And I'm here to answer your questions!
This is an open letter from me, the Executive Director, Cassandra Quinn. Through personal calls I made and emails I sent over the last few weeks, families who were already registered were informed of our decision to move our programming online for the summer. This letter is meant to share answers to the most commonly asked questions we've received so far about this decision.
I care about transparency. As an educator I dedicate time regularly to making sure my students understand not just the information, but the "whys" behind it. My commitment to informed understanding moved me to share this information here in addition to all of the individual conversations I've been having over these past weeks and months.
We're heart-broken to not be in-person with our students this summer and devastated about the havoc we see Covid-19 wreaking on our country and around the world. We're still learning how to navigate the personal, deep impact that it has had on Compass.
At the same time I'm also full of joy about our new online theatre program that we've created. Necessity is the mother of invention and I'm excited and proud of what the team and I have created. Serving as one of the teaching artist in our inaugural week of online theatre camp with 26 students has been the highlight of this pandemic for me personally. These students and the ability to continue to do the work that we so deeply believe helps create a better world have been my light during this dark time in our country.
If after reading this letter, you have further questions, I invite you to reach out to me.
Why did Compass make this decision?
We want to keep our students, communities, and educators all safe!
The reopening plan of Illinois divided the state into regions because each zone will be on it's own pace working through the phases. Chicago is, of course, its own region and will likely be the slowest to move through the phases.
Additionally, many summer events and gatherings here have already been cancelled in anticipation of a state-mandated cancellation, and Chicago Public Schools are preparing to likely be doing distance learning even into the fall semester.
Illinois had a Stay-at-Home order that went through the end of May and Chicago extended into June. So, beyond the health risk that we are all facing, this also meant that the preparation for summer programming that usually takes us all spring to complete could not take place.
Based on the new information and the concern of a resurgence of the virus, we didn't think it would be a safe or healthy option for communities, students, or our educators for us to be sending educators from Chicago on tour all over the country to numerous communities week-to-week.
We've had to make the difficult decision of transitioning the program to an online camp rather than being able to join you in person this summer.
We're heartbroken that we're unable to join families in person and will be doing everything we can to make this a smooth transition the families and communities we serve.
What does the online camp look like?
We know that participating in theatre online will look and feel different than in person. However, our team has been working hard to create an online theatre experience that will still be highly collaborative, interactive, and creative and include an online showcase!
There will be 3 different weeks to choose from to join us online in July and August. There will be short, live sessions daily coupled with fantastic optional independent activities that will equal hours of engaging, enriching theatre programming daily!
To help you further conceptualize what we have shaped for an online offering, please take a look at our Camps section of our Compass@Home initiative on our website.
What will happen to registrations fees paid for in-person camps that have transitioned to online programs?
It's been converted to a credit for future programming that can either be applied to:
- One of our online theatre camps this summer
- One of our in-person camps next summer
- A credit transfer. This would allow your credit to transfer to another student for this summer or next. If you have a friend or family member who'd like to join us in lieu of your currently registered student, we're allowing free credit transfers to new students. Please contact us to receive a personalized transfer code.
However, we understand that a digital experience may not work for every situation. Therefore, we are also offering the opportunity to transfer your registration to summer 2021, instead. If you have signed up for multiple sessions, you have the opportunity to split your registrations between the online camp and 2021 camp, as well.
What if our family is registered for camp through scholarship?
Your camp spot is still credited to you to either join us online this summer or in-person next summer! We're excited to have your family join us.
What if our family hasn't registered yet, but would like to join an online camp session?
That's fantastic! We'd love to have you. Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll let you know when our online camp registrations open. Otherwise, check back to Compass@Home mid June to register.
What are the next steps for families?
There will be three weeks to choose from to join us in July and August for our general enrollment camp and one week for our Advanced camp that can be found listed here.
We'll be making final decisions about the exact daily schedule in the coming weeks.
In the meantime we ask you to take a look at the Online Camp Program Details, even if you're unsure that online programming is right for you.
