• Collaboration Type: Alliances & Networks
  • Region: ATIF
  • Social Issue: Musical Arts
  • Size of Organizations: $5 - 10 mil
  • BIPOC Leaders: Yes
  • Successful: Not yet

The Phoenix Youth Arts Collective began as a group of youth performing arts organizations convened by Arizona School for the Arts. Their collaboration evolved as they navigated and created a shared vision of the collaboration and managing COVID-19 in their respective organizations. Although the Collective no longer meets, it yielded a new relationship between three of its members, the Arizona School for the Arts, the Phoenix Conservatory of Music, and the Harmony Project.

Best Practices for Social Impact Organizations:

  1. Be careful of mission drift, especially around theories of change.
  2. Long-term alliances need shared leadership to be sustainable.

Outcomes:

  1. New relationships among arts organizations that extend beyond the collective.

Best Practices for Funders:

  1. Use exploratory grants to allow alliances/networks to determine how they want to work together. No agreement on a theory of change is better than an unclear theory of change.

In 2018, Leah Fregulia, Head of School and CEO of Arizona School for the Arts (ASA), began to dream about a new performance space in Phoenix. She knew such a performance space would substantially benefit their students. They owned land and facilities in the North Roosevelt neighborhood of Phoenix, but many of their student performances had to be at rented or donated spaces. Could that land be the site of a performance space that would benefit their students and potentially all students engaged in performing arts in the Phoenix area?

ASA had various reasons for expanding the vision to other arts organizations. Many of those smaller organizations had more robust relationships with students in marginalized communities. A more inclusive performance space would create a more significant social impact. As Alex Laing, a board member at ASA, put it, “We were not positioned to mount the capital campaign of this size without the ability to tell a bigger story of impact. And this was seen as a way to be doing that.”

Exploring a Potential Collaboration

Fregulia applied for an exploratory grant from the Arizona Together Fund, a member of the Sustained Collaboration Network. Nora Hannah of the Arizona Together Fund summarized the goal:

“It was the quintessential exploratory conversation. We don’t know how this is going to work out, we just know we want to try to work together to solve this problem. And I think that’s a sweet spot where nonprofits can start a conversation about collaboration.  I think funders often like the ones that are for sure going forward, but I glad we can invest to support early conversations about nonprofits serving a community together.”

After receiving the grant, Freguila hired Tiffanie Dillard and Lori Howard of Avenir Consulting Partners. According to Howard, one of their first steps was to determine if there was a broader interest in a shared performance space than just ASA. She recalled, “We spent quite a bit of time interviewing those potential members. We went out to their sites. Some organizations didn’t have offices and locations. Some of them did. Some of them had big locations, but they needed space and renovations.”

After conducting those initial interviews, they invited all the youth arts organizations in the area, business leaders, heads of arts and culture for the city, and the mayor’s staff to a daylong retreat. The goal of the initial meeting was to have a conversation about what they could accomplish together. Even in that first meeting, it was clear that not everyone could get behind the vision of a shared space. Monica Anthony, current Dean of Arts at ASA, recalled, “It started it off as a more like a location, and the venue type situation. Then, it ended up becoming more about sharing resources and ideas and personnel things. “

Shared capital campaigns are a tough sell in seasoned collaborations. There are difficult situations to navigate, like which donors “belong” to each nonprofit and how to ensure the capital campaign doesn’t cannibalize donations to the organizations working together. ASA recognized that a shared facility was too high of a reach. They needed to build trusting relationships with local youth arts organizations before they could even broach the subject of a capital campaign. Fregulia, reflecting on that moment, summarized the key challenges, “We were this big elephant in the room with our 9-million-dollar budget and state funding for our academic programs. We needed to step back and build trust if we were ever going to have that conversation again.”

According to Howard, there were a lot of possibilities that were raised in that initial meeting. Some focused on shared administrative support, but they “never got to a place where we would where we started to talk about how much would I have to pay versus? How much would you have to pay?” Instead, the idea that caught the group’s imagination, which they began to call the Phoenix Youth Arts Collective, was “centering youth in exploring what kind of arts they wanted and having some arts leadership from youth,” according to Fregulia.

The Phoenix Youth Arts Collective had regular meetings. They formed working groups, like Youth Voices, to further develop the ideas. And then COVID-19 emerged. In the Collective’s final report to the Arizona Together Fund, they described the impact:

“This project began pre-COVID, then pivoted during the spring shutdown. We learned how to be flexible and offer one another support during a chaotic time – based upon the trusting relationships we were building.   The group leveraged each other and uncovered new ways of supporting our students and each other. The time spent gaining clarity on our shared values, including of individual voices, including youth, and the building of trust will yield rewards for the next phase as the group moves toward implementation.”

Unexpected Outcomes

In the summer of 2023, the Phoenix Youth Arts Collective hadn’t met in a year. Fregulia was navigating a significant leadership transition at the ASA. She couldn’t devote the time to the collective, and another group wasn’t willing to pick up the leadership mantle. ASA still has plans for that shared performance space and the Phoenix Youth Arts Collective, but they’ll have to relaunch the collective to get it going again.

Yet sometimes collaboration yields some unexpected results. Through the Phoenix Youth Arts Collective, ASA became familiar with a small youth performance organization called the Harmony Project. From that growing relationship, a unique arrangement formed. Diogo Pereira, Executive Director of the Harmony Project, explained,

We were looking for a space to conduct our community-based auctions or ensemble lessons, and ASA opened a space for us initially at no cost at all. ASA wanted to diversify its student demographics. Harmony Project could attract students from low-income and immigrant families to their campus—many families became aware of the ASA through this collaboration. Many applied, and it is a lottery. But many of them are at ASA now.

Although the dream of a shared performance space hasn’t come to life yet, ASA and Harmony Project found a way to use the existing space on ASA’s campus to further both of their organizations’ goals.

Many of the organizations originally part of the Phoenix Youth Arts Collective continues to share performance space, faculty, and students as well as cross promote programs for each other.