A couple of weeks ago, NPR ran a story entitled "Everyone Else Outsources, So Why Can't the Arts?" Since that time, the story has stuck with me. One positive result of the global economic crisis is that it has forced mature organizations to rigorously examine business practices, many of which haven't changed since the publication of Danny Newman's Subscribe Now! I am consistently amazed at the number of organizations that choose to remain stagnant because change is scarier than doing nothing and watching failure creep up to the doorstep. I applaud organizations that are taking steps to inform the field, as successes and failures will provide beneficial data we can use to plan our next steps. And while I have been accused on many occasions of being too aggressive with implementing change, in this case, I am reminded of a saying that a wise professor in graduate school would always say to me--"just because it is new, doesn't mean it is better."
Let me begin by saying that I support the outsourcing of activities that involve highly specialized tasks. Even in large organizations, most of us are generalists with maybe an area or two of specialized training. In unusual circumstances, many times we need to draw upon an expert with a lot of experience in a certain area. As we approach the opening of the Mead Center for American Theater, I am working with several outside companies that we are outsourcing very specific tasks to including Boneau/Bryan-Brown, SpotCo, Target Resource Group, SD&A, Mires+Ball, Shugoll Research and Allied Live.
Although we outsource work to some of the best companies in the business, we wouldn't be successful unless we supervised their work closely. The best outcomes are usually a result of forming very tight partnerships between on site institutional managers and specialists at the outsourcing firms. One without the other usually ends with mediocre work. In fact, I can't remember a single instance in my career where I hired an outside firm and it removed as much work from my desk as I had hoped for.
In addition, as Russell Willis Taylor asks in the article, one must consider the opportunity cost of outsourcing, particularly in areas of customer service and development. For those of us lucky enough to have been TicketMaster clients in our careers, we know how hard it is to get outsourced sales agents on message and equipped to provide excellent service to our customers (I even tried delivering baked goods weekly to call centers). How can an outsourced entity be as passionate as you are about your institution, and isn't that passion crucial in developing fundraising activities? And we don't like to admit it, but in some cases, we are in competition with one another. In purchasing ads, setting up promotions, pitching stories to the press, calling in favors, taking advantage of remnant space--when you are working with 10-20 arts organizations in the same town, who gets priority when undoubtedly there will be times when the interests of these organizations conflict with each other?
I am eager to see how this experiment in Columbus pans out. To me, this model creates many more questions than it provides solutions, however I think they should be commended for taking an innovative step that I am sure will inform the field in the future.
Just a sidenote--I wonder what BP thinks of outsourcing its drilling rigs at the moment?