The New England Foundation for the Arts Copies its Own Programming Model — and Nets a $3.6 Million Mellon Grant

In a textbook case of "if it ain't broke, copy it," the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) received a huge three-year $3,625,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to build out its National Theater Project (NTP) using its own National Dance project as a model.

As any nonprofit organization will tell you, developing a sustainable funding and outreach model is like the Rosetta Stone. Once you find it, you hold on to it because it can be a rare thing. Fortunately, the larger network of nonprofit administrators and funding organizations are a benevolent bunch. They don't horde this valuable knowledge. For example, the Doris Duke Foundation's Audience (R)Evolution grant program aims to identify "best-in-class" theater audience engagement models and then share them with other organizations to reenergize communities, expand audiences, and create financially sustainable futures for theatre groups across the country. (For some reason we can't imagine Coca-Cola sharing their formula with other soft drink companies.)

But sometimes, the answer to an organization's management challenges can be found right under their proverbial noses. Such is the case with the NEFA. Their National Dance Project is one of the most successful dance programs in the country. (Ironically enough, the Duke Foundation awarded the Dance Project over $5 million recently.) So if NEFA leaders want to model their new theater project on their successful dance model, who can blame them? 

Of course, we suspect NEFA planners ran the numbers. That is, just because something works for a dance audience, it doesn't mean it will work for a theater audience. Clearly there were some overlapping factors between the two disciplines that led the NEFA to believe that a theater project modeled on their dance work would be successful. So what were those factors?

First is their ability to network like-minded organizations across the country. NEFA's Dance project funds an extensive network of dance initiatives, and their theater project, which builds upon these dance contacts, is no different. Since its inception, the program has funded 25 theater projects, supporting the production and touring of each with awards ranging from $80,000-$130,000.

Secondly, the NEFA is particularly adept at building audience engagement, and they'll clearly bring this expertise to bear across their dance-related outreach efforts. According to NEFA board chair Lawrence J. Simpson, the "NTP is strengthening ensembles, particularly by facilitating new relationships between artists, presenters, theaters, and audiences." 

Ultimately, this gift shows that organizations who build a successful infrastructure and network of performers, producers, and partners can leverage these assets to not only expand their existing offers, but roll out new projects in different mediums. Of course, a check for over $3.5 million from the Mellon Foundation doesn't hurt either.