No one knows precisely how many not-for-profit theatre companies are in New York City or the tri-state region as a whole. Are there 300? 500? 800? The estimates and statistics fluctuate as companies come and grow and come and go, but this much is clear: No matter what size a company is, funding is the only way a group can operate.
Embryonic companies often begin their fundraising the old-fashioned way-hitting up Mom and Dad for generous donations or staging raucous beer keg blowouts for friends and friends of friends. For a theatre company to look professional, however, one must develop a fundraising strategy. This is true no matter how small the company, how still unformed the company's mission, or how in process their aesthetic might be.
What complicates matters is, as more new companies have been born in the last few years, there's been little if any complimentary growth in available public sector (i.e. governmental) funds. Private funds, such as contributions from foundations and corporations, have grown as the economy's boom has buttressed their wealth, but the basic rule-of-thumb is that the top 10 not-for-profit theatre companies in New York absorb the lion's share. That leaves everyone else vying hungrily for scraps.
Yet rather than waging an economic class war, some scrappy companies have developed enough imagination to engineer a confluence of pluck and luck-and done quite well for themselves in a challenging funding atmosphere.
Back Stage interviewed representatives of 11 theatre companies recently regarding their perspectives on "development." The companies are: The Working Theatre, Theatre for a New Audience, The New Group, Pan Asian Repertory, Vital Theatre Company, Jean Cocteau Repertory Theatre, Pearl Theatre Company, Gorilla Repertory Theater Company, The Women's Project and Productions, and two out-of-state groups, the George Street Playhouse and Riverside Stage Company. Their budgets vary from a high of over $2 million to as low as $50,000 annually. All face challenges and all have learned the basic tenets of fundraising that are common to all.
While minimizing the use of jargon in this piece, a few terms are important to explain. "Earned income" and "contributed income" are the main classifications for budget items. The former generally refers to such things as box office; the latter refers to corporate, civic, or foundation grants and individual donations.
In addition, phrases like "benefactor," "donor," "supporter," and "funder" are often highly interchangeable. A $100,000 gift at one company might make you a "Friend"; a $500 gift at another company might make you a "Benefactor."
Three acronyms to know: "NEA" stands for the National Endowment for the Arts, "NYSCA" for the New York State Council on the Arts, and "DCA" for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. All these organizations award grants of varying sizes and with various conditions. An outright grant is money paid directly to the company. More often, grants are awarded to aid specific projects, to bring a project or production to fruition, to defray specific kinds of costs. Matching grants and challenge grants "challenge" the receiving company to do some specific task-say, raising the amount of the grant from others-as a condition of receiving the grant, thus doubling the impact of the award.
Finally, you'll notice many commonalities between these companies. All have active, interested, dynamic boards-sometimes a board of directors, a board of advisors, a board of trustees, or some combination thereof-to support the company's growth and mission. All tailor their fundraising strategies to capitalize on the uniqueness of their mission-and all work to be effective at making the case why their own particular approach to their artistry is deserving of financial support. All rely on some kind of special event (or more than one) to help focus on and climax their fundraising each year. Nearly all have arts-in-education programs; those without one want one because they know they are immensely attractive to foundations and corporations who might be thinking about making a donation. And all genuinely want to give something back to the community, because they understand, more than anything, how very important every dollar is to the perpetuation and the integrity of their beloved chosen art.
THE WORKING THEATRE: WORKING TO RAISE MONEY FOR A THEATRE ABOUT WORKING
"Our mission is to do plays about working people," says Mark Plesent, producing director of The Working Theatre, a 16-year-old company operating on an Off-Broadway Letter of Agreement. The company presents one production annually plus workshops, readings, and special programs. Their work has included "The Working Project," a series of short plays exploring the meaning of work from various cultural angles, "7th of October," tackling homophobia in the workplace, and "Abundance," which juxtaposed the words of minimum wage earners with that of billionaires.
Somehow, the usual gaggle of glittering donors doesn't spring to mind when imagining The Working Theatre's supporters. Yet the company sports a $250,000 annual budget, and a recent production, Rob Ackerman's "Tabletop," transferred for an Off-Broadway run earlier this season.
Neither Plesent nor the artistic director, Robert Arcaro, imagined a lack of financial hurdles resulting from their mission. "We thought that the labor community and corporations wouldn't both support us," Plesent says, noting how the opposite has proven true. "While unions don't support us directly through contributions, we've developed an outreach program to encourage union members to buy tickets for our productions."
