Arts nonprofits aim to increase access

Art of Cool Project, a Durham nonprofit formed in 2011 to provide jazz and build an audience for it, wants a physical home and a way to expand its audience, build its donor base and find corporate sponsors.

American Dance Festival, which also is in Durham and is celebrating its 82nd season this summer, wants to establish a year-long presence and know more about its audience.

Artsplosure, a Raleigh nonprofit that for nearly four decades has produced big arts festivals each year and worked to promote the arts, also wants to know more about its audience, and to host first-time events and performances.

And 14-year-old Deep Dish Theater Company, which stages four shows a year in a storefront at University Mall in Chapel Hill that seats 70 people, wants new space that can handle constantly-changing programs and will attract a steady flow of visitors.

Key to making the arts and culture more accessible in the Triangle, representatives of all four groups told the Triangle Donors Forum on April 14, are capacity-building and technical support for small and mid-sized arts organizations, as well as collaboration among them.

Economic driver

The arts are big business and big contributors to the economy and the health of local communities, Lori O’Keefe, president of Triangle Community Foundation and moderator of the panel, told several dozen guests at the Donors Forum, which was hosted Foundation and held at the Carolina Theater in Durham.

Sixty percent of employees in North Carolina work in the arts or creative industries, which generated $22 billion in revenue for the state in 2014, O’Keefe said. “This is real work for our region and for our state, with real people working real jobs in the arts, and the majority of those jobs are in the nonprofit sector,” she said. Arts offerings contribute to the health of downtowns and communities, and can have a big impact on the way children learn, O’Keefe said. “Immersion in art has such a ripple effect on how a child can be set up for success later in life,” she said.

Arts and culture represent an important focus of grantmaking at the foundation, which last year granted nearly $2 million to organizations that support arts and culture in the region and beyond, O’Keefe said.

Providing leadership in building the cultural identity of the Triangle also is a focus—along with building the capacity of groups that address youth literacy and community development, and supporting environmental conservation programs—of a “People and Places” program the Foundation launched last year. Yet while larger arts institutions in the region may seem to find it easier to sustain themselves, O’Keefe said, smaller arts organizations faces challenges, including a lack of “ready-made venues,” lack of knowledge about how to use technology to attract audiences, and a business model that will sustain them.

Providing access

Adequate and appropriate space to perform and show art, and the accessibility of that space to a regional audience, are big challenges for smaller arts groups, members of the panel told the Donors Forum. The Triangle, for example, lacks a “home” for jazz, a single space to house jazz performance, teaching, rehearsing and related activities, said Cicely Mitchell, president and co-founder of Art of Cool Project.

The idea that led to the founding of Art of Cool was to “provide space where we could help expand the audience for jazz,” she said. “It’s all about accessibility.”

Paul Frellick, artistic director of Deep Dish Theater Company, said that while ticket sales generate only about half of the funds it needs to operate, its capacity of only 70 seats makes it tough to attract corporate advertisers for its printed programs or corporate sponsors. After operating in two locations at University Mall, he said, the troupe aims to find new space and move over the course of its next season.

Maintaining momentum

Arts groups like Artsplosure, Art of Cool and American Dance Festival that concentrate many of their activities into a few events or times during the year face the challenge of maintaining a presence or momentum throughout the year, panelists said. Multiplying that challenge for an arts group can be a lack of data about its audience, a hurdle that many arts groups face.

Michael Lowder, executive director of Artsplosure, said venues in themselves can carry a brand that can “trump whoever the presenter is.” The Artsplosure festival this year will move to Fayetteville Street from Moore Square, he said. Yet because Fayetteville Street has attracted both “great events and not-so-great events” and has only a “so-so brand,” he said, the move carries some risk.“Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd,” he said. To help promote and market itself throughout the year, he said, Artsplosure has made aggressive use of social media such as Instagram and Facebook. “We really try to maintain a relationship with our audience,” he said. Yet at Artsplosure, he said, “we really don’t know our audience.”

While 30,000 to 50,000 people attend the organization’s First Night activities, and 60,000 to 80,000 attend Artsplosure, less than one thousand attending those festivals actually fill out surveys about who they are, he said. Artsplosure tries to communicate with the arts community through arts agencies, and through roughly 25 media outlets. Still, Lowder said, maintaining a year-long presence and momentum “with who you perceive your audience to be” can be challenging.

Sarah Kondu, director of communications and marketing at American Dance Festival, said it performs at venues such as Durham Arts Center yet, because of a policy by intermediaries that sell tickets online, it can not get information on the people who buy tickets to its performances. So knowing and communicating with its audiences is a “real struggle for us,” she said.

Mitchell, who suggested that venues do not share information on ticket buyers to protect their privacy, said that while Art of Cool has built an email list of people who attend its events, its marketing budget is small and so it relies on social media to reach its audience.