We'll be following up directly with families already registered soon to share even more online program details to help families make the best decision for them about how they'd like to apply their credit!
Why isn't Compass offering refunds?
This was one of the hardest decisions we had to make regarding camps and how Covid-19 has affected our organization, because we knew that those affects didn't stop with us. Instead, they'd ripple out in ways beyond our control and would touch our families, communities, partners, staff, and our small business vendors whose services we would no longer need because we were not touring this summer.
I'm truly sorry that refunds are not an option right now, as we know we're not the only one's being financially affected by this pandemic. We do not take lightly the additional hurdles that our programming not running in-person has added for families.
I care deeply about honoring the investment families and communities have made into registering for our program and am working hard to do our best in this overwhelmingly difficult situation to provide as many credit options as possible to honor that investment.
So, the short answer is...
I truly wish we could because we know that some would feel better served by that option, but we simply can't.
By making the difficult decision to only offer credits, we are positioning ourselves in a way that allows us to honor all of our family and community investments. We're unable to offer everyone refunds, which means we've had to make the difficult decision to allow no refunds as to not set an unfair precedent that some receive refunds and others do not.
I've been asked a few times questions like, "I paid for registration already in January, so what happened to that fee?"
We function as a Social Enterprise, which means that we are a business with a social service objective that is mission-driven. This means our funds collected from programming fees are principally invested right away for the purpose of serving the program and social objectives of our mission.
Thus, programming fees collected in Nov - May are spent on important programming expenses in those months to prepare for our busiest season, summer! Those fees make it possible for us to do things like building sets and costumes that our students use in our productions that families sign up for expecting, based on our program descriptions, to be a part of our program! It's how we pay teaching artists to develop curriculum, lesson plans, schedules and be on the road-year round teaching students across the country. It also supports the modest stipends of our small (but mighty!) admin staff that coordinates the complexity of a multi-state, multi-team tour. All of us (including me!) have jobs and gigs outside Compass that help support us financially, to make it possible for us all to continue to do this work we love without it needing to be our sole source of income. A small portion covers the overhead expenses necessary business expenses like rent on our studio space, utilities, background checks for our educators, licensing, and insurance; all stuff that has to be paid for us to even be allowed to be a children's theatre.
The longer, more complex answer begins with a snapshot of how Compass functioned from a financial aspect before the pandemic...
We've always worked hard to keep our programming affordable and manage our company on a modest budget. Because of those philosophies and practicalities of how our company runs, that also means we've always functioned on projected revenue for our budget and work with very little reserve.
It's very common for small businesses, especially small arts organizations, to only have 2 - 4 months* of reserve with the annual budget being based on educated forecasting of the year to come. Most small arts organizations simply couldn't exist if they didn't function in this way (including us!).
Thus, we usually forecast about 2% of campers needing a refund in any given year based on past experiences as we work to be responsible and thoughtful with our funds. As you can imagine, that forecasting was way off the current realities!
We usually have continuous cash flow of new camper registrations, residency fees from our organizational partners across the country, and local rental fees collected from other arts organizations who rent our studio space in Chicago. This continuous cash flow allows us to keep up with our ongoing programming and overhead expenses throughout the year and allow us to honor one-off refund needs.
We've always worked hard to keep the "fat trimmed," so to speak, in regard to budgeting. We've always been creatively thrifty with spending and kept our programming overhead as modest as possible. Candidly, that's how we've been able to offering programming for as long as we have. Almost all of spending goes to:
- pay our teachers and artists who work with our students throughout the year
- direct programming expenses like building sets, props, and 100+ costumes per show
- tour expenses such as lodging, gas, vehicle maintenance, etc for our cross-country tour
Then Covid-19 hit (and hit us hard, financially).
Compass tours year-round and was in our Spring tour when Covid-19 took hold of our country. Summer is our busiest season both for programming and financially. However, because of Covid-19, all of our revenue has halted since early March and we do not anticipate receiving any significant amounts of revenue for the rest of the year. Due to Covid-19 our 20-state summer tour has had to be completely postponed/cancelled and thus all of the revenue usually generated in those months has also been postponed/cancelled.