Simultaneously, their fundraising strategy has deliberately targeted corporations wishing to raise a positive profile among rank and file workers. "On our board," Plesent says, "we have Rick Coven, Senior Vice President at Amalgamated Life-a bank providing services to unions. Through Rick, we've been able to fundraise in the corporate community." Plesent also counts Ernst & Young and Salomon Smith Barney among his company's benefactors.
Aspects of their mission also appeal to public funding sources as well. Their ticket prices, for example, are subsidized directly through Department of Cultural Affairs grants, allowing them to remain as low as $10. As if by domino effect, they often leverage that arrangement to persuade corporations and foundations to consider supporting them as well.
With a two-year-old Arts in Education program in place, and a Special Constituencies Initiative bringing such organizations as Local 1199/SEIU, Local 1180, Local 300, the Mail Handlers Union, and Local 371 of AFCSME to their shows, Plesent expresses confidence that The Working Theatre's financial goals will keep pace with their artistic ambitions. For him, there's no choice. "Not enough is done in the theatre about issues that are important to working people," he says. "We just have to do this."
PEARL THEATRE COMPANY: SETTING UP CAMP
Joanne Camp, an actor known for adding polish to the Pearl Theatre Company, does more than deliver mesmerizing interpretations. She raises the $1.3 million that keeps the Pearl in the pink.
"I compartmentalize-try to plan ahead," Camp says. "Foundations have deadlines, so that helps me figure out what needs to get done when. Sometimes it's hairy-checking on grant applications on opening night-but mostly I don't feel too overwhelmed."
She does feel much satisfaction, however. When the 17-year-old company moved to 90 St. Mark's Place (transforming the theatre back to legit after years as a movie revival house), supporters wondered if the Pearl would sustain itself financially. "Fortunately, we did," Camp says. "People tend to be excited by success, and our move generated curiosity. Our subscriptions almost doubled, and the press helped too. Suddenly, more foundations wanted to get involved."
For funders, one of the Pearl's allures is the artists' wages, accounting for 50% of the budget. Another is their mission's uniqueness-classical theatre performed by a resident acting company. "Last year we received an incredible challenge grant for the "restoration' of an existing work, "The Oresteia,' Camp says. "Not many foundations are giving out grants for such a thing, but those who do certainly look at the Pearl."
Camp researches extensively, always searching out new prospects. To keep all the Pearl's funders abreast of the latest, Camp also mails at least two fiscal reports a year.
Success, however, has a downside too: Some foundations only give to smaller groups. "The larger your budget, the more you have to know your funders," Camp says. "When you cross the $250,000 mark, foundations who won't give to companies with budgets under $250,000 become possibilities for you; yet some only give for budgets less than that. The same thing when you cross the $1 million mark."
The Pearl has recently created a five-year fundraising plan to help blueprint the future. "Even though we have 14 fantastic people on our board who are always helping us to raise funds, you always look ahead. We know our five-year plan will last us for three years, when we'll look at coming up with another one. The main purpose is to get you to look ahead."
The Pearl's budget is roughly 45% contributed income and 55% earned income. Their annual gala, featuring an auction in which, say, New York City Opera tickets might be up for grabs, features a "cabaret" starring the resident company: A good way for people to see the talent that the supporters are supporting? "Absolutely," Camp says.
PAN ASIAN REPERTORY THEATRE: MULTICULTURAL CELEBRATES A SILVER ANNIVERSARY
The work of Pan Asian Repertory Theatre has ranged from Yukio Mishima and Ernest Abuba to Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" and re-examinations of "Teahouse of the August Moon" and "The Three Sisters." Most major Asian-American playwrights, including David Henry Hwang, have received Pan Asian productions as well.
Tisa Chang, artistic/producing director of Pan Asian, not only provides the artistic vision for the 24-year-old company, but, in addition to mounting three yearly productions, must support the programs-a salaried core of resident artists, schools program, year-round training, and frequent tours-that make Pan Asian the premiere Asian American theatre company in America.
True, it's all in the cultivating of relationships, but for Chang, "It's cultivating the right relationships. There's a trend where you change your mission to fit funding criteria by launching some flavor-of-the-month project. It's dangerous. Unless you're consistent with your mission, you can alienate everyone." Having served on various NEA, NYSCA, and Department of Cultural Affairs panels, she knows firsthand the importance of demonstrating clarity and consistency in one's artistic goals.