Showing Value

O’Keefe, who worked as a fundraiser and arts administrator at performing arts institutions in California and New York City before joining Triangle Community Foundation in 2005, asked the panelists whether the new residents who have swelled the Triangle’s population recognize the value the arts add to the region’s quality of life and are “opening their pockets and engaging in ways other than just buying tickets.” Mitchell said Art of Cool launched its festival last year entirely through a Kickstarter social-media campaign. Tondu said modern dance is a “hard sell, even in larger cities,” and that American Dance Festival is “still trying to educate, to get people to give it a try.” Frellick said that because tickets sales generate only about half the income Deep Dish Theater needs to operate, and because its limited seating capacity has made it tough to attract corporate sponsors, the company depends on individual donors and patrons to sustain it. On the other hand, he said, when corporate giving fell after the economy crashed in 2008, Deep Dish was not as hard hit as some other organizations because it already lacked corporate support.

Lowder said Artsplosure six years ago saw a 60 percent spike in ticket sales for First Night, and asked a statistician to try to find out why. The only correlation the statistician could find after looking at a broad range of indicators was that “the more we spend on art, the more tickets we sold,” Lowder said.“We want to be perceived as an entry point, the gateway, to what others are doing,” he said. “It’s about the art we’re presenting, and presenting in an accessible way to encourage people to learn more and get involved.” Making the arts accessible is important, he said, because of the “influx of people from all over the country with expectations about what sorts of art they’re going to find here.”

Capacity and collaboration

A big challenge for smaller and mid-sized arts groups is building their organizational “capacity,” panelists said. Mitchell at Art of Cool said finding corporate support has been tough. The group participated in a training program at the Durham Chamber of Commerce to learn how to ask companies for money, and was the only nonprofit in the program, she said. “A lot of younger organizations would jump over the opportunity to have mentorship and camaraderie,” she said.

O’Keefe said a “big push” in the nonprofit sector is for greater collaboration, and “the arts tend to be on the forefront of this, using statistics, data, having a revenue producing model.” Through tickets and products, “the arts have always had,” she said. “The arts, particularly in the Triangle, are constantly thinking about ways to work together to raise each other up.”

Nonprofits, funders looking for community partnerships

By Todd Cohen

Fixing local problems can be tough.

Nonprofits that focus on community issues can find their work slow, messy and fragmented. With limited resources, they face growing competition for funding, as well as rising demand from donors to show and measure their impact.

And because they often focus on a single issue or group of issues, many nonprofits are not positioned to address the underlying and interconnected causes of the broad range of complicated problems in their communities.

The way they operate, however, is beginning to change. A small but growing number of nonprofits and funders are starting to work together to make a “collective impact” on local problems.

The challenges facing nonprofits and funders working on the issue of community development, and the solutions they are developing to address those challenges, was the focus of a recent meeting of Triangle Donors Forum.

“Nonprofits don’t work in silos,” said Katie Loovis, director of U.S. community partnerships and stakeholder engagement for GlaxoSmithKline, and a panelist at the Donors Forum, which was hosted by Triangle Community Foundation on November 20. Building healthy communities “requires each [nonprofit] working together,” as well as sectors working together, Loovis said.

Moderated by Farad Ali, president and CEO of the North Carolina Institute of Minority Economic Development and a member of the board of directors of Triangle Community Foundation, the Donors Forum was held at the Holton Career and Resource Center in Durham.

Building capacity

Strengthening the organizational capacity of nonprofits is the focus of a “People and Places” initiative Triangle Community Foundation launched last year that focuses on groups working on the issues of community development, youth literacy, land conservation, and the arts.

As a general funder that is a “proxy for so many donors, and a vast number of nonprofits,” and with “limited resources and a vast region and many microcosms of communities,” the Foundation wanted to find “that sweet spot of funders and nonprofits and volunteers where we start to chip away” at addressing pressing community needs, Lori O’Keefe, the Foundation’s president, told the Donors Forum.

While the Foundation’s community conversation initially focused on finding ways to improve the delivery of services, she said, it eventually shifted to the organizational capacity and infrastructure of nonprofits.

Recognizing the widespread need of local nonprofits to strengthen their operations so they could make a greater impact through the services they deliver, the Foundation decided to make capacity-building the focus of its discretionary grantmaking.

Partnerships key

Alice Lutz, CEO of Triangle Family Services and a panelist at the Donors Forum, said partnerships are critical to the impact of her organization, a 77-year-old agency that focuses on mental health, financial stability and family safety.

“It’s partnerships that make a difference,” she said.

But partnership also are challenging, she said, because “the work doesn’t stop” while staff members responsible for delivering services also are devoting time to building partnerships with funders and other agencies.

Maggie West, program coordinator for the Community Empowerment Fund in Chapel Hill and another panelist, said her organization depends on collaboration and partnerships “more than we depend on funding.”

The Community Empowerment Fund operates with 250 student volunteers from Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, pairing two students each with individuals who are homeless or at risk of being homeless. In 2015, it plans to add students from North Carolina Central University.

The students work to help each client focus on their goals in the areas of employment, housing and financial security.

