The Con Is On – Raising Emergency Money at the Expense of Everyone Else Is Not a Heroic Act

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Especially when you leave the premises just before the devastation and claim victory

That sucking sound you’re hearing is money being siphoned off to the black hole of nonprofit arts emergency campaigns.

I can’t believe that this is not only still happening, but that you’re allowing it to happen.

The San Francisco Bay area is geographically and demographically large. Stretching across nine counties (Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano, and Sonoma), there are almost 8 million people living there. Unlike what you may be reading in the right-wing press, the population in the last 10 years has grown well above the national rate, 8.6% vs. 7.4%. A relatively high cost of living has not stemmed the tide of people who love the Bay Area. Maybe those folks on that one particular basic cable channel only consider White population when they look at these things. At 39.1%, the White population comprises a plurality of the population, but certainly not the majority. So maybe that particular cable channel is comprised of White supremacists and people should not believe anything they might be saying.

But this isn’t about supremacy or privilege, although, I suppose on some level, everything in the nonprofit arts industry in 2024 is about that. Or should be.

Walmart possesses a lot of privilege, and the question as to whether that privilege is earned or not is still pending. On the one hand, they are a major employer, offer items below the cost of its competitors, and can provide complementary income to adjacent businesses if in a mall. According to a 2024 report by Brandi Colero-Jones in Business News Daily, “When a Walmart moves into a retail space, it serves as an anchor store that’s attractive to other businesses trying to choose the right business location. The store’s low prices attract consumers from nearby communities, and when consumers are in the area, they’re more likely to spend money at surrounding businesses. Companies flocking to a Walmart mall may draw business from people who might not otherwise be in that area.”

And yet, “…each new Walmart store decreases the local community’s economic output over 20 years by an estimated $13 million. The research also discovered that each Walmart store costs the community an additional $14 million in lost wages over the next 20 years.”

Amazon, the e-tail giant based in my hometown of Seattle, is similar in negative effect. Worse, if you count the fact that it paid no income tax at all in 2019 and 2020. It forces its communities not only to pay lower wages, but to fewer people.

“Another angle of the jobs conversation is how many jobs Amazon is eliminating as big chains like Sears, Toys ‘R Us, and Pier 1 Imports bite the dust. Consider how much the company is hurting other retailers, forcing them to shutter stores and cut back on costs. Job gains at Amazon may not contribute to overall employment.”

– Mrinalini Krishna, Investopedia

And if those national chains with long histories and devoted shopping bases are going belly-up, imagine how bad the local downtown, the bedrock of American retail business, is doing.

Small business, which accounts for most of the retail in the United States, is not well. That on the left results in that on the right.

America’s small business community is in crisis, put there in no small part by its large business enterprises doing what it believes is best for itself and its stakeholders – and those companies congratulate themselves constantly for being resilient (even though they were the ones who sucked all the money out of the system for themselves).

America’s nonprofit arts community is in crisis, put there in no small part by nonprofit arts organizations doing what they believe is best for themselves and their stakeholders – and those companies congratulate themselves constantly for being resilient (even though they were the ones who sucked all the money out of the system for themselves).

In the book Scene Change: Why Today’s Nonprofit Arts Organizations Have to Stop Producing Art and Start Producing Impact, there is an entire chapter devoted to the “Oral Roberts School of Fundraising” (ORSF), its shortcomings, and the caustic audacity and unearned privilege it takes to embark on such a campaign. Read the book for information on the grand con of Oral Roberts and his eponymous medical school. As for the arts, essentially, the scheme can be described as a grift where, with all the feigned innocence of puppy dog eyes, a near-bankrupt nonprofit arts organization discloses that it will close its doors unless it raises an inordinately high amount of cash in an inordinately low amount of time.

This is a photo by Sharon Snider from Pexels. No animals were harmed in the creation of this image.

Results from a “successful” ORSF campaign ultimately destroy the environment in which the nonprofit arts organization is living. From the book, referencing ACT Theatre in Seattle as an early adopter of ORSF:

The short-term successes have been far outweighed by the long-term duress on the shoulders of ACT (“I just gave you a bunch of money—now you need more?”), other arts organizations during these campaigns (“I gave to ACT so I have no money left for you”), and a new trust deficit in the whole industry (“If I give you money, how do I know you won’t just close anyway and pocket it?”). When I asked a prominent stakeholder for ACT whether they were aware of the negative effect that their ORSF campaign had had on the entire arts community in Seattle, the response was unbelievably cynical and cold-blooded: “My theater was about to go out of business and we needed the money. My job has nothing to do with the rest of the community.”

In other words, “I don’t care if every other nonprofit arts organization closes down, as long as mine doesn’t.”

— © 2024, Alan Harrison

And yet, here we are again. TheatreWorks in the San Francisco Bay Area (specifically Silicon Valley), just “succeeded” in its ORSF shell game, reportedly raising $4 million between August and November 2023. The executive director, an incredibly talented arts leader, just copied what ACT Theatre had done. As someone who has been in the business for 30 years, I had been impressed by the body of work this executive director had done in the past and used to believe that she was among the most competent in the field.

Not anymore. Jeez. Talk about privilege.

Now that the initial money has been raised (to the detriment of all the other arts organizations in that community), she’s leaving in June. In essence, she’s walking out the saloon doors and announcing: “Ain’t I grand? Gotta go, and, well, let the chips fall where they may.”

Cutting Ball Theatre, another nonprofit arts organization in San Francisco, seeing that as a path forward for itself, just embarked on a smaller version of ORSF. They announced that they have to raise $200,000 between February and June. With an annual budget of roughly $750,000, this is a big hill to climb for them. And if it “succeeds,” it shows that they have as much regard for the Bay Area theater community as TheatreWorks – which is to say, “F*** off, we got ours.”

Are TheatreWorks and Cutting Ball acting like Amazon and Walmart? The parallel is not perfect, mostly because Amazon and Walmart have the luxury of being able to lose money and still gain value because of avenues of funding that nonprofits just don’t get to have (venture capital, to name one). Still, putting the onus on everyone else’s shoulders because you don’t really care about what happens to them – that’s right on brand, isn’t it? And the saddest part is this:

When TheatreWorks inevitably gets in financial trouble again (as ACT Theatre did), they’ll likely pull an ORSF extortion a second time (as ACT Theatre did). Maybe they’ll just close, as so many others have done, and another company will take their place, as they themselves had done. I mean, has everyone forgotten that there used to be a company called San José Rep, which established itself in the vacuum left by the demise of American Musical Theatre of San José?

When a nonprofit arts organization becomes more obsessed with survival than its charitable work—the key to indispensability for its community—this is the kind of thing that happens. To turn an American Express slogan on its head, “Privilege has its members.” Sorry, San Francisco. You deserve better than these charlatans.

You’re going to want to pick up a bunch of books for your board of directors. Contact to get a substantial discount.

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