What Can Theater Companies Learn from Knight's Recent "Lifeline" Grant

Before we get into the details of Knight's grant to Q Performing Arts, let's first set the scene by spelling out a set of circumstances that will likely, and unfortunately, resonate with many nonprofit theater groups across the country. They include:

  • A lack of guidance from the Board
  • High staff turnover
  • Uninspired fundraising strategies
  • Half-empty auditoriums
  • And, of course, dwindling cash

OnQ Performing Arts faced these aforementioned conditions, yet was able to claw its way toward financial security thanks to a $105,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. The grant will fund the company's next two seasons and, more importantly, give them breathing room to establish a more diversified and sustainable operational strategy.

Make no mistake, the foundation's gift prevented the company from going under. However, no foundation would give money, much less $105,000, to what they knew was a sinking ship. Q Performing Arts needed to clean house, revamp their operations, and make a strong proposal to earn Knight's trust. That's exactly what it did, and here's how.

First, Q reexamined its fundraising strategy. Moving forward, the company will rely less on ticket sales and instead focus on soliciting more individual donations as well as corporate sponsorships. The company will also broaden partnerships with local organizations to create a broader base of support across the community.

The company's board of directors is also more stable in that members have stayed on for extended periods of time. This stability, quite naturally, builds confidence across the organization and also shows foundations like Knight that the company has an eye on the long term. The company is also rolling out original programming. Its first original production, "Miles and Coltrane: Blues," for example, has traveled throughout the U.S.

Fortunately, Q Performing Arts was able to calibrate their model just in time. Its aforementioned "ticket-centric" strategy was both risky and unsustainable due to uncertain economic circumstances and the fact that just one failed production could sabotage the company's finances. No doubt there are countless theater companies across the country who still cling to this antiquated and inflexible approach. In fact, the nearby Carolina Actors Studio Theatre closed in June of 2014 precisely due to shrinking audiences and lack of fundraising. 

So what's to be done? Naturally, theater companies need to develop a funding model that relies on more than just ticket sales. But to effectively diversify income streams, these companies must address the final piece of the puzzle: improved audience engagement and communication. Audience members mistakenly assume that ticket revenue is all theater companies need to survive and, as a result, they don't bother to make a donation. It's a dangerous misconception that the Q Board is looking to change by educating the local community in upcoming fundraising efforts. And so should other theater companies.

(On a similar note, check out IP's take on the Doris Duke Foundation's efforts to revolutionize theater and build sustainable audience engagement models here.)