Learning Experience Design for Small Arts Organizations

Richard H. Driehaus Foundation

How can a foundation provide a professional development program that supports grantees’ needs to optimize their reach?

The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation wanted to provide robust professional development programming for their MacArthur-Driehaus arts grantees as a way to support their needs and help optimize their reach.

As a result of implementing this program, the foundation was able to create a sense of community, address the unique challenges of grantees, and provide a communications training and a resource guide to inspire action.

Problem Framing

We believe that to truly understand an organization’s challenge, it’s necessary to  immerse ourselves within that organization. We do this because after our deep dive we often find there’s more beneath the surface to uncover that is key to the success of our work.

In this case, our immersive process was key to framing our engagement with the foundation. Initially the project was intended to be a series of professional development trainings. But, as we dove into our early exploratory phase, we identified a greater opportunity to innovate and design a program tailored to meet specific needs grantees communicated were a priority.

To access this information, LimeRed relied on collaboration with the Driehaus Foundation. We led them through a co-working process that looked at the project team’s strengths and enabled research-based decisions to accomplish our project objectives.

Although the final program would be designed to be “grantee- centered,” LimeRed also wanted to prioritize the foundation and ensure they would not be exhausted in terms of capacity and resources. To us, it was important to optimize the experiences of both the grantees and the client. That’s why we involved them in the process from research and planning to execution.

Design Research

LimeRed relies heavily on research to inform our design. For this project, we surveyed 102 grantees to identify their needs and thoughts on the state of art and culture in the City of Chicago. Our research found that these arts organizations wanted help in optimizing their brand to differentiate themselves in their market. They were not only interested in developing marketing plans, but also in learning how to conduct their own research and analysis for informed decision-making to optimize the impact of future work. Also, as a result of constrained budgets and capacity, the grantees wanted to understand how they could best manage their communications and measure success.

We discovered that these arts organizations are pillars in their communities—they bring people together by addressing complex inequalities and the underrepresentation of arts, culture, and life in Chicago. The ultimate goal of our program became to enable arts organizations to be more self-sustaining and improve their efficiency with lean staff and budgets while communicating their value and brand.

Program Design and Development

We developed and designed a tailored program for grantees under the name ArC: Arts Communication. Through the program, we engaged members and staff of Chicago arts nonprofits and organizations in a cohort-style learning experience. They received access to resources and content on branding, marketing, and communications and, ultimately, the tools to properly market and grow their organizations.

What made ArC unique was the flexible and customizable nature of the program, which was intentional based on our research. Participants were able to enter at different stages to match where they were in their journey and choose their level of engagement—whether they wanted to attend all sessions or just one.

Enabling arts organizations to thrive
ArC had 40 participants ranging from dance troupes to theatre co-ops to children’s creative writing workshops. These 40 organizations had access to trainings and techniques which enabled them to enhance their message and improve community awareness and outreach.

ArC consisted of workshops and one-on-one sessions that scaled the organization’s’ reach and knowledge, an online community group with the members of their cohorts with unfettered access to LimeRed experts, and many opportunities to customize their experience and provide feedback.


We decided early on that developing a clear and relatable identity for the program was key to building familiarity and affinity among the cohort. Given the diversity of the cohort, whether based on geography or art genre, we wanted the organizations to feel equal, welcomed, and inspired to be active participants. To accomplish this it was essential to give careful thought not only to the design and development of materials, but also to the experience participants would have in learning and collaborating with peers. As a result of the program, a new network of staff from various arts organizations was formed in Chicago.

We also developed an online community that allowed participants to engage and interact with each other in their learning experience. This provided LimeRed a space to communicate with grantees directly and provide access to resources and materials. 

Each grantee was given an opportunity to examine their unique organizational challenges with LimeRed through two-hour sessions. Overall, we provided nearly 50 hours of direct consultation. After many one-on-one strategy sessions, grantees began seeing the bigger picture and opportunities to scale their operations to include more viable solutions for their organization. The major outcome of these sessions was that organization staff members learned theories and tactics they were able to put into practice.

Upon completion of our workshop and one-one-one sessions, LimeRed spent time writing, compiling, and curating all the various resources developed in our sessions into a 50 page guide and workbook. All participants received the guidebook, A Communications Guide for Small Arts Organizations Making a Big Impact, to support their work. 

The book includes both essays and activities that cover the three key areas covered in the program, including; Branding, Marketing Communications Strategy and Research, and Communications Management.