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Where your mouth is.

06.22.10 | 4 Comments


CATEGORIES charity, conversation starter, corporate sponsors, funding and support, ideas, non-profit theatre, rabble rousing, sponsorship, theatrical ecosystem

You can vote for my theatre company if you want to, I won’t stop you. And I do appreciate the gesture.

Note, I’m not saying what the vote is for, or who will benefit from it. Because in the end, it won’t be my theatre company, will it?

Chase, Pepsi and American Express are all doing similar charity campaigns. The basics are the same: you’re a non-profit charity, you sign up and then encourage all of your friends, family, patrons, subscribers, etc to vote for your charity to win a chance at getting a grant from the corporation. Of course, you want them to spread the word so their friends, families, patrons, etc will all vote for you. And she told two friends and so on and so on and so on…

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Each is implemented differently. Pepsi’s has a limited number of spots per month for charities, so you have to get your project submitted ASAP at the top of the month; it will apparently run for the calendar year. American Express’ program is aimed at its own cardholders, or “members.” And Chase’s Community Giving has the most ingenious pipeline: it’s tied directly into Facebook. Better yet, there are no limits on how many charities can compete. Now, you’re not just one of the charities in your area, you’re one in a sea of half a million.

You read that right. 500,000 charities are eligible for the Chase program.

But in the end, the takeaway is the same. They’re encouraging me to spam everyone I know, spreading the word not about my charity per se but about their corporation and generosity. And in return?

Yes, there are a number of theatres who did well in the first go-round of Chase’s program. We’re hoping to have a post soon from one of them to talk about their experience. 2amt is about conversation, after all. If this really is an effective way to reach your patrons–and your patrons are fine with it–then run with it.

Just remember what you’re saying and to whom you’re saying it.

WHERE ARE YOU?

For my theatre company, I’m not going to bother. I’m not in a major city, I don’t have thousands of people who’ll vote and push my totals up, and I’m not going to pretend it’s possible just so I can send a daily email, urging patrons to go and to please spread the word.

It’s enough that we hit them up for donations in the first place, but at least there’s a direct return on that effort. And if I’m going to bombard them day after day with messages, emails, Facebook statii, Tweets, texts and more, then I’m going to use those to promote an actual event they can attend instead of a virtual “vote for us” event that, in the end, will benefit a few charities out of hundreds of thousands, most of whom we’ll forget by the next round of Community Giving.

But we’ll remember Chase. Or Pepsi. Or AmEx.

Of course, if you do manage to move on to the next level, if you do get a chance at their big payout, then you have to double and redouble your efforts. You need more votes, which means more campaigning, which means more messages. Sure, you’ll get x number of dollars just for reaching this round, but wouldn’t it be great to get X! number of dollars for winning?

What of those of us who are out in the wilderness, working in areas already underserved by the arts? If I manage to get every Facebook user in my town to vote for my theatre, I’d have almost 100 votes. Widen out to the local college, the county at large, maybe we get up to 200. Sure, I’ll pick up a few more from friends and family far away, maybe patrons from outside the immediate area, but I’m not going to get anywhere near that leaderboard. (At least this time around, Chase has posted a leaderboard.)

WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?

Like I said, remember what you’re saying to your followers. What image are you putting out there? What message?

When I go to see a show at Actors Theatre of Louisville, I don’t mind seeing a Humana Festival show as part of my Brown-Forman series. I know that their names on the events and the venues mean that they’ve provided–and continue to provide–the money that pays to create the art I’m about to see. That’s the trade-off. It’s why we have commercials on tv, trailers at movies, etc.

But when I open several emails from theatres with pitches for the Chase project, when I see a Facebook page filled with nothing but pleas to vote next to Chase’s little blue hand, I know that 99.9999999% of these theatres–or more–will never see a dime from Chase. Their time and labor isn’t going towards making the art or finding the funding for that art. They’ve been co-opted by corporations with enormous advertising budgets to provide free advertising.

Let’s put that into perspective. All three companies advertise in several national magazines every month. Usually, they run full color ads, often full page ones. Click on the link to see the current 2010 advertising rates for New York Magazine. (It’s flash-based, but worth a look.)

