To change the not-for-profit mindset of corporate fundraising.
To approach corporations as hubs of both big and small donors.
Empowering donors of all levels with events and programming that are vital and relevant.
Words to the Wise
Do your homework; know when to approach a corporation.
Contributing to the national landscape of culturally specific theatre.
When speaking with Ekundayo Bandele, the founder and CEO of Memphis, Tenn.’s 10-year-old Hattiloo Theatre, it’s easy to imagine him selling wood to a lumberjack. That’s because he has a P.H.D.—“Professional Hustler’s Diploma,” he says with a warmhearted laugh.
For years before Hattiloo’s existence, Bandele occupied a variety of jobs, from incense maker to mobile car washer to vintage clothing salesman. His entrepreneurial streak taught him a key lesson. “Most people love to talk, but not everyone knows how to listen,” he observes. Over the years he has honed his ability to listen to others while also gaining their trust.
“I also always keep my word,” Bandele intones, pointing out that Hattiloo never starts a show late. “If I say a play starts at 7:30 and we start late, then I have broken my word.” It’s that kind of integrity, combined with the business acumen he collected in his 20 years as an entrepreneur, that makes his aphorisms sound like easy-to-implement fundraising strategies. He’s full of koans for the next not-for-profit generation.
But first things first. “It’s not about fundraising,” says Bandele. “It’s about friendraising.”
One of Hattiloo’s most successful “friendraising” strategies to date has been approaching large Memphis-based corporations, such as Nike, AutoZone, and FedEx, as hubs for what the theatre calls “Small and Mighty Donors.”
First Bandele and company will offer employees of a given corporation free tickets to a Hattiloo production. “We lay out a great spread,” he says. “We have live music, the play is great. Everything will be top-notch. If it’s Nike, we’ll have a Nike gobo onstage and they’ll get a shout-out before the show.” Then before curtain, or during intermission, Hattiloo staff members will gather audience information on an iPad, typically spending 20–30 seconds surveying each individual theatregoer from the corporation.
Once the theatre has names and email addresses, they invite these same people back to Hattiloo free of charge for what is essentially a “reunion” show, in which they return to see a different play. Again snacks and beverages are provided, but, in addition to the free performance, Hattiloo will present a two-minute pitch, usually as a video, about various kinds of outreach that the theatre does, including the impact Hattiloo has on children, senior citizens, and the surrounding community. Attendees of the “reunion” production who have seen the video are then invited to become Small and Mighty Donors, pledging to give $10 a month to the theatre.
“That’s not even a whole visit to Starbucks,” Bandele reasons. “Back when gas was high, it wasn’t even the price of a trip between the Mississippi and East Memphis!”
Following the two complimentary performances, Hattiloo then hosts yet another free event, this time for Small and Mighty Donors exclusively. “We ask folks to bring a friend who isn’t a Small and Mighty Donor so that they can see what we’re up to,” Bandele says. Though Hattiloo might only gain 5–10 committed donors from a crowd of 150, it’s still worth it to the organization, because over time those numbers grow. Two years down the line, for example, Hattiloo has collected some 150–200 employees of Nike who actively give to the theatre.
“After those two years, we go back to Nike and we ask for more support because now we can say, ‘You have 200 employees who are invested in Hattiloo. Our theatre is an important part of your Nike corporation; can you give more, since this is important to your employees?’”
Hattiloo recently completed construction of a new $4.3 million building, and Bandele applied the same elegant leveraging logic to dealing with local politicians. “When politicians see their constituency supporting our theatre, it behooves the politician to have their name on a new building too,” he says.
Ultimately Bandele’s approach isn’t so much to ask for money as it is to inspire others to give. “It’s in our DNA to empower our donors,” he says. The Whitman Sisters, for example, is a fundraising circle named after a group of sisters from the 1800s. “They passed for white in the old South,” explains Bandele. “So they would book large venues but then bring in opportunities for all kinds of black performers.” A Hattiloo Whitman Sister gives $500 annually and is encouraged to sign up two additional members. At potlucks hosted at Whitman Sister homes, a Hattiloo staffer will attend and talk about programming. The group is only 18 months old but, by Bandele’s estimate, already boasts some 40 members.
Empowering donors takes many shapes and forms. One such event Bandele points to is “Hattiloo by the Numbers,” a yearly gathering in which the theatre’s staff breaks down income and expenses for their benefactors. “We treat our donors like shareholders, so if you’ve given $250 or more to Hattiloo we invite you to see the return on your investment. We’re then able to tell folks: ‘You reached four children, three adults, and three senior citizens with your donation.’ People don’t just want to give—they want to be part of the solution.”
Bandele is not short on tips for theatres looking to switch mindsets and friendraise. First, he advises, make sure your theatre is relevant: “Ask yourself, ‘Is what I am doing invaluable?’” If no one in your community would miss your theatre, he says, then it may be a moment to rethink things.
Next, look for partners, whether they are in the corporate or public sector, who love championing your work. “Get that one partner who will make you bona fide,” he says. “Then the others will come.”
Bandele notes that, when seeking out partners, it’s important not to chase too many people or groups. “If you’re looking for that partner, you probably don’t have that much human capital to spread,” he says. Then use leveraging techniques to raise money. “No one wants to be the one person who keeps you from raising a million dollars,” he says.
Of course, Bandele also points out how essential it is to align missions. “Don’t go seeking money for your theatre from an organization that only supports math,” he says. And never, absolutely ever, create a new program just to get funding. Instead, listen to your partners and to your constituency. “When someone tells me ‘no,’ I ask them, ‘What would make Hattiloo worthy of your support?’”
And then he listens, while being aware of what he calls “the power of the question.” He explains, “When you interview someone, they feel empowered because they are doing all the talking, but if you ask the right questions, you move where the conversation goes.”
With that idea in mind, Bandele reminds others never to approach donors with a groveling mindset. “If you don’t see a funder as a partner then you go in as a loser. It’s about aligning your mission with the mission of their philanthropic goals. Do your homework: If we approach a funder who gives to a predominately white theatre, we think: We can give them the opportunity to give to a more diverse pool.”
These days diversity is very much on Bandele’s mind. Memphis is 65 percent black, and Hattiloo supports work by African-American playwrights, actors, and musicians. Still, he believes the national ecosystem of culturally specific theatres needs overhauling in order to have a greater impact. “I’m asking myself, what can we contribute nationally? What happens when Hattiloo isn’t the shiny new penny? I want to build equity so that culturally specific theatres remain relevant to the national landscape of funders.”
New York City–based playwright and performer Eliza Bent is a former senior editor of this magazine.