An Interview With Tim Whalen, Director of External Affairs, American Conservatory Theater
At a time when for-profit theaters may be feeling the pressure to cave in to the economic pinch and roll out the revivals, San Francisco-based nonprofit American Conservatory Theater is still taking chances.
It might seem that the live theater organization founded in 1965 could rest a bit, considering it created the first actor training program in the United States accredited to award a master of fine arts degre — despite not being affiliated with a college or university. (Danny Glover, Annette Bening, Denzel Washington and Benjamin Bratt are among ACT's former students.)
But ACT is continuing to step-ball-change into its 2010-2011 season, promising premieres and esoterica, including a “reimagining of Jean-Paul Sartre's existential masterpiece, 'No Exit.'” It's how ACT is adhering to its mission to nurture the art of live theater through productions, actor training and community engagement.
Tim Whalen, ACT's director of external affairs, explains how the organization has managed to do this on a $19.6 million budget for 2010-2011, up from an $18.5 million operating budget during the 2009-2010 season. With eight of its 145 full- and part-time employees dedicated to fundraising, ACT brought in $6.4 million in contributed income during the 2009-2010 fiscal year.
FundRaising Success: Please tell us about the organization’s history.
Tim Whalen: Founded in 1965 by William Ball, ACT opened its first San Francisco season at the Geary Theater in 1967. In the 1970s, ACT solidified its national and international reputation, winning a Tony Award for outstanding theater performance and training in 1979. During the past three decades, more than 300 ACT productions have been performed to a combined audience of 7 million people; today, ACT's performance, education and outreach programs annually reach more than 250,000 people in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1996, ACT's efforts to develop creative talent for the theater were recognized with the prestigious Jujamcyn Theaters Award.
Today, under the leadership of Carey Perloff and Ellen Richard, ACT is nationally recognized for its groundbreaking productions of classical works and bold explorations of contemporary playwriting. Since the reopening of the American Conservatory Theater (formerly the Geary) in 1996 after the theater was heavily damaged during the 1989 earthquake, ACT has enjoyed a remarkable period of audience expansion and renewed financial stability. The company continues to produce challenging theater in the rich context of symposia, audience discussions and community interaction.
The conservatory, led by Melissa Smith, now serves 2,500 students every year. It was the first actor training program in the United States not affiliated with a college or university accredited to award a master of fine arts degree. Danny Glover, Annette Bening, Denzel Washington, Benjamin Bratt and Anika Noni Rose are among the conservatory's distinguished former students. With its commitment to excellence in actor training and to the relationship between training, performance and audience, the ACT Master of Fine Arts Program has moved to the forefront of America's actor training programs, while serving as the creative engine of the company at large.
FS: How do you fund your mission?
TW: ACT is funded through earned income; including subscriptions and ticket sales; tuition (in our actor training conservatory); and concessions; and through contributions from individuals, foundations, corporations and government grantmakers. Our earned-to-contributed-income ratio in the most recently completed fiscal year was 65 percent earned, 35 percent contributed.
FS: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces as far as fundraising is concerned? How do you overcome them?
TW: Like many arts and cultural organizations, ACT has been impacted by the economic recession, experiencing a decline in subscriptions and ticket sales, and with this decline a drop in annual fund contributions from individuals. With a shrinking donor base, we have focused on building a major-gifts program to leverage greater giving from our most generous long-time donors. This effort has paid off, and we have been successful growing our major-gifts program over the past two years and have raised more dollars from fewer individuals.
We have invested heavily in donor cultivation and stewardship for our major-gifts program, offering donors greater access to the artistic process and developing personal relationships with staff and trustees through events and “meeting and greeting” donors in the theater. In addition, there have been two major strategies employed in our major gifts program:
a. We expanded the scope of our $31 million endowment campaign which closed on Dec. 31, 2009, to include current operating gifts and approached some of our most loyal patrons to make new multiyear commitments to the campaign that were directed to annual operating. These gifts have been vital to meeting our annual fundraising goals with fewer donors.
b. We created a donor giving circle for our most recent new work (The Tosca Project) that ACT commissioned and developed over several years, and solicited multiyear gifts to support both the development of the new work and the production. We were able to engage a number of new major donors in the project as well as secure increased gifts from current donors who were motivated to be part of the “Tosca Circle,” which gave them access to the development process and the artists involved in the project.
