The (In)Efficiencies of Scale


When scale goes wrong. Catsonholiday / Instagram

ArtsBlog (the blog of Americans for the Arts) recently hosted a forum called:  “So, Does Size Matter?”  The short answer is hell yes it does, but I disagree with most of the writers about why.  I found the best piece in the series was penned by the whip-smart Ian David Moss (Economies and Diseconomies of Scale in the Arts – Take Two), and it was his post that inspired both me to both write an initial comment, and then to take on the subject more fully below.

You see, Dear Reader, like many of my fellow funders and financiers I’ve often touted the benefits of moving toward greater scale:  improved operational efficiencies, greater programmatic reach, increased access to resources, heavier political punch.  But I’ve also struggled with the oft recognized but seldom addressed reality that scale is not an answer in and of itself, and that sometimes scaled solutions leave even larger problems in their wake.  Thanks to Ian, I think I got the mental kick in the epiphany I needed.

And here’s why I think scale sometimes, well, stinks up the joint.  Continue reading

Report Back: NY Grantmakers in the Arts “Creative Placemaking” Panel


Funders, Speakers and your Man About Town walking to the Queens Museum from the Mets-Willets Point 7 Train – Man About Town / Tumblr

Your Man About Town’s middle name is Moderation, Dear Reader; and although it is a somewhat awkward locution when making a full introduction, it nonetheless conveys the important fact that your Man About Town’s middle name is not Tom, Dick or Harry.  I moderate.  I facilitate.  I have even been known, at times, to adjudicate.

So when the New York Chapter of the Grantmakers in the Arts asked if I wouldn’t mind moderating a panel on creative placemaking at the Queens Museum of Art earlier this month, I could no more deny them than I could my very nature.  Or at least, the very nature of my personal brand. Continue reading

Disaster and Recovery – Part II


The Great Wave off Kanagawa: Katsushika Hokusai

The Great Wave off Kanagawa: Katsushika Hokusai

Shortly after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf Coast, I was dispatched to New Orleans by the corporate foundation that I worked for to figure out how to deploy our philanthropic disaster recovery commitment.  It was a heartbreaking experience, compounded and complicated by the entrenched challenges New Orleans had struggled with for many years.

As with all natural disasters, the poorest suffered most in the immediate aftermath.  What I, in my ignorance, learned for the first time was how the vulnerable continue to suffer long after the initial damage: tucked away for too long FEMA trailers, or separated from family, friends and vital supports, unable to access medical care, or shuttled from one temporary shelter situation to the next.  Over the weeks, months and years following the storm there were dramatic and terrible increases in elder mortality, child poverty, murder, and mental illness.

Compared to the process of recovery in the Gulf Coast, and in spite of the many frustrations we feel with its pace in our region, New York City, New Jersey and Long Island have done remarkably well.  For most of us, life is essentially back to normal:  the kids are in school, we’re back at work, our homes have power, heat and hot water, and holiday shopping is underway.

But there remains a grave and nearly inevitable danger, as in all natural disasters, that we will “move on” without fully resolving the impacts on those most vulnerable, and inflict the mistakes of the past on our neighbors and fellow citizens tomorrow.  Continue reading

Disaster and Recovery


Lower Manhattan Post Sandy Blackout – Catsonholiday / Instagram

Dear Reader, I’m writing to you from Man About Town’s Brooklyn redoubt – where we have been spared from the very worst of hurricane Sandy.  We never flooded, and we never lost power.  Like so many of you, Mrs. Man About Town and I have been glued to Twitter, NY1, WNYC, the NY Times, and a host of other news sources trying to grapple with the scale of the devastation caused by surging storm waters and wind.  And, like many of you, we’ve wept over the terrible loss of life, and been inspired by the ingenuity and dedication of emergency personnel, public leaders, and generous neighbors.

We will never be the same. Continue reading

The Art$ – Part III (Some Easy Fixes)


Art – it makes life more funner.

