Why Do Some Nonprofits Fail While Others Thrive?

Photo by Bari Lee of Amy Marie Briones as Myrtha and Silicon Valley Ballet in Alicia Alonso's Giselle

How can the wealthiest region in the world not have enough money to support the arts? That is a question on many lips after Silicon Valley Ballet (SVB) closed last month, the same fate as San Jose Repertory Theatre in 2014. The SVB closure impacts some 32 staff members and 32 dancers.

SVB was one of the two largest ballet companies in California, originally San Jose Cleveland Ballet, a unique two-city troupe founded in 1986 by Dennis Nahat and Karen Loewenstern. In 2000 the Cleveland schedule was discontinued and the name became Ballet San Jose. Ballet San Jose went on to earn critical acclaim. Nahat left or was ousted in 2012, a result of an uncomfortable board situation, which seems to have been the beginning of the end for the company. The board changed its name from Ballet San Jose to Silicon Valley Ballet in 2015, a move to gain a broader fan base.

Since late 2013, under the direction of international award-winning dancer, José Manuel Carreño, SVB staged 21 annual performances of mixed-repertory programs and full-length ballets in downtown San Jose venues. The company completed a successful eight-city tour of Spain in February 2016. The performances under Carreño were well-received critically, but it was not enough. Not even a fundraising push that raised $640,000 in 10 days, could save the company.

Why do some nonprofits fail while others thrive?

  • Donor fatigue. Many donors reach deep into their pockets, but they can’t do it alone indefinitely.
  • Nonprofits are run by humans who can and do, at times, mismanage funds, ruin key donor relationships and fail in operations.
  • The board gets tired. New players need to emerge. Relationship building takes time, energy and dedication. Donor engagement works.
  • Thorny and costly personnel issues.

One bright spot for SVB is that the ballet’s school will likely continue under new management. Through a partnership with American Ballet Theater (ABT), the Silicon Valley Ballet School trains more than 350 students per year. It is the exclusive ABT-certified institution on the West Coast.