Jessica Wilt

In part one of our two-part post, Alex Sarian and I asked an important question:

In trying to keep up with for-profit ‘heavy-hitters’ that arguably boast of greater resources than the average nonprofit, from which of the three areas (quality, engagement, and partnerships), if at all, do you find yourself most cutting corners?

In light of a very recent and rather candid op-ed in The New York Times, we chose to spin our question to incorporate the story of Greg Smith, who this week boldly resigned from his position as executive director at Goldman Sachs after making startling connections between the “success” and the “community” of an organization; a connection that, in many ways, affects all of us who are surrounded by a culture in which we are asked to do more with less.

Smith writes:

“…culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief.”

In a previous two-part post (Why Continue a Career in the Arts?), I spoke about leaving a job in arts education whose mission I valued and in which, for a long time, I experienced great professional success. Yet the culture of the organization became so toxic over money and funding issues that it reduced the quality of the organization’s programs and lowered the morale of its staff.

I recognized, like Mr. Smith, that it was time for me to go when my “pride and belief in the organization” had disappeared.

“…making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long.”

I’m now the director of education for Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana, a Spanish dance and music organization that will be celebrating its 30th anniversary next season—a tremendous accomplishment in this field!

As we prepare to enter our fourth decade, we’re watching our longstanding foothold within the New York City arts education community dwindle due to lack of traditional funding sources.

Afterschool programs and arts coordinators will ask, “What can you give us for $300–$500?” Or, if we’re lucky a principal might say they have $1,000–$3,000 in the school’s budget. This new reality can be frustrating because now I creatively have to chop up programming from how it was originally designed to work around funding issues.

In order for Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana and others to sustain ourselves as continued leaders in quality arts and education programming, we will have to identify, reevaluate, and enhance organizational resources, integrate technology, seek new partnerships, and engage new audiences all while ensuring the quality of teaching artists and the implementation of programming remain unchanged.

“…teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.”

Organizations that struggle to find a new business model in order to adapt to this economic climate are perhaps facing the exact opposite, yet similarly reprehensible situation that Mr. Smith describes happening at Goldman Sachs.

While he found himself no longer able to survive in a company that prioritized financial success over a culture of integrity and morality, many nonprofit leaders now find themselves not being able to survive in organizations that prioritize a culture of integrity and morality over the notion of financial success.

In his resignation, Mr. Smith is implying that Goldman Sachs should have compromised on its newfound definition of quality in order to uphold the foundations on which its culture was built, but at what cost?

As organizations uphold missions for good, and are willing to take in less of an overhead fee in order for a school to receive quality arts education (in the midst of budget cuts)—is our model of doing business by “doing right by our clients” (or partners) any more sustainable financially than Goldman Sachs is morally?

So, now having explored two opposite situations, we are back to our original question on compromising—are we any closer to an answer?

Perhaps we live in a world in which the concept of quality is constantly changing—a world in which you eat or are eaten.

Perhaps Mr. Smith (and all of us) should learn that our cultural definition of success changes with the times, and that the change can sometimes be too sudden or too drastic for individuals who are set in their ways.

At least Mr. Smith had the integrity to jump ship.

On the other hand, if we (and I mean every last one of us), perhaps, followed Mr. Smith’s example and followed our heart in mass, there’d be no choice but to rebuild a culture and business model that is based on what is right—a culture in which communities financially value “…teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients.”

One Response to “Quality, Engagement, & Partnerships: Strategically Compromising on Perfection (Part Two)”

  1. victoria plettner-saunders says:

    Alex and Jessica – what a great post. I loved the way you so quickly brought in the Smith op-ed and applied it to our dilemma in the arts in such a timely way. I think every arts professional has had to ask themselves these questions in some way or another lately both on the job and at home. I know my husband and I, both arts consultants, have had to address quality of workmanship (maintaining high standards of integrity and doing right by our clients) in our deliverables to clients (arts organizations and local arts agencies) who have fewer dollars to spend and the same or greater needs. Like your arts education program dilemma, we have a hard time reducing quality despite smaller fees for services. In turn, it has caused us to think deeply about quality of life and our own definitions of success.

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