Lesson 6: Find an agent-of-change within the organization to truly listen, internalize, and take leadership. Challenge or crisis can provide opportunity.

The nonprofit Independent Filmmaker Project Minnesota’s core mission is advancing independent film and media artists through education, fostering community and networking, and providing resources and venues. It serves the state of Minnesota’s arts community in a way that is undeniably vital, and has continued to be crucially relevant even as the state of film itself has transitioned through advances in technology and changing times.

In 2012, IFP Minnesota found itself in a deep organizational crisis. Its structural finances were at a breaking point, in part because of inadequate accounting but largely because of a crippling lease in its unsuitable home facility. Trust in the organization had waned—both from funders as well as the artists served by its mission. Finally, mounting conflict led to a split between the board and IFP Minnesota’s Executive Director, who had served for more than a quarter century.

IFP Minnesota’s relationship with NAF had also frayed, to the point at which NAF lost confidence in the organization’s financial reporting and audits.

“The organization was in crisis when I came on board,” says Andrew Peterson, who joined IFP Minnesota as Executive Director on an interim basis in 2012 and took the position full time the next year. “And the first thing that stood out was the rent.”

At that time, the organization had a budget of roughly $700,000 and was paying $135,000 in rent. Its lease on the space was financially disadvantageous, and there was more than a decade remaining on it. There had been three consecutive years of staff pay cuts, and one program with local universities was losing $20,000 a year.

“I met with the organization’s traditional funders and quickly found out that all of them were unhappy with the organization’s direction,” Peterson says. “I believed strongly in the organization, but a new vision and a sustainable financing structure were needed.”

Even worse, IFP Minnesota was housed in a space that not only was overpriced, but dark, oppressive, and stifling. It was a space that was literally dragging down an organization that was also seeing decreased membership rolls and a general feeling of stagnation.

If there’s such a thing as being due for a break, IFP Minnesota certainly qualified, and one presented itself: Working with a lawyer, IFP Minnesota was able to negotiate its way out of its lease early in 2014 for the end of that year. And when a new space presented itself—one that was far better suited to support the organization in terms of finance, art, and future development, if unfinished in terms of construction—it was fortuitously not ready for move-in until the end of 2014. While Peterson says IFP Minnesota was prepared to take the risk of effectively paying double rent through 2014 in order to be better situated for the future, that measure proved unnecessary.

NAF, which had a relationship with IFP Minnesota dating back to the early 1990s, concurred—this was a solid and sustainable way forward. There wasn’t time for IFP Minnesota to mount a proper capital campaign to fund the move, so NAF stepped in with a loan of $150,000 toward a build-out of the new space, and structured the loan to help the organization put aside a portion of savings from its decreased rent obligations and free up short-term working capital toward building a better cash base before the long-term effect of the loan is fully felt.

At the same time, NAF worked closely with IFP Minnesota in order to tighten its accounting and reporting structures. This was an essential factor in restoring the faith that had wavered in IFP Minnesota’s funders, and a period that had moments of unsteadiness amid a steady climb back to vitality.

“NAF was crucial here,” Peterson says. “They created a safe space where I could admit what I didn’t know, and what I needed help with, when I had screwed up and how to fix those things. Their support and belief in our mission also contributed to getting our funders excited again, making the point that we could be here, we should support filmmaking, and we should find ways to work together.”

That advice also delved into technical bookkeeping issues. NAF and Peterson did forensic work on past years’ books, looking into whether loans were being repaid from restricted funds and how that was offset. Accounting practices had become much more sophisticated and transparent over the past 25 years, but the organization hadn’t adapted to them,” Peterson adds. “NAF put in assurances and procedures, so that moving forward, all of these things could be tracked and accounted for.”

IFP Minnesota also worked diligently to make the money for constructing the new space stretch as far as possible, using found materials and a partnership with a local college’s design department to craft a stylish yet strongly utilitarian space on a strict budget. The home of IFP Minnesota today is a revelation—brightly lit, with communal spaces for informal meetings and networking, three classrooms with projection and sound that can double as screening rooms, a dedicated youth center for afterschool and summer-camp programming, space that can be used or rented for events, and an increased digital editing capacity that it continues to grow. The facility quickly enabled IFP Minnesota to align itself more truly to its vision, and this has quickly led to a much-needed upswing in the organization’s reputation.

Additionally, the new space has enabled IFP Minnesota to play a central role in placemaking by virtue of the large, multistory formerly industrial St. Paul building in which it now resides, along with a brew pub, an upcoming coffee shop, and close access to the Twin Cities’ popular and expanding light rail system.

Crucial to NAF’s ability to help shepherd the Project into greater stability and focus on the future was an understanding that it’s an organization with a complex history and factors both financial and cultural that needed to be understood as a whole before offering strategic consultation and funding. The arrival of Peterson was also one in a series of fortuitous events along the way.

“NAF has been crucial in its advocacy to communicate with our board, with the community, with national and local foundations, and with funders and supporters that we’re necessary to the Twin Cities arts community,” Peterson says. “There’s been a leadership void in the local film community, and now we’re in the position to be the leaders. This is our time to be ambitious.”

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