For most theatre companies it's pretty tough to balance the books and often even award winning companies who produce fabulous work, struggle to break even at the box office.
Most professional companies (including Melbourne Theatre Company, State Theatre Company of SA and Perth Theatre Company) rely on financial backing, grants and sponsorships to keep their theatre company in the black, whilst amateurs often rely on memberships and fundraising to survive. Either way it can be tough to gain the required backing to bring your production to the stage, so here are a few suggestions that might suit your income generation style.
Grants – Grants can be useful for both professional and amateur companies and are best for funding something specific such as a one off project, equipment purchase or a regional tour. Grants are rarely given to cover wages and are almost never provided for paying off debts. Check out grantsLINK.gov.au for a full listing of Australian Government grants. Amateur companies should also look to their local council to see what support is available.
Sponsorship – While most large professional companies will chase big cash sponsorships to keep the dollars coming in, smaller or amateur companies can get a slice of this action too. There are plenty of opportunities that you can offer in exchange for cash or goods including advertising in your program, signage at your venue, opening night drinks, backstage tours and a meet and greet with the cast. Don't forget that no matter how big or small your company is there are many people who don't ever get the opportunity to go backstage in a theatre.
Crowd Funding – For a specific project it is now possible to get crowd funding (sponsorship) in small amounts from a larger number of people. The websites that offer this service are generally well connected to social media, so your members and supporters can forward your project to their networks through facebook and twitter. You can often offer rewards for donations to entice people to give a little more and these sites can be great for getting the money in for a project before you've even launched it. Be careful to set an achievable goal though as some sites only let you take the donations if your goal is achieved. Check out chuffed.org or pozible.com for more information on how this works.
Friends Of – Friends can really help you out when you are looking for a bit of extra support. A well connected Friends Of group can be a constant source of volunteers who feel connected to your company and will help to promote and sell your productions and may even make the odd donation. Keep hold of good 'friends' by offering them special invitations to events with the cast and crew and by hosting regular 'thank you' events to ensure they feel appreciated and needed.
Regular Membership – Most companies have regular memberships to keep hold of their audience from year to year. Members are easy to communicate to (specials, crowd funding, fundraising activities etc), will provide a base audience to each of your productions and will generally provide honest feedback when asked.
Special Memberships – I have seen some companies create a special club or membership for people who have donated a certain amount of money to the company each year. This works well for many professional companies but could work for smaller groups and amateurs too. Your club membership could be as little as a $100 or $200 donation each year and might provide the members with some perks such as opening night parties, backstage tours, preferential seating or their name in the program.
Community Lotteries – If your company is in SA, NT, VIC or the ACT then you may be eligible for the People's Choice Community Lottery. This is a fantastic lottery with hundreds of prizes of cars, holidays and goods. The tickets are FREE to not-for-profit organisations which means you keep every cent of the $20 for each book for your company. No searching for prizes, no printing and no fuss. You can often sell these at shopping centres (use your Friends Of) or give books to members to sell on your behalf.
Quiz Nights – An annual quiz night is an old favourite and there is good reason. They are fun, they are generally well attended and they can make a lot of money. To increase the income from an annual quiz night consider having a raffle, running a bar, playing games in between every second round and charging a dollar, having a Joker round where teams can double their points for a cash donation or try a silent auction on the side.
Running a bar – When I go to the theatre I am still surprised by the number of companies that don't cash in on bar opportunities or undercharge for food and drinks. Most companies are not-for-profit and may be able to obtain liquor licences for free. A markup of 200% on the wholesale cost of stock is not uncommon. Approach a winery and see if you can get discounted stock on consignment so that you can take back what you don't sell. Many pubs will also do this for you. If you make a profit of $4 on each alcoholic drink that is $400 over 100 patrons or $4,000 over 1000 patrons. A good pool of volunteers will keep your bar running at no cost.
Sausage Sizzles – Sizzles can be surprisingly lucrative. The best one that I have hosted was at a local Bunnings store and we made a profit of $1,600 for 6 hours work for three volunteers! There are a number of places that you can host a sausage sizzle but often your local Pet Stock, Bunnings, Dan Murphy's or shopping centre are worth a try.
There are literally hundreds of other ideas for fundraising including barn dances, slave auctions, movie nights, formal dinners and sales. Be aware that there are many fundraisers out there that are very time consuming and sometimes you might be working much harder than you need to be to make a profit. Carefully assess each venture and knock together a small budget. For example; there is no point taking on a project to sell 400 boxes of chocolates to raise $8,000 if you only have 20 members as it is unlikely that they will be able to sell 20 boxes each. There is also no point choosing to do a big gala ball if your committee or members don't have the time needed to make it a success.
If you’re not sure what type of fundraiser your supporters would attend then it might be a good idea to ask them through a simple and free online survey.
Some of the biggest fundraising mistakes I have seen would have been averted if the organiser had answered (very honestly) the following questions:
1. Exactly what does this fundraising project involve? Create a comprehensive list of tasks.
2. Who will do each task?
3. When does each task need to be completed to ensure success of the project?
4. What equipment and resources do we need?
5. Who will attend and support this fundraising project?
6. How much will this project cost in time and money?
7. Based on the answer to question 5, how much money will we make?
8. What might go wrong to prevent us from reaching our target?
How has your company raised money? Have you used any of the above suggestions? How did that work out for you?