Asking for Money from Artists

01.06.11 | 48 Comments

CATEGORIES development, funding and support

Toward the end of last year, I began to get a series of emails from theater companies and arts organizations I’ve worked with in the past asking me to consider making donations in support of their efforts. This has become a late-December custom for me; I’m sure you experience the same thing.

In previous years, I simply deleted them all as they came in. I know that a great many people whose professionalism I respect put a lot of work and thought into those emails, so it pains me to admit that publicly, but it’s true.

The simple fact of the matter is that my wife and I make a careful determination together about which organizations we’re going to support each year, then make our donations as we can afford them long before December arrives. No manner of emailed appeal – save for one relating some unique and special tragic circumstance – is going to move us to make a new decision. And no, you falling short of your fundraising goal is not a unique circumstance. An unexpected tsunami killing hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia, on the other hand…

This year, for some reason, the donation request emails started to get under my skin a bit. With the addition of a baby to the family and the loss of my wife’s income, our financial picture has changed drastically, so I attributed my annoyance at first to a general worry about money… but the more I started to think about the question of these organizations asking me for donations, the more confused I became.

For example: Theater X (name, of course, redacted) produced a play I wrote some time ago. We had a great time working together, we built a great rapport, and I earned a small royalty from the collaboration: a very small royalty, in fact. So small that if I’d given them a donation equal to the suggested amount in their email solicitation, I’d have essentially been giving half of what I earned right back to the theater.

Should they be asking me to do that? Is it okay? Does it strike you as tacky? Is it a natural evolution or continuation of our relationship?

The answers to those questions seem to me to hinge on whether I want my connection to Theater X to adhere to market norms or social norms. If it adheres to market norms, then I was effectively a temporary employee, paid by Theater X for my work, and to ask me to return my paycheck is definitely not appropriate. If our relationship adheres to social norms, however, then it’s based around a mutual support of each others’ artistic goals, and money changing hands is simply a reflection of that support.

I haven’t seen messaging like that in even ONE of the donation-appeal emails I’ve received, however. Nobody says “Because we’ve worked with you before, and because we feel like your personal artistic mission overlaps with our organizational mission, we thought perhaps you might care to support our upcoming season.” My inbox is filled with one-size-fits-all generalized appeals that make me feel as if my contributions as an artist are undervalued and that the organization doesn’t understand how hard it can be financially for artists to make ends meet.

Is it too much to ask that an arts organization segment its email list – artists in one category, subscribers in another category, and former donors in a third – and create unique emails for each segment? That’s standard fundraising practice for a non-profit organization. We should expect that much from theaters as well. We should expect them not to take us for granted.

The truth is that if I had enough money not only to support my family solely by writing plays, but also to support the organizations I work with, I gladly would… but I don’t, and I don’t know how many artists do. I’m genuinely surprised, in fact, that appeals to artists for donations actually work… but I know from asking around in researching this blog post that they definitely do. My theory is that we’re sensitive to organizations needing money because we usually need money ourselves, so we know what it feels like.

Ultimately, I’ve decided that except in rare instances, an arts organization really ought not to be asking for donations from artists unless there’s clearly a special connection at play. This has only been true, incidentally, of a small number of the requests I’ve gotten. In many instances, in fact, I’ve received requests from theaters I’ve never worked with at all: those to whom I submitted plays for consideration, who really ought to be embarrassed for emailing me to ask for money.

Even when a strong bond exists between an artist and an arts organization, however, the solicitation ought to at least acknowledge the nature of the request, and the appeal level ought to be set appropriately low: don’t ask for ten thousand bucks, in other words, when you only paid me three hundred for our last project. And when that strong bond doesn’t exist? I think it’s wise to avoid blurring the line between a social relationship and a market relationship, which does us all harm.

Finally, I think it’s worth noting that we should probably be reaching outside our own artistic networks for support anyway. After all, we’re not making theater for each other… or if we are, we shouldn’t be. We’re making it for other people, and it’s those other people from whom we should be asking for donations. (Heck: as long as we provide them with stories and experiences they value, they should be glad to offer financial support.) It’s perhaps more difficult, I realize… but it just makes sense.

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  • RVCBard

    I think it’s worth noting that we should probably be reaching outside our own artistic networks for support anyway. After all, we’re not making theater for each other… or if we are, we shouldn’t be. We’re making it for other people, and it’s those other people from whom we should be asking for donations.

    That’s pretty much where the bulk of contributions for Crossroads Theatre Project comes from.

    As far as supporting other artists goes, I’d much rather pay for a ticket and go see their shows.

    • Sounds like Crossroads must be doing well.

