Fiscal responsibility: the sine qua non of general operating support

During the last few weeks of complete radio silence on this blog, I’ve been getting my brain wrapped around my new position as Managing Director at The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA.  Thank you all for your patience with me!

Just because I haven’t been writing doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking and tweeting (@amywratchford) about all the issues and opportunities around our industry.  One thing that has been top-of-mind for me lately is the general lack of General Operating Support (GOS) in our industry.  I’ve heard over and over from theatres and arts organizations that GOS is what they need, and I know the funders are hearing it too.  And yet we continue to see a preponderance of project funding and a scarcity of GOS.  This has gotten to the point where projects are specifically created in order to attract funding, even when basic financial needs of the company are not being met.  We, as an industry, tend to shake our fists and rage against out-of-touch funders who won’t recognize what would truly help us be sustainable.  I, however, think we only have ourselves to blame.

We have trained the foundations and major donors to give us project-based support.  In fact, we’ve trained them on multiple levels:

  • A consistent inability to talk about why we matter outside of the impact of specific projects
  • A consistent approach to documentation, especially financial documentation, of only sending what they ask for and then only in the broadest possible terms
  • Avoidance of explanations of how stable (or not) we are as organizations and what we are doing to make ourselves better (I mean this from a fiscal as well as an organizational/managerial standpoint)
  • A general lack of drilling down to details about who our audience is, how we will reach them, and how we expect to impact them
  • Avoidance of long-term strategic planning (which would make fixing the two bullets immediately preceding actually feasible)

In 2009 in Atlanta, we saw a funder take the leap into the great unknown of GOS.  The Metropolitan Atlanta Arts Fund (MAAF) listened to the organizations they had supported for years with capacity building grants and heeded the call to convert their funding to GOS.  As Executive Director Lisa Cremin stated when MAAF announced the changes, this was not an easy decision nor was it a cinch for the Board of MAAF to feel at ease with judging who was worthy of what level of GOS.  Lisa said again and again that MAAF had to look at the overall picture of the organization, they had to buy into the company’s plan.  How, I ask you, can we demand that funders provide us support that is open ended in terms of uses if we cannot communicate that plan?  And, how can we truly create that plan if we can’t even speak internally about the realities of the challenges and opportunities that face us on a fiscal and organizational level?  It is our responsibility to define our paradigm and then clearly communicate that to potential funders and constituents of all kinds.  I won’t even go into the impact of fiscal and organizational transparency on the staff, artists, and volunteers of an organization, that is for another post!

If we want General Operating Support, we must be generally and specifically accountable for where we are and where we are going.  Only then can we begin to ease the terror that funders feel when thinking about donating large sums of money to which no specific project tied.  Once we get our ducks in a row then, and only then, can we begin to petition for GOS in earnest.

As always, I’d love to know your thoughts!

10 thoughts on “Fiscal responsibility: the sine qua non of general operating support

  1. I love what you’re saying about being both generally and specifically accountable for where you are, and of course, I share your ‘agh! where is the GOS?’
    This is tricky stuff, because we (meaning humans) don’t like to take long, hard looks at our shortcomings, and in order to assess the state of our theatres, we have to look at the squirmy bits. Also, for a lot of funders with whom I’ve spoken, GOS just isn’t sexy. They don’t get the glory for keeping the lights on, so this will take some work to start the change in consciousness that will lead to a partnership in fiscal responsibility. So we have to engage with the funders, get them to rethink their strategies and then figure out how to position a change in strategy to work for them as well as for us.

    1. Kate, I agree with you that funders don’t see GOS as sexy. But I think the ball is in our court to show that we can give them the punch even if they give us operating support. Just because we are asking for GOS does not mean we can’t build a recognition program that gets the funder’s name out to our public with great impact (if that is what the funder is looking for). If we are clearer about our vision, they can buy into the big picture and understand the impact of our total work and not just the electric bill.

    2. Kate,

      A lot of the discussion we had at the #newplay Devised Work convening at Arena was about creating long term relationship between funders and NFPs to enable broader support both for GOS and for new initiatives and for the in-between.

      No no one wants to fund closet cleaning and bench focusing… but it’s necessary and if you’re in a five year partnership with a funder there would be less onus to Produce Something for their delightment.

  2. I think you’re a little hard on NFPs I side with them in the chicken and egg at work here – funders by and large are looking for big funding wins that they can brag about. They didn’t feed 5000 people but they did bring X shows to life or built a new stage or new seats…. Staples and paper clips don’t look good in the view book. NFP’s have learned that dance.

    That said, transparency is 100% how to enable courage on the part of funders.

    If I look at your budget and see where every dime is going I can give without reservation knowing that you’re not even drinking good coffee over there… never mind being overpaid.

    And if you ever need to send out a ransom note (SEND MONEY OR WE KILL THIS THEATRE!) we will know without question what you have been doing to ward off the need for such a note and can make an informed decision.

    1. I see what you are saying, Travis, however I’m ready for us as an industry to step up and take responsibility for our half of the equation. We can sit around all day kvetching about the lack of funding but there are concrete things that we can (and should) be doing to help work in the right direction. And, we should be doing this work even without the potential impact on funding. How can we make informed decisions about where to cut expenses or where to spend if we don’t know what we are working toward in the mid- and long-term?

      1. Absolutely.

        I also think that radical transparency will lead to Unknown Other looking at your issues and helping with solutions you never would have dreamt of.

        As an industry (and to be honest I personally) we are so ridiculously bad at the long term it’s laughable. And then we generally brag about it.

        1. It is true, we cling to the “theatre math” and just-squeaked-by code that somehow proves our artistic cred. It is like the organizational equivalent of the starving artist mystique. One thing I meant to include in the post is how Chicago Lyric Opera posts their financial statements on their website ( (h/t to Eric Ziegenhagen, @ericzieg). I think this is a step in the right direction and think we should add posting our strategic plans (at least the top tier, high-level-view part) on our sites.

  3. VISION…it’s what any project depends on, especially in the Arts. The GOS is the only place where big picture thinking and the long term visions of leaders can be thoroughly communicated and yet it is where so few organziations spend their time when addressing fiscal matters. I fear there is a power vacumn that develops and people fear communicating to much internally because information becomes the priceless commodity that people will hide like the last piece of bread at the last supper….

    COMMUNICATION…that’s the other big word you used. Without we all fail and yet you point to an inability to accomplish such a fundemental need. It strikes me that each time I have been asked to step into a dysfunctional situation the primary road block is communication or the lack there of. Could it be that we lack trust and that fear over position or importance or priority consumes us to the point of preventing a true vetting of our needs which then prevents our ability to articulate and certainly to achieve our vision….If so, the nasty wheel that is created goes around and around chipping away at itself instead of building on itself.

    You can change that. You are already been a part of a successful story that proves things can be different, so go apply it. I hope you can take your experience in GA and implement it in Staunton. It works and you will achieve great things by getting your team, especially those in the position to make decisions, to buy into it. Good luck and much success!!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Stephen! I feel that for so many orgs the vision resides in the head of the artistic leader. We need to get better at combining the two words you highlighted!

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