Nonprofit Circus School Stages an Open Spectacle—But Haven’t We Seen This Show Before?

Photo/Courtesy of Nimble Arts

July 19, 2017; Vermont Public Radio

At the New England Center for Circus Arts, things have been imploding amongst the leadership since the board fired sister founders Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion, tearing open a wound in the organization. Staff sided with the founders and wore buttons declaring their allegiances. Then, on Tuesday, the board, which was filtering away, accepted the resignation of embattled executive director Michael Helmstadter; a day later, those remaining resigned en masse, creating a void at the top of the organization.

“The board is taking this opportunity to step aside so that new leadership can continue the conversation,” board members wrote in a press release. “We look forward to seeing the new building filled with students.”

Within hours, the founders were reinstalled as artistic directors, a new board was somehow established, and an interim director was hired. But it’s best we not believe that that’s the end of that!

Not to get too wonky here, and we may be wrong, but descriptions of what occurred at this 10-year-old, apparently beloved organization, even peering through the veiled terms used in the media to date, suggest it may be going through what’s known as a first- to second-stage transition, a common development phase that can get very intense and public. This transition point, which is beautifully described in an article titled “Founders and Other Gods,” is marked by tension between those who advocate for the adoption of more consistent systems meant to protect the increasingly complex operations and those who see some of those systems as ruinous to the passionate culture of the endeavor, often described as “like a family.” In organizations where founders remain deeply involved, they and their closest supporters may carry the banner for the spirit/mission side of the struggle, and if the executive director or the board is on the other side of the struggle, woe be it to them. Author Deborah Linnell describes the moment.

This is where the highly dramatized organizational passion play finds its stage—and typically there is quite a bit of sound and fury (think Macbeth). How many wonderfully energetic visionaries have we seen forced out of their organizations as a result of this crisis? Conversely, how many original founders have literally drowned their own organizational baby by resisting the need for change or the call for a change in the power structure? These battles can be bloody and brutal and, in the worst cases, go on for a decade.

While we may find it distressing to think that our own passion and mission-filled organizations can fall into such common traps, we must remember that the identification of these patterns is not meant to trivialize but to inform what might be happening in our own nonprofits.—Ruth McCambridge