How to drive your non-profit into the ground.

I got into a discussion with a board member of a fiscally challenged non-profit theater over the weekend. (Is there any other kind lately?) I asked her what she thought were the biggest traps that non-profs could fall into, and what were the most important elements to a successful non-commercial theater.

After talking about donor bases and subscription models and audience developement, she and I pretty much came to the same conclusion that the most important asset a non-profit could have was an Artistic Director with the right attitude.

She and I have both seen quite a few theaters led by Artistic Directors who chose to use the theater as their own personal “play”-ground.  Rather than blending the mission statement with what the audience wanted, the ADs chose selfish seasons, satsifying their own desires rather than their audiences.

And that’s a quick way to drive away a consituency . . . and in today’s world of high ticket prices and oodles of other forms of entertainment, it’s five times as hard to get them back if they bolt.

It’s a challenge for ADs, because their job is to serve a mission, challenge an audience, stretch, push, educate, etc . . . but they must remember that if the audience doesn’t enjoy what they are seeing, they’ll go somewhere else.  Period.

In fact, I’d say ADs are like politicians.  We hire them to be smarter than we are . . . to take us into a new day . . . to have our best interests at heart (even when we might not realize it’s in our best interests).

But disappoint us?  And we’ll try the new guy faster than you can say “bankruptcy.”

My two tips to ADs out there?

– Find out exactly what your audience wants using surveys, focus groups, or even an online contest to pick your season.

– Find a way to give them what they want while stretching them at the same time. (Just because they want a musical, doesn’t mean you have to give them No, No, Nanette.)

(Got a comment?  I love ’em, so comment below!  Email subscribers, click here, then scroll down, to say what’s on your mind!)

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  • Amyleigh1982 says:

    LOL. Older non-profits groups are falling into the same trap as Broadway now – “this is how we’ve always done it, so this it how it’s done”. It’s a tricky situation if the founders are still part of the board. The mission statement for my own group ends in “…for the enjoyment of those involved.” That’s great….but what about the rest of the world? Truth is, you won’t sell out when your target audience is 70-85, the same age as the founders and performers. Fight to do something that makes them slightly uncomfortable. You might just get rewarded and shock the pants off of those nay-sayers. And never do ‘No, no, Nanette.’ Or ‘Quilters’. ^_-

  • We’ve been dabbling in the survey thing for the past couple of years, and it’s been pretty helpful. There’s usually a surprise or two.
    I’d love to hear some stories of folks who have surveyed their audience and asked better questions that just “what show should we do?”
    We did ask “What should we stop doing?” and the answer to that was surprising.
    Anyone else have suggestions for questions that will generate surprising – but authentic and helpful – answers?

  • Marc Zegans says:

    Great points about ADs and not for profits. We can take this further. The trick is to give audiences what they want “Next” even if they don’t know it yet.
    When we encounter that perfect “next”, we’re filled with surprise and delight and we feel a decisive inner yes. Creating that perfect “next”, the thing that is right for the moment in which it appears, demands more than simply asking our audiences what they want, then stretching the boundaries of the zone aesthetically; it requires developing a narrative arc for our audience, a picture of our audience unfolding in time and matching the design of our seasons and the shows we place in them to this narrative arc.
    As story tellers who bring the sweep of history onto stage, we know better than anyone how to do this. It’s simply a matter of applying this skill to the unfolding narrative of our relationship to our audience and crafting our work accordingly. In doing so, we stretch, we leap, we jump, we pop into new worlds, and our audience delights in sharing the journey.

  • Michael M. Landman-Karny says:

    Like a great US president, a great artistic director should LEAD and not follow the prevailing winds.
    While most regional theatres stick to safe formulas,, one man shows and revivals of classic shows, South Coast Repertory in ultra-conservative Orange County,CA has been very successful in leading their audiences with world premieres and productions of shows that one would think wouldn’t be a great fit for their older, Republican demographic.
    Give audiences quality product and they will stick around. Give them the crap that almost every other regional theatre is doing and guess what- you’ll be sinking further into the ground….

  • Amyleigh1982 says:

    Here, here to South Coast Rep. And to the fact that the O.C. advertises theaters at mall kiosks.

