“Creating Social Capital.” Behind a Corporate Funder’s Support for Theater

by Mike Scutari

Originally published in Inside Philanthropy


Last August, I spoke with Bruce Whitacre, executive director of the New York City-based Theatre Forward, about his organization’s first round of Advancing Strong Theatre grants, which seek to boost equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives across the nonprofit theater world by building “sustainable, authentic relationships” with community organizations. Funding was provided by the Schloss Family Foundation, Citi, Bank of America, the Theatre Forward Board, and a cadre of individual donors.

The grants, which were open to 19 eligible Theatre Forward member theaters, came as funders were shifting toward a model of giving that “creates equitable access for all,” to quote William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust Executive Director Dr. Dorian Burton. In late 2018, Theatre Forward announced the program’s inaugural winners: Seattle Repertory TheatreSan Diego’s The Old Globe, the Dallas Theater Center, and Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater.

In November of last year, Theatre Forward launched the next phase of its program, thanks to an infusion of funding from Bank of America, rebranding Advancing Strong Theatre grants as the Bank of America ACTivate Awards. The awards will support theater programs that accelerate change in the areas of EDI and expand the audiences and communities engaged with theater throughout the country. The first series of new grants will be made in early 2020; a second round is slated for 2021. Each grant will be up to $50,000.

“The program was successful, and as we understand the importance of this work, we wanted to ensure the program would continue,” Bank of America’s global arts and culture executive Rena DeSisto told me. “This is a well-thought-out, systemic program that we believe will continue the work that needs to be done around creating social capital in communities that is within everyone’s reach. Bank of America will be the exclusive corporate funder of the grant awards for the next two years, and perhaps beyond.”

Meanwhile, an enthusiastic Whitacre said, via email, “For a corporation, not a large foundation or individual patron, to step up in such a significant way reawakens all our hopes that the corporate sector will look to the arts as exciting and effective collaborators in better serving communities.”

“Lives are Being Changed”

Reflecting on Theatre Forward’s work thus far, Whitacre expounded on how the program has impacted surrounding communities. “Individual lives are being changed,” he said. “Community partners, organizations such as libraries, literacy centers, shelters and social service organizations, are citing improvements in health, engagement and activity, and confidence. Many of these cities are large and sprawling, creating physical barriers to access theater, which we are breaking down through tours, transportation services and other efforts.”

In our previous chat, Whitacre noted that one of the big obstacles to cultivating a more diverse audience community was the fact that cast members, ushers, staff, boards and leadership at theaters have been “historically more homogeneous than diverse.” He was pleased to report that “organizational efforts to change their workforce and audience compositions to better match their communities are slowly making headway. Changing the demographics of a theater and its leaders and audiences can be a slow process: Staff turnover is relatively low, board composition changes slowly, and audiences are adapting to participation by individuals who may look different from them, and who experience theater in different ways.”

We then turned to the perennial question of measuring impact. “Quantitatively,” Whitacre said, “we know that the four programs in Advancing Strong Theatre reached over 10,000 individuals in four communities. But that number barely reflects the qualitative impact on individuals, community partners, theater leaders and staff, and participating artists.”

Understanding the inherent limits of a purely quantitative approach to measuring impact, Whitacre described how Theatre Forward gathered input from participants, community partners and the theaters themselves. “Our evaluation showed an overwhelmingly positive impact of these programs on individuals, communities and the theaters through their shared experiences of the joys of deeply experiencing theater and the collaborations on which each program is based,” he said. “We also noted that theaters are adapting new practices to enable them to better connect to these new communities, such as flexible production scheduling, shifting of program schedules, and local neighborhood ticketing.”

A Few Subtle Changes

As with the original Advancing Strong Theatre grants, the Bank of America ACTivate Awards are open to Theatre Forward’s 19 eligible theaters focused on building sustainable relationships with community organizations. If selected, grants of $50,000 or more will be awarded to programs focused on equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives. As with the inaugural round, funded programming can include free-to-public performances, professional tours to community centers, acting workshops, storytelling workshops, potluck dinners and open mics.

Whitacre mentioned a few tweaks to the new ACTivate Awards. First, Theatre Forward is extending the project timeframe from 18 months to two years to allow more time for execution. Second, it is adding a cash award to support advancing equity, diversity and inclusion work within the theater. And third, Theater Forward is adding a category of exploratory grants for theaters that are beginning conversations with potential community partners.

“One of our learnings over the past two years is that theaters need capacity funding to initiate this work,” Whitacre said. “It takes time to identify, cultivate and collaborate with a community organization.”

As for how Theatre Forward will engage with applicants, Whitacre said, “We ask them to explore carefully the needs and desires of the groups they want to engage, that they design together with those groups the program that will be funded, and that the theater and the community organizations work together as part of a long-term strategy. The work with the community partners must be equitable—each organization should be fulfilling its mission through the collaboration, and they should treat each other fairly.”

