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High Impact Philanthropy: Adam Odsess-Rubin On How To Leave A Lasting Legacy With A Successful &…

High Impact Philanthropy: Adam Odsess-Rubin On How To Leave A Lasting Legacy With A Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

An Interview with Karen Mangia

You need a sustaining fundraising strategy. All the greatest program ideas in the world will remain ideas without money to pay for them. With NQT, I realized that while theater grants were competitive and restrictive, we could be eligible for more support from funders supporting LGBTQ Rights. This positioned the organization as an innovative rights group using theater rather than one of a thousand theaters in New York putting on plays.

For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders and leaders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non-Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Odsess-Rubin.

Adam Odsess-Rubin is the Founding Artistic Director of National Queer Theater (NQT) and Co-Founder of the acclaimed Criminal Queerness Festival, showcasing censored and criminalized LGBTQ+ artists from around the world. He directs community-based theater programs such as Write it Out! for playwrights living with HIV, New Visions Fellowship for Black trans artists, DREAMing Out Loud for LGBTQ undocumented youth, and Youth Write Now for young queer playwrights. Since 2021, he has been a lead Teaching Artist for Rainbow Connection, an intergenerational theater program for queer teens and elders in Fire Island. In 2023, he launched Staging Pride: Queer Youth Theater, a free afterschool theater program for marginalized LGBTQ+ youth in New York City at The Center. At NQT, Odsess-Rubin has presented work with Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York Theatre Workshop, NYC Pride, MCC Theater, and PAC NYC. Through NQT, he has raised over $300,000 for queer and trans artists since 2018, and has received praise for his work in The Advocate, The New York Times, American Theater Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and Time Out New York. Odsess-Rubin is a Teaching Artist and former Education Associate at New York Theatre Workshop, and served as the first Education and Community Programs Fellow at American Conservatory Theatre.

Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

When I was 16, I performed in a production of The Laramie Project at my high school about the real murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. Deeply in the closet, I realized working on that play that there was a whole gay history and community out there that I had known nothing about. That representation opened me up to a different world where I could be proud of who I am. The day after the show closed, I came out to my friends at school and committed myself to helping other young queer people through theater.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.

I think National Queer Theater’s core values sum up my leadership characteristics best.

1) Belonging. Creating a company culture where people consider the organization to be a safe and supportive space for them has been critical to me. I want everyone to feel like they belong, regardless of background or ability. I once had a volunteer who told me she came out to her conservative parents in Kentucky because of working with National Queer Theater, and that showed me I had created something special.

2) Fearlessness. Many people told me that starting a nonprofit was a bad idea. When I started the organization, many others told me what I couldn’t do–from programming to fundraising and infrastructure. While I made mistakes along the way, I didn’t let my fears get in the way of building the organization. When I’ve had tough decisions to make, like recently putting out a statement supporting a ceasefire in Gaza, I think about this value of ‘fearlessness’ and try to make difficult choices despite discomfort or trepidation. 3) Pride. I think leaders, especially those running nonprofits, need to have tremendous pride in their work and their team. I’ve seen artists, funders, and community partners express interest in our work because we take great pride in meeting our mission each day. As queer people who were raised to feel ashamed of our identities, we see pride as an active practice we cultivate each and every day. We instill this sense of pride in our students, who may not get that kind of positive reinforcement at home or in school, and that motivates me to show up to work every day.

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the power of persistence. Whether it’s chasing a donor for a big donation, trying to connect with a politician, or working to get a play staged at Lincoln Center, persistence pays off time and again. Turning away at the first “no” is a way to guarantee failure. Having the tenacity and chutzpa to come back and ask again is difficult, but I’ve been delighted by the number of occasions a request becomes a ‘yes’ the third or fourth time I pursue it. Getting rejected by a funder year after year is demoralizing, but it certainly feels worthwhile after getting a check the third or fourth time applying.

Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?

National Queer Theater promotes positive representation of LGBTQ people on and off stage every day through our various community programs. Initiatives like the Criminal Queerness Festival, now in its sixth year, provide an international platform for queer artists from countries that criminalize or censor LGBTQ people. This gives artists from places like Kenya or Syria a safe place to express themselves free from censorship and helps American audiences understand the experiences of queer people from around the world. In 2020, the Criminal Queerness Festival won an NYC Mayor’s Grant for Cultural Impact for supporting LGBTQ immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers through radical, socially engaged art.

What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?

Theater saved my life when I was a teenager. It has the power to bring people together, build empathy, and help people express themselves. I think theater means a tremendous amount to queer people because it has always been a refuge where we could be ourselves and tell our own stories.

Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?

We produced a reading of a new play by a gay artist and activist from Uganda in 2022 at Lincoln Center in New York. By the Spring of 2023, a new anti-gay law in Uganda forced the writer into hiding, at risk of being imprisoned for 20 years for ‘promoting homosexuality.’ Luckily, his visa from his 2022 work visit was still valid, and we were able to help sponsor his escape to America. Now, he’s living as an asylee in New York City, building a new life here where he can live openly as a gay man. Things aren’t perfect here, but I’m grateful we could help him find safety.

