What Exactly is Programming?

Your programming is the combination of all the events you do for an audience. Programming is the service you provide to your community. It will vary tremendously depending on your type of organization. Many organizations have a tendency to marginalize some aspect of their programming. For example, a museum may do a lecture or film series in conjunction with an exhibition, but only count the exhibition when listing past events. So, when assessing your programming, be sure you are including all of it: main events, educational programming, audience building programs, life-long learning, etc.

The program development process is a creative outlet much like making art. You can take pleasure in finding just the right balance in challenging your audience, serving your community, promoting artists, and making your organization dynamic and interesting. The possibilities are endless and the rewards can be tremendous. Keep the spirit of fun and discovery central to your program making.

How Do I Assess My Current Programs?
The first thing is to get a list of your programs, and be sure not to leave any of them out. For each program you need to begin to get a general sense of the workload and cost involved in producing it, the income generated, how well it serves your mission, whether it is building new audiences, and why you do it.
see Program Assessment Template (PDF)

How Do I Know Which Programs Are Right For My Organization?

After you have done an individual assessment of each of your programs, you want to look at them collectively. Which ones are popular, which make money, which serve your mission, which bring you media attention, etc. Then you can begin to do an overall assessment of your programs. You should be able to distill what you know about your individual programs with your current audiences and target audiences and produce a simple matrix of your programs.

In some cases, you may need to do some organizational assessment in order to complete this task effectively. So be sure you know things like:

  • What other organizations in your community might be competition or collaborators?
  • What amusements in your community might be competition or collaborators?
  • What is your organization currently known for?
  • What is your image in the community?
  • Do people in your community think your programs are redundant?
  • Who is your current audience?
  • Who are the various groups within your audience? What are their levels of participation and commitment to your organization?
  • Who isn’t coming to your events that should be?
  • Who you are currently targeting as a new or more committed audience?

see Program Matrix Template (PDF) and Sample (PDF)

One way to be sure you have an accurate program matrix is to go back assess some of your past programs. Pick some that were very successful and some that were not. When looking at them with your matrix, could you have predicted the successes and failures? Can you see what doesn’t fit and what does? Use this tool when planning your future programs.

What Else Can I Do With My Program Matrix?
It can be a tool you share with other people closely associated with your organization. For example, it may be that your docents don’t understand why you do a particular program each year that is less popular or more difficult to talk to the public about. If you help them understand the reasoning behind doing that program, they may be able to embrace it more readily.

A common problem occurs when an outside expert is brought in to develop or create some component of a program. Too often the expert is handed a blank check in terms of organizational policies, which can be disastrous when coupled with a foreign community. Use the Program Matrix to help them understand who your audience is, what your programmatic goals are, what your policies are, what you expect of them, and what you won’t tolerate. Everyone benefits.

Is Evaluation Really Important?
Yes! Evaluation should be the beginning and end of all of your programs. You should find creative ways to get your audience to tell you what they think. Gather this information in many different ways. People will give you more information if you ask the right questions and if they think you care about their answers. Having personable volunteers surveying a handful of people as they exit a program will give you very different kinds of information than a postcard-sized survey where people circle a few pre-selected answers. People also provide more harsh (translate as useful) criticism if they can provide it anonymously.

The golden rule of evaluation is to never ever scold anyone for telling you negative things about your program, no matter how ugly it may seem. Sincerely thank them for giving you constructive information for future programs—and mean it! Information on what didn’t work is often the most useful. It gives you a specific place to focus your energies.

Many organizations overlook the single best sources of information when evaluating programs: the staff and volunteers. You can learn a lot by visiting with your front line people: your volunteers, the people who work the front desk or box office, and your information booth. These people will have overheard comments from your patrons and can tell you what the consensus is. Make it part of their job to eavesdrop, solicit opinions from patrons, and report what they hear–the good, bad, and ugly. Ask them to submit a spy report every week. Again, don’t snap at them if the report is negative. Thank them more graciously, because it is easier not to give bad news to superiors. Also, convene everyone on staff after any major program and walk through the program from start to finish and get everyone to tell you what worked and what needs work. Take notes and use them when planning next time around.
see Internal Program Evaluation (PDF)

Always go back to the past evaluations and your staff notes when planning the same or similar events. Don\’t just put them in a drawer and forget them. Build on what you know.

What About Trying New Things And Taking Risks?

