How Is Your Nonprofit Arts Organization Irreplaceable? (Hint: It’s Not)

February 9, 2021

Here are some words and phrases that, by themselves, are irrelevant to the nonprofit arts industry…

There are more. You can see the line of thinking here and you might disagree.

That’s the issue…“that you might disagree.”

Your nonprofit arts organization is only better or worse than any other arts organization in terms of the nonprofit impact you impart. Everything else is not only superfluous; it’s ridiculous.

Measuring worth is relatively easy, at least in terms of defining the company’s purpose — not its mission, its purpose. In determining purpose, the basic questions to ask center around the negative of your company’s existence.

  • What would the world miss if your organization no longer existed?
  • Secondly, what would the world miss if your organization never existed in the first place?

If you answer the first question by noting a vacuum, remember that nature abhors a vacuum. Another organization will start up using the remains of your work. At the very least, there will be no barrier to entry for a new one to pop up, including funding, artistic support, and personnel.

If you answer the second question by noting the years of artistic achievement that would never have happened, check the health of your community and what your organization has specifically done to make it better. Or maybe, check your ego if you still believe in artistic integrity as a motivator for a nonprofit organization.

Sadly, arts leaders and board members often have massive, unchecked egos. They have to, on some level, because of the audacity of the venture. There is no such animal as a shy impresario. But when that outsized ego devolves the organization into the belief that the art is irreplaceable, that’s a sign of weakness and irrelevance.

Let’s go deeper on that topic for a moment. Every employee, artistic director, executive director, general director, board chair, board member, staff member, and artist — not to mention the organization itself — is easily and quickly replaceable. In fact, with little argument, replacements may be more effective, less effective, or equally effective than those that preceded their arrival. As an example, if a theater produces 5 plays in an old-style subscription season that, while satisfying the entertainment quid pro quo that a ticket transaction represents, but does nothing within its nonprofit aegis to make the community better, it is replaceable as a nonprofit arts organization. In fact, a new company might crop up and produce a completely different kind of art while also finding ways to use that art to house 10,000 homeless people because solving homelessness is the center of its mission. Does it matter if their art is “better” or “worse” than the first company? Not really.

Irreplaceable, then, is a fable told by those who wish not to be replaced. Indispensability is the goal — a nonprofit arts organization can only be considered indispensable if its nonprofit roots could not be satisfied by a replacement organization.

Check your mission (and your ego, and your baggage, for that matter) at the door. Who you are, what art you do, and how you do it is essentially worthless for a nonprofit like yours. Why you do it — the center of your societal mission, something specific to your organization, and meaningful to your community in measurable ways — is the only meaningful purpose to achieve. Self-actualization is a luxury — a privilege, if you will, with all the baggage that word carries — when people are homeless, hungry, and in imminent danger of being killed. Be meaningful for your community, not just attractive.

One last thought, tangential but important: among many nonprofit arts leaders, staff, and boards, there is a snobbishness attached to doing “important” work vis-à-vis “entertaining” work.

Stop it.

No art is more or less “important” or “entertaining” than any other art. A big musical might be fun. An avant-garde piece might be thought-provoking. Neither is better than the other. Do not let your personal taste lead to a sense of status. Your personal taste has nothing to do with your nonprofit — in fact, it could be completely detrimental to the community you serve. After all, who are you to cast aspersions on someone else’s artistic taste?

How many times have we seen arts professionals cluck derisively at someone’s latest production of, say, Carousel? What would happen if these catty elitists (elitists among elitists, what a concept) discovered that the production was done for the direct purpose of funding battered women’s shelters because of the tone of the plot? And how would they react when they found out that 1,000 women and children were now safe from future harm?

No art is better or worse. Taste is taste. Keep yours to yourself — the sector has enough divisions as it is.




If you run, work for, serve on the board for, collaborate with, or perform for a nonprofit arts organization, especially in the US, this publication is for you. The arts sector is the only part of the nonprofit universe where the donor is the beneficiary. Things must change. Now.

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Alan Harrison

Alan Harrison | Alan Harrison writes on nonprofits, politics, and the arts. Cogito, ergo scribo, ergo sum. | Buy me a coffee?

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