We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?

I’d like to see more people get involved in the movement for LGBTQ rights. Whether it’s donating to an LGBTQ nonprofit, volunteering at a shelter for homeless queer youth, or calling your local senator to support the Equality Act, everyone has a role to play. As an artist, I use my art to support the movement by sharing our stories and enlisting other artists to contribute. But we need everyone- doctors to provide affirming healthcare, lawyers to petition for our civil rights in the courts, and teachers to share inclusive curriculum with their students. It doesn’t matter if you’re part of the community or an ally; everyone can do more to support full equality.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?”

First, you need a clear mission and vision. This is your north star. Part of National Queer Theater’s mission alludes to serving an intergenerational audience. This came from acknowledging that we need to serve young people who may not have support at home but also our elders who fought to create the modern queer movement and suffered unimaginable loss in the AIDS epidemic. Out of this acknowledgment came programs dedicated to queer youth and elders, which are now thriving.

Second, you need a sustaining fundraising strategy. All the greatest program ideas in the world will remain ideas without money to pay for them. With NQT, I realized that while theater grants were competitive and restrictive, we could be eligible for more support from funders supporting LGBTQ Rights. This positioned the organization as an innovative rights group using theater rather than one of a thousand theaters in New York putting on plays.

Third, you need to build community. The COVID-19 pandemic taught us how precious and fragile our social connections are. Society’s problems are too big to tackle alone, and our organizations need a lot of support to run effectively. Inspiring staff, volunteers, students, and clients (in our case, artists) to get more involved in the organization is essential to building momentum. Earlier this year, we ran our first in-person board retreat, and I think that went a long way toward cultivating a motivated and connected board that will lead the organization’s next stage of growth.

Fourth, you need savvy marketing. Operating on a shoestring budget, it can be hard to get your message or programs out there. But we need to recruit students to our classes and audiences to attend our shows. When I learned that my friend working for Facebook had the ability to donate Facebook ‘ad credits’ to local nonprofits, I worked with him to donate over $3,000 in Facebook ad credits to NQT each year. Those ad credits helped radically expand our visibility in the community and ensured we had enough participants for our programs.

Lastly, you need innovation. The world changes so quickly, as do the needs of the communities we serve. The pandemic certainly showed us how quickly the world can change in just a matter of days and how we need to remain adaptable. Theater is typically a slow art, where it can take years to stage a production, but we still try to remain nimble to address needs as they arise. When COVID-19 vaccines were first rolling out, we decided to bring our Criminal Queerness Festival to an outdoor venue after producing the festival on Zoom in 2020. When New York City launched a new outdoor performance pilot program called Open Culture, we jumped on the opportunity and put on two weeks of outdoor shows near the United Nations. It was a bit chaotic performing in Midtown Manhattan, but audiences were delighted to experience great theater on the street during Pride after a long shutdown.

How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?

The pandemic was an existential threat to the entire theater industry, with the longest shutdown of theater since the Plague. Since we’ve been able to return to indoor performances, I feel much more grateful to be able to make art for people in a shared space. Although there are always bumps along the way, I feel like we’re already succeeding in running our programs each year and serving community members. I think that feeling of social connection that’s hard to quantify feels a lot more precious.

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

Time heals all wounds. I’ve had many setbacks in my career, but when I give myself the grace to wait for inspiration to return, I can always find inspiration in New York City and the artist community here. I’m not a very patient person, but meditation has helped me see that change is constant, and accepting change as a part of life helps us let go of disappointment when challenges arise. It’s all about perspective. When I lose a big grant or a show doesn’t sell well, I have to remind myself that there will be many other grants and shows in the future.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Billy Porter inspires me with his passion for acting and self-expression. Knowing some of his story, I think he really understands why we need a queer theater and how theater can uplift those in our community who aren’t often given a platform. His work, and the work of his castmates on Pose, is just one recent example of how art can change the world and shift our perceptions of our fellow humans.

You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?

Thanks! People can follow National Queer Theater on Facebook or Instagram (@nationalqueertheater) and visit our website, www.nationalqueertheater.org, where they can sign up for our email list and make a donation. Anyone interested in board membership or other pro-bono support can also contact us on our website. From photographers to accountants and set builders, it truly takes a village.

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.

About The Interviewer: Karen Mangia is one of the most sought-after keynote speakers in the world, sharing her thought leadership with over 10,000 organizations during the course of her career. As Vice President of Customer and Market Insights at Salesforce, she helps individuals and organizations define, design and deliver the future. Discover her proven strategies to access your own success in her fourth book Success from Anywhere and by connecting with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

High Impact Philanthropy: Adam Odsess-Rubin On How To Leave A Lasting Legacy With A Successful &… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.