It's far better, she says, to stay focused on your work and to then find the donors who take an interest in it. It took some time, but "after 10 years, Pan Asian finally had a degree of stability where I could work on staff and do programming. Still, you don't know if someone is going to renew a grant. There's always attrition. But there's always new funding sources, too."
Smart development, she says, is also being careful of how much you ask for. "The danger with large foundation grants is that if they stop, then you've got a big vacuum to fill in your budget. Getting a big grant is almost a double-edged sword." Much the same can be said for fiscal assumptions. "We can say we're having five or 10% growth in our budget," Chang says, "but just because you're projecting doesn't mean the money's there." Chang says one of her greatest accomplishments was completing a challenge grant to establish a "cash reserve," a hefty rainy day fund that will keep the company flush during lean times.
Governmental assistance comprises the largest component of Pan Asian's budget-approximately 50%-with earned income 25% to 30% and contributed income 20% to 30%. Their subscription base, while small, is enhanced by a "clean," or highly responsive, 18,000-name mailing list.
Their next production, Fay and Michael Kanin's "Rashomon," runs at Pan Asian's new home, the West End Theatre, Feb. 13-March 18. The annual benefit this year falls on April 19, and will feature the many celebrity artists who have "passed through" Pan Asian's world. Among them will be film star Lucy Liu, a 1992 Pan Asian alumnus. For more information on the benefit, call (212) 505-5655.
THEATRE FOR A NEW AUDIENCE: RAISING FUNDS FROM THE ROWS IN BLOOM
Theatre for a New Audience may be one of the most financially successful not-for-profit theatre companies in New York, but their $2.4 million budget, according to Executive Director Edgar Rosenbloom, can only be seen as a start. Rosenbloom, whose tenure began Oct. 1, believes that the 22-year-old TFANA, as the company is known, must quickly hurtle through an economic growth spurt to fulfill its potential.
Founded by Artistic/Producing Director Jeffrey Horowitz, TFANA mounts "Shakespeare's plays as well as epic plays from the world repertoire." This includes new plays like Suzan Lori-Parks' "The America Play," as well as critically acclaimed productions of the Bard, many directed by Julie Taymor, whose "Titus Andronicus" stunned the critics in 1994.
TFANA's ambitious 2001 season explains why a $2.4 million budget may seem accomplished, but inadequate. First is a revival of "Saved" by British playwright Edward Bond, running at the American Place Theatre, followed by "Troilus and Cressida," directed by Sir Peter Hall. Finally, Marie Jones' "Stones in His Pockets" is slated for a March 23-April 29 Broadway run.
TFANA also sustains one of the largest humanities programs in New York City's public schools, having brought Shakespeare to 85,000 children since 1984. "TFANA's educational program is essentially a whole department here, with a half million dollar budget," says Rosenbloom.
To produce more shows and broaden their educational initiatives, Rosenbloom plans to rely more than ever on TFANA's dynamic, 42-member Board of Directors, a star-laden list including Taymor, Zoe Caldwell, Dana Ivey, Mark Rylance, set designer Douglas Stein, former ATPAM President Merle Debuskey, journalist Herbert Mitgang, and American Industrial Partners exec Theodore C. Rogers as Board Chairman.
Those glittering names, however, still face some challenges. "While we're heavily supported by the Board," Rosenbloom says, "our challenges are in two areas-corporations and individuals. It's really the individuals outside the board and the corporations who are not already familiar with us that we now need to reach."
TFANA's annual gala is another strong revenue generator. Held each April to honor the Bard's birthday, TFANA's bash netted approximately $260,000 last year. Held right before the Broadway opening of Julie Taymor's "The Green Bird"-also a TFANA production-ticket auctions for that, and for "Copenhagen," complete with a dinner with Blair Brown and Michael Cumpsty, began at $800 with a minimum raise of $100.
Rosenbloom believes TFANA's commitment to talent, more than fundraising know-how, accounts for the company's fiscal success. "You begin, always, by bringing people in to see your work," he says. "Even now, it's the same thing-bringing people in to see your work."
