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Sustaining Social Impact

According to Community Wealth Partners, a sustainable organization delivers relevant social impact and will continue to do so. Community Wealth Partners recently worked with two organizations, the Washington, DC-based Education Writers Association and Cincinnati’s Fine Arts Fund, as they assessed their missions and strategies to ensure sustainability.

Community Wealth Vanguard talked to leaders from both organizations about how perceived threats to their sustainability—signs that they might become irrelevant if they did not change—helped them to begin the process of reinventing their organizations. Dale Mezzacappa is Board President of the Education Writers Association, which recently reevaluated its position and created a new strategic plan to better serve its mission and ensure its vitality as change roils its industry. Caroline Hendrie became Executive Director of the Education Writers Association in June 2010. And Mary McCullough-Hudson, President and CEO of the Fine Arts Fund (newly christened ArtsWave in September 2010), is in the midst of a carefully considered journey to fundamentally change the organization’s mission over the next five years, increasing its impact by better serving the diverse needs of local communities.

For any organization, threats to sustainability include economic downturns, excessive reliance on foundation support, lack of innovation, rigidity, inadequate capacity, and lack of multiple revenue streams. For Education Writers Association (EWA), founded in 1947 as a professional organization dedicated to dramatically improving the quality and volume of education coverage to create a more informed public, the rapidly shifting landscape of journalism was having profound effects on the organization’s members, and leading to fewer members and lower conference attendance. EWA needed to determine how to continue to add value for and meet the changing needs of its core audience—trained education journalists working for traditional news organizations—while embracing new players who were emerging as critical to its ability to achieve its mission. The board engaged in a planning process to determine how to move the organization forward, creating a strategic plan that involves moving from primarily serving newsroom journalists to facilitating and promoting a broader dialogue on education. It also calls for an overhaul of the organization’s services, including the dramatic migration of much of its service delivery to online platforms. As Dale Mezzacappa put it, “I don’t think we changed the mission. I think we tried to refine the mission. The major change was that we stopped charging membership dues, in hopes that we would expand our reach.” By including diverse voices in the dialogue, EWA should better serve its mission.

Cincinnati’s Fine Arts Fund, founded in 1927, is a united arts campaign that raises money primarily through workplace giving campaigns. Historically, the majority of these funds were distributed to the largest eight downtown arts organizations, though the Fund also provides funding and other support to more than 100 organizations around the region. For the Fine Arts Fund, ensuring long-term sustainability has meant completely reworking the organization’s mission and approach, while maintaining those aspects of the organization’s functions that are already working well. Mary McCullough-Hudson posed vital questions for any organization making a significant change in its approach: “How do you move to something that is much more responsive to funding against the impact we want to have in the community, but still not destabilize the system to the point that you don’t have the bedrock organizations, which we believe have the best capability of having that impact?”

Both organizations have learned a great deal as they have moved toward greater sustainability, and their leaders shared some key lessons learned:

Listen to Diverse Stakeholders

All three leaders stressed the importance of knowing the marketplace and listening to the diverse voices of your stakeholders in order to foster innovation. For the Fine Arts Fund, McCullough-Hudson noted, “There’s been an explosion in the number of community-based arts centers being created in the neighborhoods throughout the region, which is a telling statement about the fact that people want to access the arts, but they want to access it how they define it and in their own community.” Another element that contributed to rethinking the organization’s focus was a year-long research initiative on the ripple effect of the arts. This project gathered extensive information on the value of arts and culture, not just from the usual suspects—people who already supported the Fund’s work—but from hundreds of people from all walks of life in the Cincinnati region and surrounding states. The research resulted in a deeper understanding of prevalent attitudes about the arts, which allowed a reconstruction of the arts message to focus on a vibrant, thriving economy and a more connected population to bridge the distance some communities perceived between the arts and more prosaic concerns.

Do Quality Research

Research is absolutely crucial to defining the impact you want to have. As McCullough-Hudson says, “There is no substitute for good research. . . . superficial research that is done haphazardly or that looks at the wrong thing can set you back.” She described the process as follows: “We did a series of research projects. First, we went to our traditional supporters—the donors to the campaign, which also included talking to a lot people who had opportunities to give to the campaign but chose not to. . . Then we did a deep dive data analysis of the cultural consumer—the people who are actually going to the organizations, who are buying tickets, who are donating, who are joining as members—to understand what those traffic patterns were. Then we did an overlay of our donors to understand who our donors were related to the consumers.” From there, the Fine Arts Fund undertook the year-long study that culminated in The Arts Ripple Effect: A Research-Based Strategy to Build Shared Responsibility for the Arts.

