Wednesday, April 22, 2015

When Mission Isn't Enough - Strategy Statements for the Nonprofit Arts

For most arts organizations, mission, vision, values and a strategic plan are the extent of strategic thought. For Ford’s Theatre Society, my most recent pre-Heinz employer, their mission always reigned supreme. Though I always felt this was somewhat vague, Collis and Rukstad’s “Can you Say What Your Strategy Is?” made it clear just why it was inadequate and how a clear strategy statement could greatly benefit Ford’s.

Per the framework proposed in the article, a strategy statement should have three components, Objective, Scope, and Advantage. In each case Ford’s could significantly increase the clarity of its intentions:

  • Objective – How specifically is Ford’s going to celebrate Lincoln’s Legacy through theatre and education?  One measurable timely option might be able to specify a desired number of visitors to reach. This overall goal fits within the broad mission of education and could be further refined into specific five-year targets for theatre, museum, and educational visitation. Alternately, they could articulate this in terms of their competitors – other historic sites in DC and theatres. A specific objective might be to reach the most patrons, or perhaps to achieve an exceptionally high level of satisfaction. The tactical ramifications of each of these objectives would differ, but each would provide clarity to the staff tasked with achieving it.
  • Scope – Ford’s has a couple different audiences: DC metro area residents and tourists. Different programs may in fact serve different groups, for example the audience for historical tours is almost all people from out of town while the theatrical productions attract mostly locals. This is an area that deserves some closer attention, as it may actually be creating strategic misalignment. Education programs which have been developed specifically with D.C. requirements in mind also seek to attract a national audience through “virtual field trips.” Perhaps their limited success is a question of alignment and solvable through clear scope.
  • Advantage – This in particular is the area of greatest need for arts organizations, and the place where we tend to lean most heavily on our missions to ill effect. Taking the theatre programming for example, Ford’s produces only the work of American Playwrights, and at least one show a year is dedicated to a show that exemplifies the core values of Lincoln’s life. However this still only says what type of shows Ford’s produces, not how it ensures that it does so better than any of its competitors. One area of differentiation might be to focus on the quality of talent. Ford’s is the only LORT A houses in D.C, the highest contract level of non-Broadway theatre, mandating high salaries and thus, top-level talent. In a saturated market, exceptional quality could be a clear mode of differentiation.

Of course the above are only suggestions, but if Ford’s (and other arts organizations) were to take the time to develop clearly articulated strategy statements, I believe it could lend a clarity to these institutions that is sorely lacking.

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