-term friendship for you and your organization.

The benefit of the five-year planning cycle to the creation of newsworthy programming is internal. As Kaiser states, “Long-tern planning gives artists and administrators time to work together without the pressure that short-term planning imposes.” And my guess, based on his writing, is that this is the work that Kaiser found most enjoyable. Administrators are not often perceived as being creative types. Rather we are the bean counters of management lore, who can only think of how to restrict the excesses of our artistic counterparts. But while we do not dance, sing, paint or act we do enjoy sharing ideas and seeing them brought to life by those who have the talent to do what we can only envision.

In my own resume are achievements in which I take great pride, being able to boast (however modestly) that I have been an executive producer of a music CD, impresario of an annual music festival, creator of an art gallery, producer/director/scriptwriter of television and radio commercials, and art director for the design of promotional materials. Fulfillment of my ideas, however, was mostly in the hands of others with the talent and expertise I lacked for making dreams come true. So when Kaiser writes, ““I focus on projects that seem exciting and worthy of press attention and funding,” I can honestly say that I know the feeling behind the statement. Not only is it an example of good leadership qualities, but a hint at the exhilaration that can come from being part of the creative process.

Finally let me note that in this last quote Kaiser refers to his programs being “worthy of press attention.” This brings us back to where we began with this series in which he stressed the need for good programs and good marketing. Although he does not directly state it while expounding on his Rule #5, long-term planning allows time to develop a rich and viable marketing plan just as it does for the programs to be designed and for raising the necessary funding to make it all happen. My one regret is that I cannot conclude this message by saying I did that. Rather when you have to meet all of the same needs with less turnaround time, you find yourself subsisting in a hand to mouth attempt of survival. Good things can be achieved but at a greater cost, which entails the type of emotional investment that results in burnout and early retirement. And that means dreams left unfulfilled.

So plan ahead and make great, not just good, things happen to excite your career while bringing the same to the audience you serve.

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