Duncan Cuthbertson/shutterstock
Duncan Cuthbertson/shutterstock

Nonprofit theaters, the physical spaces at least, have now been closed or significantly restricted for more than a year. With revenue-producing venues shuttered, thousands of workers—including actors, writers, lighting technicians and administrators—still find themselves waiting out the crisis, as the timeline for the return of reliable ticket sales remains uncertain. At the same time, calls for greater equity in the performing arts have nonprofits and funders alike rethinking how well they are serving audiences and creators.

All of this makes for a unique and challenging moment for theater fundraisers.

For one, traditional donors like to know that their funding is going to a sure thing. Also, over the past year, many have turned their attention to the pressing needs of pandemic relief, healthcare and racial justice. These dynamics, combined with the loss of earned income, forced many theater executives in 2020 to slash budgets and furlough or lay off employees just to survive. Now, they’re getting ready for the next phase of the pandemic, during which they might be able to gradually open theaters with limited capacity or ricochet between open and closed as the nation builds up its immunity.

Even the federal government recognized nonprofit theaters’ dire need with the late 2020 passage of the Save Our Stages Act as part of the $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill. An estimated $15 billion will go toward grant programs for live venues, independent movie theaters and other cultural institutions to cover payroll and costs, including rent, utilities and maintenance, with a maximum grant of $10 million.

Meanwhile, some institutional philanthropies have stepped up, like the Leon Levy Foundation, which launched a new $250,000 COVID Relief Fund in January to support small New York City theaters. Created in conjunction with the A.R.T./New York Relief Fund, grants are available to theaters that are based in, or primarily produce in, New York City, with annual budgets under $250,000. Most theater nonprofits receive donations from a mix of foundations, corporations (often in the form of sponsorship), government, and individual donors.

All of this helps, but pre-pandemic, theaters relied on a combination of revenue-producing shows and charitable contributions for income, sometimes in the 50/50 range. One theater executive said she’d finished her next budget and didn’t predict income from performances would resurface until the second half of 2022. That means performing arts fundraisers have had to adjust and expand what they do to fill gaps or just stay afloat.

Fundraising for Theatre Communications Group (TCG) is currently “steady as she goes,” according to Teresa Eyring, executive director. Celebrating its 60th anniversary, TCG is a national organization that provides theater programs and services for over 700 member theaters and affiliates to build a better theater ecology and ensure that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and theater artists of color are centered in their work.

“Our foundation partnerships continue, and individual donations are right on track,” says Eyring, following an early 2020 budget reduction and 25% staff reduction. “Before the beginning of our fiscal year, we told our members that we would renew their membership regardless of their ability to pay and then surveyed them so we could project revenues, which were a quarter of what we would ordinarily bring in.”

They also had to rapidly adapt to a new, mostly online world.

“Changes we considered in the past—virtual staff, friends, membership model, conferences—I was astonished how quickly and nimbly our staff moved us into the virtual world. We did have to pause printing of American Theatre magazine, now available only online,” Eyring said.

“Nationally, federal support programs such as Shutter Venue Operators grants, the Paycheck Protection program and Employee Retention Tax have helped as theaters have really reduced their budgets. Individuals and institutional donors have done whatever they could to support these organizations because they recognize their importance,” she added.

Theater Development Fund is a nonprofit dedicated to bringing the transformational power of the performing arts to all, and is often the first place consumers are introduced to live theater in New York. It draws revenues mostly from discounted ticket sales (the TKTS program) and membership fees (115,000 members), with donor contributions making up 15% of revenue pre-pandemic.

TDF’s rare 85/15 fundraising model was the envy of other theater nonprofits until March 12, 2020, when New York City theaters closed their doors to live performances due to the virus.

“My mantra is, ‘You can never go back to before,’” said Victoria Bailey, executive director, quoting a line from the musical “Ragtime.”

Bailey said now is an opportunity for nonprofit theaters to rethink their roles and explore their mission parameters. Digital programming is here to stay and removes many of the barriers to theater attendance, like time, location and cost. Thirty percent of TKTS buyers have never before been to a live theater performance. Digital programming of a live performance allows theater nonprofits to reach more people, but theaters have yet to effectively monetize these performances. Bailey sees a mix of in-person and online performance in the future, which may open up TKTS and other theaters to a whole new menu of donors—streaming, international, young, tech-savvy or technology-based.

“Before the pandemic, we knew we needed to increase our funding to support our education, engagement, theater access and audience development programs, but now, we face real challenges for the next two or three years as we try to get people back in the theaters,” she said.

Many of the barriers to returning to live theater in New York are beyond the purview of any theater nonprofit, Bailey noted. Theatergoers have to be comfortable taking public transportation; they have to feel safe in the theater; offices and restaurants have to open in Midtown; theaters have to upgrade HVAC systems, provide PPE and install plexiglass barriers.