      And I agree that paying for a ticket (rather than asking for a comp) is a way to support other artists; there are also other ways (encouragement, sharing ideas, sharing contacts) that I try to practice regularly… but I imagine that to the folks who hold the purse strings, those don’t count quite the same…

      • RVCBard

        Sounds like Crossroads must be doing well.

        I wouldn’t say all that, but I decided from jump street not to fund my work mostly with my own money.

        • I applaud that decision, which I’m sure was difficult. You must have conviction. Admirable.

  • Bravo. Eloquent and simple. Thank you. Now I’m going to tweet this to the NYTimes.

  • Charles R. Kaiser

    I’ve already given over my life to the “arts.” I also support them via my purchase of tickets, membership dues to groups like USITT and The ALD. I don’t have anything left over to support them in any other way.

    • That’s a very straightforward way of expressing the sentiment as well. I have literally given my entire life to the arts: what else is there to give?

  • Brandon Moore

    Your observation that if you’re going to ask artists for money, ask them AS artists, I think is bang-on.

    But I think I need a better understanding of what you consider “rare instances” because I know as a staff member at Theatre Ontario, an arts organization that is both a service organization for member artists and organizations, and a registered charity that acts for “the greater good of society and the benefit of the public at-large” (or however you prefer to define the objective of a charity), I’m not sure I know then who it would be appropriate for us to ask.

    I’m very fond of BASF’s marketing message of “we don’t make the products you use, we make the products you use better.” I think ASOs serve an analogous function in arts and culture; at Theatre Ontario we don’t put on plays; our mission (at the simplest level) is to do what is needed to enable theatre artists and administrators to make better theatre. I don’t know what message to take to the public that wouldn’t just put us into competition with the theatres themselves?

    (I once saw a theatre’s fundraising message which used the “$x pays for a week’s worth of rehearsal” or “$x pays for royalties” approach that included “$x pays for membership in an organization that helps us…” They can express our value to their audience.)

    I’m still working through this in my own head and maybe the light-bulb moment is coming. But sometimes, I feel like artists are really the only people who can appreciate, value, support what ASOs do.

    • If you give me some transparency on what it is you do for artists and what your overhead rate is like I’ll still do it.

      ASOs are TERRIBLE at telling me what it is they DO in general.

      • Brandon Moore

        I know we can be terrible, speaking as someone for whom that’s pretty much the job description!

        Actually, that’s a whole separate post that I might try and take a crack at.

        • Do! I’m fascinated by it…. and a stronger more confident ASO community is something we could really use.

    • Hi, Brandon. As I mentioned on Twitter… great questions.

      I think that as a registered charity that acts for the greater good of society etc., it would be appropriate for you to ask everyone except the artists and arts administrators you support. That’s at least my take.

      But your primary question (via Twitter) was what entailed the “rare circumstances” I refer to in my blog post. The phrase is admittedly a bit vague; in an earlier draft of the post, I tried (and failed) to define it. I’ll try again.

      I think what I’m talking about here is a case in which an artist has a long track record of working with an organization — so long that the artist has a voice within that organization, helping to steer its direction. That could look any number of ways: a seat on an artistic advisory board, a residency of some kind, a fellowship. (I make an annual donation to the theater company at which I am the resident playwright, for example.) Another of these rare circumstances might include a personal relationship — a deep friendship between an organization and an artist.

      But I’m struggling again, because the nature of the relationship doesn’t matter — it’s the depth. I would like to think that one KNOWS when a genuine partnership exists… one that might warrant a request for a donation. Perhaps, however, I’m wrong.

      Bottom line: I’m still working some of this through my own head as well… and maybe the light-bulb moment is coming for me, too.

      • Brandon Moore

        And I always come back to the charity that provides shelter for the homeless doesn’t go looking to the homeless to help pay for it.

      • Brandon Moore

        I was also going to add…and isn’t that why we have this blog? To work through these ideas. I think that’s what I’ve come to love about the whole 2am Theatre blog and tweeting crowd…tempered absolutists.

        • Tempered absolutists is going to be my phrase of the day. And my band name. And perhaps the title of a future blog post. The trifecta!

          I agree with you: it is why we have this whole community: to figure things out together.

  • Gwydion, I do agree with you that the appeal should be tuned to the relationship. However, I’d just like to throw out there that ticket buyers sometimes feel every bit as annoyed as you describe to receive an appeal. They frequently think “I bought a ticket, I supported you already!” even when they know tickets don’t cover all the costs. This tends to happen when the relationship is more distant… it comes right back around to relationship again, doesn’t it.

    • Oh,it’s always about relationships — it’s about deepening engagement.

