My Theatre Company Has No Money!

Exploring Donor Development and Corporate Sponsorship

Help! I Have No Money, and I have to Produce a Show!

You might be a theatre company that is just starting out and has no money, but your program director expects you to put on fabulous productions. If you don't have the money, then there is no way to put on the production, right? Wrong! There are a variety of ways to obtain the money and resources needed in order for a successful season in your theatre company. The key to gaining these resources is through donations and corporate sponsorship.

Types of Donations

There are two main types of donations. Both types are important, but both of these forms of donations have their own benefits.

Cash Contributions:

Typically, when a person hears the word "donation," their thoughts are immediately geared towards cash. Cash is an important part of donating, but not every person (individual or company) might be able to provide your organization with cash. This is where In-Kind Contributions come into play.

In-Kind Contributions:

This is when an individual or company is willing to donate their services, equipment, materials, and facilities. In other words, this is a method to obtain free stuff for your theatre company.

Let's face it, most theatre companies (or any organization really) want money donated; however, if you can get services, equipment, materials, and facilities donated, that is less money your theatre company would have to raise.

Examples of In-kind Contributions:

You might be saying, "Okay, I understand the difference between cash contributions and in-kind contributions, but what are specific examples?"

  • Have printers print your business cards, programs, flyers, etc. on the wast trim. This is ink that they would be wasting anyway, why not ask if you can use this ink and get free printing?
  • Ask a construction crew if you can scavenge their sight when they are done. A draw back to this is that you will need a way to haul off the supplies, but this is better than having to purchase expensive building supplies for sets.
  • Ask Lowes and Home Depot for expired paint. Paint actually has an expiration date, and these hardware stores are not allowed to sale paint after it has expired; the paint must be thrown away. Instead of having the company waste all that paint, ask if you can have the paint to support your theatre company.

Types of Contributors

Contributors come in a few different shapes and sizes. There are two main categories of contributors.

Donors- Donors are individuals, local stores and businesses, and small organizations that make contributions to organizations. Most donors ask for some sort of recognition in your program, press kit, or other form of marketing. These contributions can come in the form of cash or in-kind.

Corporate Sponsorship- This is when a major corporation pays for all or some of the costs associated with a project in exchange for recognition. Corporations may ask to have their names and logos displayed in your program, press kit, or other form of marketing. These corporations may provide sponsorship in the form of cash contributions or in-kind contributions.

Are You Ready for a Corporate Sponsorship?

Having Corporate Sponsorship is a wonderful asset to your company; however, there are a few steps that your organization must take maximize the potential for a Corporate business to trust your company and want to assist your company. Patricia Martin, author of Made Possible By: Succeeding with Sponsorship, provides a check list for organizations to work through before approaching Corporate Sponsorship.

Corporate Preparation Check List:

  • Does your organization have an established marketing effort in place with a website, newsletter, and email list where you can easily inform your partners?
  • What do you know about your organization's demographics? Is there recent information about who participates and why? Where they live? How far they drive? Whether they are repeat users? If they have children or not?
  • Have you worked with Corporate Sponsors before? Do you have testimonials from corporate executives about the value of your organization? Do you feature those in press kits or other marketing materials?
  • To gauge the effort involved in reaching corporate sponsors and meeting face-to-face, create a list of companies headquartered in your area. What do they produce, and to whom do they sell? Are there cross-promotions that will help them sell to one of your existing sponsors or team up with an existing sponsor?

It is important to think through these four items to insure that your company establishes the best possible relationship with a potential donor.

Important Things to Remember When Seeking a Donor or Sponsorship

Before contacting a potential donor or corporation to inquire about contributing to your organization, there are a few things to consider and remember.

  1. Do your research - find out information about the corporation or individual that you are seeking as a potential contributor. The more interest that you show in them, the more willing they will be to support your organization.
  2. Put together an appealing website with sample work of your company (including pictures), contact information, your mission statement, and your position statement.
  3. Put together a packet of information that you can leave with potential contributors that has your theatre company name and logo on it. Include the following in this packet: Fact sheet about your organization, Previous show programs, Mission statement for your organization, Position statement for your organization, Previous show posters, Information on the size of your program (demographics), and How this organization has been beneficial to your students/actors.
  4. Know what you are asking for. Look at the potential contributor's 9-90's and charitable donation lists on their websites.
  5. Set your numbers high when asking for money.
  6. Be passionate about your organization. You aren't going to convince the potential donor if you aren't convinced yourself.
  7. You will get more "no's" than "yes's."
  8. Develop a list that tells potential donors what you will offer them in return.
  9. Write up a contributor contract that has every agreement of what you expect from them, and what they can expect in return. Hand this to them during your first meeting.
  10. Avoid email contact. Make contact face-to-face, and develop a relationship before you ask them to contribute to your organization.
  11. Give actors/students in your company a survey on the first day. This survey should include a spot for them to list who their parents are. This is a good way to find out who is in your community and helps you to establish a relationship before asking.
  12. Create a business card with your contact information so that they can easily contact you in the future.

Give Back to Your Donor

It doesn't matter if you have a donor or a corporate sponsor that gives Cash Contribution or an In-Kind contribution, it is important to give something back to your donor to develop a good relationship with them so that they will consider donating to your organization again. When giving back to your donors, think about items and resources that you already have. After all, you don't want to loose any of the items that you worked hard to obtain.

What to Give in Return:

  • Invitation to a sneak preview performance - In other words, invite your donor and his family to attend your dress rehearsal. This is an ordinary event to you and the rest of your company; however, audiences find it exciting to be a part of the creative process.
  • Recognition in your program, press kit, or other form of marketing.
  • Free tickets or discounted ticket to the show
  • Handwritten Thank You notes - No matter what amount or what item a donor contributes, it is essential that you actually hand write a note to your donor. This is just an extra effort to show your appreciation and secure the possibility of having the donor contribute to your company again.

Ways to Be Sure You Will Keep Your Donors

In addition to keeping your donors happy, it is important to understand the relationship that should be established between your organization and the donor. Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) published a list this year (2013) of "Donor Bill of Rights." This ten item list is a resource to go by to maintain your donors from season to season. These are ten items that your donors need to know up front.

Donor Bill of Rights:

  1. To be informed of the organization's mission, of the way the organization intends to use donated resources.
  2. To be informed of the identity of those serving on the organization's governing board.
  3. To have access to the organization's most recent financial statements.
  4. To be assured their gifts will be used for the purposes for which they were given.
  5. To receive appropriate acknowledgement and recognition.
  6. To be assured that information about their donations is handled with respect and with confidentiality to the extent provided by law.
  7. To expect that all relationships with individuals representing organizations of interest to the donor will be professional in nature.
  8. To be informed whether those seeking donations are volunteers, employees of the organization, or hired solicitors.
  9. To have the opportunity for their names to be deleted from mailing lists that an organization may intend to share.
  10. To feel free to ask questions when making a donation and to receive prompt, truthful, and forthright answers.

How Will Donors and Corporate Sponsorship Benefit My Theatre Company?

Ways Contributors Will Benefit Your Theatre:

  • Establish good relationships with businesses
  • Provide you with free items and services
  • Provide you with funds to create and produce quality shows
  • Helps you to save money
  • Establishes your credibility
  • Gets your name into the community

Helpful Resources

Resources to Explore to Benefit Your Contribution Process:

  • Made Possible By: Succeeding With Sponsorship by Patrica Martin (Jossey Bass, 2004).
  • Non-profit Kit for Dummies by Stan Hutton and Frances Phillips
  • Keith Martin, Appalachian State University (