Higher Education: Show Me The Money, Part One

Barbara Jwanouskous’ first column of 2014 is asking some tough but vital questions. 

This is the last week before the second (and last, for me) semester of the dramatic writing program at CMU. Over the course of the holiday, I’ve gotten to link up with various people and re-connect with the Bay Area theater scene. One thing that I’ve been keeping my eye on is the A.C.T. Indiegogo for their project to research women’s leadership in residential theaters, and I hope others are keeping their eye on this too.

The idea for the project is that women’s leadership came from the statistics that point that women have never held more than 27% of the leadership positions in American nonprofit theater. A.C.T. seeks to discover why there are so few women in leadership positions and what can be done to achieve greater diversity in theater leadership. They plan to make a study with the Wellesley Centers for Women and conduct forums alongside HowlRound.

There are a couple interesting facets about the project I’d like to point out and then I’d like to start asking some questions. Let me get it straight that I’m neither in vehement support for or against this project, but I do find some things vague and I would like to open them up a bit more (if nothing else, so I can wrap my head around them…). That being said, this topic will probably get a lot of love from me, so this, my friends, is Part One!

Tom Cruise's standard money-getting turtleneck.

Tom Cruise’s standard money-getting turtleneck.

Though they used a crowdfunding platform to raise funds for the project, there was already been support from a variety of players.

A little background for those unfamiliar: Kickstarter and Indiegogo are known for their ability to raise funds and visibility for various projects using a social media to encourage funding. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing platform where the goal for funding is established by the project creator whereas Indiegogo projects receive all the funds raised regardless of whether the goal is met. Those interested in supporting the project receive specific incentives for “investing” at certain levels with both services.

Both on the indiegogo project and on the page on their website, A.C.T. indicates that they are receiving a matching grant from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. This means that whatever they raise from other donors for this project will be matched by the Toulmin Foundation (it does not indicate on their pages whether there is a cap on the matching level). They are also partnering with the Wellesley Centers for Women for the research (though they do not indicate whether partnership with the WCW is an in-kind service, or if they will use money raised to pay for Center services).

As of December 31, 2013, the indigogo project raised $6,805 for the project via indiegogo. A portion of that will have to go to indiegogo for administrative hosting fees, but the rest will be matched by the Toulmin Foundation, bringing the total for this research project to more than $13,000 – nothing to sneeze at if you’re a theater producer or arts organization.

They could be reaching out to their donors in a variety of ways other than through indigogo and their webpage.

I would be surprised if A.C.T. hadn’t targeted particular current major gift donors that were interested in women’s leadership within theaters. It would be easy to find this out since most foundations and donors indicate during the cultivation process what their priorities and interests are in funding nonprofits. A.C.T. has a link on their webpage encouraging folks to donate to the leadership project directly (not through indiegogo).

One of the main ways we used to encourage individual support for a matching gift from a major donor when I previously worked in fundraising at Second Harvest Food Bank, was to use our direct mail campaigns as a venue for this solicitation. The direct mail stats year over year indicated about how much revenue we would receive given on past history. I remember once we started using more challenge or matching grants (which, let me just say, are one of my favorite ways to raise support) we received even more favorable responses than in years prior.

That means, that instead of a total project budget of $13,000, they have possibly raised even more than that from other donors for this research.

So, one of my questions is, why would A.C.T. use indiegogo as a way to generate support for this project when they could have found it using their own donor base?

There are a variety of reasons why an organization would choose to do this – perhaps to receive greater widespread visibility for this project or perhaps it helped with the matching grant accounting to show which funds came in for the support of the research. I’d like to hear thoughts from you! Let’s keep this discussion rolling before I move on to the second part of this series.

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2 comments on “Higher Education: Show Me The Money, Part One

  1. I’m always put off by organisations that say “if you buy this product/ticket to this event, a portion of the proceeds will go to [insert charity name here]”. On the one hand: it’s great that such a high-profile organisation is donating to a charity that needs it. On the other hand: such an organisation does this to off-set any financial loss that would have accrued had they donated on their own; in fact this method allows them to still make a profit.

    If ACT is asking for public donations to fund this project, it suggests to me one of two things: 1 – this project is of so little interest to them that they don’t want any of their “real” money to go toward it; or 2 – they’re trying to “take the pulse” of the public and asking them to drive forward a project which is of great interest to them (ie. “You’re interested in the leadership roles of women in theatre? Put your money where your mouth is and SHOW us that you’re really interested”).

    • bjwany says:

      Thanks, Charles! I think you bring up some very good points. Organizations always run the risk of “mission-creep”, where they decide to go for projects or programs that are tangential to what their overarching mission is. I’m not saying that this is the case for A.C.T. necessarily, but I do want to learn more about why they decided to use indiegogo – where they have to pay a 9% overhead fee to use the flexible funding service in addition to the 3% credit card fee (http://www.indiegogo.com/how-pricing-works-on-indiegogo). Is this a project that they are trying to gain more visible support – not in a financial sense, but in a visibility sense – by using a crowdfunding platform versus other fundraising techniques (direct mail/email, major gift solicitations, etc.) that could also have been used to achieve the challenge grant total by the Toulmin Foundation.

      This especially makes a difference depending on what their goals behind this project are. If it’s to generate a discussion about gender parity in leadership within theater nonprofit organizations, then perhaps this was a smart strategy…

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