Photography by Laura Petrilla
How do nonprofit organizations stabilize and grow “profitably”? Nonprofit leaders may define success differently than for-profit business owners, but they can use similar decision-making processes and tools to meet their goals. For nonprofit leaders who want to use a business-minded approach, the Entrepreneurs Forever (eforever) program easily applies to their work.
Since joining their eforever peer group in 2020, the artistic directors of RealTime Interventions, Molly Rice and Rusty Thelin, have been able to focus on the business aspects of their performing arts organization, including expanding their audience base (i.e. customers), marketing, and payroll.
“I do think that there’s an equivalency between running a nonprofit and running a business. I don’t know nearly as much about running a business, so I’m excited to be involved with my Entrepreneurs Forever peer group,” says Rusty.
RealTime Interventions creates performance-based art that meets the tangible needs of communities as near as Pittsburgh, PA and as far as Beirut, Lebanon. Molly uses the term theatrical intervention to describe how RealTime Interventions’ productions require real time interactions between actors and audience members to complete the performance and, ultimately, address a community’s need. Their most recent production, The Birth of Paper, created an exchange between Pittsburghers and Beirutis across thousands of miles through goods and goodwill. The show, which aired online, concluded with Beirutis opening care packages with essential items, including candles, stationary, and pencils that were all handmade in Pittsburgh.
Molly and Rusty began the application process to the eforever program shortly after meeting Catherine Jones, eforever’s Membership Director, at a local entrepreneur meetup at Hollander’s, a co-working space and business incubator for female entrepreneurs from Braddock and surrounding Mon Valley communities. Molly and Rusty had organized the event in partnership with For Good PGH to continue the entrepreneurial education of five Afghan female refugees. Molly worked with the group for several years to create Khūrākī, a culinary and cultural performance that celebrates Afghanistan in Pittsburgh, which supported them in launching their own catering business, Zafaron Afghan Cuisine LLC. For the meetup, Molly and Rusty invited immigrant and women business owners to a roundtable discussion about the unique challenges of starting a food business.
“The reason we did the event at Hollander’s, an initiative of For Good PGH, is that we had this amazing group of intersectional women who were all interested in business and wanted to be entrepreneurs. And it was really telling to us that Entrepreneurs Forever found that event and was there to be a part of the entrepreneurial spirit,” says Molly.
As part of the application process, Molly and Rusty participated in a Discovery Session with other prospective business owners to experience a snippet of the Entrepreneurs Forever program. Now conducted via Zoom, Discovery Sessions introduce business owners to some of the tools, exercises, and curriculum that members work through in their monthly peer group meetings.
“We had identified that we needed to think more like a [for-profit] business and were looking for ways to support our entrepreneurial growth….We liked the idea of being in a group with business owners who can offer solutions that we never would have thought of,” says Molly.
When they joined their peer group in Homestead, they met a mix of small business owners in various industries as well as another nonprofit director. With support from their peers, they began to think about their audience members as customers and pursue new ways to expand their audience base. Their peer group helped each other set up Google business accounts and learn how to use Google analytics. Molly and Rusty also incorporated marketing suggestions from a fellow peer group member who has theatre experience and runs her own soap business. Overall, their group and facilitator, Terry Doloughty, helps them to gauge the interests of potential customers outside of the artistic community in Pittsburgh.
“There are a couple of people [in our peer group] who understand the arts, but are also entrepreneurs in business. They’re able to show us how we might bridge that gap. Terry is also incredibly helpful in getting us to think about audiences who are less creative minded and what might interest them. So it’s really helpful to have the group that we have,” says Molly.
One marketing challenge for RealTime Interventions stems from having a very diverse body of work. In following different inspirations and working on a project-by-project basis, RealTime Interventions’ work is not comfortably contained by one theme. Through open dialogues about their business with Terry and their peers, they were able to define the through-line of their work—connecting human beings through empathy.
“In our group discussions, everyone can chime in and ask questions. The best part of being with a bunch of people with different experiences is being able to mine them for their perspective,” says Rusty.
RealTime Interventions’ partnerships are very important for their work, whether they are working within a community to resolve a need, presenting a show, or continuing to share resources with their collaborators (such as the entrepreneurial meetup where they connected with eforever). When Molly and Rusty were organizing the Post Theatrical festival and creating the show The Birth of Paper, they were looking for local makers to assemble the items that would go to Beirut. Their eforever peer and director of Handmade Arcade, Tricia Brancolini-Foley, connected them to makers that they commissioned for the project (including Amy Garbark of garbella, another eforever member).
“One of the most fundamental things about RealTime Interventions is that we create partnerships with organizations that sometimes span several projects. We have entire networks of partnerships for each project that we do…and in the eforever program we have a direct link to build that network,” says Molly.
Most of Molly and Rusty’s experience in the eforever program occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic, during which they defined what business growth means to RealTime Interventions. A part of their growth entails intentionally building their board of directors to a high standard of diversity and inclusion. They were able to implement strategies that they learned from their eforever peer, Tricia of Handmade Arcade, and at the end of 2020, they met their goal of adding two new members to their board.
“The murder of George Floyd and the [Black Lives Matter] protests really pushed us to examine where our organization was lacking in terms of diversity. The board is a big place that was lacking, and we wanted to shape it to reflect Pittsburgh more appropriately…But I thought, how do we go about doing that? And it comes back to eforever. Handmade Arcade had worked on their board the past couple of years, and it was really transformative for the organization. Tricia offered us a template for conducting a meet and greet, and that was a huge part of building interest from our new board members,” says Molly.
During their evolution as artistic directors, Molly and Rusty have also pursued financial growth. In their peer group, they are able to regularly discuss how business owners in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors can value and pay themselves.
“One way to show the world that the arts are valuable is to pay people for what they do, and that includes us. Terry is always asking, ‘Are you valuing your work enough?’ And that’s something that we all talk about regardless of being in nonprofit or for-profit businesses,” says Molly.
RealTime Interventions continues to seek partnerships with organizations in Pittsburgh and beyond. If you believe a challenge in your community can be resolved artistically or creatively, contact Molly and Rusty at email@example.com. RealTime offers unique performances promoting cultural competency, workshops that promote team-building, and consultancies with organizations on creative problem solving (clients include PNC Bank, Mattress Factory, & University of Pittsburgh). And, sign up for RealTime Interventions’ mailing list to stay up to date with their latest projects.