Sustaining a Dream Come True

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By Rachel Jacobson
2013 ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference Panelist

I am so lucky to be doing what I’m doing. I’m the Executive Director of a two-screen nonprofit cinema, Film Streams Ruth Sokolof Theater, in my hometown of Omaha and it’s quite literally my dream job. I had the idea to open such a theater when I was a senior in college and at the time I imagined that it would be all about choosing good films to show. Well… there’s so much more to running a nonprofit art house – from board development to fundraising to event planning. I spend a good amount of time dealing with HR issues, putting out fires and learning all that I never wanted to know about accounting and finance.

It’s so exciting to start something, but the real challenge is figuring out how to build a sustainable organization and keep it running. The best thing about what I’m doing now is that it is in sync with my values – artistic expression, intellectual curiosity, empathy and community (particularly Omaha!). It’s highly motivating to care so much about what you’re doing on every level.

There’s good reason people use the baby metaphor when they talk about starting an organization. When you are the founder of a business, you feel ultimately responsible for its upbringing. Each aspect of the work is precious and you want to make sure that you’re doing as much as possible as well as possible. This can manifest itself in negative ways, like having a minor meltdown over a tiny mistake in a film program or a donor list.

Truly though, running your business with the level of care and detail that you would for a small child is key to establishing a terrific, credible brand. I hand-write every thank-you note and hand-sign every donation letter and membership acknowledgment. My relationships with board members, supporters, staff and collaborators are true friendships and the richest part of my experience. It’s more than blurred lines between work and life: the two are completely intertwined.

Ultimately, the key to creating your dream and making it sustainable is enlisting people who will care about it as much as you do. When I moved back from New York to start Film Streams and began telling friends, family and community members about the idea, it didn’t take long for people to start to “own” Film Streams along with me. Now eight years later, countless others are invested in this place. It’s that shared ownership – the fact that so many care about Film Streams’ mission and are making tremendous contributions to keep it going – that has helped our baby grow into a self-sustaining being.

The longer the theater operates, the more people contribute their time and talent, the less this organization is mine and the more sustainable it becomes. I’ll always be the mama, but Film Streams has enough people who are invested in it and care deeply about it that it can stand on its own two feet without me. And that’s something I’m even more proud of than igniting the dream.

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