When You Help Others You Can't Help Helping Yourself!

A number of years ago, in a local online discussion group about theatre, someone declared that if a theatre company has to rely on grants and donations, it's not being run very well.

Of course that's moronic. That presupposes that the only art worth making is the most commercial art. And we know that's not the case.

Here's the real deal...

Live theatre is one of the most labor-intensive of human endeavors. There are no economies of scale because every show is different, so every show is starting from scratch. So it's really expensive to create theatre. Right now, if New Line's ticket sales had to totally cover our expenses, tickets would cost north of $60 each. And that would price out a huge part of our audience, who could no longer afford to see our shows.

So we'd go under.

Many moons ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that arts organizations should be tax-exempt because the arts are inherently educational and socially beneficial. They contribute to the welfare of a community in the same way that schools and churches and hospitals do, and in fact, we believe as a society that experiencing art is fundamental to human existence. It feeds the soul. So as a national community, we give a small advantage to companies like New Line, the Rep, the Muny; we don't make them pay taxes, and the rest of us make up for that.

Of course that's built upon the understanding that arts organizations need help. We also give our citizens a tax-deduction for donating to the arts, because we think that's an important thing to encourage.

But there's another part to this as well.

When I worked at Dance St. Louis in the early 1990s, I got into a comical argument one afternoon with another staff member. We were talking about whether or not to raise prices for the following season. She declared that of course we should because Dance St. Louis' purpose is to make money. I argued that, no, Dance St. Louis' purpose is to share dance with the community, and part of that – a necessary evil – is that we have to charge for tickets. In a perfect world, the tickets would be free. The sharing of the art experience is the point, not the money.

This idea drove her nuts. Free tickets?

It usually makes me wanna punch someone when I hear – and I hear it often – "Don't forget, it's show business!" Well, no, unless you're doing commercial theatre in New York, it's not. No business on earth could survive by operating at a huge loss, which is only made up by customers giving the business their money, often after buying the product! What we're doing is not business. The core purpose of a business is to make money. The core purpose of a nonprofit theatre is to serve the community.

But since we're talking about it, why do people give us their money, often after already buying our product? There are two main reasons I think. One is to be a part of the art-making, to participate in bringing the art to an audience, to help with creating something they love. The other is because our donors believe what New Line does is important and they know that without the community's support, New Line can't keep going.

We succeed only if we serve the community well. And our funders, like the Regional Arts Commission and the Missouri Arts Council, look at our support from the community when they consider our grant applications. They want to know we are serving our community, and donations are one measure of that success. If the community won't support a nonprofit, maybe the community doesn't need it...

I learned two valuable lessons back when I worked at Dance St. Louis, when my boss sent me to a week-long fundraising course. Which was so amazing! Lesson One: the worst possible result of us sending a fundraising letter is that the recipient throws it away. That's the worst outcome. No one will be mad. Either they'll decide to send a contribution or they'll throw it away. That's an important lesson. You can't be afraid of your donors. Lesson Two: You're not begging; you're offering an opportunity for involvement and ownership. That's so true. And realizing it is so freeing...

Our donors don't just come to see New Line shows; they are part of New Line shows.

Before I took this class, we sent out a fundraising letter once a year. After I took the class, we started sending out a letter before every show, and our donations skyrocketed. In quite a few cases, people who had been sending us $100 a year were now sending us $100 three times a year. And all because I had learned not to fear my donors and to realize I am not a beggar.

What beggar puts on musicals?

One other new thing we're trying recently is seeking out $5,000 "sponsors" for each show. We've been doing okay with this so far, but if we can get to a point where every New Line show has one or two sponsors, our budget would be so much healthier...

There's always another mountain to climb...

So is this whole blog post just an excuse to ask you for a donation, here at the end of the year?

Well, yes.

(It's not too late to get that year-end tax deduction! And yes, New Line is registered with the IRS as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, so your donation is tax-deductible to the full extent of the law. If you were wondering...)

But not only that. I want to make sure people understand how nonprofits work, why we need donations, what it means to us and to you and to the community. We are the tribe shamans, we artists and storytellers, but we can't do it without the rest of the tribe. We need you.

We could probably lighten our money struggles considerably by producing Nunsense and Hello, Dolly!, but then we wouldn't be New Line anymore. And really, Stages and the Muny do those shows better than we would. But they'll never do the kind of shows we do. We've never, ever, in twenty-five seasons, violated our mission statement, and we're not going to start now. By the very nature of the kind of company we are and the kind of work we do, we will always struggle. And that's okay.

One of our greatest and longest struggles – for space – has finally ended now that we have a new, permanent home at the Marcelle. So I guess I can't really complain that the money struggle continues...

I've been a donor to the Rep (when I can) for many years, just because I love the Rep and I want to be a small part of their success. When I see their shows, I do feel a little pride that I helped in my small way. I'm sure the same is true for many of New Line's donors. It is not an exaggeration to say New Line would not be here today if not for our donors, big and small. And I think our donors know that.

We're very proud that just in the last couple weeks we've gotten donations from Stephen Sondheim and John Kander, and in recent years, also from Amanda Green, David Lindsey-Abaire, and other famous people. Sondheim has been donating to New Line since our second season!

And you know what Avenue Q teaches us...

Many, many, many thanks to the thousands of people who've donated to New Line over the last twenty-five years. Your confidence in us and our work is really wonderful and energizing. We will not let you down.

And if you haven't donated to New Line before, why not just follow this link and click on the Donate button. You know you want to. When you help others, you can't help helping yourself...

Long Live the Musical! And Happy Holidays!

P.S. If you're buying much on Amazon this season, go to http://smile.amazon.com instead. It will take you to the same site, but it will ask you to choose a nonprofit (you'll choose New Line) and then every time you shop at Amazon Smile, New Line gets a small percentage of your purchase.