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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Small Donors and a Culture of Giving

My current job is working in Annual and Planned Giving for a non-profit organization. Obviously, all non-profits are familiar with the idea grant writing, gifts, donors and fundraising. But recently, it occured to me that the mantra of most large gift organizations is that Planned Giving and donation come exclusively from elderly donors or wealthy patrons.

Part of this is practical: Most of the more complex and large gifts are designed to benefit the very wealthy or the very old. A Charitable Gift Annuity, which is a popular type of Split Interest Gift, or a Charitable Remainder Trust, is useless to a small donor who will receive an annuity for years. Even if you don't know precisely what those things are, suffice to say, they are popular at the Metropolitan Opera, and in Churches, and for Universities. They are donations of generally large amounts, with tax benefits. And they are not available to those of us who are under 60.

So most of the fundraising done by Indie Theatres, Off-Off Broadway Theaters, or small theaters, especially in NYC, is rather rudimentary. It includes labor exhaustive grant writing, events that are intended to raise a certain amount of money by almost fooling the small donors into thinking they're paying for free booze (this happens a great deal), or simply doing some sort of calculus on ticket sales that, god help me, no one seems able to make work.

Even Awards are small and unfulfilling for small theater. The Obie Awards (bless them, this is not a complaint) offer what amounts to a pat on the back for a job well done. I wouldn't send back $1000.00... but I make more in one month at my relatively low paying day job than I would for winning an Emerging Playwrights Obie Award.

So I think it's time to reimagine the donor base for small theater and speak about how we can create a culture that encourages small, consistent annual donations from the base that we already have access to. I have proposals on this...but I wanted to put those terms out there and see if they get any response.

What do you think about small donations and a New Culture of Giving?


Mark said...

An artistic director of a larger non-profit advised me (we're in our second season) not to bother with grantwriting. The money out there for small theaters was, he said, too minimal to waste valuable time chasing. Spending tons of time writing grant applications only to be rewarded with (maybe) $500 (renting a decent theater costs at least four times that per week) just isn't worth it, he advised. Better to go after the matching grants from donors working for large corporations: $2000 from a Skadden Arps employee is matched to become $4000--for a lot less work than tracking on all those grant applications, with their myriad of paperwork and deadlines.

I'm not sure what I think of the larger implications of this, but it makes sense to me with regard to how best to maximize the return on one's efforts.

Jamespeak said...

Interesting post. I'm curious to hear your ideas. My company (Nosedive) is definitely on the smaller end of things when it comes to receiving donations (we don't apply for grants), but then again our budgets for the shows aren't astronomical (small donations often pay for a week of rehearsal time at ART/N.Y.). Dumb question: what sort of figures are you thinking of when you talk about "small" and "large" donations? In other words, how small is small, how large is large? I ask because, to me, a $1,000 donation is quite large.

-James Comtois

Adam said...

It's hard because our generation is saddled with debt and underpaid. I consider it a donation whenever I actually pay for a theatre ticket.

Lucas Krech said...

Great topic. I do not actually have anything of value to add to the discussion, other than I would like to see more individual artist grants out there. But thanks for bringing up this important issue.

I do wonder what, if anything, can be done to further foster a culture supportive to the arts. But then this is the question asked avery other day by the fundraiser types, so I'll leave it to the professionals.

Freeman said...

A few responses:

First, when I think of "small donations" I think in the 25, 50, 100 dollar range. The sort of money saved by quitting smoking or not buying a DVD box set. Small amounts, below what you'd pay for even an Off-Broadway theater ticket.

Large organizations treat their donors in several ways. One is that they think in tiers (something I don't recommend for a small company) and the other is that they think in terms of long term relationships (something I do recommend.)

Take this example: A small company has its community, outside of those that actually work for the company. The community includes friends, family and probably co-workers. Say you invite that group to a dinner/reading that is intended expressly to be dedicated to Donation. Don't try to trick people...consider them your donor base and celebrate that fact. Then, treat them to a decent meal and talk to them about what you're looking to do. Tell them your costs, talk to them about what your company serves, talk about your ambition. Then, talk about how small their donations can be. $25 dollars. Simple.

Then, create group from those that give. Do not create a tier system at all... don't break your group down by number. Assume that those who are giving want to be as generous as they see fit, and treat the $25 dollar donor as well as you treat the $500 donor.

Give this group painless perks. Give them, for example, an exclusive wine and cheese night with your latest playwright, to ask questions and mingle. Give them free tickets to a preview of his or her choice. Give them access to the final dress of your latest show. Whatever you deem appropriate, the encourages a sense of fun and inclusion and community.

The idea, of course, is to make donation, on any scale, a benefit. Show them transparently (with correspondence) how their money has benefited the organization.

With the right connection between you and your donor base, two things have the potential to happen. One is that as our generation gains in wealth (I agree with Adam that it doesn't have much to speak of) they will slowly become more generous as they feel a "member" of your company's growth. Beyond this, they will bring audience through word of mouth and possibly (hopefully) help you expand that donor base.

Consider the math of annual donations. If you have a donor base of only 25 people and their average gift (top to bottom) is fifty dollars... you've got $1250 in funds. Now, that's a small number, but is larger than $500 grant that takes you hours to write, and it comes with more potential for word of mouth, which means ticket sales.

So think of that base number (25 donors in your "group") and think of a small figure you're willing to ask for. Donors are 1) loyal 2) evangelists and 3) increasingly generous. The tiniest formalized annual giving program can become, with time and work, a fundamental part of your budget, reputation, and community.