I met recently with a longtime donor. I asked him what he liked about The Arts Partnership. He thought for a minute and then said, “I think you stretch a dollar further than just about any nonprofit I know.”
In the moment, I took it for the compliment I know it was intended to be. As the leader of a nonprofit, the goal I have internalized is to do more with less. To somehow fulfill our mission even when the funding isn’t there.
But something nagged at me and got me thinking. How DO I “stretch the dollar?”
I do it by chronically underpaying and overworking my miniscule staff of three.
I do it by providing pitifully few benefits.
I do it by saying yes to nearly everything in the hope that this will be the yes that leads me to the donor who will understand our value and invest in us meaningfully, thereby creating the elusive tipping point for development dollars we keep striving towards.
I do it by forgoing impressive collateral materials for fear that donors will be critical of the expense, meaning we failed to put all our resources to our mission, which would make us the kind of nonprofit not to invest in.
I do it by schlepping heavy boxes of t-shirts, self-catering many of our events and leaning on our network for at-cost or borrowed items for said events.
And I am not singular in this. Most of the nonprofit sector is routinely caught between a rock and a hard place. The adage that you have to “act big to be big” is tough for arts nonprofits because, for the most part, people are comfortable letting this sector struggle.
All of this has me thinking: what if I stopped stretching the dollar quite so far? As a nonprofit, there are real stipulations and limitations. But interestingly, they are not around compensation, development materials or paying market value. Those are perceived limitations that we have culturally bought in to lock, stock and barrel.
So how do we unravel this notion that it’s an admirable nonprofit practice to do more with less? How do we dispel the myth that it is sustainable because people work in this sector for the love of the mission?
You know what? I love the mission of The Arts Partnership, but I would love to have a more secure financial footing for the organization.
I will continue to say yes when I should say no because I believe so strongly that the advocacy The Arts Partnership is doing on behalf of the arts needs to be spread far and wide, that the arts are for everyone and that there are those elusive funders whom I just haven’t met yet.
But I’m also going to unapologetically compensate my staff better, develop fundraising materials that tell our story and I’m going to *try* to not just think big but actually be comfortable being big. The arts in this community are better and more important than they ever have been, and that’s worth celebrating … and funding.
This article is part of a content partnership with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and originally appeared in the Monday, March 27 2016, issue of the paper.