Emerging Organizations (The Community Social Impact Portfolio)

by Josh Jacobson

Last year, I overheard a conversation at work.  A friend of mine was asked by someone I didn’t know to name some of the prominent social entrepreneurs working in Charlotte. Without hesitation, a list of names were rattled out.  The people mentioned were all stellar folks and worthy of inclusion.

But my name wasn’t mentioned.  Perplexed, I asked my friend why that was.

“Well, I guess I think that you work with social entrepreneurs, but that you’re a consultant. You’re just… different.”

I’ll admit, I was a bit wounded.  In my mind, the work of Next Stage has always had purpose and meaning with social benefit at its heart.  The firm was founded to be an alternative to “for hire” consulting that was more interested in collecting fees than ensuring client success. But as I settled down later, I realized that there was some real truth to what was said.  While Next Stage had a mission and a set of defined values, we were missing two elements that every social entrepreneurship company needs: long-term vision and an organizing philosophy. These must-have elements, which Next Stage had preached to its clients, were unexamined in our own business model.

Earlier this year, I made an important decision about the direction of Next Stage and set about making it happen. A critical piece was the hiring of Caylin Viales, who has brought her tremendous talent and passion for social impact to the redefinition of what Next Stage could be.  Last week, another important component was launched – the public announcement of our philosophy regarding the Community Social Impact Portfolio.  Located near the end of that post, Next Stage commits to “orienting all of its work toward these five classifications” and “reorganizing its service lines to align with this philosophy.”

We do this because we see the role Next Stage plays in the community differently now.  We are making a commitment to the overall health of Charlotte’s industry of social impact.  In working individually with 501c3 nonprofit organizations directly, our commitment is not only to the client that hires us but also to the broader community that has a vested interest in the success of all nonprofits.  We feel a big part of our role is about “playing the orchestra, and not just the instrument.”

Because Next Stage is a social entrepreneurship company, and we are just as committed to improving our community as the nonprofits that trust us to help them achieve success.  The difference is that our mission isn’t focused on one positive social outcome – it is focused on all of them.

The Emerging Organization

It is perhaps because of how we perceive our identity as social entrepreneurs that we have been so attracted to helping emerging nonprofits.  Organizations thrive or die in their first ten years of existence, and much of that is related to the existence of a passionate founder.

I am unabashed in my love of nonprofit founders. They are the “special sauce” in the emerging nonprofit business model, capable of defying odds to make the impossible possible.  Through their eyes, every mission is brought to life and is emotionally captivating.  They will their nonprofits into being, imbue it with their personal brand, and then… what?  What happens next? Happily ever after?

Unfortunately, no. Too often, exhaustion gives way to frustration, and before long someone who could have been a game-changer is not even involved anymore. The nonprofit that had so much promise just a few years before is a shell of its former self.  Or not even in business anymore.

It is a sad fact that many start-up nonprofits don’t see their tenth year. Statistics proving this are difficult to come by since nonprofits don’t have to tell the IRS when they’ve “gone belly up.”  But evidence abounds. While there are many great success stories, there are perhaps just as many examples of new nonprofits sputtering as the decade anniversary approaches.

My firm is typically contacted when an organization has begun to understand that it needs some help to achieve a degree of sustainability.  We are often very successful, and the organization is placed on a pathway to ensuring long-term success.  But sometimes the challenges are too great or the organization too resistant to change.

We believe passionately that emerging nonprofit are badly needed to challenge the status quo.  Start-ups are typically less risk adverse and are able to pilot new strategies that contribute positively to the industry.  As an organization matures, it can lose that “special sauce” of the nonprofit founder, who stays up late until the job is done and knows the background of every person served.  They are often very open to volunteer engagement and encourage the community to come alongside their programming to help ensure success.  There are lots of reasons start-up nonprofits should be a dynamic component of the Community Social Impact Portfolio.

At the same time, remember the statistics from the last post about the proliferation of nonprofits in Charlotte (e.g. 3,600 public charities)?  As a community, we need to be smart about how we encourage social entrepreneurs, and more mindful of what a successful start-up business model looks like.  As I heard a donor say once, “I’d rather give my money to an organization with somewhat less impact that I know will still be around ten years from now, than an organization with tremendous impact that flames out from a poor business model.” In this way, nonprofits should view their donors (especially Millennial and X-Gen donors) as less “buying services” than “stewarding long-term solutions.”

The Checklist: Emerging Organizations

As a part of this series, Caylin and I will be suggesting a five-point checklist for each of the five areas highlighted in the Community Social Impact Portfolio. This checklist will roll into a tool that will be made available at the end of this series for donors and funders, along with worksheets for organizations to use when considering organizational strengthening.  This week, we look at the top-five evaluation areas when considering the health and worthiness of an emerging nonprofit for support:

  • Differentiated Mission – An emerging organization with an expansive mission statement is very likely biting off more than it can chew.  Successful start-up organizations are razor sharp on what they do and how they fit in to the already-established network of community organizations. To know that a mission is differentiated, a needs assessment should be conducted that documents the problem as well as the other organizations and supports in the marketplace.  People interested in getting involved with a nonprofit should start with its mission, and if it is poorly formed or not well stated, the likelihood for success is greatly diminished.
  • Distributed Leadership – The potential for burnout in the nonprofit sector is a constant companion, and nowhere more so than with the nonprofit founder.  Many start-up organizations are setup with what is called “heroic leadership,” where a handful of people are doing all of the heavy lifting.  While that may be necessary in the very early stages, the organization needs to be shifting as soon as possible to a “distributed leadership” model, where volunteers (and later contractors and staff) are owning defined responsibilities. An organization that is overly dependent on a handful of individuals is at risk, and its leadership should at the very least have a long-term succession plan in place.
  • Documented Policies & Procedures – This may seem like a boring checklist item, but our experience suggests that an organization without documented policies and procedures is highly unlikely to “get to the next level.”  There are many reasons why this is missing, and most of them end with “…and who has the time to do any of that?”  A model of distributed leadership can never be fully implemented if the organization lacks a framework for how work gets done.  As consultants, we always ask to see the Organizational Handbook (or Board Handbook) at the start of an engagement.  It is one of the top predictors of future success.
  • Evidence/Documented Results – The fact is that anecdotal evidence doesn’t cut it in an increasingly competitive nonprofit marketplace.  Emerging organizations push back on the idea that they can have documented evidence “with so little budget,” and we would argue that this excuse is not sufficient. It means the programming was not designed with a way to measure the impact to begin with, and a start-up organization cannot afford to run programming that has no defined assessment criteria.  Program fidelity is a must.
  • Quality Marketing Efforts – A certain local marketing professional and I share the belief that one of the biggest reasons nonprofit organizations fail is that they spend so little on marketing.  No other business model could possibly expect to be successful spending as little as nonprofits do.  For the emerging nonprofit, we look more at the savviness in the marketing effort than the dollars spent on it. Does the nonprofit understand segmentation?  Is their messaging human-centered, and are they creative in how they tell their story?  An all-volunteer effort is fine in the early years, but it has to be done well otherwise future success is not a given.

We could come up with another dozen or so, but the goal here is to provide readers with a way to quickly assess start-ups, less as a way to evaluate the impact of their current efforts and more toward the long-term likelihood for sustainability and growth.

Next time, we’ll tackle Niche Organizations.  In the meantime, please share your thoughts on Facebook: www.facebook.com/NextStageConsultingNC/

Just starting this series? Read the other installments here:

Overview: The Community Social Impact Portfolio
Emerging Organizations
Niche Organizations
Imported Organizations
Blue Chip Organizations


JoshJosh Jacobson is Managing Director of Next Stage Consulting, a Charlotte-based firm focused on organizational development and fund development for the nonprofit sector. Next Stage Consulting provides organizations access to affordable, high-quality consulting services to help them “get to the next level.” Josh is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) and is President Elect for the Charlotte Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Image Copyright : Thuansak Srilao

The Community Social Impact Portfolio

by Josh Jacobson

This post launches a weekly series through mid-September outlining a new way to think about stewarding nonprofits in the Charlotte region – the Community Social Impact Portfolio.


