Tag Archives: economy

Enlightened and Inspired Funding from the Nonprofit Finance Fund and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


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Are public competitions good for arts funding?

Over the past month or so there has been a lot of talk (online and off) about competitions like Chase Community Giving.  I missed my chance to add my voice on the 2AM Theatre blog a few weeks ago because I go to sleep too early but last night’s tweet from Lincoln Center regarding American Express’ Members Project brought a lot of my feelings back to the surface.

While I could use this space to talk about how no company, including arts organizations, should allow anyone to tweet for them without implementing social media guidelines (like “don’t bash the competition”), I’ll save that for next week.  Right now I want to talk about whether all this focus on public competitions is a good thing for arts funding.  My knee-jerk reaction to the Chase program is no.  I’ve always disliked popularity contests and I don’t think that continuously asking for votes is the way to build the relationships our organizations need in order to sustain once the spotlight of Chase moves on.  It is superficial and cheap and has the potential to wear thin on our constituents (especially with Chase where you needed to keep the votes coming in throughout the run of the contest).

I can completely see why it makes sense to the companies running the competitions.  Chase would never have received anywhere near the same amount of exposure had they simply sponsored 200 events or hand-picked 200 grant recipients.  Every time an organization asked for a vote, there was Chase’s logo and the blue hand.  In fact, I often had to look twice to figure out which organization was asking for my vote, but I always knew it was Chase.

Then came the ill-advised Lincoln Center tweet.  This turned attention on the American Express Members Project.  Perhaps I shouldn’t blame AmEx for the misguided Lincoln Center communication, but I have a serious problem with funding mechanisms that pit one organization against another in this public fashion.

While discussing this issue on Twitter earlier today, Aaron Andersen pointed me to his post about the psychological underpinnings for the way we respond to these situations.  Aaron writes about how, once a company was officially in the top 200, the situation changed from “Chase’s money that we might win” to “our money to lose.”  The trick with the AmEx contest (and why I think the Lincoln Center tweeter said what they did) is that all the organizations chosen to be in the running automatically had “money to lose.”  The us-against-them idea is inherent.  There isn’t even a way to play the system by working together as the storefront theatres in Chicago did with Chase.  Cooperation gets you nowhere with the AmEx Members Project.

I worry that a continuation and/or expansion of this type of competition is tailor-made to erode the progress our industry has seen over these past two, very difficult, years.  We’ve learned to cooperate and collaborate out of necessity and the call from our foundation grantors that we need to work together more.  Corporate money has all but disappeared from our income statements as corporate philanthropy departments are shuttered and sponsorships have dried up.  Will we sabotage our partnerships with our sister companies (and our foundation funding) for the bright sparkle of these high-profile contests?  Is there a way for corporations to get the ROI they are looking for on their philanthropic endeavors without making us compete for “friends” and eye each other’s tactics suspiciously?  Am I naive to think that in a time when reality TV reigns and everyone is looking for a way to let the audience feel they are part of the process we could possibly hope that corporations would look seriously at a non-profit’s financial and organizational stability and/or programmatic strength when making funding decisions?

Let me know your thoughts.


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Fiscal responsibility: the sine qua non of general operating support

During the last few weeks of complete radio silence on this blog, I’ve been getting my brain wrapped around my new position as Managing Director at The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA.  Thank you all for your patience with me!

Just because I haven’t been writing doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking and tweeting (@amywratchford) about all the issues and opportunities around our industry.  One thing that has been top-of-mind for me lately is the general lack of General Operating Support (GOS) in our industry.  I’ve heard over and over from theatres and arts organizations that GOS is what they need, and I know the funders are hearing it too.  And yet we continue to see a preponderance of project funding and a scarcity of GOS.  This has gotten to the point where projects are specifically created in order to attract funding, even when basic financial needs of the company are not being met.  We, as an industry, tend to shake our fists and rage against out-of-touch funders who won’t recognize what would truly help us be sustainable.  I, however, think we only have ourselves to blame.

We have trained the foundations and major donors to give us project-based support.  In fact, we’ve trained them on multiple levels:

  • A consistent inability to talk about why we matter outside of the impact of specific projects
  • A consistent approach to documentation, especially financial documentation, of only sending what they ask for and then only in the broadest possible terms
  • Avoidance of explanations of how stable (or not) we are as organizations and what we are doing to make ourselves better (I mean this from a fiscal as well as an organizational/managerial standpoint)
  • A general lack of drilling down to details about who our audience is, how we will reach them, and how we expect to impact them
  • Avoidance of long-term strategic planning (which would make fixing the two bullets immediately preceding actually feasible)

In 2009 in Atlanta, we saw a funder take the leap into the great unknown of GOS.  The Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund (MAAF) listened to the organizations they had supported for years with capacity building grants and heeded the call to convert their funding to GOS.  As Executive Director Lisa Cremin stated when MAAF announced the changes, this was not an easy decision nor was it a cinch for the Board of MAAF to feel at ease with judging who was worthy of what level of GOS.  Lisa said again and again that MAAF had to look at the overall picture of the organization, they had to buy into the company’s plan.  How, I ask you, can we demand that funders provide us support that is open ended in terms of uses if we cannot communicate that plan?  And, how can we truly create that plan if we can’t even speak internally about the realities of the challenges and opportunities that face us on a fiscal and organizational level?  It is our responsibility to define our paradigm and then clearly communicate that to potential funders and constituents of all kinds.  I won’t even go into the impact of fiscal and organizational transparency on the staff, artists, and volunteers of an organization, that is for another post!

