In Boston, a nonprofit organization called the Theatre Offensive came to the conclusion that the work they were doing – the work that their mission mandated – was stale. When the company was founded, it was a challenge to find live performances that addressed LGBT issues and contained LGBT characters. TTO strove to make that comment widely available in Boston. Now that theatre addressing sexual orientation and gender identity has become common in Boston proper, TTO’s adherence to its mission - to make queer-themed plays accessible - suddenly feels out of touch with the energy behind its founding.
In an interview with American Theatre Magazine, the executive director explained that TTO had essentially succeeded at its mission. However, its target audiences still had to make it into the city to see, not only LGBT theatre, but all theatre. There was plenty of room there to work with the priorities the organization had at its conception: access, visibility for queer theatre, and support for disenfranchised young people. Ultimately, the result of reevaluating TTO’s mission in this frame was programming that is almost entirely free, programming that occurs in their target audiences’ neighborhoods, and programming that discussed issues of homophobia, sexism, and racism head-on instead of only reflecting it through the lens of art.
In the visual arts world, the Oakland Museum of California also found it was not serving its target audience - in this case its physical neighbors - in a way that engaged them, beyond elementary school field trips. Alongside a renovation, Oakland chose to revise its mission statement and revamp its exhibitions. The museum was founded to provide area residents with access to history and culture. In order to really make it the “People’s Museum” it was intended to be, the executive director had to focus more closely on who those people were and what would engage them in a museum space.
New programming includes relatable phenomena like graffiti, custom bicycles, and street fashion. In addition to visual art and historical elements, a performance space is a central element of the facility. Performers include a resident DJ and a group of local hip-hop dancers. After listening to community feedback, the Oakland Museum landed on the concept of weekly Friday night parties for all community members that include live performance, food and drink, and open galleries. Exhibitions are tailored to participation - visitors can vote about what is or is not art, leave post-its with their solutions to social issues, and make note of their culture of origin. It’s no longer totally free to enter the museum, but it is fostering community and creating safe space that didn’t exist before.
Both organizations were faced with the reality that they were not serving their communities in the manner their founders had intended.
Rather than working for the mission, they made the mission work for their audience. They emphasized their core competencies instead of their most financially lucrative programs and they addressed actual community need instead of decades old organizational values. They were willing to risk major changes to better support their constituencies.
The arts field has a pretty conflicted relationship with mission.
On one hand, all of our work centers on our missions. A specific mission talks about the energizing element of what we do. Drafting a mission is a rare opportunity to be a little aspirational, instead of pragmatic above all else. On the other hand, the mission can conjure visions of bureaucracy. It is an essential tool for governance and it provides very little leeway in response to good intentions or financial realities.
Your mission is important, but it’s also a living document. It does guide your organization and it is binding, but it’s not carved in stone. Rather than passively allowing a mission to dictate audience and programming, we should be actively engaging with the reality of our missions as often as possible.
It can be scary to interact with that text on a regular basis because a close review of mission and programming brings with it the possibility that you’ll find some mission creep.
I’m not discounting the seriousness of mission misalignment, but drilling down a bit into the anxiety surrounding mission creep reveals a fear that permeates all organizational culture: if your mission is noncompliant, something is going to change.
This may conjure visions of cancelled programs and severed revenue streams, but what if, instead of shoehorning your work back into an existing mission, you thought about why your programs were creeping away from your mission to begin with?
Some arts organizations are doing exactly that. What many are discovering is that their instincts are correct. If there was a good kind of mission creep, this would be it – things are out of whack, not because the board and staff are out of touch with the purpose of the organization and needs of the community, but because the mission is.
That may seem a little blasphemous – what’s the purpose of an organization if it isn’t the mission? – but a nonprofit exists to serve the public good. Your mission should reflect that and it should take into account your audience and your capacity for impact. So what does that look like?
Mission compliance does require that your programming match your mission, but it doesn’t specify that programming must be the element to change in the event of a misalignment.
Circumstances are in constant flux and nonprofit arts organizations have learned to be flexible in many regards. Now we just need to remember that the mission statement is among the many moving parts we have to work with.
More about the Theatre Offensive in Boston can be found via American Theatre Magazine.
Much of the content about The Oakland Museum of California originated from a talk given by museum employee Cynthia Taylor at the National Arts Marketing Project Conference, however, more information is available in these two articles:
Interested in joining the conversation? Meet us in Chicago for the Arts Leadership Precon during Annual Convention 2015!