BWW Interview: Greer Firestone: STEPS TO OVERCOME CRISIS for Every Performing Arts Group

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BWW Interview: Greer Firestone: STEPS TO OVERCOME CRISIS for Every Performing Arts Group

Nine Steps Arts and Culture Leaders
Can Take to Overcome a Crisis

When Shakespeare's career was interrupted by the Black Plague, the Bard and his colleagues did three things: "They made plans for what they were going to do when theatres reopened. They toured the provinces, sold props, costumes, bundled plays and sold them-that's how the First Folio got made. And they went to the King and said, 'Help! History shows how confidence and point of view served Shakespeare and his company well.

Arts and culture organizations ensure sustainability in many ways-creating financial reserves and endowments, diversifying income streams, building cultural placekeeping networks of support,[1] and regularly making the case to constituents that the institution is a pillar of the community and economy. At the same time, most organizations face a reality that "Any cultural organization worth its salt pushes itself constantly to the point of exhaustion. It's in the mission-driven nature of the organization: The nature is not to sock away capital."[2] Even the strongest institutions cannot be prepared for every crisis. Natural disasters, macroeconomic financial collapses, and global pandemics are just a few of the external threats that can arise with no warning, affecting the very existence of an organization and its future. As difficult as these challenges may be, arts and culture organizations have weathered them in the past, finding reliable ways to move forward and achieve success in spite of disaster.

The first way to address a crisis is to be fully prepared in advance.[4] A full Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) includes a clear checklist of actions and priorities for leadership to address, regardless of the particular scenario. However, arts and culture leaders must also have effective processes to work through emergency situations that occur unexpectedly. This edition of Arts Insights identifies nine steps every arts and culture organization can take to overcome a crisis, mitigate damage, and set itself up for eventual recovery and long-term success.

1. Put Health and Safety FirstAny considerations that relate to the physical health or safety of anyone within the organization and those it serves must take first priority. No other factors-financial, artistic, or even the continued existence of the organization-should take precedence over someone's life. Organizations can ­be rebuilt, reconstituted, or reborn but permanent injury or death is irrevocable. Arts and culture leaders must also pay attention to their own well-being. Handling a crisis is highly stressful.

2. Identify Organizational Values and Limits An organization's mission statement, vision statement, and organizational values are never more crucial than in a time of crisis. The organization's mission and the community it serves should remain In Focus, especially when usual activities are disrupted. Crisis can be the impetus to change operations while still delivering the mission. Values will influence organizational limits and inform decision making. Arts and culture leaders must quickly determine which lines they cannot cross and prioritize commitments to the organization's stakeholders. What are its minimum commitments to staff, artists, patrons, subscribers/members, donors, and the community? Gaining consensus among the board and executive leaders will make scenario planning easier because the organization will not need to stop mid-stream to decide between one difficult outcome and another. Consider the following questions:

  • Will artists be paid (partially or in-full) if events, exhibitions, or productions must be cancelled on short notice?
  • Will staff members need to be furloughed or laid off during the disruption?
  • Are there crucial educational or community programs that must be maintained?
  • What criteria must a crisis meet for the board to tap endowment funds for emergency spending?

3. Communicate Often and ClearlyWhile arts and culture leaders may not have all the information or answers, not communicating well during a crisis will only distance people from the organization and lead to speculation. They must strive to be as transparent, honest, and reassuring as possible. Allison Shapira frames crisis communication in five parts: 1) pause and breathe, 2) put yourself in your audience's shoes, 3) do your research, 4) speak clearly and confidently, and 5) have specific next steps.[6] While each type of stakeholder needs timely and regular communication, exact messaging structures may need to vary to address their unique needs.

Board of Trustees: The board should immediately and regularly convene for the duration of the crisis. Board members have the ability to provide crucial advice and financial support. Arrange video meetings or conference calls for regular check-ins if the board is unable to gather in-person.

Staff and Artists: This group relies on the organization to make a living, so naturally they are the most fearful about the impacts of the crisis. As the closest stakeholders to the organization and its mission, they often have the greatest ability to find creative solutions. Arts and culture leaders should maintain normalcy among the staff, giving them opportunities to contribute and stay active with critical tasks. Leadership should openly commend the staff, reinforce teamwork, and make it clear that everyone is in this together.

