What’s Next in Arts and Economic Development

Reposted from my guest blog on Rooflines.

My latest rock musical: The Bowery Wars (Part II)

There’s something you should know about me:  I’m a professional amateur.  For the past 7 years I’ve been composing and performing music in original theater works with my wife’s company, Downtown Art.  We’ve just opened our latest piece, Bowery Wars (Part 2), a rock musical about the history of the Lower East Side 100 years ago, Tammany Hall politics, gang warfare, and Romeo & Juliet.  It rocks, and yes you should come see it.

But I’m not just here to flog my latest masterpiece.  We professional amateurs are artists who fly under the radar.  We don’t make our livelihood from our art.  We do other things to put bread and butter together.  I happen to be a highly compensated community development consultant, but many of my peers are dog walkers, administrative assistants, massage therapists, and restaurant workers.  (By the way, in another shameless plug, you should check out my brother Dan’s blog on the lives of restaurant workers and artists in Chicago).  I also serve on the Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts Working Group, and I’m currently doing some research for the Municipal Art Society on revenue trends for the nonprofit cultural sector.  In my previous work I ran an “Arts and Economic Development” giving strategy from the Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation along with my colleagues Gary, Alessandra and Sam (hi guys!).

All in all, you might say I have a rather engaged perspective on the question of where arts and economic development intersect, and where they don’t.  There are four major trends right now in NYC. Continue reading

NYC’s Philanthropic Bagel Hole

Reposted from my guest blog on Rooflines.  

New York City has everything, just like this bagel.  Yum!  The secret, as they say, is in the water.  And water, as they say, is life.

But there’s a hole in the bagel, dear Liza, dear Liza.

When I first came to NYC, still wet behind the ears and tasked with helping distribute money from Deutsche Bank’s foundation, I was sent to meetings.  Lots of meetings.  Very interesting meetings, where the community development banking luminaries of the day would hold court:  Carol Parry, Phyllis Rosenbloom, Mark Willis, Marc Jahr, Bob Rosenbloom, Michael Feller, Greg King, Hildy Simmons, Gary Hattem.  Or other meetings, where the United Way, Ford or Rockefeller called the tune, and the jolly members of NYRAG would troop in to talk about the inner workings of domestic microfinance, workforce development, educational reform, financial literacy, homeownership, arts and economic development, you name it.  There was a palpable core of philanthropic leadership really focused on the challenges of the city, and they held significant mass.  Their effect was gravitational: where they led, others followed.  They drove discussion, led thinking, catalyzed partnerships, commanded attention.  You may not have loved what they thought, or how they went about things, but their presence was manifest, and their impact was broad.

New York City still has the strongest and most vibrant philanthropic community in the country.  It’s still provides enormous leadership in social investment strategies, community development finance, building public / private partnerships, and program innovation.  But something has changed.  Over the years, there’s been a growing vacancy in the focus on New York City itself: on its systems, challenges, nonprofit leaders, and neighborhoods.

In short, despite the incredible presence of philanthropic leadership and resource, the attention has moved elsewhere.  I’m not sure that most folks have even noticed.  It’s been a creeping drift, a steady ebb.  A spreading hole in the center of our little everything bagel universe.

Continue reading

Building a Healthy Nonprofit Ecosystem

Hurricane flooded I-10/I-610 interchange, New Orleans, LA

Reposted from my guest blog on Rooflines:  In the halcyon days of my youth, way back in 2006, I went to New Orleans.  I traveled there at the behest of the corporation that I worked for at the time, as we had made a $2 million disaster recovery commitment to the city, and we were trying to figure out how to spend it.

Now, there’s two things you need to know about spending $2 million: (1) that’s a lot of money, and (2) it’s really not very much money at all.  When you get right down to it, in dealing with a post-crisis situation of the scale of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the troubled city of New Orleans, spending that kind of money in a way that was both responsible and impactful was a damned hard thing to do.

So there I am, the well-meaning Yankee, fresh off the plane in my shiny city slicker best, traipsing through the Lower 9th Ward.  I was there several months after the floods had receded, but it was still a silent, mud-stained, wracked and ruined wasteland.  I remember picking up a dirty and detached doll’s head (Woody, from Toy Story – a memento I’ve kept with me always.  He’s staring at me as I write this now), and thinking, well, I’ve got to start somewhere.

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Why Leadership Pay$

Reposted from my guest blog on Rooflines.
In previous blog posts (Why Evaluation Stinks), I’ve discussed how the fragmented nature of the nonprofit sector makes it very difficult to impose top-down, comprehensive evaluative frameworks.  The primary problem is that even if you have two nonprofit organizations, each working with similar clients and conducting similar programs, the mix of supports from philanthropy, contracts and earned revenues will be such that the way they achieve their results will be unique.  The nonprofit sector, operating as it does on the margins of the market economy, is forced to pull together resources higgledy-piggledy, and this mix varies so substantially for each nonprofit (and indeed for each year of its operations), that you really can’t draw comparisons easily between two otherwise similar service activities.In short, our twinkling field of a thousand lights are all very different.There is, however, an upside to this.  Each organization cuts its own path to achieving its mission, providing us with a diversity of models and strategies.  Some succeed by focusing on a specific, artisanal niche where they excel, while others grow through horizontal or vertical expansion.  But there’s one thing that all successful organizations have in common:  they exhibit strong leadership.  And when I say leadership, what I mean is that the manager or managers of the organization are considered trustworthy, intelligent, passionate and capable.  They may also be considered tyrannical, obtuse, plodding, or distraught, but in their own way they get the job done and they get it done well.

As you well know, measuring leadership is a damned hard thing to do.  There are no leadership widgets produced as such.  Or are there? Continue reading

Why Evaluation Stinks

If only it were this simple

(This blog is co-published with Community Resource Exchange, and is part one of a two-part series)

Ask anybody, and I mean anybody, about evaluating the effectiveness of nonprofit service providers and you will be greeted by winces, whinges, shrugs, groans, gnashing of teeth, sighs, and the burying of faces in flattened palms.  And by anybody I don’t just mean any nonprofit service provider – I mean as well our beloved philanthropic leaders and public sector partners.  After all, we’re talking about an industry that in 2009 paid 9% of all wages, contributed 5.4% of GDP, reported revenues of $1.4 trillion, and held some $2.56 trillion in assets.  Why can’t we find a way to tell how effective this industry is with our money (both public and private dollars)?  How hard can it be? Continue reading