Springboard for the Arts
Located in St. Paul, Minnesota, Springboard for the Arts provides consulting and management services to artist entrepreneurs. Since its incorporation in 1991, Springboard has served more than 50,000 artists and organizations throughout the Upper Midwest with career counseling, micro-loan programs, emergency relief, healthcare, fiscal sponsorships, and other services aimed at helping artists start their own businesses and grow their capacity to earn a living from their work. Staffed completely by practicing artists, Springboard has an annual budget of nearly $800,000.
Over the five-year period leading up to its participation in the Innovation Lab, Springboard had been enjoying rapid growth and recognition. Despite the challenging economic climate, Springboard was sustaining and expanding its programs, attracting new donors and partners, extending its geographic reach, and receiving prestigious awards for its work. Springboard’s artists had spent considerable time traveling across the five-state Upper Midwest region—providing services to 75 new communities. Demand was increasing locally, regionally and nationally.
All this was good news, but Springboard was facing a fundamental institutional question: How could the organization answer the demand for its services and expand its reach and impact without creating more overhead? Springboard needed a sustainable long-term growth strategy, and leaders saw the Innovation Lab as a place to investigate how best to bring the organization’s programs to scale. “How do we teach people to do what we have always done ourselves?” Springboard’s team wondered. “How do we decide which organizations make the best partners, and how do we empower artist communities to develop their own resources?” Driven by these questions, Springboard was accepted into the Lab in September 2010.
According to Springboard boardmember Erik Takeshita, “The Lab was the right thing at the right time. As a board and as an organization, we knew the opportunity was there, but we weren’t sure how to proceed. There was almost an organizational reticence about moving forward.” Executive director Laura Zabel adds, “We had been puzzling about how to replicate our work in other communities for two years, and we’d had a lot of interesting conversations, but we hadn’t gotten very far.”
Prior to the Innovation Lab, Springboard leaders already suspected that conventional methods for bringing work to scale—satellite offices, franchising, etc.—were not right for them. They wanted neither the burden of additional office space nor the additional overhead expenses that such an expansion would require. As the Springboard team began its work in Phase I of the Lab, they were looking for a replicable model that they believed was more suited to the organization’s specific strengths and values. “We believed the correct strategy was in customer service delivery, artist training and partnerships,” they say, “and we wanted to offer high levels of support to individual artists and fledgling organizations so that they could eventually stand on their own.” The team imagined a kind of laboratory in which Springboard would pilot programs in its immediate neighborhood, evaluate them, and replicate them in other communities. “Our vision is to think of the lab as a farm and our projects as seedlings,” they said.
But it wouldn’t be quite so straightforward. Takeshita describes the rigorous discussions in Phase 1 of the Lab and cites a breakthrough moment when the team realized that “it wasn’t about how to replicate x, y or z but actually about something much bigger.” Lab facilitator Richard Evans observes, “They thought they had to grow and grow in order to effectively replicate their work, and Phase 1 was all about questioning that premise.” Pushed to think in new ways, the team asked itself a transformational question: How can we create real artist agency in communities so that Springboard has high involvement early on and then withdraws slowly over time, leaving behind communities that are better able to meet their own needs? Evans says that the critical moment came when the team stopped thinking about replication and started talking about creating a national movement.
Shifts in Assumptions
The assumption that Springboard could germinate programs in St. Paul and easily export them to other communities was inherently flawed, and the team knew that a new model would build on a new assumption: programs could draw on Springboard’s experience and learning, but they would have to grow authentically from the partner’s needs and the community’s values. “It changed our frame of reference,” says Zabel. “We were beginning to have a hunch, an inkling, that the answer was somewhere in the intersection between artists and community organizing, and we thought that the organizing and community development piece was a thread that needed to run through other programs but we learned it needs to stand on its own. This was a big surprise.”
“Moving away from the idea of replicating artist resources and services to developing artist agency was a big assumption shift,” says Evans, “because it enabled Springboard’s team to think more strategically about community organizing as the fundamental dynamic at play in the organization’s work and about how they could animate capacity in a community by focusing on the available local resources rather than simply bringing in their own programs.” As a result, Springboard has added a permanent position of Artist Community Organizer to its staff.
New Pathways to Mission
At the Lab Intensive, Springboard developed a new approach for responding to communities’ requests for programs and services. The team describes it as “changing our work from the idea of replication to movement building.” Using one of the organization’s existing programs as an entry point demonstration project, the team operates as a community organizing task force, identifying key community leaders and working with them to determine what the community really needs in terms of artist resources and support services. Springboard’s programs are no longer seen as an end in themselves, but rather as leverage for engaging local artists around Springboard’s core principles—in ways that make sense for them locally. The process, say staff, is designed to decrease Springboard’s involvement as the artist-led capacity of the community increases.
