Working Wider

Building Contribution Communities: Learning from TheatreWorks

This past Monday, forty former board members and spouses of TheatreWorks, a Silicon Valley repertory theatre, gathered in our living room to celebrate the company’s fortieth anniversary and get an inside look into future plans.  Since then, we have received far more thank you calls for hosting this annual event than I’d expect.  This combined with the evening’s high energy level got me thinking about what we can learn from non-profits about building sustainable contribution communities.

Attracting people to a non-profit or for-profit company revolves around establishing a valuable exchange.  To grow, one has to expand the numbers and engagement level of those in the exchange while minimizing defections.  Churn is costly as it diverts more money to recruitment and advertising at the expense of improving the product or service.  Sitting in my living room that night, I looked out on faces that have been involved with Theatreworks for nearly thirty years.  Knowing implicitly they would be asked to open their wallets again, why were they coming back for more?  Perhaps a little background might help.

TheatreWorks started in the 1970’s as a local workshop and has grown to a budget of $6.8 million with a subscriber base of 9,000 and a permanent staff of 50 people.  Critical to its continuity and growth, the founder has been the artistic director from day one.  His love is producing and directing theater.  He’s a remarkably open and perpetually enthusiastic man who squeezes more production value out of a dollar than most.  He also knows where his strengths stop.  Early on he hired a business manager to grow the franchise.

As I watched people come in, one reason they kept coming back was obvious.  This wasn’t an anonymous target market segment but a community that cared about theater, this company and through shared Board experience, each other.  It was also an organized community.  The TheatreWorks Board Emeritus was created by my wife after serving on the Board in part because she hates to leave any group that she invests in.  Smartly, TheatreWorks’ staff quickly recognized the potential value and nurtures it in several ways.

A closed-loop relationship of mutual investment and feedback nurtures community growth.  Rather than leave it to chance, a Board Emeritus member liaison attends current Board meetings to keep the Board Emeritus members up to date.  Staff provides Board Emeritus members with email updates plus this gathering provides a “don’t miss it” annual inside look and chance to influence directly the company’s future.  In return, the Board Emeritus collectively raises money to co-sponsor one production a year.

The Board Emeritus is just one example of TheatreWorks’ smart attention to closed-loop community building.  From inception, they have incorporated the diversity of the community in their production selection and casting.   An educational outreach effort touches more than 17,000 students in 88 schools.  And they’ve structured different engagement levels for contributors including discussion groups and back stage visits that go beyond printing donor names with the familiar tiered dollar amounts in the playbill.

A second factor this evening was the clarity of results.  Informally people referenced productions with which they had a personal connection.  Profits and non-profits have missions and purpose but sometimes progress is so abstract that it’s hard to know if you’re moving forward.  A theater company’s product is its productions.  These come out with sufficient frequency and distinctiveness that progress is easily measured.  It underscores the importance that creating and sharing results has when working wider.

During the update, the business manager described the tough staff cuts and salary reductions undertaken due to the recession.   There was no shading of the pain or success the efforts had achieved.  As I watched people listen, it was clear that their past experience as Board members was highly respected and worthy of nothing less. Credit the business manager with putting the facts and figures crisply before them as it increased trust.

While the meeting was going on, I noticed that the company’s development and campaign directors had morphed spontaneously into servers offering food and filling up drinks.  During the business manager’s presentation, they silently served the 40th year anniversary cake.  Seeing “constantly being of service” enacted quietly and efficiently underscores the importance serving others has when leaders work wider.

Near the end, the founder and artistic director spoke briefly.  This group is blessed by the continuity he has provided but also by his ongoing expression of gratitude for any and all support that enlivens his passion for theater.  What also struck me was that for all the community described above, the founder still owns the artistic sandbox and collaborations therein.  Even there, he embodies working wider as TheatreWorks invites new authors to participate in a growing “New Works” festival.  The company is increasingly seen as a stepping stone to Broadway for new musicals.

Working wider depends on creatively engaging different contributions while not blurring their uniqueness.  By maintaining creative control within the artistic community, it also enables Board Emeritus members to view their behind the scenes look as a privilege that satisfies without disrupting.

The lessons learned…

  1. Elevate one-time exchange transactions (e.g. buying a single show ticket, making a one-time donation) into an ongoing contribution community
  2. Build community through a managed and continuous series of  transparent, closed-loop relationships
  3. Attend to serving regardless of setting
  4. Pursue differentiated contribution for success and personal satisfaction
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