Amen, Brother!

Andrew Taylor has a great entry today on The Artful Manager. He lists generalizations about non-profits vs. for profits that have annoyed me for ages. I am not as concerned about the negative light with which for profits are cast as I am with the pure motives and results attributed to non-profits.

From my own experience with organizations I have had contact (and a handful for which I have worked) I can easily attest that many non-profits have forgotten what their mission is, produce their share of the crass and pandering and have hardly cornered the market on community building. Non profits’ existence hinges so much on casting themselves as benevolent and beneficial in order to receive grant money that the positive image pervades.

To be clear, I am not just talking about arts and cultural non-profits, but health and human service sector organizations like Big Brother’s/Big Sisters, Boys and Girls Clubs, the United Way and a host of less recognizable social service agencies as well. Though certainly there are plenty of instances where arts and cultural organizations act poorly as well. (Witness Drew McManus’ frequently entries on how orchestra management bullox up the works here and here among others.)

The part of Mr. Taylor’s argument that really interested me was his thoughts about why one would seek non-profit status:

“The cause would be my choice of creative expression and the context of a consumer market’s willingness to buy it. When there wasn’t adequate volume or density of consumers to cover the cost of my work, the effect would be a drift toward nonprofit status. When there was a sufficient group of individuals that wanted to buy the work at a price that covered its costs, the effect would be a drift toward for-profit status.”

and a little later…

“Tax status is not a cause. It is not a source of nobility or honor or excellence or any other foundation-friendly word you care to utter. Tax status is a tool, a step, a way, an option. To boldly paraphrase a favorite quote of the gun lobby: ‘nonprofits don’t make art, people do.’ They just happen to choose that tax status sometimes along the way. But they can also choose another if it serves their vision, their purpose, or their art.”

In the course of all the interviewing I have done for jobs, I have spoken to boards of directors who are just starting an arts organization and are looking for a person to run it for them. Because they sincerely want to create an organization that benefits the community, and because they have found government and private entities that will give them the money to do it, they inevitably have formed a non-profit to reach this end.

Even as a person in the profession, I haven’t really questioned this because I don’t really know of any alternatives. If I was starting a for profit business I could go to a bank for loans or find investors but I can’t really think of any place outside of a city like NY or LA that a person could do either and be taken seriously. Unless you are all already wealthy, how can a group of people get together to build a performing arts center without going the non-profit route?

But I agree with Mr. Taylor’s idea–if you think there is enough interest in what you are doing that you could pack the house, why not try to make a profit first and then move to non-profit status if you discover that plenty of people have the interest to pack the house, but not the means to support the organization by themselves.

This is something I will be contemplating. I will be keeping my eyes open for articles that might show that such an idea is viable. If anyone sees one, please direct me to it!

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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