Friday, January 7, 2011

Free Advice to Non-Profits: You Ain't Doin' Enough!

     Throughout my career and in my current business (Dirigible) I have worked with a quite a few non-profits. Primarily, performing arts and sports groups, occasionally health-related causes or foundations. I have learned two things in my 10 years of working with non-for-profits.  
     Number One: Most Boards of Directors suck. If your first reaction to this statement is, "Oh, well, we have a great board," I want you to ask yourself two very simple questions. 1) Is each member of the board required to give or get "X" amount of dollars in donations? 2) Are all the board members actively involved in all other fund-raising efforts? If the answer is no to either (it will probably be no to both), your board needs an overhaul. Now! They suck.
     The typical response I get when I explain this to board members is always the same. "But, we volunteer our time to serve on the board. Our time is worth something." I've heard it a thousand times. Guess what? You aren't building a float for the Rose Parade. You aren't volunteering for a bake sale at the local hospital. You aren't handing out water at the local charity's 5K fun run. You are on the board of directors for an organization whose programs and mission depends on your efforts to raise money for and promote the organization in the community. If you can't do it without playing the my-time-is-more-important-than-anyone-else's-card, then don't serve on that board. Yes, you have other duties. Yes, there are other things that a board is responsible for. Yes, you probably have someone on staff who raises money, too. But it is part of your job to raise money. If your non-profit doesn't have money it doesn't exist. Period.
     Okay, I'm done on that subject. For now. But it is a serious issue and an all too common one. From large youth sports organizations down to small community theatre groups, this element of your board is hugely important and sorely neglected. Don't ignore it.
     The REAL purpose of today's rant is second on my "things I've learned" list. Drum roll, please. 
Number Two: You are not doing enough for your sponsors.
     I don't know if you've seen a newspaper the last couple of years, but the economy is kinda, how shall I put this nicely, messed up. If you are doing the same thing for your sponsors that you did last year and the year before -- you are going to loose them.
     There was a time when sponsors donated to organizations because they wanted to help out the cause and maybe get a little tax deduction. We'll give you 100 bucks and you put a business card size ad in the program. There we're a sponsor! Those days are over. The tax deduction ain't enough. You simply MUST provide some sort of marketing value through the sponsorship. There is too much competition for sponsorship dollars on every level. From the local community choir to the youth soccer league your kid plays in, every non-profit simply MUST get more creative in how they attract sponsors and how they treat them once they get their money. The days of making a phone call once a year to a local business and holding out your hand to collect the check? Over. An ad in the program and a link on your website IS NOT ENOUGH no matter how awesome you think your organization is.
     First thing you have to do is create levels of sponsorship. "Gold," Silver," "Bronze," whatever. Try to be inventive and have the levels be something related to the organization. Each level will have a variety of things the sponsor gets for donating at that level. This is called your sponsorship inventory. Put a price to each level and don't waiver. Your sponsors will want everything you've got, but they only get what they pay for. Plus, if one sponsor finds out that they paid more for a certain level than another sponsor did, you have trouble on your hands.
     Now, you may be thinking, "Wayne, we don't have any inventory. All we do is have a couple concerts every year." (Or, you are a youth sports team and all you do is play eight or 10 games per season.) I'm telling you right now, you have more than you think and there is even more you can create in order to have more things to sell. You may have tickets, programs, flyers, newsletters, press releases, stationery, business cards, t-shirts, a website, or social network sites that are all great places for sponsor recognition. Anything you print something on can be a place a sponsor might like exposure, whether it's a ticket or a program or hotel key card. If you do an interview with local TV or newspapers MENTION THE SPONSORS. If you send out a press release, put a small tag about your sponsors in the boilerplate (the About Us section).If you do any fund-raising events (I mean ANY.  Even a bake sale!) Invite your sponsors to have a presence either with a table (to hand out info) or to actually participate in the event. Whatever you are doing now -- do more. It is getting harder and harder out there to raise cash and your non-profit is not the only good cause in town.
     Final thing: Thank your sponsors. Not just the person who wrote the check, but the people who work for the person who wrote the check. Say it in a letter when the sponsor first comes on board, say it in person whenever you see people involved with the sponsor. While this may sound silly, but make sure your BOARD OF DIRECTORS knows who the sponsors are so THEY can thank them and talk about the sponsors in their circles. You do all this and your sponsors will continue to see the value in supporting YOU. If you lie down on the job, they'll go to the food bank or the ballet company or the charity down the street. It's that simple.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Falacy of Non-Traditional Casting -- I think....

