One of the challenges at Tuesday evening’s Creative Conversations event was hearing what the four panelists had to say while listening to competing beer-fueled creative conversations about Ludacris and Bob Seger coming from another section of Ypsilanti’s Corner Brewery.
The panelists were undaunted, however, as they discussed their own challenges and strategies as nonprofit leaders in the arts and human services, giving tips on everything from how to survive in a tough economy to the best place to wear your nametag (the right side – more on that later).
Organized by the Arts Alliance, the evening had several goals, said Tamara Real, the alliance’s executive director. First, it’s part of an effort to mark October as National Arts and Humanities Month by holding similar events nationwide, with a focus on emerging leaders. Locally, several veteran arts administrators are stepping down from their leadership roles, making this a transitional time for the area. “Personally, I’m really nervous about it,” Real said, because collaborative relationships built over decades, in some cases, are disappearing.
Secondly, Real wanted to chip away at the divide between the arts and human services groups. Both groups face similar challenges of scarce resources, small staffs and ambitious missions, but often the sectors operate in silos and don’t join forces. What’s worse, funding agencies tend to see arts and human services as an either/or funding proposition, especially when money is tight. Real calls that a false dichotomy: “I think we can do them both.”
The panelists represented both nonprofit sectors. They included two veterans – Chuck Kieffer of the Washtenaw Housing Alliance and Ken Fischer of the University Musical Society – and two executive directors in the early stages of their careers: Jenn Spitler of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Washtenaw County, and Aubrey Martinson of the Chelsea Center for the Arts. Dorrie Milan, a graduate student in arts administration at Eastern Michigan University, moderated the discussion.
Despite their different missions and staff sizes, the four had much in common. Martinson and Spitler talked about the challenge of wearing multiple hats, and learning as they go – something that Kieffer and Fischer said they’d experienced earlier in their careers. All spoke of the importance of networking, of finding ways to partner with other groups, of communicating their mission clearly to potential donors, volunteers and the community.
The most concrete suggestions emerged when panelists were asked about their networking strategies. “I love going to breakfast at Zola,” said Spitler, referring to Cafe Zola, a popular meeting place for business, academic and government types. Fischer described doing the Fleming Walk – literally walking through UM’s Fleming Administration Building to get to know the assistants and secretaries of the university’s executive officers. “It’s all about relationships,” he said. Fischer also pointed out that at networking events, he always wears his nametag on the right side, so people can easily see it when they shake hands. (You can see from the above photo that he didn’t break this tradition on Tuesday.)
The current economic crisis has caused all of these nonprofit leaders to look for new ways to stretch their resources. Martinson said her group is developing partnerships with other organizations – reaching out to local galleries, for example, and looking for ways to work with the Ann Arbor Art Center, which used to be viewed as competition.
As the formal part of the event came to an end, Real urged the audience to stick around and grab another beer. (The Chronicle regrets not asking the three panelists – Martinson wasn’t imbibing – what beers they were drinking. Based on the coloration of the liquid in their mugs, we’d guess Espresso Love Breakfast Stout, Red Snapper and Hoptoberfest.) Real also pushed the opportunity to network with the panelists. “If I were you,” she said, “I’d be like a fly on you-know-what with these folks.” No doubt the beer would help with that.