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Author Archives: Sarah

Our founding director announced her intention to retire at the end of next year, and total panic ensued. Our board meetings were filled with comments like, “She is the face of this organization… it is nothing without her. When she leaves, she will take our donors and supporters with her. What do we do???”

There is perhaps no truer test of an organization’s relevance and value to the community than the departure of a founder or longtime leader. If the organization is a particular individual’s brainchild, chances are it has been publicized as such: at the mention of its name, people say, “oh, that’s Jane Doe’s organization, right?”

The term “Founder’s Syndrome” is often associated with overly puffed-up nonprofit directors who derive a disproportionate sense of self-importance from their work. However, there is another kind of Founder’s Syndrome that can be potentially as dangerous if left unaddressed: the fear that a nonprofit’s constituents experience when a beloved leader departs.

Susan Lape, Executive Director of the Lake Forest Symphony

Susan Lape, Executive Director of the Lake Forest Symphony, was named 2014’s Executive Director of the Year by the Illinois Council of Orchestras.

This topic came up in a session on artistic director searches at this weekend’s Illinois Council of Orchestras conference. The presenter, Susan Lape, talked about her experience as Executive Director of the Lake Forest Symphony when the organization’s longtime Artistic Director announced his intention to retire. She spoke of the anxieties that board members, donors and audiences expressed when they learned the news – and of her organization’s smart, empathic response to these fears. Her overall message was to be as transparent as possible with constituents about the process of engaging new leadership and honoring outgoing trailblazers.

Attending on behalf of a young client organization whose founder will hopefully be around for many years, I asked what nonprofits can do to avoid this type of mass-Founder’s Syndrome when the time comes. The most salient point that Ms. Lape made was this: if you want to avoid panic when the “face of your organization” leaves, make sure that your organization has more than one face. 

Nonprofits have a lot to gain by making sure that multiple staff members and leaders get face time with funders, clients and/or audiences, and the broader public. This ensures that constituents always have someone else to turn to when a key founder, director or president leaves. Relationships are not lost when one leader bows out; rather, they are shared, transferred, and nurtured through the transition. Board presidents, executive, development and program directors should all make every effort to meet constituents, introduce one another to their contacts, and build rapport with key supporters.

At Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings, our organization had many faces.

At Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings, our organization had many faces.

Savvy, memorable leaders understand that, in order for their legacies to continue, succession planning is non-negotiable. For that reason, they make a concerted effort to share their relationships and bring new organizational leaders into the “circle of trust.”

My first boss in the arts, Maury Okun of Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings, really did this well. I was a 22-year-old, entry-level staff member, but he was already personally introducing me to donors, taking me along on meetings with funders, and providing opportunities for me to speak publicly at events. He took the same approach with my colleagues,  and I think the practice saved him time in the long run. Instead of always turning to him, our audience members and donors knew they could contact any one of us for assistance and information.  We also learned very quickly about different aspects of the business, so that he could confidently delegate important tasks.

If you are a founder or director of a nonprofit, start thinking about your eventual transition as early as you can. Introduce your colleagues to your contacts. Allow them to speak publicly in your place. Be generous with your relationships, rather than defensive or guarding. By doing so, you will instill confidence in your supporters, and show the community that your organization has staying power because of its mission rather than individual personalities.

The Lake Forest Symphony chronicled its search for an artistic director in a documentary series, The Search, produced by Chicago’s WFMT 98.7 classical radio. This story of how a whole community came together to choose a new conductor is truly inspiring and worth a listen, even if you are a nonprofit manager outside of the arts. 


Building a better website is often treated as a long-term goal. Nonprofit board and staff members recognize the importance of a strategic web presence, but the cost of hiring professional developers and designers is prohibitive. Pining after the elusive “optimized” website, we resign ourselves to making do with what we have until a later date, when we have money in the budget to afford a comprehensive redesign.

Web design expert Tim Frick of Mightybytes.

Tim Frick of Mightybytes speaks at the Chicago Arts & Business Council’s Online Fundraising workshop.

The truth is, waiting to improve our websites is costing us money. Every user who visits and leaves feeling frustrated or bored represents a missed opportunity to receive a donation, collect an email address, sell a ticket or register a participant.

The Chicago Arts & Business Council recently hosted a workshop called Online Fundraising: Crafting the Donor Experience. Tim Frick, the featured guest speaker, is Principal of Mightybytes, a creative firm specializing in strategic web design. During the Q & A session at the end of his presentation, I asked him:

“What are the most common mistakes you see on client websites, before you make them over?”

His responses translated into a list of “don’ts” that all of us can use to easily improve our websites in a single afternoon. (As of the time of this post, I myself am guilty of many of these website faux-pas – I have some work to do!)

1.) Don’t overcrowd your homepage. 

We love to expound on the virtues of our organizations – and that’s great! But the homepage is not the place to do it. According to Frick, users appreciate the ability to choose the content they see. Nonprofits should consider the different categories of users they want to reach — clients, donors, volunteers, etc. — and then make it easy for those users to locate the information that is pertinent to them (and only the information that is pertinent to them).

The need to scroll down on the homepage should be limited or nonexistent. The more you have to scroll to get to the bottom of your homepage, the more likely it is overcrowded.

For example, some nonprofits make the mistake of including historical information or extensive organization descriptions on the homepage. If many of your visitors are repeat users, chances are they are not looking for background information. For them, text about organizational history may constitute an inconvenience to work around on the way to taking an important action (like donating or signing up for an event).

