Building a relevant case for support is, of course, a fundraising fundamental. The most necessary elements to fundraising are 1. A need, 2. A solution, and 3. A Case for Support connecting the two. That’s Fundraising 101 and half the battle. Give me a compelling case that is relatable, repeatable, and inspiring and we can probably attract philanthropic support. Add a kitten and some artisanal kale and we are headed for victory.
For whatever reason we very often struggle with Our Case in the Arts, particularly when participation (performances or museum admission, etc.) is dependent on a ticket purchase.
Here is a typical Case for Support in the Arts:
Some version of this message (Your Purchase is Inadequate) is an almost universal rationale for support in Arts and Culture. Why in the world?
The thinking goes something like, “Friend, the cost of your ticket (that you paid for with your hard earned money at the price we proposed) ACTUALLY ONLY REPRESENTS a fraction of the true cost of producing the performance for which you’ve joined us this Evening. And so you, as a Decent Person, should be wracked with Regret for not paying your fair share. And so Give Us Your Money. You misanthrope. You fiend. You Cheapie.”
And I don’t buy it. This is a terrible way to inspire Giving.
Why don’t you simply raise ticket prices?
That’s my natural question. You said it was $25 to see this funny play with good lighting and I paid for my ticket. Would I have paid $55, representing the true cost of attendance? Probably. For most of us, the cost of an entertainment is generally not the barrier to attendance versus other opportunities: having dinner at the new Kale place, going to that party at Renee’s, watching HBO at home, and so forth.
The performing arts tend to have a wealthier than average audience base compared with other forms of entertainment. Most of the crowd could pay more. Look around at the next play, opera or orchestra performance you attend. So, is your Case for Support, is to subsidize ticket prices for old, rich folks? I didn’t think so.
The “Your Seat Costs” rationale is based on Guilt, first and foremost. Does Guilt work to get people to act? Of course it does. But is it the best way to inspire joyful giving? I don’t think so. Guilt doesn’t lead to long-term affinity nor loyalty. You made me feel bad. Good for you. Here is $25. Take me off your solicitation list.
Finally, making your philanthropic case about the “true cost” of production suggests entertainment is all your organization is about. I love theatre and see everything I can. But if I, as a patron, only see value in your organization as entertainment, you’ve missed a real opportunity to connect with me in a more meaningful way. If a ticket to me is simply a transaction, a fee paid for a service of entertaining me for the evening, I will be no more connected to your arts organization than I am to the IMAX theatre where I am going to go see Star Wars next month.
So what instead? Tickets to performances are for my personal enjoyment and joyful consumption. Invite my philanthropy by telling me about your work beyond the stage. Those education programs that introduce youngsters to their first Shakespeare and the acting classes that teach self confidence and self reliance to teenagers. Share with me the value of having professional working artists in my community. Tell me about creating new works that showcase the faces and stories of our increasingly diverse city.
This is what inspires loyal philanthropy. Asking patrons to pony up cash because their tickets should have cost more is beneath all of us in Arts and Culture. It is lazy, manipulative and dreary.
Can we agree to stop?
When working with non-profits, I always feel that the case for support will be amazing. I mean, they are doing amazing work after all. But your article is right on – the cases are not often inspiring. “What is your meaningful purpose?” Answer that and you have your case.
Thanks Renee. I spend a lot of time coaching staff teams on how to communicate their case. It is a challenge in all non-profits. We should develop a Workshop!
I do agree with your post and moan that this tactic is still being used. I have seen this campaign tactic used time and again by organizations. Its not terribly effective.
I would however caution against the rational that patrons could just pay more to go to an event. If most performing arts organizations just took the total cost of production and divided it by the number of seats, the price would be something that only the 1% could pay. My sense is that we don’t want to re-enfirce that stereotype.
Industry wide we are seeing contributed income account for an even larger share of an organization’s budget. Where it used to be about 60%/40% contributed to earned we are now seeing ratios in the 80%/20% range becoming more common.
The case for support is the most important thing. People buy what you believe not what you sell. All organizations would do well to remember that when speaking to the community.
Kevin: Thanks for reading, and hope we can connect (been since IU…I remember you fondly yelling back at the artistic folks during opera rehearsal). I don’t mean to suggest we raise ticket prices but rather that’s my response when I see this as a rationale for giving. The cost of production is a complex issue, especially for opera, but I do believe the fundraising case shouldn’t be about the cost of the ticket. Let me buy you a beverage and chat this through soon?