A couple years ago, I decided to try my hand at investing. My wife and I had been utilizing a financial advisor who was primarily passively managing a system of 401ks and IRAs. I thought, why pay someone to do what I could do for myself?

I’m glad I did it, but it required me to become far more knowledgeable about concepts with which I was only partially familiar. The majority of our holdings were in mutual funds, and with a little bit of research, I was able to better understand how best to create a balanced, diversified portfolio that was responsive to the market. And on a semi-annual basis, I do a bit more research to rebalance the portfolio. We’re long-term investors so I tend not to pay it daily or weekly attention. But I rest easy at night knowing that my investments are optimized.

That notion of a diversified portfolio got me thinking – could the same principles be applied to optimize the nonprofit sector?  How can donors have a similarly good feeling knowing that their social investments are producing positive returns for the community in which they live?

This concept has been a moment of inspiration for our consulting firm, which has taken a hard look at what makes a healthy social impact ecosystem, and as importantly, what we all can do to make it a reality.

The following blog post kicks off a six-part weekly series that will outline a way of thinking about the many nonprofits that serve our community and a call-to-action for all of us to get more strategic in how we foster what I like to call a “Community Social Impact Portfolio.”

Understanding the 501c3

To get started, we first have to all be on the same page with what it means to be a nonprofit organization. Believe it or not, board members for a large percentage of Next Stage’s client base have pretty profound misconceptions about the nonprofit they are charged with governing. The ah-ha moment typically comes when I share the following at the beginning of a board retreat:

This nonprofit is owned by me, it is owned by you, it is owned by everyone. A 501c3 charitable organization is a public entity that is charged with doing that which is in the best interest of the community it serves. Just like government. And you are its board members who have elected to take on its governance responsibility, ensuring that the organization serves the best interests of the broader public. And you don’t even get paid for it. What you have chosen to do on my behalf, on everyone’s behalf, is pretty exceptional. Thank you. Thank you for all you do and for being here this morning.

You can imagine the faces of these unsuspecting board members at this point, who are suddenly very present in the Saturday morning retreat they signed up for but did not fully understand. Excuse me, what?

It is generally not very well understood (particularly by nonprofit founders) that once an organization receives its 501c3 status, it has thus been given over to all people to “own.” In exchange, the US Internal Revenue Code allows for federal tax exemption for gifts to support its mission. It is a pretty decent trade off, but only if one truly understands what it means to give up control to the public.

Too Many Cooks

If we accept that nonprofits are owned by all of us as taxpayers, and are effectively doing the work government would do on our behalf if it had the interest in doing so, then surely we must have some form of control over how nonprofits are formed, right? I mean, if I encounter long lines at the DMV, it isn’t like I can just go down the road and set up my own DMV. There must be some form of checks and balances?

The answer is: nope. Technically, the IRS is the gatekeeper, but it isn’t a very discriminating arbiter. According the 2016 IRS Data Book, more than 86,000 new tax-exempt organizations came online in 2016 with just over 1,000 denied tax exempt-status. That means that more than 98% of organizations that apply for tax-exempt status receive it. And you and I don’t have very much control over that.

So what does that look like in practice?  Charlotte is a great example of the explosion of nonprofit sector over the last twenty years. There are nearly 5,000 registered charities in Mecklenburg County alone (including roughly 3,600 public charities). While Mecklenburg County’s population has nearly doubled in the past 20 years, the number of public charities has increased three-fold.

Needless to say, this is an unsustainable trend. It creates duplication of services and unneeded competition for donor dollars. It creates backlash for founders of new nonprofits with truly game-changing strategies. And it reinforces a nonprofit culture that avoids taking risks for fear of losing ground.

It simply isn’t all that strategic.

Strategy is My… Middle Name

As a consultant to nonprofits in the Charlotte area for almost a decade, I’ve had the opportunity to work with more than 160 organizations of all shapes and sizes. My firm focuses on leveraging internal assets to meet external need. It requires being a student of our community.

This work has informed a philosophy that a healthy city must feature a variety of nonprofit organizations working in concert to address community needs. And just as a healthy stock portfolio should be diversified, a region’s nonprofit sector should include a carefully curated portfolio of community resources.

In fact, I’d suggest that all nonprofit organizations in the Charlotte region should fall into one of five categories:

  • Emerging Startups – Not every new nonprofit contributes to the bloat described above. The nonprofit sector is ripe for disruption, and social entrepreneurs with new and different ways to achieve success are needed now more than ever.  Sometimes these individuals should be encouraged to align with already-developed nonprofits, but other times there are good reasons to launch a new 501c3 endeavor. Just as your investment portfolio should have some early-growth companies, a community should come together to champion dynamic new efforts.
  • Niche Organizations – The vast majority of nonprofits should be in pursuit of niche status – that is, “owning their space.”  This requires identifying an organization’s core value proposition and striving to lead in that space. That may mean getting narrower in focus to differentiate, or expanding operations to meet community need. A niche organization must have a plan for maintaining its role as a leader and adapting to a changing community. After all, companies only stay in your investment strategy if they demonstrate a capacity for adaptability.
  • Imported Nonprofits – Organizations that demonstrate fidelity and have built an evidence-base should be encouraged to scale.  Communities must be willing to embrace organizations with demonstrated impact that can scale to provide programming that is locally informed and delivered. Charlotte needn’t re-create the wheel if a program has proven successful in another comparable city. For our investment analogy, consider these organizations like investing in foreign markets. When our own community lacks bandwidth or successful strategies, other communities may hold the answer.
  • Blue-Chip Institutions – In Charlotte, the vast majority of financial resources are generated by the top 100 nonprofit organizations with budgets topping $4 million. These organizations should be encouraged to collaborate with organizations in the preceding three categories, leveraging their revenue and assets in service to increased community impact. Since these organizations control the majority of resources, they should also be expected to drive innovation through an R&D function.
  • Foundations – It can be easy to forget, but private foundations are nonprofits as well and they play an incredibly important role in providing resources to fuel social impact. Working with individual donors, foundations should strive to curate a community portfolio of nonprofit resources to ensure a healthy and vibrant community. This means working together and understanding community challenges at the ground level.

Going forward, Next Stage is orienting all of its work toward these five classifications of nonprofits, and is committing to work on behalf of the greater good to help organizations be the best representation of where they are in these categories. The firm is reorganizing its service lines to align with this philosophy, and will be stumping on this topic to actualize a community that is knowledgeable and bought-in to the road ahead.

In the weeks to come, this series will explore each of these five categories, making suggestions for how nonprofits, donors and volunteers can optimize their organizations to create a dynamic Community Social Impact Portfolio.  I will be joined in this effort by Next Stage’s Caylin Viales, who will collaborate on the series and is a big part of helping to create our firm’s response to this new way of seeing our charge.

As always, we hope you will digest this content (we know its wordy – these are big ideas!) and engage us on it.

Because these nonprofits belong to all of us. And it’s about time we acted like it.

