Funding Great Nonprofits...Forever?

0708HumanaPostersmall.gif I've been in the nonprofit sector long enough to know the score. It goes a little something like this: A nonprofit appeals to a foundation to fund its mission (which, since it's a nonprofit, the IRS has already determined is a mission that provides community benefit). If the nonprofit is lucky, the foundation grants it some money, but at the same time it's handing out the funds, the foundation is telling the nonprofit that it needs to find a way to fund itself from here on out--to become "self-sustaining." In other words, while you and your staff are working hard every day to provide, say, high quality children's programming to underserved youth, also figure out a way to earn some revenue, or at the very least be out having lunches with other potential funders, because we don't want to fund you forever.

To which I have only one response, even after all these years: Why not?

Many community foundations say they are "For good. Forever." I met with a family foundation manager this week who said that his first duty was to remember that the foundation was "forever." If this is the case, then why the need to fund nonprofits like they are "yesterday?"

Thankfully there are rare exceptions to this rule. One of these bright lights is the funding of the Humana Festival of New American Plays by the Humana Foundation. 2008 marks the 29th year running that the Humana Foundation has provided funding in support of this extremely important art event, making this the " largest and longest current partnership between a corporation and a theater in the United States."

I'm sure there are many reasons why the Humana Foundation continues to fund the Festival, but to be certain, one of the main reasons is because the Festival has always delivered superior results. The return on investment for the Humana Foundation is real and quantifiable. According to the Humana Foundation website:
"The Festival draws theater lovers, journalists, and film and stage producers from around the world. More than 35 states are represented each year. About 26,000 patrons attend the five weeks of plays, including students from more than 30 colleges and universities.

A successful run at the Humana Festival typically translates into more recognition and bigger audiences for the playwrights.

Eight Humana plays have been adapted for film and television. Three -- D. L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and Donald Margulies’ Dinner with Friends -- have won Pulitzer Prizes. Several other Humana plays have been nominated for Pulitzer Prizes. Additionally, six Humana plays have won the American Theatre Critics Award, while four Humana plays have won the Obie Award. It is estimated that 90 million people worldwide have seen productions of the many plays originated in the Humana Festival."

The relationship between the Humana Foundation and the Festival of New American Plays represents a symbiosis that should be studied and modeled by others. If a nonprofit returns superior results, why not continue to fund it? It's a win-win. The nonprofit provides high quality community benefits, and the foundation provides funding in support of a great nonprofit. Seems like that is a pretty sustainable model in and of itself, no?

Caroline Heine

Posted at 1:00 AM, Mar 19, 2008 in Arts and Culture | Philanthropic Strategy | Permalink | Comment