Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Apple In The Garden of Non-Profit Eden

Teacher Apple



On Tuesday night I made it down to L’etage for the First Person Arts (FPA) February Story Slam based on the theme, “I think we’re alone now.” Storyslam is a guaranteed night of open laughter, goosebumps, cringe worthy moments, and old friends. I hadn’t been in a while for a reason, and that reason was abundantly obvious on Tuesday night. Even sitting at a table with the hysterical and highly entertaining previous Grandslam winner Juliet Wayne, Kevin Lee, Sam Malissa and the eventual winner Amy Malissa, I found that something profound had changed the mood of FPA storyslam.

I first discovered storyslams over the summer of 2006. The first slam I attended was downright magical. Here were all these hipster’s and creative’s revealing themselves on stage with intimate, personal and honest stories. I loved it. I even worked up the courage to get up on stage and tell a story of my own. I was shaking and my voice warbled. It was a fear inducing thrill ride.

In the early days, there was such a spirit of camaraderie. I felt encouraged by the staff and the audience and there was a sense of adventure as we all shared this incredible experience. But things have changed.

The audience remains loyal and open - but the staff seem less grateful and more expectant. No longer is each person coming up the stairs at L’etage greeted with a warm friendly smile. Patrons are assessed by staff for their apparent wealth or status and friendliness prioritized by the size of a potential donation. As a fundraising consultant for eight years plus, I can’t help but notice when an organization shifts its focus from mission to fundraising. And I can’t help but cringe.

Lacking, is the origingal spirit of the mission “ to transform the drama of real life into memoir and documentary art to foster appreciation for our unique and shared experience”. It seems to have been replaced by a new mission to make as much money for FPA as possible. And I’m not sure what this money will do to further the cause outlined before, because no one has taken the time to explain the connection.

Here is a shortlist of warning signs that FPA is in trouble:

  • The emcee begins each show with a blanket plea to everyone in the audience, asking for money without ever explaining where it will go, how it relates to the people in the audience, or how it will further the mission of the organization. What a wasted opportunity to tell a story or have someone who has profited from the mission of the organization tell a story.
  • The cost of the event was raised from $5 to $8. Did anyone explain why? Certainly the venue isn’t charging more and attendance hasn’t decreased. This is about money and yet I don’t have a ticket stub explaining where my money is going.
  • Format changes were made without any explanation to loyal slamn goer. For example, no longer does everyone stick their name in the bucket and leave the storyteller selection to chance. New and old story tellers are separated, and preference is given to new storytellers. My table full of veteran storytellers was only encouraged to participate when the buckets were empty – once a few new storytellers were recruited our names were taken out of the running. Part of breeding audience loyalty is making them part of the process and communicating. Why the change? What’s the goal of the new format? And how does that tie into the mission?
  • Staff spoke loudly and disparagingly about what they called “competition”, other groups popping up around the city that are determined to encourage the tradition of story telling. Rather than embrace a shared mission and celebrate the influence of FPA, staff seemed interested in sabotaging the other groups. Why not approach these groups with care and understanding and bring them under your umbrella. Why not arrange meet-ups and help these groups become established? Why not combine efforts with groups outside of Philly like The Moth, that share your interest and audiences? Is it because they will dip into your funding?
  • New events have been added around the city and there are rumblings about professionalizing a storytelling troupe for parties and special events. Why not utilize some of the “competition” and their funding for these efforts?

I left the event feeling a shift from person to prospect. FPA is not alone. In fact, here-in lays the sad side of the non-profit world. Many a worthwhile organization or group has fallen prey to the seduction of fundraising and allowed mission and programs to be dictated by funding. As a fundraiser, I see it all the time. Trouble is, long term loyal donors are too smart for these shifts. A mission that dictates programming will always be more successful in the eyes of a donor

The good part of this story is that it’s not too late! First Person Arts has a mission I can get behind, anyone who attends a storyslam can be sold on the mission of FPA. So tell me your mission! Sell me you mission! Involve your audience in your mission!! A shift in staff attitudes, a return of mission in the company’s message, and open, honest, and passionate communication with the audience and donors will renew faith in FPA’s commitment to their mission.

I like the organization, I like the staff and I want for the success of both. Why don’t you join me at the next slam and tell me what you think?

2 comments:

Jeff Simmermon said...

I do a lot of storytelling in New York with the Moth and a number of other, smaller shows.

The other shows are actually vital to the success of Moth slams. When I was first getting started, I was *terrified* to just get right in the hat at a crowded slam. A smaller show helped me practice, get used to telling a story, and get to know some people so the whole thing wasn't so daunting. They're great places to experiment, try new ideas, push some connections you haven't pushed before.

And there's an inherent -- and by inherent I mean laughable -- irony in laying claim to the world's oldest art form. It's like spitting pigment onto your hand on a stone wall and then trying to copyright it. Smaller shows are a sign that the community wants to grow. It's going to happen -- you might as well encourage it and benefit from it.

The Moth also plays no favorites when choosing storytellers one way or another. I've seen Juliet Wayne (Hurricane Wayne, as I call her) take the bus up from Philly and not get picked. She and the Moth's head producer are tight, too. That's the way the cookie crumbles. Sometimes veterans get picked, sometimes new people. It keeps the show fresh, but keeps the vets in the mix.

Picking only new folks is good for the new people, but not necessarily for the audience. It's an art form that takes a while to perfect. The audience deserves to see a few experienced folks in the mix, too ... I know I like a bit of both.

juliet said...

Hey Ingrid,
It was nice talking to you the other day. I would have loved to have kept going back to the FPA slams but I'm over it. It's a gross environment. It's one thing to be judged by the people with the scorecards and all but it's a whole new low when it's done by the organizers who, might I add, have never gotten up and told a five minute story, though they have have been collecting money at the door to watch other people do it.
Their hosts are at best cold and unfunny and at their worst rude, catty and in the case of a couple comments by our grand slam host- racist (when she said Katonya's story was a "baby daddy" story).
They claim to care about the art of storytelling but in reality they want to be the only game in town.
They can steal the Moth's format all they want but they will never be able to imitate the humor and honesty and general warmth that is at the heart of a great storytelling show.
I have dozens of hilarious and intelligent people ready to tell stories in the right environment, so I'm excited about starting a new project...or many new projects for that matter.
I'm glad we met, Ingrid. I knew it before I read your "Real Resume" post but you're one of those people whose been through the wringer and held onto your heart.

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