Pepper Grinder

Ben Cameron

At Target Community Relations, our weekly staff meetings culminate with the presentation of the week's "Pepper Grinder Award." Any staff member who has made a gaffe of significance is encouraged to self nominate, disclosing his or her outlandish act of stupidity to the rest of the staff. The winner (or loser, depending on your point of view) is presented with a gauche pepper grinder that must be prominently displayed in his or her office until the next meeting. Apart from ending the meeting on a note of good humor, the Pepper Grinder moments allow us to learn from one another in a collegial and yet informative way.

I offer this only because I believe that we, as a grantmaking community, are more forthcoming about our successes than our mistakes. And yet I, for one, learn volumes from mis-steps. I still remember Bob Leonard's article in High Performance where he offered a candid assessment of mistakes made when the Road Company undertook a collaboration with another local organization. While I had clearly learned from myriad success stories about cross-cultural collaborations, I sensed that few were able to talk frankly and openly about obstacles and frustrations in those collaborations. I was grateful for Bob's candor and learned an immense amount from the disclosure of the problems inherent in the collaborative process.

In the spirit of Pepper Grinder-dom, therefore, I offer the following as an example of a legendary Target misstep, in hopes that others may find it informative or useful. I also hope that others will continue a similar discussion in hopes that we can all learn from one another's mistakes.

At Target, our arts focus is family-centric. Our support focuses on family arts events—arts experiences that are appropriate for families, accessible to families, and affordable by families—or on arts education experiences that directly connect children to artists. Given this focus, we were immediately enthusiastic when approached by a large ballet company, eager to tour a Nutcracker production through various cities, including several where Target had major business. We perceived a perfect fit for our priorities: an optimal family arts event, a ballet company with a strong artistic reputation, a strong link to many of our marketplaces—in short, a chance to offer major resources to a ballet company at the same time we offered a high level arts experience to multiple communities at affordable prices. Not surprisingly, our marketing and our Treat Seats department (which is a ticket subsidy program that we offer outside of our charitable giving program) were equally enthusiastic. And our executives in the field office where the ballet company was based were voluble in their support. Both internal and external allies seemed to be firmly in place, and in the Target spirit of “Speed Is Life,” we moved quickly, making a quite substantial grant to the ballet company.

A no brainer? Scarcely.

In the flush of our own enthusiasm, we had not considered the possible impact of a touring program on smaller resident companies, many of whom mounted their own Nutcracker productions and depended on these holiday sales for an enormous percentage of their annual earned revenue. We quickly received numerous angry letters from these companies (many of whom we were already supporting), charging us with undermining their financial stability and endangering their future. Were we going to give grants to them for their own Nutcrackers? Were we ready to make up the difference in their annual revenues? Our grant was quickly becoming a nightmare.

The situation resolved itself only when the major company found itself unable to mount the tour for a wide variety of reasons. Our grant funds were returned, and the threat to the other companies averted. We are the first to recognize that circumstances beyond our control let us “off the hook” in what otherwise would have been a nightmarish situation. We recognize the challenges we now face in making a case for any touring dance production, since this one left a rather sour taste in many mouths here. Finally, this gave us a powerful reminder to beware moving too quickly, to gauge more variables in the environment, and be more considered when reviewing grant requests.