VITAL THEATRE COMPANY: VITAL SIGNS OF SUCCESS
The founders of the Vital Theatre Company, Stephen Sunderlin, Michael Schloegl, Laura M. Stevens, and Scott C. Embler, share common values. They want to nurture theatre artists through productions of new plays, imaginative new works festivals ("Vital Signs"), and by providing a sense of home. When they began in 1999, they had no illusions about development as a start-up.
"Ticket sales," Sunderlin says. "We put up a show and we make our income. We know that in a difficult funding environment, it's difficult to produce showcase theatre for Off-Off Broadway, but we're also not trying to raise $30,000 a show, either. Our goal is to do the work first, to show that we're producing, then go for support."
Vital quickly distinguished itself in two ways. First, they established a Children's Theatre wing that has enabled them to brand themselves as a socially conscious community asset. Second, Vital went to A.R.T./NY (Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York) for not-for-profit guidance. A.R.T./NY engineered for Vital a three-meeting seminar with Arts Action Research, a consulting group, to prep the company for applying for a prestigious Nancy Quinn Fund grant. Named for the late director of the Young Playwright Festival, the grant's size is unremarkable-covering some phone bills, perhaps-but it's impact rocks. "Once you have a grant," Sunderlin says, "others are open to funding you."
Vital's professional atmosphere is also what attracted Brandy Smith to their realm. A veteran of five seasons at the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, Smith began as a directing intern, but quickly moved into administration. "I developed KSF's educational outreach, managing sales, marketing, sponsorships. As I grew with the company, things shifted to development." She soon became their primary grant writer.
After moving to New York to re-explore her creative side, Smith rented Vital's space for a showcase, and was instantly impressed. "When they held their auditions," Smith says, "I dropped off my administrative resume-I said I'd love to volunteer." Seeing talent and generosity in one package, Vital took Smith up on her offer.
At the time, the company was still unsure of where to start financially. "At any not-for-profit, you go through the fire, learn by your mistakes, and move on. I told them that vision isn't just for artistic product; it's for development, too."
Smith condensed her KSF years into an intensive day seminar, resulting in a clearer focus for the group as a whole and the completion of their tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) status. Vital is now free to begin a direct mail campaign, to organize special events-"great for PR," Smith says-and to join the grant hunt. Hence Nancy Quinn.
"People give money to people," Smith says. "Somebody is willing to support someone because they trust them. It's people who believe in what that company is doing."
THE NEW GROUP: WORKING ON MANY LEVELS
"The New Group that Scott Elliott started in 1991," says Liz Timperman, the producing director, "is the same, but it's grown, and just because you've found more material doesn't mean you grow internally at the same pace. Catching up takes time."
The catching up begins and ends with Timperman, who coordinates fundraising with Elliot and the 16-member Board of Directors.
"Building the base of our board is more important than anything to us," she says. "It required a strong board to move to the Theatre at St. Clement's, which was a big leap. But fundraising is multifaceted. You're working on many levels, carving up a pie. There are foundations, ticket sales, subscriptions, individual contributions, corporate contributions. You have to ask yourself what growth you can realistically expect, and you have to analyze each piece individually."
For the New Group, rapid growth has been particularly easy, something clearly helped by the company's extraordinary track record, beginning with Mike Leigh's "Ecstasy" in 1995. With such productions as "Curtains," "Goosepimples," "My Night with Reg," and Kenneth Lonergan's "This is Our Youth" under their belt-and a hit revival of Joe Orton's "What the Butler Saw" to boot-you'd think the occasional pan would only accentuate their invincibility. "Paradise Island," their latest production, tests that theory. What happens when a hit company hits a rough patch?
"You have to have a loyal following that believes in your mission," Timperman says. "That's why foundations are important; they're there to support your artistic goals. If you have bad shows, you still invite people. You explain your choices; you talk about it. Every production is going to have some aspect you'd like to improve upon, so you spin it, turn negative into positive. Also, this is theatre. Isn't what we do inherently risky?"
The New Group was one of the first companies to do a benefit honoring a specific person; one year it was ICM agent Sam Cohn, and the following year, Dominick Dunne. "Everyone does a gala," Timperman says, "but spinning your gala into something better really does liven things up a bit."
