Stories from the Field: The Loft Literary Center

By    Jan 13, 2013
In the last several years, myriad organizations have moved into online education from different sectors. The proliferation of broadband and ubiquity of digital platforms enabling the distribution of high-definition video and related educational tools at low cost have converged to make this an option for organizations of any size.
At National Arts Strategies, we first dipped our toes in the digital sea in 2009, presenting two series of online events: Talk with an Expert and Closer Look. I led development and presentation of both series. While a success on many measures, we learned of some of the challenges of the new medium: developing new audiences, fostering meaningful interactivity and accurately gauging product development time (and therefore cost).

The drivers for organizations extending their programming online vary: some pursue new audiences for whom cost and/or geography are barriers to participation in existing programming; others seek to drive new participants to their current programs; while still others are pursuing a public they perceive to be moving online. Regardless of their motivation, the key task for any organization to succeed in the field of online education is defining a clear rationale for doing so now and how this is aligned with their overall strategy. The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis entered the online arena for a number of reasons, but it was not until their senior team undertook a rigorous examination of “Why this?” and “Why now?” that the initiative picked up momentum.

In 2010, the Loft faced a “happy dilemma” of their in-person classes being at capacity. They also had an incoming board chair who was an enthusiastic advocate of online learning, confident it was vital to the future of the Loft and that it would serve as his legacy to the organization. Accordingly, he was determined to see the Loft move quickly in that direction. Executive Director Joceyln Hale, while receptive to the concept, was unsure if this was the appropriate time to pursue it given the challenging environment faced by the Loft: while well-managed, they were not immune to the sea changes in the external environment facing all nonprofits and in fact, had to retrench after the recent loss of a major funder. While an expanded online presence generally was envisioned in the Loft’s strategic plan, Hale suspected a daunting level of investment was required in upping their game, developing the expertise and resources needed to pursue online learning and other online priorities.

Hale and her management team decided some research was required to determine the feasibility of adding online classes to their successful catalog of in-person classes.  They needed to answer a couple critical questions: What would success look like? And, what relationship would online classes have to the rest of their programming? Given the convergence of an expanding pool of potential opportunities and increased financial pressures, the Loft’s management team had begun analyzing their programs to gain a clear understanding of the value each created and their real cost. They also set out to run an experiment – a pilot online class – to gain insight into the possible logistical hurdles and test whether they could replicate the in-person classroom experience online.  Using all of this information and a capacity developed for financial modeling, Hale and her team determined what a sustainable online learning program required. They concluded that for this new venture to be successful, a significant upfront investment was needed.

After opening the pilot online class for registration, it sold out immediately. Despite this initial success, the initiative still lacked momentum. In 2010, Hale and her team had been working for over a year on their online learning strategy. It wasn’t until the entire leadership team took the time to sit down and focus their thinking on how this aligned with their overall strategy that they were then able to tell a compelling story that galvanized both their staff and other members of their board. This brought a significant challenge grant from a board member, which enabled the Loft raised the funds (in one afternoon) required to build the internal capacity and infrastructure needed to scale up their online learning plans. This included investing the technical proficiencies of their entire staff and hiring a new staff member with expertise in online learning.

In their fiscal year ending in August 2012, the Loft presented 54 online classes. Living up to their original vision for the program, students continue to rate the online classes as highly as their in-person counterparts. On reflection, Hale noted it was especially important to have champions for this new initiative beyond her and the importance of having the internal capacity to accurately financially model the new venture. In addition to bringing in a new audience for their classes, the Loft now also makes a concerted effort to think about how this new online audience can be included in their existing in-person programming, such as recording podcasts of their live events.

The Loft did not move into online classes merely because it was technologically possible. They determined this expansion would enable them to more successfully accomplish their mission. While your motivations for contemplating a new venture may differ from the Loft’s, one can take a cue from their experience and results. Initially motivated by a disparate mixture of internal and external forces, the senior team undertook the difficult spadework required to confidently answer, “Why this? Why now? And, what impact will this likely have on the organization?” It wasn’t until Hale and her team were able to clearly articulate how online learning fit into the organization’s vision that they could effect the changes required to enable the current resounding success of online classes.


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