Just starting this series? Read the other installments here:

Overview: The Community Social Impact Portfolio
Emerging Organizations
Niche Organizations
Imported Organizations
Blue Chip Organizations


JoshJosh Jacobson is Managing Director of Next Stage Consulting, a Charlotte-based firm focused on organizational development and fund development for the nonprofit sector. Next Stage Consulting provides organizations access to affordable, high-quality consulting services to help them “get to the next level.” Josh is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) and is President Elect for the Charlotte Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Position Opening: Executive Director, Charlotte Bilingual Preschool

Position Description: Executive Director

Overview

Client: Charlotte Bilingual Preschool
Location: 6300 Highland Ave, Charlotte, NC 28215
Founded: 1999
Reports To:  Board of Directors

Charlotte Bilingual Preschool — Organizational Description

Mission
Charlotte Bilingual Preschool prepares Spanish-speaking children for success in school and life by providing superior dual-language early childhood education. The preschool supports students’ families with parenting, life skills and English-language classes, enabling them to sustain and nurture their children’s educational and emotional development.

Overview
Charlotte Bilingual Preschool (CltBP) is a five-star licensed preschool that prepares low-income Spanish-speaking students to enter kindergarten ready to learn. CltBP offers students a dual-language education using the Creative Curriculum and proven best practices for bilingual learners. In addition, the school provides parents with coaching, tools, workshops and resources to aid them as educational partners and advocates and ensure their children’s continued success in school. Recognizing that learning and development begins before birth, CltBP also offers an Infant/Toddler program for parents with children from birth to three years old, Creciendo Juntos (Growing Together). This program offers hands-on, experiential parent education classes that supports parents to be their child’s first teachers.

CltBP’s Board of Directors has put forth an ambitious strategic vision for the next several years: to be a pioneer in the 0 to 5 educational space by creating innovative, research-based solutions for preparing Latino children for success in school and life. It is CltBP’s intention to be an example of a unified Charlotte where low-income Latino families successfully cross social boundaries to form a diverse learning community that lays the foundation for young children to be global citizens.

Milestones
When the school opened in 1999, it was named Central Avenue Bilingual Preschool (CABP) after the street where the school was first established. From 1999 to 2009, CABP grew from 15 students to 96, reaching capacity at its original location. In 2012, the school changed its name to Charlotte Bilingual Preschool in preparation for future growth. Today, CltBP is located in Hickory Grove Elementary School Annex, where the school now serves 108 preschoolers and their families, as well as 80 additional families through its Infant/Toddler Program.

The Role
Now in its 18th year, Charlotte Bilingual Preschool is modifying its staff leadership structure, establishing an Executive Director role that will provide overall management and serve as the face of the organization.  A Program Director, also a new role, is currently being sought to provide day-to-day management of the preschool, allowing the Executive Director to focus on strategy, relationship-building, partnership-development and fundraising.

The Charlotte Bilingual Preschool’s Board of Directors is seeking an energetic, experienced nonprofit professional with a passion for dual-language learners to serve as its Executive Director.


DUTIES & RESPONSIBILITIES

Management & Leadership

  • Serves as the face of the School, compellingly articulating the School’s vision to various audiences
  • Works collaboratively with Program Director, providing leadership and internal direction to ensure effective School management
  • Defines the organization’s long-term goals and strategic focus in partnership with the Board of Directors, and implements strategic plans and annual operating plans
  • Works in partnership with the Board to set and accomplish the organization’s mission and vision

Human Resources

  • Recruits, supervises, develops, evaluates and retains superior faculty and staff
  • Promotes a strong and intentional organizational culture in which faculty and staff are empowered, feel valued and are regularly recognized for their contributions
  • Provides overall management of the human resources function, including supervision and a performance appraisal system

Fiscal Management

  • Understands and supervises the business functions of the school, including budgeting; monitoring and reporting income, expenses, investments, and cash flow; maintenance of appropriate records; and assisting the school’s auditors
  • Maintain enrollment while monitoring and assuring payments and revenues are collected
  • Ensures that fiscal management complies with all legal and grant requirements, and is in keeping with sound financial practices of the nonprofit community

External Relations

  • Provides overall leadership in external relations including partner development and fund development, engaging in consistent outreach efforts and managing a portfolio of relationships
  • Engages public, private and nonprofit leaders to develop strong partnerships that serve the mission and vision of the preschool
  • Serves as the preschool’s spokesperson for media relations, and works to become a go-to resource for perspective related to Latino families and education
  • Engages in public speaking and advocacy opportunities, telling the preschool’s powerful story
  • Establishes and implements in tandem with Development Director an annual fund development plan with fundraising goals, strategies, action items, timelines, and assigned responsibilities
  • Participates directly in fundraising activities, including identifying and meeting with donors and prospective donors to generate support
  • Provides direction and supports board member involvement in fund development

Program Oversight

  • Work in tandem with Program Director to develop, implement and coordinate yearlong school curriculum and conduct ongoing assessment of the effectiveness of planned curriculum
  • Provide regularized and systematic staff development opportunities
  • Regularly meet with faculty and staff to discuss and review curriculum

Qualifications
The ideal candidate would have the following capabilities and qualities:

  • Experience in the early education or human services sector
  • Demonstrated passion for bilingual learners and their families
  • Deep experience in external relations, preferably in the Charlotte market
  • Significant fundraising experience and accomplishments
  • Knowledge and experience in organizational oversight
  • Proven ability to provide leadership and inspiration to faculty, staff and volunteers
  • Demonstrated excellence in communications and interpersonal skills
  • Demonstrated track record in financial management
  • Bilingual candidates strongly preferred but not a requirement
  • Bachelor’s degree required

Compensation
Salary will be competitive and commensurate with experience. Health and retirement benefits offered.

To Apply

Charlotte Bilingual Preschool is an Equal Opportunity Employer committed to inclusive hiring and dedicated to diversity in its work and staff. Employment decisions are made without regard to race, color, religion, gender, sex, national origin, physical or mental disability, age, sexual orientation, veteran status, or any other characteristic protected by applicable state or federal law. Charlotte Bilingual Preschool encourages candidates of all groups and communities to apply for this position.

Beginning May 24, 2017, all inquiries, nominations and applications are to be directed via email to Next Stage Consulting: search@nextstage-consulting.com.  Applications should include a cover letter and CV.  Please indicate in the subject line of your email the position and organization to which you are applying and where you learned of the opportunity. NO PHONE CALLS PLEASE.

Please note that only those candidates invited for screening will be contacted.

Framing It: An Arts Response to ‘Leading on Opportunity’

By Hannah Grannemann

Josh and I started this blog series in April 2017 with a few goals:

  1. Bring attention to the work on social mobility already being done by artists and arts organizations in Charlotte. (one example here)
  2. Raise awareness of the arts as a way to have a positive impact on social mobility with the community leaders outside the arts who would be leading efforts in response to the Opportunity Task Force’s report.
  3. Give the arts community confidence to take a “seat at the table” and contribute meaningfully in this time when attention is being paid and resources allocated on the issue of social mobility.

So far, we did this in the blog series by going through the specific recommendations in the report and sharing ideas and stories. We promoted the blog through social media and our networks. Posts in the series have been read by nearly 1,000 people (at least) and we’ve received incredibly positive feedback.  Thank you for reading and sharing and commenting over the past few months.

As we wrap up this phase of the blog series, here are a few closing thoughts. Then, I’ll outline our next steps.

Systems

A first read through this series might seem like it did the opposite of one of the foundational ideas of the Leading on Opportunity report: focused on programs rather than systems. Yes, the posts were mostly sharing practical ideas and approaches connected to specific recommendations. We did this in service of our goals of raising awareness of how the arts can be used in service of supporting improvements of social mobility and to bring attention to existing programs.

Underneath it all, we were making our own recommendation about systems: make the arts a system. In other words, for better results, incorporate arts into the systems that are working on social mobility issues, and incorporate social mobility into the arts. The benefits for individuals, groups, teams and organizations will manifest directly, or perhaps as the “x-factor” or “secret sauce” that will make an approach effective long term.

