BWW Blog: Investing in Hearts and Minds
Tennessee Shakespeare Company is budgeted to earn approximately 42% of its season's income this year. The balance is conservatively projected to come from contributing sources such as corporations, grants, foundations, and individuals. This percentage is in line with the non-profit national average, and in fact for our classical corner of the industry, TSC's earned income ratio is slightly higher.
Still, if you are a for-profit leader looking at that budgetary fact, you might be saying something similar to what I heard during my first few years in Memphis as I attempted to found the company: "not sustainable." Or you might say what my Executive Director says to me frequently, "I don't see how you sleep at night. This would make me a nervous wreck."
I knew, once we had outgrown our seven-year strategic business plan in fewer than four years, that we had charted wise waters in at least one respect. We had ensured, as a Board of Directors, that every professional performance component we created would have at least one education component. This has meant dozens of education programs and initiatives - many of them not earning a dime, and all of them taking a seven-days-per-week effort. But this was important to me, and personal; and it quickly became the same for our Board, many of whom were teachers I trusted because they taught me earlier in life.
In TSC's formative years, when I would show this personally-driven narrative on paper to a business person, I didn't fault the skeptical responses - indeed, the numbers looked frightening. But what sold our first few supporters was the very real investment in time and money on TSC's behalf, and our promise to our community's young people, which was nothing if not genuine.
As late as 2008, I was still standing in Memphis school doorways trying to convince teachers and administrators to let me take any number of students for an hour or a day of playing Shakespeare. Success ranged from a large gym closet after school for 15 minutes with eight detention students to a full week with the entire student body for most of each day.
The result is that today TSC has taught or performed for over 120,000 students not just in the Memphis area, but throughout the South. And we are already booking dates now for our Mid-South Schools Tour.
Lest you think this is a piece only about what TSC has accomplished in the classrooms, the fascinating creators of the sustaining success have been children ages 8-18.
As TSC's backend reporting shows, these students' grades are going up an average of a full letter grade, they are graduating at a higher percentage, and their social scores, particularly that of 'compassion' for others, have proven to us that the works of William Shakespeare in their bodies and mouths (not just quietly in their brains or on tests) can have a meaningful and positive effect on our community. What's more, these same students are the ones who bring their parents to TSC's evening shows. What parent wouldn't gladly pay for a ticket to see Othello if their 15-year-old son came home and said, "Dad, we need to go to see a play by Shakespeare tonight." You'd drop your fork or briefcase and get in the car. Many have.
This year alone, nearly 400 donors will invest in that education promise. Most recently, our friends at International Paper, Target stores, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Arts Memphis have invested. And more recently than that, at our fifth annual Valentine's Gala, which featured one of Broadway's great gentlemen and the longest-running Phantom of the Opera in the world, Howard McGillin, we raised 33% more for our education programs than we did at last year's successful event. Where TSC was once hobbled at the beginning of our current fiscal year following the inexplicable elimination of our municipal funding for education programming, just seven months later we welcomed nearly 450 guests to our Gala ensuring we would net $131,000 to help offset that loss.
This is not because we are promising or even necessarily selling something anymore to prospective donors. It is because we are now, year-round, in the process of returning their financial investments to them in their children, and their neighbors' children. And it isn't TSC telling the story as much as it is the 13-year-old girl who just experienced Romeo and Juliet for the first time on stage, and on her feet in her own classroom, who is now opening up to her parents.
By definition, a not-for-profit organization does not return financial dividends to its investors. It is granted tax-exempt status to help it invest in the community in what some describe as often intangible ways. But, even though our artistic work is necessarily ephemeral, we have discovered ways to measure the tangible effects of our work on students and audiences. And while any for-profit leader might rightly question a budget's bottom line that doesn't work in the start-up years, it should be pointed out that figures are not the true bottom line for a company with an entirely humanitarian mission. The red figure in parentheses represents the need, and it is up to those of us who lead community service efforts to make an inspired, undeniable case for the need.
While numbers can provide clarity, it is the narrative that will engage the heart and imagination. And when that engagement leads to sustainable investment, the narrative can help change your world.