In nonprofit theatre, folks spend a lot of time talking about how the “model is broken.” That phrase is bandied about referring to the production model, the business model, the funding model, you name it. Within all the broken talk, there are a few brave souls actually testing new models. The Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) are two of these brave souls.
Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a webinar hosted by Rodney Christopher & Rebecca Thomas of NFF on their “Leading for the Future” initiative, supported by DDCF (check out the webinar slides and video). The presentation also featured Cynthia Hedstrom and Jamie Proskin from The Wooster Group and Amanda Nelson and Thomas Cott from Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation. I’m thankful to NFF for posting the video; the presentations were fast and furious with a lot of great information. (some of which I missed the first time around due to live tweeting!)
I’ve been following the information NFF has released over the past year regarding this incredible initiative. If you haven’t yet read “The Case for Change Capital” or watched the video case studies, I highly recommend them. I hope this project is a sign of things to come.
For those new to the Change Capital and Leading for the Future conversation, NFF and DDCF have teamed up to provide up to $1 million to each of 10 arts organizations “intended to allow participants to take transformative rather than incremental steps to remain artistically relevant, effective and excellent while ensuring long-term financial viability.” The capital is meant to be expended over the course of four or five years. Some organizations are using the funds to grow, some to shrink, some to reach new audiences in new ways, one organization is using the capital to responsibly wrap up their operations. There are a number of revolutionary components to this funding model:
- The size of the grant allows for truly transformative change. NFF and DDCF are not asking for the moon while only providing enough funds for a trip to the beach.
- The massive investment is funded from one source; the organizations did not have to cobble together 15-20 different small or mid-sized grants in order to make this happen. I believe this not only saves organizational energy from searching for, courting, and applying for separate funding, it also saves the proposed transformation from too many cooks in the kitchen.
- The choice of how best to achieve transformational change was left to the organizations, with technical assistance and professional consultation from NFF. Allowing the organizations to chart their own future and adjust their course as the funding period proceeded means the folks on the ground, witnessing the actual impact of the changes are the ones steering the ship. Plus, they are fully invested in their destination.
- The time period is long enough to allow the organizations to build up to sustainability, with the acknowledgement that there probably would be deficits as they made changes and then grew into their new structure. I’ve seen a few grantors provide funding for new or expanded positions at arts organizations. However, these are often at most two-year programs. Expecting a small or mid-sized arts organization to go from not having money for a $50k/year Development Director to having enough surplus to not only cover that salary but also all the other incremental costs that come along with that investment (not to mention all the other incremental increases in costs we all face every year) in only two years can be too much for many organizations to handle. If you want true, sustainable change, you have to allow time to grow into your new skin.
- It encourages strategic risk at the exact time we as arts organizations are fighting the urge to buckle down and hide from the financial uncertainty. It is taking advantage of what Jerry Yoshitomi called “an unfreezing moment.” These chances have to be seized before everything finds its new baseline.
Back in late 2008 / early 2009 a lot of us in nonprofit theatre were speculating that those who made it through this recession were going to come out the other side stronger, leaner, and more resilient. I think that is proving to be true. However, just as Michael Kaiser suggested in The Art of the Turnaround that those who manage through turnarounds must be careful to not keep too tight a fist when stability is reclaimed, we must now begin to look at how we will not just survive but explode the status quo with revolutionary models of our own. Who knows, maybe this is just the beginning of a tide of change capital to help us all transform into what we are next meant to be.