      When I hear that ticket buyers are annoyed to be asked for money, even when they know that tickets don’t cover the costs of a performance, I always think: did you ask them for more money, or did you ask them to deepen their engagement with your organization? The former probably feels more annoying than the latter. Still, I’m sure folks are doing the best they can with the ask — which I know is very hard.

      • RVCBard

        I tend to refrain from asking people who buy tickets for money. It just feels . . . tacky. However, I do ask people who can’t show up to donate about the cost of a ticket (or a bootleg DVD). And I made a point to thank them by putting them in the playbill (without the amount they donated).

        I don’t make a lot of money, but I do tend to have better relationships with people.

        • And aren’t relationships more important than money? (The only correct answer there, I’m sure you’ll agree, is yes.)

  • Tracy Eliott

    I would also like to throw out there the idea that there are arts organizations that have a staff dedicated to thinking these things out (in which case, they should be more thoughtful about their appeals), and then there are tiny organizations with an all-volunteer staff … in which case they’re lucky an email gets SENT out and that it’s free of grammar errors, let alone any truly well-thought-out messaging.

    • So true. Part of why I hesitated to offer criticism — and tried very hard to commend the folks who run arts organizations — is that I know how hard it is to do this kind of work, especially for small (or even one-person) organizations. I really don’t mean to be critical — I just hope to offer advice that might help folks get better at the ask.

      • Brandon Moore

        Indeed. There’s always a certain “catch-22” to the problem of: I could do a better job of building the relationship if I could commit more resources to it.

  • James Carter


    As associate director of a theatre company and an artist, I understand your point of view. However, the administration of email lists is time intensive and parsing out artists is a consuming affair. We can barely keep our lists separate from the events and productions we do, let alone pars out individuals who may or may not have enough income to donate. Also, how are we to know how much income you (or your family) have? For all we know, everyone in your family is gainfully employed, and you’ve just sold a screenplay with a huge advance. It happens.

    Your most resonant point is the personalization of fund-raising, which is a deeper conversation. When people feel as though they are receiving a personal message, they give more – or they are more prone to give.

    In November and December my company, terraNOVA Collective http://www.terranovacollective launched a Kickstarter campaign for my play “Feeder: A Love Story”, which opens in March in NYC. We reached out on all fronts – friends, family, and strangers – and many of those people are artists. We hit them on Facebook, Twitter, our E-mail blasts…and most importantly, we sent personal emails. By far, the greatest percentage of donations came from the personal emails in which a note about the potential donor’s personal life was included.

    People do want to feel connected to the organizations they support – whether they have worked with them in the past or are related to them. When sending out snail-mail pleas, invariably the most donations come from the ones with hand-written notes at the bottom of the letter. These personal touches are vital to the continuation of whatever relationship the potential donor has with the company.

    I too, received about 20 emails from various companies in the last weeks of 2010. The reason for this is that the heaviest day for donations in the year is the final two days. Organizations know this, and that’s why the onslaught. As we headed to these final days, I asked our artistic director if we should send out one final plea. We agreed that with the success of our campaign earlier in the month it would feel like adding insult to injury, so we let it go. It sounds like it was the right choice, in light of your post.

    The line that saddens me most is that you, an artist, minimize our work and profession by saying, “And no, you falling short of your fundraising goal is not a unique circumstance. An unexpected tsunami killing hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia, on the other hand…” If we do not make our fundraising goals it means your play doesn’t get produced. It means we don’t have enough money to continue our season. It means another theater is that closer to death, and while it may not be a tsunami, the American Theatre is dying a slow and painful death because of these comparisons to other organizations that seem more “worthy” because of their mass tragedies. Of course you spend time and energy discerning to whom you donate. Please, consider that these theaters might be just as important to the survival of our culture. And, when culture dies, people are not far behind.

    The hardest thing I do as a theatre administrator is ask for money. I don’t like it. It is difficult to reach out to people who I know have no more money than I do. Every time, though, I send an email or letter to a potential donor who I don’t think can afford it, I ask, if they cannot afford to donate, that they pass it on to someone they think might. Just because a company asks you to donate, it doesn’t mean they want *you* to donate. They are asking for your support. If you had a good experience with Theater X, why didn’t you forward the email to someone who could afford to donate? Did you reach out to them and let them know your situation is bleak? Perhaps they might let you know in what other ways you can help. They would certainly understand. And, remember, this company asked many, many people for money to produce your play, whenever it happened. That’s how you got produced.

