What’s your mandate?

By     Jan 20, 2013

This post was originally posted on our ArtsJournal blog, Field Notes

My fellow cultural leaders,

I am here today humbled by the task before me, grateful for the trust bestowed by ArtsJournal and mindful of the sacrifices borne by my predecessors. We live in a time of unprecedented challenge. And, as we navigate the rough seas of uncertainty, we must set our course toward a guiding light:  the will of the people – our mandate.


[Hold for applause.]


There have been many conversations here in the U.S. in recent weeks about mandates. What is President Obama’s mandate? What is Congress’ mandate? It’s a feature of every post-election season. In fact, it is the pundits’ mandate to voice their opinions about who has and does not have a mandate. It’s all semantics, of course, but there is something about the concept of a mandate that I find very intriguing when applied to cultural organizations. I can’t help but think if we were all able to articulate our own mandates, the state of our field would be a bit more secure.

So, what is a mandate? According to Merriam-Webster, it is an authoritative command or an authorization to act given to a representative. Others define it as an official order or commission to do something or to give someone authority to act in a certain way.

In politics, candidates campaign and the people (for the sake of argument, let’s say corporations are people too) show their support by donating money, by volunteering their time and by showing up on Election Day. This cumulative input is how a mandate is written. It is not so different for arts and culture institutions, except perhaps that our Election Day is every day.  Your mandate is written by your donors, volunteers and those who show up. It is an acknowledgement of your responsibility to your community, however you might define it. It is a contract between you and your constituents, an understanding of the alignment of your organization’s values and the value it creates… for all of your stakeholders. Consider the equation below:

Mandate equation

Each of your stakeholders’ input can be expressed as the ratio of their engagement – through their time, money, attention or positive word-of-mouth – divided by their expectations. The sum of all of these inputs is your mandate. What else does this loosely mathematical frame tell us? As in politics, the key to increasing the power of your mandate is to increase the amount of stakeholders’ engagement more than they increase their expectations. The opposite also holds true: a weaker mandate comes when stakeholders’ expectations are greater than their engagement with you.

How do you begin to fill in the blanks of the equation above? What is your organization’s mandate? Well, it’s not your mission. A mandate is not self-determined. It must be given by your stakeholders. Your “commission” or your “authority” is granted in some part by your funders. In that sense, your mandate might be more closely linked to your business model than your mission.

When I pitched this story idea in the office, the team reminded me of the 2009 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Ten Nonprofit Funding Models.” In it, the authors (William Landes Foster, Peter Kim and Barbara Christiansen) talk about the unique challenge nonprofits face, balancing the value propositions for both the donors and the beneficiaries of our programming. As you know, the amount of overlap in the Venn diagram of those who fund you and those who benefit from your work can vary greatly. In their research, Foster, Kim and Christiansen identified 10 funding models, which provide a framework to help nonprofit executives analyze funding strategies and be more disciplined about how we raise money. These models offer insight into some of the sources of our mandates – those who chose to fund us and their motivation for doing so.

Is your organization a heartfelt connector or a member motivator? A beneficiary builder or a public provider? Becoming clear on these distinctions will save your organization time and effort by creating a common understanding and a language that can help you clearly articulate (internally and externally) how your organization will succeed. Knowing your funding model can also help you maintain consistency. If your mandate is granted in some part by your donors, then it is subject to change based upon whom you court for funding. Their engagement will most certainly come with expectations. You must think of the possible ramifications to your mandate when accepting a gift and (as hard as it might be) you must be willing to refuse those that could alter your mandate.

But, as Foster, Kim, Christiansen (and countless others) have noted: nonprofits have other stakeholders besides their donors. And, all of these constituents help define your mandate. Regardless of how you think of them – your public, your community, those who benefit from your work – each of these stakeholders… has a stake… in your organization. And, while money might not change hands, you do have an agreement (often tacit) with each of these constituents.

What are the terms of your agreement with your constituents? This is the expectation part of the equation. You help set the expectations and can help to reinforce them based upon your performance (past and future), your organizational culture and certainly your mission. There are also outside factors that can affect expectations: what your competitors are doing, perceptions about your art form/discipline or about arts and culture in general. The trick is: the more disparate your constituent-base, the more staggering your expectations… and the more diffuse your mandate. This can often be untenable. (See: Hope and change)

Your mandate is also affected by the number of stakeholders you have. The smaller that number, the fewer constituents for whom you are relevant and from whom you have a mandate. That doesn’t mean you have a weak mandate. In fact, you may still have a strong niche community mandate. You should not, however, confuse this with a broad mandate.

So, what would the pundits say about your organization? How broad is your mandate? What is it? What do you want it to be in four years? And, what steps will you take to get there?