There's an energy and a fearlessness to Timperman's fundraising approach that's both contagious and inspirational. "Ask and ask often, but remember you never know people's situations. Sometimes the timing is wrong. Also, donors want to know what you're talking about. You might say, "if you gave us $25,000 it would be the most incredible thing,' but you have to be able to say, "or, if you can't do that, don't feel you can't talk about that.' Never back people into a corner-give them room to breathe, and don't go into meetings where somebody's like "I've never donated' and ask for huge amounts. Do your research. See if someone gives to other companies. It might be hard to donate to the arts if they're giving to cancer research."
WOMEN'S PROJECT AND PRODUCTIONS: FUNDING THE WORKPLACE
After only one month as the director of development for The Women's Project, "the workplace for women in American theatre," Michelle Miller knows where to take a company well-nigh at fiscal maturity. Founded by Artistic Director Julia Miles in 1978, the company's $1.2 million annual budget finances four mainstage productions attended by 17,000 audience members and an arts education program serving thousands of schoolchildren. Their 25-member board is top-drawer, from playwright Wendy Wasserstein to philanthropist Laura Pels to leading corporate executives.
"What a fabulous mission-to produce and develop plays by women," Miller says. "But we're right in the middle of a capital campaign-there's no time to rest!"
She's referring to WPP's new home, the Women's Project Theatre, formerly Theatre Four, on West 54th Street near 9th Avenue. After two years spent acquiring and renovating the space (still ongoing), the "public phase" of WPP's capital campaign has begun. For starters, the theatre can be renamed for $2.5 million. Other gift opportunities: the stage ($500,000), the lobby ($250,000), and seemingly everything else-the backstage, box office, handicapped accessibility areas, sound/lighting systems, lower lobby, concessions area, production booth, green room, lower lobby staircase, four dressing rooms, water foundation, and 199 theatre seats (just $3,000 a piece).
Perhaps Miller is unfazed by the campaign's scale because she holds a Ph.D. in Archeology-she's used to sprawling projects. She came to WPP because she "wanted to use writing skills and wanted to stay in the not-for-profit world. I started off in social services, so this seemed like a natural place to go."
Beside the capital campaign, Miller is working to enhance WPP's development strategy. "Sometimes we'll pursue potential donors for particular productions. If we're doing a play about reproductive rights, we might look at organizations potentially interested in helping us fund it."
WPP also recruits underwriters for each mainstage production. Their next one, "Leaving Queens," a musical by Kate Moira Ryan and Kim D. Sherman, directed by Allison Narver, runs Feb. 27-March 18 and offers a broad swath of available sponsorship opportunities. A "Full Production Sponsor" ($25,000) receives comprehensive corporate signage, umpteen promotional opportunities, 30 complimentary tickets, and more. Those making less generous pledges might join the Corporate Patrons Council ($1,000), entitling them to a pair of tickets to every opening night and other "insider" amenities.
Miller, a master multitasker, keeps not only a log for herself, but for everyone else as well. It's just one of the tricks of the trade she's learned-and from other development directors. "The more experienced development directors tend to mentor and share," she says. "There's a sense of unity."
GEORGE STREET PLAYHOUSE: LEADING THE GENTRIFICATION
At the George Street Playhouse, "Fundraising is friend raising-it's family," says Patrick O'Hagan, director of development. Now in his third year, O'Hagan spent 30 years with CARE, the Lighthouse, and the Natural Resource Defense Council before returning to his New Jersey roots.
He first became attracted to the venue, located in New Brunswick, when Martin Charnin suggested he see their work. "Martin used to produce benefits for me, doing all the work, bringing in the stars. He knew I was looking for a change."
That change dovetailed with some remarkable changes at the Playhouse itself. First, David Saint arrived as the new artistic director. Then, redevelopment plans for New Brunswick were drawn up just as the economy began cresting.
O'Hagan took stock of the Playhouse, determined to forge a new path. "The first thing I do is ask, "Who gives a damn?' You don't want to waste time on people who don't care."
By asking this question, O'Hagan learned that his audience base was stronger than expected and that the city of New Brunswick considered the Playhouse a prime reason for prodding redevelopment. "We also have Johnson & Johnson, Merck, and Bristol Meyers Squibb here. There's a recognition that we're not just interesting because we're in their neighborhood. We're interesting because of our impact on the national theatre scene."
That impact is encapsulated by two Anne Meara plays-"After Play" and "Down the Garden Paths"-that originated at the Playhouse, then transferred Off-Broadway. Currently, Chita Rivera stars in Argentinian playwright Jorge Accame's "Venecia," adapted and directed by Arthur Laurents, and running through March 11.
