Running a Nonprofit Like a Business

Hosted By

Alana Muller

CEO & Founder
Coffee Lunch Coffee

Podcast Guest

Marisa Butler

Director of Development
The Phoenix Theatre Company

Episode Summary

Marisa Butler, Director of Development of The Phoenix Theatre Company, shares her approach to cultivating donor relationships and funding for the oldest arts organization in Arizona. Learn how Marisa’s experience in corporate retail and the support of the Phoenix community has taken the theater to new heights.

“I really love one-on-one, personal relationships with people. And I find that those types of meaningful conversations and connections are the ones that really support and sustain organizations like ours.”



Alana Muller 0:09
Welcome to, a podcast from Enterprise Bank & Trust that's empowering business leaders one conversation at a time. We'll hear from different business leaders about how they found success in cultivating their professional networks and keeping them healthy and strong. I'm your host Alana Muller, an entrepreneurial executive leader whose primary focus is to connect, inspire and empower community. We at Enterprise Bank & Trust thank you for tuning in to another episode.

Alana Muller 0:39
Hello, welcome back to podcast. I have to tell you as a former theater kid myself, I'm especially excited to welcome today's guest. Marisa Butler is the Director of Development for The Phoenix Theatre Company, a professional theater company in Arizona. One of the oldest continually operating theaters west of the Mississippi, the organization was started in 1920 by a theater troupe known as The Phoenix Players. Marisa Butler, welcome to podcast.

Marisa Butler 1:06
Thank you so much, Alana. I'm so happy to be here.

Alana Muller 1:09
Well, I'm happy to have you. I'd love for you to start by telling us about The Phoenix Theatre Company and how you found your way there.

Marisa Butler 1:15
Well, I have always been a theater person as well. I grew up moving around a lot and kind of always found my niche and my home in the theater departments in the various schools I was in, and just loved being on stage as a kid. Ended up moving to New York and doing theater out there for several years. And then when my new husband and I moved back to Arizona, which is where my family is, I was actually working for a long time in corporate retail, opening and closing retail stores. And so I was very far away from the theater world and I really missed it. And luckily, I went online to The Phoenix Theatre Company, being the oldest, coolest regional company in The Valley. And they were hiring a position at that time to help build a sales department, which they didn't really have formally prior to that, which was back in 2008.

Marisa Butler 2:04
So I applied, went in, did my interview with the general manager. And then a couple weeks later, they had me come back in and they said, "Okay, we'd like to hire you for the position. But we're gonna have to let you know that we've rewritten a lot of the positions based on the things that you talked about in your last interview."

Alana Muller 2:20
Oh, my goodness!

Marisa Butler 2:21
You know... "So we didn't feel it was fair to offer you a position without re-explaining what it is now." But really, they had a vision at that time to really drive their earned revenue side. And thank God because in 2008, you know, it wasn't necessarily a banner year for fundraising. And so their contributed revenue was really decreasing. And it was really good timing to bring on a few folks that really knew how to run this nonprofit like a business. And coming from that retail background, I was very interested in data and metrics and KPIs, but I was also really interested in the patron experience and what our people could expect when they come through our doors. And how consistent was that experience? And so I think, just at the time, it was a perfect synergy between what I was already doing in retail and what theater really needed at that time.

Alana Muller 3:11
Well, what I love about it is that I like how you said that you took a nonprofit, but ran it like a business, but still with the end user in mind, the audience member if you will, and that there really is a nice way to bring synergies with all of those disparate parts. And taking your experience in retail, taking your love of the theater, taking your love and appreciation for the metric side and marrying those things together.

Marisa Butler 3:36
Yeah, I mean, it was critical at that time with fundraising and with the economy being where it was, thank God they have the vision that they had. And Vincent VanVleet, who's our executive director, really brought in, like I said, a few people who really knew what they were doing on the sales and marketing side and increased our revenue substantially in that time on the earn side. And that was before I moved into fundraising, so it was my first role at the theater to really help build that page and experience and really make an impact on that side.

Alana Muller 4:05
Well, and your distinction of earned revenue versus contributed revenue is very interesting, and really something that I think a lot of nonprofits could benefit from and benefit from understanding. You know, years ago, I ran a nonprofit organization. And what I used to say is that, though we were nonprofit, we were not, not-for-revenue. And I think that that is what you're describing is that you can be a revenue-generating organization, still be a nonprofit, still be charitably based, but also that the very real reality is that you can't always rely on those contributed dollars.