Instead of including background info on your homepage, make a separate “About” or “History” page. Before doing so, make sure you are clear on the purpose this page will serve.

As a general rule, less text is better with websites. Keep it simple, and save the lengthier content for newsletters and blogs.

2.) Photos are important, but don’t use a header with scrolling images.

According to Frick, scrolling headers on your homepage make it harder to load, and don’t add significant value for your users. User experience research suggests that users are not likely to click through the images on the header, or watch them as they cycle through.

In most cases, photos are a non-negotiable part of a successful website, and Frick encouraged the use of compelling, “share-worthy” visual content. However, a scrolling header is not the optimal way to display your images.

Frick and his colleagues address this topic in a Mightybytes blog post, 5 Alternatives to Using a Carousel on Your Website HomepageThe article includes a number of alternative suggestions, and cites research on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of “web carousels”. (The Mightybytes blog offers lots of concise pearls of wisdom for improving website functionality.)

Tim Frick's latest book.

Tim Frick’s book is available on

3.) Don’t work in a vacuum — ask for help

Many of us in the nonprofit sector have never conducted user experience research, even informally. Frick emphasized that it doesn’t take an expert to learn from users – even a few casual conversations with your constituents can reveal invaluable information about the quality your website. Ask them how they use your website, what they look for when they visit, and what they like and dislike. If possible, ask them to show you how they typically navigate the site. Conduct an informal focus group with a sampling of users, or use an online survey tool like Survey Monkey to gather feedback quickly from a larger pool of users. Many online survey tools offer basic, no-cost services for nonprofits.

Rome wasn’t built in a day; neither is the perfect website. 

Web design is both a science and an art, which makes experts rare: they must cultivate an aesthetic and creative approach that is informed by hard data (hence the high price tag!). Luckily, there are those who understand the plight of the nonprofit, and who have offered tidbits of wisdom to help us raise more money, while spending only our time. Making small adjustments based on advice from the pros can help us move ever closer to that ideal website, while we look forward to the day when we can afford a professional overhaul.


Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization, welcomes attendees to the inaugural SphinxCon.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural SphinxCon, a national conference focused on issues of diversity in the arts.

Founded by Aaron Dworkin’s Sphinx Organization and over a dozen national partners, the event featured speakers from across the country and beyond, each with a parcel of wisdom to offer. From successful artists and administrators to a Google exec, each was selected for his or her diversity-building prowess.

Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization, welcomes attendees to the inaugural SphinxCon.

Aaron Dworkin, founder of the Sphinx Organization, welcomes attendees to the inaugural SphinxCon.

In my career as a grant writer, I have often found myself in the position of having to defend a nonprofit’s approach toward diversity (or lack thereof). Most foundations ask for demographic information in their application guidelines; some explicitly ask the applicant to detail a comprehensive strategy for improving diversity. For some of the organizations I’ve worked with, reaching diverse audiences is a true priority; for others, it is an afterthought that comes up a couple times a year, when applications are due.

In the context of the latter, the idea of diversity is completely dehumanized, reduced to numbers on a page. “Can we count John Doe as Asian? He has a Chinese grandmother, doesn’t he?” “We really need to find a black person to serve on our board. Asians are better than nothing, but the foundations really want to see African Americans.” Perhaps more than anything else, SphinxCon helped to put the humanity back into the dialogue around diversity in the arts — a dialogue that, paradoxically, often involves a group of white people talking about funding.

Truth about diversity in the fine arts

Paul Freeman recently retired from his post with the Chicago Sinfonietta after 24 years. "According to a survey by the Juilliard School," said Freeman, "We are the only orchestra in the U.S. to have diversity in its mission statement."

Paul Freeman recently retired from his post with the Chicago Sinfonietta after 24 years. “According to a survey by the Juilliard School,” said Freeman, “We are the only orchestra in the U.S. to have diversity in its mission statement.”

The most compelling parts of SphinxCon were the true stories of people who have cultivated intentionally inclusive artistic practices. Jim Hirsch of the Chicago Sinfonietta related the story of its founding artistic director, Paul Freeman, who was the first black conductor to appear at over 50 of the world’s great orchestra halls. Drawing on his experiences, Maestro Freeman established the Sinfonietta with a mission to remove participation barriers that limit artists of color. The Sinfonietta is now known as one of the most diverse ensembles in the world. Aaron Dworkin carries on his legacy with the Sphinx Organization, which provides rigorous training programs and performance opportunities to young black and Latino classical musicians.

In his opening address, Aaron Dworkin highlighted some staggering statistics about minorities in the field of orchestral music. One that really floored me was this:

Among works by North American composers performed each year, the percentage written by composers of color is statistically insignificant.

In calculating the percentage, North American Composers were specified, because of the dominance of European composers in classical music. Yet, even when limiting the pool this way, minority composers are so inadequately represented that the number of times their works are played each year may as well be “0” in the eyes of a statistician.

After they refused to let Marian Anderson perform at Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution and invited Marian to perform at the Lincoln Memorial.

After they refused to let Marian Anderson perform at Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution and invited Marian to perform at the Lincoln Memorial.

