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Fundraising in California Community Theatres

There are no exceptions - running a theatre of any kind (including community theatres) means spending time, energy and creativity on productions and getting 'butts in seats' for earned revenue ticket sales, AND meeting your budget and cash needs with fundraising efforts - and sometimes doing both at the same time. There are tried and true fundraising methods, and there are those that work one time, but not the next. How are your friends and neighbors in California community theatre finding ways to raise those funds, and what do you all have in common?

The most common fundraising efforts were benefit performances of scheduled productions ('selling a house' to a group to resell tickets); Annual larger scale event with ticket prices over $25.00 , i.e.: gala, special performance, cabaret, etc; and raffles.

Here are some ways theatres are thinking outside the box on direct solicitation efforts:

  • Community Matching Funds Drive

  • Applications for grants from businesses

  • Solicit major donations

  • We sell ads in our season program

"Our Annual Season Celebration and our year-end fundraising letter are our two most successful fundraising efforts."

- Jeff DeWitt - LifeHouse Theater

Photos: LifeHouse Theatre photos from different Season Celebrations over the last few years.

You won't know until you try! Some of the 'misses' in fundraising efforts:

  • Did a performance as a fund-raiser for local library. They really didn’t do much to “sell” it, and they didn’t do well.

  • We tried a community fair type event one year that wound up being a lot of work but didn’t break even.

As successful as providing a show from your season might be to resell a house to an outside group, Marc Edson says "bringing in a show for 'One Night' as a fundraiser" was a miss for Chico Theater Company. And while many theatres rely on them, the wrong time of year and low attendance for an (outdoor) large gala fundraiser was a miss for Cabrillo Playhouse. Luckily, they find great success with the rental of their theatre (to music groups and comedians); obtaining grants from businesses; and selling raffle tickets for an anniversary celebration. Thanks to Sandra Weaver from Cabrillo Playhouse for that great info.

Photos: Chico Theater Company's Golf Tournament fundraiser, including entertainment from The Marvelous Wonderettes before golfers teed off.

What do theatres report to be their most successful fundraising efforts, either done once before, or on an ongoing basis?

  • Golf Tournament

  • We have an annual screening of "Casablanca" in homage to our founder, Oliver Prickett, who has a non-speaking role as a waiter in the movie. To date, that has been our most successful evening - however, we now have a nationally known artist who has reached out in support of the theater and we will be working with him to have a one-evening, acoustic concert as a benefit evening for the theater

  • High-quality rehearsed special performance at a donor’s home

  • Specific direct appeals (funding the band for The Last Five Years, for example)

  • We have a wall outside the theater and we offer personalized bricks mounted on it for a donation. To date we have raised about 5,000.00

  • Show sponsorships

  • Gala dinner/auction

  • Each year we have a Season Celebration, where we announce the new season and sell our season tickets at the lowest prices of the year. We also outline the mission of the theater and solicit financial support from our guests to keep the theater going. We also send out a fundraising letter to our guests outlining the needs of the theater and how they can best support the theater financially

"...we are very careful to expend our energy and good will toward fundraising efforts which have a high level of success."

- Leira V. Satlof, Ferndale Repertory Theatre

Thinking Ahead/New Ideas

As theatre producers or directors, there's always a fine line between risk and security; between artistry and business; and between dreams and reality. Some theatres might apply these same values to their fundraising efforts - trying something new could be the key to success; perhaps taking a leap of faith will spark a new tradition that unites community and theatre year after year. Keeping in mind your consitutents and resources are key. Chico Theater Company's Marc Edson hopes to put together a Poker Tournament fundraiser. "Just need to get all the elements lined up," he says. Check out these other ideas for future fundraisers some theatres are considering, and the challenges therein:

  • We want to do a large "Gala" type dinner-fundraiser. Still have not been able to put all those pieces together.

  • We are looking into hosting a golf tournament with other local community theatres as a way of building relationships, awareness and raising money.

  • There are many fundraising efforts that can be done, such as soliciting show sponsors and grant writing. What keeps us from utilizing these avenues of fundraising is a lack of manpower. Our staff is already overtaxed and finding volunteers to help in our efforts becomes more difficult in an age many young people don’t really know what it is to volunteer their time to support an organization.

  • We have limited green room facilities as well as lobby area, so fundraising items such as a silent auction are tough as we just don't have physical room for the items. And the limited green room area affects the live acts that we can accommodate.

"We treat every event at the theater as a "fundraiser" "

- Melinda Bie, Plaza Playhouse Theater

Thanks to these California community theatres for contributing to this article:

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