Arts and Culture

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance

A dance partner grows with a thought partner

Cleo Parker Robinson Dance (CPRD) has been a mainstay of the cultural landscape in Denver, CO, since its founding in 1970. What started as a small dance ensemble and school is now a thriving organization consisting of a professional company, school, theater, and community education programs rooted in African American dance traditions.

But such growth was not without challenges. As CPRD worked to sustainably grow its programs, it found it could use some outside guidance.

CPRD’s executive director, Malik Robinson, explained that Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) has helped the organization think through and articulate its financial needs and priorities.

“We started strategic planning in 2014 and launched our capacity campaign in 2016,” said Robinson. “But we did not have a clear sense for the profitability of our business pillars until 2018 when we started working in earnest with NFF.”

CPRD is part of the Managing Organizational Vitality and Endurance (MOVE) program of the Comprehensive Organizational Health Initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Through providing capacity building, technical assistance, and grants, MOVE aims to strengthen the field of Black dance by supporting organizations that have historically been financially marginalized.

A component of CPRD’s work with NFF was to understand financial and mission-related data about programs to guide them through an exciting period of change, growth, and opportunity.

“We talked through with NFF some difficult decisions on our arts education programs,” Robinson said. “We used their informed, detailed data to see if the program was mission related and/or not generating revenue.”

This led to a change in how they approach classes taught in local schools. The free classes were a great way to connect with the community, but were not financially sustainable. Robinson made the data-driven but challenging decision to charge a fee for service to the schools, rather than continue to offer the classes for free, so that the program could continue.

“We were not just going to completely get rid of this program, but if we are going to make it work, what does that look like?” Robinson said.

Robinson found the financial modeling work with NFF helpful across all CPRD business units. In 2019, the academy grew for the first time in 10 years, a whopping 23 percent. Plans to shift the touring model for the ensemble over time are also in the works, which could help make it profitable.

“We identified many more opportunities that were undercapitalized and not optimized,” Robinson said.

Having someone to talk through decisions with who had financial and data expertise helped CPRD understand its business and advocate for its needs to the board and funders.

“It’s hard to attribute our growth to one single factor,” said Robinson. “But having NFF as our thought partner has been invaluable.”

This story was written as part of NFF's 40th anniversary celebration.

[Lead photo by Jerry Mettellus]

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