Austin nonprofit ‘staging success’
When Karen LaShelle began volunteering in 2003 for Theatre Action Project, little did she know that within her creative side lay a head for business and that it would make a big difference.
Soon after LaShelle started, she became the then-fledgling nonprofit’s executive director and found herself facing all the typical challenges of an entrepreneur, from marketing and hiring to identifying funding and managing growth.
“I started to do a lot of program development and marketing of those programs to schools,” said LaShelle, who has a master’s degree in community-based arts from New York University and a bachelor of fine arts from Illinois Wesleyan University. “My creative side just started kicking in, and I saw how building the business itself was a place that my creativity could really come into play.”
What she’s built is a nonprofit that serves more than 16,000 young people a year and presents its programs on 56 campuses throughout Central Texas. And with 13 full-time staff members and several volunteers, Theatre Action Project is preparing to expand its after-school programming to Del Valle next year while positioning itself to one day build a permanent home for its theater-based programs.
Early on, LaShelle saw a need to package the nonprofit’s programs and explain their potential impact on students to stakeholders who were often not familiar with educational theater.
“Part of what I try to do is communicate the vast array of what we do simply,” LaShelle said.
And it’s her ability to reach out and build partnerships that has enabled her to sell the nonprofit’s value and build partnerships to help deliver it, said Rich Smalling, a longtime Theatre Action Project board member and president of American Innovations.
“One of the things that the top person needs to do is really connect with the outside world, and she does that really, really well. She can speak to the mission in detail because she’s involved, and she can explain it in terms that anyone can grasp,” said Smalling, whose company helps keep gas and oil pipelines safe. “And she’s good at forming partnerships, like with SafePlace and Communities in Schools and all kinds of other partnerships that she’s put together to drive the organization.”
Theatre Action Project has four program categories:
- Through TAP After School, young people explore age-appropriate social issues, learn life skills and build self-esteem through creative activities, such as theater, visual arts, puppet and mask making, dance, creative writing and filmmaking.
- TAP In The Classroom provides multiday interactive shows that engage students with drama, role playing, songs and discussion. Some of the social issues tackled include cyberbullying, dating violence and anger management.
- TAP In The Community works with dozens of community organizations — including FirstNightAustin, Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, and Heart House — to create customized programs for community events, festivals, summer camps and workshops.
- In Youth Theatre Ensembles, young people are paid to create performances addressing dating violence and related issues, which they take on tours to area schools and community centers. The program is run in partnership with SafePlace, a nonprofit that helps women and families deal with domestic and sexual violence.
Despite not joining the organization with a business background, LaShelle has taken to the financial side of running a nonprofit, impressing board members.
“I think one of the most unique things about LaShelle as a leader of an arts-based nonprofit [is that] she understands financials better than a lot of MBAs,” Smalling said. “She’s really embraced using financials as a way to measure and gauge how [the nonprofit is] growing and what it needs.”
LaShelle has grown Theatre Action Project’s budget from about $35,000 in 2003 to nearly $1 million in 2010. About 60 percent of its budget comes from contracts with school districts, individual schools, the Housing Authority of the City of Austin and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
So while LaShelle’s head for finances has been valuable, she continues to stress communication. Theatre Action Project assigns several staffers to manage existing relationships with schools. They also make cold calls to schools it hasn’t worked with, understanding that many local school administrators are not familiar with the nonprofit.
LaShelle initiated the Del Valle Independent School District expansion by encouraging the district to apply for a grant that would enable it to contract with Theatre Action Project and other nonprofits.
The grant was approved, enabling the district to establish an after-school program to serve more than 1,200 students every day throughout the district’s 10 campuses, LaShelle said.
Looking ahead, LaShelle said the nonprofit is focused on establishing a permanent home in three to four years that can house programs, administrative offices, classrooms and a theater space. The nonprofit’s office at 701 Tillery St. lacks a performing arts space.
“In the three-to-five-year range, we see ourselves developing different ways that our kinds of programs can be replicated in other cities or in other schools that we can’t reach,” she said. “We see ourselves becoming a resource for people outside of the Austin area.”