Sitar Arts Center advances the critical life skills of underserved children and youth and prepares them for achievement in the 21st century through visual, performing, and digital arts education in a nurturing community. Sitar’s year-round youth development programming is a critical resource for D.C.’s most vulnerable children and youth, providing students with a continuum of support designed to cultivate measurable 21st century learning and workforce development skills at every stage in their growth.

Since first opening its doors in 2000, the Center has ensured that 80% of school-aged students come from households with low incomes. After more than a decade of serving the District’s children and youth, and adapting in order to meet their changing needs, the Center’s programming has grown into a continuum of support that spans from infancy through young adulthood. Sitar has expanded its impact considerably since 2000, now supporting up to 850 students annually through its three core programming tracks – Early Childhood Arts, Arts Afterschool, and Camp Sitar.

What does this award mean for you and your organization?

The award is a validation of Sitar Arts Center’s commitment to its constituents, the District of Columbia, and the nonprofit sector as a whole. This prestigious award helps Sitar Arts Center to achieve a strategic goal with increased visibility that helps to raise Sitar’s profile. For this award to be part of Sitar’s 15th anniversary year makes it an even deeper acknowledgement that helps to promote Sitar’s contributions to the community. The recognition bestows an opportunity for Sitar Arts Center to share best practices and ways to overcome challenges with other nonprofits and others invested in the field. The esteemed award also leverages important opportunities long-term—from Board and Leadership Council recruitment to volunteer and partner collaborations. Knowing that Sitar Arts Center is held to such a high standard in areas of management, the recognition sets an equally high standard for all future management efforts by Sitar Arts Center.

How has the application process benefited your organization? What have you learned through the application process?

Sitar Arts Center has benefitted greatly from the entire application process. Every phase has encouraged Sitar’s staff and leadership to closely examine essential areas of management—including Sitar’s core competencies, best practices, innovativeness, and overall efforts towards sustainability and excellence. While these are areas examined and implemented on a daily basis, the application process presents a rare opportunity for any organization to come together and assess more holistically these and other important attributes from both within the organization and by looking at the practices of other organizations who have reached a similar level of success.

The award process was taken on with a great level of intentional support and engagement. Sitar Arts Center weighs every opportunity carefully to validate areas of readiness and aptitude prior to any award nomination. With careful consideration and examination of recent management successes, Sitar Arts Center committed itself to all areas of the application process. Key questions have been integrated into staff meeting conversations, Board meeting agendas, and across departmental planning.

The application’s level of rigor and 360 degree look into an organizations management practices allowed Sitar to fully reflect on and hone in on our articulation of our own best practices while also looking carefully at those of other nonprofits who have reached the finalist stage so that we can continue to learn and grow. There is a great deal to learn from each other in the process—from data management dashboards and funding diversification to professional development opportunities for board and staff and transparency in communication.

Of special note, Sitar Arts Center learned a great deal from the examination of the question regarding the ways evaluation plays into the management of the organization. From the investment of staff time—including a shifting of responsibilities within the Senior Director of Programs position—to a dedicated line item in the budget and the board’s commitment, the Center’s evaluation has positively impacted nearly every aspect of management.

Describe one management best practice of which you are particularly proud.

A commitment to working towards sustainability is a paramount and essential best management practice at Sitar Arts Center. The practice is held up and put into action throughout the entire organization—from succession planning and financial resource diversification to the building up of human resources (both paid and volunteer) through professional development and the integrated use of communication across all channels. The stand-out success in areas of sustainability most recently is the successful completion of Sitar Arts Center’s $2 million Building Sitar for the Future Campaign. Campaign goals include: leveraging funds for program growth by reducing mortgage debt ($1.5 million); making much-needed capital improvements ($250,000); and building essential reserves ($250,000). Each of these goals positions Sitar for long-term success and a more sustainable future.

What advice would you offer for other nonprofit leaders/organizations striving for excellence in nonprofit management?

Sitar Arts Center’s greatest successes are rooted in exceptional relationships and our advice is that you continuously seek and cultivate exceptional people and partnerships. It takes time and is worth the effort. For an organization of Sitar Arts Center’s relatively modest size, structure, institutional age, and financial resource model, our human capital makes it possible to deliver a deeper and broader level of service to the community. When your people are deeply committed and stakeholders of the mission, they will go to great lengths to achieve the mission and contribute to excellent planning, implementation and management.

The intentional relationships start with the staff, Board and volunteer faculty. Each member of the staff has a voice at the table, is given ownership of their responsibilities and is part of an intentionally caring culture. The model of shared leadership yields a dedicated staff, with tenures averaging more than eight years, enabling Sitar to serve more people, more effectively. Our Board has a reputation for excellence and that excellence is actively sustained. Board members are carefully cultivated before they are recruited. Once on the Board, they receive a thorough orientation and are invited to continually deepen their engagement and they work hard. The Board President and Executive Director spend many hours engaging members individually and through active committees. Sitar’s volunteer faculty and artistic partnerships are essential to the organizational model. Sitar prioritizes staff time and focus on volunteer and partner engagement and creates a culture of gratitude and acknowledgment. The model yields about $250,000 in pro-bono teaching hours.

Finally, individual giving is an atypically high percentage of Sitar’s income. The relationships are intensive in time, but individual donors rarely redirect their focus of giving and their funding does not go away with budget cuts or change in administration. In short, building an intentional culture of gratitude, community and strong relationships serves Sitar’s retention of staff talent, service delivery, Board effectiveness and resource development.