Legit orgs try to avoid closing

For a minute there, it looked like nonprofit theaters around the country were going to fall like dominos.

A spate of shutterings and frantic calls to the community for support came from legit orgs all over the U.S., from San Francisco’s Magic Theater — which in December went public with an SOS for an emergency cash infusion — to Baltimore Opera, which went permanently dark about the same time.

And while the anticipated tidal wave of similar distress signals didn’t follow, the current economic climate has posed serious challenges to nonprofits all over the country. It’s prompted layoffs, salary freezes and reduced programming. But it also seems to have strengthened the links among orgs and expanded the sense of a countrywide nonprofit legit community.

“Every theater meeting now is people swapping stories about how they’re surviving,” says Bonnie Metzgar, a.d. of Chicago’s About Face Theater, the LGBT-focused troupe in Chicago that mobilized a successful emergency fundraising campaign in February.

One mark of the upsurge in interest in the cross-country conversation: Theater Communications Group, the national org that supports legit not-for-profits, reported a surprisingly high level of attendance at the TCG conference in Baltimore in June, even as most companies are grappling with slashed travel budgets. (TCG was expecting 500 or 600, but 700 people showed up.)

Positioning himself as a leader of the discussion, Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, has pledged to visit every U.S. state over the next year to meet with local arts leaders and participate in public meetings.

The whistle-stop campaign comes after the longtime arts management consultant launched an initiative earlier this year to provide free emergency planning assistance to any nonprofit U.S. performing arts group that requests it. The confidential assistance is provided by KenCen brass and a volunteer network of accomplished arts managers from around the country.

Each session typically begins with a recitation of Kaiser’s mantra that the foundation of any successful arts org is “good art well marketed.” He warns that slicing budgets in those two areas invites disaster, especially in this climate.

“My constant fear is that they’re playing it safe by cutting programming under pressure from their boards,” says Kaiser. “If they do that, they will not recover with the rest of the economy. And if they do make cuts this year, it’s imperative that they plan ahead for exciting programming in the future.”

Another favorite theme is the ways in which arts managers can deal more effectively with their boards. “You can’t push your board members,” he says. “You need to get them excited so they will involve their friends and associates. Successful organizations are constantly attracting new donors rather than relying on those they already have.”

To date, more than 415 orgs in 40 states and Puerto Rico have received assistance from some 100 mentors, according to the center. The Kennedy Center funds Kaiser’s travel expenses with help from arts patrons Helen Lee Henderson and Adrienne Arsht.

“Phone calls and emails come in every day from organizations seeking advice,” says Kaiser, who this month will hold a total of 10 Arts in Crisis symposia.

Kaiser is the closest thing to a rock star on the nonprofit scene. More than 400 people turned out in Kalamazoo, Mich., in July to hear his advice about coping with the recession. They included government officials, arts managers, board members and artists who are facing budget cuts, reduced state funding, rapidly diminishing corporate support and declining morale.

Anne Berquist, executive director of the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, says Kaiser’s visit has already spawned an emphasis on collaborations, more strategic use of donor contributions and a more businesslike approach to arts management. She has launched a series of workshops to formulate short- and long-term initiatives within the tight-knit community of some 120 arts orgs.

Another organization assisted by the program is Cleveland’s Beck Center for the Arts. Its president, Lucinda Einhouse, contacted the center when ticket sales and contributions plummeted. After consulting with Kaiser and others, she initiated a variety of actions to bolster financial stability and organizational efficiency, including an urgent appeal to the community. In addition, the org will implement Kaiser’s suggestions to improve institutional marketing, program planning and development of its board.

The desire for a cross-organizational font of information and ideas is also demonstrated in the creation of the TCG Brain Bank, which matches experts in areas of concern with nonprofit orgs looking to bone up.

“We’ve gotten a huge response from that,” says TCG exec director Teresa Eyring. “The openness and the willingness to share has been particularly strong in the last year or so.”

Although TCG is still in the midst of surveying orgs about coping with the economic downturn, early responses suggest that nonprofits generally did a solid job anticipating the impact of the fiscal turbulence.

Among the topics of concern is the long-term decline of funding from all fronts (governmental, corporate and private) and the worry that opportunities for artists will erode as orgs pare their programming in an effort to keep budgets down.

The hope is that the soul-searching prompted by the dire economic situation will help set a foundation for future growth.

Take the Magic in San Francisco. After auds, donors and board members rallied in the wake of the theater’s call for coin, the org — downsized to a smaller staff, a single performance venue and a trimmed programming sked — is heading into its formerly jeopardized 2009-10 season upbeat about the creative work onstage as well as its five-year plan for debt elimination.

“It’s going to be another tough year,” says Magic a.d. Loretta Greco. “But all signs indicate we’ll be able to grow again, just grow in smarter, mission-driven ways.”

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