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Peer to Peer Blog > Essential Skills for Making the Most of Resources in the Nonprofit Arts

Essential Skills for Making the Most of Resources in the Nonprofit Arts

by John Killacky
posted on March 10, 2010
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In January, The San Francisco Foundation and Grants for the Arts, with support from The Wallace Foundation, hosted a daylong Dynamic Adaptability Conference.  Over 700 community members attended, learning from creative thinkers from the arts, neuroscience, business, media, and philanthropy.

Neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer encouraged us to reclaim our value proposition and have faith in our stories.  His research on meta-cognition drew upon many examples of artists.  Lehrer also stressed the importance of building in periods of relaxation as part of the creative process, cautioning when people get too focused on solving a particular problem, this often results in being ‘locked in’.

James Rucker from Color of Change and Hugo Morales from Radio Bilingüe called for rethinking relationships to audiences and donors and forming deeper and more authentic connections to communities.  Merely broadcasting invitations isn’t enough in the socially engaged, interactive, high-touch, and multi-platform online environment.

Psychographic research by WolfBrown and Helicon Collaborative revealed that donors become engaged via four connection points:  a personal relationship, passion for the art form, emotional or intellectual connect to the subject matter, and/or a connection to the culture or community involved. Values and empathy matter. Despite the grim realities of artists in this economic recession, Judilee Reed from Leveraging Investments in Creativity shared that 75% of the artists in her research believe it is an inspiring time to be an artist and 89% think artists have a special role in strengthening communities.

Artists underscored these hopeful points.  Performance provocateur Philip Huang challenged colleagues to be thrilling and bold.  Veteran choreographer Margaret Jenkins talked about the only way to keep balanced, is by moving forward.

I closed the conference by reiterating my trust in artists. Everyday they start anew with a blank page, an empty canvas, a barren rehearsal room; everyday struggling to go deeper. If something does not work, they think of something else.  If it does work, they make it even better.

These are essential skills in tumultuous times for society in general and requisite for working in the nonprofit arts – moving forward with whatever resources available; building a future by crafting the present.


John Killacky, program officer for the Arts and Culture department of the San Francisco Foundation, previously served as executive director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for six years and curator of performing arts for the Walker Art Center for eight years. Other past positions include program officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts, general manager of PepsiCo SUMMERFARE, and managing director of the Trisha Brown and Laura Dean dance companies. He received the First Bank Award Sally Ordway Irvine Award in Artistic Vision; the William Dawson Award for Programming Excellence from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters; Dance USA's Earnie Award as an "unsung hero;" a Gerbode Foundation Professional Development Fellowship; and a scholarship to Harvard Business School's summer intensive. Mr. Killacky has served as a panelist, lecturer, and consultant for a broad range of arts and funding organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts, California Arts Council, Jerome Foundation, Ontario Arts Council, MacArthur Foundation, Arts International, Irvine Foundation, Michigan Arts and Cultural Affairs Council, and the Japan Foundation. He has written numerous publications on the arts and written and directed several award winning short films and videos broadcast on PBS in 2008 and 2009.