If we want General Operating Support, we must be generally and specifically accountable for where we are and where we are going.  Only then can we begin to ease the terror that funders feel when thinking about donating large sums of money to which no specific project tied.  Once we get our ducks in a row then, and only then, can we begin to petition for GOS in earnest.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts!


Posted by on June 29, 2010 in Arts management, theatre


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Analyzing the intrinsic impact of theatre on audiences

I was thrilled to read this post by Clay Lord at Theatre Bay Area! (thanks for pointing me to it, Thomas Cott!)  What Theatre Bay Area, WolfBrown, and their partners are doing has the potential to change the way we talk about who we are and what we do.

In the beginning the theatre industry (and arts community as a whole) did a lot of marketing via the “we are good for you, come see us and be better people” line.  Some still have a tendency to this … if you are one of them, STOP!  It doesn’t work!  No one wants to be told that they are lacking and need to do something to make themselves better.  Theatre is not medicine.

Currently we all seem to be on the economic impact train: Support the arts, we get people to spend money!  While this seems to be a better strategy than the medicinal one (especially among certain legislators), it leaves out the heart and soul of why we do this work and why people are drawn to it.

The thought that we could actually measure and communicate intrinsic impact of our work is a marvel to me.  If anyone can find a way to measure it, I know WolfBrown can, that is why I’m so excited.  Alan Brown, through a presentation in Atlanta sponsored by The Blank Foundation, was the one who broke me out of my limited view of what a survey could speak to and how to ask the right questions to get the answers you need.  I will be following the progress of this endeavor closely!

The thing we have to remember is that this information and ability to measure will only help in certain situations (like lobbying for government funding).  We still need to communicate the emotional impact of the stories we tell and the visceral experience of live theatre if we want to keep filling out theatres with new and returning patrons.  This is what makes people want to come back.  This is what makes people want to spread the word about us.

Side note:  Dave Charest over at the Fuzz Bucket blog posted this note about getting clarity on your company’s driving force and how clarity is vital for ease of communication and instant understanding.  Check it out.


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Adjusting your initiatives today to turn tomorrow’s marketing challenges into opportunities

Chad Bauman over at the Arts Marketing blog published this post today as part of a series to have industry leaders express their thoughts on the biggest marketing challenges coming our way in the next decade.  While I find it intellectually interesting to hear what these folks have to say (he has an impressive list set to weigh in), I believe the exercise will only be useful if we take the challenges named and examine what we are doing now to prepare for / overcome them.  I think we, as an industry, have become skilled at naming problems from the past, present, and future, real and imagined.  However, we often stop there and wallow in what we couldn’t control (sound like the newspaper and music industry??)  Let’s try to avoid that this time, shall we?

So, I’m going to start by giving my thoughts on what we can do now regarding the challenges mentioned by Thomas Cott and Rick Lester in the current blog post.  Please, add your own thoughts.  And, please, let’s stay focused on concrete actions we can take and not get back into the “no, THIS is the REAL problem” conversation.

Thomas Cott: Thomas lists a number of challenges, among them the demographic shift in our country and the growing “minority majority.”  What are we doing right now with not only our marketing but our programming to embrace this change?  Refer back to Trish Mead’s 2 AM Theatre post on diversity and think about how you are approaching this issue.  I watched Babes on Broadway last night for the first time and thoroughly enjoyed its light, frothy feel right up until the last 20 minutes when Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and the entire cast put on blackface for the minstrel number.  I was flabbergasted.  I thought, wow! I’m glad we are past the period in our history when folks thought that was OK!  Then, this morning, I thought, but what are we really doing today that is including all the voices out there in our conversation?  If they aren’t part of the conversation, you can bet they won’t be sitting in your seats.  What actions are you taking now?

Thomas also sites the change in spending habits for many Americans.  The only way we will get people to spend their hard earned dollars on our production is now and will continue to be that they see more value in the experience than they see in the money they spend.  What are you doing to demonstrate the value of your work in the lives of your patrons?  If we focus on the dollars we will lose, every time.  We must focus on what live performance provides that you can’t get anywhere else.  The visceral connection with the artists and the rest of the audience.  The emotional impact of communal experience and, yes, even ritual.  The lovely folks over at the Pew Internet and American Life Project published this report siting that people who are active on social networking sites are more likely to be out and about in their communities, too.  We are looking for more personal interaction, more real experience.  It is this experience that money does not dictate and it is this experience we need to sell.