Marisa Butler 4:37
Oh, absolutely. At the time that I started, we also started working with a consultant firm for nonprofit arts organizations called TRG, which is Target Resource Group, and they're huge now. I mean, this is 16 years ago, now they're international, but at the time, they started working with us and they were the ones who really helped teach the message that profit is not a dirty word in a nonprofit, you know, much like what...

Alana Muller 5:02

Marisa Butler 5:03
And one of the things that they helped integrate as I was coming on, and as a couple of newer people were coming into the mix, that it was okay to have an abundance mentality. As a nonprofit, you don't have to follow this scarcity model all the time. And, you know, my training specifically was to invest in people's behaviors, invest in what they do, invest in how they treat people and create a structure and a consistency around that. And if you do that, the money will come to do the right things.

Alana Muller 5:34
I love that. I think that's great. Well, and I want to use that, kind of, as a launch point… well, let me tell you this: For my own life, I have found that having a stated purpose, or a mission statement, keeps me focused and grounded. And I know that you have your own sort of purpose or mission statement that I know you call your "objective," which I'm just going to read this, you say that, "To create meaningful relationships, to establish genuine connections that have roots for sustainable growth, and to support the arts by raising funds for programs that change lives." I mean, what an amazing mission statement. So tell me, how did you arrive at the mission statement? And how do you see it manifesting itself for you?

Marisa Butler 6:11
Oh goodness, coming from one side of the coin, and really starting to help the organization work on relationships, I found that oftentimes what nonprofits can do is they can go for the quick money. Whether it's the quick sale, or whether it's the quick donation, or they create programs in order to get funding or to get support. Over the years, what I have found in my personal experience, and professionally with the theater, is that you've got to create a case for what you're already doing, and why that's valuable, and why that deserves to be funded on its own. And you find the people that believe that and you get to know them, and you establish genuine relationships with them. Because, ultimately, I don't know, people always ask me, you know, "Oh, is it hard, always asking for money? Is it hard to be a fundraiser?" And I say, "I don't feel like I ask for money all the time. I feel like I kind of serve as a broker."

Marisa Butler 7:08
You know, I take people who really love the arts or value arts and culture in this growing city, and know what it can do for the future. And I take the programs that we have, and the staff that we have, and the things that we're already doing. And I say this is a good investment. And I find the thing for them that not only makes them feel really good about giving, but that I can continue to inform them about it so that they still feel good about their experience. So that really creates that sustainability. So, I'm the kind of person where my heart is on my sleeve. I really love one-on-one, personal relationships with people. And I find that those types of meaningful conversations and connections are the ones that really support and sustain organizations like ours.

Marisa Butler 7:52
So, I think it's just been marrying who I am and what I do and really believing in the work. Because you're selling a warm fuzzy, you're selling a feeling and you've got to have that feeling, too. You've got to believe it 150% or else, you know, you just really have no business talking about it with other people.

Alana Muller 8:10
Absolutely. Well, so along those lines, how do you cultivate authentic relationships in the community?

Marisa Butler 8:16
So, I will say I am one of those development directors that believes that group gatherings, group engagement opportunities are really there for the purpose of cultivation and stewardship, right? Just having someone get to know us, having us get to know them, do a little party. But when it comes to real giving, when it comes to a person's decision of whether or not they're going to give you funding, those are one-on-one relationships.

Marisa Butler 8:40
And, one of the things that I do that I really take pride in, is I spend a lot of time with our board of directors one-on-one. So, anytime we've got people who join the board or join our volunteer force in that capacity, I meet with them very specifically one-on-one. Because it's easy for people to sort of share… we say sort of like “hide in the crowd,” you know what I mean? They're not really sure how to give back, what to do, how to help. And they sort of assume everybody else knows what they're doing and sort of, you know, just as well, just let them do it and I'll wait for them to ask. I meet with every single board member when they join one-on-one to find out why they've joined, what they're passionate about, and how they want to help. Because I find that for every person that comes to us, the journey is different. The path is different. And you have to remember these board members are volunteers and they're donors. So yeah, they're out there fundraising for you, and they're advocating for you. So, you've really got to make sure that you treat them as people who are really advancing your organization, who really want to.

Alana Muller 9:38
Yeah, I mean, you're talking about... you've created a coalition, right? I mean, you understand what they're passionate about, what they're capable of, and you've enlisted them in the mission. I think that's really beautiful. The other thing I'll say is, I really appreciate how you characterize networking events, receptions, group gatherings, and the opportunity to cultivate relationships. This is not a time to ask for the gift, to...

Marisa Butler 9:58

Alana Muller 9:58
...or [crosstalk] the resume, so to speak. But, it is a time to cultivate the relationship. It's a really nice touch point. And then your idea about the one-on-one to really get to know somebody, to understand what's in their heart, and why they give, why they want to be a part of something like the theater, I think is a really special thing. So, bravo to you. I think that's exactly what you should be doing, especially in the role that you're serving. Is there something you're working on now that you're especially excited about?

Marisa Butler 10:25
Oh goodness, there are so many things we're working on that we’re excited about.

Alana Muller 10:29
How do you choose one?

Marisa Butler 10:31
One thing I will say, I remember my very first tour with Vincent, our executive director, on the campus. And we were walking from what is now our Mainstage Theatre to what is our Hardes Theatre, across the courtyard. And there was this big dirt lot and chain link fence. And I remember, there were all the pigeon sticks that were up, you know, to stop the birds. I mean, it looked like... it was really just not flattering to the eye. No great aesthetics there. And I remember he shared with me the vision of what was going to be in that space, which was a 500-seat, state-of-the-art, beautiful theater, functioning bar and a functioning restaurant, and that it would really change everything in live theater in Phoenix.

Marisa Butler 10:33
I mean, you have to remember back then — and this was only 16 years ago — you know, we sold coffee and cookies and that was it. We didn't even have a liquor license. And so, to see that progress over the years, and to open the first phase in 2013, was extraordinary. And what happened was we had a bond, so we had a certain amount of money to try and build this theater. And then, being 2008, we just didn't have the funds that we needed to complete the project. So, we decided to do it in two phases.

Marisa Butler 11:49
And the first phase was done in 2013, the infrastructure for the whole front of the side of the theater was built. And then we built what we call a “black box theater” for us to program. And “black box” just means that you can put any of the seats in any configuration to make the space pretty much anything you want, to produce anything you want. You know, I can see you nodding.

Alana Muller 12:08
I do.

Marisa Butler 12:09
And that gave us an opportunity to build up our database and our patron base while we were continuing to try and fundraise. The second phase of fundraising came during our centennial, which you would think would be an amazing time to close out a capital campaign because it was our 100th anniversary. And then COVID hit.

Alana Muller 12:27
I was gonna say, and that was four years ago.

Marisa Butler 12:30
Right? And what ended up happening there, of course, like everyone, we were just trying to survive and figure out how we were going to get through. Because we had to close a show called "Something Rotten," that had just had its tech and was about to go into opening. So, what they did was, we built and opened a theater outside in the courtyard of the church that's right on our, north of our property there. And we ran almost an entire season, about six shows, outside between November 2020 to May of 2021, because we really did have to go back inside.

Alana Muller 13:04
Thank you, Phoenix weather, right?

Marisa Butler 13:06
Yes, yes. And so, that was how we saved our staff and were able to stay on. But now, we are at the point, 2024, we have broken ground on the new theater. You walk back there on a hardhat tour, and you can see where the orchestra pit is going to be and all the trap doors and you can look up and you can see where the fly tower is going to be. And it's so exciting, not just because of what we're going to be able to do to the productions here in Arizona, but also because we will become a national hub for pre-Broadway work that will want to sit down in Phoenix before it opens on Broadway, which is a wonderful coup for Phoenicians and for our savvy audiences...

Alana Muller 13:44

Marisa Butler 13:45
...who love theater.

Alana Muller 13:47
Very cool. Very cool. What a journey, right? I mean, what an amazing journey.

Marisa Butler 13:51
It will be a $32 million dollar project, and so we're at $28.

Alana Muller 13:55

Marisa Butler 13:55
Getting there. But yeah, we're very excited to finally be underway.

Alana Muller 14:00
That is so cool. Okay, I have to ask, in addition to the fundraising, do you get to see the theater's productions? And if so, do you have some favorites from over the years?

