Being Businesslike Isn't What it Used to Be
The last few years have seen a lot of backlash against the (once novel, now rather conventional) idea that arts organizations ought to strive to be "businesslike". What's so great about for-profit businesses, after all? From Enron to AIG, the last decade has seen one businesslike catastrophe after another.
At Fractured Atlas, meanwhile, we've always been unapologetically businesslike in our operations. We emphasize earned revenue, require most programs and services to be independently self-sustaining, and aggressively pursue risky projects with high reward potential. At the risk of sounding hubristic, this has worked extremely well for us.
So does that mean the critics are wrong? Does the path to success in the non-profit cultural sector indeed follow the rules of the for-profit world?
Not necessarily. But it's important that we're working with a shared vocabulary. Seth Godin has a great blog post this morning in which he asks just what pro-business means. (I'm also reminded of an editorial in The Economist from a few years back in which Dick Cheney was accused of confusing being "pro-business" with being "pro specific businesses", but that's another story...) Godin's point is that most folks still have a paleo-capitalist, old school industrialist perspective on this stuff. He notes that modern, enlightened pro-business strategies might include:
- Investing in training the workforce to solve interesting problems, so they can work at just about any job.
- Maintaining infrastructure, safety and civil rights so we can create a community where talented people and the entrepreneurs who hire them (two groups that can live wherever they choose) would choose to live there.
- Reward and celebrate the scientific process that leads to scalable breakthroughs, productivity and a stable path to the future.
- Spend community (our) money on services and infrastructure that help successful organizations and families thrive.
This resonates deeply for me. Fractured Atlas's most important asset by far is the people who work here, so it would be crazy not to invest in their training and workplace happiness. That's why every employee gets an annual professional development allowance and it's why we have a Wii Lounge in our New York office.
Closely related is the idea that a smart business doesn't necessarily extract every penny it can out of its customers. The old wisdom used to be that prices should always be set to maximize short-term revenue and that the job of a customer service representative was to avoid giving refunds at all cost. Thankfully, this way of thinking is dying off fast. Modern, enlightened businesses understand that one really loyal customer is as good as ten lukewarm ones, and they spend money to cultivate lasting relationships.
When you start thinking of your constituents and your employees in this light, then the alleged tension between "mission" and "business" evaporates. More often than not, they're in perfect harmony.