Thanks for this, Jeremy. I’m researching as much as possible how I can translate a new message to a new world of donors for me. It is incredibly uninspiring to say admission only covers “x” portion of our expenses. What I need to capture is the inner city kid who came off a bus and not only saw, but sat and played with a live calf and other farm animals for the first time in his or her life. Or the kid who threw a tomahawk and learned about our Native American history. This post helps.
Thanks Katie. Sounds like you are off to a very solid start. I look forward to talking through it.
While I would agree that this tactic (the NPR approach) is problematic, I would object to your sanguine acceptance of a wealthy audience and the irrelevance of ticket prices. I would suggest a combination of higher prices and direct subsidy for poorer audience members instead of what is essentially an across-the-board subsidy of 60%.
I agree with this in theory, but the practical application of it is hugely problematic. How many people do you know who will willingly pay more for their ticket than the person sitting next to them? The airlines force us to do this, but no one likes it. And how does one determine the eligibility for subsidy? Where is the cut-off? Ticket pricing is usually complex enough without having to determine people’s wealth status before pricing their seat.
Don, thanks for the replies. When I said, “So, Raise ticket prices” I meant it more as a snarky reply to “Your ticket only covers 41% of the cost of attendance” as a rationale for fundraising. So there are a couple of issues here…raising funds to provide access so that less wealthy can attend is VERY worthy as a case. But “Your ticket covers…” doesn’t do that. It says, “This is the cost for YOU to attend” and I think that’s crap as a rationale for raising funds. We already segment my class (or at least ability to pay) in most arts organizations with pricing the better seats (or early/guaranteed) access to them vis subscription and the model works pretty well. Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comments!
Variable seat pricing is hardly the same as “segmentation.” You may decide to pay $75 to sit at the back of the house versus $150 to sit up front, but ultimately you’re going to buy the ticket. Price isn’t a barrier, because you’ve already decided to buy, albeit at a lesser price point. It’s the same way with airlines. I really don’t think it’s “crap” to acknowledge the reality that is economics in the arts. I do agree with you that it should not be done from a “guilt” perspective, and it is easy enough to make that case without browbeating your audiences.
Thanks Scott…I wasn’t suggesting that raising ticket prices is the true solution, but that it is a natural reaction to a fundraising case of, “Your ticket prices don’t cover the cost.” Including in your case that philanthropic support provides access to all is a very strong message. That’s not what most organizations do. They say, “The cost of YOU attending is more than YOU are paying for your seat” and I don’t think that’s good fundraising.
I disagree with this completely. The author ignores the fact that tickets are generally priced by most organizations at the maximum point that the market will bear. No, audiences WON’T pay over $100 to see local productions. We have enough trouble getting them to pay $65. So the “your ticket purchase only pays for half the actual cost” happens to be the truth, and people should be told the truth. Oh, by the way, they also don’t get a tax deduction for buying a ticket, while they generally DO for making a contribution. Why shouldn’t we tell our audiences the truth, and ask them to help support the organization? Our education programs are important, and contribute greatly to our case for support, but that doesn’t mean we should hide behind them. Why shouldn’t we tell it like it is? Asking for support beyond the price of a ticket can and should be done without making patrons uncomfortable, but it must be done. Organizations that get squeamish about asking for support are doomed to fail.
We have to agree to disagree I think Don. If your fundraising case revolved simply upon the cost of production and not your community impact, fundraising is going to be a huge challenge. I don’t find the “this costs more than you pay” message inspiring nor impactful. Philanthropic participation in the arts is absurdly low in the United States and our message is a part of the problem. Thanks for writing! If there is a forum where we could debate these issues further I am game.
Can you address the issue of raising ticket prices for people who aren’t rich old folks who enjoy the performing arts… ?
Thanks for replying. This post was about fundraising case and not pricing strategy…my notion of “Raise Ticket Prices” was said in jest as a reasonable reply to the common fundraising rationale of “Your ticket price pays this %”. That said, fundraising around access (lower ticket prices) so that everyone can attend is a very worthy rationale for fundraising. But the current practice doesn’t do that. It says, “YOUR ticket covers only so much of production.” And I don’t think that’s good fundraising. Finally, most arts organizations have low prices on a range of seats (special nights, rush tickets, $10 seats in the balcony, etc) so I don’t think your characterization of “rich old folks” is fair in most circumstances. Thanks so much for your note!
