On Sunday, February 23rd, I had the pleasure of participating on a panel (Arts Research Now: NYC Dance in Context) at the Dance/NYC Symposium, hosted at the Gibney Dance Center. On the panel with me were: Anne Dunning of Arts Action Research, Ian David Moss of Fractured Atlas, Jennifer Wright Cook of The Field, Monica Valenzuela of Staten Island Arts, and David Johnston of Exploring the Metropolis. The panel was moderated by Pamela Epstein, Assistant Director, Community Arts Development Program, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

I presented some of our research toward the development of ArtsPool’s business plan, which included the convening of a group of 12 arts organizations, varying in size and scope, to serve as a sample set for our research. With this group, we conducted a series of interviews, focus groups, and data gathering, which included reviews of CDP resources, budgets, contracts, corporate documents, etc. Though nuances varied (one group found payroll to be a struggle where another found it to be an easy task), the overall need for better organized and more efficient operations was heavily underscored through our conversations with these developmental participants.

I doubt anyone working in the nonprofit arts will be surprised that our peers desire greater efficiency.

Confirmation of this need was important, even as we simultaneously worked to develop proposed solutions. To broaden our thinking, we conducted additional research in less familiar territory. The Nonprofit Coordinating Committee introduced us to a 2009 Study conducted by the Meyer Foundation titled Outsourcing Back-Office Services in Small Nonprofits: Pitfalls and Possibilities. We referred to this study early and often during our development of the ArtsPool business plan. Independent of our own research, this study drew many of the same conclusions that we were considering. The following points, pulled from the report’s summarized Key Findings, were particularly relevant to our reasons for proposing an insourced approach, rather than using an outsourcing model:

Current business models for outsourcing are often not well suited for serving small to mid-sized organizations, many of which are complex and have significant unmet needs.

There is a significant opportunity for business entrepreneurs with a deep knowledge of and sensitivity to the nonprofit sector and innovative new business models.

Barriers that prevent nonprofits from outsourcing back-office services include the inability to find specialized skills at a reasonable cost, lack of time to find and contract with providers, and negative past experience.

The Meyer Foundation’s Study emphasized that any proposed solution for delivering nonprofit administrative work must embrace–and solve for–complexity (not seek to eliminate it) and must also include a high level of field-specific experience and expertise. This boosted our confidence that an insourcing approach could indeed be a successful new model.

Continuing further from home, we conducted additional research completely outside of the nonprofit sector. We investigated organizations in other business areas, which are succeeding with resource sharing. We looked into companies like Zipcar, which proved that the market can support shared structures. We explored game-changers like Zappos, which introduced us to the concept of “holacracy,” a shifted structure for organizational management that distributes power horizontally, leveraging technology to facilitate this non-hierarchical way of working. We discovered Mondragon, a federation of more than 250 worker cooperatives in Spain. And, returning again to the nonprofit sector, we were introduced to MACC Commonwealth, a shared administrative infrastructure serving nonprofit organizations in the Twin Cities.

This research contributed to the development of our business plan and further emphasized not only the need for new working models, but a readiness for them. Market sectors outside of the nonprofit arts are already reaping the benefits of systems built on sharing and increased efficiency, made newly possible through accessible technology. The arts fields have been informally sharing for years. By formalizing cooperative efforts, and applying lessons learned from new trends in other sectors, we can reduce operational redundancies and waste in order to devote more talent and resources directly to art.