More than social capital

Social capital is surely the area of the report where people will naturally want to put the arts. (The report defines social capital as “the relationships and networks people have that can connect them to opportunities.”) Yes, Yes, Yes! We should absolutely align ourselves with building social capital in Charlotte. Making art, experiencing art, and learning through the arts are excellent ways to create relationships and build social cohesion across differences that pay off not only intrinsically but in connecting to opportunities. It’s also the only area where the arts were mentioned explicitly (Recommendation U4), referring to the 2014 Cultural Vision Plan. The Task Force named it a “cross-cutting factor,” so the arts would have broad impact if able to describe accomplishments there.

Maybe I’m too pragmatic, but I’m concerned about our ability as a sector to describe accomplishments in building social capital.  I fear putting all our eggs in this basket would undermine the arts sector’s credibility in the social mobility movement. The arts are not currently set up to measure social capital or our impact on it. If social capital is the only area where the arts sector focuses its efforts, the arts will not receive the recognition for impact that will be crucial for the arts to move from an afterthought to “top of mind” when working on social problems. It’s hard enough for the arts to get respect in our society. It’s hard enough to describe the concrete impacts of the arts where we know them (such as on improving high school graduation rates of at-risk students or positive impacts on economic development).

An essential way for getting people to recognize that the arts are an underutilized means for improving the lives of the people on whom this report is focused is to make direct connections on impact on recognized basic needs through rigorous assessment, an area I identified in my first post. We outlined areas throughout this blog series connected to concrete recommendations from early childhood (here and here) and parenting (here and here) to workforce development (here and here). Put these ideas – and others – to the test, and I mean TEST them! Build assessment into the process so that we can have answers to funders and people we need to bring over to our cause when they say “we’d like to fund the arts, but there are higher needs.”

Segregation

An area we didn’t discuss in the series is the other overarching issue that the Task Force thought was so important it is literally at the center of their model: segregation.

I strongly believe that the arts can be a major, major force in moving our society forward by overcoming the impact of segregation – a problem that needs to be tackled head-on. Connecting ideas from above, this can happen in two ways: the arts can be an integral factor in creating effective social programs that dismantle structural racism, and the arts can build community (social capital) across difference through the arts – creating art, experiencing art, learning through the arts.

Ethics philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah speaks in this interview on the radio show On Being about how relationships with people who are different than us are first built through in small gestures, “sidling up to it.” He says, don’t start with big conversations about the big differences like race and religion – start with the weather, sports, your kids, whatever joins you, binds you. Create relationship first, then get to the tough stuff. It’s widely accepted that the reason that the relatively rapid increase in acceptance of marriage equality in the U.S. came from straight people realizing that they already had personal relationships with LGBTQ people: they were family, friends, neighbors, community leaders, members of their faith community.

The arts can nudge this process along and accelerate it. The shared experience of the arts can be a way that people are willing to build those relationships, engage with people that are different from them with an open mind and heart. Maybe that’s through content that is about race, religion or politics, or maybe not – maybe its just about interesting, entertaining and engaging art.

What’s next?

We’re going to seek out some community leaders to get responses to our writings and share them here, so come back to read them.

We are each going to continue our own work on social mobility through the arts and champion others who do so. The principals that guided us in the beginning will still guide us, such as “staying in our lane” and advocating for the arts to be part of the conversation and resource allocation. We’ll continue to post periodically here on this subject.

Our deepest thanks and gratitude to all of you who have read and shared and commented on this series and are working in this intersection of arts and social mobility in Charlotte!


HannahHannah Grannemann is an arts administrator based in Charlotte, NC. She has worked in theatre and the arts for 17 years, including with Yale Repertory Theatre, the Guthrie Theater, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and as a fundraising and strategic planning consultant. She is a Board member of Arts NC, the statewide advocacy group and Theatre for Young Audiences/USA and serves on an advisory council for the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Hannah holds an MFA in Theater Management from Yale School of Drama and an MBA from Yale School of Management.

Tell Me a Story and Make It Good

By Josh Jacobson

In this blog post, I’ll discuss Strategy H: Apprenticeships, Paid Internships and other Work-Based Learning, otherwise known as “Learn & Earn,” though the thoughts here apply to the role of the broader community as a part of implementation of the entire plan.

I must admit, I’m heartened to see the impact the Economic Opportunity Task Force report Leading on Opportunity has already had on leaders in our community.  One’s familiarity with the report serves as a sort of litmus test on how plugged-in that individual is. Such is the nature (and legacy) of this important initiative.

I was at an unrelated meeting recently and when the subject of the report came up, one influential leader took out her dog-eared copy of the report, with post-its marking pages and highlighter on every page.  Leaders of nonprofits throughout Mecklenburg County see this effort as a blueprint to the future; a roadmap for social impact. I’ve also taken to carrying a copy of the Recommendation Matrix with me and find myself referencing it a lot.

Because of the work I do, I am also brought in contact with donors and volunteers who are outside the nonprofit mainstream – supportive people who have day jobs and do what they can to make a difference. And the news there is less rosy.  When I bring up the report, most of those people have not heard of it. Many are even unfamiliar with the Harvard University/UC Berkeley Study that inspired the initiative in the first place.

Such is the challenge for those who are working to implement this important work.  What is a seminal work to leaders in our community has perhaps yet to connect with the broader community.

Strategy H is focused on increasing paid work-based learning opportunities for students, and it uses my favorite language yet: “galvanize community.” To make good on this ambition, it will take more than civic leaders – it will take an entire community working collaboratively to “create apprenticeships, paid internships and other work-based learning programs.”

If you’ve followed this series all along, you know what is next – isn’t galvanizing community a unique strength of the arts, to inspire people and encourage them to think and act differently?

Storytelling as Advocacy

Strategy H is focused squarely on employer commitment and infrastructure development.  The pathway from student to employee is one that will require the buy-in of many along the way, and none more important than the businesses who employ our residents.  And while corporations are an important driver of this, so too must be the small businesses and trades that are less often at the table for civic initiatives.

When I speak to small business owners about their commitment to the work of any given nonprofit, many speak to moments that serve as inflection points – a time when their heart was touched and their minds changed.  While some were impacted by an experience in childhood or as a result of parenting, it is just as often a surprising anectdote from adulthood – a time when that person encountered a social cause that was unexpected and not planned. “I feel like I stumbled onto this cause…” is a typical comment.

Allowing people to “stumble upon” new and different ways of thinking is a strength of quality storytelling.

According to Donna Scott, founder of donna scott productions, the arts can make social issues easier to approach:

“Theatre can act as a neutral third party on topics. It has the ability to present issues and current events in a compelling story format to an audience. Since actors are playing the parts, the audience is naturally more receptive and open to the concepts presented. Reacting to a story being told feels safer to most than encountering real people involved in a specific situation.”

So there is something to the way the arts can frame social issues, to challenge the participant while also entertaining.  Robin Tynes, Artistic Director of Three Bone Theatre concurs:

“There is something very powerful about sitting together with strangers, who all have different experiences, in a dark room to witness live storytelling. It helps to develop empathy and an understanding of the effects of circumstances on people’s lives.”

Surely the same can be said for arts and cultural organizations throughout Charlotte in every discipline.  It is present in a recital for Carolinas Latin Dance Company and The Bechlter’s thrilling Inside Out program.  It can be found on the walls of the Levine Museum of the New South, in the ears of audiences at Tosco Music, and on the stages of producers like donna scott productions and Three Bone Theatre.

If we are looking to encourage local businesses to create new work-based learning opportunities and build a pipeline of CMS students into their companies, how can that ambition be helped along by storytelling? Or really any of the strategies expressed in Leading on Opportunity? The only limitation is the imagination.

