Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Fundraising for community theaters


It’s no secret that community (and many professional) theaters rely on “unearned revenue” (i.e. donations of some kind) for up to 50% of their revenue. And it turns out that people are much more likely to give money if you actually ask them. But not all Board members of such theaters have much experience asking. This concise book is for them: here’s a few highlights from Fund Raising Realities Every Board Member Must Face by experienced fundraiser David Lansdowne.

Write down your organization’s mission as specifically as possible. People don’t give because you have need; so do other causes arguably more urgent than yours. Nor do they give just because they have money: wealthy people don’t just throw money around—they’re as careful about where they put their money as anyone else. People give because they believe in your mission. So you must be able to articulate that mission clearly, and convey fanatical devotion to pursuing it. This is why fundraising consultants and grantwriters can give help and advice, but in the end, your own leadership is best positioned to impassion your own supporters and make the ask.

Lead by example. If Board members entrusted with the fiduciary health of the theater don’t give, how can they ask others to do so? Yes, you volunteer your time, but that doesn’t buy lighting upgrades, pay actor stipends, or cover performance royalties. Volunteers donate time; benefactors donate money; Board members are expected to do both, to the reasonable limit of their means. That means cash.

Announce a quantitative target and deadline, and elucidate the specific benefits of the giving campaign. You can’t just “raise as much as you can”—that sends the message that you don’t know what you’re doing (which doesn’t help you at grant-writing time), and robs the organization (and donors) of the motivation of contributing towards a goal before a certain deadline. How will the money be used? Ideally, it will boost some aspect of the theater to a new place—better overall financial stability, renovating the facilities, providing scholarships for young patrons, or whatever—otherwise the donors will think “They’re just going to go through this money and come back asking for more next year.” (Of course, you probably are going to ask them for more later, but the point is that donations should be fortifying the organization in some way, rather than just supplementing the earned revenue of ticket sales.)

Think in thirds. In campaign after campaign, 1/3 of the total comes from the top few donors, 1/3 from the next tranche of donors about 10x the size of the first tranche, and 1/3 from everyone else. So if your donor pool is (say) 500 people and you’re trying to raise $15,000, you might expect to get about $5,000 from your top five donors at $1000 each, $5000 more from your next fifty best best donors at $100 each, and $5000 from small donations from the remaining 445 people. If you can’t identify the top few donors to fund a campaign, the campaign may be too ambitious at your current level.

Target high-profile, influential individuals who believe in your mission. 85% of all US charitable contribution each year comes from individuals, not grants or foundations. Also, while big corporations and trusts are accustomed to being asked, they are not invested in your mission the way that your best patrons and benefactors are. Within the individual-donor pool, your top 10% of donors will contribute about 90% of your funds. Those 10% are so important that approaching each individual should be considered its own mini-campaign. The best among the 10% are those who are high-profile pillars of the community who will set a visible example by giving that others will want to emulate.

Don’t confuse publicity or programming with fundraising. Indeed, don’t publicize a fundraising campaign until after you’ve secured some foundational donations to start it off. And you may not need to “publicize” it at all, or spend money on fancy collaterals, since your best prospects are already within your community: they listen to your curtain speeches, receive your emails and mailings, and so on. Also beware of putting on “fundraiser shows”: the expenses can creep up on you to where the yield is not really a “fundraiser” at all, even if the performers perform for free. (You have to staff the house, sell tickets, and incur the other fixed expenses of raising the curtain.)

Communicate face-to-face with your prospects. A fundraiser show also doesn’t allow you to get face time with your prospects. How about a cocktail party at a Board member’s house, or a similar setting that maximizes opportunities for networking?

Ask directly, and give them a number. Putting the opportunity to give in front of someone isn’t enough. You have to ask them. This can be a combination of a personal letter, personal email, phone call, face to face chat, or whatever. And when you do ask, don’t ask your best prospects to “give what they can.” Give them a suggested target. The worst that can happen is they’ll give less, and in fact they may try to stretch farther than they otherwise might have once they realize what your need is.

Give them recognition. Donors want to feel they have helped a great organization get better, ideally permanently. Send personally signed thank-you letters (not emails) immediately for any substantial donation. (The Audience1st ticketing and CRM has a neat feature to do a report of “unacknowledged donations” and then record who signed and sent each letter as they are mailed out.) One idea that has worked quite well at Altarena is “Show Sponsorship,” which allows one or more donors to partially neutralize the production costs of a show. Their names appear in the show’s program and they are verbally thanked in every curtain speech during the production, along with the theater’s “big” sponsors like the local bakeries and coffeehouses that contribute products for the concessions stand. (To his credit, current Altarena Board President Joe Mallon introduced this practice because it had worked well at Shotgun Players, where he had been involved before joining Altarena’s Board.) You can also offer your donors free tickets and other treat-them-nice perks (but not free subscriptions, in my view; if they’re supportive enough to give an amount that is large compared to the price of a subscription, they can and should be subscribing anyway).

Cultivate donors long-term. Even small donations (say, $25-50 contributed through your website) should mark someone as a possible future prospect. A good donation system will let you report on previous donations so you can up the ask: “Last year you were generous enough to donate $50. We are hoping we could count on you for a $75 gift this year.” For larger gifts, you will certainly need more than one conversation.

Evaluate the campaign so you can do better next year, according to the above guidelines.

Yes, people get uncomfortable about asking for money. But you’re not asking for money for yourself: you’re asking others to join you in supporting a good cause about which they are as passionate as you and from which you get no financial benefit (indeed, if you’re setting a good example, you yourself are already contributing time and money).

But if you don’t make the mission crystal clear, and ask directly for support of that mission, you won’t get far—probably nobody wakes up in the morning thinking “You know what I want to do today? Write a bunch of checks to causes I like.”

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are disabled because the only commenters are spammers, despite Google's best efforts. But I welcome actual comments: Google my name and you can easily direct an email to me, and I'll publish your comment here.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.