Welcome to the fourth installment of our series on fundraising strategies for small theatres. You can still find the earlier posts in this series at our blog Spotlight On Musicals. In Part 1 we discussed applying for arts grants, in Part 2 we covered Crowdfunding and in Part 3 we analyzed “the profitable season”, or in other words, how to fund a show with another show. In this final installment we are returning to the old standards, those reliable sources of fundraising that should be a part of any theatre’s toolkit.
PART 4: THE OLD STANDARDS
Selling ads: Local businesses generally care about investing in their community, and even a quarter-page playbill ad can go a long way toward bringing them customers. Ask your students if they have any connections (family or otherwise) to local business owners and let them spearhead the operation. Tailor the sponsors to the show: solicit pet shops for Snoopy!!!, sailing instructors for Anything Goes. And let us not forget your other captive market for ads: parents! Especially if it’s a big production, parents are generally eager to embarrass their children with a personal message in the playbill.
Make it look professional with Playbill’s easy to use PLAYBILLder website, which gives you all the tools you need to create your own Playbill and print it or share it online.
Don’t limit advertising to the Playbill either. While we (definitely) don’t recommend on stage product placement, many theatres we spoke to have had success selling advertising space on the back of printed tickets, the bottom of posters or even in the lobby of the theatre (or whatever approximates a lobby at your theatre).
Concessions: The old fashioned bake sale may sound quaint, but movie theaters run off concessions and they don’t even have intermissions! Give your audiences a refreshing drink while they wait for the house to open, and a reasonably-priced snack to munch on while they recap Act One. Ask parent volunteers to provide the concessions, and boom––you might already be in the black before factoring in ticket sales. Get creative with themed menu items like “Emerald City Limeade” or just decorate your cookies and cupcakes with scenes and characters from the show. There are lots of great ideas for themed concessions on the website Pinterest. Seriously, they have a surprising amount of themed concessions over there!
And you don’t have to limit your sales to food. Merchandise like t-shirts and mugs produce great revenue in Broadway theatres and they can be a boon for your theatre as well. Of course, if you want to use a show’s logo, always make sure you get the rights first. But an easier and simpler alternative is to brand your merchandise with the name of your theatre or theatre club. This way you can order the merchandise in bulk and never have to worry about dumping the unsold items. Just store them away until the next production!
Partnerships: Theatre program director Andy Balinik of Lakeridge High School in Oregon has taken an innovative (and profitable!) approach to partnering with local business. On the weekends of shows, a nearby grocery store holds a “round up” event where it encourages customers to round up their purchase; the difference is donated to the school. “The last show we did,” Balinik said, “the grocery store donated over $800 to the drama program.” Obviously you needn’t restrict yourself to grocery stores: identify what connections your students have to local businesses and move from there. And you don’t need to ask for cash: if a business isn’t in a position to donate money, it may yet be willing to let you borrow props, furniture, costumes, or instruments.
One-off events: At the end of each season, Adam Brown (of Newton, Massachusetts) holds a “Drama Banquet” that raises several hundred dollars while celebrating his students’ accomplishments. The event is free and families provide the food, but donation jars are amply visible. The evening concludes with a series of student performances – recapping the year’s productions – and a raffle: prizes range from ticket packages to goods and services donated by local businesses. This is just one variation on a theme: many schools charge admission for such events (holiday cabarets, in-character dinners) or partner with local restaurants: admission is free, but the restaurant donates a portion of the night’s revenue.
There is no doubt that it is a challenge to find the funds required to put on your musical production. But remember that you’re not in it alone: perhaps your most valuable resource when it comes to fundraising is your students. You already have a development department as passionate as you are. Use it well, and you’ll all have more time, energy, and resources to create the finest theatre you can. If you stumble on any fundraising strategies we’ve missed, let us know – we’d love to tell your story.
So good luck with your fundraising, or should we say “break-a-leg”? And in moments when it all just seems like too much work, keep in mind the words of the iconic character Julian Marsh from 42nd Street : “Think of all those kids you’ll be throwing out of work, think of the songs that will wither and die, the costumes and scenery never to be seen, think of Musical Comedy—the most glorious words in the English language!”