Kaiser is helping organizations learn how to improve their bottom line by stepping up the way they engage with their communities. The goal is to create work that interests and engages the community, which leads to support for the organization.

“We call it building a family,” Kaiser says. “And that's the people around the organization, ticket buyers, the donors, the volunteers, and even the board members, who have no real obligation to engage with the organization but find it rewarding to do so. We find that organizations that are the most successful are the ones that build the largest families that support them and care about them and stay by them.”

Nonprofits look to the future

The program is officially called “Capacity Building: Michigan Lakeshore" and is facilitated by Kaiser and his team at the University of Maryland-based DeVos Institute of Arts Management. The Lakeshore-based nonprofits taking part are focusing on strategic planning and understanding how to achieve long-term sustainability.

The groups participating include:

  • Culture Works Transformative Art + Design Academy
  • Evergreen Commons
  • Holland Area Arts Council
  • Holland Community Chorale
  • Holland Museum
  • Holland Symphony Orchestra
  • Hope College’s Knickerbocker Theatre
  • Hope Repertory Theatre
  • Latin Americans United for Progress
  • Michigan Maritime Museum
  • Ox-Bow School of Art
  • Park Theatre Foundation
  • Saugatuck-Douglas History Center
  • Tri-Cities Museum and Zeeland Historical Society

Funded by the Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, “Capacity Building: Michigan Lakeshore,” kicked off last fall and consists of monthly meetings and events in Holland over a two-year period.

The program is about more than building strong arts organizations. Ultimately, it's about fostering community vitality and cohesiveness.

“Artists and the arts help a community process information and think about themselves,” Kaiser explains. “Frankly, the healthiest democracies are the ones with vibrant vital arts communities, which is why the first thing dictators always do is to co-opt the artists or shut them down, because the arts allow for a different kind of dialogue.”

Also, he says, the arts are often social activities in the community, providing a way for people to gather.

Immediate impact

Even in the early stages of the program, organizations report that the training has been transformational:

"The capacity building program has immensely helped the Park Theatre team evaluate all aspects of its current operations, helping unlock the tools and providing the knowledge to develop a strong strategic plan for our short- and long-term future.” says Brandon Blank, general manager of Holland's Park Theatre. “Through this program, we are more confident than ever that the Park Theatre will continue to be the best place in Holland for live entertainment and culture for many years to come.”

Kay Walvoord, president of Holland Symphony Orchestra, describes the process as akin to “throwing all the balls that make up marketing, finances, artistic planning, board development and staff up in the air and then re-examining them as they fall in new patterns. Best of all is seeing the board members and stakeholders getting excited about new ideas, new ways of doing things and new understandings about the possibilities for the organization.”

Jill Ver Steeg, President and CEO of Evergreen Commons, a Holland senior community center that has a choir and offers other arts activities to residents 55 and older, says the program is helping the nonprofit gear up for an expansion.

"From the rich lectures to the content-based coaching to the incredibly servant-hearted team, the Capacity Building Lakeshore Process could not have come at a better time for us. The experience of the facilitators – as well as the deep dive into data and research – will serve as a catalyst for Evergreen as we take our next faithful step in increasing our impact and expanding our footprint," says Ver Steeg.

Patrick Coyle, Holland Chorale’s artistic director, says the program is “already making a difference in Holland Chorale's long-range planning and day-to-day operations. We’re revisiting our mission statement as part of the strategic planning process, and consistently refer to the guidelines from the Institute. Starting with this most basic component of our organization, the program is changing our perspective and influencing our choices on programming, community engagement and structure.”

Baruch de Carvalho, the Communication & Development Coordinator for Latin Americans United for Progress (LAUP), adds that the "DeVos Capacity Building Program has been very beneficial to LAUP. As a small organization in a time of rapid growth, we couldn't have entered the program at a better time. We get constant support from our assigned advisors, and are close to beginning the strategic planning portion of the program, which will optimize LAUP as an organization for years to come."

Ricki L. Levine, the Holland Museum's Executive Director, says the museum is grateful to be a part of the Capacity Building Lakeshore program.