“Be Strategic With Your Ask”

Bank of America, Whitacre said, “has stood by the arts throughout a long period of reduced corporate participation in general.” A 2018 report by Steven Lawrence, senior research affiliate at the New York-based TCC Group, titled “Arts Funding at Twenty-Five: What Data and Analysis Continue to Tell Funders about the Field,” underscores one key reason for this tepid support. “Many funders,” he wrote, “especially corporate and community foundation officers, report that making the case for arts support is getting harder in the face of pressure to address mounting human service and social service needs.”

Theater Forward’s success suggests that organizations that bridge the worlds of arts engagement and “human services and social services needs” can secure critical funding from corporate donors, who, writes American Theatre’s Stuart Miller, increasingly expect a “socially transformative good” that provides measurable impacts in neighborhood life and fosters youth development.

The Miami-based philanthropist Daniel Lewis alluded to this idea after his Lewis Prize for Music recently awarded $1.75 million to 10 creative youth development programs using music to address community disparities. Arts organizations that devote themselves to addressing issues of systemic inequality through a more holistic approach to arts education can position themselves for “new sources of funding.”

To that end, DeSisto told me that Theatre Forward’s work aligns with Bank of America’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, principles that are “essential to our ability to serve our clients, fulfill our purpose and drive responsible growth.” BofA supports more than 2,000 nonprofit cultural institutions each year in the arts and culture space. Beyond sponsorships and partnerships, the program also includes Art in Our Communities, the Bank of America Art Conservation Project and Museums on Us.

BofA’s Arts & Culture programming is part of the company’s broader Environmental, Social & Governance (ESG) efforts. Its ESG principles “help define how Bank of America delivers responsible growth and guide our role in society through how we deploy our capital and manage environmental and social risks and opportunities,” DeSisto said. “Our ESG focus reflects our values, ensures we are holding ourselves accountable, presents tremendous business opportunity, and allows us to create shared success with our clients and communities.”

Advice for Arts Organizations

This idea of alignment with corporate principles is critical for arts organizations looking to “make the case” to equity-minded funders, DeSisto told me. “First and foremost, it is important to understand the synergies and strategies of the companies that organizations are approaching for funding. Too often, nonprofits unknowingly reach out to companies whose business or philanthropic priorities don’t align with their own. Instead, nonprofit leaders should look at how their programming aligns with a company’s objectives or past history of giving, and focus on those as ways to make the ask resonate with the decision-makers. In short: Be strategic with your ask, and listen to what the company is trying to achieve. A nonprofit may be justifiably proud of what they are achieving, but they also need to listen.”

Since there’s money on the table, organizations may feel inclined to fast-track diversity and inclusion efforts, but Theatre Forward’s Whitacre suggests a more measured approach. At a strategic level, he suggested that troupes first position ideas like equity, diversity and inclusion “in the context of all aspects of the theater’s work, from play selection, casting and staffing, to core mission statements to community-based programming and administrative practices (hiring, training, organizational culture).”

Things can get a little more tricky at the operational level. Take the areas of diversity training and what Whitacre calls “audience responses to expanded theater engagement by communities that are new to the art form.” Regarding diversity training, he says, “If applied inauthentically and inconsistently, some diversity training strategies can do more harm than good within an organization because they can generate resistance, confusion and a sense of unfairness. This has not been a factor within our cohort of funded projects so far, but it is an emerging issue across the institutional spectrum, from corporations to arts organizations.”

Whitacre also notes that a theater’s pivot to more inclusive programming or greater community outreach may clash with the sensitivities of some longtime patrons. “Theaters are making great efforts to be more welcoming and inviting, and this can also mean adjusting the expectations of their longtime audiences,” he said. “Audience interactions with new attendees have not always been positive in some theaters. While this has not been a prevalent factor among these grantees, we are hearing accounts throughout the country of traditional audiences sometimes reacting negatively to new audience members from diverse communities who may be more vocal in their response to a play, or who may not be fully versed in, or who don’t buy into some concepts of theater etiquette, and so on.”

Fortunately, neither of these challenges are insurmountable. “Authentic, balanced and sustained efforts are needed to address this larger process of change going on in our culture, which we know is experiencing great tension right now around these issues in all kinds of areas: politics, policing, education, economics, and so on,” Whitacre said.

Perhaps most importantly, Whitacre encourages theater organizations to “embrace a larger view of their community roles. This is not about adding ticket buyers or subscribers to a theater database,” he said. “It’s about, as Braden Abraham, the artistic director of Seattle Rep says, returning to the roots of why communities founded these theaters in the first place: to engage theater professionals in civic life. I hear phrases like ‘we are a service organization, and we serve the community through theater,’ or, ‘we give theater and we get back authenticity.’ These kinds of statements reflect a significant shift in how theaters see themselves.”