Big vision drives Cleveland collaboration

In my last post, I described some key findings from our case studies of successful joint fundraising efforts. Here’s a closer look at one of those cases, the Gordon Square Arts District in Cleveland, OH. Thanks to GSAD’s Executive Director, Joy Roller, for generously sharing her experience and insight.

“Two theaters are two theaters, but three theaters make a theater district.” That’s how Joy Roller describes the difference that collaboration made for the partner organizations of the Gordon Square Arts District as well as their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. It’s all about the size of the vision.

The Gordon Square Arts District emerged from decades of working and thinking about the connections between art and community. This skit on video, the History of GSAD, tells the story as  humorously enacted by some of the creative people who made it happen.

The very short version: The Cleveland Public Theater, a professional equity company on Cleveland’s Detroit Avenue, badly needed a new roof. Across the street, the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization owned a vacant 1921 movie palace, the Capitol Theater, also in dire condition. The Near West Theater, a community musical theater company in another part of town, badly wanted space of its own.

But all three organizations aspired to build community as well as physical structures. Through collaboration they generated a vision that promised more than new buildings and attracted many times the funding they could have hoped for working separately – $23 million so far, with more to come.

When Near West Theatre agreed to relocate to Detroit Avenue, they had the critical mass to create a true theater district. Their plan included extensive new streetscaping on Detroit Ave and the development of parking lots and a parking structure to serve the district. The total goal for the campaign is now $30 million.

A steering committee conducted economic impact and fundraising feasibility studies in 2002. Soon after the committee hired Joy Roller to run the combined capital campaign. Joy soon reached out to some of Cleveland’s major corporate and community leaders to drive the ambitious campaign.

Their advice prompted the creation of Gordon Square Arts District as a freestanding nonprofit limited liability company with the purpose of running the joint capital campaign. Each of the three partners had one seat on the LLC’s seven-member Managing Board. Four members were independent. A separate Mutual Reliance Agreement laid out the critical agreements among the four separate nonprofit organizations:

  • The groups agreed not to raise any capital funds outside of GSAD and to coordinate their fundraising campaigns with GSAD.
  • Incoming funds would be distributed in proportion to each partner’s share of total project cost.
  • Groups agreed to broad mutual transparency – the books and other essential records of all member organizations are open to the other members
  • Each member agreed to submit quarterly financial reports on their overall finances as well as expense and progress reports on their respective projects.
  • The agreement included an extendible “sunset” date for dissolution – now set for Dec. 31, 2013.

The division of fundraising labor worked very well. GSAD did all the capital campaign work, leaving the partners free to focus on annual fundraising. GSAD has an annual budget of $400,000 and a staff of three. They contract with Detroit Shore CDO for space and back office services, such as HR. Joy estimates the partners would have spent three times as much if they had pursued separate capital campaigns.  Side agreements allow the partners to protect key annual donors from solicitations, but in reality there was not much overlap between past donors to the partners and the donors to the capital campaign.

“Essentially, we built a new constituency that the partner organizations could not have reached,” said Joy. GSAD recruited mostly new and much higher-level donors and campaign chairs than the partners could have provided. The campaign presented a big, place-based vision with employment, livability, revitalization and other benefits with high appeal to banks, corporations and government. When the campaign is concluded, each of the partners will be free to create new relationships with GSAD contributors.

As of December, 2011, GSAD had raised $23 million and the partners had completed the Cleveland Public Theater and Capitol Theater renovations as well as the street improvements and parking. The New West theater site is ready with construction soon to begin on a building that meets European passive energy standards (“like LEED on steroids”. Joy says she can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Here’s how Joy summed up the keys to success at Gordon Square:

  • Shared values of social justice among the leaders at all three partners.
  • Trust in one another as partners.
  • The scale and place-centered nature of the vision.
  • Carefully crafted agreements and arrangements.
  • Creating a separate organization to manage the campaign.
  • The outstanding leadership and civic culture of Cleveland.

With new, fully-owned buildings, the two theatrical companies will enjoy better performance spaces with no rent or mortgage payments as well as a much stronger asset base. The Capitol Theater has been reopened as an art film theater with 3D and other modern amenities in a restored historic space. With a beautified neighborhood, plentiful parking and lots of new restaurants and bars nearby, all three theaters can look forward to bigger audiences for years to come.

But the promised benefits to the wider community were vital to attracting major support to GSAD, particularly from government. The Arts District has more than delivered. Estimates of the project’s economic multiplier run as high as $750 million in additional investments in the Gordon Square area with at least 42 new businesses opened there in the last few years. In addition to hundreds of construction jobs created over nearly 10 years, an economic study projected the creation of 643 long-term jobs in arts, architecture, retail, restaurants and clubs as a result of the project.

2 responses to Big vision drives Cleveland collaboration

    • Gayle Gifford

      Thanks to Jon for this article.
      It certainly helps to know that there are models to learn from. We don’t have to learn all the lessons all over again.

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