Giving to Receive: Creative Ideas for Theaters to Say "Thank You"

Vendini Business Tips, Member Spotlight, Non profit

The holidays mark an important time of year in the theater business. It’s the period when charitable giving reaches its annual peak—34 percent of all charity donor gifts are made in the last three months of the year. On the surface, this sounds like good news for arts organizations that rely on donations. But consider this: of the $373 billion dollars donated to charities in the US in 2015, only about $17 billion dollars made its way into the coffers of arts and cultural organizations. That’s just five percent. The fact is, if your performing arts business relies on donor gifts, you’re facing some stiff competition.

One of the most effective methods for remaining competitive during fundraising season is also the simplest: give thanks to your patrons. By showing patrons your appreciation, you’re keeping your organization at the top of mind during the season of giving. And make no mistake, failure to give thanks can be perilous (aside from just being rude). Let’s put it this way—if you had a wealthy relative who gave you an expensive gift every year and you never got them a card or sent a “thank you” note, you can bet that soon enough those nice gifts will stop showing up under the tree. But if you sent that relative a bottle of nice Scotch around Thanksgiving, you might need a bigger tree to accommodate all the stuff Uncle Moneybags buys for you while he’s out shopping under the influence. The lesson here is clear. Whether you’re a non-profit theater seeking donations, or a for-profit theater trying to cultivate more patrons, there are major benefits to giving thanks during the holiday season.

To get some ideas for going above and beyond sending an annual holiday card, we spoke with a few Vendini members who make it a priority every year to give back. By showing some holiday love to their supporters, these theaters have managed to retain and grow their audiences.

Oak Ridge Playhouse has long been a community staple in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. “The theater is very much a gem in our town. We’re about to celebrate its 75th anniversary,” says David Bradshaw, Vice President of the Board at Oak Ridge Playhouse, who heads up their development efforts. “We try very hard to connect with our community in ways that you can in a smaller town.”

Donor gifts for Oak Ridge Playhouse venue

Home of the Oak Ridge Playhouse, located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee

As a non-profit theater, Oak Ridge Playhouse turns to its deep roots in the community by enlisting local sponsors for funding. Sponsors play a vital role in the Playhouse’s operations, so finding special ways to acknowledge sponsors is important to Oak Ridge Playhouse. “We occasionally recognize top sponsors by inviting them to a private production of a show, complete with a cast meet-and-greet,” says Bradshaw. The show is open to sponsor’s employees, clients and their family members. In addition, the Playhouse coordinates these private showings so that complimentary tickets to the United Way’s top donors in the area can be provided. In essence, the sponsor supports both the Playhouse and the leadership givers to United Way, and Oak Ridge get a full house consisting of many first time attendees. This approach can go a long way—what was initially a perk sparks a passion for many of these first time attendees. “Many of these people become patrons themselves,” Bradshaw adds, “and this often leads to generating season ticket holders and increasing our core base of volunteers.”

Many of these people become patrons themselves, and this often leads to generating season ticket holders and increasing our core base of volunteers.David Bradshaw, Oak Ridge Playhouse

By establishing a loyal base of customers, the Oak Ridge Playhouse is able to rely more heavily on recurring donor gifts. Recently, they ran a successful campaign to revitalize the theater by upgrading to a modern, more energy-efficient lighting system. With the support of their patrons (and equipped with the best tools for running a successful donation campaign) the Playhouse was able to make the improvements that will help them remain a vital part of their community for years to come. The Playhouse includes donors in their Playbill for recognition but ultimately, says Bradshaw, “our donors do it for the love of theater. They really see the benefit of what we’re trying to do.”

A charming community theater dating back to 1931, Palo Alto Players has cultivated a rich history in the Bay Area—along with a growing volunteer base and very involved board. Board members at Palo Alto Players are instrumental in ensuring the theater’s “thank you” efforts are also connected to their ongoing development efforts. “It’s important to engage board members because they’re investors in the organization, too”, says Elizabeth Santana, the Director of Development at Palo Alto Players. “And typically they have rapport with a donor that a staff member doesn’t necessarily have.” In fact, board members are the driving force behind their annual Thank-a-Thon. During the Thank-a-Thon, board members call each donor to thank them for their contributions. “It’s a setup for our year end giving campaign, so we’re in the minds of our donors. When the appeal letter comes, Palo Alto Players is top of mind.”

Donor gifts for Palo Alto Players venue

Home of the Palo Alto Players, located in Palo Alto, California

Ultimately, Santana says it’s the little things—the frugal wows, if you will—that matter most to donors, “it’s as simple as a glass of wine and chocolate.” One show per season, Santana hosts a “Donor’s Lounge”, where guests are invited to enjoy wine and other refreshments before the show. Some of Santana’s most important efforts also include thanking donors quickly, within a week of receiving their gift; choosing three or four donors each show to introduce herself to; and incorporating a “surprise and delight factor,” like sending out little cards that say “bring this card for special treat at concessions.”

Another tip, Santana adds: turn to Pinterest for inspiration. “I go on Pinterest and search ways to thank donors, or for catchy slogans and gift ideas.”

Located in the heart of Miami, Florida, Teatro Trail entertains patrons of all walks of life with vibrant, Spanish-speaking productions. As a for-profit theater, Teatro Trail does not rely on donor gifts, but partners with sponsors whenever possible. “Here in Miami, we have people from many different cultures, so we choose sponsors depending on the nationality of the cast and play,” says Juanita Anderson, Theater Coordinator for Teatro Trail. Many shows at Teatro Trail have a “meet and greet experience,” that patrons can add on to a ticket purchase to enhance their experience through the unique opportunity to meet the cast. “If it’s a Peruvian show, we’ll bring in a Peruvian restaurant [as a sponsor] to give out samples of food for people who come to the meet and greet.” In turn, Anderson and team offer courtesy tickets, create promotional videos, and invite sponsors to cast meet and greets.

Donor gifts for Teatro Trail venue

Home of Teatro Trail, located in Miami, Florida

The heart of Teatro Trail lies in its loyal patrons. One of their most popular shows, “Oficialmente Gay”, has been running for three years and keeps patrons coming back; Anderson says “some people have seen the show four or five times.”

  • Teatro Trail Oficialmente Gay poster
  • Due to its success, Teatro Trail partnered with Oficialmente Gay creator Alexis Valdez to produce a sequel—and found a way to thank their most dedicated supporters.

    “Oficialmente Gay 2” opened in October 2016 and devoted fans receive a discount of anywhere from five to twenty-five percent, depending on how many times they purchased tickets for the original show.

Teatro Trail also tries to make special occasions all the more special. “When the budget allows, we will send an email blast [to patrons] on holidays, like Father’s Day, and say ‘buy your ticket and bring your father for free,’” says Anderson, showing even subtle forms of appreciation go a long way to keep patrons happy and bring new ones through the doors.

Giving back not only feels good, but does good for your organization. This season of giving is an opportunity for you to to enjoy the benefits of giving back. So, embrace the spirit of the season and get to giving!

In the giving mood now? Please consider supporting these wonderful organizations: