Three-For-One Deal In Dayton Arts

July 11, 2012       Mark Hrywna      

Three of Dayton, Ohio’s premier arts organizations have decided to sing in harmony after nearly two years of managerial rehearsals.

The Dayton Ballet, Dayton Opera and Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra as of July 1 are the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance (DPAA).

Formerly president of the Dayton Philharmonic, Paul Helfrich is now president and CEO of the DPAA. The alliance is the first in the nation to bring a ballet, symphony and opera together into one, according to Helfrich, citing Utah and Chattanooga symphonies and operas as examples where two organizations are together. New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts houses several arts organizations, but each is a separate entity with its own board and staff.

“A lot of traditional sources of philanthropy have been very challenged. Anything that can be done to provide a more efficient, innovative, out of the box approach is certainly welcome,” said Helfrich.

The goal of merger wasn’t so much to achieve a huge cost savings, Helfrich said, but rather to position the trio of arts groups to pursue and generate more revenue. “It’s an opportunity for exciting new artistic collaborations and new ticket packaging,” he said.

“The biggest benefit, we think, are opportunities for exciting new artistic collaborations,” said Helfrich. The three organizations have collaborated on single projects in the past, but now they can plan their season side by side, he added. “We can call attention to what’s going on in Dayton in a way we could not have before, and hope to turn that into funding from regional and national sources,” he said.

“You have to be prepared take a lot of time. It’s a long courtship rather than a shotgun wedding,” said Helfrich. Discussion began during the summer of 2010 among the board chairs and executives of the three organizations, gradually expanding those circles to the boards’ leadership and eventually to the full boards. A merger study was initiated January 2011, with financial help from the Dayton Foundation, and completed in January 2012.

The Philharmonic was the largest group of the three, with a budget of nearly $5 million, followed by the opera at about $1.5 million and the ballet at $1.2 million. The new alliance will have an annual budget of about $7.5 million, Helfrich said.

What made the alliance possible was the organizations had a lot of staff vacancies because of budget constraints, said Helfrich, including three artistic directors but only two executive directors, and only one development director among the three. One of the other executives remains as artistic director while the third is now the alliance’s chief administrative officer under Helfrich. “We would’ve been able to continue for some period of time but we all had some concerns about how we’d do that. How much downsizing would we have to do?”

A six-person nominating committee — two from each organization — oversaw a selection process to choose 39 members of the new alliance board. As three separate organizations, they had almost 100 members on their individual boards. “They took a good, deliberate process to do it,” said Helfrich, talking to each board member, determining their interest as well as reaching out to others.

The Dayton Foundation funded the first phase entirely, providing about $6,000, and about 70 percent of the $30,000 second phase, Helfrich said, leaving the remaining 30 percent split among the three groups.

The Dayton Foundation’s Nonprofit Alliance Support Program, established three years ago to provide grants to nonprofits in the community with an interest in significant partnerships, mergers or alliance, is now part of its normal grantmaking. Grants allow for technical assistance to help charities through a formal and deliberate process to see if a type of partnership is appropriate, and if it is, what type would work best.

In addition to funding the merger study, the Dayton Foundation has committed $500,000 over three years to the alliance and another anonymous national foundation awarded $750,000 over the next three years.

For other nonprofits considering mergers or partnerships, Helfrich had this advice: “Be prepared to take a bit of time to study it and get a good consultant. It took a little more than expected but in hindsight, it all makes sense. The fruit of doing that is that everyone’s comfort level stays high.”

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