    There is this great misnomer that artists and administrators are at war with each other. At large scale institutions and organizations this is often the case. Artistic directors take down six figure salaries while the playwrights who work for them scrape by. However, at the level about which you write, administrators work day jobs, take small stipend, and are artists (often) just like you. Also, if we take all artists and lump them into one group, that means we never ask artists for financial support. That assumes all artists will always be broke. By doing that we continue to live these false roles thrust upon us. By parsing out artists just because companies don’t think the artist can donate is not good business practice, for once someone does write that big screenplay or land that television show, they may actually donate.

    We’re not done raising money for my play. In fact, we have several thousand dollars to go. I will start up again over the next few weeks to raise that money. If we don’t raise it, the play won’t happen, and I won’t let that happen. So, I continue doing the thing I loathe most: ask for money. It’s the only way we will survive.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I sense your passion, and I value it. I know raising money is hard; I haven’t had to do it very often, and I know how difficult and important it is.

      I’m going to try to respond point by point, as best I can, to the ideas your raise with which I have concerns.

      Segmenting email lists is definitely hard, as you’ve suggested. The fact that it’s hard, however, doesn’t mean it isn’t right, or at least ideal. After personalization, it’s the single most effective way to drive success in email communications. It allows you to target messaging to your audiences… and artists are very clearly a different and distinct audience worthy of tailored messaging. Furthermore, although I’m sympathetic in general toward the difficulty of the task in the abstract, when I get your email asking me for money, I’m simply (and I’m being candid here) disappointed that you’ve treated me like everyone else.

      As you’ve said, people want to feel connected to the organizations they support; if you’ve produced my work, I feel connected to you in that way. The connection you’re looking for when you ask me for money is very different. That shift can be difficult to make.

      You refer to the simple fact that the last two days of the year are always the largest donation days; they are, and I don’t know any way around that. Perhaps my wife and I might be unique in that our financial planning is complete long before the year is over, but I doubt we are; in any event, perhaps those of us who plan are more annoyed by the end-of-year rush. We may be an edge case. In any event, greater minds than mine can suggest ways to avoid this fundraising traffic jam; I have no insight.

      You also suggest that, when I get a donation email, I might consider two responses: replying with information about my “bleak” (that’s overstating the case, but I take your point) financial situation or forwarding the email on to someone else who might be able to help. To the former suggestion I say this: I find that very presumptuous; I didn’t start a conversation about money, you did by asking me for some, and I don’t care to share whether I can or cannot afford to give. To the latter suggestion I say the following: if it’s hard for you to ask for money, how hard do you think it might be for ME to ask for money FOR you? Very hard, I assure… though perhaps some do take your suggestions.

      I have to take some small offense at your suggestion that I’ve “minimized” what we do. I wouldn’t have given my life to it if I didn’t think our work was of critical importance, thank you. I will not apologize, however, for believing that a massive environmental disaster costing hundreds of thousands of lives is more critical than one play not getting produced; any notion to the contrary strikes me as exactly the sort of elitism that gets our work ignored by a large swath of the general public.

      I’m also as cognizant as anyone of the difficulties faced by the arts. I do not, however, believe that art, in general, is dying — it can never die, though its forms may change, because it’s part of being human. Likewise, American theater may be forced to adapt in ways we cannot foresee, but it will not disappear. Of that I have no doubt.

      Finally, let me close by saying that I hope you do raise the money you’re trying to raise to support the production of your play (and that if you don’t raise entirely what you think you need, you find a way to produce it for less money). I wish you nothing but success. But I also hope that money comes from audience members — from people who believe in the story you want to tell and want to help you tell it and want other people to hear it. If some of those people happen to be artists, fine… but better that they aren’t.

      • James Carter

        Thanks to you, too, for your even-handed response. I appreciate your willingness to dialogue about such a difficult subject. I often find myself straddling a gap between artist and an administrator on such subjects, and whenever I comment, I do so in hopes of closing that gap a little more.

        Certainly segmenting lists, though time consuming, is more ideal than not doing it; however, presuming all artists are in the same boat financially is also a huge presumption. Where do we draw the line? Do we only segment artists with whom we’ve worked? Who we know to be artists? Who we know to be artists that have attained a certain level of success and are more likely to give? When you say you’re “disappointed that you’ve treated me like everyone else,” is that directed at Theater X with whom you’ve worked or every theater that happens to know you are an artist? These are all sincere questions. I would really appreciate knowing how this kind of segmentation would work in your mind.

        I don’t think you are unique in your financial planning. I’m sure many people do plan as you and your wife do. However, in this age of credit cards and online donations, it makes it much easier for people to give with the click of a mouse than 10 years ago when one had to pull out a checkbook, write the check, put it in an envelope and hit the post office. This is a fast world, and this kind of donating is quickly becoming the sole way donors contribute. This past year, we received 90% of our donations online. Personally, I donated online to four theater companies in December because I received their end of the year pleas. Unfortunately, I couldn’t donate to all I would have liked, but obviously these pleas do sometimes work.

