Theaters of Color Coalition column from Twin Cities Business

Nonprofit theater has grown up over the past two generations and the norms for its business model are now well established. This has resulted in a set of best-practice expectations for metrics like the optimal percentage of earned vs. contributed income, the expected capacity of seats sold per performance, and other indicators. If a theater company’s aspirations and activities stray from these norms, it will spend extra time explaining its rationale to grantmakers and contributors, if the organization is eligible to apply at all.

Data show that among the theaters in the U.S. that originate in and serve communities of color, these norms are difficult to achieve and sustain. A national study of museums, theaters and dance companies dedicated to reflecting and encouraging artmaking and cultural programming among communities of color identified serious funding challenges. Published in September 2015 by the University of Maryland’s DeVos Institute of Arts Management, the study showed these organizations tend to receive far less than proportional funding from organized philanthropy compared to local population data. It also documented that they traditionally have had limited access to high net worth individuals and civic leaders who could advocate for, fund or otherwise support their efforts.


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What's fear got to do with it?

Initially published on Speaker, Sarah Lutman's blog on

In 2014 the Wyncote Foundation commissioned Lutman & Associates to research digital adoption by legacy cultural institutions. The resulting study, Like, Link, Share: How cultural institutions are embracing digital technology, showcases the awesome creative work of 40 cultural organizations and shares common themes and lessons learned among these leading practitioners.

When I spoke about the report at conferences and meetings, arts leaders’ responses were frequently that they knew they “should be” engaging digitally, but they feel overwhelmed about beginning. Surprisingly, the most frequent response from arts leaders was not excitement, but instead fear. Fear of missing out. Fear of getting started. Fear of not knowing what to do after beginning. Fear of making mistakes. Fear of not having enough time or money. Fear of incompetence. Fear of adding more stuff to do on top of already busy jobs.

We were intrigued by the intensity and consistency of this reaction and wanted to provide support. As a result, discussions with Wyncote led them to commission Wayfinding and Wandering: Navigating the Digital Engagement Landscape, or Wanderway, for short.

Launching this week, Wanderway is a free online course in seven parts, designed to walk users through the necessary steps toward creative and sustainable digital engagement. The goals of the course are to provide encouragement, build confidence, and offer useful tools and know-how so that arts organizations, artists, and creative small businesses can connect with, engage, and serve more people in the ever-evolving online environment. It is designed with the resource-strapped in mind.

Wanderway is a different kind of course.

Wanderway focuses on engagement and relationship-building. It aims to help you expand your reach and develop substantive interactions with fans, allies, and collaborators using the wide range of digital tools available today. These transformative possibilities are available to those who overcome their fear of digital technology and commit to the process of learning new tools and ways to connect.

There are plenty of courses available that provide technical knowledge and skill-building exercises, such as the Google Analytics Academy, or courses available through Coursera or Khan Academy. Many are written with the assumption of a higher level of basic knowledge and experience on the part of the user.

Also, most existing online courses target sales and marketing objectives – using digital tools to get more money, more transactions. Wanderway was created with the belief that while more contributions or ticket sales can be a by-product of digital engagement, they are not the goal. Engagement can be significantly more meaningful and have greater impact if audiences are treated as conversation partners and collaborators rather than customers and consumers.

Digital engagement as creative practice

Wanderway addresses the emotions life of digital practitioners by approaching engagement as a creative practice. In creative practice we begin, try things, learn, and start again. A beginner’s mind is a necessity and a strength, not a liability. Creative practice expects “mistakes”—they’re part of the process. Iteration is constant. It’s how we learn. And fear is something most artists and creative workers know a great deal about because it is their constant companion.

Fear doesn’t stop the creative artist. Or as poet Carolyn Forche puts it, “Courage does not mean you are not afraid; courage means a door opens and you walk through.”

So, open the door and walk through

Wanderway invites your participation. We also invite your feedback. Please check out the course, try the exercises and reflections, read the interviews, and, if you like it, share these resources with others.

