I have never understood the saying “starving artists”. Why starve for your art or your nonprofit? Profit is a great thing. Anyone can run an unsuccessful business. The key is to separate yourself and you nonprofit from the rest. You can expand your nonprofit business, you can be of more help focusing your nonprofit, and you can survive in economic down turns and pandemics.
Beyond running our family ranch, breeding American Quarter Horses, and other business ventures, I am honored to be President of the Board for the Fredericksburg Theater Company here in the Texas Hill Country. It’s a 1 ½ hour drive from San Antonio. I am not an actor, but my daughter is. She sings dances and acts. That is how I became involved. I wanted to help. But, becoming a part of a theater company in a way I never had done before wasn’t comfortable and it wasn’t easy. Many challenges and a nonprofit to boot.
I applied the same models that I use in my business to the theater. It works! We assembled a winning team and mindset. We produced a talented team-professionally and mentally with positive thinking. We went from deep red to a multimillion-dollar theater. The first thing is starting at the top. Our Executive Director, Steve Riley, is first class and hardest working: he sets the tone.
When I assembled my board, I did not look at politics, age, or gender. I looked at a passion for the theater, a work ethic, humble attitude. I keep them so busy with work, there is no time to talk about anything except what is best for the theater. We now have many employees and guest artists from all over the country. Yes, it is OK for Non-profits to be successful and expand. They can then hire more people and do more good.
We went from 5 shows and lots of “drama” off the stage to solid professionals running the theater. Our community outreach increased 100%. We started an intern program and we started a multi-person scholarship program. We are now at 14 shows per year and doing a major expansion. We have over 60% of our ticket sales from out of town. People drive hours to see a show at our theater. As a business, that means so much, but we don’t pat ourselves on the back. We get better. We expect success. We will not waste a customer’s time by driving hours, spending money for a bad experience. Since we created this cash flow through ticket sales we don’t have to rely on a few donors and some of the board members for funding. That gave the control to the theater itself, not just a few donors. Now when we need to do something, we do it. The power is in the hands of the theater, where it should be.
When I work with nonprofits in the horse business most don’t run their business as a profit business. I don’t understand that philosophy. They expect to not have money and struggle. That’s no fun. Why would you want to do that? You choose it—have fun doing it! If you take a business approach with a nonprofit and create cash flow, you create the ability to expand the nonprofit. There are many options a Director or business owner can pursue to help a nonprofit become successful:
Have a strong Board of Directors. Both the Rodeo Committee Board that I was on and the theater company use the board as a volunteer group, to be creative in business solutions and to support the goals of the non-profit. They are working boards, not “hand-shake” boards.
Create excellent record keeping practices. Be transparent. Run it like a fortune 50 company. Then your nonprofit will mirror a top producing company. When the nonprofit grows, your resources grow and you are able to do more great work. If you can’t do the books because of time, hire someone or do some trading. If you are running a nonprofit there are a lot of companies who will do an in-kind donation.
Have a very clear and concise mission statement—this is so important. Simple but strong. This is what you stand for. This is what you’re doing and the reason you’re working so hard.
Don’t fall into the “I started this and I have been here a long-time” syndrome. If you started the non-profit and have been there a long time this is important and sometimes hard. Take the rodeo board and the theater board. Wow! You would think they’re at two opposite ends of the nonprofit world. Not so. We run them the same with the same positive results. Something we do at both is look forward to positive change. Not for the sake of changing, but for the sake of staying open and getting better. If you’re not, I promise, you will get left behind.
Who is telling your story, think public relations. I don’t like to beg for money. I won’t do it. What I will do is show them a successful non-profit and they will donate. Everyone wants to be with a winner. I don’t brag—don’t believe in it. What we do as the board of a nonprofit is tell the truth. Talk about success, how we handle money, talk about sell-outs, talk about how great the staff and volunteers are. We educate the donor base and potential donors. If they know we will be smart and care for their donations, then we will earn it. This is important. We earn donations, we are not given donations. Personally, when I donate to a nonprofit I will look to see how they will handle the money.
What are the long-range goals for you and your nonprofit? (Remember—think like a business.) This is a strategic planning opportunity. Would you ever get in your truck and just drive and hope you find the spot you started out for? I hope not. Having a clear goal of where you want to go is essential. Then, you can then plan the steps to arrive there, using the best methods possible. Your phone has a navigation map app. It tells you the best way to get from where you are to where you want to go. If you miss a turn, you simply get back on the path and continue until you get to your destination. That same process is applicable to what we are talking about.
During this horrible pandemic we had zero layoffs, furloughs, or missed show at the theater company. We found a way. It did take years to prepare for such a situation. While we didn’t know it would be a pandemic, we did know things happen. However, we couldn’t have done that if we didn’t run it like a business. Now, we are going into a major expansion.
Running a non-profit in any industry is hard. Supposed to be. If it wasn’t, then it is not worthy of your time and energy. Do it and have fun. Remember why you’re doing it. Enjoy it. Donors and volunteers are attracted to successful nonprofits with a purpose. Would you want to volunteer at a place that didn’t appreciate you? Would you want to donate to a nonprofit that didn’t know how to manage money and get the most out of it? Probably not.
Good luck on your success and the success of your nonprofit. You can do it!
Scott Knudsen – Cowboy Entrepreneur
About Scott Knudsen: A 5th generation Texas cowboy with a Fortune 50 background as an award-winning national sales rep, Knudsen, brings the best of the West together with business acumen. Headquartered at Lightning K Ranch in Fredericksburg, Texas, he owns Knudsen Equine Center, Knudsen Horses, and Knudsen Cattle Company. An AQHA Professional Horseman and AQHA Ambassador, Knudsen’s ridden rough stock to race horses, team roped, penned, and sorted. He’s ridden cutting horses, worked rescues, and trained Thoroughbreds to Morgans and Mustangs. In 2005, he was struck in the head by lightning and had to relearn how to read and write. As President of the Board for Fredericksburg Theater Company (the San Antonio area’s top-rated), Knudsen’s turned the non-profit’s balance sheet into a $1 million-plus operation. Now host of COWBOY ENTREPRENEURⓇ , an online magazine-style show packed with fascinating people and places, Scott takes viewers behind the scenes to discover the elements that become cornerstones to success.