To engage with donor bases beyond the usual galas.
Create a theatre-enriching field trip to another city.
Backstage tours, conversations with theatre professionals, meals together.
Not seeing shows in advance or planning far ahead.
More trips, expanding to other cities.
As a child who walked to school, field trips always especially excited me because it meant riding on a bus with classmates. Potholes and other road bumps provided glorious moments of airborne delight. I doubt the bus driver appreciated the shrieks of laughter from the back of the bus, but I certainly enjoyed getting out of school and taking in places like the New England Aquarium, the Science Museum and Plimoth Plantation.
Austin’s 79-year-old ZACH Theatre, which recently opened its new 420-seat Topfer theatre, has taken a page from the school-field-trip book and applied the practice to a more mature set—with considerably deeper pockets. “We’ve been doing donor field trips to New York City since 2008,” says Elisbeth Challener, ZACH’s managing director. “I believe all good ideas are shared ones,” she says, admitting to have borrowed the idea from a colleague, Randy Adams of TheatreWorks, whom Challener knew when she was working at the Montalvo Arts Center in California.
Naturally, Challener adapted her own best practice when she started at ZACH in 2007. Typically, Challener and artistic director Dave Steakley spearhead theatrically themed trips to the Big Apple. Challener and her team determined that the trips would be open to donors who give at a $5,000 threshold or higher. “We wanted this trip to feel special and significant,” Challener explains, pointing out how Austin’s philanthropic pool is still relatively young. (The median age in the city is 30.) One field trip to Boston, however, had a lower threshold of $1,200, and Challener hopes to do more such lower-cost trips to other cities to impassion donors and inspire them to move up the donor chain.
“These trips create an opportunity for the donor and organization to become closer,” Challener explains. “Part of why I think it’s been successful is that it’s a mission-related program.” Donors deepen their relationship to each other, to ZACH and, of course, to the art form itself. “Ultimately fundraising is about people. People give to people. And these trips create a fun shared experience.”
The numbers prove it. In 2008 ZACH had 11 eligible donors for the New York City field trip. Since then, that number has grown to 32 households that give at the $5,000 mark or more. Challener believes this is in large part due to the theatre field trips.
But donors wouldn’t get jazzed to donate $5,000, or pay the $750–800 fee for trip related costs, if the sojourns weren’t excellent. According to Challener, three critical components make excursions successful: behind-the-scenes access, conversations with theatre professionals and shared group meals.
“Behind-the-scenes tours aren’t as simple as just going backstage,” says Challener. “It’s also a chance to see a wig room, which gives a donor a deeper appreciation of how everything works.” Visiting modest Broadway dressing rooms underscores the challenges of theatre-making in all echelons. ZACH also visits not-for-profit theatres along the way. In May, for example, the group stopped by Signature Theatre Company’s new digs in New York City and last year field trip participants spent time at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Stephen Sondheim space. “It’s a great way to show donors what exactly we mean by ‘steep rake,’ or ‘touch screens’ in a lobby. It has been especially helpful as we’ve been working to open our own Topfer,” says Challener. Still, there’s nothing more motivating for people with deep emotional connections to theatre than to stand on a Broadway stage, and Challener tries to make that happen in one way or another on each trip.
Conversations with renowned theatre professionals is another highlight of these trips. Terrence McNally recently spoke with the group at an intimate dinner. “We try to book a private room so that we can hear the speaker,” Challener offers. Other artists who have given talks include playwrights Douglas Carter Beane and Suzan-Lori Parks and costumer William Ivey Long. The conversations take many shapes and forms. “Sometimes Dave [Steakley] will do a kind of interview, and other times the artist will prepare a presentation. It’s fairly free-form. We have a plan, but detours are possible.”
Challener points out that these conversations aren’t “lectures.” To that end, donors are both encouraged to attend as much field-trip programming as they like or tailor the trip closer to their needs. “Some people like to be programmed every minute of the day; other people like to go off and explore on their own, and we try to make both options available,” Challener observes.
Some auxiliary programming has been theatre-themed, such as the Big Onion walking tour of the historic Times Sqaure theatre district, but other mini excursions have included a private tour of the Cloisters and the Diego Rivera murals at MoMa. “Just because you love theatre doesn’t mean you don’t love other things,” Challener says with a laugh. Whether a donor likes lots of planned activity or oodles of free time, the ZACH team makes sure the group eats at least three meals together during the course of the three-to-four-day trip. “It’s a chance for donors to talk with each other about their own lives and discuss what they’ve seen on the trip,” she says.
This year the group got along so well that they planned drinks at local bars to discuss the plays and musicals they had seen. (ZACH always programs a musical and a play.) Challener advises theatres planning travel to scope out shows before programming them into a field trip so that donors have a good sense of what to expect. This is especially essential for nontraditional theatre fare like the experiential Sleep No More, which Challener and Steakley took donors to in May. “We like to stretch boundaries with the shows we take participants to, but also warn them to wear comfortable shoes in a case like Sleep No More!”
Challener advises theatres to stick to what they know best: “We’re not a travel agency; donors book their own airfare.” (ZACH does block off a group rate at a hotel, but it is not mandatory to stay there.) Planning far in advance is also encouraged. “For our May trip I usually start in late December or January,” Challener shares, adding, “You’d be surprised what people will do. Theatre people are so generous with their time.” In May, ZACH donors not only watched Once but also met with the cast after the show for a personalized talk back. “It was incredible,” Challener recalls enthusiastically. “The show was still fairly new and the actors wanted to know what we thought.”
Given interest and the expanded eligible pool of participants, ZACH will offer two donor trips in 2013—one in May and one in September. “We want to keep the soul of it. A trip can’t have more than 25 or 30 people. We want to provide a unique experience for the donors and keep the program mission-related, but I think down the road we’ll explore smaller trips to other cities like Dallas, Houston, Chicago and Boston.”
Such trips run the risk of seeming exclusive, but sometimes that’s part of such the appeal. Ultimately, the trips generate excitement, and those well-heeled enough to go on them become ardent ambassadors for the organization.
But isn’t all the planning and coordinating exhausting? “Someone at the organization has to want to do it,” Challener admits. “But when you watch the faces of people light up during an experience like this, it’s worth it—those relationships can’t be duplicated.”