Thanks to the amazing collaborators who built the course with me: Beck Tench, independent educator, writer, speaker, and practitioner, whose work explores creativity and experimentation in digital engagement; and Jessica Fiala, company member of Ragamala Dance Company, independent scholar, and colleague.

We’ve had a lot of fun packing the course with tools that are free and accessible to anyone, and getting to know the dozens of artists and organizations whose work we feel privileged to highlight.

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Expanding Affordable Housing

Housing is considered “affordable” when it requires no more than 30 to 40 percent of a family’s monthly income, or when the sum of housing plus transportation expenses eat up less than 45 percent.

About 34 percent of Twin Cities residents are “cost-burdened” with respect to their housing and transportation costs, according to Minnesota Compass. The burden falls most heavily on low-income workers, including many who provide essential services in health care, food service and administrative support roles. To make matters worse, the cost of renting in the Twin Cities is going up, while wages for many are stagnant or falling. The Metropolitan Council reports that only 6 percent of the new housing built in 2013 was affordable, based on a family earning 60 percent of average median income; compare that to 29 percent in 2012.

“Nonprofits are trying new solutions to what is now a crisis in affordable housing,” says Eric Muschler, a program officer with the McKnight Foundation. He points to several nonprofits that are making a difference and emphasizes that creativity and fresh thinking are needed. “We realize we can’t spend our way out of the affordable housing problem, so we need to work differently,” Muschler says.

McKnight is playing a catalytic role, working to help business, government and nonprofit partners to leverage new and different sources of capital for affordable housing. They want to create and sustain housing infrastructure that will support workers at all income levels.

Link to column at Twin Cities Business.

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Crowdfunding comes of age

Not that long ago, crowdfunding was novel. Today, there are an estimated 450 crowdfunding platforms available.

They’re not only for nonprofits and charitable causes; now investors are in the game as well. Startups and established businesses are raising significant capital using crowdfunding platforms. How much money is changing hands? About $34 billion was raised through crowdfunding in 2015. About $5.5 billion was reward- and donation-based, including contributions to charitable organizations and to individual creators and causes, according to industry research firm Massolution.

Sources credit the creation and spread of current forms of crowdfunding to early uses of internet-based fund-raising by artists and musicians. It has been seven years since the launch of Kickstarter, a widely known crowdfunding platform that focuses exclusively on creative endeavors such as art, design, photography, games and journalism. It’s limited to projects with a clear goal, with a beginning, middle and end. Kickstarter is also an all-or-nothing platform. Project creators set their own financial goals and deadlines, and contributors’ credit cards only are charged if and when the goal is fully met by the due date. Otherwise the creator gets nothing.

When this column went to press, Minnesota-based Kickstarter projects were plentiful, and included projects such as the production of a new album for a musician based in Embarrass, Minn., completion of work for a photo exhibition in Minneapolis, and the opening of a new cupcake shop in Rochester.

Kickstarter has become a big business. The B-corporation employs more than 100 people in its Brooklyn headquarters, and has sponsored more than 113,000 projects to which more than 12 million people have contributed over $2.7 billion.

Read entire post.

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Nonprofit work is rarely 9-5

The new federal overtime rule has nonprofits hustling to comply with higher wage costs.

If you run a business or manage people, you probably already know that the Department of Labor announced new rules for employers that update federal overtime regulations and provide expanded protections for workers who put in extra hours at work. The new rules take effect December 1 and are proving to be especially complicated for the nonprofit sector.

The new rule, issued in May, sets a new salary threshold (from $23,660 to $47,476) under which white-collar full-time workers are entitled to overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours per week. The final rule maintains the federal definition of the kinds of job responsibilities that the government considers “executive, administrative and professional,” and for which an exemption to overtime can apply, and provides for automatic updates to the salary threshold every three years. An estimated 79,000 Minnesota workers (out of a total 4.2 million workers nationally) are affected.

