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[Innovation Series] An Interview with Scott Provancher, President of the Arts & Science Council

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Scott Provancher, President, Arts & Science Council

Scott-ProvancherMarking his fourth year as ASC President this coming summer, Scott came to Charlotte from the Fine Arts Fund (now ArtsWave) in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he was vice president and campaign director for the oldest and largest united arts and culture fundraising organization in the country.  Scott has been described as “one of the brightest and most creative young minds and leaders in the national arts industry.” During his tenure, the ASC launched Power2Give, a new fundraising platform that was recently spun off to support arts, science, history and heritage projects via online giving in cities across the United States.


I’ve heard you quote Peter Drucker, “Business enterprise only has two basic functions: marketing and innovation.” How do you see that applying to the nonprofit sector?

I think as a nonprofit sector, we’ve allowed our IRS status to define how we operate as organizations. In a lot of ways, we’ve forgotten about marketing and innovation as being core to how we can accomplish our mission. We get hung up on structures and processes and approaches, which have been ordained as best practices, and we haven’t gotten around to version 2.0 in the last hundred years.

To me, marketing should be defined by engagement strategy.  That is, the method of finding the people who believe in what you’re trying to achieve and derive value from them.  With innovation, you are designing solutions and approaches to accomplish mission that inspire people to invest in it.  And if you aren’t doing those two things or thinking about these two things constantly, then you are just executing a structure or process.  So many organizations forget what they are there to accomplish.  They are not there to operate a business structure; they are there to accomplish a mission.

And even boards forget that is the core function.  And so they see change as risky.

Why is that? Why are boards less embracing of change?

I think that’s one big way the nonprofit sector is different than the capital markets and the for-profit world.  There is a really easy metric in the for-profit world – if you aren’t making money, folks aren’t going to invest.  And if you aren’t making money, those companies go out of business, or they go nowhere and become inconsequential in the world of capitalism.

In the nonprofit sector, it is very easy to continue to operate as a financial concern and not be accomplishing the mission at all. It is harder to understand when there is disconnect in nonprofits. The for-profit world is more transparent and easily understood as to whether you are a success or not.

There is more of a cause and effect?  If you don’t remain focused on the bottom line, on meeting the needs of customers…

Exactly. Someone else will do it! I would argue that this is actually also happening in the nonprofit sector, it’s just more difficult to see. I am concerned that sometimes nonprofits get so focused on a singular mission that opportunities are missed.  Just tweaking the mission over time could demonstrate opportunities to meet other needs. Nonprofits could build a greater good for the community and be more efficient at attacking social challenges if they took that approach, trying to develop new solutions that start with a core mission but that could go beyond that and evolve over time. That’s a hard concept to get one’s head around.

Some call that “mission creep,” right? But you’re arguing that programming has the ability to evolve and meet new needs over time?

There has been a lot of bad advice and approaches to managing nonprofits that continue to be passed down as if they actually work. Really successful organizations and leaders are constantly questioning what is making the organization successful and what is not, and things that don’t work are jettisoned.

As a side note, we also spend too much time benchmarking against our perceived “competitors.”  [The author] Jim Collins talks about how really effective businesses don’t focus any of their time on their competitors or benchmarking against others. Instead, they spend 100% of their time focused on meeting the needs of their customers.  And in the nonprofit sector, it seems like that’s all we do – measure benchmarks. Rather than innovate, we just copy each other’s practices and then because someone else did it, it becomes standard, and it doesn’t matter that the business model is broken, because everyone’s business model is broken.

And that gets us back to the importance of innovation to the nonprofit sector.  What is the biggest challenge to breaking the mold?

One of the biggest challenges for social enterprise is figuring out how to fight to make [innovation] central to what they do.

A good example of that are nonprofits that are using technology to solve problems that other nonprofits have been trying to solve for a long time.  Consider organizations like Network for Good or Donors Choose, where they have derived success and visibility for their new way of doing things.  I gain great inspiration from what they are doing, but on the other hand, these innovations have to be linked to established institutions that have knowledge and access around solving problems.

These new nonprofits that are gaining significant visibility and generating donations are all about marketing and innovation, but they lack the skill and access that the entrenched nonprofits have. It should be a wake-up call to the sector: why aren’t these innovations being generated by the more established nonprofits?


**Link to part 2 of the interview**