A full-page, four-color ad in New York Magazine at its cheapest would be $57,550. That would cover almost every production my company has produced in the last three years with money to spare. Now, multiply that figure by however many magazines you might find on the newsstand each month. Now, multiply that by twelve months. And that’s just the magazine advertising budget.

Now, consider how easy it is to flip through a magazine and ignore those ads. Compare that to a personal note from one of us, pushing the same logo and the same corporate name at you.

This charity thing is a bargain.

WHY ARE YOU HARSHING OUR MELLOW?

Because I don’t want to give away the farm for free.

As an audience member, I accept the trade-off of branding and sponsorships when I see a show. I flip through the programs and playbills, I look at the ads, it’s part of the game. But I can leave that part of the game at the venue for the most part.

I get messages from a lot of theatre companies now. Chase’s little blue hand is in my email, my Facebook, my iPhone over and over, day after day. I can’t get away from it. And working in non-profit land, I understand why it’s there, why charities are trying to use it, and I’m tired of seeing it. How do you think your patrons and friends on the outside feel?

Worse still, by deadening patrons to these kind of messages sent under our names and banners, we run the risk of deadening them to any and all messages we send. If we condition them to skip our messages, we’ve lost them. We put our relationship with patrons–our brand equity–in jeopardy.

I don’t know about you, but that’s a trade-off I’m not willing to make.

SO WHAT’S YOUR BIG IDEA, LOUDMOUTH?

Look, if Chase or Pepsi or AmEx wants to put their money where my mouth is, I’ll be the first one shouting their praises from the rooftops. I will let everyone know where it came from. Their logos and ads will be all over my programs, my posters, my website, my Facebook and Twitter, my banners and flags, my YouTube videos, my curtain speeches and press releases, what have you. Because that’s the quid pro quo. They’re paying for that right. Their money pays to support my artists and to serve my community. And believe me, the way the schools here have cut back on the arts, my community could use it.

But my company won’t get on their radar, certainly not in a forum like the Chase program. Remember, they have 500,000 charities to choose from.

What to do? Here’s an idea. Design a project that you could promote via Kickstarter. You do know about Kickstarter, right? To quote from their FAQ:

Kickstarter is a new way to fund creative ideas and ambitious endeavors. We believe that a good idea, communicated well, can spread fast and wide [and that] a large group of people can be a tremendous source of money and encouragement. Kickstarter is powered by a unique all-or-nothing funding method where projects must be fully-funded or no money changes hands.

I like the sound of that. And I like those odds.

Think about it. You’re not pledging to companies per se, you’re funding specific projects. Depending on your donation, you may even get something in return for your support. And maybe you got my email, you looked at my project and you’re not interested. But you might find something else there that does interest you. Maybe you spread the word about that project and it comes to pass.

I don’t mind advertising that for free, because that’s money going directly to an artist to create, to work, to live and thrive. It’s shining light on projects that can actually benefit from that light.

One such project is At Sundown, a play funded through Kickstarter to travel to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this fall. You might’ve noticed us tweeting about that a few weeks ago.

That’s what I call community giving.

How do you want to build relationships? What do you want to advertise? Where do you want to look for support? What are you trying to say?

Think about where your mouth is.


For another look at the dark side of such competitions, look at this post by Kjerstin Erickson, the founder of Forge.

David J. Loehr

David J. Loehr

Writer / Producer, The Incomparable Radio Theater :: Artist-in-Residence / Producer, Riverrun Theatre Company, Madison, Indiana :: Artistic Director / Editor, 2amt :: Panelist, The Incomparable podcast :: Husband, father, cat owner, cat bed.
David J. Loehr

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  • One thing that's missing here: the process is working. From my quick glance through the leaderboard, at least 16 theatre groups are in the top 200. (Full disclosure: Stage Left Theatre, where I'm in the ensemble, is at 24.) Particularly in Chicago, companies are supporting each other, getting the theatre community excited about us all doing well and voting for each other, leaving links on each others' comment boards. I don't know about the Pepsi or American Express systems, but the Chase rules are clear: the top 200 vote getters at the end of the voting period (7/12) get the funding. (It's a quarter million for 1, $100K for 2-5, and $20K for 6-200, I believe.) For a company the size of Stage Left, $20K is significant. And imagine what it would do to Chicago's theatre community if a dozen groups all got the same amount?