        You indicated that your financial situation is not “bleak” as I overstated. That’s a good point. I don’t know what your financial situation is. Most likely, neither did Theater X or any of the other theaters who sent you emails. How are we to know where you are at financially? Our solicitations over the past two seasons have acknowledge (to everyone) that the economy is tough and we’re all struggling. You stated you don’t care “whether or not you cannot afford to give,” but you seem to care about it by posting this blog. You told the world about your financial state, and I misunderstood it. How is Theater X (or any other organization for that matter) to know that you are unhappy with its tactics until you post it on a blog for the world to see? I receive several emails from artist friends all the time telling me that they can’t afford to give; they wish they could, and they wish me all the best. It’s, as you stated many times here, about deepening the engagement. Why is the organization solely responsible for this engagement – especially if that engagement is an artist to organization relationship? If you don’t wish to receive these emails, let the organization know. If you are unhappy with your experience with Theater X, unsubscribe from their email list altogether. That’s your prerogative. But the conversation about money is not a presumptuous one. If you are on a not-for-profit’s email list and you don’t expect to ever get a solicitation for money that is presumptuous. I do believe by being on an email list of any organization (Arts related or otherwise), you are open to any and all solicitations. You may disagree with me on this, but again, I think the heart of our dialogue is about targeted fund-raising.

        Also, there are always benevolent people – often artists – who pass along our emails, re-tweet our and share our posts on Facebook about our campaigns, and those are true friends of our company. Yes, it may be hard for them to do it, but it’s always the true show of support. I greatly appreciate it. I don’t expect it. I do not wish to infer too much about your relationship with Theater X, but it seems as though you may not really have one or it may not be a good one. If this is true, why not just unsubscribe from their list? If they are a company with whom you have a good relationship and appreciate, why would you not want to support by passing along the good word?

        If I offended you about my characterization of minimizing what we do, I apologize. I certainly didn’t mean to offend. Looking back at my comment it was slightly dramatic. But, hey, we’re dramatists. I get your point comparing a massive environmental disaster to producing a play. This isn’t about producing a play, though. It’s about changing our collective mentality. It’s about the importance Americans generally give to the Arts. It’s not about elitism. The Arts are pushed to the bottom of the pile again and again, while other extracurricular activities take precedent in our schools. Districts always cut drama, music and dance programs first. The priority of the Arts in America needs to shift. I know you understand this, and I was with you until your final statement:

        “Finally, let me close by saying that I hope you do raise the money you’re trying to raise to support the production of your play (and that if you don’t raise entirely what you think you need, you find a way to produce it for less money).”

        A pervading mindset amongst Americans and American artists is “if you don’t raise entirely what you think you need, you find a way to produce it for less money.” No one says that to the NFL. No one says that to Corporate America. No one says that to the Red Cross. Getting by is the name of the game in the arts. We always do more for less. That’s the way we’re programed. I’m guessing that’s how you make it by with your wife and child. You get by because you have to. I’m adaptable. We all are. It’s true. We’re not going to die if we don’t get money, but wouldn’t it be nice if small theater companies around the United States weren’t scraping by? Imagine how much more productive we would be if administrators of our small arts organizations could actually pay themselves. Better yet, imagine if we could all get paid what we’re worth. We deserve that.

        Perhaps I should move to Europe like so many of my colleagues have done to earn a fair wage for the work they do. I don’t want to do that, though. I want to stay here, make theatre about that which I’m passionate and implement change to my country’s scenario. It would be great if we could sustain ourselves by non artist audience members alone; however, the unfortunate reality is that the restrictions of unions coupled with the size of the houses tethered to the inflated rental prices in New York City mean that even if we sold out every single performance of a play, we would only make back 50% of our budget. You know as well as I, a complete sell-out of a three week run is nearly impossible.

        So, we ask for donations. We ask for them from everyone we know. Including artists. If the artists cannot give, I do encourage them to support us by forwarding on the email, if they feel so inclined. If they don’t feel so inclined, delete the email or let me know they support but cannot give this year. And, if they really don’t want to get fund-raising emails from us, unsubscribe. This is courteous and civil.

        As for the greatest thing I’ve received from this dialogue (and the response of the artists to your post), it is clear: you are not the only one who feels this way. I’ll definitely take it all into account when we’re heading up our next fund-raising campaign. I will continue to seek ways of deepening the engagement.

        Thanks for sharing.

        • Another very thoughtful response, to which I shall endeavor to respond as properly and thoroughly as your keen questions deserve, even though I don’t have enough time to do so. (Because yes, we are quite good at making do with what we have.)