Social Capital for Nonprofits

Indeed, a galvanized community can do almost anything.  And while the report calls for increased development of social capital for those in poverty, it is so often the nonprofits themselves, who are called upon to implement change, that lack the social capital (or the marketing budgets) to make a galvanized constituency possible.

I have become convinced that the challenge most organizations face is not only a strategic one but a relational one.  All the planning in the world is unlikely to be successful if the network isn’t there to deliver on it.  While this is a primary role of the board of directors, it is not for that group alone.  A board is comprised of 15-25 people, and nonprofits need tens of thousands of people to come alongside them to make real change.  We need an army and I believe we need the arts community to help draft them into service.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that our future as Charlotteans is at stake.  More than ever, we need the sort of storytelling that inspires people to act.  It is time for our incredible arts community to rise to this challenge.


JoshJosh Jacobson is Managing Director of Next Stage Consulting, a Charlotte-based firm focused on organizational development and fund development for the nonprofit sector. Josh has worked with more than 150 nonprofit organizations throughout the Carolinas, including both human services and arts organiations. Before relocating to NC, Josh spent his formative years working in the cultural sector as a fundraiser for The Juilliard School and Manhattan Theatre Club. Josh is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) and is President Elect for the Charlotte Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Creating Shared Meaning and Purpose: The Arts and Encouraging Committed Relationships to Improve Outcomes for Children

By Hannah Grannemann

In this blog post, I’ll discuss Strategy L: Encourage the formation and maintenance of committed two-parent families, in particular the recommendation to Study, adopt and implement evidence-based programs that effectively encourage young people to be part of committed relationships when considering parenthood and briefly touch on Strategy M on reproductive health education.

Here’s the understatement of the century: marriage and parenting are incredibly personal and complicated processes. They are impacted by our own upbringing, the views and values of friends, co-workers and acquaintances, the cultures and sub-cultures that surround us. The Opportunity Task Force acknowledged and dealt with this complexity in their work (including acknowledging our state’s “shameful legacy” of forced sterilization), ultimately adopting inclusive language around supporting freedom to choose the best arrangement of partnership and parenthood and empowering women with information and options around contraception and delaying pregnancy.

How can the arts support thoughtful individual choices around creating committed partnerships and families?

While I’ve been doing my best impression of a policy wonk in my recent posts (especially this one on workforce development), my answer to this question takes me to contemplating the human spirit.

One of the most important impacts participating in the arts has is developing shared meaning and shared purpose. A committed relationship and parenting at its deepest level is nothing if not an endeavor to create shared meaning and purpose. The arts can “encourage the formation and maintenance of committed two-parent families” as the Opportunity Task Force recommends by nurturing the individuals identities and the shared expression that is marriage and parenthood.

This is no small or esoteric matter: this is the stuff of creating relationships that are psychologically healthy for all involved, creating a foundation of interpersonal support (aka social capital) which is sorely needed if people living in poverty are going to be able to fight and survive all the forces that our society is throwing at them that makes it so incredibly hard to survive and thrive. How do any of us get through tough times, situations or lives without the support of others? We don’t. As social creatures, we need deep relationships with people who understand us and support us if we are ever going to have a chance.

Sparking Connection

Shared experiences of partners around something other than the kids or stressors of life can be something positive that just might be the spot of brightness that allows a deep partnership to evolve. Of course this doesn’t have to be the arts, but the arts do make explicit many implicit nuances of our human existence that have the potential to spark deeper understanding of another person, if shared and used in this way.

I’m not even talking about making time for a trip to a museum or theater. Pop culture for this purpose is just fine: popular music, television, movies, books are all great ways for people to connect. The point is to use the arts or cultural experiences as a way of talking, bonding and getting to know each other as two people consider making a commitment to each other, or deepen a commitment they already have, even if from outside circumstances such as being brought to a lifelong connection through an unexpected pregnancy. (Remember, we are talking about how to make life better for children of fragile families.)  This kind of conversation might even be a safe way for young people to learn how to disagree in their relationships, a key component to relationship longevity. Practicing disagreeing respectfully about a character on TV could be a way to learn how to handle later, much more important (and inevitable) disagreements around co-habitation, money and parenting.

You Being You

People can use the arts for their own self-expression and ways of describing themselves to each other. Your own writing or artwork can help someone else to understand you better. The process will make the creator feel more empowered and know themselves better. When shared, it has the potential for being a part of building the respect needed to create healthy relationships.

As I’ve mentioned before, the arts are a well-known way to keep at-risk students in school and on track for graduation. Why? They are more engaged with school and these students are using the arts as a way to get to know themselves and expand their view of what their life can be, so they feel optimistic and invested in their own future, yielding positive choices. This same process for getting young people to continue their education can help young people with developing the knowledge, self-respect and empowerment to make positive choices around relationship and sexuality, too.

Other Applications

To address concrete health issues, using the arts to communicate about health and relationship issues is not uncommon. I’ve come across plays about relationship violence for teen audiences, art shows by teen mothers, writing programs of all kinds, from single fathers to people who are incarcerated. The arts can communicate the human element and make issues more tangible to young people.

Children’s involvement in the arts can bring parents together as well. I mentioned several parent-child programs in my earlier post that could also help to deepen parents bonds between each other as well as the child. Parents joining together to support their children’s interests and development may be one of the strongest forces to bring them together in relationship.

All of this could be included in the ways that Charlotte identifies to adopt programs and policies that encourage young people to be a part of committed relationships: teaching them the skills (yes, skills that can be learned) to creating healthy relationships and build the foundation for being great parents. To repeat what I said in my post on parenting in early childhood, the arts could be an “x-factor” that brings it all together to make a real difference, or it could be a primary means to move the needle.

Using the arts to empower young people during a crucial period of developing their own sense of themselves and how they relate to others is powerful. If the arts were to be used thoughtfully for this purpose, it would enhance any program on health and relationships. Why? Because the arts touch and reveal what is deepest within us: our spirit.


HannahHannah Grannemann is an arts administrator based in Charlotte, NC. She has worked in theatre and the arts for 17 years, including with Yale Repertory Theatre, the Guthrie Theater, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and as a fundraising and strategic planning consultant. She is a Board member of Arts NC, the statewide advocacy group and Theatre for Young Audiences/USA and serves on an advisory council for the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Hannah holds an MFA in Theater Management from Yale School of Drama and an MBA from Yale School of Management.

Small, but Mighty: Workforce Development in the Arts

By Hannah Grannemann

In this blog post, I’ll address Strategies F, G, I and J in the Opportunity Task Force report, addressing career pathways outside of college, especially apprenticeships and workplace-based learning.

How many jobs in the arts can you name? Actor, painter, dancer, musician, filmmaker… hmmm…

How about computer programmer, software developer, database designers? How about human resources manager, marketing manager or finance director? What about carpenter, costume stitcher, electrician, customer service representative?

Yes, all of these jobs, and many more exist in the arts. The average person doesn’t fully understand all the hundreds of people it takes to produce the professional art that we see on stage or see in a museum or gallery. Workforce development programs, guidance counselors, and adults planning career days also aren’t aware. Students are missing out on learning about career paths that might interest them.

Which students might be a good fit for a career in the arts? Simply put: ALL OF THEM. Look at the list of jobs above – it’s a list that fits all kinds of skills, personalities and interests.  It’s been well proven that participation in the arts help keep at risk students on the path to graduation.  Let’s work on transitioning these students to careers that will similarly keep them invested in their own career trajectory and meet their financial needs.

Changing Public Perception

The arts don’t come top of mind when students, parents, teachers and guidance counselors are thinking about career paths because of a perception that the arts only employ artists, that it doesn’t pay well and that it’s unstable. These perceptions may also push arts out of the picture when public officials are thinking about workforce development programs. Also, workforce development programs may not think of the arts because they think the sector is too small to be worthy of investment.