According to Evans, “Starting with the creative assets already in the community is a completely different philosophy and leads to much different practices.” In fact, Springboard is moving even further away from the idea of artist support—provided from the outside—to improve the economic conditions for artists. Now, when Springboard staff are invited into a community, the questions they ask are: Who and where are the local artists? Is there a partner who can take the local lead? How do we gather the information we need and figure out a way to enable the creation of sustainable resources by and for artists, using our program as a means to foster a values proposition about the strength, creativity, validity, and influence of artists?
It’s all about sustainability: applying best practices from Springboard’s previous experience, engaging local artists, building local capacity, and inspiring ownership. In the short-term, Springboard says the organization will be able to test a variety of approaches that will inform future activities and partnerships. In the longer term, individual communities will be able to create their own permanent artist-led resources, and Springboard will enable the establishment of a larger network of communities that embrace their artists and share learning. Takeshita says, “If we can hold tightly to our core values, then we can be fairly loose in how we achieve them. We can work in many different ways, but we are very clear about the end goals.”
The overall intention of Springboard’s prototypes was to test its new way of working in very different situations. Because Springboard’s prototypes were not event-driven, they have been slower to mature than others that were designed to test a specific project.
In the first of its prototypes, Springboard worked with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to implement its Community Supported Arts (CSA) program in three Knight cities: Miami, Charlotte and Akron. CSA is modeled after the community-supported agriculture movement in which shareholders pay local farmers a membership fee and receive weekly boxes of seasonal food. In Springboard’s program, artists receive a commission to create 50 “shares,” and interested consumers/collectors purchase a share. In return, each shareholder receives nine original pieces of art at periodic intervals throughout the year. Springboard is working on identifying local partners, developing timelines and toolkits, and shaping program expectations with local constituents. While Springboard expects that its CSA program will take root in each of the three communities, it will be redesigned specifically for each community, and it will be managed and sustained locally. Springboard will assist in identifying resources, building the relevant local model, and ensuring that CSA’s values are met—but each project will reflect the character, needs and capacities of the participating city.
In its second prototype, Springboard is working with partners in Fergus Falls, MN, to develop artist resources for that community. Early on, Springboard staff learned that Fergus Falls partners were leaning heavily on Springboard for leadership, imagining that Springboard would simply come in and replicate the organization’s St. Paul programs. To address this, Springboard decided to hire a local coordinator in Fergus Falls, shifting responsibility for long-term success back to the local community, with the intention of creating a sustainable model based on the needs and assets of Fergus Falls.
Obstacles and Enablers
Evans praises Springboard for having a clear organizational strategy and a well-defined point of view coming into the Lab. This, he says, enabled the team to work at a high level from the outset. Springboard focuses on artist-to-artist learning, offering creative and tangible solutions for artist entrepreneurs. Because the organization considers itself more an enabler than a conventional service-provider, the Innovation team found it easy to jump from simple program design to a more process-oriented approach as they grappled with a number of key strategic questions.
Springboard’s experience in the Lab illustrates how important it is to get the right people on the team. Team member Jun-Li Wang says, “It was a high-functioning group because of the diversity of opinion and the high level of trust they shared.” Having people who knew the organization very well from a programmatic angle, board members who were responsible for Springboard’s strategic direction, and artists/partners gave the team a broad perspective about its work was critical. “Had we not had that mix of people,” says Takeshita, “we wouldn’t have come so far. Community organizers were the key—they saw things through that lens.” Zabel adds, “We asked ourselves how we could put the smartest people we knew in the room and trust that with those brains and that level of commitment to the organization, something could would come out of it.”
Perhaps the greatest enabler of Springboard’s work was its clarity. Zabel says, “We clarified guiding principles early on and constantly bounced back ideas against them.” Everything had to be vetted through a rigorous belief system: artists are vital to their communities; Springboard is non-judgmental about artists’ work; programs are delivered artists to artists; building relationships is the measure of capacity and effectiveness; Springboard emphasizes building systems of investment and support; cross-sector collaboration is key; Springboard operates with a sense of transformational possibility.
The team credits the Lab with giving them time and helping them ask the right questions. “We needed people outside the organization to push us, dedicated time to step back and see if we were asking the right questions,” they say.
According to Zabel, the Springboard team came out of the Lab process with “very clear language, very clear goals, and real simple practical on-the-ground ways of conducting our work that is giving us traction with partners, collaborators and funders.” Takeshita adds, “Because the process is based in the roots of who we are, what we do and how we do it, what we learned can be applied back to the organization and sharpen all our work.”
Already the momentum is building. The Knight Foundation has invited Springboard to expand its Community Supported Arts project to all eight Knight cities. While Springboard still has much work to do as it completes the prototyping phase of the Lab, staff believe they are well on the way to providing important new models for the field—models that relieve grassroots, community-based organizations of the unnecessary infrastructure, outdated programs or unsustainable systems that have impeded their progress and growth. “If we can figure out how to do this in a healthy, authentic way,” they say, “it will have great value to the field.