Stop Competing and Start Collaborating!

Today’s blog post is written by Emily van der Harten, Documentation Specialist, PatronManager. 

In the arts, a good portion of what we do and how we think serves the objective of making sure our organizations will be sustainable for years to come. Whether discussing financial goals, maintaining a meaningful presence in our communities, or keeping our audiences engaged with our mission, organizational sustainability is always an important factor.  

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the potential of inter-organizational collaborative partnerships as a way to bolster an organization’s longevity and success. While we live in a country where the economic model (which consequently permeates our societal norms in many ways) is grounded in competition, I’d like to suggest another way to thrive. Instead of competing with other organizations to get to some mythologized “top,” why not lift each other up and work together? I’ll illustrate how this can work by telling you a story about what happened when over 200 arts administrators came together in one room and were asked to talk about challenges facing the arts today and what they would do to address them.

A few weeks ago, PatronManager hosted its annual community meeting for clients to come together to learn how to use PatronManager to its fullest potential and collaborate with fellow users. As part of the conference, we hosted a 2-hour session highlighting common challenges arts organizations face. We threw out topics including fundraising, equity, audience diversity, staying relevant, and staffing; then we divided all of our attendees into groups of about 8-12 folks, organized by region.

These newly-formed regional cohorts discussed the issues that affect them most within their respective geographic areas. Within the first few minutes of these groups being formed, I overheard folks saying things like, “We have issues with that, too!” or even, “We used to have that problem, but then we started this program, and that helped alleviate this issue…,” “We applied for this grant…,” “We amended our hiring practices…” — the room was abuzz with a seemingly endless exchange of ideas and commiseration between arts administrators from different organizations all with similar end goals.

During the second part of this breakout session, each regional group was tasked with choosing an issue they had previously discussed and devising a plan to address it. In this imaginary scenario, each table was either a non-profit or coalition of non-profits who had been granted a large sum of money to resolve their issue. At the end of the discussion, a representative from each group presented their team’s solution. And let me tell you, these folks came up with GREAT ideas.

One group, who realized equity was their biggest challenge, decided they should focus on staffing roles across the board much more inclusively in terms of race, gender, ability, and sexual orientation. Another group focusing on bringing in younger audiences decided they would put more of their advertising budget toward digital ads on social media platforms. Other groups talked about programming initiatives, lobbying for better transportation in rural areas so more folks have access to the arts, even creating a mobile app! While these were all just make-believe scenarios, the ideas folks came up with to solve challenges they face as arts administrators were (mostly) possible, real solutions.

What I learned from this exercise is that alone, we all have some pretty amazing ideas. However, when we start to exchange those ideas and build upon each other’s skills, some exciting things start to happen. And this exchange doesn’t have to, nor should it be limited to other “like-organizations.” Starting the journey of connecting with other companies, whether they be non-profit, government, corporate, community, or other, starts with research, reflecting upon your own values and goals, and talking to those organizations to see if you might be a good fit to collaborate. Chances are, you will find many ways in which you compliment one another, and who knows? You might even make a friend or two along the way. Our Director of Product Development, Christa Avampato said it best in her opening keynote for the conference: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

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