The Opportunity Task Force report encourages employers of all sizes to invest in workplace-based learning. No, the arts isn’t the largest sector in North Carolina, but the creative industries (a broader definition of the arts industry) are 3% of the workforce – a big enough size to get some scale going for workforce development programs. No, you may not earn a living as a painter, but expand what you think of as a “job in the arts” to include administrators, technicians, IT and others, and there is full time and part time work in the arts. Will you get rich? Probably not, but most jobs pay more than $15 per hour, and many pay $50,000 or more, a solid middle to upper-middle class income.

Arts organizations would be fantastic places to expand apprenticeship and workplace-based learning. From what I know from my time in the Charlotte cultural community, organizations are eager for it – if support and resources are available. Arts organizations are stretched very thin and human resource capacity is what they need most. Training programs that help expand their capacity and increase and diversify the talent pool entering the industry would be welcomed.

Overcoming Obstacles

There are some systemic issues that would have to be considered when developing an apprenticeship or workplace-based training program. Arts organizations don’t often hire people with only a high school diploma. This is because organizations don’t typically have in-depth onboarding or training programs that you might find at a larger business. Instead they rely on colleges to train their entry level employees in whatever area they are going into, even if the job doesn’t *really* need a college degree.

Take an entry level carpenter position at a theatre, which would pay between $15 and $18 per hour for part-time work, or $24,000-35,000 annually (with benefits) for full time. The job doesn’t actually need the person to have a college degree, but a theater who knows that a person went to college and did a certain amount of technical theater in their department at college will have the basic carpentry skills they need. They don’t have to train this person – the job applicant paid for the training themselves! Does it really matter that they also have four semesters of play analysis and theatre history? No, but that came along with the carpentry skills that they did get that they need for the carpenter position. A college degree is actually too much education for this position. The same could be said about many technical and even administrative positions in arts organizations.

Imagine a 6-week program that pays its participants and gives them these entry-level technical, customer service, or administrative skills. (I’ve asked this question of people in the field before, and they think getting basic training would take about 6 weeks.) It could serve people who have or are nearing getting their high school diploma. They receive a certificate at the end and – if there’s not a job at the organization where they did the training – take that to any organization nationwide along with their instructors’ offer to serve as references (incredibly helpful in our industry). It would help our field, which often struggles to find entry level employees (especially in technical areas) and give social capital and geographic mobility to people who need it. This kind of program would also position someone who completes it very well for college or a more in depth technical field, studying the arts, engineering, business, or anything else.

Funding needs to come along with this kind of program. Since organizations don’t currently have robust training programs as part of their operations, without funding that will cover pay for the trainees and compensation for the staff members doing the training.

Additional systemic issues need to be addressed by the arts organizations. It will be new for them to proactively develop talent in this way, and working with trainees that don’t have college degrees. Support and guidance from other companies or workforce development programs will be needed to make it successful. It is well recognized (and a point of embarrassment in the field) that staffs of arts organizations are not very diverse; people who work in arts organizations are mostly white and college educated. Organizations would need to undergo a cultural change – and a sorely needed one – to successfully welcome, develop and retain a more diverse staff.

There might not be thousands of jobs in the arts or creative industries, but there are probably hundreds in North Carolina. We are a small but mighty industry well positioned to continue to need to employ people as automation takes over other fields. (The famous saying is that “You’ll always need four people to play a string quartet live.”) Investing in workforce development in the arts would help the field become more diverse and sustainable, could be just the right fit for a person looking to find an interesting career – with or without college.


HannahHannah Grannemann is an arts administrator based in Charlotte, NC. She has worked in theatre and the arts for 17 years, including with Yale Repertory Theatre, the Guthrie Theater, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and as a fundraising and strategic planning consultant. She is a Board member of Arts NC, the statewide advocacy group and Theatre for Young Audiences/USA and serves on an advisory council for the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Hannah holds an MFA in Theater Management from Yale School of Drama and an MBA from Yale School of Management.

Arts As Disruption

by Josh Jacobson

In this blog post, I’ll discuss the Opportunity Task Force’s Strategy D: Strengthen the early care and education workforce to improve the quality and experiences of early care and education available to children ages birth to five. In particular, the recommendation to: Increase access to ongoing professional development for early care and education providers that is responsive to their limited time and financial resources, as well as to their educational needs.

I am the child of a children’s librarian.  For most of my childhood, the school bus dropped me off at my mother’s library where I spent the last few hours in the day lost in the stacks. My caretakers were Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak.

There is not a time in my life when I wasn’t surrounded by books and learning tools designed to stimulate my imagination.  I was encouraged to draw and build things with Legos.  I played with modeling clay and acted out fantasies I found in stories. Indeed, my poor future instructors would comment on report cards that the absence of an active imagination was not one of my challenges.

Einstein is noted as saying that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”  The tools provided via arts and culture experiences are among the best to encourage the development of imagination.  And yet we live in a world that has equated arts experiences as an enrichment rather than core curriculum.  While we know this is true in the K-12 space, the question for those seeking to implement the Opportunity Task Force recommendations will be how the arts is treated in early care and education.

Like a Kid in a Candy Store

When considering how the arts interfaces with early childhood education, one area funder’s initiative comes immediately to mind – PNC Bank’s Grow Up Great.  The initiative “helps children from birth through age five develop a passion for learning that lasts a lifetime – and can help set them on a path to success.”  In 2012, PNC Bank supported Community School of the Arts (CSA) in an effort to bring dynamic new experiences into the Bethlehem Center’s Head Start classrooms.  Through one-on-one coaching activities for teachers, CSA’s Teaching Artist Ginny Boyd was able to introduce the arts as a framework for improving learning environments.

“The arts can be a game-changer in early childhood classrooms,” Ms. Boyd said. “You see a child tracing his ABC’s and you realize that there are probably better ways to empower him to explore the alphabet.”

Through her experience with the initiative funded by Grow Up Great, Ms. Boyd developed trust with teachers in the classroom who were often pulled in many different directions.  Since so much of the teacher’s day is prescriptively outlined, the concept of structured play that fuels imagination is perceived as a luxury.

“In my early days with the program, I was surprised to find the art station in the classroom largely untouched,” she said. “But looking at the station, it wasn’t surprising. Students need guidance to explore their imagination, and sending them to a table filled with a myriad of arts supplies can be too intimidating.”

The introduction of arts methodologies served as a disruptor, but in the positive sense.  Teachers accustomed to checking boxes on spreadsheets were empowered to themselves think creatively about the individual needs of each student and encourage them to tackle concepts that were often considered “beyond their vocabulary.” Creative approaches that used the arts were quickly adopted by teachers at the Bethlehem Center because they were working.

Making Lasting Change

And yet the assessment world continues to operate in a state of constant rigidity.  Despite countless studies that suggest developing imagination is a building block to developing critical thinking, it is perceived as too challenging to measure in the short term.  Teachers initially resistant to CSA’s model noted that it was too difficult to see progress, and as such, too difficult to document.

This is one important hurdle that must be eliminated if the aims of the Opportunity Task Force are to be achieved: barriers to innovation.  While it is important that professional development opportunities be made that are mindful of limited time and resources, this assumes that the time already being spent is as productive as it could be.

According to the Brookings Institute in their Puzzling It Out Consensus Statement: “Ongoing innovation and evaluation are needed during and after pre-k to ensure continued improvement in creating and sustaining children’s learning gains. Research-practice partnerships are a promising way of achieving this goal. These kinds of efforts are needed to generate more complete and reliable evidence on effectiveness factors in pre-k and elementary school that generate long-run impacts.”

In other words, if the arts is positively affecting students in a classroom in Charlotte, but no one involved in policy is around to witness it, does it make a sound?

