Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Tiny vs Small, or Can we agree on a definition?

I've recently noticed that a lot of performing arts organizations like to throw around the adjectives "small" and "intimate" when describing themselves, their facility capacity, or their organization structure. The words always make me stop for a second and ponder whether folks are using them because they are accurate descriptions or because they just currently carry a certain cache within the nonprofit industry. When we're competing against a 600-seat for-profit presenting arts organization for our audiences money/time/attention/hearts, it sounds lovely to say "an intimate theater experience", as if the audience will be on stage with the performers. But any house over about 200 seats is not going to be intimate, unless there are only two rows around an arena-style stage.

The same goes for "small" staffing structures: a nonprofit arts organization operating in a small town may feel like they have no staff compared to the city's university presenting arts consortium. But the nonprofit organization still has three full-time employees, 2 part-time assistants, and a whole slew of volunteers. Compared to the group who is perhaps all volunteer, or has one part-time administrator trying to cover all bases of management, those 4 FTE employees are a logarithmic increase in resources. I see this in budget descriptions ("We have a small budget of $350,000/year" vs "We have a small budget of $110,000/year"), team sizes, and audience numbers.

Forcing a comparison between "small" and "large" is easy. Every organization knows who the "big dog" in town is. What is more difficult is agreeing on how to compare one similar-looking organization to another. Both may be doing similar output artistically, but with vast differences in back-end resources and processes. It would make discussions about growth and partnerships much easier if the industry as a whole could define "small", "midsize", and "large" when it comes to our arts organizations. I'd probably add "extra-small", "medium", and "our whole organization could fit in their closet" as possible sections, too.