By Chris Pummer
When it comes to technology missteps, the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) is still so lead-footed that students applying for its educational programs can’t even register online.
The nonprofit multiethnic dance company disbanded its renowned touring troupe two years ago due to a financial crisis that was precipitated, in part, by outmoded computer systems. Its seven-year-old fund-raising software was so antiquated that the maker no longer offered customer support for DTH’s version.
“We weren’t even able to accept gifts online,” says Sharon Williams, director of development and marketing for the company, which was founded in 1968 to dispel the notion that African-American dancers couldn’t excel in ballet.
A financial turnaround is now underway, thanks, in part, to a new computer network. Management, which has picked the adoption of new technology has one of eight objectives in its recovery plan, purchased the new network to improve fund-raising abilities, student record-keeping and database integration, as well as to allow for interactive learning, digital archiving and online retrieval of 38 years of historical records and video footage.
DTH, which has 25 administrative employees and 40 instructors, is planning to reassemble the dance company by December and resume touring next year. “We’re looking to respond in as fast a way as possible to our various constituencies ‐ our students, donors, volunteers and alumni ‐ and really service their needs in sophisticated ways,” says DTH Development Manager Rodney Trapp.
The financial fall
DTH’s slide from prominence was a steep one. In 1988, as part of a cultural exchange program, it became the first American ballet company to perform in the Soviet Union and, later, was invited to perform at London’s Royal Opera House for the Queen Mother’s100th birthday.
Things, however, began to go wrong when a costly tour in 2003 drove the company deep into the red and 9/11 created weaker donor support as charitable giving shifted from the arts to relief programs in the New York City area.
Poor technology also played a part. DTH’s previous directors never understood how technology impacted business development, says Williams. At one point, they hired a consultant to build a fund-raising database ‐ and then abandoned the effort.
Last year, at a cost of $8,500, the company acquired an updated version of Raiser’s Edge — software designed specifically for charitable organizations. The software, sold by United Kingdom-based Blackbaud, enables Trapp to generate up-to-date, on-demand reports for board members and large donors and track money flows down to the penny. He estimates the company is using only 30 percent of system capacity, which leaves plenty of room to grow as DTH expands its staff.
On the educational side, DTH is still using an old database for student information such as registration, grades, and attendance. Trapp wants to upgrade that database and integrate it with Raisers’ Edge to improve data analysis on financial operations and student performance.
Additionally, Williams hopes to gather and input nearly four decades of important historical information, including PDF images of choreographers’ notes and valuable video recordings. All of it “really needs to be shared with the entire world,” says Williams.
Thanks to new technology and newly hired directors and managers, the company, which offers classes to nearly 400 students a year, including 25 in its professional program, is seeing signs of improvement. It closed its 2004-2005 fiscal year with an operating surplus, reduced its debt by 30 percent and increased the number of donors to 2,200 from 300 a year earlier. It’s now concentrating fund-raising efforts on major donations of $5,000 or more and initiating a planned-giving program.
“We’re trying to work smart and put technology behind our operational infrastructure, to maximize our fund-raising and marketing,” Trapp says. “We want to find ways to have ongoing dialog through the Internet. For that, we need the proper system in place.”