Iowa Arts Council
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Iowa Arts Council

Nina Simon’s Secret for Turning Lemons Into Lemonade? Time.

Even in the “before times,” nonprofit leaders had plenty of worries — about attracting new audiences, courting new donors and, sometimes, just keeping the lights on.

And then the pandemic hit.

It’s a wonder all the nonprofit leaders haven’t run for the hills.

Fortunately, the ones who are sticking it out can tune in to the virtual Iowa Arts Summit, where Nina Simon will discuss how she helped set a new course for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. The museum’s transformation was so successful, in fact, that Simon founded a nonprofit called OF/BY/FOR ALL to help other nonprofits live up to their own missions.

Nina Simon

As its name implies, OF/BY/FOR ALL helps organizations reflect and connect with the communities they serve. The group has advised nonprofits in 15 countries since its launch just two years ago.

Many of Simon’s tips from the “before times” are especially important now. Here are just three . . .

Think long-term

During the pandemic, “a lot of organizations are so focused on reminding their longtime patrons and audiences that they exist that they’re not really seizing the opportunity to ask some important questions about the future,” Simon said. “What matters most? Who is critical to our future? Who do we want to matter more to, on the other side of all this?

Simon encourages nonprofits to step away from the pandemic’s reactive “game of chicken” — the day-by-day guessing about when to reopen and how much hand-sanitizer to order — and instead give themselves permission to reopen later, on their own terms, after they have a chance to rethink.

“Ask yourselves,” she said, “When we reopen, what kind of organization do we want to be? And who do we imagine standing beside us?”

Do what you do best

In 2020, challenges stack up everywhere we turn. So do opportunities.

“The important thing is to not get overwhelmed or paralyzed by so many choices,” Simon said.

Nonprofit leaders should take comfort in the fact that others are facing the same challenges and asking the same questions.

If each group focused on something specific — on whatever problem it’s best equipped to tackle — “collectively, we’ll take care of our communities and move forward together,” Simon said. “Specificity is so key.”

Acknowledge the loss — and move on

A lot of organizations are hurting right now. They’re cutting budgets and programs. They’re scrapping traditions that weren’t inclusive.

“It’s a time of loss and unraveling, and that loss is real. We need to be honest about it,” Simon said. “But if we can’t imagine a re-knitting, if we don’t have hope about what might be next, then all we’re feeling is loss. That leaves us depressed and puts us in a defensive position.

“Spend some time dreaming,” she said. “Spend some time re-visioning where you want to go.”

Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs



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Iowa Culture

Iowa Culture

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs empowers Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to resources.