Funders and Major Donors: Be honest with funders about the severity of the situation and clearly articulate the optimal actions to be of support-such as providing additional funding in the short term or allowing the organization to redirect approved grant funds to pay artists for work that cannot be performed.

Patrons and the Community: Word travels fast. It is always better for this group to hear from the source before they read about it on social media or hear from others.

4. Assess Organizational Assets
Arts and culture leaders should create a clear-eyed analysis of their organization's strengths and the potential to leverage their assets. This includes each board and staff member, all financial funds and income streams, and any physical property.

Regarding human resources, organizations may choose to consider partial furloughs or broad-based pay reductions rather than eliminating roles completely. Protecting the organization's investment in its human resources is important and experience should not be undervalued.

5. Seek Emergency Support and Engage with the Broader Issue
Arts and culture leaders should maintain contact with their regional and local arts agencies to monitor governmental assistance that will likely flow through their funding processes.

6. Create Multiple Operating and Financial Scenarios

There are always unknowns in an evolving crisis. It is important to consider multiple scenarios and the triggers that will cause an organization to make various decisions. These scenarios are usually directly informed by the total financial assets available, newly generated cash flow projections, and operational realities of program delivery. Once created, walk the board, major funders, and senior leadership through a range of scenarios, from best to worst case. This allows everyone to be in alignment about the steps to be taken at each juncture, shifting the organization's energy from fear to determination. In periods of extreme disruption or uncertainty, leadership should create scenarios based on each of the following organizational categories:

Continuing - maintaining all main activities through and after the crisis
Reducing - cutting back on major activities but maintaining some mission delivery
Hibernating - suspending activity with no mission delivery but with the intention to revive at some point
Liquidating - coming to a full stop, divesting of all assets, and shutting down legally and permanently

Within these categories, develop scenarios based on financial or time trigger points by asking questions such as:

  • What is the deadline to secure a new performance/exhibition space before needing to cancel upcoming events?
  • Can alternative programming be delivered with reduced resources that align with mission and values?
  • How much emergency money must be committed before some or all of the staff needs to be laid off?
  • How much cash is needed on-hand on the first day of hibernation to ensure all patrons can be refunded?

7. Innovate
While in the midst of a crisis, organizations can innovate around their programs and communities in ways that both solve immediate problems and create long-term benefits. A crisis requires an organization to review its mission, assets, human resources, finances, and operations in much the same way that it would during an organizational assessment or strategic planning process. The team should not miss the opportunity to evaluate other ways it can operate that would benefit the organization in its new reality. History has shown that Crisis, constraints, and limitations can fuel new ideas as much as or more than abundance, tradition, and habit.

8. Execute, Evaluate, Communicate, Repeat
With clear scenarios created and constituents informed of the situation, it is time to move forward. Arts and culture organizations should continue building support and taking action day by day until a previously identified trigger point is reached or something unexpected occurs. Leaders should then reassess the scenarios, revisiting them with the appropriate mix of constituents, and move back into action. As circumstances evolve, the team can follow the plans while maintaining an open mind to ideas that can inform new scenarios and avenues to explore. The organization should repeat this cycle of execution, evaluation, and communication until a new steady state is reached.

9. Give Thanks
As the crisis is overcome, arts and culture leaders should recognize and express appreciation to those who supported the organization through the crisis. Acknowledge the loyalty of patrons who donated their tickets or memberships rather than ask for a reimbursement. Thank the donors and funders who stepped up in new ways that allowed the organization to meet payroll. If compensation reductions or furloughs were implemented, the board can devise a plan to provide one-time bonuses or other appreciations to the staff once the organization's financial conditions are solidified.

Leaders of cultural organizations should also maintain perspective on struggle overall. Australian filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour reminds us that all heroes have gone through times of crisis. Everyone loves the hero. But the obstacles are what makes the hero. The only way to become the hero is to go through the obstacles!"[8]


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From This Author Greer Firestone