Over the course of the weekend, I heard many inspiring stories of minority dancers, singers, conductors and musicians who historically defied such odds and made names for themselves as successful fine artists. It feels good to hear stories like this, and to think about how far we’ve come since celebrated African American contralto Marian Anderson was denied permission to sing at Constitution Hall, or Janet Collins brokenheartedly refused a position with the Ballet Russe after being told she’d have to dance in white face.

But statistics like the one above remind us that we have a long way to go. African Americans still make up less than 3% of orchestral musicians in America; those who do enjoy successful careers are mistaken repeatedly for singers, as described by African American musicians Anthony McGill (clarinet, Metropolitan Opera) and Kelly Hall-Thompkins (violin, Mark O’Connor String Quartet) in an  interview with  WQXR New York’s Terrence McKnight.  Ballerina Misty Copeland has recently risen to fame, not solely for her tremendous talent, but because she is the first African American soloist for the prestigious American Ballet Theatre in twenty years.

When the people on the stage mirror the people on the streets, audiences will come

The United States is changing, and demographers estimate that by mid-century, non-whites will make up the majority of our country’s population. Some researchers and scholars estimate that the change in demographic makeup will happen much sooner; recent census data shows that the majority of babies born today are children of color.

African Americans are not the only group underrepresented in the fine arts — Latinos, Native Americans, Arabs, South Asians, East Asians and many others are often left out of the picture. During SphinxCon, Maria López De León of the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture made a plea to those in the room: “When you see us as a community, you will embrace us. What is the fear?”

In ten or twenty years, the predominantly white organizations that are currently viewed as the quintessential authorities on their art forms may be making a similar plea. As more than one speaker emphasized this weekend, successful organizations are those that look, feel and sound like the communities they serve. Concert halls, opera houses and art galleries are particularly intimidating places when one doesn’t fit the mold. With lower ticket prices, more laid back dress codes and attempts to integrate social media into performances, that mold is slowly changing. But it does not seem to be keeping pace with America’s rapidly changing demographics, and as a result, some of those “quintessential” organizations are floundering.

Denyce Graves sings the role of Margaret Garner during the opera's premiere tour.

Denyce Graves sings the role of Margaret Garner during the opera’s premiere tour.

Others, however, have the right idea. Rather than cling to the eerily eugenic idea of preserving the “purity” of classical art forms, they create programs and works that authentically involve artists of color, and speak to the heritages of our country’s growing non-white populations. A model example highlighted at SphinxCon was the commissioning partnership between the opera companies of Detroit, Cincinnati and Philadelphia that resulted in Margaret Garner, an opera based on the heartbreaking story of a fugitive slave in pre-Civil War America. With a libretto by Toni Morrison and a racially diverse creative team, Margaret Garner set records for opera attendance in Cincinnati, sold out in Philadelphia, and played to unusually large and diverse crowds in Detroit.

Similarly, Rackham Symphony Choir presents an annual production called Too Hot to Handel: The Jazz-Gospel Messiah each year at the Detroit Opera House. This energetic and uplifting piece is a modern-day take on Handel’s baroque-era masterpiece, The Messiah. Blurring the lines between jazz, gospel, pop and classical music, it has returned due to popular demand since its premiere in 2001. With world-renowned African American soloists, a Filipina-American conductor, and an orchestra comprised of classical musicians and Detroit’s finest jazz talent, Too Hot To Handel is one of the most authentic artistic representations of a community that I have seen. Everyone can find something to love, and each year diverse audience members sing, dance and cheer together. In a city that still reels from its history of racial mistrust, violence and segregation, the joyful spirit of the event contributes to the process of racial healing in its own small, but significant, way.

The elusive “how” of building diversity

Rackham Symphony Choir unites the best of Detroit's jazz, gospel, and classical music scenes in its yearly production of "Too Hot to Handel - The Jazz Gospel Messiah."

Rackham Choir unites Detroit’s jazz, gospel, and classical music scenes in its yearly production of “Too Hot to Handel – The Jazz Gospel Messiah.”

As stated by almost every speaker at SphinxCon, there is no easy or obvious path to improving diversity in the arts. All we can do is stay humble and openminded, and learn from our successes and mistakes. But how can we learn from them if we don’t share them?

This was one of the questions that gave rise to SphinxCon, and the conversation sparked by the event represents an unprecedented learning opportunity for all of us.

Presenters spoke to the importance of multicultural programming, collaborations, and leadership. Some organizations have been successful at achieving the first two, but not the third. Periodically highlighting the work of an artist of color does not automatically transform an organization’s demographic makeup. Experience suggests that minority artists and leaders are precursors to audience diversity; yet there is no definitive strategy for improving minority representation in the upper echelons of arts organizations.

Aaron Dworkin raised the thought-provoking idea of formalizing diversity policies, both within single organizations and across the sector. In support of this idea, he spoke of the National Football League’s Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior management jobs. Established in 2003, the Rooney Rule requires nothing more than an interview with one minority candidate for each pertinent position. Violators of the rule are subject to hefty fines.

Since the Rooney Rule was put in place, the percentage of high-level positions held by people of color in the NFL has jumped from a mere 6% up to 22%, in a matter of less than ten years. In contrast, noted Dworkin, the number of minority orchestra administrators increased by less than one percent, constituting less than 2% of those in the field today.

Could a policy like the Rooney Rule be effective in the arts?

