On a Tuesday night, a small group of Board members and staff sat around a table at the community theatre I once managed. There were bursts of discussion and interruption, followed by silence and discomfort. It was no regular Board meeting. It was a Fundraising committee meeting, and it was clear that when it came to ways for the theatre to raise money, folks came with big, passionate ideas. Many of them were fantastic, but most not appropriate for our particular organization.
In a dream world, community theatres would have ongoing, regular funding for operating expenses. Unfortunately, many grants exclusively fund specific projects, rather than operating, and the ones that do support operating are very supplemental to the overall budget, particularly for those theatres with larger budgets.
How do you hit a sweet spot with a fundraiser? Does a successful idea stem from a pow-wow with those invested in the theatre? More likely it's a result of some kind of available resource, and you combine that with your already-creative focus and create an opportunity.
You may have inherited a fundraiser that is a big hit in your town. You may be part of a larger group of fundraising and outreach efforts that are second nature to your community. You may have an individual (or even a location) that is the driving force behind your fundraiser, kind of a boutique situation. But what happens if you have to or want to start from scratch, and create a successful fundraiser without the history, large puzzle piece, or person behind it?
There are ongoing, regular fundraisers. The benefits of annual or repeated fundraisers is predictability in both the time, effort and cost the fundraiser requires, and the trust built with attendees - they know what is being offered, and they are likely to purchase tickets with less risk; a bonus is when the fundraiser is such a great or rewarding experience that attendees or participants actually look forward to it.
Another idea for theatres to think about is not so novel to us: creating performances specifically for fundraising. While productions-as-fundraisers range from standalone events (perhaps tied into a National event, or a genre such as a comedy night), some of the more successful ones seem to be a regular run of a special performance that is not part of the regular season ticket sales. Special directors, a variety not otherwise offered by your theatre (ie: musical) or a 'signature' performance can all attract new and repeat patrons, and also be reason to explore increasing ticket prices for these fundraiser-specific shows. Get a sponsor behind you to help cover royalties and overhead, and you can create an event no one will want to miss- and you'll be doing the same thing you do everyday: producing theatre.
Having a special performance that gets the reputation as 'The Big One' also might open up other smaller ways to raise funds. Consider themed concessions or merchandise for the performance. The higher ticket price might be an easier 'sell' if you also include a theatre tour or pictures with the cast following the performance. How about signed copies of show posters? Serve alcohol? How about a customized, themed, off-the-menu drink?
"We host an annual Season Celebration event where we announce our season and appeal for donations to keep the theater thriving."
What is/are your most successful fundraising effort(s), either done regularly or which has been done once in the past?
Our members volunteer at other community fundraisers wherein our theatre benefits along with other non-profits based on the number of volunteers. We participate many times a year.
Board member contribution, small foundation grants, and pre-show asks.
Local community foundations have been very supportive. And the service clubs have made us a line item for a yearly donation in two cases.
We do a gala auction event that brings in $40K a year. Entirely organized by board members and community volunteers REPFEST is both a community building event and a very important fundraiser. Unfortunately there are many of these events in our community. The difference between other auction galas and our is that we have fantastic entertainment!
Our Season Celebration is our most successful.
Responses from California Community Theatre members
Once you have established a fundraiser that is worth the time, effort and cost, how do you keep it successful? One challenge for planning each year's budget may be knowing how much contributed income you can expect to gain, and how you can keep it somewhat predictable.
Leira Satlof, Ferndale Repertory Theatre Artistic Producing Director, and Dillon Savage, Board Member and Repfest Chair, prepare for the big event.
Is there a specific type of fundraising you think would benefit your community theatre, but for any reason, you have not been able to put into effect?
Selling tiles or pavers.
I do, and we do but getting our members to volunteer for a specific large event is difficult.
I wish we could find more support for operating expenses.
We are still building our annual Gala, but I feel that will eventually be big for us. Sponsorships is something that is still in development as well. Lack of staff is usually what keeps some of these fundraisers from happening.
Have you had a fundraising effort that was particularly unsuccessful for your community theatre?
We did a Fall Festival once that just did not work.
Responses from California Community Theatre members
Outside the Box - Access to Unique Resources Can Put You in a Great Position to Raise Money
Got the resources to plan aBroadway tour? If not, make it local and collaborate with other organizations for a smaller package.
Bowling with Pledges/Bowl a Thon: Like with any a-thon, have competitors collect donations and pledges up until the event using the peer-to-peer, or crowdfunding, fundraising method.
Run/Walk: Organize a 5k or 10k walk (or even a smaller distance for little ones) and collect pledges. Perhaps have casts organize teams to make the competition even more fun. Perhaps even simply participate in an existing race but coordinate a team for your theatre and collect pledges separately.
Let your theatre be a venue for fun, non-performance activities, like Trivia Night. You probably have everything you need - the space, a charismatic emcee/host, concessions/a bar for participants to buy drinks or snacks.
50/50 raffle - An easy fundraiser can be done anytime.
Wrap gifts for donations in your theatre lobby before your holiday show.
Help Us Change ____ . Place a big jar for loose change and see how much can you raise in one year for a modest item you need. Ask to help change the lights, the paint, the wallpaper, etc
The First Stab at a Big Event
Use YOUR resources
Some things you want to do might not be possible, but there could be a lot of opportunity no one else has. Do you own your building? You have the built-in space to do things others pay rent for. Have your own costume shop and tons of inventory? Why not open up 'shop' for Halloween and get those things rented? Got an 'in' on a celebrity or big name, and can you convince them to participate in a special fundraising performance? Don't forget, you might know the celeb but maybe you know someone who knows someone who knows someone ... Sometimes all it takes is asking.
What events work in your community? Don't replicate them, but look for clues on what the draw is. You have all kinds of places to draw inspiration.
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em
Is there a group doing a killer fundraiser every year? Can you collaborate with them, proposing some kind of fund sharing program? As an example, if your local education foundation has a big gala, could you offer entertainment if ticket buyers add on, letting your theatre earn the entertainment portion?
Get the non-theatre people involved
If you have an educational or youth program, or heavy youth participation, spend some time cultivating a fundraiser just for those programs, including, of course, the youngsters themselves. Whether it's a volunteer event or the scheduled performance at the end of the summer drama camp, think about the opportunities there to get families and friends involved and understanding that fundraising is a major part of the program their loved one or family member is participating in. (Hint: one of those mentioned family or friends might end up being one of the someones who knows someones I've already talked about).
The youth who have discovered a love for your theatre might also be great team members as you plan your more adult-oriented fundraising events, offering a chance for them to perform, present ideas, or participate in pulling off a great gala or performance night. Their involvement in that fundraiser can spark the interest of their family, and they learn quickly all that it takes in working together to raise money.
Working from the Inside Out
It might be easy to want to take a lot of ideas and run with them. The risk in that is not gathering full participation, and burning out your resources (places, people and things). Big/more isn't always better.
Despite all hard work to pull off the logistics of your fundraiser (big or small), nothing can beat the fact that people will give when they believe in something. Make sure all your efforts include as big a plan to explain to donors and givers where their money goes and how great your theatre is. Spend some time on this concept first - who does your theatre impact, what are its accomplishments, what are the impact (number and emotions) of your programs? Get familiar with your community as much as you can before you start asking for money.
Ferndale Repertory Theatre's Repfest attendees all dressed up with checkbooks at the ready.