Cincinnati Chronicles: Workshop #1 the Roots of Innovation

Cincinnati has an amazing arts scene that boasts more than a dozen major institutions, hundreds of smaller arts organizations, and thousands of individual artists. I love living here and that’s why I work for ArtsWave, a nonprofit united arts fund, which I joined two years ago after spending twelve years at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.

About ArtsWave

Founded in 1927 as the Cincinnati Institute for Fine Arts, ArtsWave is the first and largest united arts fund in the country, supporting over 100 arts organizations.  Each year, over 39,000 individuals and companies contribute to the ArtsWave community campaign.  These funds are then granted to arts organizations that are making our community a better place to live.  In 2012, the community contributed over $11.2 million for the arts through the ArtsWave campaign.

A Growing Need in Cincinnati

Our arts community boasts an extraordinary breadth and depth — from professional theatres, orchestras, and ballet companies to small neighborhood arts centers and everything in between – and a collaborative spirit.

Yet, ArtsWave sensed a growing need.  Audience behavior was changing.  Established business models that had worked for years suddenly seemed vulnerable. Arts organizations didn’t just need more money; they needed to try new things.  How could we provide resources and time for this work?

EmcArts’ New Pathways Program offered us a way to give our arts organizations the tools they need to embrace innovation.  We worked to raise special funding for this initiative, and encouraged a wide variety of organizations to apply.  By bringing all of these organizations together in one big room, we hope to identify common challenges and inspire collaboration.

ArtsWave is also participating as an organization in the program and I am excited to be a member of our New Pathways team. For each workshop, I’ll be sharing some of the ideas that I found most striking and our team’s progress.

Defining Key Terms

The workshop started by introducing the concepts of adaptation and innovation and defining key terms. I found two points here particularly compelling:

First, I like the distinction between adaptive challenges vs. technical challenges. Running a small professional theater company for eight years, I understood technical challenges. We needed accessible restrooms, better computers, more professional fundraising staff– the basic things that make a theater run. As Richard Evans explained, if it yields to the application of best practices, it’s a technical challenge. Adaptive challenges, by contrast, do not have any obvious solutions. There are no best practices for solving them and no experts to consult. Adaptive challenges require innovation.

The second definition that caught my ear was this: “An assumption is often the successful solution to a previous problem.” For me, this definition helped explain why change can be so difficult within an organization. Challenging old assumptions often means challenging the very solutions that worked well for the organization in the past. The smart people who created and leveraged these solutions are often still in the room! Questioning assumptions can feel like an attack on that success. That’s why it’s so important that all stakeholders understand what the changes are in the environment that necessitate a review of assumptions. A brilliant innovation from ten years ago may be a faulty assumption today because the landscape has radically changed.

Identifying an Adaptive Challenge

After setting definitions, the teams were asked to start thinking about adaptive challenges facing our organization. Someone in our group said, “Feels like we’ve sort of already done this, haven’t we?” The sense of déjà vu stemmed from the fact that ArtsWave has just gone through four years of incredible change.

Teams sat down to identify adaptive challenges.

In 2008, an examination of the relationship between our donors and our constituent organizations revealed some troubling statistics. Almost 80% of ArtsWave’s donors did not have any transactional history with the largest 20 arts organizations that we supported. While people were giving, they weren’t necessarily participating. Even worse, we were starting to see a small but persistent decline in the number of people giving through workplace campaigns and the number of companies willing to run campaigns. Workplace giving accounts for 53% of the total dollars raised each year. We had to find a way to engage more people in the arts to continue to grow.

A second round of research dug deeper into public perception about the arts. The Arts Ripple Effect revealed that many of the ways we talked about the arts did not resonate with or even alienated the broader community. Having identified new ways to talk about the benefits of the arts, the ArtsWave embarked on a transformation. With an expanded mission that focused on serving the community through the arts, the organization changed its name, branding, mission, and grantmaking in two years.

Yet, here we were in the New Pathways workshop with a sense that something still needed to change. How could we increase the number of people engaged in the arts and in the campaign? Having innovated who we are, how we talk about ourselves, and how we make grants, the time had come to take a hard look at how we raise the money that makes it all possible.

Drum Circles and Polar Bears

At this point, EmcArts staff spread on two tables several dozen cards with vivid and striking images. Everyone was asked to select two cards: one that represented our adaptive challenge, and one that represented the feeling we would have when that challenge was solved.

I honed in on my first card immediately: a weathered house on stilts slowly collapsing into a green sea. For me, the image evoked the crumbling foundations of our workplace campaigns. I spent longer looking for the second image, but settled on a black and white photograph of different hands drumming together. When we really involve the whole community in the arts, I want it to feel as powerful and joyful as a big drum circle. One of my teammates chose the image of a Polar Bear as an expression of the hope that the arts could be as broadly adored as our local zoo.

Having knocked loose some ideas with this exercise, we soon agreed on an underlying assumption and an adaptive challenge that we wanted to tackle. After incredible success for twenty plus years, we assumed that fundraising success was based on growing more workplace campaigns. But corporate philanthropy in the 21st century looks to be fundamentally different. Company giving priorities are more often set by employees, not CEOs. If arts engagement among those employees continues to be low, then the arts will continue to lose ground to other worthy causes.

We wrote up our adaptive challenge: “Because the changing corporate environment is less hospitable to traditional workplace campaigns, we will engage volunteers to build new donor communities around neighborhoods and common shared experiences.”

Emerging Patterns

Seeing patterns of adaptive challenges emerge.

When all the arts organizations posted their assumptions and challenges on the wall, I saw several patterns of emerging, especially about how programming drives attendance, the value of buildings and infrastructure, and the role of the Board.

In their statements of challenges, I glimpsed several powerful ideas taking shape.  Multiple organizations were considering changes to programming that would cultivate new audiences and embrace new patterns of “on-demand” buying behavior by offering more performances, different price points, etc.  Smaller groups had thought about developing new earned revenue streams, and tailoring sponsorship opportunities to connect with new stakeholders.  Several organizations spoke of a desire to engage more local artists and the general public in the creation of programs and exhibitions.

Next Steps

As the workshop wrapped up, we were encouraged to find ways to share our learning with other key staff members. We agreed to get the Development team, the staff responsible for the execution of the annual community campaign, to do the webinars with us. Their intimate knowledge of the workplace campaigns will help us identify key elements to replicate in neighborhood campaigns. Richard also cautioned everyone not to leap to the first solution that comes to mind, but to be open to other possibilities.

For myself, I am most curious about the next workshop where we’ll discuss how to make the process of innovation a regular organizational practice. Stay tuned and thanks for reading.


Rebecca Bromels is the Director of Communications of ArtsWave. A twelve-year veteran of the local arts community, she brings a unique perspective to ArtsWave and its expanded focus on creating and sustaining community through the arts. Ms. Bromels works with ArtsWave staff and volunteers to bring the organization’s new mission to life through unique events and engaging dialogues that connect people and advance the vibrancy of our community through the arts.