One Year Later: Misnomer Dance Theater

Above, an Audio Postcard about the starting conditions for the project. 

As a small dance company founded in 1998, Misnomer Dance Theater was looking for ways to work smarter, not harder as they grew.

Similar to other small arts nonprofits, marketing, fundraising, ticket sales and audience engagement and retention are all key to Misnomer’s sustainability as an organization. To grow these activities effectively with a small staff, Misnomer has developed a Stakeholder Engagement Initiative through which they have engaged strategy and marketing firm Orcasci Limited. Orcasci is creating a set of marketing guides, templates and checklists designed to help Misnomer adjust workflows and techniques to better engage their stakeholders (fans, donors, board, and staff) in company-building activities. This kit is being developed in such a way that it can be distributed to and used by other artists and arts organizations.

Misnomer Artistic Director and CEO Chris Elam has envisioned the tools that Orcasci develops as being adaptable, applicable and valuable to a wide range of artists and arts organizations. “True success of the project,” Elam told me last year, “would be for this research to contribute to these organizations thriving.”

The Innovation

With the Stakeholder Engagement Initiative Misnomer and Orcasci ask the question: What if small arts nonprofits could take advantage of the latest thinking about human behavior and use that knowledge to make their work more efficient and to more effectively involve company stakeholders in their activities?

Misnomer Dance Theater, with the support from the Rockefeller NYC Cultural Innovation Fund, is working with Orcasci to answer that question by developing  tools that aim to help small arts nonprofits maximize their stakeholder relationships.

Progress to Date

This year Misnomer has worked with Orcasci to develop scripts, documents, and checklists to improve Misnomer’s outreach, communications strategy, audience engagement, fundraising and price setting strategies.

Elam emphasized that similar workflow techniques are employed by sales teams in other industries and that Orcasci is user-testing them on Misnomer before they are distributed to a broader spectrum of arts organizations. They have also developed metrics to track the success of the project that include the number of downloads by external users and revenue raised in areas where these strategies are applied within Misnomer.

Elam noted that, “As a company, Misnomer is undergoing a transformation that the Stakeholder Engagement Initiative has helped us accelerate. We are systematically evaluating what values we are providing and how we are delivering these values. We are looking at how our processes can be more effective so we have the growth that we need.”

Key Lessons

Misnomer found that their workflow process shifted when they implemented the tools developed by Orcasci, such as customizable template emails for outbound messages, scripts for phone calls, and increased tracking of stakeholder interactions. As they moved to a more streamlined approach to daily administrative tasks Misnomer found they needed to:

  • Hone core priorities before implementing new processes: Introducing new procedures, even in a small organization, can be time consuming and the transition process must include time for learning, feedback and follow up to ensure the new methods get adopted consistently. Organizations must ensure the actions they streamline support their top priorities
  • Keep expectations realistic: Be careful to have reasonable expectations as to what new procedures can deliver and what can be fulfilled when working with a small team
  • Make it easy for people to help you: For stakeholders to help, the organizational materials you provide need to look good, be easily sharable, and have a clear call to action. Elam remarked, “It seems obvious, but it’s a rarity in practice for smaller organizations or individual artists to be creating materials that are specific enough to reach and motivate their stakeholders.”

Shifts in Thinking

In developing the Stakeholder Engagement Initiative Misnomer encountered, and worked to address, two major challenges. The project as originally envisioned has not been fully funded and as result they needed to scale back the project activities they had originally planned.

In addition, Elam found that the company’s marketing efforts were being spread too widely in maintaining separate branding around Misnomer’s dance programs, the Stakeholder Engagement Initiative, and, an online booking and engagement platform that Misnomer developed and maintains. He explained, “One of the insights we had during this process was that we have already developed a learning community on the GoSeeDo platform. We decided this could be a launching place for the learning materials we created.” As a result Misnomer has decided to:

  • Consolidate the way resources are offered: They incorporated the preliminary Stakeholder Engagement Kit developed by Orcasci into the learning materials available on because the intended artists for the two resources are similar and it will improve the artists’ experience. They are continuing to maintain the Stakeholder Engagement Kit as a stand-alone resource as well
  • Use virtual learning tools to streamline: To teach other organizations about how to use the Stakeholder Engagement Kit Misnomer has decided to utilize online platforms, such as webinars, that can be easily recorded and shared. This will reduce the budget needed for space rental and travel and will enhance the experience by making the workshops available for a wider audience and easier to share within organizations that use it.

Next Steps

Overall, Misnomer found the first stage of the implementation of the Stakeholder Engagement Initiative has accelerated a cultural shift in their organization. They continue to adopt these organization management techniques to make their company more effective.  In doing so, with Orcasci’s help they are refining a set of learning resources that they hope will enable the field as a whole to benefit. Elam summed up the scope of the project saying, “Inherently innovations have high risk, you expect the unexpected to emerge and make space for that in your planning.”

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. Currently, she is the Program Officer for External Affairs and Fiscal Sponsorship at the New York Foundation for the Arts. Karina Mangu-Ward is the Director of Innovation at EmcArts.