It wouldn’t be as easy to track, in the absence of a governing authority to oversee compliance. Nevertheless, the possibilities are intriguing. What if arts organizations publicly pledged to try such a policy for a period of time, even just on the honor system? Board members could take responsibility for compliance, and organizations could use a buddy system to monitor progress and support each other in developing more inclusive hiring practices. There would, of course, be the inevitable kinks; but if the results were even a quarter as impressive as the NFL’s, the sector would be a much more inclusive one.

We could call such a policy the “Dworkin Rule.” Given Aaron Dworkin’s beloved status, I don’t think anyone who was in the room this past weekend would dare violate it! To me, this was one of the most unique, out-of-the-box ideas raised at SphinxCon. It is no wonder that it came out of the conference’s innovative namesake organization.

The inaugural SphinxCon came to a close on Sunday. Looking forward to next year's conference!

The inaugural SphinxCon came to a close on Sunday. Looking forward to next year!

Thank you, Sphinx!

This weekend in Detroit, I heard dozens of ideas and opinions. Snippets of speeches and video clips continue to whirl around in my head. As I slowly process them, deciding which ones to carry with me and which to leave behind, I am glad that I heard them all. As Monica O’Connell of the Center for Black Music Research said in her presentation: “A conference of this type and scope is long overdue.”

During his closing statements, Aaron Dworkin had us each send ourselves an email or text message, containing only the word “ACT.” This was to remind to us, after we travelled home and settled back into our routines, of everything we learned at SphinxCon. He urged us to ask ourselves, again and again: “Am I being silent about something that matters?”

I think these are words worth revisiting — ideally, every day.

The times, they are a-changin’

My nephew, Tyler, loves nothing more than a cell phone. Mine is still pretty antiquated, but if I had a smartphone I'd earn even more points with him.

My nephew, Tyler, loves nothing more than a cell phone. Mine is still pretty antiquated, but if I had a smartphone I’d earn even more points with him.

This weekend, I spent some time with a friend and her three-year-old child. I don’t have children myself, and it has been a decade since my student years, when I babysat for extra income. It doesn’t seem like that much time has passed, yet I am struck by how different kids are now from kids ten years ago.

Kids that I meet today are tech-savvy. The ease with which my friend’s three-year-old operated her brand-new Kindle Fire — which she specifically requested for her birthday — is uncanny to me. My two and a half year old niece delights in colorful iPad apps, made just for kids, and my 18-month-old nephew covets nothing more than a cell phone. Not an old, broken one, mind you — he wants your smartphone. And, if you give it to him, the smile you’ll get in return makes the risk of damage to your expensive device seem worthwhile.

Just like the rest of us, children are drawn to the instant gratification that electronic devices offer. Why sit for hours playing with blocks or a puzzle when an iPad offers action, color, music and surprises at the touch of a finger? In a house full of games and toys, my friend’s three year old lamented the temporary lack of a wireless internet connection. “I need wireless!” she pouted, pathetically waving the inoperable Kindle in its colorful case.

Similarly, we’re addicted to social media because it affords us an instant connection to friends and family, and even people we don’t really like that much. I am part of the generation that straddles the pre- and post-social media worlds — I was a freshman in college when Facebook first came out, part of the first group of young people to be targeted by social media platforms. The children mentioned above, however, will never know a world without social media. At 1, 2 and 3 years old they don’t really have “friends” yet, per se – but you can bet that as soon as they do, their wireless devices will be networked together into a virtual playground, complete with games and gossip, practical jokes and even bullying.

The 2TweetOrNot2Tweet Debate

Nonprofit organizations around the world are looking for ways to connect with younger generations. In every discussion about how to engage youth, social media is the buzzword. How many of the teenagers that you’ve seen in the last week have not been looking at iPhones or tablets? Most nonprofit organizations recognize that to ignore social media outlets is to resign oneself to eventual irrelevance.

But what role should social media should play? Is it a tool for communicating news and updates to our supporters, or should it actually be an integral part of the work we do?

The National Endowment for the Arts recently started a lively Twitter debate about the use of social media during performances. “2TweetOrNot2Tweet” poses the question of whether live tweeting during performances is appropriate: is it the next big thing in audience engagement, or does it merely detract from our attention to the artists and their work?

The kids I know are constantly tweeting, updating their statuses on Facebook, sharing photos online and texting each other. They do it at school, at home, on the train, and out to dinner with their families at restaurants. Why should we expect them to change their behavior when they enter a theater or museum?

I’m not being sarcastic — like the NEA, I think that this is a question that organizations must wrestle with now, in the decades before audiences are made up exclusively of people born after the advent of social media. Most older people – my 28-year-old self included – believe that there are times and places where electronic devices are not appropriate. Most people I know think that texting or using a phone during a concert or performance is rude, but I don’t think that attitude will last forever.

View from the Tweet Seats: Photo by Jeff Swinger/The Cincinnati Enquirer

View from the Tweet Seats: Photo by Jeff Swinger/The Cincinnati Enquirer

There was a time when clapping between the movements of a piece of classical music was considered gauche. Actually, many older concertgoers and classically trained musicians still consider it rude, or at least a sign of cultural ignorance. But the question of “2ClapOrNot2Clap” is one that actually intimidates classical music newcomers – and one admonishing “shushing” from a habitual audience member is enough to turn someone away from the concert hall forever.

Richard Dare of the Brooklyn Philharmonic explored the “rules” of classical music as a possible explanation for its struggle to reach a broader audience. He described one of his first classical concerts:

“…had I at least been allowed to authentically enjoy the performance going on inside that hall as I might spontaneously appreciate any other cultural pursuit like a movie or a dance or a hip-hop concert — if I could clap when clapping felt needed, laugh when it was funny, shout when I couldn’t contain the joy building up inside myself. What would that have been like?”

