Bringing evolutionary biology into the mix…

Thanks to Michael van Baker and the Sun Break for the article on bright spots today. The article deftly summarizes many of the stories from the report and weaves in a few gems from his own conversations with bright spots leaders such as:

Scandiuzzi [from ACT Theater] likes to say budgeting is simple. Don’t spend more than you make. To ensure that, ACT now budgets for less than they made the preceding year. They can always make more money than they expected, after all. That’s great. But many non-profits like to follow a more “linear” last-year-plus-five-percent forecasting model, turning an Excel graph into a Magic 8-Ball.

He also pulls in additional research that lends support to some of the report’s findings. For example, he references biologist E.O. Wilson’s finding that many species evolved to favor cooperation (like ants, bees, and the naked mole rat). This supports the idea that cooperation and collaboration between arts organizations may not be just an ethical choice…it could actually be an evolutionary advantage. While the bright spots we spoke with aren’t thinking about their commitment to community in such selfish or utilitarian terms, you could argue that this is what the findings imply.

van Baker’s article is long, but there are lots of interesting nuggets throughout that expand the conversation. Worth a read.


Bright Spots for small arts organizations in Seattle

Claudia Bach, who provides support to small arts organizations with Springboard in Seattle, sent us a note about how she is using the report.

The Bright Spots report is proving a useful lever in conversations with arts leaders in our cohort learning program, Springboard, for small arts organizations here in Seattle.  The five Bright Spots principles provide an entry point for examining interlocking issues, and for reflection and discussion.  Perhaps most valuable is the fact that they underscore that it is not budget size, extraordinary access to resources or wildly experimental efforts that ensure success.  Rather, they spur more critical examination of where an organization may be on the right track and where they need to cast a more analytic gaze. The report encourages thinking about internal culture as a powerful tool. I’m also looking forward to having graduate students at Seattle University’s MFA in Arts Leadership digest and work with these concepts – it is energizing to see how eager and curious they are to take such ideas into action!

We are excited to hear that the framework works for very small groups (which we suspected and hoped). I’d be curious to hear about some of the bright spots among the smaller groups. How are they practicing the principles?  Are there differences in the way that these principles manifest due to their smaller size? Additional things that need to be taken into account?

Following the ‘bright spots’ of Northwest arts and culture

Today the Seattle Times published an editorial by Susan M. Coliton, vice president of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, on bright spots. She writes:

Bright spots are constantly rethinking, revising and refining their operations. They see uncertainty and change as opportunities — not their demise. While others are caught up in the negatives, bright spots are fueled by optimism.

Arts and cultural groups and other nonprofits can replicate this operating approach. After all, bright spots are not inventing wholly new practices. They are simply applying and refining fundamental principles available to anyone.

As a community, let’s resist the urge to focus on what’s not working. Instead, let’s look to the bright spots for inspiration and guidance for how to navigate and remain relevant in an ever-changing environment.

Slides from Webinar

Thanks to everyone who participated in the webinar last week, it was a really stimulating conversation. We heard about a lot of people who are using it in various ways, from the City of New Orleans to private foundation officers to arts organizations themselves. Various people expressed the desire to know how others are using the framework and to be able to connect with them. We are trying to share some of those stories here (and please, send us yours), but this is sort of a one way conversation. Any thoughts out there on whether a more interactive network around bright spots would be useful, and, if so, what platform to use for it? Facebook is an obvious option…are there others? Please comment or email us at

The slides of the webinar are here (Paul G. Allen Foundation Webinar March 29, 2012.)

Are we a “bright spot”?

In the conversations we’ve had over the last month with organizational leaders about Bright Spots, this is the most common question that they have asked us. Of course the human desire to categorize things is strong, and we all want to know whether we make the grade. But because of the prevalence of this question, we want to clarify a few things about brightness:

  • Brightness is a practice, not a final destination. You are bright as long as you demonstrate bright qualities and you stop being so when you stop. An organization that is bright today may not be bright a year from now. Likewise, an organization that is not bright today can become so by cultivating these qualities.
  • Brightness is a spectrum. We did not find any organization that was perfect. Even the groups named as bright spots in the paper, saw ways that they could use this framework to improve. Constant and honest self-reflection is a bright spot quality.
  • The number of potentially bright organizations is unlimited. The pool of bright spots is not exclusive. It is certainly not limited to the ones that we mentioned in our report.
  • Organizations may be brighter in certain areas than in others (although the framework is holistic in the sense that bright spots work all of these areas simultaneously). In fact, an organization may be able to teach about brightness in one area and need to learn about how to be bright in another.
  • The specifics of bright behavior has local variations. What might be appropriate in one place for one type of organization may not be appropriate for all. The report intentionally focuses on principles, not tactics, for this reason.

Alternatives to the “are we a bright spot?” question might be “how do we manifest these qualities of brightness?,” “how could we use these principles to become brighter than we are today?” and “what can we learn from organizations that demonstrate brightness in the areas we want to strengthen?”