Go Forth and Multiply: A Look at Nonprofit Theater's Philanthropic Johnny Appleseed

It's always dicey to try to draw comparisons between the nonprofit arts sector and the private business world, but hear us out anyway.

The concept of "economies of sale" stipulate that there are cost advantages that large enterprises can generate due to size, output, or scale of operation. However, in the business world, when a large enterprise generates these benefits, the goodies rarely trickle down to partner organizations, much less competitors.

And therein lies an obvious difference between private industry and the nonprofit world. Unlike their smaller peers, foundations like Wallace, through sheer brute force, can earmark $52 million to generate an advantage—in this case, effective audience engagement strategies—and subsequently share this knowledge with other arts organizations.

Or take the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's National Playwright Residency Program (NPRP).

Everyone knows that the biggest impediments to building robust theater communities include things like lack of sustainable funding and the fact that playwrights must often bounce from gig to gig. Theater residency programs, by their very definition, address these problems. Such programs embed a playwright in a community and incentivize him or her to stay there. For example, the Tow Foundation recently awarded six $75,000 grants to New York City theaters to support a playwright of their choosing as the 2016–2017 Tow Playwright-in-Residence.

Yet smaller foundations, due to their size, can only offer residencies in a limited amount of playwrights and theaters. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (current endowment of roughly $6.1 billion) lacks such restraints. And so the NPRP, in partnership with the self-described "knowledge commons" HowlRound, offers residencies to playwrights in 18 theaters across the country. Mellon just announced $5,588,000 in new funding to support these residencies.

Mellon established the program in 2012 and placed playwrights in 14 theaters across 11 U.S. cities. For the program's second round, eight playwright-theater pairs were selected for grants; nine from the 2012 pilot round received renewed support along with grants to nine that are new to the program. Participating cities include Dallas, Boston, and Chicago, as well as smaller towns like Douglas, Arkansas and Ashland, Oregon. (This is where the Johnny Appleseed reference, we hope, starts to crystalize.)

For the second round, Mellon used an open application process, which resulted in more than 70 applicants. The selected playwright/theater pairs were chosen by an outside peer panel.

Last June we published a piece entitled "How Did Cleveland Become a Theater Mecca?" We fully admit that no two cities are the same and there's no secret formula that can instantly transform a Birmingham or Buffalo or Topeka into a vibrant theater city overnight. That said, the Cleveland case study proved illuminating.

We attributed the city's success to four factors. First, Cleveland is blessed with two anchor institutions who work in tandem, rather than in opposition. The second ingredient is, not surprisingly, talent. Playwrights and actors shun the siren calls of larger cities and plant roots. Third, Cleveland theater organizations receive consistent financial support from grantmakers like the Nord Family Foundation. And lastly, the theater scene isn't viewed in a vacuum by the city fathers; rather, it's a critical input in Cleveland's economic development plans. 

Mellon's National Playwright Residency Program, consciously or otherwise, mirrors the successful formula we see in Cleveland. The 18 recipient theaters act as anchor institutions in their respective cities. As for incentivizing playwrights, the program offers winners three years of full-time salary, benefits (including health insurance!), access to artistic development funds, and the knowledge that their work will be produced at least one time at the partner theater.

"My first three years as a Mellon Playwright enriched my creative work in every way and made me know I had found an artistic home at the Alliance Theatre," says playwright Pearl Cleage of her experience in the first cohort. "The stability and continuity provided by multiyear residencies has allowed Mellon playwrights to put down deeper roots in the communities where we are working, to explore new artistic collaborations, and discover mutually satisfying ways to interact with our home theaters."

Interested playwrights and theaters will want to click here for application information. (The deadline for the 2016 was September 15, 2015.)

Lastly, the Theatre Communications Group, with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, published eight case studies documenting effective audience-engagement and community-development strategies at "best in class" theater organizations. Check them out there.