Nonprofit Arts Organizations: Sometimes, Old Trees Die, Too

With all the finger pointing and desperation, it’s important to remember that senescence changes everything, including your desperate nonprofit arts organization.

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Ginkgo trees

This isn’t about trees.

Did you know that ginkgo biloba trees can live to be 5,000 years old? After sifting through all the latest harangues, arguments, and blame pieces (including my own) about whose fault it is that major nonprofit arts organizations are closing and failing all over the place, a strange link came up in my search feed about ginkgo trees. I have no idea why. Maybe it’s because I use Ecosia instead of Google or Bing so that they can plant trees every time I search for something.

Anyway, according to an article on from 3 years ago, the oldest trees in the world are the ginkgo biloba. They don’t die of natural causes per se, but instead undergo an aging process that seems to “escape senescence at the whole-plant level.” Senescence is the term that describes the process of physical deterioration that happens with age.

Needless to say, it’s difficult to look at the natural cycle of a tree species that’s 5,000 years young and still alive. Even if they study a tree that is 1,000 years old, that study may not take anything into account about the next 4,000 years of life. That’s a baby tree.

Previous versions of the ginkgo species date back at least 290 million years, and the ginkgo biloba is just the last species left. And, according to the plant biologist that put a paper together about the tree’s life cycle, it does not mean that the tree is immortal. They could die (in theory), but we just haven’t seen it happen yet. “They live so long because they have many mechanisms to reduce a lot of the wear and tear of aging.”

Patience. This is still not about trees. It’s about metaphors and your nonprofit arts organization.

If you think of the arts industry in America (both profit and nonprofit), you’d be studying a complex tree in which some of the branches constantly vie for food, air, and water at the expense of other branches. Some of those branches may die (vaudeville, minstrel shows), others may wither (radio drama, summer stock with name performers, circuses with animals), but the tree just changes shape. Why those particular branches die and wither is immaterial to the non-political tree itself, but it’s important to remember that many of those branches grew from poisonous foundations, making it crucial to excise them for the sake of the whole tree itself.

The branches have branches, and those branches have branches, etc. At the end of all the branches are the leaves. On a ginkgo tree, the leaves age and fall off, only to grow new ones in the spring.

Leaves leaf and leave. That’s where your nonprofit arts organization comes in.

The arts industry in America is not an evergreen. It’s decidedly deciduous. It dies back and gets reborn with new branches representing new kinds of art. On the nonprofit side of the tree, however, via the use of gobs of money, mostly good intentions (and some bad ones), and the idea of legacy (a harmful construct that causes bad decision-making), some of the most damaged branches have been treated to all manner of super glue, stakes to prop them up, and some very expensive thumb tacks and duct tape when all else fails.


Furthermore, the arts tree is just one tree in the forest. And some of the other trees are not doing so hot—or rather, they’re too hot. The environmental tree in America is collapsing faster than a saguaro cactus in Arizona. In Florida, the ocean—not the Gulf of Mexico or a hot tub in one of the several thousand retirement homes, but the Atlantic Freaking Ocean—hit 101° F (38.43 C) in July, setting the record for highest recorded ocean temperature for any ocean, anywhere, at least on this planet. And there are two more months of North American summer to go.

On the political tree, the two leading candidates for the presidency in 2024 include: on the right branch, a 76-year-old, twice-impeached, delusional despot who has never won the popular vote in 3 runs for office. Oh, and he’s currently under indictment for 31 crimes (that’s as of this writing; there are dozens of other cases ramping up). On the left branch, there’s an 80-year-old man who is not even recommended by voters in his own party (although there seems to be no one else with support). Given that, and the fact that all elections appear to be hackable from outside sources like the Soviet Union—er, I mean, Russia—2024 might mark the last fair presidential election in American history. Unless, of course, 2020 was. Or 2012.


On the human-centered tree, a new pest, a hearty, swift beetle called machinicai learnicai has infiltrated large swaths of the tree that used to allow for people to work and make enough money to live in a predictable existence. The middle of that particular tree has already shrunk to a precariously skinny size, with a dank, rotting trunk below starving for nutrients while garishly green, pink, and neon yellow leaves and branches become more robust. According to an article in the Harvard Gazette:

“Some of the biggest challenges in the next 15 years will be creating safe and reliable hardware for autonomous cars and health care robots; gaining public trust for AI systems, especially in low-resource communities; and overcoming fears that the technology will marginalize humans in the workplace.”

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So the arts entertainment tree, upon which there are so many branches now that it’s nearly impossible for the public observing it to differentiate from one kind of content to another, may indeed have to reshape. Or not.

Is the arts entertainment tree dying? Probably not, but it’s hard to tell—we’ve never seen one die before, so we don’t really know how to recognize how it deals with senescence.

But what about the nonprofit part of that tree? You know, the part that so often tries to look exactly like the for-profit side? It surely won’t be fixed with super glue and duct tape. Instead, it has to allow itself to graft to another tree: the charity tree, a kind of tree that has different roots, different goals. It might best be the kind of tree that bears fruit instead of flowers, hemp instead of colorful leaves, and offer a massive canopy under which people who need the help can eat, make clothing, and keep dry as the storms pass.

Purple prose, to be sure; probably a result of too many ginkgo biloba tablets. Or maybe it’s utter bullshit. I prefer to think of these words as an effective fertilizer. Let’s hope something grows.

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Based in Kirkland, Washington, Alan Harrison is a writer and speaker specializing in nonprofit organizations, strategy, the arts, and life politics. His columns appear regularly in ArtsJournal and other major publications. Contact him directly at

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Alan is always looking for good opportunities to write and consult for nonprofits that need a hand. And, of course, that elusive Perfect Opportunity™.

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