Some thoughtful insights into the current theater situation. Just an opinion for late Summer.
Subscribe Now! by Danny Newman (which, for some reason, is still in print) changed the landscape of regional theaters in 1977, and theaters never looked back. They had found the holy grail of funding, so why would you assume anything would change? In case you need to become more familiar with the book, Mr. Newman laid out a plan to encourage theater patrons to pre-purchase a year's worth of tickets, often tied to specific nights. So, on the third Thursday of a month, far in the future, you, the patron, were committing to attending whatever happened to be playing at the theater. There were variations on the plan, but the basics were money first and theater second.
This scheme allowed theaters the resources to hire staff and plan the year's productions. Basically, it spent money it had not earned yet. In fact, the accounting procedures required that the subscription income be divided into individual productions and only spent on the expenses associated with each show. But there are many ways to get around or entirely ignore those rules. I have heard of and known more than one theater that used too much money on that "ground-breaking" new musical and reconceived revival of a seminal play.
Another problem used to be over-subscribing combined with the above spending pattern. I ran the box office many years ago at a summer theater that over-subscribed or presold all the seats for every production month in advance. The seats were full when the shows opened, and the cash register was empty. The Managing Director was in a panic. There was no cash flow since the subscription money was basically gone.
So what could have been done? Well, the writing was on the wall for many years that subscription income was sinking lower and lower each year. As a fundraiser, more emphasis could have been put on individual giving. They were helping theatergoers buying single tickets understand that it took far more than their ticket price to produce the production and support the organization. At the same time, accepting that subscription was a dying form. With that in mind, while maintaining the artistic vision of the organization, understanding that "bigger" art is not the answer to enticing lapsed subscription buyers back into the fold.
Let alone the corporatization of art organizations has caused many more issues, but that is a different post. Here is a NYT article that might be of interest - https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/29/theater/theater-subscribers-losses.html?smid=url-share
Supporting the "power of people to do good."
"Fundraising is the power of people to do good." Armando Zumaya ends his essential article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review entitled Re-Embracing the Work of Fundraising (click here to read the full article). The article says what most fundraisers know and want to say but don't, mainly because no one in their organization cares. How many of us have faced the challenge of creating a solid fundraising plan without the proper financial support? Short-term thinking by leadership and Boards can make our jobs very hard.
He breaks the issue down into five significant issues that fundraisers face. I want to explore number three and number five - Underinvestment and No New Givers.
One activity that can confuse boards and leadership is an acquisition campaign, which is how one gets new donors. I was talking about this at a conference, and one of the participants told me that they had to deal with a board member who declared during a meeting that acquisition campaigns were a Ponzi scheme. The question I ask when I face pushback on acquisition campaigns is if the organization does not do them, where will the new donors come from? How will the organization increase gifts from individual donors? Some of whom will have excellent Life-Time-Values. The article looks at this underinvestment along with others. It is essential to track and report on acquisition donors carefully and to show how the campaign pays for itself over 3-5 years and garners unrestricted income.
"Fundraising is the power of people to do good" is how Armando Zumaya ends his essential article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review entitled Re-Embracing the Work of Fundraising (click here to read the full article.) The article says what most fundraisers know and want to say but don't because they fear that no one in their organization will understand. For example, how many of us have faced the challenge of creating a solid fundraising plan without the proper financial investment? Short-term thinking by some non-profit leadership and Boards can make fundraising success in our jobs significantly harder than necessary.
Mr. Zumaya breaks the issue down into five significant issues that fundraisers face. I want to explore number three and number five - Underinvestment and No New Givers.
One activity that can sometimes cause confusion for boards and leadership is an acquisition campaign, which is how one gets new donors. I was talking about this at a conference, and one of the participants told me that they had to deal with a board member who declared during a committee meeting that acquisition campaigns were just Ponzi schemes. The question I ask when I face pushback on acquisition campaigns is if the organization does not do them, where will the new donors come from? How will the organization increase gifts from individual donors? Some of whom will have excellent Life-Time-Values. The article looks at this underinvestment along with others. Admittedly, tracking and reporting on acquisition donors carefully and regularly is essential. This will demonstrate to leadership and boards how the campaign is paying for itself over 3-5 years and is increasing overall unrestricted income.
The other thing that, for me, is vital and typically undervalued and underfunded is professional development. I want my fundraising team involved in organizations like the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), the local chapter and the national office, the Direct Marketing Fundraisers Association (DMFA), and many local based-organizations. I also encourage membership in culturally specific organizations like the African American Development Officers, along with organizations focusing on gender, AAIP, LGBTQ, and other affinity groups. The problem is paying for the membership dues and workshops. I had a supervisor once whose reason for not wanting to pay for memberships in AFP was that "the only point of the organization is job searches." They weren't interested in my growth in the field or my ability to learn new techniques to enhance the organization's fundraising practices but in "job searches." Only some fundraising organizations are this short-sighted, but as the article notes, many can be.
Lastly, are salaries. The article really delves into the pay issue. First, let's remember the average tenure of a fundraising professional is only 16 months. In most studies, compensation is the reason for this statistic. The pay for most fundraising leadership is satisfactory, but that salary level rarely trickles down to the rest of the staff. We can be particularly conservative in hiring entry-level staff. I've heard senior development professionals use their experiences of 20, 30, or even 40 years earlier as an excuse - "when I got started, I was just happy to have found a job in the field, and I understood that higher pay would come someday once I had learned something." The article goes into other funding short-sightedness that affects fundraisers' ability to "do good" for their organizations.
Of course, every organization's leadership and board should pay close attention to the second issue from the article. Here is a Link to the Article