Listen to a Nonprofit Consultant Speak!

Duncan Webb


Where: Random cocktail party
When: About once a month

Q: So. What do you do?
A: I’m a management consultant specializing in the development and operation of cultural facilities — mostly theaters.
Q: Oh. You’re an architect?
A: No, I’m a management consultant.
Q: Ah. You’re in the movie business?
A: No, I’m mostly involved with the nonprofit performing arts sector.
Q: Hmm. Could you pass me those olives?

Some people actually stick with this dialogue a bit longer to try to understand how it is that I make a living. And when they finally start to get it, the next question is “How did you end up doing such a thing?”

Well, that’s a bit of a saga.

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Duncan Webb
Duncan Webb

I did lots of theatre (bad acting, directing, then producing) through high school and college. But after graduation I dutifully went to work for a bank in Toronto, where I quickly became bored to tears. So I wrote a letter to 10 experimental theatre companies, suggesting that I’d like to become a volunteer for their organization — making budgets, sweeping floors, whatever.

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I didn’t get any responses for a month. Then, finally, the executive director of The Theatre Centre called, mostly curious about why some young banker would want to get involved with this co-op of five way-out-there producing companies. Long story short, I did get involved, helping them form a board, write bylaws, develop a budget, chase grants, build audiences and do all sorts of other essential chores. It was a very powerful experience for me in that I saw that a “suit” could have a big impact on the arts while still being a “suit.”

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When I did finally leave the bank after seven years, it was to start producing theatre full-time. There was some commercial theatre, some experimental work and then some industrials that financed my return to graduate school to get an MBA. While I was there, I was hired by a friend who was on the Toronto Symphony board to advise them on what to do with Massey Hall – their original home, from which they had just departed for the shiny, new Roy Thompson Hall.

I had no idea how to proceed. But in my mad search for clues I discovered a company in New York that actually did this sort of thing. I came down and begged for assistance, which they kindly provided. It turned out very well, and I truly loved being, once again, the suit with a creative purpose. So I basically harassed Theatre Projects for 18 months until they hired me, and I moved to New York City in 1989 to turn that one study into a career.

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I worked with Theatre Projects for six years and then for a related company for three more years before starting my own practice in 1997. Now, 15 years later, Webb Management Services has just started its 335th job. We’ve worked in 46 states, five Canadian provinces and six other countries conducting master plans, feasibility studies, business plans and strategic plans around the development and operation of facilities, districts and the organizations that use them. Our clients are government, educators, arts groups, developers and other “friends” of the arts.

What’s unique (and challenging) about our practice is that we just focus on doing these front-end or one-time studies to help our clients move forward (or not). We’re not hoping for or hanging around for more work. As we like to say, our job is to speak truth to power and then get out of the way. It’s a lousy business model, but our clients value our professionalism and objectivity.

So why blog? Because there are major changes occurring in the performing arts sector and it’s driving me mad that too many buildings, organizations, artists and funders are not paying enough attention to fundamental shifts in areas like consumer behavior, the economics of facilities, the sustainability of creative enterprises and the changing ways that the public and private sectors think of (and support) the arts. And boy, do I have a lot of great stories to tell after 30 years working in and around the performing arts.

A lot of those stories are likely to focus on how the current situation has evolved over time, reflecting a series of cultural, economic, technological and societal trends. I’ve been particularly fascinated by the changing arguments used to justify support for the arts, and how foundations and other funders are so quick to abandon the old arguments in favor of shiny new ones. I also look forward to some good compare-and-contrast between the U.S. and Canada, where the role and value of the arts and culture are viewed quite differently.

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I am thrilled to be joining the Clyde Fitch community. The blog is called Consultant Speak because it is one consultant’s perspective on the arts sector. But I love that we are looking at the arts and politics together. I am deeply distressed by how apolitical so many arts organizations have become for fear of losing the support of their funders. But I look forward to the opportunity to draw attention to those who have not lost their nerve and are still prepared to bite the hands that feed them.

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I promise to keep the consulting and B-school jargon to a minimum. And I’ll have to do some changing of names to protect the innocent and keep myself out of hot water. But I won’t be protecting anyone wearing rose-colored glasses regarding the future of the arts in this country. I’ll try not to rant, but I really do believe that time is running out on the sector as we know it, and that we’re close to that change-or-die moment. I’m looking forward to sharing my perspective on what comes next, and to hearing back from others in the trenches.