Innovation in early care and education is needed, but because government funding is so often tied to rigid near-term outcome measurements, it is difficult to realize. Which is why funders like PNC Bank are so important.  But they are not enough.  Institutional funders are appropriate catalysts for this sort of innovation, but long-term, lasting change will only be possible if policymakers are at the table to bear witness to the positive impact the arts has on early childhood learning.

What better time to address the important role of arts experiences in early care and education than when our community’s civic, corporate and governmental leaders are so dialed in to a shared framework like Leading On Opportunity?


JoshJosh Jacobson is Managing Director of Next Stage Consulting, a Charlotte-based firm focused on organizational development and fund development for the nonprofit sector. Josh has worked with more than 150 nonprofit organizations throughout the Carolinas, including both human services and arts organiations. Before relocating to NC, Josh spent his formative years working in the cultural sector as a fundraiser for The Juilliard School and Manhattan Theatre Club. Josh is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) and is President Elect for the Charlotte Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Supporting Parents and Caregivers through the Arts

By Hannah Grannemann

In this blog post, I’ll discuss the Opportunity Task Force’s
Strategy E: Support parents and caregivers as a child’s first teacher in promoting positive early brain development, social emotional health and early literacy beginning at birth. There are connections to other, related strategies, such as mental health (Strategy R).

At a CMS magnet school fair when looking at options for my son, I had a memorable conversation with a teacher. She taught at an elementary school that was a part-magnet for learning immersion and talent development for “advanced learners” with a “rigorous curriculum” and part-neighborhood school. I asked why the school didn’t include the neighborhood kids in the magnet program, since they were all starting at kindergarten. With sadness, she said, “the kids from the neighborhood just wouldn’t be able to keep up.” I thought, they haven’t even started kindergarten and we know that they will do less well than their peers?

I shared her sadness. It wasn’t news to me that many kids from low income households arrive at kindergarten already behind – but it is rare that it is stated so plainly. I’m reminded of this story as I read the Opportunity Task Force report’s recommendations on early childhood.

Let me focus on the Task Force’s recommendation on parenting and caregivers in early childhood and ask the question:

How can the arts be used by parents and caregivers at home to ensure children are developing well during this crucial period of early childhood?

As I said in my earlier blog post, we are not starting from scratch. In fact, the arts are so well integrated into daycare and preschool classrooms as teaching tools, we don’t even think of them as something separate. That’s because the arts are a natural fit with the developmental needs of birth to age 5 that lead right into kindergarten readiness.

The Opportunity Task Force strategy focuses on the rapid brain development during this time of life. As they note, “sound ‘brain architecture’ lays the foundation for later emotional, physical, intellectual and social development.” [Side note: I recall hearing Task Force Co-Chair Ophelia Garmon-Brown saying at an event that the Task Force had read about how learning music helps young brains develop – fantastic to hear that was part of their learning.]

While a parent can’t see a brain actually developing, this development can be witnessed in real life in the developmental stages a child goes through, so these outer manifestations can be what a parent can focus on.

Here are some simple examples of how the arts are used to teach the most fundamental skills of early childhood:

Language and Literacy: How did you learn your ABC’s? By singing the Alphabet song! That’s music integration. What do you read before words? Pictures of course – that’s visual art: drawing, painting, collage, photography.*

Fine Motor Skills: Playdoh and clay, painting, drawing in all media, stringing beads, making crafts all practice fine motor skills that are used in writing, eating, and everyday life.

Gross Motor Skills: Dancing, of course! Dramatic play as well. When you’re pretending to be a firefighter (for example), you’re using your whole body to act out the story in a very precise way.

Writing: Drawing is a pre-writing skill. For example, coloring within the lines helps kids learn how to space letters when writing*. Holding a marker or crayon to draw is practice for holding a pencil to write.

Social skills: Dramatic play (which starts as early as when you play “peek a boo” at around 5 months old) helps kids figure out different ways of interacting and social norms and boundaries of different people.

Emotional development: The arts are a primary way that people (including children) express themselves and explore their thoughts, points of view, emotions and relationships. Preschool teachers know that each drawing has a story. It may look like scribbles, but if you stop and ask a child, it may be the stars and a rocket flying into space*. Or a child starts playing with the baby dolls when she never has before. Why? There’s a new baby coming soon to her home and she’s trying to process how her life will change.

Preschool teachers know how the arts help them accomplish their teaching goals. The preschool classroom may look like just play, but it’s a complex learning environment. Teachers develop curriculum and lesson plans to develop specific developmental skills both cognitive and social-emotional. Preschool teachers have expertise – many have associates, Bachelor’s or even Master’s degrees in Early Childhood Education – not to mention years and decades of teaching experience.

Keys to Dissemination

Let’s get more of this knowledge about using the arts out to parents and caregivers to use at home for their youngest children. But how?

  1. Get the knowledge and expertise about how to use the arts for early childhood development from the teachers to the parents. Three parts to this:
    a) Use the preschool teachers: develop ways for these knowledgeable preschool teachers to teach and support parents in how to use the arts at home to either reinforce what they’re learning at daycare or preschool, or (if they child is not attending a daycare or preschool) what skills are needed and how they can teach them.b) Use the arts teachers: connect the arts teachers in the K-12 CMS and private schools with ways to learn about the developmental needs of early childhood. Find ways and outlets for them to develop curriculum using their art forms in ways that can be used at home and in preschools and daycares. [Another idea: find rock star parents who are home schooling their children and want to share their creative ways of teaching with a broader audience.]c) Use the teaching artists: teaching artists in Charlotte working at arts organizations and community organizations (like the YMCA or JCC) are often familiar with K-12 curriculum because the organizations often need to or want to connect their curriculums to state education standards. Bring them into the early childhood sphere and the needs of infants/toddlers/preschoolers, expand their teaching knowledge and give them the means for creating teaching tools for parents and caregivers.
  2. Increase the number of arts programs for early childhood at community, faith and arts organizations so parents and caregivers can learn arts techniques for teaching and parenting in locations with which they’re already familiar. Arts and community organizations can combine forces with social services to bring, create or adapt programs for low income families that can grow from a developmental activity for the kids to also give parents ideas about how to use the arts at home. [This can also connect to Strategy L, increasing involvement of fathers in their child’s life, by creating opportunities for fathers or both parents to learn.] We don’t even need anything particularly new, probably. Already in Charlotte we have Music Together, Side-by-Side at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, PlayPlay! Theatre, Art Exploration at Community School of the Arts, Creative Movement at Charlotte Ballet, and more. Use the existing arts infrastructure in expanded ways.
  3. Make sure programs are designed with the families in mind. It’s an understatement to say that these families are busy and stressed with fundamental needs. Connect with the families to listen deeply about what would work for them: short videos that are mobile friendly? A booklet? A class? What’s the best location, length and time? What kind of message is going to be most effective – should it focus on future school success, behavior improvements, or family connectedness? [The arts has a positive impact on all these areas, but we might not know which will resonate most with families to get them interested in participating.] How will all this be different for a homeless family, a family in a house with multiple generations under one roof, or a family with experiences of trauma? Don’t generalize, be sure that programs are responsive to any specific needs.
  4. Leverage existing communications channels to maximize effectiveness. Why reinvent the wheel? Use the communication channels of preschools and daycares for families who use them. Depending on what they already use, these might include texting, email, phone calls, websites, notes sent home from school. Use faith and community organizations and their existing programs and communications that reach families, such as the music or dance ministries. Use social services and nonprofits and their existing touchpoints with low income families such as parenting classes, visits or appointments to share these educational arts resources. Use innovative communications methods that have been tried in other settings. For example, text messaging has been used to encourage parents to utilize prenatal care. Why not use it for improving parenting skills? Periodic texts saying something like, “Singing to your baby helps build their vocabulary and brings you closer” could be just the nudge needed to get a parent to do something helpful.