“Communities are people that know each other and in relationship to each other can build mobility,” West said.

And while the organization’s volunteers, known as “advocates,” help their clients navigate through courts, housing agencies, health clinics, public-benefits systems and other agencies, “student volunteers are not going to be the experts,” she said. “So we depend on partnerships” with shelters, clinics, housing agencies, workforce development organizations and other groups.

Investing in collaboration

Loovis said many issues in a community are interconnected, and funders struggle to “change the way we fund and foster more collaboration” to address those issues.

“As the funding community, sometimes we get it all wrong,” she said. “The very things we have funded to create sometimes exacerbate the very things we don’t want to see.”

While they may “know fostering a healthy community requires addressing a broader array of factors,” she said, funders may opt to fund individual nonprofits, in effect forcing nonprofits to compete with one another for funding rather than encouraging them to work together.

Funders also tend to invest in short-term programs, even though fixing complex problems can take longer.

“How do we fund things and recognize this isn’t a one-year deal, change the funding stream and realize this is a long-term approach,” she said. And while funders “want nonprofits to show outcomes,” she said, funders may not be providing the funding nonprofits need to evaluate their work.

GlaxoSmithKline wants to change the way it funds nonprofits, and is working with Triangle Community Foundation to “figure out how not just to fund one nonprofit but groups working together,” possibly with “more than one business funder at the table,” she said.

“If we do want healthy communities, this is complicated work,” she said, “and we do all have some room to improve.”

Incentives for partnerships

Bob Johnston, who is founder and executive director of Global Vaccines, a nonprofit in Morrisville, and attended the Donors Forum, suggested that philanthropic funders that want to invest in solutions to complex community problems might take the approach of agencies like the National Institutes of Health that fund scientific research.

His own university labs once operated like “an island,” said Johnston, a former professor of microbiology at North Carolina State University and former professor of microbiology and immunology at the School of Medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“You wrote a grant, got funding, and there was competition, and actually drives a lot of innovation,” he said. “But as science has moved forward, the goals are too big for individual labs.”

So the NIH now issues “calls for proposals” that spell out a big goal, knowing that “no one entity can satisfy that goal,” said Johnston, who created a donor advised fund at Triangle Community Foundation.

It then becomes “incumbent on people applying for funding to assemble the consortia that are important to whatever that goal is,” he said.

So if philanthropic funders want to set an ambitious goal for addressing a community problem, they can issue a call for proposals that will give community groups “an incentive to organize themselves” to apply for funding, he said, “Having it come from the ground up could be a real advance. It would be up to individual people and agencies to come up with consortia and the groups that can do it. Your decision would be who can do it best.”

‘Coopertition’

Lutz said nonprofits working in the area of human services have “little room for mistakes.”

While nonprofits ought to be able to learn from and build on initiatives that don’t work, she said, “funders move on to another organization.”

The challenge is to find ways to pilot new programs, “identify mistakes, and then turn to funders and in partnership move through that system,” she said. What is needed, she said, is “coopertition,” or a combination of cooperation and competition.

Loovis said there is a “push-pull” between funders and nonprofits.

“In some ways, nonprofits are ahead of us,” she said. “In some ways, funders are a little ahead of nonprofits.”

When GlaxoSmithKline decided to pursue a strategy known as “collective impact,” she said, it wanted to invest $500,000 each in tackling community problems in two communities in other parts of the U.S.

It assumed local nonprofits in each community were ready for a collective impact strategy “and we would come in and work and learn from them,” she said. One of the communities already had a strong funding community, largely because of several big funders, she said, but that philanthropic infrastructure was lacking in the other community “and we really struggled as a funder.”

So instead of making a collective impact investment in the second community, GlaxoSmithKline shifted gears and is considering making a planning grant to pave way for a collective impact initiative.

Collaboration and mergers

Haywood Holderness, who is pastor emeritus at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Durham and attended the Donors Forum, said the Triangle is “ripe for more collaboration and mergers among nonprofits.”

The number of nonprofits in Durham, for example, has soared and now is many times the state average on a per-capita basis, yet many nonprofits operate in silos, he said.

But with the Baby Boomer generation of nonprofit founders retiring, the time is ideal for funders “to talk to nonprofits about more collaboration or even mergers,” he said. “You guys can make that happen.”

Steve Toler, who is a public relations and communications consultant, former vice president for public affairs in North Carolina for Verizon, and attended the Donors Forum, said the business community was “light years ahead of nonprofits” in mergers and acquisitions.

“We’re not seeing that” in the nonprofit sector, he said.

Lutz said mergers require mediators and investment from funders to provide incentives to nonprofits to talk about merging and give them the time needed to pursue merger conversations while continuing to serve clients.

As part of its Community Programs, Triangle Community Foundation is working to better understand and address the challenges of building the capacity of nonprofits to address pressing community issues.

“We know all our donors are not ready to fund that capacity-building infrastructure…yet,” O’Keefe said