Let’s be Honest: Fundraising in Changing Times

Vicki Stroich, Executive Director of Alberta Theatre Projects (Alberta, Canada), has a piece of counterintuitive advice for fundraisers in the arts: “Don’t just put forward the things that are working.

ATP invites their community on stage after their neighborhood block party. Photo: Jeff Yee

Facing a financial crisis in March 2017, Stroich and her team set out to save their company with an emergency “Propel Us Forward” campaign. They talked to donors about ATP’s need for a new business model and about the deep questions they were asking themselves about their future. They met their $400,000 goal in two months, and then surpassed it, ultimately raising $450,000 from individuals, corporations, and the Calgary Foundation.

“The honest self-assessment that you know what your challenges are, and that your next action may be an experiment to learn more, is well-received,” Stroich reports. “This works against the assumption that when you talk to a funder you have to know the answers or no one will take you seriously. The tide is turning on this issue.”

Responding to complex challenges with questions and experiments, rather than answers, is an approach that ATP practiced through their work in the New Pathways for the Arts program (sponsored by Calgary Arts Development and led by EmcArts). Beginning in 2015, ATP went through a series of workshops to build skills and practices that foster innovation, then a coaching curriculum tailored to their organization, and finally, a year-long deep-dive into an innovation project punctuated by a 5-day residential retreat and supported by a $25,000 prototyping grant.

ATP’s block party offered a new way for their community to connect to the organization and to each other. Photo: Jeff Yee

In the midst of publicly testing a new producing model, ATP’s cash flow problem became unavoidable. They had been walking a financial tightrope for some time, weathering the economic downturn that hit all of Alberta when oil prices plummeted in 2015 and seeing their corporate sponsorships drop by 70% in 2016.

“We felt like we were getting somewhere but we saw this gap open up in our finances,” Stroich says. “If we didn’t find a bridge over it we wouldn’t have the opportunity to test some of things that we were really excited about.” Those experiments include staging plays in new venues, producing them through cross-genre partnerships, and opening their theater up to their community with a sprawling block party.

Wordplay—an experimental collaboration with a literary festival—in action. Photo: Laurel Green

Melissa Dibble, ATP’s facilitator through the New Pathways program, says that helping the ATP team design and evaluate their experiments was energizing: “I watched the innovation team of staff from various departments, board members and affiliated artists move from being very anxious about their situation and uncomfortable discussing specifics, to becoming very inquisitive and daring as they played with hunches about how ATP might renew its focus on the full-play development process and make it visible to their city and province.”

The Calgary Foundation stepped forward first with a $200,000 Strategic Opportunity Grant citing ATP’s pro-active approach to adaptive planning. “We are proud to support ATP’s journey as they evolve and adapt their business model to become a more resilient theatre company – one which will continue to play an impactful role in shaping our city’s culture,” said Eva Friesen, President & CEO of the Calgary Foundation.

A mobile giving campaign helped ATP raise 90% of its public donations from individual donors. Photo: Jeff Yee

“We had a lot of conversations with [the Calgary Foundation] about what we were learning and what we were changing,” Stroich says. She and her team spoke just as openly with individual and corporate donors. They offered honest assessments of ATP’s audience, saying, “we can grow it but we can’t fill the theater we’ve been in since 1985.”

“People were taken by this analysis,” Stroich says, “because they come and see empty seats. We said, ‘we have been trying to fill [the theater], but maybe we’re in the wrong container.’”

So, what’s next for ATP? “The 2018-19 season is where we start doing experiments that are more public and appear more radical than people are used to,” Stroich says. She and her team are talking about next steps in messaging, and new ways to engage their public so that they can hear back from them what they think.

They may not have all the answers yet, but the outpouring of community support ATP experienced convinced them that they are asking the right questions. With that support, they are investing in a new way of being.

Louise has managed the New Pathways program and other community initiatives at EmcArts. She continues to work with EmcArts as a writer, researcher, and program evaluator.