As a startup arts organization, the signs of victory are few and far between. That isn't meant to sound negative. Startups and entrepreneurs know what lies ahead. The work is long and front-loaded when you create something from scratch that did not exist before. Nor are there clear markers that you've "made it."
So you can imagine my excitement when I got the call last November that Chicago Fringe would be the recipient of a grant from the MacArthur Fund for Arts & Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. A milestone! A recognition of the legitimacy of our 4 years of planning and producing! Break out the champagne! (We can't afford champagne).
It also created an interesting new twist. Chicago Fringe would have a little extra breathing room in an otherwise shoe-string budget. Not a lot of room, but a little. So here's the rub: what do you do with it?
It's an intriguing question to ask. If you asked me to spend a million dollars producing the Chicago Fringe Festival, I could do it. No doubt in my mind. This was a substantial amount of money, but not enough to accomplish everything we want (nor is any grant supposed to be, I reckon.) So where do you put your first substantial dollars? In the bank? Marketing? PR? Staff stipends? New technology? Board building? Improved services at the Fest itself?
For my money (yeah, yeah, I know), I think the priority is reinvesting this money into what the nonprofit sector calls "Development." In short: raising money. I am not plugged into the world of nonprofit fundraising enough to know if many nonprofits take this route, but for us it is an important one. With a founding principle to return 100% of ticket sales back to the artists, the Fringe has done a whole heck of a lot with very little cash to produce the Festival for 3 years now. But long term sustainability demands income to continue the noble mission. Volunteers burn out, so staff needs to be hired. You are no longer the new kid on the scene, so marketing dollars must be spent to get noticed. And on and on.
So, we are NOT going to bury this money underground like that one guy in the Bible. We are hopefully going to turn it into more money to benefit the growth of our company. It's a slow moving, slightly unsexy, but ultimately worthy cause for Chicago Fringe.
Oh, and one more thing: the flexibility to use our grant money as we see fit should not be underestimated. It's so crucial. If this were, say, a grant directed at a particular program or limited to producing the Fest, we would not be able to put it in the Development pot. So three cheers for general operating grants and grantors like Driehaus and MacArthur for recognizing the importance of that flexibility.
All about the Fringe Benjamins,