I’d like to go so far as to suggest that tweeting could, theoretically, be considered an expression of “authentic enjoyment,” like laughing, clapping and shouting: a quick burst of emotion that communicates to others how we feel about a performance. But instead of being heard by just those in our immediate vicinity, it echoes in the virtual ears of a limitless community.

"Tweet Seats" are a new trend in some performance venues. People in the seats are allowed - and sometimes even asked - to live tweet during the performance.

“Tweet Seats” are a new trend in some performance venues. People in the seats are allowed – and sometimes even asked – to live tweet during the performance.

Does tweeting during performances prevent viewers from being completely attentive? Probably. In a blog post about using “tweet seats” at a performance — designated rows in the balcony where audience members are encouraged to live tweet — Leigh Chandler of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts reported that “most said it was a challenge to tweet and watch the performance at the same time.” But in regards to whether the use of “tweet seats” attracted a younger audience, Chandler noted that “some were one the younger side.”

I think that most people who grew up in the pre-social media era use it differently than kids who are growing up with it. For the people on the “younger side” who used Twitter during the Flynn Center performance, the experience was an exercise in trying to reconcile new technology with an old set of rules for performance etiquette. For many kids, tweeting about anything and everything that is interesting to them is second nature. They don’t conceptualize it as something that prevents them from authentically participating in the world.

The use of “tweet seats” is a good way to test the waters of allowing audience members to use mobile devices during performances. But bridging the gap between people that think public use of devices is rude and those that view it as second nature is going to be tricky. We know that harping on performance etiquette can limit the accessibility of classical art forms, as illustrated by Richard Dare’s article and many others. We need to keep this in mind as we wrestle with the 2TweetOrNot2Tweet question.

I have heard a lot of opinions on the issue from arts administrators and patrons; now, I’d like to hear more from the performers. If you’ve ever talked to somebody who started texting mid-conversation, you know it doesn’t feel great. When it happens to me, I almost always lose my train of thought. I imagine an artist who has been diligently practicing a piece of music or a role in a play for weeks, with intense focus and concentration. How must it feel for them to look out onto an audience glowing with the light of their smartphones? Does it cause them to lose their concentration, too?

We need to listen to performers’ voices in this dialogue, both now and further down the line, when many of them are also people born during the social media era. Perhaps those artists will be better equipped to make the argument against social media in performance venues, since they won’t be so quickly dismissed as old-fashioned for opposing it.

For now, lets take our cues from the artists. They are the ones under pressure to perform. I’m sure that many of them will love ideas like tweet seats. But for those that don’t, arts administrators should continue making the old “please turn off your mobile devices” announcements; that is, with the full knowledge that at least one person’s phone will ring before the night is over.

Many of us find it annoying when people use their phones during performances. But will kids today have the same attitude when they grow up?

Many of us find it annoying when people use their phones during performances. But will kids today have the same attitude when they grow up?

Resisting the urge to be a curmudgeon

This debate is troubling to many of us who know what it was like to watch TV before the advent of Facebook and Reddit and other addictive distractions. TV used to be the thing our parents worried about, when we watched it while doing our homework or instead of going outside to play. Now, I find it hard to just sit and watch TV without looking at my computer. I am distracted even from distractions, which I find pretty worrisome – and yet I do it anyways, when my willpower fails me.

If social media can distract someone from watching TV, just imagine how much it distracts us from things that require higher levels of concentration, like a live performance!

I tutor a 15-year-old girl who started high school this year. At her parent-teacher conferences, her math teacher told me that cell phones were the single biggest threat to education today. This, coming from a teacher at an inner-city Chicago public school. Pretty scary. It sort of makes me wish Facebook had never been invented.

But cell phones are here to stay. So is texting, and so is social media. And those of us who remember simpler times are going to have to adapt, just like our parents and grandparents had to adapt to things like Elvis Presley, and television, and hip hop music and video games.

I think that the NEA is smart to get this conversation started. We can begin to slowly wrap our heads around the idea of a world where tweeting during performances might be in some way acceptable. If we want the classical arts to survive among a generation accustomed to constant self-expression, we may have to lessen the focus on etiquette and increase opportunities for active participation. Even if we do so begrudgingly at first.






Posting cute pictures of our foster dogs to Facebook is a great way to spread awareness about the rescue.

Posting cute pictures of our foster dogs to Facebook is a great way to spread awareness about the rescue.

The other day, I was talking with a young friend who I tutor after school. In a moment of honesty, she confessed to me that she often fails to complete her homework because she can’t pull herself away from Facebook, You Tube and other all-too-available online distractions.

It was hard for me to offer advice, because I too spend too much time online – just like almost everyone I know! I periodically entertain a lengthy internal monologue about the value of social media websites, and the time I spend using them. Usually, I am left feeling guilty and lazy, and resolve to limit my time online to checking emails and doing research for work. And maybe one visit to Facebook a day…

Thankfully, not all uses of social media are purely self-indulgent, and not all time spent browsing around online is wasted! If your New Year’s Resolution is to be more purposeful with your time online, please read further.

The following is a list of easy things everyone can do to help the nonprofits they care about – all without leaving the comfort of your computer!