          First, to answer your sincere questions:

          In an ideal world, I think an arts organization would segment artists AND artists with which they have worked separately… but that would be quite difficult and cumbersome. Practically speaking, artists should be their own segment, with their own messaging, I think. Any other degree of segmentation would be foolish to expect.

          To be clear: Theater X is an amalgam of several theaters, not one in particular. My post may have been misleading on that front. Even if it was a single theater, however… to suggest that I unsubscribe from the theater’s list (assuming I signed up for it in the first place, which is all too often not the case) strikes me as throwing out the baby with the bath water. I want very much to stay abreast of their work. You’re right to suggest that the “cost” of staying on their lists is being solicited from time to time, and I accept that… but there’s no reason they should solicit me in the same way they’d solicit, say, a former board member or donor.

          To be clear, though: it’s not about me expecting Theater X to know how much money I make (and let’s be clear, finally, on that point, and not speak of it again: we’re absolutely fine, just not able to give much right now). It’s about me expecting Theater X to know what we mean to each other, which is a very different (and far more important) thing.

          Finally, a comment in response to your concern about the “make do with less” mindset. I do actually say that very same thing to certain segments of corporate America. Personally, I think it should be illegal to make a profit on, say, health care or health insurance. I think those businesses (among others) should have to make do with less. I think the entire military-industrial complex should make do with less (and less and less and less and less and less). I consider that mindset one of the best things we have going for ourselves — it inspires immense creativity and resilience, and I’m proud of it. Yes, I wish our government was more European (or European pre-2007/2008) in its support of the art, and I advocate for that a great deal… but until it is, we shall survive.

          • Yes, we don’t have enough hours in the day to continue this here. I’ve been yearning to actually be conversing with you, instead of long essays, however insightful.

            One last clarification: I’m sure *you* do say “make do with less” to corporate America, health care and insurance services. I’m suggesting that this is an overarching attitude in America, and it does infect the arts (mainly arts administration), too.

            Thanks for this, and I look forward to keeping up with you on Twitter, too.


          • Thank, you so much, James, for the honest and earnest conversation. I look forward to keepin up with you on Twitter as well!

            All the best,


        • I love this thread.

          • Yes, I’ve enjoyed it much and learned a bit. Thanks everyone for sharing thoughts…

        • I’ve been enjoying the back and forth on this post–this is exactly the kind of conversation for which 2amt exists.

          I think you hit the mark with the idea of the properly targeted ask. With my company and a few that I consult with, we use MailChimp for our mailing lists, which makes it very easy to customize what email goes to whom. So I can target a specific range of my list–here are pure patrons, here are artists, here are artists we’ve worked with–and I can do it in seconds. Yes, I have to craft a separate message to send them, but it’s worth the effort. And if my tiny company can take the time to do that, surely a larger organization with specific box office and customer service staffs can handle it.

          In general, I don’t get upset when a theatre or other arts organization sends me a pitch for money. Most of them only know me as a patron, and that’s fine. But I do get annoyed when it’s a theatre that I’ve worked with, because somewhere in the building, they should have my name on a list of people they’ve paid to work there.

          Personally, I haven’t given money to a theatre company outside of buying a ticket in years. Why? Because I use enough of my own money supporting my own theatre company, because I do buy tickets to shows at plenty of companies, and because I give enough free time and advice to other companies. If one of those companies repeatedly asks me for money after all the time I’ve given, it actually makes me reconsider giving freely of my time in the future, because somewhere along the line, they’re not paying attention.

          As for the end of the year ask, I mentioned this on Twitter the other week. I delete all of them unopened. Several people came back with the “yes, but it’s the biggest giving day of the year.” Which is fine. But of the arts organizations asking me for money last week, many of them were asking in the only email (or only one of two emails) they’d sent me all year.

          If my company properly campaigns year-round, stays in touch and builds that relationship with our patrons, my end-of-year email is only going to be a thank you for support and enjoy the blessings of the season. I don’t want to intrude on families’ holiday times with my hand out, pointing out the timing of tax deductions and how we’re building our capital campaign. I don’t like receiving that kind of letter, so I’m not going to send it out.

          I look at PBS and NPR as an example. They have regularly scheduled pledge weeks, which feature special programming and, to a degree, a personal conversation/interaction with the hosts, program directors, producers, etc. They never have a pledge drive over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. And I appreciate that.

          If we map out more of a year-round strategy–a combination of communication, outreach, special events, what have you–and make it clear that we’re doing this to help you, the patron, plan ahead, that we don’t want to bother you at the end of the year, I think we’d all be surprised at how well that would work.

