WaterFire Providence – Challenge Semi-Finalist

A view of the WaterFire installation in Providence.

Our adaptive challenge

Because WaterFire has historically relied on corporate sponsorships, which have become more challenging to secure, we will develop a new revenue model that will engage a wider group of stakeholders and beneficiaries to participate in stewardship programs that preserve, protect and reinvest in WaterFire so that it can continue to create even greater economic and cultural impacts for the community. In its simplest form, our adaptive challenge is overcoming the attitude that WaterFire is a public good and mitigate the free rider effect where benefiting organizations leave the support to someone else. While it is unrealistic to think that we will get everyone to contribute, our goal is to significantly increase the participation rate.

Why it is important that our organization address this challenge, and why now?

Today’s world is keenly competitive for limited resources and only organizations that adapt will thrive and survive. WaterFire has a 19 year proven track record of creatively transforming Providence, making its residents proud of their City and inspiring visitors from around the world to come and experience the artwork. Feeling good about one’s “place” is a critical first step in an economy’s recovery. We recently received prestigious program grants from ArtPlace and the National Endowment for the Arts as well as significant capital investments from the City and State for a new property. Now is the perfect time to work with stakeholders to develop an operational revenue model that will sustain WaterFire’s impacts long into the future.

What are the foundational assumptions that have reliably predicted success in the past that we are now questioning?

Over the past 20 years, WaterFire Providence has relied heavily on a single source of revenue: corporate sponsorship. Unfortunately, Providence, Rhode Island is a small city which, like many others over the past decade, has seen corporations merge, downsize, relocate or close. Despite this shrinking pool of potential corporate sponsors, we have been able to continue to bring public art to the community and be an economic driver in the process. However, each year it becomes more and more difficult to build a program around locally based business support, and sadly, this trend does not appear to be changing anytime soon. Our foundational assumption of having corporate support for WaterFire is threatened by challenges from Rhode Island’s economy.

What is the evidence that is causing us to question our assumptions?

Each year, it becomes more and more difficult to identify and successfully recruit and secure corporations who are willing and able to sponsor WaterFire. Many of the relatively small cohort of companies remaining in Rhode Island are facing their own tough economic and operational challenges and have limited budgets from which to support marketing opportunities and philanthropic needs in the community. Additionally, individual giving patterns have significantly changed, with more and more activity moving online. Nonprofit organizations have to become much more entrepreneurial in their outlook and execution of their mission. Organizations with flexible, adaptable and responsive business models thrive and survive in today’s challenging economy.

What are the bold new directions we are imagining for our organization?

A new predictor of success would be an entirely new funding model that would start with tapping into the significant economic value we create for various industry segments. This would include collaborating with beneficiaries of WaterFire, such as the hospitality industry, and engaging them in examining ways to reinvest in the event so that it can continue to create significant economic and cultural impacts for their businesses and the community. These groups can then join us in approaching state economic development officials about funding models tied directly into the comprehensive tax revenues generated by WaterFire or some other predictable, sustainable source of funds that would allow planning and maximization of opportunities.

Our vision of success

Our vision of success includes:

  1. overcoming the public good/free rider effect that threatens our organization’s sustainability,
  2. developing a business model that has new, diversified revenue streams captured from the incredible value WaterFire creates for a wide range of beneficiaries many of whom can afford to reinvest at appropriate levels in the artwork, and
  3. producing more public art events that add vibrancy and economy to the community, thus building upon our 19 year proven track record.

Our vision of success also includes continuing to offer an admission-free, world class public art experience to visitors and residents alike that helps make Providence a great place to live, work and visit.

A view of the audience watching the WaterFire installation in Providence.
A view of the audience watching the WaterFire installation in Providence.

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