Rick Lester: Rick highlights that we were actually once good at marketing to participatory audiences.  They may have performed chamber music in their living rooms whereas now we create music on our computers, but it is a participatory society nonetheless.  How do we harness this surge in the desire for arts participation?  (and, among those who we so bemoan didn’t have arts education in school … curiosity, if cultivated and encouraged, trumps formal training every time.)  How are you inviting your audience into the process?  Open rehearsals?  Reader’s circles for short-listed scripts for future seasons?  Classes?  Open mic nights?  Perhaps a series that brings talented amateurs in to showcase work they do that ties to your mission?  As I said before, you have to invite them into the conversation if you want them to come.

That is all I have time for right now, but I hope it gets the conversation for tactics started.  There are challenges in every era and rarely do people believe they are in a “golden age” while it is actually happening.  Let’s create our own golden age by adjusting now and prevent the need for reacting later.


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Rethink who you consider potential partners

Did anyone else get the ArtsJournal digest email yesterday and read this article from The LA Times and this article from The NY Times back-to-back?  Am I the only one that thought the Wooster Group / Baryshnikov alliance is just the opportunity to provide exciting programming that McNulty found lacking in L.A.’s larger institutions? 

What if the rest of us took a cue from this partnership?  What if these larger companies that find they can’t afford to fill their spaces partnered with smaller groups of complementary nature?  Imagine the cutting-edge work of Sacred Fools filling the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles.  Or the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta bringing Synchronicity to be in residence in their performance space?  Or Zoetic Dance Ensemble creating site-specific works within the galleries of The Contemporary?

Artistic leaders are often hesitant to form these types of partnerships with other theatres due to the fear of competition and ultimately loss of audience.  I believe that given two companies that have distinct and specific missions, this need not be the case.  What you get instead is a very diverse group coming through the doors of your institution.  However, if inviting a smaller theatre company into the space is too big a leap, perhaps partnering with other, non-theatre, arts organization is the way to go.  It works both ways, smaller theatre companies without homes of their own should be talking established dance companies, and even galleries, and museums.  Many of these have performance spaces that often go under-utilized.

If the current economy has taught us anything, it has taught us the old status quo will never return.  Let’s work on creating a new one.  One that is sustainable and not only makes individual companies, but the arts community as a whole stronger.


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The arts leadership dichotomy and why it works

I read this blog post by James Undercofler on the ArtsJournal site (thanks to Thomas Cott for highlighting it!) on Monday and it got me thinking about this strange dual leadership model we have in the performing arts.  Undercofler talks about a model where an Artistic Director, in theory, leads the artistic vision of a company while only actually in residence for as little as 15 weeks a year.  Meanwhile, a Managing Director does the work of running the company on a daily basis and, in many cases, making decisions that intimately affect the artistic output, all the while trying to appear to only do administrative work. 

While I hear this is often true at symphonies, opera companies, and the like across the nation, I find a very different reality in the theatre world.  Most of us don’t have the funds to have a support staff that allows an artistic director to go off to do other projects for 3/4 of the year and, more recently, we seem to be cutting costs by having our artistic directors direct all or almost all the productions in our season. (this is a topic for a completely different post!)  So, instead of the conundrum listed above, we find ourselves with the potential to have the best of both worlds.  I know many companies are choosing to save money by combining the roles of artistic and managing director right now (we just made this decision at Synchronicity) and, especially for smaller companies, this may be the way to go for the short-term.  However, I believe for companies with budgets of $500k or more, this dual leadership model is necessary for the long-term health of the organization.

Not only is it extremely difficult to find leaders who have to aptitude, desire, and concrete skills to perform all artistic and managerial roles, our leadership dichotomy can actually allow for greater artistic freedom and stronger support of the artistic product.  It allows the artistic director to dream big and concentrate on what would be best for the artistic health and growth of the mission, while the managing director sets about to facilitate that vision.  When I say “facilitate” I don’t mean “make it all happen this year.”  It is the job of the managing director to figure out an appropriate timeline that allows for the raising of the needed funds for the A.D.’s big projects and helping the A.D. to find fulfilment along the way.

I do think that there are some fundamental structural needs to allow this partnership to work in the best way possible.  First of all, the A.D. and M.D. need to both feel secure in their positions and understand the nature of their roles, there are few things more destructive to this model than an A.D. who fears a strong M.D. (I’m sure the other way around is equally destructive, but I haven’t actually seen that scenario play out).    Next, they need to be true partners.  That means appearing side-by-side on the org chart as well as both reporting directly to and voting members of the Board of Directors.  It can be difficult for the managing partner to do their job (especially during difficult times) if they are in a subjugated position to the artistic head.  Finally, communication is the key.  Actually, this one probably should have gone first.  If the A.D. and M.D. cannot learn to speak the same language, and be completely transparent with each other, you will see nothing but crashing into brick walls.  However, I do think that the feeling of security and true understanding of the roles helps tremendously with communication.

When it works, our strange and unique leadership model brings out the best in the organization and allows it to thrive artistically, financially, and administratively.


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