"It is a unique opportunity for staff, board and other volunteers to strengthen our organization in fundamental ways that have been proven to work elsewhere," Levine says. "The Capacity Building team is incredibly knowledgeable, and have worked with many arts and cultural organizations of different sizes with different challenges. The fact that they are sharing their expertise with the Lakeshore non-profits is a tremendous coup. That the DeVos Foundation has chosen to offer this program so that there is no cost to the non-profits is incredibly generous and we are delighted to be one of the recipients."

Arts management pioneer

Kaiser has spent most of his career in the arts as an administrator and a facilitator. As a child, he dreamed of being an opera singer but says he didn’t have the talent.

“So I always wanted a career in the arts, but I wasn't sure how I would have one,” Kaiser says. He studied music and economics in college and soon began his own consulting business. He fed his love for opera by volunteering for an opera company in Washington.

“I realized that's what made me happy, and so I sold my business, looked for a job in the arts and ended up at the Kansas City Ballet when I was 31,” says Kaiser. In his consulting business, he did strategic planning and consulting for corporations. He transferred those skills to the art world.

Kaiser is considered a pioneer in the field of arts management, which emerged in the 1980s. He built his reputation by working with several organizations that were very sick financially when he took them over. He learned how to make them healthy, and in that process developed a model for building cultural organizations that he calls “The Cycle.”

Relationship with DeVos family

Kaiser served as president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. from 2001-2014. During his tenure, he developed a friendship with Betsy DeVos after President George W. Bush appointed the Holland native, politician and philanthropist to the center’s board.

"She was really a fantastic board member,” Kaiser says. “What's interesting about the board members of the Kennedy Center is that they aren’t required to do anything, but Betsy did an awful lot. She was a great team player. She was generous and got involved with projects.”

When Kaiser launched his Arts Management Institute at the Kennedy Center, DeVos supported his work with funds from her family foundation.

“Michael Kaiser is the greatest individual I have met and worked with from an arts perspective anywhere, anytime,” DeVos says. “When he told me about his dream of forming an Arts Management Institute and being able to carry on the kind of work that he was doing so ably at the Kennedy Center, both Dick (her husband) and I caught that vision. We knew that there were arts organizations across the country that were struggling and that had great potential given the right set of tools and opportunities. We were thrilled to be able to come around and support his dream and his mission.”

Having the program come to her hometown is particularly meaningful, she adds.

“Arts have always been a really, really important part of my world,” DeVos says. “And I love being in places that have a vibrant arts community and cultural community. And, we’re excited about the prospect of helping strengthen organizations in our hometown area that are doing great work but can do even better with a few additional tools and new ideas.”

‘Sophisticated’ leadership here

The initiative will help the nonprofits become more sustainable by educating their leaders about picking board members, marketing, financial management and fundraising.

Kaiser has worked with arts organizations in big cities, rural communities, and everything in between.

“Holland is actually pretty sophisticated in the knowledge base of the people running the cultural organizations,” he said. “When you are in a community that's not so far from a much larger community, cultural organizations in the smaller community by comparison with the larger city can feel like they're lesser when they're really not.

“And so the challenge is, how do you make it clear to the people around you that, yes, Grand Rapids is pretty close. But that doesn't mean our symphony or our museum or any of our institutions are any less important.”

Investing in community’s future

Speaking at the recent strategic planning session for “Capacity Building: Michigan Lakeshore,” Betsy Devos said she and her husband were excited to support the initiative.

“We are thrilled to be supporting this capacity-building initiative now,” she told the group. “You can't have a successful outcome if you don't have a good strategy going in. And I know that you all have great foundations to build on. And I am just really looking forward to the fruit that all of this work will bear. We're thrilled that you agreed to participate in our investing the time that is required to do it.”

Dick DeVos said at the meeting, “We're really grateful for your time and dedication. We really appreciate the work you are doing because what you do matters. We see the importance of how you tie this community together and make this place very special.”

He says he sees the arts program as a long-term community investment that is bringing organizations together, helping them think more broadly and connect as a community.

"It's not just about today, but it's about tomorrow," Dick DeVos says. "These organizations over time will get better and stronger and more vibrant and more dynamic. When you have a healthy symphony organization, even if you don't regularly go to the symphony yourself, everyone benefits because it makes the community better and more cohesive."