Across the street from the Playhouse, O'Hagan sees even more change-luxury housing on the rise. Quickly, he convinced the board to order a feasibility study as a prelude to a capital campaign to expand the Playhouse. "It documented that we're in the ranks with the McCarter and the Paper Mill," he says.
Which proves what? "That there's a lag between the perception of quality and the willingness of the broad segment of the public to upgrade their support," O'Hagan says. "The dilemma is in trying to accelerate the financial response at the same rate that the artistic product is growing."
Meanwhile, the Playhouse's education program-a "touring theatre"-visits 250 schools a year, targeting different plays to different age groups. According to O'Hagan, the Playhouse receives $300,000 in contributions toward their educational program alone, and the New Jersey State Bar Foundation recently donated $100,000 to expand their tour schedule. To support their $1.5 million overall budget, the Playhouse regularly creates some exciting events. For example, an evening of theatre with Laurents in attendance fetched $150 apiece for VIP seating; last year's annual Golf Tournament offered a bevy of $1,500 sponsorships. O'Hagan often uses handwritten notes to invite donors.
The bottom line, he says, is balancing the funding for today's production with tomorrow's ambitions. "A smart development director shoots for long-term success despite all the internal pressures from boards and executive directors. You can do some things quickly, but it isn't necessarily wise. There's a right moment to ask for a short-term gift and a long-term gift. In a capital campaign, you're asking for the "ultimate" gift."
Such "ultimate" gifts, he says, may include bequests and will programs. "Sometimes people become so involved in an organization that you really might want to suggest that; while there are assets they can't do without today, at some point they will want to dispose of them and perhaps they ought to do so in a way that reflects their values."
RIVERSIDE STAGE COMPANY: NEW PLAYS ON THE WAY
David Young, executive producer of the Connecticut-based Riverside Stage Company, takes a broadminded approach to their mission: "To find new American plays by new American playwrights." Instead of soliciting agent requests or generating the slush pile from hell, "We do a national contest every year," Young says, "sending letters to schools and publications and any place a prospective playwright might look to send their work."
The revenue derived from the handling fee, $10 per script, is helpful to a company with a $120,000 annual budget, but Young puts most of the fees collected toward the prize for the contest winner. Plays are read blind-meaning there's no name or address on the front cover; the winner receives a workshop, a staged reading, and "if possible, the playwright should attend, followed by a Q&A afterward."
A commercial producer by trade who helped mount "Annie Warbucks," Frank D. Gilroy's play "Any Given Day," "On the Waterfront," a pre-David Merrick "State Fair," and "Sally Marr...and her Friends," Young runs his theatre company with an unusually small board of six. "We need to get larger, but by being in Connecticut and New York, it's sometimes very hard to get everyone together. We don't have things broken down into the board and its committees."
Instead, Young focuses on their imaginative and, by his own admission, quirky work. Their most recent production, "Where Did Vincent Van Gogh?," written by and starring the voice of Homer Simpson, Dan Castellaneta, and directed by Art Wolff, drew curious crowds by its description: "What would happen to an actor if his body was overtaken by an alien as he is in the midst of doing a show about the famous painter?"
"Because the work we like tends to be quirky, or different," Young says, "it's actually an effective fundraising tool for us."
Their alluring iconoclasm has drawn the fundraising attention of Chase Manhattan Bank (now J.P Morgan Chase) and the Olin Corporation, among other companies. "I really find it amusing that we spend a good deal of time keeping ourselves bare bones," Young says. "We try very hard to keep everything at a very bottom line, to cut corners where we can, because we know we're often working with talented people working at well below what they normally get. Because we do Off-Broadway runs, essentially, our casts are usually eight people on a mini-contract."
According to Young, 20% of the Riverside's budget is earned income, with the rest coming in from donations from individuals and foundations. One way the company has learned to draw attention to itself is to hold cocktail parties in Young's barn beside his Wilton, Conn. home. Having Charles Strouse and Frank D. Gilroy on your board doesn't hurt, either.
JEAN COCTEAU REPERTORY: FUNDING THE REVOLUTION
For General Manager Dona Lee Kelly, Jean Cocteau Repertory, America's only permanent resident acting company performing in English in a rotating repertory format, turns 30 this year and escapes a midlife crisis.
