After a decade of getting good reviews on its mission of helping  improve Central Iowans’ quality of life through support of the region’s arts and cultural institutions, Bravo Greater Des Moines may be ready to audition for a bigger role.

Executive Director Sally Dix, who took over in January, said Bravo’s staff and board of directors are in the middle of crafting a new strategic plan for the organization. Since April, Bravo has been soliciting feedback from its stakeholders about areas it specifically needs to look at and what questions to ask those who have a stake in the organization’s success. 

“We heard universally from a wide section of people that everyone is really proud of Bravo as a regional entity and everyone feels strongly that we should continue,” Dix said. 

But many also wondered if Bravo should take on a bigger role in the region. Currently, the nonprofit organization allocates grants to arts, culture and heritage organizations. Those grants come from a pool of money that local governments contribute from their hotel-motel tax revenues. The two-employee Bravo also encourages collaboration among arts, culture and heritage organizations.

What that bigger role might  be is a key question for Bravo as its leadership team works to flesh out its strategic plan by this fall. Meanwhile, the organization plans to continue collecting feedback from those who are familiar with Bravo and its current mission. 

Bravo’s beginnings

Steve Zumbach of Belin McCormick P.C. was one of many community leaders who played a role in creating the organization in the early 2000s. The Greater Des Moines Partnership, which was formed by combining four separate area economic development agencies, was in its infancy when Zumbach was asked to lead an initiative called Project Destiny. Project Destiny aimed to improve the quality of life around Greater Des Moines in order to encourage economic development. 

“That was the new thinking,” Zumbach said. “Would the creative class want to live in the  middle of Iowa? Probably not, and Iowa was a flyover state. … No one had tried to be a community where people wanted to live, but that was what Project Destiny was about. And how do you do that? ”

With the backing of the Partnership, Zumbach set out with others, including Steve Chapman and Suku Radia. to create an organization to encourage both improved quality of life and collaboration among separate entities across the metro area. The Regional Cultural Council was formed to help explore this, and Zumbach was again asked to help when lack of funding became a roadblock for the initiative’s momentum.  Eventually, the group proposed that cities allocate a portion of their hotel-motel sales tax revenues to the organization through a 28E agreement. 

Nine cities originally agreed to allocate two-sevenths of their hotel-motel tax to this new organization. In 2004, Bravo was born as a result of those agreements.

How Bravo functions

The creation of Bravo filled what Dix called an “administrative hole” in the way cities and nonprofits communicated and operated with one another. Prior to Bravo, each nonprofit was required to submit separate funding requests to every municipality in Greater Des Moines, which took up more time and created more work for both the organizations seeking funds and the cities hoping to contribute. Now, cities only need to write one check and nonprofits only need to submit one application, both of which go to Bravo. The decision is then made by Bravo as to which organizations receive funding and how much that funding will be.
“Cities trust us to give money out to organizations that are elevating arts and culture in the community,” Dix said. “These cities all wanted to support arts and culture, but they have many other core city functions to tend to and it was really easy for them to give us this responsibility.”

Bravo’s operating budget for 2013 was approximately $3.4 million, almost all of which was provided through 28E agreements. Sixteen cities now agree to allocate a portion of their hotel-motel tax.  Bravo also raises money through its annual gala and The Principal Charity Classic and Winefest Des Moines donate money.

The organization is governed by a board of directors composed of representatives from each local partner municipality, as well as members from the region’s business, education, and arts and culture sectors. Aside from Dix,  who replaced Bravo’s first director, MD Isley, Associate Director Dave Stone is the organization’s only other employee. Its total administrative costs were $273,167 for the fiscal year ending in June 2012. 

Bravo’s internal goal is that ninety-five percent of every dollar collected will be donated directly to Greater Des Moines arts and culture groups. Funds are given out during two annual grant cycles. In the spring, Bravo accepts applications for its Cultural Enrichment Grants. Since 2005, $19.8 million has been awarded through this program. In the fall, Capital Campaign and Project Grant applications are accepted. Since the establishment of that fund in 2009, it has awarded more than $630,000.

Among the organizations that have received a significant amount of funding from Bravo are the Blank Park Zoo Foundation, which has received nearly $4 million since 2006, as well as Des Moines Performing Arts and the Edmunson Art Foundation, which acquires works and collections for the Des Moines Art Center.

Bravo’s big questions

In April, Arts Consulting Group, the same consultants Bravo used to do the national search for Dix position, was brought on board to help Bravo gather several groups of community leaders in various industries. Voices ranged from CEOs to young professionals to artists trying to make their way in Des Moines. Once those meetings concluded, Bravo was given a summary of feedback. Overall, community members felt the organization was doing a great job, but many also felt there could be an opportunity for it to take on a larger role in Greater Des Moines.

What that role should be, however, is what Bravo is determining. 

“Different stakeholders have different vested interests and a different sense of what are the most important pieces to take care of,” Dix said. “We’re now focusing our time on fleshing that out internally.”

