NYFA: A New Approach to Technology and Professional Development

NYFA has identified two complex organizational challenges relating to the growth of its technology and professional development programs.

NYFA is rethinking its technology and professional development programs, including their popular "Boot Camp" for artists. Image: Peter Cobb.
NYFA is rethinking its technology and professional development programs, including their popular “Boot Camp” for artists. Image: Peter Cobb.

This is the first post from Peter Cobb about New York Foundation for the Arts’s experience in the New Pathways for Arts Development program. We asked him to reflect on the organization’s thinking after the first two workshops. Read more from participants in the New Pathways for Arts Development program here.

What are the complex challenges your organization has identified during the first two workshops?

New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), a service organization founded in 1971 with the mission to support artists at critical stages in their creative lives, conducts its activities through three primary channels: financial support to artists, dance and theater companies; professional development through workshops, seminars and individual consultations; and extensive online resources for artists and organizations.

During the first two New Pathways for Arts Development workshops, we identified two complex challenges, specifically in the areas of technology and outreach to artists in need of our services with whom we are not currently engaged.

These challenges take place against the backdrop of NYFA’s Strategic Plan, which underwent a refresh in 2012 following its initiation in 2007. The refresh took place with the generous pro bono assistance of McKinsey and Co., and identified technology as an important area for the organization’s growth and development. Similarly, it also identified a need for national expansion of our programs to serve artists beyond our current constituency.

The NYFA team participating in the New Pathways program has chosen to work through these themes. Specifically, we are focusing on how to better incorporate new technologies into some of our existing web-based programs, like NYFA Classifieds and NYFA Source (our online database of opportunities for artists). The recent addition of an in-house technology team, coupled with launch of NYFA’s new website, has brought this challenge to the forefront. How we take advantage of—and adapt to—these new resources will help shape the future of these programs, and their role as leading industry models.

Our team is also focusing on how to grow our other programs, particularly in areas like professional development for artists. While the geographical element of this expansion is important, so too is expanding the programs to artists from different disciplines.

What underlying assumptions has your organization identified and what evidence are you identifying that is causing you to question those assumptions?

We examined the underlying assumptions associated with both the technology and programmatic expansion.

On the technology side, we began by thinking about our most basic assumption—that we are providing information that is in some way unique and not easily accessed through other means.

To challenge this assumption, we thought about NYFA Source. Source is a dynamic resource that contains a vast amount of opportunities for artists: grants, contests, residencies, and beyond. Source categorizes these opportunities by a number of searchable fields (location, type of opportunity, etc.), which are then vetted and formatted by NYFA staff for easy and uniform searching within the database.

However, most of these opportunities are public knowledge and available online. While NYFA staff remains actively engaged in searching out these opportunities (and has done so for years), Google and other search engines provide increased efficiency, especially in the hands of an experienced researcher. Our team questioned the underlying assumption of Source’s uniqueness by asking, “Does Google do this as well or better?”

In thinking about professional development programmatic expansion, we recognized our assumption that such programs were necessary for artists to advance their careers.

To challenge that assumption, we thought about one of NYFA’s main educational programs, called “Boot Camp.” Boot Camp is a crash course for artists in strategic planning, finance, marketing, fundraising, and law—in short, it provides the tools that artists need to move their careers to the next professional level. However, we realized that any artist who had improved their career without experience in such a course would prove our assumption wrong – it would prove that artists don’t necessarily need this program in order to advance professionally. As these artists absolutely exist, we are calling this underlying assumption into question.

How has your identification of those assumptions and challenges already impacted your work? What conversations or behavior indicate those changes?

Identifying these assumptions and challenges has been a largely positive experience, as it has caused us to dig deeper into what those challenges mean and how we can adapt our strategies related to each.

On the technology side, we recognized that while a Google search may yield much of the same information as Source, it lacks the specificity and ability to hone in on particular categories of opportunities. For example, a Google search for grants will likely return hundreds of results that are not relevant to artists. Source narrows the field considerably, saving artists time. Information is categorized and makes for more efficient searches in general. We realized that Source is a genuinely unique and useful resource. However, the user experience might not be as appealing (aesthetically or otherwise) as a Google search. As we undergo a thorough overhaul of all of our web-based programs in the next few months, we recognize an opportunity to improve the user experience and introduce more functions that mirror people’s expectations for Internet use, while preserving the valuable resource Source provides to artists. Conversations have already begun between the teams that oversee NYFA’s online resources and those that build technology.

On the programmatic expansion for professional development side, we recognized that while some artists can grow their careers without assistance, there have been others for whom the Boot Camp course was absolutely necessary. By recognizing that the usefulness of our professional development programs essentially exists for a certain percentage of a broad spectrum of artists, it helped to reinforce the initial challenge—that the program might expand nationally, so as to reach more of those artists that need it but do not currently have access. We have begun exploring more options for this, revisiting the possibility of an “e-course” with strategic partners regionally and nationally, to increase its availability.

Peter Cobb is an arts administrator, attorney, and jazz saxophonist. He is the Program Officer for Special Projects at the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), where he works on institutional and individual education programs, and co-edited “The Profitable Artist.” A member of the Pennsylvania Bar, Peter has an extensive background in government and nonprofit worlds. He has taught saxophone at NYU, and has toured internationally as a jazz performer.