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To Close Or Not To Close, How Much Debt Is Too Much?

A little over a week ago I received the news that one of our partner theatres decided to close its doors. That sent the rest of us scrambling to contact artists to see if we could salvage the tours with which the organization was involved.

The board has said they want to revise their business plan and perhaps reopen in 2013. In the meantime, come this Friday, the entire staff is out of a job. I am wondering if they will be able to resolve all their grants and settle other business in that time.

A conversation I had about their closing has had me thinking over the last week. When I read the news about their closing, I was somewhat relieved to learn the organization was $200,000 in debt. Given the debt amounts you usually see associated with failing arts organizations, this is relatively small. Though it is also more significant for their $1 million annual budget than for those with $10 million budgets.

Referencing this debt, a colleague asked if they couldn’t have simply gotten a line of credit from a bank to enable them to stay open. This got me thinking about how you determine when it is time to cease operations.

Given that they intend to revise their business plan and hope to restart operations, would it have been better to attempt a reorganization through the next season rather than lose momentum with their community and funders by closing?

Or given that their debt is about 20% of their operating budget, did they do the responsible thing by deciding to close in the face of what I assume to be dwindling attendance and fundraising prospects? Why saddle your new business plan with the burden of another year’s accumulated debt?

In the last couple weeks I read an article/blog post that criticizes a non profit board of a YMCA for being oblivious to the state of their failing organization. The article suggested the board should have seen the warning signs had they been paying attention to the financials.

Our partners were clearly paying attention and decided to do what they felt was the responsible course of action. There isn’t really any clear cut formula which dictates that you should close your business when your debt reaches a certain ratio of your budget because there are so many situational variables each organization faces. What one company can recover from may mark the start of a downward spiral for another.

I am curious to know at what point people think organizations need to close. Does seeing other non-profits rack up huge debts before closing or declaring bankruptcy inure us and make organizations more apt to keep operating under the assumption they haven’t reached that point of no return yet?

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