In The Seagull, Chekhov has the character Treplev say, “What we need’s a new kind of theatre.  New forms are what we need, and if we haven’t got them we’d be a sight better off with nothing at all.”

In 2013, it may not be new forms of the theatre itself that’s needed, but the rules of engagement for theater companies of all sizes have definitely changed.  We have all seen the reports on an aging audience, decline in subscriptions, and earned income running 50/50 (or less!) against contributed.  However, in its annual publication of statistics on the fiscal state of the American theatre, Theatre Communications Group (TCG) reported:

“Educational and outreach income was up for a second straight year and its highest 5-year level in 2012, with 5-year growth of 2.4% above inflation.  Theatres offered an average of 7 education and outreach programs annually.  The average number of people served by outreach and education activity was also at a 5-year high in 2012, rising to 18,776 from a low of 16,269 in 2011.  Annually, roughly one-third of all education and outreach income comes from arts in education programs and youth services and two-thirds from training programs that target people of all ages . . . “  (

What does this tell us about engagement?  Are educational and outreach programs somehow better fiscally managed?  Are they more appealing?  Why, when compared to overall operating budgets, would education programs seem to reach more people and report an increase in income?

Educational and outreach programs are blossoming like never before. Audiences, and particularly families, want to have an active, participatory role in the arts that transcends the typical audience-artist paradigm. This, then, can influence not just programming, but all aspects of nonprofit theater, fundraising and development included.

We live in an increasingly engaged and involved society.  It is very easy to dismiss the proliferation of mobile devices (cell phones, tablets, etc.) as a way for people to tune out or disengage, but all of those heads buried in the soft glow of a mobile screen are engaged in something.  It is no coincidence that the growth of social media exploded at the same time as the advent of the mobile device.

72% of internet users are on some form of social media (; 80% of the US population is on the internet (  That translates to a whole lot of people who are posting, tweeting, pinning and reading.

Capitalizing on these new and evolving methods of engagement, combined with solid, best practice techniques in fundraising, yields huge dividends in growing the reach, impact and awareness of educational theater.  The following ideas are based on WealthEngine’s 2010 Arts & Culture Report:  Best Practices in Arts & Culture Fundraising, as well as emerging techniques in social media and multi-channel engagement.


 1. Engage the Core Audience with Multi-Channel Strategies

Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest and a whole host of other social media sites allow us to be involved with audiences on a whole new level.  Beyond the performance or classroom experience, we can engage adults and children alike with additional content, stories and ideas.  One main response that most theaters hear from its patrons is, “You only contact me when you need money.”  Develop relationships through social media, direct mail, telephone and a variety of media to encourage long-term relationships and advocacy.


2. Capture Interest in Educational Programming Specifically

Track the registration information of educational program participants (including parents and family members) to develop segmentation strategies for cultivation and solicitation strategies specific to these interest groups.  Compare this data to ticket and subscription purchases to analyze where your audience’s prime interest is and create a core group of supporters and champions.


3. Leverage your Champions to Build Awareness

Encourage your core supporters to engage their friends and families in building awareness of educational programming.  If messaging is not only based on a call-to-action in fundraising or ticket purchases, but describes social impact, people will want to tell that story via their own social media outlets.


4. Invest in Data Screening and Predictive Analysis

Arts organizations are no exception to the impact of Big Data on building audiences and driving engagement.  There is more data available now than ever before on our constituents’ demographics and behavior.  Screening data and applying solid statistical modeling analysis to already-existing data points can provide a targeted approach for new and increased fundraising.


5. Manage Data Proactively

In order to understand and use data in building engagement, it is absolutely critical to have clean, organized data.  Knowing your circle of interested people is one thing, but having their correct information and tracking their behaviors is just as critical in ensuring they remain engaged.


6. Measure Return On Investment

Measuring the ROI for both fundraising and engagement programs is critical in determining if they are valuable to the established goals of the program.  Forecasting results, setting additional goals and setting resource allocations are all made easier when ROI is tracked and measured.

All 6 of these points require tracking and analysis of constituent data, both donors and ticket-buyers. When attempting to focus on core audience members, it’s important to remember that we are in the midst of a sea change in patron behavior. From the Theatre Communications Group report:

“Despite 5-year overall decreases, subscription income and the number of season ticket holders rose from 2011 to 2012, showing potential promise for the future. Single ticket income was at a 5-year high in 2012, rising annually since 2009, as was the number of single tickets sold.” (

Increasingly, younger audience members are reluctant to purchase subscriptions, which has led to the rise in recent years of flex packs, option bundles, and other creative solutions to maintain subscription levels. This requires a change in the tradition paradigm:


Instead, it’s important to recognize patterns among single-ticket buyers (STBs) to identify core audience members who should be engaged in much the same way your subscribers and members are. Analysis of purchases to identify repeat or frequent STBs can yield some surprising results and eliminate the risk of alienating patrons whose affinity for you and your programs would otherwise go unnoticed.

Above all, by combining data-driven research and screening with good, old-fashioned personal cultivation, you can make a lasting impression on your core supporters. Leverage data and systems to know not only when a donor or potential donor has been to your space, but when they will be. Then, capitalize on the opportunity to say hello or thank you in person. Social media is a powerful tool, but it will never fully replace a handshake and a smile.

The story of how educational programming affects children and communities is a powerful one to tell.  It is far reaching beyond the classroom or performance space and drives an unparalleled interest and engagement in the arts that encourages and strengthens both the recipient and the organization.  To paraphrase Chekov, we’re a sight better off with new forms of engagement and involvement.


clay_buckT. Clay Buck, WealthEngine Senior Client Services Consultant

Clay has more than twenty years of fundraising experience, having worked with nonprofits in all areas of development and institutional advancement. His primary focus is on membership-based organizations, education and healthcare. Clay is well versed in all aspects of individual giving, particularly annual giving and capital campaigns.


scott_richardsScott Richards, WealthEngine Sales Account Executive

Scott has worked with the Sales, Client Service and Training teams to assist clients with their implementation and understanding of WealthEngine’s tools and services.  Scott has worked as a volunteer with several arts organizations in Chicago, New York and the Greater Washington, DC area.


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