I do think there is a way to make this messaging work when it’s not guilt based: “Our average ticket price does not cover the full cost of a production like this. We try to keep our ticket prices as low as possible so that cost is not a barrier for people to experience live theater. That is why we ask those with the capacity to contribute a more to please do so and help keep theater accessible for everyone.”
Thanks Elliott. While I would say that your message is a better one, it is more vital to share what’s happening beyond what’s on the stage. Thanks for the thoughtful reply!
Agreed. But I’d add that it’s also making it accessible for THEM. And we shouldn’t shy away from the reality of that. I absolutely agree that there is a way to make the case without making the patron uncomfortable. I do it almost daily, and in every curtain speech I give – using language not dissimilar to what you posted above. Let’s be honest with our patrons, and meet them where they intersect with us. They come to us to be entertained, not because we have some kind of intrinsic value to the community. They value us because of what we give THEM. So we should continue to appeal to that – not shy away from it.
If your fundraising case (and your mission) isn’t about doing more than your productions on the stage, why not become a for-profit theatre? I don’t agree at all that patrons simply come for entertainment. Your fundraising will never reach potential if that’s the starting mindset.
Our value is certainly more than our mainstage productions. But that’s where 70% of our patrons intersect with us, so we ignore that at our peril. For those patrons, our education programs and our “community value” may be an intrinsically weaker argument than the reason they are in our theater. So why not acknowledge that, and meet them where they are? Why not explain the economic realities under which we operate, and ask for their support if they value our work? Why hide behind “community value” when we can appeal directly to THEIR motivations for being there to begin with? You’re ignoring the fact that this case CAN be made without laying a guilt-trip on our patrons. Again, I do this every day, and we’re doing quite well.
By way of example: At Saturday’s performance, I spoke with a patron I met for the first time in the lobby. He told me he and his wife are subscribers. But then he hastened to add, “We’re supporters, too.” I thanked him, of course, and this is a great example of what I’m talking about: He doesn’t have kids, so while he may appreciate the intrinsic value of our education programs, he’s not a direct consumer of them. He’s a ticket-buyer, and he values our product enough to make a further investment in its continuation. He understands that we bring value to the community at large, but that’s not really why he supports us. HE supports our work product because HE values it. Not appealing to him on that basis would be a huge mistake, and a missed opportunity.
Hi Don, could you give an example of some language that you use during your curtain speeches? Does it significantly vary from how you would approach, say, a year-end appeal for theater programming?
Elliott, we say some variation on the following: “Charitable support from our generous patrons provides nearly half of our budget which allows us to hire the wonderful artists you’ll experience onstage this evening, as well as the other elements (sometimes giving examples) which go into bringing you this production. Won’t you consider joining them with your support…?” We do this in context of having just thanked specific production sponsors, etc., so it flows naturally. We also call attention to our membership brochure (stuffed into every playbill), the content of which makes this case, and also the one that Jeremy is advocating. It is not a “hard sell,” nor have I ever had any feedback that it makes audiences members feel guilty, etc. Our returns on this are respectable. My experience has been that people respond to a respectful but direct and honest approach in understanding and appreciating the significance (and use of) of their charitable support. It’s a much softer message than the “you’re not paying your fair share” message that Jeremy is reacting against (and which I agree is quite problematic).
And no, it doesn’t vary significantly from the appeal we use on our year-end mailings, etc.
Thanks for sharing these this approach Don!
This has been a very interesting/helpful conversation. Thanks all!
Dandy. I am not sure he does or doesn’t care about the community. I don’t have kids and I care deeply for education. But fine, make your case about the value of the entertainment. A guilt based, “pay your fair share” is still shabby fundraising Don.
Wow, you’re really missing the point, so I have to apologize for being unclear. The case CAN be made without being “guilt-based,” or telling people they’re “not paying their fair share.” That’s ridiculous language to use with prospective donors, and I think you know that. But people also appreciate – and respond to – honesty and clarity. Hiding exclusively behind some nebulous “community value” is ignoring the intrinsic value that the organization has to the patron: the quality of the art that their support makes possible. Fundraisers ignore that at their peril.
This has been an interesting discussion. Thanks for the opportunity.