  • T Mallon says:

    I think you oversimplified things. There are differences between levels of non-profit theatres. While what you write may be helpful to huge dinosaur regional companies that need to bring in serious ticket money, they may need to pander to the audience. Smaller idiosyncratic companies have a duty to lead, create works that are challenging and new and take their audiences where they weren’t expecting to go. Maybe they don’t always love it but the audience members that come back will spread the word to other like-minded individuals and possibly grow into a strong audience that then makes a demand for that type of work. Also, they may inspire other artists to work in similar directions. Smaller groups have difficulty raising funds and getting people to buy the tickets as do larger companies. It is difficult, especially if part of your mission is to provide a place for collaborative work among artists, have them earn a living wage working in the arts and (sadly, in America) have health care coverage. It’s still good to listen to your audience, but lead them on a journey they might not expect or know they want. It’s not easy. It doesn’t always work. The larger an organization, the harder it will be. Some larger companies are quite successful. An example of a smaller company that continues to create and show challenging work is The SITI Company. ( ) Their latest work runs through May 7. This work is definately not one created by polling the audience and reactions have been polarized. The ensemble works collboratively under the direction and vision of a single Artistic Director. I would be unhappy to see similar organizations start creating works they think their audience wants.

  • As an Artistic Director I think that focus groups and surveys etc. really are not the answer… we all know what most audiences want… besides for being entertained. They want musicals and comedies… they prefer shorter, then longer. They want stars but they want ticket prices to be lower. The job of the artistic director is to give them what they want and sneak in what they need. When Bob Falls took over the Goodman Theater he started a yearly musical… they continue to do “A Christmas Carol” every year. But then they throw in other works to enlighten. Regional theaters have 4 to 6 shows or more to play with… do two or three dramas with violence and or heavy themes, do several 3 hour long plays and you will alienate the people who love you… they may say, “Wow, that was great,” but next time they are thinking of seeing a show… they remember what an ordeal or how dark it was last time and they stay away. Sorry, but Artistic Directors must think 75% as a commercial producer and 25% as an Artistice Director.

  • Mary Gannon says:

    I really have to say that if you look at the offerings of most theaters, you know the artistic director. He or she get wet falling into their own reflection in the lake of plays. And some violent, hard hitting topical piece could be next year’s ‘what happened there.’ I asked an artistic director at a DC theater ‘what does you audience want’ he shrieked, ‘I don’t work that way.’ His inability to discuss even for a short time the tendencies of his audience foreshadowed a much greater problem for the theater. Suppose you want to offer something cutting-edge, you should know your audience to determine — what is plausible given this group of people. Theaters need to support artists (thank you so much for bringing up health care) and within that part of the mission, you do have to offer a season that satisfies
    your subscribers.

  • Todd Olson says:

    We satisfy appetites and we whet appetites. Period.

  • CLJ says:

    It’s also important for the AD to pay attention to the numbers; doing shows that sell isn’t actually enough.
    I know an AD who would periodically mount LA CAGE AUX FOLLES in her small theater, because it always sold out. Sadly, that still didn’t break the nut, and it lost thousands of dollars every week it ran. “But we’re sold out!” she’d wail.
    But the simple reality was that the show was too big for the company’s revenue structure.
    It’s hard to recoup in regional theatre; we have only a few weeks – often less than a month – to recoup the investment, and an absolute limit on how much we can possibly make off ticket sales. The math is inexorable; the number of seats times the number of performances per week, for the number of weeks in the run, and that’s it.
    So yes, the AD has to be in touch with the audience. But they also have to understand the math.

  • Ryan Landry says:

    My theater company has never lost money on a show and we have been in business for over 20 years. We have never once received a grant nor have we ever applied for one.
    All money comes from ticket and T shirt sales.
    Currently we are working on our first film about the company and our process.
    We write all our own material, make our own costumes, paint our own sets, etc.
    We reject any and all union bullshit and only accept people into the group who are willing to put the show first, period.
    If the show isn’t flying and it means we have a 9 hour rehearsal with only one break then that is what it means.
    In short many theater companies let their egos and personal comforts override the work.
    I think you are absolutely right that the AD needs to be someone who considers the audience but that is not all of it. If you are doing comedy, the material had better be funny, the cast had better be sharp, EVERY detail must be attended to.
    If I see one cell phone backstage, that person had better be on their way out the door. Theater people must make the choice today whether to fight for their art or text their boyfriend.
    Otherwise theater, like newspapers and land line telephones will die a slow and very sad death.

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