We're lucky though, unlike the thousands of Americans who have fallen ill and been lost to Covid-19, our team and those closest to them have been fortunate. We've stayed healthy and safe. So, that meant we were privileged enough to be able to keep working (remotely!) to create a plan of what to do going forward.
So we took action.
Creating new programming...
As we always do at Compass, we put serving our students and communities first and launched our Compass@Home initiative to help support folks while they were having to Shelter-in-Place. Nearly all of our Compass@Home programming from March - May was offered for free.
We also began working diligently to pivot to an online option for families so that we were still offering high-quality, interactive, collaborative programming this summer - though we couldn't be places in person. As you can imagine, that has been a significant undertaking to create a brand new program and curriculum in the midst of the pandemic!
...and figuring out the finances.
We created a new adjusted annual revenue projections to reflect the pandemic impact are only 25% of what our original 2020 projections were expected to be (with 99% of that new projection already generated the first quarter of the year and used towards programming expenses).
I also began applying for grants and disaster relief loans for Compass, but so far have not been successful in securing funding. Many programs are receiving an overwhelming amount of applications and are only able to fund a fraction of those applying. Even if we do qualify, it will likely require us to take on debt, which is a risky option regardless of the circumstances, and is even more now.
I knew for us to continue at all, we'd still have some overhead and business expenses, regardless of how much we scaled back; expenses that we cannot defer or do away with such as insurance, business licenses, rent to store our 8+ touring show supplies, utilities, etc.
Thus, I knew difficult decisions were required to financially navigate this impact. We immediately began working to slash expenses and overhead where we could including:
- negotiating our lease agreement with our landlord to reduce our physical studio and office space here in Chicago by 50%, and condense to a smaller space to reduce our rental costs here in Chicago
- negotiating a 2nd time to be released from our smaller studio and office space at the end of June. This meant giving up all of our office and studio work space and will be moving instead all of our equipment into a storage facility. This leaves our team with no professional space to work here in Chicago, and we'll continue to work from home. (This move from an office and work studio to just a storage facility reduced our rent by 87%)
- furloughing our seasonal teaching artists who had just begun training in March for summer tour until next summer (promising to honor their contracts next year and helping them find income aid and other employment to cover the gap we were creating)
- drastically reducing our core office and teaching artist staff's hours with a plan for those of us who were left to cover teaching any remaining programming we were going to be able to still offer in-person or online (while simultaneously helping them seek other employment and income aid to cover the gap we were creating)
- cancelling very helpful, but non-essential subscription based programs that help us manage our programming and touring company such as our project management software and professional design software
- completely deferring/cancelling all of my modest stipend as the owner and Executive Director while I continue to work full time+ at Compass to navigate us through these troubling times (as I simultaneously seek ways to cover my personal expenses such as rent, utilities, and groceries)
I only share all of this to give you further context of our situation because I think people deserve to know what is happening and why it is not possible for us to offer refunds. I'm not making excuses and I do not want to minimize the impact that our decision has on those who had prepaid for services in-part or in-full with us that have now hat to be either postponed or transitioned online. For that, again, I'm very sorry.
Trust us, we'd much rather do our programs as planned, in person, in each community. This is not how we envisioned our 2020 and we wish it were different.
We know this is not the ideal decision for everyone, but I hope the context helps it make more sense. We value each of our camper families and partnering organizations and want to continue visiting your community every year. To do so, we had to make this decision to make that possible.
That being said, we're certainly open to new, creative ideas or options that we haven't yet presented and are excited to hear them. So, if you have another option or idea you'd like us to consider, please reach out.
I care very much about our relationship with our families and communities. We hope families decides to join us online this summer and if not, we hope to see them all back with us in person next year.
Take care and be safe!
Compass Creative Dramatics
*(As further reading, here is a quick Info-graphic by the 10K Small Business Program from Goldman Sachs that I graduated from last April that gives some small business statistics in relation to Covid-19. I think it sheds some light on the overall impact that Covid-19 is having on Compass and most small businesses as a whole).