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Houston Arts Alliance (HAA) is the city’s designated local arts and culture agency.




Houston Arts Alliance


Artistic excellence doesn’t always equate to organizational proficiency. In fact, as small and medium size nonprofit arts organizations grow, administrators are often challenged with having to prioritize operational initiatives before the artistic product is able to move forward.

With limited staff and resources — and perhaps limited support — the balance of both aspects of arts management can become tricky. If one trumps the other, organizations become at risk.

Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company, the name of which was sourced from words by Gertrude Stein, was founded as a nonprofit organization in 2004, with the intention to challenge audiences and theater artists by creating and performing bold, innovative and fresh theatrical works grounded in the best traditions of the dramatic arts. The company performs in its own space, Studio 101 at Spring Street Studios, which is shared with other performing art companies.

In 2013, Mildred’s Umbrella was accepted into the Resident Incubator Program as part of Houston Arts Alliance’s Capacity Building Initiative (CBI). The CBI is made possible through Houston’s Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) funding and HAA’s own private fundraising efforts, which supports the CBI’s mission of informing, impacting and investing in the administrative capacity of arts organizations towards artistic excellence.

The Resident Incubator Program is a three-year venture that supports emerging nonprofits that have budgets between $50,000 and $200,000. With the ultimate objective of solidifying organizational capacity, the program offers training and resources that target each organization’s specific strategic business goals. As a participant, Mildred’s Umbrella received $15,000 in funding annually and a private office for three years.

"We were doing well artistically, but needed help getting our staff and board in a stronger place,” Jennifer Decker, artistic director, says. "I was running the company pretty much alone, and the board needed help learning what they needed to do to move things forward.”


Without paid staff and surviving on small projects grants, ticket revenue and minimal contributions, Decker saw the Resident Incubator Program as an opportunity to pay an employee, have official office space and gain access to education and information to strengthen the company's administrative methods. Decker’s initial goals were to more accurately define staff roles and bolster the efficiency of her volunteers.

Working alongside HAA’s staff, Decker and Mildred’s Umbrella stakeholders attend meetings and workshops. The group invested $10,000 to underwrite the cost of an employee and $5,000 toward technology and additional business expenses, including professional development opportunities. 

“The Houston Arts Alliance staff involved with us are extremely knowledgeable and hands on,” Decker explains. "They have been working with us individually — because each company involved in the residency has different needs.”

During the first year of the residency, Mildred’s Umbrella's budget rose 60% — from $50,000 to $82,000. Although part of the increase is attributed to the HAA grant, the tighter organizational structure meant the nonprofit looked more attractive to potential funders. The company received its first National Endowment for the Arts grant for the Houston premiere of The Drowning Girls, which opens on July 16, 2015. The Brown Foundation also became a supporter.

Decker hired a part-time company manager whose responsibilities include much of the administrative work so Decker can refocus on the artistic product. Having a physical office means her working hours are more regular.

"The workshops and guidance have been very helpful,” she adds. “But it is only helpful for organizations that are willing to commit to the rules of the program and open up to new information and new ways of working."

Lessons learned?

Having defined policies and internal communications regarding finances as well as delegating administrative responsibilities to others is critical as funders shy away from granting funds to organizations that depend mostly on the executive director or founder for survival. Also, board members must clearly understand the responsibilities of their volunteer position.

"Sometimes when you think people just aren't effective, it isn't because they don't want to do their jobs, it is mostly because they don't know what they need to do,” Decker says.