Likewise Don. If you blog or have an outlet for further debate on these vital topics I am game. I think we are closer in opinion than not on much of this. Thanks for the good conversation. This has certainly touched a nerve in the arts fundraising/marketing community, which is healthy. Cheers.
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I think you’re spot on, Jeremy. Arts organizations would do well to accept premise of your argument and if any disagree, I would challenge them to provide an analysis that concludes “the cost of your ticket only…” works relative to other case/call-to-action. To your point, not only is the “yout ticket only…” message uninspiring, but the entire rationale portends to the layperson arts organizations don’t know how to create a financial model that rooted in supply-demand economics (“common sense”). Further, I would argue that this ask strategy is useless -if not inappropriate- and merely projects the organization’s evaluation and financial metrics unto ticket buyers. What’s more, to defend asking for cash to offset the price of a ticket to actual production costs would actually require a case to be made for the value and benefits for one’s art – so I agree, why not start with the obvious: What we do and why it’s important.
Fundraising is about aligning your mission with a donor’s aspirations for themselves and the communities you both share. It’s not telling patrons they didn’t pay enough of their ticket (no matter how artfully constructed). Unless you’ve created a segment of your organization’s finance team and board finance committee for your campaign (who care about the revenue-cost disparity), I think organizations are best-served to embrace the actual motivations for arts philanthropy (from ticket buyers): access to artistic staff; public recognition; and enhancement of the performance-viewing experience.
Thanks for putting the stake in the ground, Jeremy.
Arts organizations: It’s time to do right, not be right.
Arts organizations do not “do right” by their patrons by shrouding their case for support behind education programs and a virtually-impossible to quantify “community benefit” at the expense of being honest with them about precisely why their support is important. We should also give patrons credit for the intelligence to appreciate this case, and their willingness to respond to it.
The primary motivation for arts philanthropy, demonstrated in survey after survey, is NOT “access” or “enhancing the performance-viewing experience,” or even “public recognition.” It is the desire to support the art itself – which by definition demonstrates an acknowledgement and acceptance of the premise that earned revenue does not fully support the work in the non-profit model. Giving them an opportunity to support the work, and explaining why it is important, is precisely aligning donor aspirations with our mission and needs.
The simple truth is that non-profit arts organizations AREN’T “rooted in supply-demand economics.” If they were, everyone would be making their nut at the box office, and we wouldn’t even be having this debate, because we wouldn’t need to fundraise. We’d all be for-profit entities.
Asking for support under this premise is not the same thing as “telling people they didn’t pay enough for the ticket.” Unless it’s done badly.
“What we do and why it’s important” is the art itself. Be honest with your patrons about why their support is needed, and they will respond. I need not provide any other analysis beyond the fact that my organization has been doing it successfully for 54 years, and we are among the best-capitalized arts organizations in our region.
Yes, we talk about our education programs, and our community benefit, but those arguments only support our case. Making them the exclusive focus is tantamount to being dishonest with patrons. We prefer to give him far more credit than that.
Don: All valid points. Why not then simply price your tickets so that you’ve covered expenses if your audience donates for their personal enjoyment anyway? Wouldn’t that simplify matters as the most direct way to support the work?
Of course not, Jeremy, for the simple reason that not all ticket-buying patrons also donate.
Don, I am looking at your website and I count around 50 patrons at the $1,000 level (not counting the higher levels, but I find $1,000 to be a useful benchmark in assessing annual fund performance). I am guessing there is a very, very significant potential in a market of your size for a sizable expansion of your annual giving program. I see many smaller organizations (in smaller markets) with larger patron bases by comparison. I also see a fairly small list of lower level patrons listed on your website vs the (impressive) size and breath of your programming. Some case strengthening might be worthwhile. Happy to chat with you about this offline. Thanks again for your thoughts.
Heh…we’re doing fine, thanks. You’re only seeing annual fund donors there, not the hundreds of contributors to our $19.3 million capital campaign, our endowment, our working capital fund or our Innovation (risk-capital) fund, among other initiatives. You also need to look at those higher levels,,and see how many patrons have been giving at those levels for many years.
You’re not entirely wrong about untapped potential, though: My current strategic development plan calls for a new focus on major annual fund gifts, but you’re also unfamiliar with our market: Size isn’t the only issue. We are highly-saturated with NFP arts organizations (particularly Equity theaters) and we’re in the low-mid range budget-wise for professional groups.