          But that’s a whole ‘nother post in and of itself…

          • Fantastic.

          • There are several bullets for us to be braining on going forward:

            Creating a counter-ask schedule. Can we? Can the supporters?

            Can we help small and mid-companies with list segmentation either through advice or actual hands on DB help? (it’s one field, I believe in us).

            How many ‘touches’ from a company, high quality content touches – blog, newsletter, email, mailer – feels like it earns an ask?

          • These are GREAT points. I hope others will chime in and share your thoughts. We CAN do this.

          • We absolutely can do this. And I think if we maintain some transparency to what–and why–we’re doing it this way, we’ll earn a lot more support and goodwill from our communities…

          • Brandon Moore

            My first inclination is “write a how-to” about segmenting your list. It’s a concept understood by the big dollar fund-raising professionals, but maybe not as well understood my smaller theatre organizations?

            Like a checklist that asks about every person on the list: Do you know if Person A is x or x?

          • Since email is a relatively undemanding medium, it seems unwise to overlook the year-end ask. First, given the statistics of year-end giving, you are definitely leaving money on the table by not asking. The fact that NPR and PBS do not do this doesn’t mean it’s legit – they’re leaving money on the the table, too. The cost to my company this year to avoid the YE ask in the hopes of avoiding mild annoyance on the part of some email recipient: $3000. Not worth it.

            Secondly, there is a real-world behavior espoused by your constituency that involves YE online giving, and denying them the opportunity to give on their terms (last two days, online, between 10a and 4p) doesn’t seem to meet the requirements of basic customer service.

            I get maybe 100-150 emails per day about everything from the chamber of commerce, e-marketing seminars, now-playing at a theatre near (and far), appeals, etc. The ones I really never want to hear from again, I unsubscribe. The rest, I delete – no harm done. I’m no dummy – I can tell from the subject whether I even want to open it.

            I can’t agree more that one never has any understanding of the financial circumstances of appeal recipients. We get contributions of varying sizes from current and past employees (artists and otherwise) from $20 to $500 and sometimes more. We’re surprised, elated, and overwhelmed with gratitude – and it impresses on me every time who is most capable of understanding and sharing our story: those closest to us.

            Fundraising, especially for the arts – where the value is difficult to quantify – is nothing *but* gray-area. In order to keep a small-mid-sized company running, you have to do triage on your lists, and unless you have a history of making consistent large gifts, the amount of time and attention that a company can devote to your individual relationship is going to be very limited. That’s the dirty secret that everyone who raises money knows.

            Further, all companies are different – even ones with the same budget and same staff size – all have different demands, and different proficiencies. Whether a company can successfully segment its lists according to some kind of “best practices” that would generate the greatest returns while annoying the fewest people is going to be determined by a large number of factors which will not be the same from company to company. It’s certainly worth aspiring to, but another company with different priorities and capacities might respond: “why rearrange the living room while the house burns down?”

            Email is only a medium. Either your communication and your relationships with your stakeholders are authentic and meaningful, or they are not. It seems that an email (or mail, or phone) appeal misdirected to a person with whom you have no good reason to ask is going to be unsuccessful for any number of reasons. An authentic communication with a person with whom you have a real and engaging relationship will be “successful” – even if no donation is made.

          • Brandon Moore

            A terrific comment, but I would challenge your metaphor. Even for companies in desperate straights, we’re not telling them “re-arrange the living room”, we’re telling them “call the fire department, not the police.” Sure the police are emergency responders, and they will certainly be empathetic that your house is burning down, but they don’t do anything to stop the fire.

          • An excellent comment, but…

            As you note, all companies are different. It’s also important to be aware of your community. My company’s local audience does not do much online giving at all; the majority of our donations over the years have been given in person. That’s the real world behavior here.

            Our holiday email makes the point that we won’t bother you between Christmas and New Year’s. We’re not doing it to avoid annoying one or two recipients, we do it to reach out to all of the recipients to let them know we value their holidays and privacy as much as their patronage. We’re also in a mostly rural, economically depressed area, so we don’t often aim fundraising efforts at the general community.

            Sure, this may leave some money on the table in those last two days. But it does build good will beyond the hypothetically annoyed patrons. We don’t operate in a vacuum, we let our subscribers know why we’re leaving them alone. All of our emails do include links and information on giving, etc, so the option is always available per basic customer service. We just choose not to force the issue in those last two days.

            I got one email on Dec 30th that started, “We’re preparing to close the books on 2010, and we noticed you haven’t yet become a financial supporter this year.” (Full disclosure, this was not a theatre but another non-profit. But I’ve received plenty from arts organizations with the same tone.) This both scolds me and assumes I’m going to donate or meant to do so. I unsubscribed on the spot.

