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Struggles

October 23, 2005

I sit on the board of a wonderful not-for-profit theatre in my community, Second Story Repertory. The company produces amazingly diverse works for both adults and children, with the productions involving professional actors and a dedicated professional crew. All of this is done on a very small budget (not really that different than the budget for my own home) in a small space.

None of it is easy.

The arts suffer in our community from both a lack of support and a lack of real interest. They suffer in many communities because of this. Many people just think that because they pay the price of a ticket that everything will be okay. Yes, ticket sales contribute to the overall revenue, but much less than people might imagine. The cost of rent alone each month can be greater than ticket sales.

Second Story is not unique in its struggles. Many such organizations in small cities suffer the same. When a community like my own, Redmond WA, is an outlier to a large city, Seattle, there is a constant “war” for the dollars of the community. Everyone is given a plethora of choices in the arts, and each of those organizations rely on funding from grants and individuals.

I sometimes ask myself why I sit on the board (and even allowed myself to be elected President). I know that I do it for my daughter. I want her to grow up in a community with a rich set of artistic choices and culture. I do it for all the sons and daughters. I do it for myself. No ethical citizen can really ignore the obligations to return something to their society; this is one of my ways of meeting that obligation. I do it for the actors and crew. They often work on wages that are eclipsed by a good barista at Starbucks. I do it for my pleasant little city.

I do it for many reasons, as do my fellow board members and all our contributors. They are all generous of spirit, time and money. But that is not often enough.

I saw some demographic information about my community recently. Median household income was bout $144K. Yes, that is a pretty large number. It is an affluent community, with Microsoft and Boeing employees forming a generous chunk among a diverse group of professional and blue-collar families. There are a lot of kids in Redmond. Yet our arts organization, like so many others in the community, struggles to stay afloat. One of our sister organizations recently had to fold, leaving many kids without the arts training they had come to love and depend upon.

I know that in this year of great tragedies and a conservative Christian political regime we are all on the precipice of how to spend our ethical and moral capital. Should I fund abortion rights today (YES) or help the victims of the Pakistan earthquake (YES) or the fight against AIDS (YES). Some people spend their capital on their church or their chosen political campaign. We all get the freedom to decide and I cherish that. I might not agree with the choices of others, but I defend their right to make those choices.

The point here, however, is that in a climate of major challenges, the little organizations that keep the engine of our society going can be overlooked. The small not-for-profits that operate day to day need a little of our support as well. We sometimes have board discussions about the concept of “donor burnout”. It is difficult to give and keep on giving because the requests seem never ending. They will always be never ending. Perhaps we live in an age of great tragedy and a tragic downturn in the foundation and future of society. Perhaps it is just a bad year. In either case, need never ceases.

I can’t tell anyone how to spend their social capital, nor would I dare to do so. I can ask, politely, that you look at the full landscape of need when apportioning those dollars.

I also welcome you to our upcoming presentation of Man of La Mancha or your small gift of support. I am not above asking for help. No one else should be above asking for help for their own passions or their own need.

I am far from noble and far from saintly (trust me, very very far), but I care about something. I care about the future.

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