Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What Belgian Beer-Brewing Monks Taught Me about Non-Profit Business Models

If you want to drink the best beer in the world, you'd better be ready to work for it. A recent episode of the design podcast 99 Percent Invisible chronicled the hoops people jump through to get a bottle of Westvleteren 12, which is produced by the monks of the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren in Flanders, Belgium. You can only reserve a bottle by phone. You must pick it up in person at the Abbey at a specific time on a specific date. You can only buy a small amount, and you are limited to one purchase every 60 days.

The episode is mostly focused on the thrill of the hunt, and all the attendant ways exclusivity fuels desire. But late in the episode (minute 9), when the supplicant finally drinks the beer at the monastery, he is underwhelmed. The beer is terrific, but the experience is unfulfilling. He feels anonymous. He feels disconnected. He made it to Mecca, and it's kind of eh.

Why the disconnect? As Roman Mars, the show's host, puts it, "You, the consumers of beer, are not the real customer. God is." The monks make beer to support their monastic lifestyle, not to serve consumers. The exclusivity and the complicated path to purchasing the beer are not branding strategies to trump up the value of the beer. They are limitations that enable monks to spend most of their time being monks.

Listening to the podcast, I was struck by its strange connections to the non-profit world's approach to funding. In many ways, the monks have a much more practical approach to the problem of supporting their mission than the rest of us do. They brew beer to provide the income to support their religious work. It's the ultimate case of unrelated business income. They don't want their beer-brewing work and their prayer to be commingled; they are intentionally separate. Whereas non-profits work hard to fit everything they do under one mission, the monks split it up. The beer supports the mission. The beer is not part of the mission.

In the arts, this bears directly on the current debate around "art for art's sake" versus "art for community development." Not every arts organization is fundamentally focused on connecting with and engaging audiences. While a few are, the majority are only slowly pivoting towards a primary focus on audience engagement. Some do so with gusto, seeing the opportunity for transformation, relevance, and new relationships with the public. Others do so half-heartedly. Some even feel forced to do so. They want to be art monks, not customer-serving businesses.

It's totally valid for an artist or an art organization to have a monastic approach. For these organizations, the ultimate audience--the one they care most about--is something else. It could be "art" with a capital A, the pursuit of social justice or innovation or institutional critique. I've talked to plenty of non-profit artistic directors and curators who will say that the master is the work... or if not the work, the artists behind the work. To them, audience engagement is a distraction at best, a dilution or bastardization at worst.

So why do they even consider it? These days, a few key arts funders are shifting towards public engagement through art. Everyone is strapped, so organizations try to move with the funders. Monastically-inclined institutions pursue donors who support public engagement with the work, and they package the work into a kind of sausage they can sell to audiences. The result is not Mecca. It's something less than, something that often frustrates artists and audiences alike.

Community-focused organizations have the same problem in reverse. Even if they primarily care about deep engagement with audiences, these organizations often have to talk about "artistic excellence" to get noticed by traditional arts funders and donors. Community organizations without brand-name artists can be denigrated as "craft centers," even if the outcomes of their engagement efforts are tremendous.

The problem is that no one--neither art monks nor community-driven organizations--are entitled to funding. We all have to find supporters and customers who can help us pay the bills. Maybe, instead of shifting with the traditional funding, all kinds of arts organizations should be proudly and blatantly seeking out unrelated sources of income. I recently heard the director of a major performing arts organization pejoratively refer to for-profit music venues as "bars with bands" as opposed to organizations that exist to produce and present "real" music. But is it any less problematic to be supported by grants and high ticket prices than by beverage sales? Does it lead to more "pure" programming decisions? I don't think so.

We are always told that everything we do should flow from our mission. Maybe instead, we should think like the monks and figure out how we can make sure everything we do serves our mission. There are arts organizations (including my own) that get significant amounts of their operating budgets from endowments, real estate, or parking garages. There are innovative arts organizations that are led by volunteer staff members who make their money as teachers or engineers or marketers. Maybe we shouldn't apologize for these "non-mission-based" sources of income. Maybe we should pursue more of them. After all, they are what allow us to pursue our missions--for whomever our ultimate audience may be.
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