Houston Arts Alliance
Call it one of the longest tenures of Houston small nonprofit history. Akin to most people who find themselves involved with the Houston Boychoir, Carole Nelson immediately developed a passion for the organization when she started as a part-time vocal coach.
That was in 1991.
Fast forward 24 years. Today, Nelson is the artistic director of the Houston Boychoir, the mission of which is to build men of character through music. She’s been in that role since 2004, a time when the organization experienced rapid growth.
But with the sweet sounds of expansion came some dissonant growing pains. Music buffs, this is where you may insert a diminished seventh chord.
“If something isn’t progressing, it’s dying,” she notes. “And that’s one of the reasons I decided to apply for the Resident Incubator Program at the Houston Arts Alliance.”
The Resident Incubator Program is part of Houston Arts Alliance’s Capacity Building Initiative (CBI), which is made possible through the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) funding and HAA’s own private fundraising efforts. The CBI aims to inform impact and invest in the administrative capacity of arts organizations toward artistic excellence and sustainability.
When in 2014 the Houston Boychoir was accepted into the three-year program, finances were well balanced, the organization was successful and enrollment into the educational choir was increasing. So what was the problem?
“My office was at home,” Nelson says. “Although that might seem like a good idea, working from home wasn’t efficient at all. In fact, it became detrimental to conducting business. Having a real office meant having a focused work environment.”
As part of the Resident Incubator Program, the Houston Boychoir receives personalized workshops and support from HAA staff, office space alongside other organizations accepted into the initiative and $15,000 per year to invest in its administrative infrastructure.
No longer was having meetings in random coffee shops a norm. The distractions of home life disappeared. Because, let’s be honest, anyone can become preoccupied with chores, cooking or whatever domestic crisis that arises. Laundry? Baking peanut butter cookies? Walking the dogs?
“We were able to accomplish so much more,” she explains. “ We tripled our budget from $80,000 to $240,000. I put my head down and went to work.”
Nelson wrote more grants. She strategically hired a development consultant with a go-getter personality who wasn’t afraid to make cold calls to potential donors and foundations. The nonprofit launched its first annual appeal mail out. The spring luncheon grew. Nelson worked with board members to set new expectations, including stronger fiduciary responsibilities. There’s more administrative oversight and more checks and balances. And the organization launched new programs, including an artist-in-residence relationship at Garden Oaks Elementary School, a Title I school.
“More programs also means more expenses,” Nelson says. “Which means we have to be even better at what we do administratively.”
Although the office space may be included in the program, the management of such a benefit is not. Nelson has to budget for business expenses, which increase every year. The idea is to train organizations to devise a solid financial plan.
About the best part of the program, Nelson says it all comes down to her new, but temporary, neighbors.
“No one creates in a vacuum,” she adds. “Organizations are run by human beings. Having others in a similar trajectory as we in the vicinity is a huge plus. We share ideas. We support each other. And we get better together.”