We have also experienced a decline in foundation funding as a result of the economic downturn. This has proven much more difficult to address in the short term, but we have devoted more resources to researching new prospective foundation partners and to keeping visible and engaged with former funders so that we are well-positioned to partner in the future when more robust grantmaking resumes.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way your reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
TW: While we continue to see good performance with our direct-mail campaigns — especially those incorporated into our subscription renewal and acquisition efforts — we are currently evaluating our telefunding program and anticipate folding this effort into our telemarketing campaign; essentially contacting a patron to subscribe and give in the same phone call. We also anticipate increasing our online fundraising campaigns, which have had modest returns historically, but which grow each year. We see online fundraising perform best as an added gift tactic, with a modest goal for a very specific purpose, and of course time-sensitive.
We plan to continue our emphasis on major gifts through building personal relationships with our best major-gift prospects and will devote a great deal of staff and trustee time to engaging donors before, during and after their theater experiences. We are also exploring ways to make the in-theater experiences more impactful for our patrons through messaging and signage that articulates the case for support and through giving patrons more opportunities to participate in programming that deepens their theater experiences.
FS: How do you reach out to supporters and potential supports in ways other than purely fundraising? Are you engaged with social media and social networking?
TW: Our marketing and public relations programs make extensive use of social media and social-networking tactics, which have become a major way we engage our patrons in our season programming. We have begun to incorporate fundraising messaging in some of these communications and this past year tested an opt-in option for patrons to receive insights and information about the creation of The Tosca Project, and eventually solicited this group for contributions just before the world premiere. While the fundraising results were modest, we were able to fine-tune this strategy for the future and believe it has the potential to generate deeper interest in our work and contributions from a group that is nonresponsive to mail or phone.
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
TW: In the fall of 2008 when the recession hit in full force, ACT was beginning the final year of The Next Generation Campaign, a $30 million campaign to establish the theater’s first-ever endowment. As annual contributions began to erode, we reconceived the endowment campaign and expanded the scope to include current operating support. We then went to some of our most loyal and long-time patrons — some had already made commitments to the endowment campaign, and some who had not yet been approached — and asked them to consider six- and seven-figure campaign commitments that would be directed to support current programming over a three- to four-year period. Asking these donors to make exceptional operating gifts that were recognized as part of The Next Generation Campaign proved very effective, and we have been able to sustain our season programming with only minor cuts over the past several years — and exceed our campaign goal, raising over $31 million at the close of the campaign on Dec. 31, 2009.
FS: Any major difficulties or setbacks you’ve faced along the way? Things you would do differently with your fundraising?
TW: We continue to see our donor base shrink year after year even as we raise more in contributed income each year. The attrition has been primarily in lower-level gifts under $1,000, which are raised through direct response (mail/phone/online). While some of this trend can be attributed to a smaller overall audience, this is not the total answer. We continue to investigate new ways to acquire donors but have not yet found the “magic bullet” to replace more traditional methods of mail and phone.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours, in size and annual operating budget?
TW: We have had great success focusing our staff and resources on creating a major-donor program, and for a performing arts organization with a loyal subscriber base, I recommend developing this capacity in your own organization. We go to great lengths to build relationships with our patrons and have seen those relationships bear fruit — not only in increased annual gifts, but in planned gifts that will benefit the theater in future years. With a relatively small staff, we have “divided and conquered” — giving each staff member on the individual gifts team a portfolio of donors who he or she is charged with building a personal relationship with. This is done by engaging the patron in the theater, inviting them to events and activities outside of the theater, and by authoring personal correspondence and communicating by phone and e-mail on a regular basis. With this approach we have been able to sustain our annual fund with a reduced donor base.