Dear Nonprofiteer, How can I pick the audience’s pockets while pretending to be indifferent to money?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I work for a storefront theater company (though this could apply to any arts organization), and we want to encourage people to donate while they are waiting for the show to start, or as they are walking out of the theater. However, we do not want to “ruin” the art by including a verbal appeal in the pre- or post-show announcements; though we have information on how to donate in our program and on our website, we feel that we can raise some income from our immediate audience after every show. I’m sure this goes for museums, galleries, and dance companies as well—how can we influence our audience to donate at the door without being too pushy or discounting the art?


The Tactful Fundraiser

Dear Tactful,

The Nonprofiteer had a law professor whose motto was, “Passive lawyers don’t eat!”  Well, the Nonprofiteer’s motto is, “Tactful fundraisers don’t eat!”  It’s true that most people would rather talk about their sex lives than talk about money, but the only way to raise it is to make clear that you not only deserve it, but need it.

So the Nonprofiteer disputes your entire premise that a request for funds can “ruin” an art form.  Obviously you wouldn’t insert it in mid-play (though product placement in the movies and on tv makes that less obvious than it once was); but a pre- or post-show pitch is completely appropriate.  People who want to ignore it will, but no one will be able to say that s/he didn’t know you needed money.

Now, how to actually get that money?  There’s the Southwest Airlines approach: make the expected pitch in an unexpected manner, e.g. “Please take all your personal problems with you when you deplane.”  There’s the National Lampoon guilt-trip approach: its cover showing a terrified canine at gunpoint with the caption “If you don’t buy this magazine we’ll shoot this dog” was at the very least unforgettable.   A Chicago theater company does its own equivalent of this by announcing at curtain that the actors don’t get paid so unless you stuff money in the cashbox you’re just exploiting them by attending (not the precise words); it seems to work quite well.

In other words, there’s nothing dainty or secretive about a nonprofit arts organization’s need for money, so the more directly and entertainingly and memorably you state it, the better your chance of actually receiving the money.

Or you can ignore everything I’ve said, offer a door-prize of a bottle of wine to whoever wins your nightly raffle, and have people enter the raffle by dropping their business cards in a bowl.  Then send follow-up appeals (by e-mail, as it’s cheapest) to everyone whose card you got, thanking them for attending and asking them to donate.  This is good list-development strategy; whether it’s good money-development strategy remains to be seen.  It’s far too easy to ignore an appeal once you’ve had the entertainment and have gone home.

Finally, you can try a bit of reverse psychology.  Admit everyone for free and then ask them to pay what they think it was worth on the way out the door.  (Post a “suggested donation,” of course.)  You’ll get some free riders, but you’ll also get some people who are so impressed with what they’ve just seen that they give you something more than the suggested donation.  Those are people you can expect to see again–whereupon you offer them a door-prize if they win the business-card raffle, and you have their names so you can dun them long into the future.


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One Response to “Dear Nonprofiteer, How can I pick the audience’s pockets while pretending to be indifferent to money?”

  1. Mazarine Says:

    Kim Klein says it best: Success is Asking.

    So ask people. You don’t have to ask everyone. But you must ask. This is the reason why mega-churches are so successful! THey ask every week!

    Keep this in mind.


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