“The city recovered after 9/11 and will after this latest trauma, but theaters have to be ready to welcome their customers before things return to the ‘new normal,’” Bailey said.

NYC & Company, the New York City tourist agency, forecasts tourists, who represent a large percentage of TKTS buyers, won’t return to pre-pandemic numbers for at least four years. So what to do in the meantime? Most theaters are looking to their loyal donors for help. Bailey said one monthly giver was determined to make her regular contribution, and when she couldn’t, let TKTS know. That monthly gift still arrived, she said.

“Focus on a new vocabulary around missional fundraising—what we do and why it’s important,” said Bailey. “By definition, our constituents do not have deep pockets or are in a position to write big checks. We’ve seen an increase in smaller donations and we’ve been strongly supported by our members, but we have to tell our story in a different way.”

Asking stakeholders to explain why TDF is important to them elicited authentic messaging that led to success for its 2020 holiday fundraising campaign. “Access to the arts is essential; it creates healthier communities. I think we have to look at this through a lens of abundance; I think we have more than we think we have,” Bailey said. “But we have to be careful about expectations.”

The Alliance of Resident Theatres (A.R.T./NY), an advocacy and arts services organization for New York City’s nonprofit theater community, saw its revenues from rentals of office space and rehearsal theaters decline in 2020, but it still received more contributions than earned income.

“In 2020, our earned income was down, but we had new and unexpected donations from institutions and individuals that remained strong,” says Risa Shoup, interim executive director. “The pandemic has provided an opportunity to go to individuals because everyone understands that these services are important, that theaters need the services we provide.”

Shoup attributes part of her organization’s resilience to an agile staff who act as facilitators and provide informational resources.

After a canceled 2020 fundraising gala, A.R.T./NY plans to hold a four-day online 2021 fundraising engagement, showcasing what it does. The event will include a kick-off party, a group discussion on the future of theater, and a new work production. There will also be a panel on arts and advocacy, a panel on accessibility in theater, and a fireside chat with Shoup and some of their grantees. Pre-recorded, it will later be available online.

At Yale Repertory Theater, there has been no in-person or virtual theater since last March. “No question we are feeling the effects of the pandemic—our students, our faculty, our staff and our audience,” said Deborah Berman, director of development. The theater relies on ticket sales, donor contributions and some support from Yale University.

One strategy Yale Repertory has used is a new email newsletter to keep up engagement with the theater. “Since we can’t highlight our productions, we’ve given our audiences a behind-the-scenes look at the experience of our students who work alongside our artists and staff,” Berman noted.

“Like our sister theaters, we’ve felt the effects of the pandemic. While many of our individual donors and foundations continue to support us, others have chosen to forgo funding,” she said.

Berman said they are taking this time to tackle social justice issues. “We are focused as a community on addressing the ‘We See You, White American Theatre’ set of demands to implement anti-racism and anti-oppression in all aspects of our work, including fundraising,” she said.

The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota, shut down its stages on March 16, 2020, just a few days after the East Coast went black. Pre-pandemic, the Guthrie boasted a 55/45 split between earned income and contributions, and its largest backer was the Minnesota State Art Board.

“Last year, we did better than we thought,” said Molly Alexander Hogan, director of development for the Guthrie. “Most sponsors let us keep their monies and redirect to overall operating expenses, plus we received emergency grants from local funders, one in the six-figure range, eager to support the Guthrie. There is such a feeling of pride around the Guthrie being Minnesota’s theater,” she said.

Hogan added that the inspiring thing about the past year and the theater’s switch to online performances has been the level of improved access, especially access to communities not ordinarily reached. “It’s a new and exciting way to engage our audiences, here in the Twin Cities and throughout the state,” she said.

The Guthrie staged a virtual gala in August 2020, which was free to attend. Of the 600 who signed on, 90% donated anyway. “People care enough to make a gift, whether it’s $25 or $25,000, to make sure we are here on the other side of this,” she said.

The Guthrie staged a virtual performance of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” last December that was available to households for streaming at $10 and free to teachers and students. The theater issued tickets to more than 15,000 households across Minnesota, all 50 states and 15 countries. “The response was incredible, not just in the region, but across the country and in Europe and Asia,” said Hogan.

The Guthrie has also been focused on equity, diversity and inclusion priorities since 2015 and is currently working with an outside consultant to train staff and artists. “George Floyd happened in our own city,” she said. The Guthrie will stage a Blackness Is… Arts Festival next May to act as a launching pad for more meaningful discussions around these issues.

Hogan pointed out that their donor acquisition numbers are actually up, which tells her “that people out there really want to help.” Last March, theater supporters were unsure where the pandemic would go and when it would end. With vaccines arriving in December, she said there was a shift in energy. “People are now saying there is a light at the end of the tunnel, a light around the corner. People are so ready for a change. We have to hang on to the hope we have. You can call donors. They are home and you can reach them.”