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Maybe There’s More Than Enough: Escaping the Scarcity Mindset in Nonprofit Theatre

Along with pursuing a freelance career as a dramaturg and writer, I spent the first year of the pandemic as a fundraiser for a midsize theatre company. Specifically, I was the grant writer, responsible for providing roughly a third of the organization’s revenue. It was about as much fun as you imagine.

When the pandemic began, there was a mad dash to triage. Applications to new COVID-relief grants sprang up, doubling and tripling the workload in the development department as we did our part to keep the theatre afloat. But as our company figured out next steps and we sent out a flurry of applications, other foundations determined that now was not the time to open their coffers wider. For every foundation that released more money in response to the increased need, there was another that pretended it was still business as usual. I couldn’t decide which made me angrier: the foundations that stuck to their scant 5 percent release of their investments (the bare minimum mandated by law) or the ones that gave more money than usual—signaling that they could have done this long before now. Meanwhile, the government’s first-come-first-served approach to funding (and its relatively meager pool of money to disburse) left many nonprofits to fend for themselves.

There is always a degree of uncertainty when it comes to fundraising, but this year exacerbated an already tenuous enterprise. And though I’ve seen genuine shows of generosity and camaraderie in our field in the face of this increased struggle, I’ve also seen with nauseating clarity how the nonprofit system continues to fail the arts and cause inequities among us.

COVID-19 may be (hopefully) on its way out, but there’s been a figurative disease that has been ravaging us much longer: the scarcity mindset. Competition is an intrinsic part of the design of nonprofit theatre. Kill or be killed, produce or perish. Rarely feast, often famine, so get resources and hold onto them tightly, because you never know when it could all be taken away from you. These hellish mantras have become even more entrenched during the pandemic, when a $10,000 relief grant might be the only thing saving a managing director from having to furlough yet another employee.

This situation wasn’t created by the arts field, but I wonder to what degree we’ve simply resigned ourselves to a system that serves few at the expense of many. The not-so-well-kept secret is that the nonprofit industrial complex protects and serves white-led institutions, leaving organizations helmed by global majority folx with the scraps of the scraps. This cannot be acceptable to any artist, arts worker, or leader at an arts nonprofit that is seeking to create practices framed with an anti-racist lens and embrace equity, diversity, and inclusion.

We’ve all been saying that there is no going back to normal once we’re all able to be back in the room together again, but what does that mean when it comes to the resources that we have? If the nonprofit system isn’t going to be reliable, can we become more self-reliant by eschewing individualism in favor of collective organizing and resource sharing?

COVID-19 may be (hopefully) on its way out, but there’s been a figurative disease that has been ravaging us much longer: the scarcity mindset.

The good news is there’s plenty of evidence from this past year to suggest that we can be creative with what we’ve got and generous and ethical in our practices moving forward. Theatres have converted their costume shops to make crucial PPE for healthcare workers and the general public. Last summer, companies across the country with their own buildings opened their doors to provide a haven for protesters and gave them free food from their concession stocks. Archived productions were streamed to the public with proceeds split between the producing company and other local nonprofits and mission-driven initiatives.

We can even carry over lessons from this season when considering budgets for future productions and artistic programming. Plenty of companies created dynamic Zoom productions of plays that they originally planned to stage in-person, and they did it at a fraction of the original budget. For instance, Philadelphia Theatre Company’s digital production of Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves clocked in at $55,000 instead of the $350,000 planned for the in-person version. We can make thrilling pieces of art without shelling out millions. It is possible. Intense creativity can come from limitations.

Nine actresses in soccer uniforms with most of them doing goofy gestures. Some have orange peels in their mouths.

Michelle Tsai, Alison Ormsby, Hanna Gafney, Margaret Morgan, Donovan Lockett, Annika Cowles, Irasia Ann Rielly Tori Lewis, Emma Lenderman, and Leah Walton in PTC's The Wolves written by Sarah Delappe. Director: Nell Bang-Jensen. Costume Design: Maiko Matushima. Sound Design: Jane Shaw. Director of Photography: Chris Swetcky. Sound Editor & Re-Recording Mixer: Josh Samuels. Soccer Consultant: Matthew Roach. Project Manager: Shelby North. Scenic Design: Carolyn Mraz. Lighting Design: Mike Inwood.

And dynamic collaboration among nonprofits and artists, along with intentional engagement with our local communities, might move us closer to sustainability. As Edgar Villanueva says in Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, “Relationships create resilience; transactions don’t.” For nonprofits seeking to move from a scarcity mindset, embrace a spirit of abundance, and build pathways to a more ethical and equitable ecosystem, here are some suggestions:

  1. Honestly consider your resources as they currently stand. Where does your money go, and how do you prioritize it? I recently watched a panel about fundraising for equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives, and one of the funders put forth an important question: Do you actually need to fundraise for EDI efforts because you are low on resources, or are you just not utilizing your capacity and your budget accordingly and putting them towards this necessary work? And assuming you do put your money to bringing in an outside EDI facilitator to create a strategic plan for your organization, how do you continue that work once that facilitator is gone? True equity, diversity, and inclusion practices—from hiring EDI coordinators for productions to buying new open captioning equipment—require commitment, and money has to be set aside indefinitely. From here on in, these become permanent line items in your organizational budgets. Which brings me to…
  2. Revise your budgets. After a thorough examination of your resources, reconsider your budgets and make sure they are actually reflecting values you publicly project. Budgets are moral documents and the embodiment of values put into practice. Be prepared to make a version of these transparent to anyone who asks to see them—whether they are a member of your staff or another institution seeking guidance. There’s no need to put every little detail on display, but there can be no more hiding what’s going on with salaries. If there’s a feeling of shame or a need to obfuscate, chances are a change is needed. Arts leaders: You can have high salaries, but not while you have artists, crew, and staff members on your payroll who can’t afford to pay their rent or plan for their futures. If you can get that money for yourself while paying the rest of your team handsomely, I salute you.

We need to try something new, fail, and try again, even when there are existing systems seducing us with a false sense of safety.

  1. Invest in your community. Nonprofits function to fulfill a societal need and are considered civic institutions. Until we come up with a better way to support each other, your company is there to lend a hand. And don’t underestimate the kinds of exchanges you can establish with your community members. They have a lot to offer you, monetarily and otherwise. Not everything needs to be transactional (capitalism, yuck!), but if you give your resources wholeheartedly and collaborate to create programming by and for the community, you’ll get something back. You will. Authentic relationships take time and effort, but you can get there. Community members will join your boards, they’ll volunteer for you, and they will donate to your efforts. Engaging in this kind of development work creates more resources over time, but in the immediate moment you are establishing trust, which is crucial for long-term relationships.
  2. Build partnerships with other theatre companies and artists. If you’re a bigger theatre, engage in a professional-exchange relationship with smaller companies and independent artists whose missions and art you believe in. Note that I didn’t say “mentor them”—this isn’t an invitation to patronize. They might have smaller operating budgets, but they have wisdom and practices they can teach you as well. Share what you have with them, be their fiscal sponsors, whatever. Stop letting smaller companies and burgeoning artists fall from fatigue and lack of access to resources and then wonder why the arts scene is crumbling around you. You have the power to pay your success forward and uplift. Keep up the co-productions, and do more of them. If you’re a larger company and actually rely on revenue from your productions, this is a way to keep from scaling back on your season. Pool your resources together to get that art out into the world. I know that many complications arise from engaging in these collaborations. But be generous yet mindful in your contract negotiations and leave no stone unturned to make sure all parties feel satisfied in the arrangement.

Before I get hate mail about my naivete, lack of financial expertise, or disparagement of big-budget productions: I’m aware making theatre costs money, and believe me when I say that I love flash and spectacle. I’m not suggesting that we can pay for paint and lumber for our sets with smiles and high fives at Home Depot. I want us to be able to have our high-production-value art—I just want us to create it honorably by keeping things like pay equity in mind. How many artistic directors with six-figure salaries let go or furloughed administrative and production staff barely making a living wage before taking a significant pay cut themselves? I bet you can name a few.

I’m not even insisting that we exist wholly separate from the capitalistic society within which we are situated. Arts workers deserve to be fiscally supported and to make a good living in their chosen profession. Until we decide that our green slips of paper and metal coins only have value because we have endowed them with that power, we need them to survive. Cue the YouTube clip of Liza Minelli and Joel Grey singing “Money, Money” from Cabaret.

Yes, most of the country’s wealth remains siloed at the top, with trickle-down economics still in effect. But if we throw up our hands and believe there’s nothing to be done, then we unintentionally keep alive what’s holding us back. Capitalism needs us to believe that we will never have enough and that we need to take from those around us to get by. But theatre nonprofits need to consider something beyond individualism and a grim acceptance of our current circumstances. We need to try something new, fail, and try again, even when there are existing systems seducing us with a false sense of safety.

adrienne maree brown, in her revolutionary book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, says it best: “The more people who cocreate the future, the more people whose concerns will be addressed from the foundational level in this world.” We can build something better for ourselves, but we have to do it together. We’re in a time of forced reset, so now’s our chance. Let’s go.

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I came up in theater in Chicago, where theaters constantly worked together in the way you imagine. It's one of the reasons, that Chicago went from a city with almost no local professional theater to the second largest theater community in the nation in less than a decade. It still works that way there, in large part. I would suggest that everyone read Mark Larson's book, "Ensemble", which not only is a history of the Chicago theater movement, but also describes how all theaters in Chicago are part of a single Ensemble that works together for the good of all. I would be happy to talk about my experience in Chicago theater to anyone who would be willing to listen. It can be very instructive.

I came up in theater in Chicago, where theaters constantly worked together in the way you imagine. It's one of the reasons, that Chicago went from a city with almost no local professional theater to the second largest theater community in the nation in less than a decade. It still works that way there, in large part. I would suggest that everyone read Mark Larson's book, "Ensemble", which not only is a history of the Chicago theater movement, but also describes how all theaters in Chicago are part of a single Ensemble that works together for the good of all. I would be happy to talk about my experience in Chicago theater to anyone who would be willing to listen. It can be very instructive.

As someone who's interested in learning about anti-capitalist development, granting, and business, this was inspiring and interesting! So many received ideas about finance and scarcity are actually just hegemonic bunk; there seems to be a lack of creativity in challenging the financial side of the non-profit system and I think that needs to change. Do you or does anyone know of organizations who are doing that well? I am very interested in learning about this more!

So glad you're interested in learning more! If you haven't checked it out already, I highly recommend reading The Revolution Will Not Be Funded by INCITE! Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color Against Violence (formerly known as INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence). It's a book of essays and transcripts of speeches by folks actively working against and/or questioning the non-profit industrial complex, and it was one of the first books that lit my own anti-capitalist fundraising fire.