TCG survey sees promising upticks

After a tough couple of years, things are finally looking up for legit nonprofits, but they’re still living hand-to-mouth on a day-to-day liquidity basis.

Those are among the findings of a couple of economic reports recently released by Theater Communications Group, the grant-making, advocacy and networking org of U.S. theater nonprofits.

To judge by the commercial realm of Broadway, the theater biz has proven resilient enough to resist most of the downward pull of the 2008 financial crisis and the recession that followed. Witness the Main Stem’s $1 billion in sales last season, as well as rising average ticket prices that make it clear that despite any belt-tightening, consumers are still willing to shell out for the hits they want to see.

For most legit nonprofits, however, it’s been a different story over the past couple of years, with companies around the country organizing emergency fundraisers and troupes paring back activities, sometimes ruthlessly, in an effort to keep afloat.

According to TCG’s Theater Facts 2010, the latest installment of an annual economic survey the org has been conducting for 30 years, there are signs of hope, particularly in a metric TCG calls the Change in Unrestricted Net Assets, which measures all forms of a theater’s income (ticket sales, contributions, endowment earning, etc.) vs. all expenses. Among the 113 theaters that participated in the survey in each of the past five years, the average CUNA inched up into the black after a couple of years in the red.

Growth is attributable, according to the report, to an uptick in single-ticket income (largely due to price increases) along with a rebounding stock market, which helped boost cash yielded by endowment funds.

On the other hand, theaters’ average working capital — the cash on hand to deal with day-to-day financial obligations — has ended up in the negative over each of the past five years.

To a degree, such cash-flow worries are nothing new — legiters are fond of saying that in the funding-strapped nonprofit world, every day is a recession — but the trend became more severe in 2009 and 2010.

Among the other downturns traced in the report: a decrease in corporate, state and local funding; and a decline in subscription income of 15% over a five-year period. Over that same five years, overall attendance at resident productions fell 3.6%, with a 1.4% reduction in the numbers of performances offered.

But among the list of encouraging indicators, according to TCG exec director Teresa Eyring, is a major rise in attendance at developmental events such as readings and workshops as well as pre-show talks, lectures and latenight cabarets.

To her mind, the popularity of such behind-the-curtain events reps avid audience interest in multiple facets of theater. “That bodes well for the health of theater overall,” she says.

To go along with the Theater Facts 2010, which analyzes numbers collected from the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010, TCG also released the results of an online survey of member theaters called “Taking Your Fiscal Pulse — Fall 2011.”

According to that more current barometer, 63% of theaters surveyed broke even or ended up in the black, with 74% logging expenses that were at or below budget.

“It looks like the numbers are holding in 2011 as well,” Eyring says.

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