Find Good Partners

One way to increase sustainability is to partner with other organizations that are doing similar work. In some cases this may mean co-sponsoring events and collaborating on projects, but it may also entail organizations working together to divide tasks and avoid duplicating each other’s labors. As Mezzacappa said, “Collaboration and partnership have become the watchwords for almost everything these days . . .you have to adapt and look for ways that you can work with other organizations as well to put forward a common goal.”

Hendrie described one such opportunity as follows, “I’ve reached out to the Hechinger Institute, which in some ways has been traditionally seen as somewhat of a competitor to EWA. But more and more, I think both of us, the leader of the Hechinger Institute and myself, see our work as complementary, so we are looking to partner on more things. We’ve done some partnership in the past and that’s been great and we want to build on that and do more. So we’re actively getting involved in a particular project together that I think will be a win-win for both of us.”

Forge Ahead and Make Mistakes

Often organizations become stuck in old patterns because they are paralyzed by a fear of making mistakes. But trial and error is necessary on the path to improvement, even if it sometimes feels like wasted effort, lost time, or a drain on the budget. As McCullough-Hudson stated, “We also need to understand that we’ve got to try some things and not everything is going to work. We’ve got to have the flexibility to say, okay, that’s not leading us to where we thought it would, let’s try something else.”

Be Open to Reinventing Yourself

For the Fine Arts Fund, revamping its mission led to a relaunch of the 83-year-old organization and a brand new name—ArtsWave. McCullough-Hudson commented on that shift, “We realized that . . . we were associated, too frequently, with big money and big downtown arts institutions that not everyone related to well. . . . So the ArtsWave name—and it was a name that we tested extensively, along with others—really expresses our new mission. The idea of being a leader and a catalyst, a name that would capture the ripple effect of benefits that the arts create throughout the region. . . . The idea of a wave, it’s a movement throughout the region.”

For the Education Writers Association, a new focus meant the organization’s leaders chose to stop charging members dues in order to serve the greatest number of stakeholders. EWA’s board and staff also realized that they had to greatly broaden its audience. As Hendrie put it, in addition to journalists, they hope to reach “people working in think tanks, working in government organizations, including the legislative body—there are a lot of education specialists on Capitol Hill, for example, and we are right here in Washington. The same goes for all the state capitals. There are a lot of people who are working on education policy and practice at the state level, including education reform organizations—they exist all across the country. They should be brought into the conversation and they should be part of our larger community.”

Retain What Works

In the midst of the quest to do something new, leaders also must recognize and retain what works about their organizations. As McCullough-Hudson explained, “It’s not about abandoning our past, it’s about expanding and building on it.” When the Education Writers Association surveyed its members, 75 percent of education reporters were adamant that their beloved—and very active—LIST-SERVs not be changed. So as EWA seeks to create a new, greatly expanded online presence with more interactive features, it must figure out how to blend the successful use of old technology with the wide-ranging possibilities of new technologies, such as online forums, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook.

Accept That Change Takes Time

Even though EWA and ArtsWave are implementing changes, both organizations also are continuing to serve their traditional constituents and carry out ongoing projects. Moving too quickly into change can be just as damaging as refusing to budge from old ways of doing business. As Hendrie noted, “Key elements are reinventing the role of the executive director, which is very much a work in progress, because the organization evolved over time for the executive director to do one set of jobs and tasks and responsibilities. I’d like to transition that, but that requires a complete restructuring of the staff and that does not happen overnight. . . when you have an up and running organization.”

As Mary McCullough-Hudson noted, “because of all the multiple research projects we had going on, the strain on our arts and cultural organizations related to the number of requests for information and attendance at meetings created some friction and unintended consequences. So we recognized midstream that we had to do a much better job of coordinating and communicating and planning ahead. The pace of change is slower and you need to sequence some work, because you get into overload of both the expectations of the organizations that you’re working with and the volunteers and the staff.”

Guest Post By Paula J. Kelly

Read additional excerpts from the interview with Dale Mezzacappa.

Read additional excerpts from the interview with Caroline Hendrie.

Read additional excerpts from the interview with Mary McCullough-Hudson.

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About Community Wealth Partners

At Community Wealth Partners we dream of a world in which all people thrive. To realize this dream, we help change agents solve social problems at the magnitude they exist. As a Share Our Strength organization, we bring the successful practices of one of the nation’s leading anti-hunger, anti-poverty organizations to hundreds of change agents nationwide.

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