Our case isn’t our problem – it’s a lack of staff resources to adequately address both annual giving, institutional giving, and major gift activity. My plan calls for addressing that within the next 12-16 months. In essence, I need an annual fund staffer to address day-to-day AF management, benefit-fulfillment, etc., freeing more of my time to cultivate, solicit and steward major gifts from the prospect pool.
Sounds like you’ve got it all figured out. That’s terrific Don.
Do you have evidence that the “your ticket only covers 40%” approach is ineffective at raising funds? Your argument sounds more like a statement of your own preference and belief than a fact-based look at what real donors really respond to. Do you have experience and statistics that you haven’t cited here? I honestly don’t have an opinion on the question, because I’m new to arts fundraising (not new to fundraising though), and I’ve seen no evidence in either direction. Donors can surprise us, and I’ve found that what we fundraisers want is rarely what donors respond to. That’s why I’m skeptical — and very curious.
Thanks Jeff: I work for a non-profit consulting firm where we (mostly) help performing arts organizations strengthen annual fund results. Most of this is accomplished by examining the fundamentals (volunteer leadership to fundraising, case for support, mechanisms and timing of solicitation, etc.) and I can share that when we strengthen the case to a community focus beyond the cost of the wigs and so forth there is a favorable result. The reality of the performing arts viability in the US now is that many donors are required who might not (for a variety of reasons) care to attend the performance but who understand that the organization is vital and important to support, much the same way they support United Way and other causes where they aren’t generally a service recipient. I would be happy to chat with you about your new role and organization at some point. Welcome to the Arts! Cheers, Jeremy
An interesting approach, Jeremy. Is every organization in your experience and client base reaching their potential among their audience base? If not (and I don’t know any who do), then advising a focus on non-attendees seems inefficient. For example, in our case, a little more than half of our subscribers are also donors. That number has been increasing because we focus on them, rather than non-attenders. The organization has wasted dollars in the past acquiring mailing lists, etc. which include non-attendees, but we see little return from them. We get far more results appealing directly to those who patronize our theater. If I have to make a choice between soliciting an attender who has self-selected by coming to the theatre, and a non-attender who may have to be convinced of our “community benefit,” I’ll choose the attender each and every time.
Thanks Don. I think we’ve had a good dialogue. Have a terrific weekend and all best with your continued success.
If you haven’t seen it before, you will be interested to read our research on communicating for broad support of the arts. As you suggest, the default way of thinking about the arts (once people know what that we mean by that word) is as entertainment. And if you think that the nonprofit arts are just part of the market of ‘things to do.’ it makes no sense that they should need private (or public) support.
We went looking for things that people already love about the arts, and that move them to see the arts as a public good, worthy of shared (financial) responsibility. Spoiler alert: the ROI/dollars and cents case of economic impact doesn’t work, nor does the need for more arts education—both value arguments that advocates have been making for years.
Instead, it seems that people value the ripple effect that the arts have on places—the way the arts change places, making them more memorable, exciting, unique and so on, as well as the way the arts bring people together and create community connections and social bonds.
You can read the full report here: http://bit.ly/ToposTalkingArts
We’re beginning to identify places to replicate and extend this work in additional locations in the United States now.
Thanks Mary, this research is new to me. I will give your report a look. Thanks –
Especially as a life-long professional theater technician, I do care about how much it costs to put on the show. Although I realize how important Education Departments are to the future of live performance (and what a cash cow they are for various badly needed forms of income to the arts producer … ), I detest being told about how I should support the Young Audiences program. I want to see the best possible show, and I want the people who helped create it to be fairly paid, with current wages. If you decide to price the tickets at something other than close to full cost, I have to trust your judgement. That judgement includes the decision to spend money on activities other than producing performances for public sale. (I am currently retired, and do give unearned income to several of the companies I used to work for, directly and indirectly as an employee of a theater.)
Tim: Thanks for your thoughtful response and let me say I started my arts career as a stagehand so I appreciate the perspective. That being said, what is philanthropic about subsidizing the cost of the performance? How is that in the vital public good (the standard for which philanthropic support must be measured against, since that’s less tax revenue to pay for schools, bridges, and bombing small countries on our collective behalf)? I see movies all the time and I don’t really care to make a gift in support of the workers who made the film. Fair pay for fair work is hugely important but not (to me, at least) a compelling call to invest philanthropically.