TRG Blog: Time off pays off: a note of gratitude to the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust
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Time off pays off: a note of gratitude to the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust

Vincent VanVleet | February 18, 2016 9:00 AM

This post is the final in a series by TRG and Piper Foundation Fellow Vincent VanVleet where he’ll report on his travels across the U.S. and Canada to research the impact of patron loyalty. Read more of his posts here>>

Image by Sean MacEntee (CC BY 2.0)

Those of you who are regular followers of this blog know that I’ve been writing a series on my learnings from a fellowship sabbatical journey last summer. 

I wanted to finish the series by writing about the impact that this time to learn has had on my organization, Phoenix Theatre. I can’t do that without dedicating this post to the foundation that both devised that program and is investing in non-profit leaders with their incredible philanthropy--the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust. 

I am told that Virginia G. Piper, while alive, made it a point to meet personally with the leadership of the organizations she funded, which were many. She asked each of those leaders the same question:  “If I give your organization money, will you commit to staying on and stewarding my gift over the next five years?” It’s a fascinating idea upon which to base funding, especially considering the problem of turnover and leadership burnout in nonprofit organizations. She’s asking, “If I invest in you, will you invest it back into your organization and this community?” It is with that philosophy I imagine the fellowship program was born. The Piper Fellowship program “acknowledges the never-ceasing demands of nonprofit leadership and offers opportunities to retool, refresh and renew.” 

The fellowship program allowed me the sabbatical time to do all of those things as well as reflect and rejuvenate after 18 years with Phoenix Theatre. In partnership with Piper and aided by TRG Arts, I also investigated the best practices in converting transactional relationships to long term loyalty, discovered the impact of programming on loyalty, and researched how integrated loyalty approaches are working in organizations across North America.

It is important to me to say publicly that this fellowship has made a difference in my life, my organization’s life, and the cultural life of Phoenix. 

Whoa. Yes, I just made that leap from investment in me to an impact on the community in which I live and work.  Because it’s true. 

I’ve come back from my sabbatical work with clarity of vision and focus. My extended time away forced our organization to redistribute responsibilities in my absence. Those responsibilities never came back to me upon my return, freeing me to engage more deeply with our board and stay focused strategically versus being mired down tactically. 

In essence, Piper has given me time to lead.  And lead I have. 

Upon my return one of my board members quipped, “You’re talking about 20% faster than you were when you left.”  My work has accelerated too. Since returning in September, we have launched the following initiatives:

  • In my first month back I announced a change in organizational structure as well as launched the planning stages of creating a patron service operation (PSO), combining our box office responsibilities with our fundraising responsibilities. 
  • We have created a director of audience engagement position that will head up the events with audiences participating in the creative process. We’ve also assigned a manager to oversee community engagement and committed ourselves to diversifying our volunteer base both in age and ethnicity so the people who greet you at the doors to our organization are a better reflection of the community in which we live and serve. 
  • Additionally, we’ve created access to Broadway producers with a soon-to-launch speaking series inviting patrons to an “Inside the Actors Studio”-type experience with the hopes of breaking down barriers with commercial theatre producers. 
  • We are launching a study with Wolf Brown to learn who the adventure seekers are in our database so we can directly talk to them when we are doing new or lesser known work and build that audience. 
  • And lastly, we are launching a strategic planning process with the help of Jill Robinson at TRG that will memorialize the direction we want to take Phoenix Theatre as we gear up for our centennial celebration in 4 short years, applying my new found knowledge with the vision of our great artistic director. 

With this new found clarity, I should add that we have written and received 4 major grants totaling nearly 2 million dollars, something our organization has never been able to do outside of a capital campaign.  Most of those dollars are committed to doing the work plan I’ve outlined above.  Truly, I feel like we are on fire!

So, all that being said, I provide it as evidence of how a single foundation’s investment in a single person leaps beyond that one person to greater impact for the community at large. 

I should add that I have met new friends and colleagues amongst my fellow Fellows as a result of this program—a group of people who have welcomed me into the wider community of nonprofit leaders who are deeply invested in the Phoenix community.  Virginia would be so proud, as this is right in line with what she hoped to inspire. 

Foundation work can be difficult work. Funders don’t often get the opportunity to see the results of the work they fund firsthand, and I suspect those in charge of large national foundations are not often personally acknowledged—foundations like the Shubert Foundation which funds 469 theatres and dance companies all over the country.  Or the Wallace Foundation and their $40 million initiative to build audiences for the arts. Or the Arthur M. Blank Foundation, which has used its resources to improve the arts and culture in the community for decades.  And there are many more: Doris Duke, The Kemper and Ethel Marley Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the David and Reva Logan Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation… the list goes on and on.  Leadership like this deserves a standing ovation from all of us.  Every time one of these foundations funds us, an important program or initiative gets its wings. So let’s all take a moment to say a big public thank you to them, for without them our work would be so much harder or not possible at all. 

I would also encourage any foundation staff reading this blog to consider a program like the Piper Fellowship program in communities you serve.  It has been a remarkable journey for those of us who have been fortunate enough to take it.  While I am not smarter or more special than anyone else, the Virginia G. Piper Foundation allowed me to be special for a few months while on this journey. For that, I am a bit more learned and ready to tackle the next phase of my organization’s important work in the Phoenix community, and the theatre community at large. 

So, when you finish reading this blog post I want you to send each of the foundations that supports you a personal note of gratitude.  And we should seriously create a signature national day to celebrate all the work that gets done by these fantastic foundations.  Why not?


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Case Study: Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma

Annual operating budget up 32% in 5 seasons

Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma 
 Photo: Joseph Mills

After a poor year for earned revenue in 2012, Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma (LTO) had rebounded and was experiencing a growth spurt. In 2013, Director of Marketing Danyel Siler had turned her attention to single tickets.

Her hard work had paid off, but season tickets were still a challenge. “Season tickets were steadily declining,” she said. “The season ticket campaign had been done the same way for years, maybe even decades. And we blamed the fall on the trend that subs were declining everywhere. Our executive director, artistic director, and I all knew something needed to change, but we didn’t know what.”

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