Arts organizations, by their very nature, should experiment, take risks, and try new things. The trick is finding the balance. Some important considerations are:

  • Your financial calendar. Assess the financial impact not only on an event-by-event basis, but also on a cash flow basis, looking at your various sources of income that come in over the year, and into the next year. Don\’t set yourself up for a major dry spell. Do consider programming in a safety net (translate as surefire hit) that you know will bring you strong revenue.
  • Your public image. Do take risks and try new things, but not with your organizational image. You could lose patrons, sponsors, community support, and your identity.
  • Your audience. You want to challenge them from time to time, but you need to maintain the trust they have in your organization, so don’t try something that goes against their community or religious values and don’t force them to stretch too often.
  • Your season. You want to maintain balance within the season or years worth of programs so that the riskier and unusual offerings are balanced with your more predictable fare.
  • Timing. Your traditional “down time” or slow season is often the best time to try new, different, or riskier work. It can help you attract whole new audiences. For example, the Paramount Theatre in Austin is a presenting organization with a strong performing arts season that runs from the fall through the spring; summer was always down time. They began screening old movies during the summer. Classics, like Alfred Hitchcock, back on the big screen. They also began screening old musicals and inviting the audience to sing-a-long. It is an inexpensive program and has attracted a whole new audience.
  • Your experience. When trying something risky or experimental, it is especially important that you see the programs you are selecting first-hand. Travel to a booking conference for performing arts, go see the exhibition in another venue, screen works at a film festival, or find some other way to get the participant perspective on the work you are bringing to your community. In some instances, TCA can help you get there; it’s always worth asking.
  • see Income Assessment Template (PDF)

How Do You Building New Audiences?
The first step in building new audiences is to know who your current audience is and is not. Then you need to identify a specific group to target. One of the keys for success is to pick a target that is already a cohesive group. For example, if you chose to target the Junior League members, you have a clear path to encouraging their participation through their president, community service committee, newsletter, and various meetings. With a coupon or an exclusive event, you can assess the effectiveness of your campaign. If your target is people who own dogs, you path is less clear and your effectiveness is difficult to track.

Where Do Educational Programs Fit?
Your educational programs should be the very heart and soul of your organization. You aren’t doing your job as a non-profit if you aren’t providing educational context for the work you present. In all likelihood, you provide numerous adult life-long learning opportunities, work closely with school children in your community, and do outreach to specific populations. Some of the best educational programs are developed in organizations where the entire staff participates in a brainstorming meeting to identify possible educational angles and activities for each new program. Conversely, some of the least effective educational programs come out of organizations where the education department is working in virtual isolation. Remember that the contact you make with any outreach is one of your best avenues to building future audiences. Be sure you leave each and every one of them with discount coupons and event information. Encourage them to participate again and make it easy for them to do so (and for you to track your success with your coupon codes).

How Do You Make Programs Experiential? Is It Expensive?
Making your programs experiential is easy and usually not expensive at all. It can be as simple as showing the audience what goes on behind the curtain; or what happens in the back rooms of the museum; or having your celebrity artist work with a small group of people on a project; or opening your rehearsal up to the public. Strangely, it doesn’t lessen the mystique-it adds to it. It helps to get input from your public on areas to explore, because many of the things your audience is curious about are routine to you. Creativity is the main ingredient. You should brainstorm with your staff (especially your non-professional staff) about what might be interesting to share with your audience. For example, if you are doing an exhibit of ancient Egyptian art, you can offer a once-in-a-lifetime experience for kids to bring their sleeping bags and spend the night with a mummy. You need some big-hearted volunteers willing to forgo a night of sleep, some popcorn, a old mummy movie or two, and you can charge a pretty penny for an unforgettable night.

Any Other Advice About Improving Programs?
Yes. Look at new and different ways to involve artists! They bring fresh points of view, excitement, and interest to whatever they do. Find new ways to have them interact with your audiences. It’s a win-win proposition.

How Do You Build Off Your Programs?
This is a strategy where you create a number of smaller events that relate to your main program. Your best plan of action is going to be a brainstorming session with your staff on ideas that could be spun off into other events. Be sure to keep your goals in mind when deciding what events to create. The usual goals are to attract new audiences, garner more media coverage, and deepen and broaden the experiences you are providing to your sponsors, members, or patrons. For example, if you were doing an exhibition of artwork dealing with the theme of the Holocaust, you could bring in musicians to play music that was composed in the concentration camps, screen films about the Holocaust, bring in storytellers to read poems and letters that survive from that period, bring in Holocaust survivor\’s to talk about what it was like to be in a concentration camp and to live through that time period, you could stage a play about the Holocaust, have a teachers in-service showing how to tie that piece of history to modern day prejudice and hatred, have another exhibition on present-day prejudice, have a group of children’s books on the Holocaust available in the gallery, conduct an essay writing contest for 8th graders about the story of Anne Frank, bring in Holocaust scholars to conduct a symposium on the art created during that period, have artifacts from that time period that people can touch to bring another dimension to the exhibition, have artifacts and photographs showing what life was like before the Holocaust, bring in the artists to talk about their work and inspiration, etc.