1.)  “Like” your favorite nonprofit’s Facebook page

The more people an organization reaches regularly, the more attractive it is to funders. Facebook provides a quick snapshot of an organization’s reach, and its numbers are relatively trustworthy, in that they are not easily feigned or exaggerated.  Many applications for grants and sponsorships even require applicants to list how many Facebook friends they have.

A nonprofit boasting 2,500 Facebook followers is better positioned to receive funding than a similar nonprofit with only 300. When strong applicants are up against one another, number of Facebook followers can be a deciding factor in which one gets the grant.

A word of caution: Be judicious when “liking” the pages of nonprofits and charities. With lots of Facebook friends involved in lots of causes, we get dozens of requests to “like” pages. Keep in mind that Facebook followers sometimes do play a role in determining who gets grants. If you don’t believe in the mission, you can quietly decline to “like” a page. Learn more about how nonprofits use Facebook.

2.)  Explore your nonprofit’s website

Just like Facebook friends, web traffic is another metric that foundations and corporations use to gauge organizational reach. Google Analytics makes information about web traffic readily available, and most nonprofits track this information for use in grants and sponsorship proposals.

Visiting a nonprofit's website is one way of showing your support.

Visiting a nonprofit’s website is one way of showing your support.

Corporate funders are especially interested in how many unique visitors are perusing the sites of their beneficiaries. In exchange for financial support, nonprofits provide sponsors with exposure and publicity. This usually includes acknowledgement on the organization’s website, with links to the sponsoring company’s site.

If you think an organization’s mission is particularly compelling, take a moment to browse its site. Click through the different pages, and read up on the latest news. You will learn more about the organization, and boost its numbers for unique visitors and pages visits.

And, if you really want to help the organization maintain good standing with corporate sponsors, click through to the sponsoring company’s website! The company will see that the nonprofit is driving users to its site, and appreciate the marketing value of the sponsorship.

3.) Join the e-mail list 

Mailing lists are another important way to offer marketing value to sponsors, and most sponsorship agreements involve recognition in email blasts and e-newsletters.

For instance, if Bank ABC provides support for a concert, all related emails are likely to include the language “Presented by Bank ABC”  or “Made possible by Bank ABC”, with a link to the company’s website.

Potential sponsors want to know how far this recognition will go, and almost always ask for the number of subscribers on a nonprofit’s mailing list. The more subscribers a nonprofit has, the more attractive its proposal is to potential funders.

Of course, I wouldn’t advise anyone to sign up for any and every nonprofit newsletter, which is one quick way to clutter up your inbox. But if there’s an organization that you really like, whose emails you don’t yet receive, you may want to consider joining the mailing list. It’s a quick and easy way to lend a hand.

4.) Take it a step further: join the conversation!

The Field Museum posts lots of cool facts about natural history and conservation on Facebook. Not to mention the great photos of exotic species!

Chicago’s Field Museum posts lots of cool facts about natural history and conservation on Facebook. Not to mention the great photos of exotic species!

Having lots of friends and followers doesn’t mean much if users aren’t engaged.

Many nonprofits have staff members dedicated solely to social media, whose job it is to get conversations started with the public. Take a few moments to respond to their posts, answer questions, or comment on a new photo. Use these public forums to express your support for the organization. Re-tweet and share information from your nonprofit, and ask friends to follow or subscribe. Tag your nonprofit in your status updates, and let friends know when you are attending an event, performance, volunteer opportunity or fundraiser.

When a nonprofit asks for feedback – whether its via an email survey, a Facebook post or an online forum – take a moment to respond. Your input matters! Nonprofit administrators are listening, and funders appreciate the evidence of community involvement.

The value of social media can only be as great as its ability to further our interests, ideals, and connections with the world around us. These sites are endless fountains of money for their creators – luckily, with minimal effort, we can use them to direct a little bit of money to nonprofits as well.



As debate swirls about how to approach the “fiscal cliff”, the charitable giving tax deduction is at stake.

As the year-end draws near, the U.S. tax code is under the microscope, and the country anxiously awaits a decision on how elected officials will deal with the so-called “fiscal cliff.” Deductions for charitable contributions are among current tax policies under scrutiny. This has understandably generated quite a buzz among nonprofit administrators, who fear the potentially devastating impact that eliminating charitable deductions could have on their organizations.

As a fundraising professional, my Twitter feed and Facebook page have been filled with pleas from my colleagues to sign petitions, call legislators and otherwise vocally oppose changes to the charitable giving tax deduction.  As I sat down to do my due diligence and write to my representatives, I realized that I actually understood very little about the debate. Recognizing the position of bias I’m in, I set out to enlighten myself about the pros and cons of the charitable giving deduction as it stands.

With a little research, I learned about the basic arguments for and against the deduction:

Arguments to keep the deduction as-is

  • Simply put, the charitable giving deduction incentivizes wealthy individuals to donate large sums of money to nonprofit organizations.
  • Although some would call the deduction a “loophole” for wealthy Americans, the charitable giving deduction is of benefit to society. It is one of few things that can theoretically be construed as a win-win for the wealthy and the community as a whole.
  • Money donated to nonprofits as a result of the deduction fuels the nonprofit sector as an important creator of jobs in our country. Unlike many government grants, charitable contributions often provide unrestricted operating funds, which can be used to support the staff positions needed to run effective programs.
  • The charitable tax deduction allows individuals to decide exactly what is done with their public interest dollars. Donors can see the direct impact of their contributions, a great motivator for those who are suspicious of government spending.
  • The charitable tax deduction provides impetus for the nation’s wealthiest individuals to learn the needs of their communities. They must engage in conversations with those who are on the “front lines” of combatting issues such as poverty, violence, homelessness and others, in order to determine where their money will be best spent. The realizations they take away from these conversations fuel a greater involvement in social service.

