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Regional Companies Battle Tough Times With New Fundraising Methods

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Regional Companies Battle Tough Times With New Fundraising Methods
Photo Source: Rich Ryan

Difficult economic conditions and budget cuts are a constant reality in nonprofit theaters across the country, with the past several years seeing a concentration of theaters closing doors, laying off staff, or reorganizing due to grant funds drying up, smaller donor circles, and fewer patrons. As those regional theaters whittle down their programming to include fewer shows with smaller casts, or close up shop entirely, jobs for stage actors become harder to come by.

But several theaters have found success in targeted fundraising, tapping regular donors for extraordinary circumstances and broadening their appeal while simultaneously making the internal changes necessary to keep producing shows.

“A lot of corporate foundations have changed their guidelines and are giving less money to the arts because they are subsidizing things like food pantries, shelters, and other things,” said Chris Widdess, managing director of Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minn. “We could pander more to audiences, but that doesn’t fit our mission or vision. Our funding has always been challenging, no matter what the economy.”

 By August 2012, even though it had ended the fiscal year with $245,000 on hand, Penumbra had serious cash-flow issues. Widdess said that the conditions caused the board to look seriously at how it was managing the issue, and it instituted several specific changes, including suspending the fall program, not incurring any new debt, cutting the budget by $800,000 and raising $340,000 by Dec. 31. It met its goals.

“Getting people to fund theater is challenging anyway,” said Widdess. “But we reached out to more than 1,400 donors, and those were separate from annual giving.”

In Seattle, Intiman Theatre Festival raised $600,000 in its latest fundraising effort to keep the festival running for its summer season. Intiman, located in the Seattle Center, closed its doors in spring 2011 because of budget constraints but reorganized and reopened last year. “We used to produce year-round with four or five shows in a season, but when we reopened we decided to produce a festival with four shows in repertory,” said Andrew Russell, artistic director of Intiman.

Russell said that 2012 was a “comeback year” for the company, and fundraising was hard work that required creative thinking. “We’re thrilled that people understand that we’re a summertime establishment in the Seattle arts community, but that requires looking at fundraising in a new way.” Russell noted that between December 2011 and February 2012 the festival raised $1 million. “Fundraising is a mixture of moderate decrease in classic historical donors but an increase of new donors.”

“The fiscal health of our national theater community is almost always negatively impacted during an economic downturn, through reduced contributions, declines in audience, and other factors,” said Teresa Eyring of Theatre Communications Group in New York. Eyring also said that nonprofit theaters, however, are used to working with limited resources and can adjust to changing conditions. “It also typically includes some strategic rethinking of the alignment among mission and resources.”

According to a survey called “Taking Your Fiscal Pulse 2012” that TCG ran in collaboration with the Association of Performing Arts Service Organizations, the past three years have seen an upturn in the fortunes of the 206 responding theater companies, with 90 percent reporting that their situation is holding or getting better and 70 percent reporting that they’re operating at or below budget.

Like so many theaters across the country, the Intiman is learning to adapt to build a foundation for future growth. “Many key Seattle theaters have closed in recent years,” Russell said. “We’re not doing what we used to do, but we’ve learned to work with the resources we have and how to keep our doors open.”

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