Useful Idiots, Harmless Kitsch, and Nonprofit Arts Organizations Doing the Right Thing, No Matter What (Part One)


A two-part column about you, your nonprofit arts company, and the power of your choices

You’ll never be this person. Until you are. (photo by nappy on Pexels)

In these heady days where the mere act of watching RuPaul’s Drag Race self-qualifies you as an expert on the LGBT community (it doesn’t), where putting a “We support the Black Community” manifesto on your arts organization’s website self-qualifies you as an equity activist (it doesn’t), and where your company’s most important metric of success has to do with how many people buy tickets (it doesn’t), it isn’t surprising that there’s a lot of anger and mistrust among those thrown into the middle of the arena by folks who want to prove that those people are not up to the job of leadership (by actively setting them up for failure).


“I play it the company way” (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, 1961)

The first impetus from the “useful idiots” (naïve or unwitting allies to a harmful movement) who have bashed their heads into proverbial brick walls, glass ceilings, and otherwise is to try to keep peace. That’s not a particularly bad thought, although it will cost years off one’s lifespan. Playing the role of leader is not actually leading when the prior hallowed leadership model has been tainted by bad acts and toxicity.

But they’ll do what others (White folk, too) have done before them. Try to keep their jobs, to get a good recommendation, to get a better job, to get a recommendation, to get a better job, etc., ad nauseum all over their nice clean shirt. And how to do that when you don’t look like the people on your board’s dominant social group (a nice way of saying, “those rich, old White people, mostly men)?

They do it by trying to get along, even if they don’t agree with the direction of the activity. They’ll agree to spend weeks, money, and reputation producing harmless kitsch, just to go with the flow and avoid the hard conversations.

They’ll especially do that if the weird, inefficient activity has been done before. A gala where $100,000 is raised (at a price of $99,000). A “friend-raising” dinner to thank the donors that costs more than the donations of the people who choose to attend. The bowing and scraping to certain donors who are toxic to the company because, for example, their companies kill people and let’s face it, you don’t want to be associated by the implied endorsement of, you know, killing people.

The useful idiots have leaned hard into people-pleasing behavior. Ultimately, that will cause their own downfall, even if they feel “well-supported” and “well-loved” now. Jennifer Guttman wrote about it in 2019 in Psychology Today.

People work to please those in their lives in order to secure a feeling of indispensability and reduce fears of abandonment. Unfortunately, this can lead to much deeper compulsive behavioral patterns and complicated mental health issues, such as fear of rejection, resentment, frustration, anger, low self-esteem, addictions, bullying, and eating disorders.

And they’ll do all that until an ulcer acts up. Or irritation boils to the surface. Or the people who work with them start to steer clear, hoping against hope that the stink of moral compromise doesn’t cause the board to intimidate them (or their successor) to fire them. Or all of the above. Because they think that if they just “fall in line,” even against their own moral values, they’re doing what’s best for the company.

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You’re not this XY-palmed person, until you are. (By Kenji-Baptiste OIKAWA – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Which, of course, they’re not.

It may not occur to you, but as Oskar Eustis, the longtime artistic director at New York’s Public Theatre, once told me when I started to fall apart psychologically when dealing with a small group of right-wing board members in Alabama, “Alan, sometimes they’re just wrong.”

Which opens a door to a bumpier, but better way.

(Continued next week)


If you’re in the Atlanta region or within a day’s drive, come and see Ariel Fristoe of the world-renowned Out Of Hand Theater and me talk at Charis Books and More. We’ll have some news, there will be a presentation from Out Of Hand about health equity (and the lack thereof), and we’ll talk about why companies like Out Of Hand “get it” about the purpose of local arts organizations serving the folks who need help the most. Mostly, we’ll have a lively conversation about the purpose of art, toxic stakeholders, and how nonprofit arts organizations are charities, just like your local food bank.

Friday, April 12, 2024 – 7:30pm — Click here to reserve your free ticket!

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a photo and reviews of the book, "SCENE CHANGE"
You’re going to want to pick some up for your board and your arts administration students. Contact alan@501c3.guru for a substantial discount on orders of 25 or more or visit bulkbooks.com to order up to 1,000 copies.

a cup of coffee, with the caption: If you like Alan's writing, please click on this image to buy him a cup of coffee"



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