Allison Cain’s career as a theater professional spans nearly 30 years, including 10 in her current role as Managing Director of the award-winning Lifeline Theatre in Chicago. Like many leaders of small arts organizations, however, she doesn’t focus exclusively on making great theater for her community. She also focuses on making ends meet at Lifeline.
“I’m not formally trained in finance, but I head up finance,” she notes with a smile.
Wearing multiple hats is common in small- to medium-sized nonprofits, including those in the arts and culture space. “Organizations like ours can’t always afford to have someone on staff with a CPA background,” explains Ben Koucherik, General Manager of the Chicago Children’s Theatre.
Even for the arts organizations that can, aligning strategic goals with budgetary realities is a perpetual challenge simply due to the nature of their work. “For arts organizations, budget models tend to be risky,” writes Cate Fox, a Senior Program Officer at the MacArthur Foundation, in a recent blog post on the topic. “They require organizations to spend money building an artistic idea with the hope that once it is created the organization will be able to recoup what was spent.”
Recognizing the need to support visionary leaders through that process, the MacArthur Foundation created the Chicago-based Arts and Culture Loan Fund (ACLF) program, which is administered by IFF. The program provides financial resources to organizations that are grantees of the MacArthur Foundation or the MacArthur funds at the Prince Charitable Trusts and the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
Three key resources comprise the ACLF:
- Operating loans. Program administrator IFF and program partner Fifth Third Bank provide loans in the range of $10,000 to $150,000. The money helps recipients manage uneven cash flow stemming from factors like the timing of ticket sales, government grants, or production costs.
- Free financial management workshops and one-on-one coaching. Financial experts from program partner Fiscal Management Associates (FMA) deliver a series of intensive workshops on mission-critical topics like financial planning and monitoring, interspersed with customized coaching. “We meet organizations where they are and focus on concrete steps they can take to support and sustain the work they do for Chicago communities,” says Lead FMA Consultant Dana Britto.
- Free technical assistance. FMA also takes on financial projects — from writing policies and procedures manuals, to customizing budgeting software — that arts leaders haven’t had the time or expertise to do themselves.
Grantees have the option of tapping into these powerful resources singly or in combination with one another, depending on their organizations’ specific needs.
Eight arts organizations complete ‘super valuable’ workshop series
In June, leaders from eight arts and culture nonprofits — including Lifeline and Chicago Children’s Theatre — completed four all-day workshops designed to help them think through the financial side of their work. The program has now served more than 40 Chicagoland arts organizations since the MacArthur Foundation launched it in 2009.
The 2019 workshops were spaced out over three months, with individual coaching sessions in between. The topics FMA covered included:
- Financial planning and storytelling. Coming up with a budget that truly reflects your organization’s health, a process for getting there, and a communication plan for sharing your financial story is a complex challenge facing every leader. Participants explored a range of approaches to these tasks, working with their organizations’ financials to assess their current practices and devise potential enhancements. “The workshops helped me understand a vision for where we need to be, and how to transform our current tools and processes to get there,” said Karen Cardarelli, Executive Director of Emerald City Theatre.
- Financial monitoring. It’s one thing to create a budget. It’s another to track your progress and make adjustments as conditions change. Eileen Truong, Finance and Operations Manager for Hyde Park Art Center, noted, “The topic that really resonated with me was the idea of a dashboard. That brought up questions of who our audience is and why we might measure certain metrics over others. We have our strategic goals, but they aren’t necessarily quantified. The training helped us think through that process.”
- Fiscal operations. The financial software and automation you use, policies and procedures you document and follow (or don’t!), staffing model you implement to complete financial activities, and more all add up to your fiscal operations. FMA Senior Consultant Gretchen Upholt advised participants who spot operational bottlenecks to “map [their] processes and make sure they are as efficient as possible.” She explained, “Your first instinct might be to try to hire someone or throw more people at the problem. But sometimes rethinking the technology or process you’re using can help.”
Two to five staff members from each organization — representing a range of roles and financial expertise — participated in the workshop series, allowing people to share ideas both within and beyond their own teams.
“It was super valuable to have other staff members experience the same training and get aligned,” Koucherik said. “The conversations we’ve had back at the office have been great. Plus, we have a newly minted board member who has jumped in and participated in the workshops. Having her speak from her experience in the training will help build buy-in for best practices and a strategic approach at the board level.”
He did, however, recommend that organizations time their participation with care. “I think it’s critical that organizations come in to the workshops with a full understanding of their capacity,” he said. “You will get something out of just sitting in the room, but it won’t have the same impact if you can’t act on what you learn.”
Participants appreciated the opportunity to exchange ideas with leaders from other arts organizations as well. “It’s nice to look around the room and see others who are facing the same challenges,” Cain said. “I’d definitely recommend the program.”
Congratulations to all eight of 2019’s participating organizations:
Are you interested in participating in one or more components of the ACLF — or do you know of a MacArthur Foundation grantee who might be? Learn more about the program and how to get involved.