The Impact of Toxic Stress

Another way the arts may meet a need the Opportunity Task Force identified is by addressing the “toxic stress” experienced by children in poverty mentioned in the early childhood strategy. [See also Strategy R on mental health.] Of course, the best way to relieve the toxic stress is by alleviating the ways in which families are finding themselves in poverty in the first place, with job, financial, housing and food insecurity and all the other instabilities they experience.

Even as these areas are being addressed systemically and at the individual family level, the arts may be able to help. A 2016 study by the Society for Research in Child Development showed that intensive arts programming in a Philadelphia preschool with low income children reduced their cortisol (stress hormone) levels.  Chronically high levels of cortisol impede brain development in children.

Can the arts help reduce (or reduce the impact of) toxic stress at home, for parents and children? I don’t have the expertise to say; this would require further study as an offshoot of existing research on interventions on toxic stress. Perhaps integrating the arts into support mechanisms for parents could be effective when used in everyday life. Could parents and children use the arts – any of them – to process and better understand the stressors? For example, would we find that a good 5-minute parent-child dance break or singing along to a favorite song in the car reduces cortisol levels and builds familial bonds? Do one-on-one conversations where a caregiver invites a child to describe their drawing shows the child that they are valued and important, and slows down a busy, stressed parent to connect with and understand their child? It might only be brief – 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there that could be sustained over the long term – but it could contribute to family stability and resiliency.

Access to Quality Care

Finally, it must be said that access to high quality daycare and preschools (who, as I said earlier, already integrate the arts into their curricula), must be increased. This would be a major way to support parents and caregivers in getting access to knowledge and resources about proven ways for how the arts can positively impact early childhood development. The Opportunity Task Force mentions this need many times, calling on the public sector and private businesses to “make the necessary investments to ensure all children in Mecklenburg County from birth to age five have access to quality early care and education” and call for a “comprehensive funding strategy” to do so.

Giving parents and caregivers the tools to use the arts with their children during their early childhood would support all other educational, community and family efforts. It could be an “x-factor” that brings it all together to make a real difference, or it could be a primary means to move the needle.

Don’t miss Josh’s next blog post on supporting the early childhood workforce to create high quality daycares and preschools for low income children.

Thanks for reading and please add your thoughts and comments below, or visit Next Stage Consulting on Facebook and leave your comments there.

*My deep thanks to Connie Smith, Assistant Director of Providence Baptist Church Weekday School for these examples and talking with me about how arts are used in daycares, preschools and family life in preparation for writing this post.


HannahHannah Grannemann is an arts administrator based in Charlotte, NC. She has worked in theatre and the arts for 17 years, including with Yale Repertory Theatre, the Guthrie Theater, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and as a fundraising and strategic planning consultant. She is a Board member of Arts NC, the statewide advocacy group and Theatre for Young Audiences/USA and serves on an advisory council for the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Hannah holds an MFA in Theater Management from Yale School of Drama and an MBA from Yale School of Management.

Second-Class Citizen No More

by Josh Jacobson

“The arts are critical to achieving the goals expressed in the Opportunity Task Force Report.”

Breakfast with the Reemprise Fund’s Charlie Elberson at the Original Pancake House in Midtown provides so much food for thought.  In the wake of the recent publication of Leading on Opportunity, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force Report, I asked him to give his candid assessment of where the arts fits in at a time of such specific focus on economic mobility.

“The arts are where we come together, all of us, from every part of the community,” Mr. Elberson said. “The arts can convene us and encourage us to have the sorts of conversations we need to have, to be inspired to tackle this challenge head on.”

Damn right.  Some may be surprised to learn that I spent my formative years stumping for the arts. I have fought battles time and again, with grantmakers and donors who see the arts as a “nice to have” rather than a “need to have.”  For too long, the arts has been treated as the second-class citizen of the nonprofit world, living apart from the health and human services charities that are said to be doing the serious work of our community.

This perspective must end. Forward progress on the issues in front of us will only be possible through creative strategies. Period.

It is hard to describe the experience of watching someone who has lost a child have the cathartic experience of watching David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, a play which deals with that very subject.  Or to watch members of the Catholic Archdiocese of New York huddle in the lobby of City Center in Manhattan following their attendance of the world premiere of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, a play that deals with the taboo topic of child abuse in the church.

I’ve long said that contemporary theatre has the potential to evoke emotional response and inspire dialogue that can be cross-cultural and multi-generational, augmenting its entertainment value with a tangible educational component that can break down class and economic barriers.  In an age of disconnect and information overload, theatre remains an influential portal for individuals to make sense of the world around them through the power of storytelling.

Sure, that may be great copy, but what does arts engagement that achieves this at scale really look like? On the ground, where this sort of changed perspective is needed if we are ever going to motivate the Charlotte community to tackle the challenge of economic opportunity with gusto?

Changing Perspectives in Less Than Five Minutes

Look no further than About Face Charlotte.

Next Stage has had the great pleasure of working with About Face Charlotte, a “photographic and storytelling project that connects people to people in our community, elevates compassion and empathy, and encourages ongoing acts of love and altruism.”  The group is perhaps best known for its Blessing Box campaign, which has united people from all over the region in a group artmaking project that is, well, extraordinary.  Do yourself a favor and take five minutes to watch the video on the Blessing Box homepage:

Wow, right? When I first heard from About Face’s Creative Lead Scott Gardener, I will admit that I did not fully grasp their work.  But as I watched the five-minute videos on their website, I was overcome with emotion. Through videography, the organization humanizes the people who are too often expressed only in spreadsheets and community health assessments.  And with the Blessing Box campaign, About Face has created an amazingly tactile, hands-on artmaking experience that is engaging communities of every color and socio-economic level in the Charlotte region.  Check it out for yourself at the gallery crawl at Grace AME Zion Church on April 27 from 6-9pm.

If ever there was an effort that was laying the groundwork for the activities outlined in the Opportunity Task Force Report, it is this.

Engendering Empathy

Arts education has long been the equalizer for arts and culture organizations seeking grant funding. And even then, the outcomes measured tend to be pre- and post- quantitative statistics.  How much information did the student retain?  Can the student name three characters from the play?  What percentage of the class was present at the arts activity, and how does that compare to a regular school day?

And yet we know, via countless studies from institutions like the Wallace Foundation and the NASAA, it is the arts capacity for engendering empathy that is among its greatest strengths.  As outlined in the Opportunity Task Force, early care and education is vital to ensuring success later in life. But so too is building empathy in every child, to encourage them to see their role in a broader community that extends well beyond the walls of their home or their school.  To skip this step is to ensure that each successive generation will find itself back at square one, with distance both physical and virtual between members of their own community.

Or as Mr. Elberson states it: “The arts cross over the things that divide different kinds of people and suddenly we’re involved with each other like never before. We’re plagued these days with divisiveness and hate – I think arts may be the antidote.”

And so it is time for the arts and cultural organizations of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community to claim that mantle that has been rightfully theirs all along, the role of change agent and grand convener.  And to do so, they must shrug off that feeling of second-class citizenship, at a time when our community is working to make sure no one feels like a second-class citizen anymore.


JoshJosh Jacobson is Managing Director of Next Stage Consulting, a Charlotte-based firm focused on organizational development and fund development for the nonprofit sector. Josh has worked with more than 150 nonprofit organizations throughout the Carolinas, including both human services and arts organiations. Before relocating to NC, Josh spent his formative years working in the cultural sector as a fundraiser for The Juilliard School and Manhattan Theatre Club. Josh is a Certified Fundraising Executive (CFRE) and is President Elect for the Charlotte Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.