            Yes, I can unsubscribe from email lists, but I probably won’t because I’ll still want to receive their general information. And yes, sometimes the subjects are transparent and thus easily deleted. But often, the innocuous holiday wishes open up to a hard donation pitch inside. I know that, I understand that, and as I said, I don’t really mind that.

            All I ask is an acknowledgment that a theatre that’s worked with me knows who I am and that I’m not just a general patron. If they’ve paid me to work for them or if I’ve donated time and effort for free, I’ve already given to them. And if the levels of donation they offer start with an amount more than they’ve paid me–even if there’s no actual minimum–the message I come away with is that my time and salary isn’t really worth it, because they’re hoping I’ll give it back and then some. It’s hard enough to live and work as an artist these days.

            Worse yet, if it’s one of the only times I hear from that theatre in a given year–whether as patron or sometime employee–the message there is that I’m just a name on a list that might give money and nothing more. That is, as you say, an inauthentic communication and wouldn’t work either way.

            I’m not advocating segmenting your mailing lists for maximum returns, that’s a Sissyphean task at best even if you could predict which patron belongs on which list. What I suggest is a simple pair of lists–this is a ridiculously easy thing to set up in MailChimp, for example–with one list for your general audience and one list for your staff, actors, designers, anyone who’s worked with your company. The beauty of services like MailChimp is that you can choose to send the same message to as many of your lists as you want, but you can also send custom emails to specific lists. A couple of clicks and you’re set either way.

            Any company can do this, it doesn’t have anything to do with a company’s specific priorities or capacities, it is simply “people who are audience members” and “people who have worked with us.” It might take a few minutes re-wording a message here and there for one list or the other, but all in all, it’s a pretty minimal investment of time to maintain those specific and distinct relationships. That’s not something to aspire to–these are relationships that every theatre company already has and needs to maintain.

  • In academia, I receive these sorts of requests all the time–recently within one month of taking an extremely low paying adjunct job.

    I’ve been on both sides of the fence (as a theatre artist and a fundraiser,) and I think you pinpointed the solution clearly: personalization. I feel resentful when I feel like another name in a database. A theatre where I applied for a job when I first moved here never responded to me personally in any way, but immediately started sending me appeals for donations. It’s fair to assume that I was interested in the theatre’s work as I applied for a job there, but since deafening silence greeted my application and follow-up, it’s hard to muster up good feelings when they ask me for money.

    I’m reminded of an experience I had fresh out of college temping in Chicago. I asked the lawyer I was working for if I could leave just 10 minutes early on a Friday. She asked why, and I told her all about this awesome theatre that I was bartending a benefit for that night. At the end of the day, she handed me a check for $50 for the theatre. When I asked why, she said, “You just spoke about it with such passion. I wanted to support you.” That interaction taught me everything I know about fundraising.

    • Your first anecdote reminds of of the many donation-request emails I get from theaters to which I submit my work… theaters who sometimes explicitly say “You’ll only hear back from us if we want to work with you,” which is shade better than simply never replying at all. (They do that, too, of course.) Asking me for money in that situation should be mortifying; it’s also completely ineffective. In fact: rather than garnering my support, they garner my annoyance. Wouldn’t they rather I have gone on thinking nice thoughts about them instead?

      Your second anecdote makes me think you’d be great at development. 🙂

    • RVCBard

      This tends to work for me too. I just need to find about 100 people to do likewise.

    • Keith Enrique Beck


  • Sarah

    I think the number one thing that annoys me about donation requests is simple: Don’t merge your payroll list with your donor list.

    Sure, there might be some people who have worked for you in the past who might contribute to your fundraising. But they are the exception to the rule. And the chances are good that those people have bought tickets or otherwise initiated support.

    Nothing annoys me more than getting a fundraising letter from a theater who hired me once for a few days 3 years ago, and now only contacts me when they want money.

  • Kim

    PSA – I’m sure I’ll be repeating thoughts since this is already such a long thread…

    I understand that receiving a solicitation email from a theatre company when you didn’t elect to be on their mailing list – due to a submission, or the like – is annoying, but also remember you have a choice. Click the unsubscribe button.

    Also, other non-industry theatre patrons may only be on one or two theatre company’s list (and are annoyed even when a show is being advertised), but as artists we are on 20 and that is our own fault. We do it to learn from other companies, we do it to know what other folks are up to — and for me, that includes their annual fund efforts.

    That said, there is no reason for a good ole reminder to try to keep lists clean, hard as it is, especially for the volunteer staff crowd.

    Great post, Gwydion.