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

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

In Praise of (Stinky, Noisy) Bars


Reposted from Rooflines.

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper

The vaunted “third space” isn’t home, and isn’t work – it’s more like the living room of society at large.  It’s a place where you are neither family nor co-worker, and yet where the values, interests, gossip, complaints and inspirations of these two other spheres intersect.  It’s a place at least one step removed from the structures of work and home, more random, and yet familiar enough to breed a sense of identity and connection.  It’s a place of both possibility and comfort, where the unexpected and the mundane transcend and mingle.

And nine times out of ten, it’s a bar. Continue reading

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

How to Hire a Consultant


Reposted from my guest blog on Rooflines.

Did you ever feel like you need a consultant to help you figure out what you need your consultant to do?  Believe me, you are not alone.  As a recovering executive director (and boy is that going to make a juicy blog post one of these days), I’ve employed many consultants to help with everything from designing the company logo to dreaming up structured finance solutions for distressed homeowners.  Dear Man About Town, you ask, how ever did you do it?

Well, now a consultant tells all:  here’s how to hire someone like me.

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.

Continue reading

Brooklyn’s Participatory Budgeting Process


NYC Council Member Brad Lander

Just a very brief posting to share with you all a nice blog written about Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander’s Participatory Budgeting process.  Council Member Lander has turned over the decision-making process for spending $1 million in city capital funds for his district to the residents themselves.  JC does a nice job of capturing both the challenges and the enthusiasm for the effort.