What Can Nonprofits Learn from Oregon Children's Theatre?

What are the ingredients of a world-class children's theater program? For an answer, look no further than Oregon's Children's Theatre, which just netted a $50,000 grant from the Hearst Foundation.

Children's theater is a relatively small funding area within the nonprofit arts space. Within this little universe, programming directors are consistently pressed to come up with new and exciting program offerings to keep kids engaged and foundations committed. So when we come across a theater doing impressive things, we pay attention. It also doesn't hurt when a large foundation like Hearst agrees and opens their checkbooks.

The Hearst Foundation, established by William Randolph Hearst in 1945, awarded the Portland-based Oregon Children's Theatre (OCT) with a $50,000 grant to support theater education services and community outreach programs to engage disadvantaged youth. The foundation lists four main funding priorities on its site: culture, education, health, and social service. Therefore, unlike a foundation like Shubert which disproportionately invests in theater, Hearst spreads its money all around.

The Hearst grant will be applied toward OCT program offerings that address organizational, educational, and outreach-related challenges faced by theater companies elsewhere. These challenges include:

Lack of teacher training and development. Like any other business, if you don't invest in your people, you run the risk of losing them. And there's certainly no shortage of opportunities available to talented Portland theater professionals. (Case in point: Check out IP's recent take on Miracle Theatre Group, the Northwest's premier Latino arts and culture organization.) The Hearst grant addresses this problem by providing the OCT with professional development workshops, previews, and resource guides for teachers.

Less-than-stellar audience engagement and participation. What can theater companies do if performances are poorly attended? For one thing, they can offer free and discounted tickets, which is exactly what the Hearst grant provides.

Developing compelling program offerings. What types of programs can companies roll out that resonate with foundations? Look no further than OCT. The Hearst grant will fund an array of programs including OCT's free "Loud and Clear" public speaking program, Young Playwrights for Change, an Anti-Bullying Initiative for middle schoolers, a year-round Acting Academy and Young Professionals mentoring program, and last but not least, their "Read, Write, and Act" program for economically disadvantaged schools.

Establishing an expansive local footprint. Theater companies need to branch out and engage with the community as a whole. Doing so shows foundations that the company is more than merely a performance space or educational outlet, but a community-oriented entity that, to quote the Hearst website, simultaneously drives "engagement by young people and creates a lasting impression." To that end, OCT works closely with groups like Friends of the Children, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boys & Girls Club, and the Children's Cancer Association.