One suggestion was for Bravo to take on a role similar to the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, which receives private and business donations and allocates those funds to nonprofits. The Community Foundation also emphasizes education through programs including training sessions for nonprofit board members and accounting services for nonprofit organizations. Bravo is one of the organizations to receive this help.

Bravo has taken the themes gleaned from each meeting and launched a community engagement survey that is open for anyone to take. The survey will be used to gain more ideas and input on Bravo’s role and how the organization might do more to support arts and culture in the future. 

“Once we do this, we’ll be able to figure out if we’re on the right track,” Dix said.

Once the surveys are returned, Bravo’s board and staff will move forward to create a new strategic plan.

“We are very close,” Dix said. “We’re not anticipating a major overhaul in anything we do. We might need to tighten things up and be more explicit and specific, but nothing we do is on hold.”

Zumbach also reflected on the future of Bravo, saying now is a good time to make what he called “tough decisions.”

“Do I have a list of what we can do better? The answer to that is no, but what we do need to do is look at our cultural offerings,” Zumbach said.  “I think there is more that can be done and there is more room for cultural-type experiences and improving the ones we already have. We need to determine what those are and then ask the tough questions.”

The beneficiaries of Bravo’s success

Who has a stake in Bravo’s continued success? Everyone who calls Greater Des Moines home, Dix said. “Everyone who has patted themselves on the back for an award the city of Des Moines has received has a stake in this,” Dix said. “Part of those awards is because of quality of life, which is because of Bravo, and that’s a huge deal.”

Zumbach agrees, and it all goes back to quality of life being a key driver to the area’s continued economic success.

“Even if  you have no interest in going to the opera, ballet or the Civic Center, you benefit from what those organizations do bring,” Zumbach said. “When I say all of us, I mean it. We all benefit from it, and as a community, I think we understand that. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to do the things we do.”

“Bravo is a stunning example of a community acting regionally and putting aside their own individual agendas and doing something that would benefit the core community. It’s seeing beyond their borders to do something that was better for the entire region.” - Steve Zumbach

How should Bravo take a bigger role?

About 70 people took the Business Record’s online survey asking their opinions on how Bravo Greater Des Moines might change or expand its reach in the future. It was nearly an even split on whether Bravo is currently doing enough. While most value what already exists by way of arts, culture and heritage offerings in Central Iowa, they also believe Greater 

Des Moines isn’t done improving the vibrancy of arts and culture here. We included some of their suggestions that Bravo could possibly take into consideration as its leadership team works to formulate a new strategic plan. 

Is Bravo Greater Des Moines doing enough to foster and grow arts and culture in the community?

Yes - 49%
No - 51%

TRUE or FALSE: Access to arts and culture in Central Iowa should be a top regional priority.

True - 87%
False - 13%

How many arts, culture or heritage activities have you participated in during the past three months in Greater Des Moines?

0-3 - 22%
4-6 - 39%
7-9 - 17%
10+ - 22%

Is Bravo Greater Des Moines doing enough to foster and grow arts and culture in the community?

“Bravo is doing a great job, but I believe they can move more strongly into an advocacy position. There is no other organization positioned to advocate sectorwide for the arts, culture and heritage.” 
— Matthew McIver, business developer, INVISION planning architecture interiors

“I only see Bravo’s name on big events where they are guaranteed to get publicity. It excludes the smaller events that mean just as much to the communities they serve.” 
— Christina Fernandez-Morrow, executive director, Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines

“I’d like to see Bravo do more programming and work to foster for-profit entertainment initiatives in the region. A significant amount of Bravo’s funds come from the hotel/motel tax, and for-profit entertainment contributes to that funding but doesn’t receive any benefit.” 
— Kathryn Dickel, founding partner, MIDWESTIX

“Decision-makers are not diverse, so decisions are based on the experiences of the staff and board. Bravo continues to fund and advocate for the same things over and over again.” 
— Margo Jones

“Bravo was formed to help support and streamline giving to the larger, established cultural venues in the metro area. The institutions have understandably come to rely upon donors choosing to give their support through Bravo. If we are lacking anything, I feel some of the startup organizations are receiving funding without adequate vetting.” 
— Mike Simonson, president, Simonson & Associates Architects.

What more could Bravo Greater Des Moines be doing to encourage the growth of arts and culture in the community?

“The focus should be to foster the growth and access to culture for all individuals who may or may not typically have had access.” 
— Tony Timm, Windsor Height City Council member

“I think Bravo could provide a clearinghouse of online information about current and upcoming arts and culture events and projects.” 
— Susan Judkins, project developer, KJWW Engineering

“I think there is great opportunity to do more for the youth in the community, getting them connected early to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) projects and thinking creativity and critically.” 
— Chris Juhl, volunteer manager, Science Center of Iowa

“Go for top-quality - world-class - opportunities for Des Moines ... lots of festivals and local musicians are great ... but excellence is necessary to inspire attendance and funding.” 
— Mary Kramer, president, Kramer & Associates