Theatre and the Economy / by R. Sheth

Theatre and the Economy, Part 2: Year-End Giving

Jan 16, 2009

Chicago theatres are hanging in there with regards to year-end fundraising. Those that succeeded this past December did so because they have been focused all year on efforts to connect with their patrons and not just going for the quick hit at the end of the year.

In a post-script to last month’s look at the economy’s impact on audience sizes, Stephanie Kulke, marketing director of Remy Bumppo Theatre, said that ticket sales for their December show, The Marriage of Figaro, were way down. “We only made 50 percent of our goal.” She feels part of the drop might have due to play selection, even though the production received good reviews, but that they also got hit by the economy.

Ian Belknap, director of development for the Neo Futurists, said that fundraising at the end of the year was a “mixed bag” for their company. “I think the relentlessness of bad financial news puts people in the mindset that they are incapable of giving,” he noted. “I think that we are (along with everybody else) in the thrall of a pummeling vortex of bad news… [We thought] how much worse can it get? But it’s like Wyle E Coyote hitting another 8 or 10 outcroppings on the way down. I know people in my position are supposed to be relentlessly positive, and things are not dire [for us], but I’ve never seen anything like this.”

The Neo’s two fundraising events—a benefit performance of A Very Neo Futurist Christmas Carol and the New Year’s Eve Too Much Light…—were both sell-outs, thanks to the commitment of their board of directors to sell tickets. However, the returns on their year-end appeal are down. “I’m encouraged that our events did so well because in the past they have not been so robust,” Belknap said

Amanda Farrar, development director for Remy Bumppo, said their year-end appeal went “surprisingly well. We improved over last year with 20 percent more funds and 35 percent more donors.” Although they have more people giving smaller gifts, the increase in the number of donors holds promise for them as, hopefully, those people will be able to increase their contributions down the road.

Farrar noted that the prime motivator for the increase in annual appeal giving for Remy was probably a challenge grant issued by an anonymous donor. The theatre would receive from this donor a dollar-for-dollar match for money raised during this appeal, up to $60,000. Although the company did not quite make this goal, they were close enough (within $20,000) that the anonymous donor has given them until the end of their season to raise the rest of the challenge money.

The other key to their success was the personal connection that company members have made with their donors. “A lot of the donors in the annual appeal are connected to the company in some way,” she said. Almost all the donors received a personal note from a staff or company member with their appeal.

Amy Harmon, marketing director for Babes With Blades, said that they hit their target for fundraising in 2008 as well, and that they are now focusing their efforts on taking care of their donors for 2009. “We’re concentrating, in 2009, on boosting our donor appreciation initiatives—we’re so grateful that they continue to support us in such, erm, interesting economic times, and we want to be sure they know it!”

One company takes the connection with their audience to such levels that they actually created a position focusing on only that aspect of their company. Silk Road Theatre created the director of advancement position in order to build and strengthen the company’s connection with their audience. These efforts have yielded a huge payoff in their year-end appeal. According to Silk Road executive director Malik Gillani, the number of donors increased over 2007 by 145 percent and the dollar value of the money raised increased by 200 percent.

Gillani emphasized that their success is due to a great deal of effort put into the relationship with their audience. “Development is a process,” he said. “It doesn’t happen through a letter.”

One Silk Road donor is so committed to the company that she is trying to determine what part of upcoming dental work she could put off in order to still give to the company. This is a woman on a fixed income, but she said that being part of Silk Road sustains her. Gillani was stunned at her commitment to the company and said, “We’re not going to be rich, but knowing that someone is taking out of their social security… She comes to the plays and playwright events and she has a much deeper connection to the company than just attending plays.”

This is the kind of audience commitment that will sustain our theatres in the coming year as our country digs out of the financial hole, and the more ways a company can find to connect with their audience, the better.

In the next installment, I will take a look at what Silk Road is doing with its advancement program and how they are connecting with their audience beyond producing plays.