In my earlier posts on this subject, dear reader, I first endeavored to put a finer point on the more than thousand-fold revenue variation between the largest cultural organizations in NYC, and the median cultural organization. Holy stromboli you say? Yes! While the very largest nonprofit culturals have revenues of more than $300 million annually, more than half the groups in my most recent study had revenues of less than $250 thousand. What’s more, the top five very largest organizations received nearly half of all city funding (their share being a whopping $133 million).
Continue reading

The Art$, Small Business, and Community Development


Just testifying for the arts, people.

Dear Reader, below you will find testimony that I presented recently before a joint hearing of the New York City Council on the impact of the arts on small businesses and community economic vitality.  You may very well be interested in two previous posts on this subject:  The Art$ (wherein I discuss the economic realities of very small versus very large nonprofit culturals in NYC), and The Art$ – Part II (wherein I dig deeper into how very large nonprofit culturals make their money compared to how small nonprofit culturals do). Continue reading

The Art$ – Part II


In my most recent post (The Art$), dear reader, we started a conversation about some of the differences between very large cultural organizations and, well, everybody else.  I pointed out that members of the Cultural Institutions Group (CIG) tend to be concentrated in the upper bracket.  I also said that, frankly, there should be further research conducted on how income streams and strategies vary based on whether or not an organization is a member of the CIG.  (For a powerful statement on funding inequity in the arts, check out this really great report written by Holly Sidford for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.)

But while being a member of the CIG may make you privileged, it doesn’t make you evil.  I think that good policy comes out of an informed debate about our resources and our choices in using those resources.  We’ve got all this lovely data, so let’s use it to analyze the assumptions underlying the present system. Assumptions we can analyze, assess and alter – or not – based on our current, best understanding.

So, let’s look at another juicy issue.  In our last episode, our hero was pondering the following chart:  Continue reading

The Art$


It was weird.

Dear reader, your Man About Town has been to the very precipice, where I stood and looked down.  It was weird.

You see, it all started when some of the lovely folks over at the Municipal Art Society (Hi Mary! Hi Anne!  Hello Vin!), invited me to come and do a research project for them called “Who Pays for the Arts.”  The job was to tool through data provided by the Cultural Data Project (CDP) and better understand how arts organizations in NYC make their money.  To whit:  in order to apply for public funding in NYC, you have to submit, like, a gajillion data points to CDP.

Exciting!  Data geek that I am my little heart just fluttered with glee.  Numbers!  Charts!  Oh yeah!  Uh huh!  That’s right!

So I started digging through the data and the very first question I asked was, you know, what does the distribution curve look like?  Given that I’m looking at total 2010 revenues for 723 organizations, and that the whole group all mushed together made $2.5 billion, how many groups are on the high end, how many in the middle, and how many on the low end?

And this is what I found: Continue reading

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s… What the Hell Is That?


Also posted in my guest blog on Rooflines.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… What the hell is that?

In my last blog post I spent a good chunk of time talking about the trend toward “complexification” in the nonprofit sector.  There are plenty of small, scrappy, neighborhood based nonprofits around (as a matter of fact, that number continues to grow), but we’ve also seen the emergence of nonprofits with $100 million plus in annual revenues, hundreds of staff, sophisticated operational structures, and highly complex financial instruments built to conduct their business.

I argued that we’re past due in borrowing some tools from our for-profit colleagues, including stronger staff development and retention regimens, the ability to access substantial capital for opportunistic growth, shaping board relationships that focus on organizational development and not just fiduciary oversight, and developing a nonprofit sector trade association to lobby on the collective needs and issues of our sector.

We’re clearly entering a new era that will continue to blur the lines between for-profit and nonprofit.  And let’s be honest:  it’s a little scary.  Why?  Because we’re all very worried that we might somehow become like, you know, them.

Continue reading

The Complexification of the Nonprofit Sector


This post also available on Rooflines.  

“Substrate” by Jared Tarbell

Intuitively, just from being around the nonprofit sector for a stretch, it’s easy to tell that things have gotten more, well, complicated.  Organizations are bigger, operations more tentacled, financial tools more wonky, budgets bigger and bigger.  And don’t just take my word for it.  Thanks to the lovely folks at the Standford Social Innovation Review you can enjoy this whole, provocative article: “Why More Nonprofits Are Getting Bigger.”  

The problem is, I don’t think we’ve really done a good job of keeping up with our own complexification.   Continue reading