Nonprofit Sector

Reflections on Full Cost from Voices in Contemporary Art

July 28, 2020

Guest blogger Lauren Shadford is executive director of Voices in Contemporary Art. 

In 2017, our small nonprofit Voices in Contemporary Art (VoCA) faced some serious growing pains. On the surface, there was much to celebrate: we had received transformative financial support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the good fortune of participating in the Foundation's Comprehensive Organizational Health Initiative (COHI). Emboldened by our hard work and good fortune, we moved our two part-time staff to full-time employment with benefits, began to diversify our funding streams, and expanded our programming. 

Then, with our new staff costs, almost overnight, our annual costs doubled. We had a handle on our burn rate, but it took us about two years to develop the new funding relationships that could mature into multi-year support. We needed to access governmental grants as well as develop a major donor and individual giving program. At the same time, we were using cash at a worrying rate. This inflection point – from dramatic progress to longer-term sustainability – is where COHI came in. 

A photograph of two adults, Mario Martinez and Steven O'Banion, sitting in grey arm chairs on a raised platform in a darkened theater. Mario, who is seated on the left, is an older medium-skinned man wearing glasses and a colorful printed shirt. He looks downward at a monitor showing an image of a Native American Yaqui Pascola dancer in traditional garb that is also projected on a large screen behind him. Steven, on the right, is a light-skinned man in a dark grey suit, and has his back to the camera.
Abstract painter and Yaqui Indian Mario Martinez in conversation with Steven O’Banion, Director of Conservation at Glenstone, at the National Museum of the American Indian NY on October 12, 2017. This event was part of VoCA's ongoing CALL/VoCA Talks series, hosted in partnership with the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s Creating a Living Legacy (CALL) Program. Photo by Taylor Dafoe. Courtesy of VoCA.

VoCA hadn’t faced this kind of growth before; prior to the new funding, the Program Manager and I both worked well beyond our part-time capacity just to deliver on our programs. VoCA generates critical dialogue and interdisciplinary programming to address the preservation, documentation, and stewardship of contemporary art. In practical terms, this means extensive planning, communication, and management are required to make quality experiences happen in person and online. We had a handful of consistent supporters, but their funding was not enough to run the organization and deliver all our program goals. 

The influx of funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and other supporters helped solve some of those problems – but also introduced new challenges. The COHI program provided intensive financial and organizational training for our staff and board to help see us through this time of transition. The training inspired the leadership and conscious decision-making that helped VoCA become a sustainable, resilient, and visionary organization. We could never have known the timing of COHI would land us in a safe space at this particular moment of global turmoil, but we are truly grateful that it did.  

There are a few takeaways that I can offer, and hope will help other organizations. 

  1. Immediately build a cash operating reserve.  
  2. Develop a business predicated on forward funding. 
  3. Create realistic project budgets that can deliver great programming results.   
  4. Don’t stretch your organization too thin.  

With these four takeaways in place for VoCA, we learned how to calculate and, more importantly, ask for funding that covers the actual cost for us to deliver great results. Being truly confident in the full costs allowed us to articulate that to funders, and strategically decline program partnerships that would drain our resources instead of uplifting our programs. 

A photograph of a large crowd of people listening to artist Antonia Perez as she speaks about her artwork. Antonia stands to the far left at a podium in a large amphitheater with white walls; behind her, a massive projector screen shows an image of a rainbow hued woven sculpture entitled "Light Spectrum" that is made out of wire lampshade frames and crocheted plastic bags. Audience members fill the space, sitting on black folding chairs, green benches, or the amphitheater steps.
CALL/VoCA Talk: A Panel Discussion with Legacy Specialists Antonia Perez, Julia Rooney, and Rose Nestler held at Pratt Institute on December 4, 2018. This event was part of VoCA's ongoing CALL/VoCA Talks series, hosted in partnership with the Joan Mitchell Foundation's Creating a Living Legacy (CALL) Program. Photo by Taylor Dafoe. Courtesy of VoCA.

We recently completed a project that achieved exceptional results. Our funders asked us to continue for a second year, but at a lower funding level. We knew what it took to achieve the results, and had the conviction and confidence to articulate that we couldn’t commit to partnerships that would undercut our ability to be a strong, stable organization. In the end, our funders stepped up and supported the partnership at the necessary level. 

There are some opportunities we’ve had to let go of because the full cost of delivering the requested services could not be covered. In truth, that has been freeing because it has allowed us to think about strategic growth – moving into future years with partners and funders that understand the program needs while also seeing the value of the work we do. Those are the lasting partnerships that we need as a small non-profit. The work we’ve done over the past few years to nurture those relationships, diversify funding, and secure multi-year grants has put us in a much better financial position. 

Now more than ever, artists and arts organizations are in a financially precarious place; it is important for our sector to build stability and resilience so we can all continue to bring the work of artists deeper into the fabric of our culture.