Arguments to eliminate or cap the deduction

  • Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that the government will lose roughly $237 billion to the charitable giving deduction from 2009 to 2013. In comparison, a study by the United Way found that a cap on charitable giving deductions could lead to a loss of $2.9 to $5.6 billion each year. The loss in tax revenues if the deduction is maintained is much greater than the potential loss to nonprofits if it is changed.
  • With the future of many of our nation’s grant-making agencies in question, siphoning off $237 billion from tax revenues could feasibly put an end to the government programs individuals and organizations have come to rely on.

    Senator Max Baucus (D-MN), chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, argues that charitable giving need not be motivated by cash incentives.

  • For the nonprofit sector, the real impact of a cap on charitable deductions is unknown. Research studies vary widely, as is often the case with studies about politicized issues. For example, the United Way published results of a poll that indicated “The vast majority of Americans (79%) believe reducing or eliminating the charitable tax deduction would have a negative impact on charities and the people they serve.” Yet the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy estimates that a cap on deductions would have little effect on overall charitable giving – a decrease of about 0.4 to 1.3 percent.
  • Some opponents of the deduction argue that high-end donors tend to make tax-deductible contributions to the arts and higher education. While many of us would counter with ample evidence that the arts and higher education are essential to society, there are some compelling examples of donors who abuse the deduction (discussed here).
  • The charitable giving deduction does not benefit all tax payers – only those who itemize their deductions. Paraphrasing Sen. Max Baucus (D-MN), Suzanne Perry of The Chronicle of Philanthropy writes: Most Americans now do not get any tax benefits for their donations because they don’t itemize their deductions and some charities get bigger subsidies than others because they attract more high-income donors, who get the biggest tax breaks.

Admittedly, eliminating the deduction would make my job harder. The charitable giving deduction is an invaluable resource in a fundraiser’s toolkit – so compelling, in fact, that many development professionals consciously use it to lure new donors. And I do not mean to make my field sound disingenuous – the deduction is seen as something of mutual benefit, a no-brainer for both nonprofits and their high-end donors.

But if I put my self-interest aside, I honestly feel rather torn about the debate. As my profession would suggest, I am a firm believer in the critical importance of nonprofits, and the role they play in improving our quality of life. That said, I also believe that government-funded programs are an essential safety net – not only for the American public, but also for nonprofit organizations.  The Department of Health and Human Services, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Institute of Museum and Library Services: these grant-making agencies have helped sustain thousands of worthy nonprofits for years. And, self-interest-wise, they have provided many opportunities for grant writers to earn a living.

Warren Buffet, billionaire and noted philanthropist, has said that a cap on deductions would not effect his charitable giving.

The necessity of these federal agencies has been called into question recently by conservative legislators, and those of us who work in the nonprofit sector have reacted with outrage. Yet we have reacted with similar outrage to the idea of eliminating the charitable giving deduction, a move which would generate new revenue to support grant-making agencies. Does one take away from the other? By providing large deductions to the nation’s wealthiest donors, are we condemning federal grant-making agencies to a slow death?

In the end, whether or not you choose to support the elimination of the charitable tax deduction comes down to a personal question: how much do you trust our government to spend our money wisely? Who do you feel will best look out for the interests of our communities – the government, or nonprofit organizations?

This is the conundrum I’m struggling with. I’m still not sure where I fall on the issue. I do believe in the importance of government grant-making and social programs, and in the need to address the budget deficit with new revenues. That said, as long as the defense budget accounts for a high percentage of American tax dollars, I’d rather see my wealthy neighbors’ money go to nonprofit organizations.

Can nonprofit professionals be true supporters of government grant-making agencies, and still call for the maintenance of the status quo regarding the charitable tax deduction?

This afternoon in Lansing, a tremendous arts advocacy effort came full circle. 

The Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA) announced $5,675,400 in funding for 312 grants to arts organizations throughout the state. Over 75% of applications received were funded, making for a lot of very grateful artists, performers, arts educators and nonprofit professionals — including yours truly!

What makes this cycle of grant awards so special, however, is that it represents the culmination of a very effective statewide advocacy effort. In 2009, the state budget for arts was slashed by 71%, leaving hundreds of MCACA grantees uncertain about the future of what was once a reliable annual source of funding. The maximum request amount for FY2010 grants was drastically reduced, and many grant writers (myself included) were left wondering if the application was even worth the trouble.

The tone of the Council meeting that year was somber. News of the drastic arts budget reduction came on the heels of the devastating recession, which had hit Michigan particularly hard and stripped many organizations of vital support from corporate sponsors.

Sensing our discouragement and hesitation, John Bracey, Executive Director of the MCACA, made a quiet, yet impassioned plea for us to submit our applications as usual. Doing so, he explained, would be a crucial demonstration of the need for state funding, and a statement of our commitment to bringing it back.

Those of us in the room understood that our very livelihood was on the line.