This is a tough one. Not so much a rant this time as it is a continuing mind-bender that, for me at least, has no solution and never will. It also comes with this caveat: I am a white male. The vast majority of parts written are written for guys like me. This we know.

When young actors are in training, be it in college or at an acting school, there is never any thought as to limiting what characters you may someday play onstage. We are schooled early on that actors are actors and should WANT to play all different kinds of roles not just those defined by the color of our skin or our gender. In fact, many of us seek out those roles that may not fit perfectly into a typical "type-casting" scenario. We are led to believe that young leading men can play old character parts if the make up is good enough. (I mean come on, Olivier's Othello? Nailed it!) We are trained to think that the amazingly talented African American in our Acting III class is certainly capable of playing Falstaff. (A little padding here, some stipple there, viola!) How many great men of the stage have tackled Lady Bracknell? (Answer: A bunch!)

Then we are sent off into the real world. The world of types; the world of TV; the world of the Peter Principle. For years I was cast in every Neil Simon comedy on the West Coast. I was Leo, George, Felix, Sydney, Paul, you name it I played the straight, white guy. ("Straight" as in not the funny one.) But my acting school days we're still fresh in my bones. I longed for the chance to play Shylock the Jew (you'd think all my Neil Simon roles would have qualified me!), Othello the Moor (Olivier wore black-face), Tony Montana (Oh, wait, he was Cuban. Does that count as white since Pacino played him?)

The trouble we run into is that some works of theatre, film and TV really do require a certain race or gender to be cast in certain roles. They just do. Max in Bent kinda HAS to be a white male. He just does. The whole point of Troy Maxson in Fences requires that an African American male take us on that journey. And here's the part that is hard for me to parcel: Color blind casting only goes one way. Which really means it's not really color blind. Seems kinda like affirmative action for actors. Now, I am NOT suggesting we do away with affirmative action. I'm just saying that with actors, with the theatre, with all things of a creative nature, it seems like it should be different conversation. It just seems like we shouldn't even be talking about it. Of course, we can mount an Asian version of a Tennessee Williams play; Of course, James Earl Jones can play King Lear; Of course, Lawrence Olivier can play Othello; Of course, Macbeth can have an integrated cast.

Let's face it, casting Shakespeare plays with multi-racial casts is old news. Adrian Lester is the latest in, relatively, short list of actors of color to successfully deliver the bard ( Even the histories are less about the actual people of history as they are the bigger issues and themes that have resulted in the passage of time. It's when we start to approach non-Shakespearean classics and contemporary works (okay, basically everything NOT Shakespeare) that we seem to get wrapped around the axle.

I think the answer lies not in trying to force race and gender issues for their own sake, but to create more diverse properties in the first place. (Tyler Perry productions are not my cup of tea, but you have to admire the fact that he is writing and producing specific new material for black actors and a particular audience. Barring a floodgate of "diversity projects" all of a sudden getting green lighted in Hollywood or produced in regional theatres nothing will change, I fear.) If we can't do that then we just perpetuate the problem. In an opening night speech by Des McAnuff, the artistic director hit the nail on the head. And while he was talking about Canada, it remains true for us in the lower 48, "Ours is a multi-racial society ... If our audiences can’t find their own reflections on our stages, as Shakespeare’s audiences did on his, we cannot possibly claim to be speaking to Canadians [or society] today.

What if we didn't worry about "non-traditional" casting and just worried about "casting?" You know, acting school style.What if we were to cast our shows with the best actors that came to the audition? I know, I know, the wheels would fall off of Hollywood and dozens of agents would be unemployed and casting directors would actually have to learn something more about acting than shirt size and hair color. But what if?

Bottom line is this: Someday I would really like to peek into an audition and have no idea what was being cast. I'd like to see all kinds of shapes, sizes and colors. I would like what I learned in my acting classes to be true. I think, anyway... (Oh, and I'd really like to see Helen Mirren play Prospero. Wait, they did that already?)

Addendum: Here's another take that's pretty good, too. A short article by Phillip W. Chung.