I'm back from my brief excursion in Charlotte, where I sat in on a two-day conference about Planned Giving and Philanthropy. A fair amount of it was pretty dry (what are the pitfalls of accepting gifts of insurance; what is the difference between a charitable remainder trust and a charitable annuity trust; how do you get registered in Wisconsin to market charitable gift annuities) there certainly were a few pieces of information here and there that I felt relevant to fundraising on the more immediate level on Indie and/or less resourced theater. I thought I'd share a bit of what I got out of it.
We tend to come from a place, especially in the off-off world, that focuses on selflessness. We ask those who would donate to us to do it either selfishly (Network with us by donating!) or selflessly (You believe in supporting the arts and the importance of keeping young companies like this one alive!) .
The first is cynical and hardly worth worrying about. If those kinds of decisions are being made, it doesn't do a small theater company much good to encourage them.
The second, however idealistic, is not as effective as we'd like it to be. If it was, donations to all of our theater companies would be soaring in from philanthropists with an eye on the arts. As it is, individual donations to the arts are dwarfed by individual donations to religious organizations, health initiatives and social welfare programs.
So what incites people to give? In order to understand, we need to remove the false division between the selfless act and the selfish one. We need to understand that people give in order to feel connected to the things they care about.
When you give someone a hug, is it a purely selfless act? No. You feel nourished and so do they. It's an act of connection. A way of mutually benefiting someone by the act (hugging them) but also receiving benefit yourself. Giving a donation is very much like embracing someone else; you make a connection, and both are the better for it.
Small theaters companies have, for the most part, a limited pool from which to draw for individual donations. There is massive competition for a limited amount of donors. I would argue, though, that the legwork done in cultivating and embracing a large number of donors (even if their donations are initially small) will do far more for a small theater company than dumping resources into grant writing or cultivating a few large donors. It shouldn't replace the need to reach out to large funders, not at all, but currently I see far more focus on the economics of ticket sales and Foundation shopping, and far less focus on the powerful ways in which the care of individuals can be expressed through giving.
Instead of encouraging a friend, family member, or fan of your work to give simply out of a sense of altruism, remember that when they give, they're seeking membership and a sense of connection. To become a member of the mission of your company and the sort of theater that you create.
Membership programs, on any scale, and recognition societies are formal ways are to acknowledge this. An example might be membership benefits such as free t-shirts and two tickets to a preview performance, plus a donors-only party; or simply acknowledgment in some formal way.
I see very few theater companies that publish the names of their donors on their website. With a donors permission, it seems like a fantastic way to encourage giving and show a sense of connection. You don't even have to publish the amounts of the gifts... you can simply publish the list of names. It will mean a lot to the donors, and to potential donors. It shows you're appreciative, not only of money, but of people. You can give the donor tiers, or, better yet, simply include them in a "society" of some sort. If your company were "The Flying Theater" you might have a society called "Birds of a Feather." Gimmicky? Sure. But it shows that you're looking outward, at a sense of larger community, and not simply at how to pay for and plug your next piece.
Even if you don't formally chose to create membership benefits or a recognition society, your company can remain mindful of the reasons people give. If you're asking, in direct mail, for distant, hands-off funding of your mission, you'll get a distant hands-off response. If you're asking for donors to join in your unique vision, and invite them to become a part of that vision, then you'll likely get engagement on a deeper level.
It's never been easier for people to give. With sites like Network for Good, organizations like the Field and Fractured Atlas, with Paypal being simple and effective, the ability of your small theater company to receive immediate, even impulsive, gifts from a broad range of people is expansive. Don't let a single gift go by without acknowledgment, and don't let a single donor feel as if they are making a high-minded moral decision to selflessly part with a couple of dollars for your cause.
Give them what they're giving you: a chance to be heard and a sense that someone out there cares.
- 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.