Measurable Impact: The Real Bottom Line for Nonprofit Arts?

The problem with Seattle's Intiman Theatre following (not for the first time) the hysterical-panic fundraising playbook first pioneered by Oral Roberts.

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measurable impact
"God will call me home," warned Oral Roberts. Yeah, right.

Universe: Nonprofit arts organizations.
Subsets: Measurable impact. And black ink.
Here is the Venn diagram on that:

There is no connection between measurable impact and black ink. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. But if it really came down to it, which one is more important?

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Let’s take Seattle’s Intiman Theatre. A month ago, the Intiman announced that they were going to raise $200,000 by hook or — well, the other way, in order to survive at least one more season. And, so far, they’ve raised $130,000 (or, at the very least, they grossed $130,000 at a fundraising brunch). But here’s the rub: even with front page coverage in the Seattle Times and a beautifully written piece in Post Alley, it turns out that few people outside that swanky, “fabulous” brunch care all that much about the Intiman. Its artists do, of course, because it is a potential place of employment. (Decades of gala experiences tell me that some of those who attended the brunch likely don’t care too much, either.) Maybe this lack of care speaks to the near-death of the newspaper industry. I contend that it speaks to a glaring lack of data showing the measurable impact of nonprofit arts groups overall in Seattle. Yet that won’t stop the Intiman, or other groups facing similar near-death experiences, from executing schemes like those first devised by the Oral Roberts School of Fundraising (ORSF).

The Tulsa tower where Oral Roberts prayed for $8 million.

Never heard of ORSF? Its namesake was a hugely successful televangelist worth millions of dollars. Back in early 1987, Roberts announced that he needed $8 million to train medical missionaries at his eponymous university medical school by Apr. 1 of that year, or, as he put it at the time, “God will call me home.” For good measure, he added that he’d hole up in his Tulsa-based “prayer tower” until the money flowed. Well, the money wasn’t completely raised, Roberts lived to be 91, and by 1989 the school went bankrupt, leaving about $25 million in debt. (To which one wonders: Where did all that money go?)

So the Intiman — following the lead of Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre, which has used ORSF to fundraise more than once — is basically holding a gun to its own head and saying, “Hey, Seattle! Give us $200,000 or the theater gets it!” Sound familiar?

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Every show that has ever been on Broadway has closed, except for the ones that are open right now. Closing, therefore, is not an act of failure. If one show found a way to survive at the expense of every other show, however, then that would be a desperate failure. Thus, when a nonprofit arts organization chooses its own survival over the greater needs of its community, it causes a death-inducing funding vacuum that adversely affects all of the other arts organizations. It sows widespread mistrust and excuses mismanagement. It is, in fact, an inconceivably selfish and venal act — one unworthy of support. It is an act of desperate failure when the moment calls for an act of grace.

Let’s imagine, for example, that those using ORSF to fundraise for the Intiman could see the failure scenario they’ve written for themselves. Let’s imagine, as a response, that they chose, as a final act of grace, to fundraise instead for other arts organizations — ones that are creating a positive, measurable impact for the community.

Yeah: and it don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summertime.

Which is why I decided I wouldn’t write about the Intiman. Maybe it’s their mission statement, which stands as one of the stupidest collection of words ever comprised:

Intiman Theatre
wrestles with American inequities.

I’m sorry. It’s just not worth it. Go ahead. Pillory me.

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Now, isn’t it interesting that the National Endowment for the Arts continues to be funded by the federal government — despite all those people supposedly wanting to eliminate it? Isn’t it interesting how, every year, some member of Congress heroically comes along to make sure NEA funding makes it into the final version of the federal budget? To which I wonder: Is the elimination of the NEA a real threat by the Republicans? Or just an annual bargaining chip to be ceded at the last minute?

Which is why I decided I wouldn’t write about the NEA, either. Maybe it’s the NEA’s mission statement, which actually isn’t a mission statement so much as a description. And while not stupid, it’s a lie:

The National Endowment for the Arts is an independent federal agency that funds, promotes, and strengthens the creative capacity of our communities
by providing all Americans
with diverse opportunities
for arts participation.

All Americans? No, it doesn’t “provide all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation.” So enough already with the NEA. It’s not worth it. Go ahead. Pillory me.

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Now, on a recent Thursday, I ran into Scott Nolte, who co-founded the Taproot Theatre Company in the Greenwood section of Seattle. Here’s its mission statement:

Taproot Theatre Company creates theatre experiences to brighten the spirit, engage the mind and deepen the understanding of the world around us while inspiring imagination, conversation and hope.

The mission statement is still humble, almost hesitant, and not necessarily quantifiable, but Taproot has focused for more than 40 years on doing good for more people than the larger Seattle arts organizations, who cling to the old-fashioned notion that plays must be pretty first, effective second, and as far as measurable impact goes — well, if they get to it.

Below is a transcript of my dialogue with Nolte, slightly edited for style and clarity.

Alan Harrison: I’m thinking a lot about what the arts — the theater — means by “measurable impact.” Are you? How do wrap you head around it?

Scott Nolte

Scott Nolte: I lean on our prime commitment to serve an audience with both content and wonder — and hope it creates impact and change. Is that better than others’ missions and  sensibilities? I can’t throw any shade on them. I can just assert our balance of priorities. I’m inclined to credit our persevering consistency of focus and effort.

AH: Can you give me some examples of programs at Taproot that have arguably made people better — real programs that have helped those who needed it?

SN:I’m very proud of our road company’s performances in public and private schools of plays that focus on bullying prevention, including addressing body-shaming and hateful harassment through social media. I’ve told the actors they’re saving lives every day because a child or teen is going to hear something important and won’t harm him or herself or take their anger out on their peers — or someday vent the built-up anger at a spouse or partner, or a coworker or others. Within these plays, we model and talk about identifying and resisting bullying and reconciliation as lifelong lessons and tools. On our mainstage, plays like Best of Enemies, Necessary Sacrifices and Brownie Points portray the distinct misunderstandings of white privilege for our typical theater audience that’s mostly white. It’s especially affirming when more than half the audience routinely stays for a guided post-play discussion to understand the themes, however uncomfortable! We also do improv classes for seniors with Early-Stage Memory Loss (ESML) and the impact on their socializing, imagination, memory and verbal skills is significant. Spouses, adult children, and senior-center staff tell us that the classes are an experience that hugely improves the quality of life for ESML-impacted seniors, and extends their creative and mental acuity.

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AH: Why is hope so important to an arts organization? Isn’t that the purview of religious organizations or medical support groups?

SN: Hope has been in our motto for decades. But in recent years, it has seemed to be a universal, desperately sought source of optimism, strength and courage. I never considered our perspective on hope to equate to choosing plays with happy endings or creating warm fuzzy feelings: a good tragedy can compel us to make better choices, to confess our complicity, to reconcile and seek justice. The magic of the live theater experience is seeing actors reflect our wishes and crises and finding a way through the mess to a resolution that is clarifying, enlightening or redemptive for us.

Merlette Buchanan, Arika Matoba, Melanie Hampton and Casi Pruitt in “Steel Magnolias” at Taproot Theatre. Photo: Robert Wade.

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AH: You’ve been at Taproot since 1976. Can I ask you about succession planning? Or will the company close when you’re no longer a part of it?

SN: 43 years, nine months — but who’s counting? A few points in this. First, I prompted a board discussion last spring about whether our founding mission is completed and, if so, should we close? No one felt the mission was done, so closing the theater upon my retirement would be cowardly and disrespectful of the patrons, donors, artists, staff and volunteers who’d built Taproot Theatre to this point.

Second, several years ago my board started adding a discussion with me at their annual retreat about my long-term plans so that my eventual announcement to step back from day-to-day responsibilities wouldn’t be too shocking. (By the way, about 10 years ago, we drew up an emergency management plan and a template for succession planning in case something unexpected happened to me.) This year, the board created a detailed plan and timeline that can have specific dates inserted when it’s needed.

Finally, I’ve also made efforts to describe my process of making values-informed choices on plays, audience engagement, compensation and other subjects. I’d like the board to grapple with the theater’s mission at the DNA level. When choosing a replacement producing artistic director, they need to see how the job is more complex than an objective skill set — directing, budgeting, public speaking, et. al. It’s crucial to know the values and motivations of the new leader who will may make a thousand subjective, personal choices in stewarding the theater’s legacy, mission, assets and human resources.

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AH: Can we jump back to measurable impact? Excluding audience members (who have a quid pro quo relationship — they buy a ticket and see a play), who and how many people per year do you see as positively affected by Taproot? 

SN: Taproot’s road company toured schools in Washington state, with short forays into Idaho and Oregon, to impact 123,400 students; our acting studio served 5,273 students.

AH: Why isn’t the financial bottom-line the be-all and end-all measurement of a nonprofit arts organization? What message should we give to funders, agencies, donors and board members about the relationship between measurable impact and the ink color on income statements?

SN: There’s no question that we need financial discipline, and keen sales and fundraising skills, or we’re rapidly out of business. Demonstrating our responsibility with clean accounting, a good IRS 990 and an audit is but one piece of our worthiness for trust and long-term support. However, our 501(c)3 status also expects us to work for the common good, not profitability or personal gain and status. I’m a proponent of the triad metric of success: artistic merit, financial stability and mission consistency. They need to be linked. It may not take hyper-smart plays to meet those metrics. Recently, a woman in chemotherapy at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center attended a comedy here with a free ticket and wrote to tell us how much she just needed to laugh. If we explain the goals and describe who’s being impacted, and invite people to accomplish their aspirations through us, we expect to reap and retain long-term donors who are thrilled to give.

AH: Thank you.

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Am I saying that Taproot deserves funding because it is a nonprofit providing measurable impact on societal issues and, oh by the way, also happens to produce art? Of course I am.

Am I also saying that arts organizations that focus their impact internally in order to produce “good art” (an awfully subjective phrase) with little intention of doing good ought not to be nonprofit in the first place? And therefore, they may not be deserving of your support?

Maybe. Go ahead. Pillory me.