On opening hearts and wallets: An open letter from small arts organizations

Note: This is a very micro-view on a very niche topic, and not in any way meant to downplay the severity of the current global health crisis.

You may have noticed, it’s a little weird out there. Here in Houston, several arts organizations are slated to open shows in the coming weeks. Let’s assume, like in many cities around the world, they won’t.

Houston’s arts sector is no stranger to disaster and being resilient in the face of said disasters. Gosh, following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Houston Grand Opera moved into the city’s convention center and renamed it Resilience Theater. COVID-19 is different. Hurricanes come and go, and while they wreak immeasurable havoc, there is generally a timeline when you can expect a return to normalcy. In the case of this novel coronavirus, that timeline is at best “TBD,” and it brings to light a number of shocks and stressors.

Over the past few days, stories have gone viral (poor choice of words, I know) about innovative organizations jumping into virtual performances, online art tours, and other interesting, creative uses of free time for the foreseeable future. Looking into the 990s (public nonprofit financial documents) for these organizations, I see one common thread, with few exceptions — budgets of millions, if not tens-of-millions of dollars. Why is this important? Ninety-two per cent of all U.S. nonprofits have budgets under $1 million; 75% are under $100,000 ← this is the group I invoke when I say “small nonprofits.” NCCS notes there are over 1.5 million NPOs in the U.S., meaning ~1.1 million are small nonprofits.

I volunteer with a number of these small arts nonprofits, and many of them do right by their artists. There may not be much in the coffers for marketing, communications, or staffing, though they often pay their artists decently. But this is predicated largely on a cash-in-cash-out reality from ticket sales, which on average is how 60% of arts organizations earn their revenue.

So what’s my point? Small organizations don’t typically have robust fundraising programs — or fundraising programs at all — to actively engage, solicit, and steward individual and institutional supporters. If we assume 60% of revenue is earned, a young $50,000 theatre with a three-show season might expect a $10,000 fiscal crater if one show were to be cancelled — $10,000 that would have been used to pay artists, playwrights, technicians, stage managers, bartenders, box office staff, and others who often desperately rely on these resources for not just their livelihood, but their lives. New York Theatre Workshop’s Jeremy Blocker noted, “There is no ‘surplus’ in nonprofit,” but even NYTW’s budget is over $6 million.

To be clear, I take no issue with large organizations — I’ve worked for many of them in my career, and often they got large because they do exceptional work and were growth-oriented. I simply wish for there to be more equitable access to resources for the little guys, at all times but especially in trying times. Dramatists Guild has emergency grants which are fantastic, but funding determinations may take up to four weeks. Rauschenberg Foundation will provide for emergency medical costs, though the scope of funding is limited and decisions won’t happen for two-to-three months. The Artist Relief Tree has already raised an impressive $130,000 for quick-turnaround $250 micro-grants, but their system is stressed and already at-capacity.

None among us should scoff at emergency/disaster funding. There is something beautifully kind and wonderful about those who step up in times of great need. However, I want to see an arts sector where small organizations have the same potential as their larger peers, knowing the scale will be different. Conversations with donors and prospects should be framed as “ensure we thrive” rather than “help us survive.” This is the essence of resilience — vitality not simply when you need it most, but always, and in all ways.

Make no mistake, I believe these conversations are dyadic. Organizations need to be better prepared (and trained) to ask for ongoing support long before they are in dire situations. At the same time, donors need to play an increasingly active role. Heck, you can start right now! Seriously, just google “performances canceled coronavirus” and contact an organization whose mission resonates with you to ask how you can get involved. In my view, this is general operating support distilled down to its essence.

I volunteer with one arts organization which gave me a powerful reminder over the weekend: Theatre is not a luxury, but a public good… While our community may look different in the coming months, it is essential to ensure we have a cultural life left to go back to. That’s just friggen’ brilliant; and of course I opened my wallet.

Small southpaw writing about nonprofits, creativity, kindness, and life.

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