Nonprofits of all sizes are responding to the new rulemaking and its relatively short, six-month implementation period:

  • Service and advocacy organizations like the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, along with consulting, tax, and legal firms with nonprofit clients, are offering a flurry of workshops and creating information resources to help nonprofits understand and comply with the new rules.
  • Nonprofits are analyzing their workforce’s position descriptions, staffing requirements and compensation levels to determine what actions may be required.
  • A field-wide discussion about the low-wage and high-hours nature of nonprofit work is prompting soul searching and debate among nonprofit leaders and policymakers.

Nonprofits have a reason to be wary of the new rules. Unlike businesses that may be able to pass along increased costs to their customers, most nonprofits are in the business of offering services that the market can’t support. While most nonprofits would gladly pay their staffs more, their revenue is often dictated by reimbursement rates on rigid government contracts, or is limited to the philanthropic support they’re able to attract and sustain.

Two Minnesota nonprofits offered perspectives on the impact the rule is having on their operations.

Living Well Disability Services has been recognized among the Star Tribune’s 150 top workplaces in each of the past two years. The Eagan-based nonprofit operates residential group homes for 300 individuals with intellectual, developmental and physical disabilities; it also provides support services for individuals living independently or at home with family members. Many of these people have complex health conditions in addition to their primary disability, and require 24/7 companionship and care. Julie Manworren, president and CEO, says, “Our rates are set by the government. We’re not an entity that can turn around and raise our prices.” A full 95 percent of Living Well’s 650 employees provide direct services, and 97 percent of the organization’s funding comes from the federal and state government, and Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. Within the constraints of government contracts and the demand for the services that Living Well provides, Manworren is faced with the dilemma of restructuring staff and services to meet the new federal requirements.

In response, she and other nonprofits that provide disability services have banded together nationally through ANCOR, the American Network of Community Options and Resources, to help create H.R. 5902, the Disability Community Act of 2016, a bill that proposes a three-year targeted Medicaid funding increase to provide dollars to service providers so that they can meet the salary threshold without reducing staff. Unless such funding increases are approved, Living Well has few options besides re-structuring and possibly reducing services.

At the Family Partnership, formerly Family and Children’s Service, executive director Molly Greenman also is engaged in an analysis of staffing and services. After the HR department looked at all of the organization’s 140 staff positions one by one, 16 were identified as needing some sort of action, whether it was curtailing hours so that the employee doesn’t accrue overtime, raising salaries to the threshold level, or changing job descriptions to move positions from exempt to non-exempt, and vice versa.

Greenman estimates the impact of these staffing shifts at about $90,000 within the agency’s budget of $10 million. While a small percentage of the total budget, the impact is nonetheless challenging since it represents about one full-time-equivalent position once benefits, overhead and administrative costs are applied. “We have to manage very carefully, but we always have had to do that,” Greenman says. “One reason is that the cost of overtime is challenging. Another reason is that we want to be a family-friendly workplace and we don’t want people to have to work significant hours beyond full time.”

That sentiment—that nonprofit workers should not be expected to work long hours for low pay— has become a hot button in nonprofit media since the overtime rule was enacted. In Nonprofit Quarterly, author and attorney Andy Schmidt wrote an article with the provocative headline “Is Exploiting Workers Key to Your Nonprofit Enterprise Model?” Calling the nonprofit sector’s response to the new rules puzzling, Schmidt says, “This is great news for the very people the sector is supposed to help.” In an Atlantic article, “The Plight of the Overworked Nonprofit Employee,” author Jonathan Timm asks, “Do mission-driven organizations with tight budgets have any choice but to demand long, unpaid hours from their staffs?” The sector’s key premise—that people will work long hours because they’re passionate about nonprofit causes—is being called into question.

The debate is a good one. As a society, how do we want to provide services for those who need help? What sacrifices do we expect service providers to make? What is “overtime” if you are a social worker, child care provider, theater artist, caregiver, or hold any number of other relatively low-paying jobs that require both significant skills and long hours? Minnesota’s nonprofits have no choice but to answer these questions by meeting new federal guidelines by December 1. What might you do to help?

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