Marisa Butler 14:09
Yes, that is a huge benefit to working for the theater. You get tickets to every show. And I remember when I first started at the theater, it was the seven-eight season. So, fast forward to the eight-nine season we were doing Les Mis, and I remember… Les Mis is my favorite show of all time. I've seen it everywhere. Palm Springs to London to LA to everywhere. And there was an article in the paper that was written in the Arizona Republic that said that we were doing "a little version of Les Mis," and I remember all of us being...

Alana Muller 14:38
"Little version..."

Marisa Butler 14:41
Like, “we're not cutting anything or cutting any music,” but I think it was hard for people to imagine that a company of our size could pull off Les Mis. But there were only four regional companies in the country who got the rights to produce it, and that's because they were trying to find out if there was an appetite for it to continue to tour. So, they gave out the rights. We produced it here in Phoenix and I will never forget the sound, the vibrations of the music starting and feeling like you were there at the barricade and even seeing and hearing character songs for the first time that I had never connected with. And it was just the intimacy of the space and the quality of the work. You know, it changed me. I will never enjoy Les Mis as much as I enjoyed it that year at The Phoenix Theatre Company.

Alana Muller 15:30
I literally got a chill as you were telling me that. I love the way you told the story. And I can picture it, right? I can picture it. Especially, while you always had loved the show, it was the first time it belonged to you. Right? And how special that was. Really cool.

Marisa Butler 15:46
And the really neat thing is, that year, we had a performer who played Marius, who's the young male ingénue. And he went on, he got his equity card, his union card, at the Phoenix Theatre Company and he went on to New York and has been in shows there. And then last year, Les Mis came through Gammage on a national tour. And, Nick Cartell was his name, who had played Marius for us so many years ago, was now playing Jean Valjean.

Alana Muller 16:14
Oh my gosh.

Marisa Butler 16:16
So, I got to see him.

Alana Muller 16:17
How cool.

Marisa Butler 16:17
Oh yeah, it's like a full-circle moment. Talk about just the gratitude you feel about experiencing that with another person, just going and really doing it, really making it, so yeah.

Alana Muller 16:28
That's very special. Well, I've just loved listening to your stories. There's a question I ask every guest and I have to close out our conversation with the same question. And it's this: if you could meet with one person for a cup of coffee, living, not living, fictional or nonfictional, who would it be and why?

Marisa Butler 16:45
I feel like everybody must say, “Oprah,” “Michelle Obama,” like there’s so many great people out there that you'd want to sit with. And just, I think Drew Barrymore and I would have a really fun time cooking together. But you know what? I would say MacKenzie Scott.

Alana Muller 17:03
Oh, great choice.

Marisa Butler 17:04
I know if I sat down with MacKenzie, I know she would be so interested and supportive of what we are doing and what we're trying to do for the city of Phoenix and for this great state of Arizona. So, right now, I would have to say it would be MacKenzie Scott, if I just had one wish and could make it happen.

Alana Muller 17:25
Well, I mean, as a fundraiser, that was the greatest answer. I just love that, it's a great choice.

Marisa Butler 17:30
I guess it's a little obvious but yeah...

Alana Muller 17:33
It's really, really good.

Marisa Butler 17:34
I really like what we're doing, you know, and I know that there are people out there if they just knew the story of The Phoenix Theatre Company, the little company that could, they would really get behind what we're trying to do here.

Alana Muller 17:46
That's so special. I really like it. Well, Marisa Butler, I've loved having you on podcast. Tell us where can our listeners go to learn more about you and about The Phoenix Theatre Company?

Marisa Butler 17:57
Yes. So please visit our website, Find out more about us. We do extraordinary programs in the community, with an inclusive summer camp program all summer, as well as our program in hospitals and crisis centers with young families, called "Partners that Heal," who use arts to just make lives better. So, between that and the programs on stage, it's a gem in this city. And if you haven't been, please go, because you'll just fall in love.

Alana Muller 18:27
Marisa, thanks for being on podcast.

Marisa Butler 18:30
Thanks, Alana.

Alana Muller 18:33
Thanks for joining us this week on Be sure to visit our website,, to subscribe so you'll never miss an episode. If you found value in today's program, please consider leaving a review on Apple Podcasts or telling a friend about us. powering business leaders, one conversation at a time.

Alana Muller 18:57
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