Throughout history, governments across the world have invested in the art of their people. Seeing the state’s mark of approval on promotional materials, contributor lists and financial statements gives donors a sense of security in supporting the arts. Even the biggest opponent of government spending is likely to be unconsciously validated, when he or she makes a contribution to the arts, by the knowledge that the state also deems this a worthy cause.

In Lansing that day, we understood that the potential elimination of the MCACA could mean the loss of our jobs, and the degradation of our treasured cultural sector. Teetering on the edge of financial ruin, our sponsors were pulling away, and so was our government. Who would be left to set an example for individual philanthropists?

What began that day was a cohesive, comprehensive advocacy movement. It began with submitting our MCACA applications, and continued with countless phone calls, emails and letters to legislators. We circulated evidence of the need for strong arts organizations in Michigan, and told our own stories of how the arts have supported us and our families.

Most importantly, we documented hard evidence of the fact that every dollar that goes into the arts sector is leveraged to drive at least $51 back into Michigan’s economy. By using the tools available to us through the Michigan Cultural Data Project, 211 arts organizations documented the economic impact of their existence. The financial data collected from these organizations revealed compelling facts such as the following:

  • In 2009, the group of organizations represented in the Creative State Michigan report contributed nearly half a billion dollars to the state’s economy through expenditures alone.
  • That same year, the sector paid $152 million in salaries for 15,560 jobs.
  • In 2010, arts and culture accounted for $2.1 billion, or more than 17%, of Michigan’s total tourism spending – more than golf, skiing, hunting/fishing, boating and sporting events combined.

Even staunch fiscal conservatives, like Governor Rick Snyder, couldn’t argue with these numbers. For years, our organizations had been touting the social, educational and emotional benefits of the arts, which to us are the most compelling reasons for our sector’s existence. Our touchy-feely elevator speeches weren’t doing it for our state’s new administration, though; we had to reach out to them in terms they could relate to. In this case, those terms were numbers.

Lansing heard us, and earlier this year, we learned that the 2013 budget for MCACA would be more than double what it was in FY2010. Maximum grant requests were increased, and we wrote our applications with renewed hope and enthusiasm. I wrote MCACA applications for two clients this year: Rackham Symphony Choir and the Scarab Club. Both organizations received grants more than twice the size of their FY2012 awards.

So, as a beneficiary of the cultural sector of Michigan, I want to say thank you to all of my colleagues. Thank you for taking the time to fill out the Cultural Data Project forms, for talking to your legislators, and for faithfully applying the MCACA when it seemed like a lost cause.

And thank you, most of all, to John Bracey and the staff and members of the MCACA. Your commitment inspired us to action, and now the organizations we love are reaping the benefits.




Redesigning a client’s website

December 6th, 2012 | Posted by Sarah in Nonprofit Marketing | Website content - (0 Comments)

Last week, I was thrilled to receive a notification that a client, MOSES of Detroit, has received a Causality Brand Grant. I actually learned of this opportunity via a Linked In grant writers group, where the announcement was posted. The application was extremely simple, and only took about 45 minutes to complete.

Causality specializes in nonprofit branding, and the grant will provide 1:1 matching funds for the budget that MOSES has available for website redesign.

Last year, I worked with MOSES to submit a capacity-building grant application to the Kellogg Foundation. The application was funded, and included a modest allotment of funds to be used for strategic marketing and web redesign. With that budget doubled, and the design expertise of Causality at our fingertips, now we have to get down to the real work. What message do we want to convey with the new website? 

MOSES is a faith-based community organizing nonprofit serving the Detroit metropolitan region. The organization is non-denominational, non-partisan, and fully committed to improving the quality of life for all metro Detroit residents. Yet some of the organization’s key buzzwords – “social justice,” “faith-based,” and even “community organizing” have become polarizing, especially in today’s deeply divided political and economic climate.

The organization wishes to open its arms to all community members committed to regional cooperation. Yet the principles of community organizing are central to its mission. The question remains: how much do we emphasize these roots as we craft the messaging for MOSES’ new website? What language do we use to engage the broadest audience, without alienating our longtime supporters?

These are the questions I will be mulling over as I draft copy for the new website. Please stay tuned for the upcoming launch of the revamped in the not-too-distant future!





There is no fundraising tool more powerful than a good story. Statistics, facts and figures are useful for driving home a point; yet without a compelling narrative to weave them together, they leave potential donors unengaged.

With thousands of worthy organizations vying for limited resources, the need for a clear, compelling and well-crafted story is more important than ever. Grant proposals, sponsorship solicitations and donor appeals must speak to the reader on a personal level. They must be creative, professional and concise, achieving maximum impact with the fewest possible words.

As a freelance grant writer and nonprofit development consultant, I combine my background in fundraising with my love of writing. I approach each new client from the point of view of a potential donor. What do I need to know about the organization? What elements of its work speak to me on a fundamentally human level? What makes this organization stand out from the countless others competing for my donation?

My grant proposals have earned millions of dollars in funding for organizations of all different sizes, areas of focus and locations. I have completed feasibility studies, program evaluation plans, sponsorship packages and countless written projects, all with the goal of translating each client’s story into dollars for its core mission.

I work with my clients to help them present themselves as fiscally sound, sustainable organizations meeting a demonstrated need in their communities. Based on my knowledge of both institutional and individual funders, I make recommendations as to how they can improve their internal systems to become more “fundable” in the eyes of the seasoned philanthropist.

Thank you for visiting my website. Please browse further for descriptions of my individual services.