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

Guns, Murder, Insanity and Men


Bushmaster .223 M4 carbine – model used in the Connecticut shooting. Why in the hell is this gun legal?

Mass shootings are horrifying, terrible, heartbreaking, enraging.  For me, as for many, the most recent mass shooting at a public elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut has been particularly painful.  Its pall clings to me, and I suspect I’m writing this blog in part to attempt some diminishment of its effect, some exorcism.

The powerlessness of bearing witness, even through the distorted lens of modern media, leaves me enervated.  I have only the meager power of writing to fight back, but it’s better than remaining voiceless.  And I’ve got something to say.

We don’t just have a gun problem in the good ol’ USofA, we’ve got a problem with mad men – and we’re not talking about it.
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

Man About Town – Newsletter #1


I love my name tag. Thanks Federal Reserve Bank of NY!

Dear reader,

It’s been a year since I hung out a shingle and joined the independent workforce, and a very interesting year indeed.  Your Man About Town has been busy moving the needle on mission related investment, geeking out on data, pursuing my ongoing passion for the arts, and assembling public / private partnerships out of thin air.

Frequently my job as a consultant is simply to help my clients think things they haven’t thoughtmeet people they haven’t met, and do things they haven’t done.   In this inaugural newsletter, I’m pleased to share a bit about what I’ve been up to.

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

Mission Related Investment

Mission related investment (MRI) can be a powerful tool, but as a sector we still have much to learn.  Man About Town has been fortunate to work with Contact Fund, expanding deal flow and advising on strategic development. Man About Town also stepped in to help the Altman Foundation underwrite a Program Related Investment to LISC.  And whenServices for the UnderServed asked Man About Town to help them train their board on innovation in MRI and the needs of complex nonprofits, it just seemed like the right thing to do.  Now, Man About Town and SUS have joined forces to convene a Social Impact Investment Conference in NYC.  Our Advisory Committee includes Antony Bugg-LevineDeb De SantisAlice KorngoldTerri LudwigBrandee McHale and Michael Rubinger.  Just getting warmed up folks!  Coming April 2013!

Related posts:

MAS NYC Arts Digest 2012

Arts & Economic Development

This past spring, the Municipal Art Society invited Man About Town to come on board as a research fellow, analyzing economic trends in the nonprofit cultural sector through the Cultural Data Project.  Data geek that I am, how could Man About Town say no?  The result is the Arts Digest 2012, including my section entitled “Who Pays for the Arts?”  And Man About Town has been busy applying all I’ve learned as a member of the Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts Working Group, including a new case study onadaptive re-use in creating new cultural facilities – due out this November!

Related posts:

Civic Consulting Alliance

Introducing Civic Consulting NYC

Last fall, Neil Kleiman introduced Man About Town to Chicago’s Civic Consulting Alliance. Civic Consulting aggregates high-level pro bono corporate capacity and provides it to the public sector – a national model for innovation in public/private partnerships.  I fell in love.  Man About Town has been building Civic Consulting’s NYC affiliate, and on September 13th we hosted a launch event with the Ford FoundationLiving Cities and special guest Deputy Mayor Linda Gibbs for the local philanthropic and corporate community.  It was a smashing good time, and you’ll be hearing a lot more about Civic Consulting NYC!

Related posts:

In short, life is good…  

…thanks to all of you and your brilliant thinking, passionate commitment, and energetic leadership.  I hope to see some of you at the Grantmakers in the Arts convening on November 15th at the Queens Museum, where Man About Town will moderate the morning’s panel discussion.  And stay tuned for a major article in Shelterforce Magazine on the evolving role of community development intermediaries in today’s complex environment.

Until then, I remain your most humble servant,

Your Man About Town

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