For the first time, Wellington’s Downstage Theatre has implemented a structured fundraising program ‘ a strategy that Dan Slevin says aims to stabilise the future of this valuable, yet vulnerable, cultural icon.

For the first time, Wellington’s Downstage Theatre has implemented a structured fundraising program – a strategy that Dan Slevin says aims to stabilise the future of this valuable, yet vulnerable, cultural icon.

Live theatre is a tough business. Audiences can be as fickle as funding bodies, and the best laid plans can be derailed by circumstances as unpredictable as the weather, politics, or the All Blacks’ win-loss ratio. As artistic director of the Arvada Centre in Denver, Colorado, Rod Lansberry once said: “If theatres made money, they would be on every corner, like Starbucks.”

To try and smooth these dramatic (but common) rises and falls, Wellington’s Downstage Theatre recently launched a formal fundraising program asking the community to ‘Back Downstage’ to secure the iconic theatre’s future. It is the first time the arts organisation has implemented this kind of long-term strategy. Results to date have been encouraging, with nine times more income generated than previous ad-hoc efforts.

Downstage, founded 45 years ago, was New Zealand’s first professional theatre. Until recently, its fundraising had been restricted to capital works (for a disabled patrons lift and new auditorium seating), and emergency ‘Save Downstage’ campaigns. Annual fundraising income has ranged anywhere between $10,000 to nearly $75,000.

In 2008, the board – under pressure to generate new revenue streams in an environment of shrinking government funding – enlisted the help of Kitty Hilton to work with theatre staff and develop the ongoing year-round philanthropic program that has become Back Downstage.

Developing Back Downstage

The new approach to fundraising demanded a fresh brand to reinforce the theatre’s exciting artistic direction. It needed to reflect traditional theatre values, and communicate to donors that contributions would support art ahead of infrastructure.

Advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi Wellington provided pro bono creative services and by the end of summer of 2008/09, Downstage was ready to take its new brand to market.

The campaign’s central message was to ‘Back Visionary Theatre’. This communicated the need for long-term, ongoing support rather than a rescue mission or one-off donation. It also conveyed the theatre’s cultural importance, good works, consistently high artistic standards, and leading role in Wellington’s theatre mix.

Prospect Base

Supporting Downstage at the broadest level are ticket buyers, whose patronage varies from regular to sporadic. Downstage also has a society of members providing volunteer and fundraising support, with membership fees contributed back to the theatre via grants and for equipment purchases. Both groups have the capacity to be major givers and are the campaign’s target audience.

Prospect groups include the attendees of recent fundraising functions, who have responded positively to donation requests; and theatre employees from the past 45 years, who may give to ensure that others have the same opportunities.

The Results So Far

A focus of the new fundraising has been securing regular givers, and donors have responded positively to the key message of affordable, ongoing giving. This has solidified into easy to grasp examples that would resonate in daily lives: “For as little as two cups of coffee a week or a bottle of nice wine a month you can Back Visionary Theatre in Wellington …”

Six fundraising functions have been held to coincide with show opening nights. Within nine months, Downstage generated close to $60,000 in donations and pledges – a 900% improvement on the unplanned fundraising attempts of the past. Of this amount, regular givers comprise one-quarter of donors and, on average, donate $30 per month.

As Back Downstage is required to be self-sustaining, future promotional initiatives must be funded from revenues, or piggy-back on other theatre marketing activities. In July, a Back Downstage regular giving message was combined with a letter and brochure promoting the new theatre season (‘Life in High Definition’) and sent to over 6,000 patrons.

Although only a handful of donations have been received, the costs of the exercise have been covered and gifts are still coming in. One-third of new donors signed up to regular giving, which is gratifying.

The Road Ahead

A follow-up direct mail piece was sent out recently, to accompany a letter from New Zealand theatre personality and new Back Downstage ambassador Dame Kate Harcourt. The letter, which was more focused on the theatre programming, contained an easy-to-use form for people to return, however the response to date has been slow – perhaps because the giving message was subtle.

The marketing department and the fundraising department are working closely together to prepare plans for co-ordinated campaigns through 2010, and an ambitious fundraising target of $150,000 has been set for this year.

It is hoped that repeat messaging will result in a high proportion of regular theatre-goers adding a Back Downstage donation on top of their ticket purchase.