Cultural Organizations as Civic Leaders

Last month we were up in Seattle for Dynamic Adaptability and had the opportunity to hear from four “bright spots” who are engaging with their communities in deep and authentic ways. We heard from James Kass from Youth Speaks, Chris Coleman from Portland Center Stage, Lisa Sasaki from the Oakland Museum of California and John Michael Schert from the Trey McIntyre Project. If you have 15 minutes, check out their inspiring talks about what they are doing in their communities and how it is contributing to their organization’s success.

James Kass starts at 5 minutes and talks about how Youth Speaks is engaging young people around issues of diabetes and food justice in their communities


Chris Coleman talks about how Portland Center Stage used its move to a new building to ask itself, “how can we use this as an opportunity to engage with the community in a more dynamic way on a daily basis?”


John Michael Schert talks about the unlikely choice of TMP to locate in Boise, Idaho and how it contributed to the arts becoming more embedded in the community.


Lisa Sasaki talks about what happens when the community around your organization changes, and how you can adapt to remain relevant.


A panel (in three parts) with the speakers, moderated by Alexis Frasz from Helicon.


Awards to celebrate bright spot organizations

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation announced its first round of Creative Leadership Awards, which “recognize individuals and organizations embodying ‘Bright Spots Principles.'” This article highlights some of the things about each of the recipients that make them bright. On the rationale for the bright spots research:

“Too much in the media was about what wasn’t working.” said Sue M. Coliton, Allen Foundation vice president.”We wanted to shine a light on what was.” CLA recipients combined originality of thinking with extreme practicality and diligence shaped by a clear sense of mission and purpose, she said. “It was a combination of lack of fear — seeing uncertainty and change as opportunities — and doing it in a very informed way.”



Innovation isn’t all its cracked up to be…

In this month’s Stanford Social Innovation Review an article called “Innovation Is Not The Holy Grail” quite persuasively challenges the fervor around innovation. They assert that innovation has become an ideology, perceived as the panacea for all that isn’t working, when in fact the evidence shows that most of the value created by social sector organizations “comes from their core, routine activities perfected over time.”  This is exactly what we found to be true in the bright spots research. Those organizations who were exceeding above the norm were inventive, but they weren’t reinventing themselves all the time. Rather, they were refining and improving on the basics to an extremely high level. One person we interviewed expressed exasperation over the focus on innovation, saying, “lots of little adjustments…that’s how great people do great work.”

The authors of the SSIR article point out: “Oddly, it is often the scarcity of organizational resources in established social sector organizations that legitimizes the argument for more innovation. But this argument is based on a wrong and dangerous assumption that innovation creates more bang for the buck and constitutes a development shortcut, solving big problems faster.” In other words, innovation is just like the latest fad diet that promises you can lose weight and still eat hamburgers every day. Unfortunately, the “wicked” challenges that the social sector is trying to solve do not, by and large, have a magic bullet solution. 

The article is worth reading in its entirety, as they provide a number of suggestions for alternative ways of thinking about how to make innovation a more productive part of organizational practice. My favorite: “Treat innovation as a process, not primarily as an outcome.”



Bright spots as a tool for long range planning

In late March we heard that the Mingei International Museum was using the bright spots framework as a way to understand their success. Now, they are using the report in their planning on an ongoing basis. Cathy Sang, Director of Marketing & Development says:

…we have continued to use the Bright Spots Report as part of the Museum’s long-range planning process.  In addition to using it as a resource in the preparation for and discussion during the Management Team’s day and a half of meetings in early July to kickoff planning  for FY2014 and beyond (we just started our FY13 this month), the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees read and discussed the report over the past few months and led an hour-long discussion with all trustees at the conclusion of the July Board meeting based on some of the questions from the report’s discussion guide. Witnessing the trustees’ engagement with the subject matter and with each other was a truly exciting and rewarding experience….I believe the Board now wants to include discussion of an aspect of the Bright Spots report at the end of each Board meeting (as another organization has reported on your blog that it is doing).

We are hearing more and more from organizations who are both using the report to explain their brightness, and at the same time finding that it provides helpful insights on how to increase their brightness.

American Association of University Women Bright Spots Conference

The Washington Chapter of the AAUW hosted a bright spots conference!  We’re excited to see how bright spots resonates outside of the arts and culture. We also love that this connects bright spots with equity, an issue that is near and dear to our heart at Helicon (see our report on equity in the arts sector, Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change). More substantive posts on this to come.