Kelly, who functions "basically as director of development and also strategic planning," is as candid about Cocteau's fundraising challenges as she is excited about facing them. "To me, development isn't just writing grants, it's understanding what it means to have an organization functioning well. Right now, we're very understaffed, so sometimes it's hard for us to function."
That can be scary when you're producing, over a 10-month season, six plays and over 200 performances for roughly 25,000 people. And an $800,000 budget, after 30 years in business, does seem unusually small, Kelly says. "The point is, we should be at least a million, and when I came on board last July, I decided to bring in a fresh, I think, entrepreneurial perspective. You have to bring in venture capital, if you will, to make an organization flourish."
"First," Kelly says, "I wanted to put us on the road toward maximizing our earned income and to move toward an increase in contributed income." With a fiercely loyal 1,600-person subscription base, Cocteau's split between earned and contributed income is about even in an industry where, typically, contributed income takes the higher percentage of the overall budget. This suggests that perhaps there is a great wellspring of financial goodwill remaining untapped at the Cocteau. As a start, Kelly suggested a $30,000 challenge grant to celebrate the company's 30th anniversary-a challenge quickly met and, best of all, substantially exceeded.
A little known fact about Cocteau Rep is that it's a non-Equity company that pays it's actors health benefits and, for many company members-Harris Berlinsky, Craig Smith, and Elise Stone have combined over 70 years with Cocteau-up to $365 a week. Not bad, perhaps, but why would actors eschew the bigger and the better? The actors saying one thing: "I can work," Kelly says. And it's their dedication to their craft, Kelly believes, that has long motivated donors to support the company.
How does she ask for money? Carefully. "Asking for a donation really has to be very well choreographed so that the donor has the power to say yes or no gracefully. I like to get to know them; to cultivate a donor is to get a sense of them. I meet a lot of foundation people, and I tell them how much we're changing and growing, and then they get the point. But it really depends on them. You can't be afraid to ask for money. Also, when you're asking for money, remember that it's not about you; it's about civic responsibility at its best. You say, "let's have a partnership here,' because that's what you're really creating."
GORILLA REPERTORY THEATER COMPANY: APING THE BIG SHOTS
In his early days, Joseph Papp tapped the public goodwill to support free Shakespeare in Central Park. Nearly 50 years later, Gorilla Repertory Theater Company, headed by Artistic Director Christopher Sanderson, has echoed Papp with his own kinetic brand of environmental theatre. Using a tight ensemble, the company performs in almost any setting, from an annual "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Washington Square Park to a revisionist "The Pirates of Penzance" aboard the Peking, a 1911 sailing vessel at the South Street Seaport.
In 2000, Gorilla Rep produced eight shows on a $60,000 budget. In some ways, Sanderson's rather freewheeling approach to development pays homage to his initial fundraising philosophy. "In 1992, the entirety of my fundraising strategy was feeling faithful that if I had the most sincere pumpkin patch, the Great Pumpkin would surely descend. I really thought that by doing the very best work we could, and attracting a lot of people who enjoyed it, some guy would walk up to us and say "Here, you can have some money.' Needless to say, that did not prove to be the case. But I didn't reject that philosophy-I added to it."
First, Sanderson created a successful yearly newsletter accompanied by a fundraising appeal. "I can think of past years where we made back our costs, plus $500. I can think of another year where we made back our costs, plus $5,000. It's a roll of the dice, because our focus is artistic. And the big donors we've cultivated over the years have developed a great amount of faith in us because they know, you give Gorilla Rep a buck, they're going to pinch it, stretch it, cut it-whatever they can do to provide the most high quality productions they can that are free for people."
Sanderson has also learned how to pitch an audience so as to increase the $20 bills and triple-digit checks dropping into the hat following a performance. According to Sanderson, Gorilla counts on making $250 a night this way, yet regularly pulls in $500 a performance.
Their mission also makes the company a favorite for government funding. For years, Gorilla has received Department of Cultural Affairs grants ranging from $3,000 to $5,000; last year, Gorilla Rep received a $10,000 matching grant from the National Endowment of the Arts-its first NEA honor.
Sanderson says that it's not the quantity that one raises, but the quality of the work that matters. "It's an essential fundraising truth:" Sanderson says, "When you tell people you're going to do something with the money they give you, you do it and do it extremely well. Then they will come back."