    Sure, it would be lovely if they just gave us the money for being the best. There may be some annoyance to some of our fans. (And flogging out latest show isn't? Marketing is all about walking that line.) But opting out of the process (and warning others away) so as not to sully one's brand equity? I can't agree with that.

  • It is working for some theatres, but pretty much only in Chicago. And I did say that if this works for you, then go for it. I'm also hoping to arrange a post or two from theatres that won last time out, so we can hear how they did it. And we're putting together a post with different takes from different corners of the 2amt world.

    But I've heard from a lot of people who've seen the voting slow down, even in Chicago. I've heard from theatres who jumped right in without considering any of this, precisely because it's so easy, it's a big brass ring, it's not like writing a grant, etc. And I've heard from several people–people in theatre, no less–that they're tired of seeing the pleas day after day. Yes, it's only for a month (unless you make it into the 200), but that's 30 days of fatigue

    “Flogging” our next show shouldn't be an annoyance to fans. Presumably, they signed on to our mailing list to find out about our shows and events. If that annoys some of them, that really isn't our problem. If it annoys all of them, you might rethink the marketing. Either way, we're offering them something tangible, “come, buy a ticket, see a show in return for that ticket, thank you for your time.” This is organized begging under a corporate logo that may or may not reward the company in the end, and it's CONSTANT for the length of the voting process. No one signed up for that.

    Another question I didn't even get into is sustainability. What do you do with this $20,000? (And I agree, that would be a substantial amount for my theatre company as well.) Is it going to a single production? Great. Then how do you follow that production? Do you go back to smaller, simpler shows? Does it go toward long term support of your artists? It's substantial as a gift, but it won't last very long that way either. These Chase grants are chosen as an elimination-style popularity contest–which is easy to skew–and they don't require any proof of infrastructure or plan for spending to ensure the money will be spent wisely. There's a reason why grants require proposals.

    (In fact, the Pepsi program is a little better in that it asks for a specific project, a target budget and more information. You vote for a program and/or an initiative instead of an organization They and AmEx do that much at least. Chase's program is little more than Farmville for non-profits.)

    In the end, I never said “don't do it.” I said that this is why I'm not doing it. If a company goes into this clear-eyed and aware of the pitfalls as well as the rewards, and if they're okay with that, then more power to them.

  • Khambone

    While some in the theatre/er community may feel like they are being spammed about this, I contacted a few people outside of my local community via phone and email today to ask them if they would vote for my theatre company in Chicago. They didn't seem annoyed. Actually, they sounded happy to help in such an easy way. So, in my mind, it's just like with all theatre marketing, stop preaching to the choir. Go talk to the people who aren't as familiar with your doctrine. and get 'em on board.

  • David, I'd like to explore your sustainability issue, because that is exactly my problem with Chase Community Giving, and it has been my problem with it from the start. Even more than the PR/communications angle. But I think it would be too long for a comment.

    I am the budget manager at a large, institutional nonprofit performing arts organization. So it is my job to deeply analyze how we spend money. If we were to get a one-time, windfall gift that is maybe 25-50% of our operating budget (and that's what $20,000 is to many Chicago storefront theaters) we would immediately invest it and never touch it, except for the earnings it would generate. That is the responsible, sustainable approach to dealing with large windfall, non-renewable gifts.

    Now, how many of the small theaters in Chicago are going to do that? I would guess not very many. A reasonable expectation for an endowment gift is that you will get more than a 5% annual return, so if you take 5% each year, it will continue to grow and, therefore, be sustainable. But 5% of 20K is only $1000. If I were to tell the theater company where I'm the Treasurer of the Board that they are only going to get a $1000 bump in their annual operating budget from this gift, they might revolt and kick me out, or just give up trying to get it. And, I don't even know if Chase would allow this money to be used as an endowment. Is there a copy of the rules posted somewhere that I can review?

    There are other ways that this money could be used responsibly. And there are a lot of reasons why it would be a HUGE mistake to use the money to give your development efforts a break for a year. But it would take more time to go into them.


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